THIS WIDE NIGHT by Sarvat Hasin

This Wide NightThis Wide Night by Sarvat Hasin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A vivid, swirling narrative that feels both epic and intimate. Jimmy is deftly drawn, acting as a vessel for our experiences of the Malik sisters, as well as being flesh, blood and flaws. Political, clever, achingly tender and bitingly fierce in its portrayal of love, loneliness, and the struggle for connection in families and cities, THIS WIDE NIGHT takes flight into well-judged magical realism for a gorgeous and haunting ending. One of my favourite reads of 2016.

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MY VIEW ON: UNBECOMING by Jenny Downham

UnbecomingUnbecoming by Jenny Downham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Got this after seeing it on several ‘Best Books of 2015’ lists. This book kind of stunned me. It started off – not slow exactly – but ponderous, like Downham was settling you in with the minutiae, lulling you, but it all builds wonderfully, like a slow tide coming in. UNBECOMING pulls no punches in its study of female relationships. It feels true. It was literary, ambitious, beautiful. 4.5 but I rounded up!

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FEN by Daisy Johnson

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‘When we were young we learnt men the way other people learnt languages or the violin…We did not care for their thoughts; they could think on philosophy and literature and science if they wanted, they could grow opinions inside them if they wanted. We did not care for their creed or religion or type; for the choices they made and the ones they missed. We cared only for what they wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds.’

– Blood Rites

Every so often a book comes along that not only interrupts the world for you, but seeps into it. The people you meet, the places you go, ignite with new possibilities, with different ways of seeing. The Border Trilogy did it, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow did it, MaddAddam did it. This book did it. These short stories hold the world captive and make you take another look. They are bleak, beautiful, witty and strange. The writing style calls to mind Sarah HallKelly Link, and Evie Wyld – the latter’s glowing endorsement is on the back – but mesh into a wholly unique voice and a mesmerising study of people and landscape. Just brilliant.

These two stories are from Daisy Johnson‘s full collection of short stories, out in June.

Full disclosure: The author and I are housemates, having met on a Creative Writing course. Further full disclosure: The reason I wanted to be friends in the first place was because I fell in love with her writing.

My view on: THE LIE TREE by Frances Hardinge

EDIT: I’ve decided to stop calling these ‘reviews’. I’m not trying to be a professional reviewer, and just want to share my views on books I’ve read recently, uninformed by any real critical depth. I’m equally not trying to be particularly balanced, just going on my reader reaction. SO from now on I’ll be calling them ‘Views’ and removing ratings. I’ve edited the two views I’ve done so far accordingly. View is a funny word, isn’t it? View view view.

Title: The Lie Tree
Author: Frances Hardinge
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
Publication date: 7th May 2015
Cover design: James Fraser

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Faith’s father has been found dead under mysterious circumstances, and as she is searching through his belongings for clues she discovers a strange tree.

The tree only grows healthy and bears fruit if you whisper a lie to it. The fruit of the tree, when eaten, will deliver a hidden truth to the person who consumes it. The bigger the lie, the more people who believe it, the bigger the truth that is uncovered. The girl realizes that she is good at lying and that the tree might hold the key to her father’s murder, so she begins to spread untruths far and wide across her small island community. But as her tales spiral out of control, she discovers that where lies seduce, truths shatter . . .

MY VIEW: A murder mystery. A revenge tale. A feminist text. Holy guacamole, I loved this book. I finished it at 1 a.m. last night, having spent the last two days reading it in great gulps. My feeling for this book is so strong I want to go back and start it again. But first I’ll tell you why.

The plot: Faith’s father is a pastor and respected natural scientist, credited with finding a Nephilim fossil – evidence of angels. But upon their arrival in Vane, an island far-removed from their society life in Kent, Faith discovers that the reason for their move is not so her father can help at an excavation there, but rather because his reputation was not safe on the mainland. His mysterious murder thrusts his papers into her care, where she discovers his greatest find was not the remains of angels, but something living that feeds off lies. Gripping, original, the story was tethered wonderfully somewhere between magic and reality.

