Sunday, 18 March 2018

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

To say this is a topical book is an understatement. Reading it less than a month since the latest U.S. school shooting atrocity gave this book about  the fallout of an Elementary school mass shooting an added frisson of emotional resonance.

This really is a clever book particularly as the author has managed to keep the Politics for the most part out of the story. There is no discernible stance on anything that has caused rage, recrimination or consternation in the past month. This is First and foremost an examination of the visceral human reaction to a catastrophic loss.

Written from a seven year old’s perspective, this deeply insightful story shows that  the reactions to the loss of a child so suddenly and seemingly without reason, bring out the most extreme versions of oneself. The already fractured family dynamic begins to implode and the young hero Zach  is left to take action himself to bring the escalating misery to an end.

I liked the structure of the story and the way that on the surface it is the loss of the child that is the cause of the trouble, but the way as the story unravels that the cracks beneath the surface begin to appear,  I did not always like both  of Zach’s parents, but I did empathise with them.

This is ultimately a story about forgiveness and love and family, the truths so beautifully mirrored in the child’s stories that Zach retreats into, to be closer to his complicated but adored older brother become  the bedrock of his survival as he becomes increasingly isolated.

I was close to tears often as I put myself in the place of all the characters , each of them flawed but I found this to be a satisfying and heart warming story that I suspect will continue to be relevant for decades to come.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

In The Shadow Of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt

This powerful story set after the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda when an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed during the 100-day period from 7 April to mid-July 1994, constituting as many as 70% of the Tutsi population.

Whilst not directly about that awful time, all of the main characters are impacted by it. This is a story about belonging and loss, abandonment , about parenthood in all it’s guises both biological and the care that can be elicited by those who take on the mantle quietly.

I found the juxtaposition of the lives of two of the characters across two fixed points in History a wonderful device to examine the tenacity and resilience of love and how sometimes, to part can be an act of love in itself.

I enjoyed the book immensely it was historically dense and deeply emotionally engaging, everyone has secrets or something they seek and brought together on the red earth of Rwanda all the pieces begin to tessellate into a shape none of them expected. I highly recommend.

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Tattooist Of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

After reading The Tattooist of Auschwitz ,I sat for a long, long  time and just cogitated. I thought about how Humans can be the worst  of monsters and the embodiment of good. About how (if you are lucky) despite being taught the Holocaust in an abstract way at school learning  the horrific numbers of Jews, Czechs, Romanies etc. who  were killed in the genocide, perhaps seeing the piled personal belongings at exhibitions in tours of Krakow, that you never really contemplate what it actually meant to have lived (or rather existed) in one of those accursed death camps.

This extremely personal story was from start to finish a very  uncomfortable read, particularly as it was such a  dreadful chapter in Gita and Lale’s lives that he did not really speak of the horrors they had endured until Gita had passed. 

That Lale wanted this to be his final testimony in the closing chapters of his life as he awaited going after her, just added an ever more poignant frisson to my processing of the story. Heather Morris was an inspired chronicler, her writing is spare and detailed at once. The senses are all tweaked by her descriptions that evoke emotions from a shared suffering, we feel the story as much as we see it unfold before us.

It is an utterly absorbing book about the inevitable mass suffering and loss of faith, strength and dignity but also of an un -erring tenacity of spirit, of resilience  and of the tiniest acts of human kindness that are all the more meaningful for being carried in the midst of such suffering and loss. 

The psychological damage of human ash raining down on you as you went about the hard, humiliating and dehumanising labours set by the SS and being aware that your very geographical presence in the camp could be the difference between life and death must have been dreadful.

The sheer strength that Gita and Lale demonstrate not to give in, to never accept your fate, but rather to shape it by being proactive is astounding.

What makes this story so important is the honesty with which it is written, not written to illicit sympathy, but is rather a searing and uncompromising spotlight on the experience of one couple, one of myriad love stories in this maelstrom of humanity. This is an intimate story all the more moving set within the huge and horrifying tapestry of the Genocide.

With the exception of Mengele, No one is demonised, they are presented with their frailties and their humanity in strong relief. The bold truth Lale allows to be told is that the altruism can never be truly pure when life is on a knife’s edge, but more a thing of self preservation, even if it is to ward off the demons that come at night when you realise you lived when millions of others did not. It is what is left of heart and soul when the horrors end that truly measures you.

That Lale and Gita fell foul of the Communist Regime that  so many forget took up where the Nazi’s left off in Eastern Europe and in many ways  was as cruel and equally as sequestered from prying eyes for many years is a searing indictment of how power corrupts.

The Afterword  from Gary, their much wished for and miraculously gifted  child really touched my heart , the descriptions of their home, the importance of food and their attitudes to life in general triggered many memories  of my own beloved Grandfather’s stories  who had his own tale to tell. 

And I just might tell it...

Just a word on the wonderful narration  by Richard Armitage on Audible. Definitely worth a listen. He embers all that characters with a singular personality and made grim subject matter accessible for the faintest heart.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Boy On The Bridge by M.R. Carey

I began this book with a little nervousness. The prequel aspect was intriguing but I had loved The Girl With All The Gifts  so much I did not want to taint the memory of discovering Melanie and watching her story unfold.

This book is much the same again but yet so different, a plucky band of scientists and military protectors are sent to gather research evidence from pods dotted about the British Isles in a seemingly vain attempt to find a way to cure the Cordyceps fungal infection that has decimated the population. 

Here the central battles are less physical, but a between duty, honour and maintaining humanity in the face of what seems a lost cause.

Genius Savant Teenager Greaves, An autistic youth with an eidetic memory and superlative analytical skills provides the emotional centre with another kindly woman acting as his moral compass and object of innocent affection, much like Melanie’s narrative herself . 

Each have an ally in each other as government and Millitary machinations roil around them like ever more ominous rain clouds about to release a catastrophic deluge. The individual grudges, self servicing and personal preservation of some of the characters paints them as the real beings to fear.

Here as in the first book, the Feral Children pose the highest risk to life and limb. Their particular existence is  scarier than any zombie Horde. The best and worst hope for humanity packed into tiny bodies with lethal ferocity.

It was nice to see the origins of Rosie, almost a character in herself, sanctuary and battle-bus and the  saviour of the day in The Girl, and pretty heroic in this story too.  She alway puts me in mind of the  Thunderchild in HG Wells The War Of The Worlds.  

Greaves takes a moral stand for all living creatures, finding empathy for the monstrous and revealing that the theory of  “victim” in any situation is as fluid as the life’s blood that all survival hangs on. 

The Epilogue here is a work of utter genius and a reward that makes all the angst and moral vacillation throughout the rest of the book totally worthwhile. For that alone I suggest you read this accomplished prequel after The Girl With All The Gifts  for a fully rounded and satisfying reading experience.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

Recommended by President Barack Obama himself ,I can safely say I would be a member of any book club he cares to set up!

This book certainly packs a punch, literally shocking in places if you’ll pardon the pun. This borrows heavily from the dystopian themes of many other books but turns them on their heads.

Women have suddenly developed the ability to inflict pain via a self-generated charge. Activating in puberty and like circuits connected on a board; activating older women and literally passing the gift from hand to hand.

Suddenly women have the ways and means to live outside the control of men, who had always used force to cajole, control and repress.

This is a searing tale of how The Power affects the world, people seeking answers in the spiritual, leaders rise and the downtrodden become brave. However as is ever the way with new regimes, over confidence in the Power starts to turn the good intentioned into seekers of more power beyond that gifted and begin to take. A truth universal. 

Power corrupts, whoever wields it.

Juxtaposed against a modern world where women are fighting for autonomy over their own bodies in the USA, where women are sold as sex slaves in 
Eastern Europe, where women are unable to gain an education, drive a car or even go about their business without a male chaperone, the mirror image in the book left me torn and questioning.

I found myself rejoicing in the reversal of fortune and laughing at the claims of frightened men, the macho wielders of brute force suddenly left vulnerable.Wild stories that women had planned and orchestrated this, railing against schemes that seek to take away their freedoms and choices. It is now men being treated like objects rather than humans. 

However it is not long before the frailty not of gender but of the humanity as a species catalyses a new battle of the sexes, where Men feel subjugated and women are the entitled, cocksure in their superiority purely because they hold the power to inflict pain and to humiliate. The men’s movement rises.

Irony Irony Irony, my head sings.

This clever plot interweaves the archeological and anthropological studies of a far future time with the individual stories of women and men at the turning point in history. Their narratives coalesce as things start to unravel - as they must and always do. The centre never holds.

I liked the way the book ratchets up to what was to be a crescendo of action but left it to my (rather overactive) imagination to conjure the very pinnacle of “the cataclysm event”

I particularly enjoyed the bookends of the story, the anthropological study by a scholarly and learned but unrespected man in the time after...  the truth of the story has fallen into the annals of History. He is trying to make his way in a female centric world , trying to tell the Story of the time before.  

Contempories (wo)man-Splaining  what is empirical fact and artefact and the final most telling sentence were masterful strokes-  so reminiscent of the most seminal of dystopian works (and obviously a inspiration for this one) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood who incidentally mentored Naomi Alderman.

A word about this Audible version. Adjoa Andoh has a real challenge with this one, London Chavs, cocky Africans, crazy Eastern Europeans and the southern drawl and Washington Burr Of American dialects. She does it with style and panache. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Blog Tour - We Own the Sky by Luke Allnutt

“We own the Sky”  is one of those books that you know is going to affect you before you even begin and because I am an exceptionally chicken hearted type of girl, I try not to inflict self- induced weeping on myself so despite being graciously invited to participate in the Blog Tour for the book I approached the prospect with some trepidation.

I need not have worried. That is not to say that this book does not grab you by the throat and drag you to some very dark emotional corners, with grief induced alcoholism being a pervasive theme throughout, some of it is very grim and the story of any young life being  laid low by cancer, let alone  brain cancer is not going to be jolly by any stretch of the imagination, but there is much to love about this simple story of the Before and the After of this, possibly the most catastrophic event  to happen in any parent’s life, the prospect of losing a child.

Luke Allnutt has a particular deftness with images and imagery, this is utilised cleverly by the fact that…  is a photographer. This is a story filled with stark images and a vividness of description without  seeming forced. In fact the style is sparse and lean which means that the ferocity of the emotion  being barely contained  by two personalities so different in their coping mechanisms.  Unable to share their grief and the burden of their own questions about the futility and desperation and projected blame for this tragedy, both parents draw into their own worlds informed by their own formative years.

The book’s  symbolism of the child’s near obsessive love of high places and the juxtaposition of  the ideas of Heaven, of  raising a child  in prayer are cleverly mined and exposed for our perusal. The idea of peace coming with the acceptance  that  suffering is ended  seems ludicrous  as the aftershocks of the loss ricochet into the future for both parents.

It is here the book rises head and shoulders above what could easily have fallen into the trap  of being  mawkish  and overly provocative. There is some searing and seething examination of  the  way technology can be a curse as well as a boon in times of trouble, again cleverly placed against the fact that… is very at home with computers, code and  the internet. Personal  Research causes pain and consternation, reaching out to “Others who know” creating hope and supportive connections but also opening  hearts wishing for miracles up to the risks of  exploitation and frustration, zapping strength and stealing time perhaps better placed living in the now.

Consider the plethora of platitudes  banded about when a child falls ill , the “thoughts and prayers “stock responses we are all guilty of  and public expressions  of  gratitude for what we, the luckily unscathed  have; that did 
make me sit and think about my own social media footprint when tragedy strikes those just outside my most precious inner circle. 

I  felt this book keenly and I cried copious tears.  I will never be able to look at a bouncy castle without a pang, but  it is so much more than a tear jerker, it has strong messages about how we meet tragedy in our lives and how we respond both internally and publically. I strongly urge you to seek it out. I do not think you will be disappointed.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Hazel Wood By Melissa Albert

The Hazel Wood - YA Fantasy

This really is a book after my own heart.  This is a fairy tale for the world weary, a fantasy for realists and children’s book suitable for any adult. Angry Teen Alice and her Mother are on a never ending quest to outrun their bad luck and the legacy of being the family of the infamous author of an extremely rare but near mythic tome of Fairy Tales. Soon the characters begin to cross boundaries into our world and we into theirs and that’s just the start.

This is a tremendously well crafted dark fairy tale, I thoroughly enjoyed this macabre story. There is plenty for readers to get their teeth into, creepy kids, shadowy figures in the periphery of consciousness , Grandmothers, Kings Queens and Princes both Royal and commoner both.

It reminds me of a darker modern amalgam of the Neverending Story and the InkHeart books but there is enough freshness and dark vivacity to the narrative that you are swept along with Alice as she embarks on the journey of her life, quite literally.