The heroine: Faith is a complex, breathing, utterly real creation. Trapped by her time and circumstance, she is by turns warm, clever, and when needs must, cruel. Her relationships to her brother, mother and father are compelling and believable. Harding does not do sketches for characters, but gives each component a beating heart and life of their own.

The writing: ‘The boat moved with nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth.’ From this first line, I was helpless. Understated, exacting, beautiful. THE LIE TREE is craft, writing that does not show its stitches. Here are some of my favourite passages.

‘Back in the trophy room the gentleman would be taking the leash off their conversation. Likewise, here in the drawing room, each lady quietly relaxed and became more real, expanding into the space left by the men. Without visibly changing, they unfolded, like flowers or knives.’

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This was my first encounter with Hardinge’s work, and can tell I’ve found a new favourite author. Excuse me while I add all her books to my Christmas list. THE LIE TREE can be yours for £6.99! DO IT.

FAVOURITE CHARACTER: Faith, for the reasons mentioned above. But I also thought Myrtle, her mother,  was brilliantly realised.

IF YOU LIKED THIS YOU’LL LIKE THESE: HIS DARK MATERIALS TRILOGY by Philip Pullman, REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracey Chevalier, THE WOLF WILDER by Katherine Rundell

My view on: THE SHORE by Sara Taylor

EDIT: I’ve decided to stop calling these ‘reviews’. I’m not trying to be a professional reviewer, and just want to share my views on books I’ve read recently, uninformed by any real critical depth. I’m equally not trying to be particularly balanced, just going on my reader reaction. SO from now on I’ll be calling them ‘Views’ and removing ratings. I’ve edited the two views I’ve done so far accordingly. View is a funny word, isn’t it? View view view.

I started writing my next view, and realised that this blog may turn sycophantic rather quickly if I focused SOLELY on books that absolutely worked for me (of which there were many in 2015).

Equally, I’m (perhaps overly) cautious of writing ‘bad’ views, because having had a couple myself I realise the impact they can have on a writer even if they’re not by a renowned reviewer, or published in a major newspaper. So I’ve decided to only write about books I didn’t enjoy if I can pinpoint exactly why, rather than launch into a blistering polemic of generalised rage. Even if no one’s reading, it just wouldn’t feel right.

Which brings me to one of the big disappointments of 2015 for me, a book that generally has been incredibly well-received (Eimear McBride loved it!)

Title: The Shore
Author: Sara Taylor
Publisher: William Heinemann
Publication date: 19th March 2015
Cover design: Suzanne Dean

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Welcome to The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. Where clumps of evergreens meet wild ponies, oyster-shell roads, tumble-down houses, unwanted pregnancies, murder, storm-making and dark magic in the marshes. . .

Situated off the coast of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, the group of islands known as the Shore has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a half-Shawnee Indian’s bold choice to flee an abusive home only to find herself with a man who will one day try to kill her to a brave young girl’s determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love.

MY VIEW: On the surface, this book had everything I love. It’s by a young, debut writer. It’s a novel-in-parts, a medium that combines the focussed beauty and intensity of a short story with the plot and building continuity of a novel. It’s set on a group of islands (islands are a literary weakness of mine). It follows families through a large span of time (my favourite novel is One Hundred Years of Solitude). And the cover is gorgeous. So maybe it was a victim of my high expectations, but this book left me by turns cold and angry.

Firstly, the cold. For a book whose constant is the setting, I was left with very little sense of place. I knew geographically where the action was happening, and I knew that it was a landscape inextricably linked to the characters (in my favourite story, the weather is controlled by one), but in terms of actually believing and ‘feeling’ the setting, it just didn’t happen. I also feel that Taylor was a victim of her own ambition – the stories at times veered into a wackiness that sat uncomfortably with the overall tone of the book and failed to ignite my imagination.

Which brings me to the anger, because the overall tone of the book was dominated by violence. Now, I have nothing against this – I love HANNIBAL and AMERICAN PSYCHO, books that are supremely violent and supremely good. I find books with ‘taboo’ subjects, like LOLITA and its contemporary homage, TAMPA, disturbing and brilliant. I have no trouble with reading as much torture, rape, abuse and general misery a book needs so long as it’s earned. So long as it doesn’t feel like a ‘device’. And honestly, this book felt like someone trying to shock, but without any real commitment to, or interest in exploring, the complexities such violence brings with it. By the end, I felt sort of numb to the sexual abuses because there had been so much of it. It was repetitive, and of course these things do repeat themselves in cycles, but for me the book just did not get to grips with the depths behind that, nor how it impacts individuals.

Taylor can write beautifully, startlingly, concisely, but there was a sometimes predictable use of language and a ‘cool’ that can sometimes emerge from imitation over invention – I found little of the heat of say, Evie Wyld or Sarah Hall here. But all this said, I would read her second book – she is clearly talented and I’m interested to see what she does next. THE SHORE just did not do it for me.

FAVOURITE CHARACTER: Chloe. The only character who really stayed with me to be honest. There was a tenderness and investment in her story that was absent elsewhere.

BOOKS THAT DID IT BETTER: THE OFFERING by Grace McCleen, WEATHERING by Lucy Wood, THE BEAUTIFUL INDIFFERENCE by Sarah Hall.

My view on: BEETLE BOY by M.G. Leonard

EDIT: I’ve decided to stop calling these ‘reviews’. I’m not trying to be a professional reviewer, and just want to share my views on books I’ve read recently, uninformed by any real critical depth. I’m equally not trying to be particularly balanced, just going on my reader reaction. SO from now on I’ll be calling them ‘Views’ and removing ratings. I’ve edited the two views I’ve done so far accordingly. View is a funny word, isn’t it? View view view.

Full disclosure: BEETLE BOY is published by my publisher, and I have twice met (and really liked) its author, M.G. Leonard. This view is based on an uncorrected proof copy sent from Chicken House. But the reason I have chosen it for my first view is unrelated to any of these. It’s because it is one of my favourite books of the year – middle grade or otherwise – and with 2016 in sight I wanted to start by talking about books I’ve really, really loved in 2015. So here goes.

Title: BEETLE BOY
Author: M.G. Leonard
Publisher: Chicken House
Publication date: 3rd March 2016
Cover design: Helen Crawford-White
Illustrations: Julia Sarda

Beetle-Boy-website-672x1024Darkus is miserable. His dad has disappeared, and now he is living next door to the most disgusting neighbours ever.

A giant beetle called Baxter comes to his rescue. But can the two solve the mystery of his dad’s disappearance, especially when links emerge to cruel Lucretia Cutter and her penchant for beetle jewellery? A coffee-mug mountain, home to a million insects, could provide the answer – if Darkus and Baxter are brave enough to find it …

 

 

MY VIEW: You know how sometimes you just want to find a book that is completely satisfying? That is clever without being obvious about it, funny without trying too hard, and charming without being twee? This was that book for me. I really wanted to like it, and thankfully I loved it.

Part-mystery, part-adventure, BEETLE BOY is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read. The narrative voice had a misleading air of charming simplicity about it that immersed you in a plot of entertaining, and sometimes unnerving, depth. Starting with the tantalising set up of a father’s disappearance from a locked room, and ending with a charging beetle army, Leonard winds her way through the twisting, romping plot with a lightness of touch that has already drawn comparisons to Roald Dahl and JK Rowling.

The humour is perfectly judged and genuinely funny, with an undercurrent of danger and darkness that I so loved in books growing up (and still do!) There is enough reality to balance the more slapstick scenarios and ensure a real emotional connection to Darkus and his predicament. Leonard writes the children in her book with warmth and complexity, and I found the scenes with Novak Cutter surprisingly sad. Plus, I learned a lot about beetles without realizing I was learning. It’s a great theme and Leonard obviously revels in it.

FAVOURITE CHARACTER: There are many competitors, from Darkus’ rhinoceros beetle Baxter to Darkus himself, but the star of the show has to be the villainous Lucretia Cutter. Leonard reveals Cutter’s evil secrets bit-by-bit, relishing keeping the reader guessing about the full horror. One of the creepiest and most entertaining middle grade baddies I’ve read since Dahl’s THE WITCHES.

IF YOU LIKED THIS YOU’LL LIKE THESE: THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket, PIPPI LONGSTOCKING by Astrid Lindgren.

UPDATE: The Bookseller concurs: