Idaho

When I was studying my Creative Writing module, as part of my English Language and Literature degree, my tutor spoke about a feature of writing that incorporated film techniques. She tried to make us incorporate some of these techniques in our own writing, and cited the example of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’, where the visual descriptions of Pip’s parents’ graves provide vivid imagery, almost like a camera panning out over the gravesite and then the view of the countryside spilling over the hills.

But that was where it stopped with Great Expectations.

And if you want to read a book that makes you feel like you are watching an emotive film, not just visually, then Idaho is the book for you.

Emily Ruskovich has a natural affinity for words. Her words are like vines, growing around the pages and entwining with her story, so they cease to be black letters on a white page, and instead become a blurred window into her motion picture.

She doesn’t just describe things, she adds a voice to them, increasing the volume when she needs to and beaming radio silence when the moment shouts for it. And what a loud silence it is.

And behind everything is the soft piano music, gently playing to the rhythm of the characters’ lives and they go forward and backward in time.

It is all very well for me to lament on the poetic nature of Ruskovich’s writing, but I expect the burning question you have is what is this book about?

And I shall tell you, and not tell you, all in one breath, because I can’t tell you what it is about without doing the book justice.

It’s about a family, both past and present, shattered by uncontrollable and controlled, horrific events, and a degenerative disease. It is breathtaking, yet slow paced. And it rises and rises in pitch as the book goes on, crashing loudly and beautifully at its highest peak, and then softly trundling down a rocky mountain towards the end. Ruskovich uses her writing talent to create a written film, and I mean this quite literally.

It took me three months to read this book. I know because I started it when my tulips started to sprout, and finished it today, when my tulips are long withered away and the summer flowers are in full bloom. It is a slow read, there is so much to take in, and the pace leaps about between timelines, so it is hard to keep up. I was also left frustrated at the end, because there were questions there that I felt weren’t answered sufficiently.

I sat back and thought about that, however. The book was written in such a way as to reflect real life themes, emotions and human growth and change, and in real life there aren’t always answers, there are only humans dealing with questions, and growing with them, until they become part of what defines us.

I thoroughly was mesmerized by Idaho, Emily Ruskovich ensnared me with her beautiful poetic prose, she flabbergasted me with how she dealt with such treacherous topics and yet managed to make something so vibrantly, painfully beautiful.

 

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The Thorn Birds

A peado priest falls in love with a little girl.

No, I am joking. He doesn’t. He only ‘falls in love’ with her when she develops a pair of … I can’t think of a dignified name for those things.

No that is too vulgar. Anyway that really isn’t the entirety of the story, but I think it caused sensation when it was published because that is what stood out the most.

That isn’t what this book was about. I read the last sentence today.

And we still do it. Still we do it.

Do what?

Put thorns in our breasts, that’s what.

This book touched me beyond my brain cells. It touched somewhere deep inside my cranium, some would call it a soul. It prodded it and then it simpered like an evil waif, and vanished, leaving me looking down at a new hole. A bit surprised, actually. I didn’t think it would affect me this way.

Somebody once told me that once you have read or seen something, it is a thought in your brain. It belongs to you. You cannot un-think it.

When a writer writes so well that you feel like you are one with the characters, feeling things they feel, even though you have never felt these things… you have bent to the will of the pen. You have never felt those things? Oh, but you have. You’ve felt an echo of them. And now, you know.

I didn’t like all of the characters, but I liked them immensely.

This book didn’t sear me because of its plot, or its characters. Its plot was devastating, to be sure, and its characters deeply twisted and vastly, enormously human. But this book had a soul of its own. It is life, itself.

Sure, it was life from the perspective of one individual brain, but it seethed into being, it spluttered, it gasped, it breathed.

I really wish I didn’t read it, because I can’t un-think it.

But I am glad I did.

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Amy and Isabelle

I bought this book as an afterthought, selected out of a range of pickings offered to me on Amazon after I’d purchased a book already. It stood out because of its simple, no-nonsense title; I wanted to know more.

The New York Times Book Review daubed it “one of those rare, invigorating books that take an apparently familiar world and peer into it with ruthless intimacy, revealing a strange and startling place”.

Set in a baking town in the middle of an intensely hot summer, the vivid imagery of a rotting green river snaking through the heart of the town makes for a stunning metaphor of the rotting sickness underlying the relationship between mother and daughter. Not that its long-term, of course. The story explores the complicated relationship between a girl on the cusp of adulthood, and a mother who has made many sacrifices in order to lead, at least in her own mind, a ‘respectable’ life.

At the heart of this story is a tale of two minds, formed and influenced by unfortunate circumstances. It speaks of loneliness, desperation for human contact, and highlights the way your own mind can form a barrier between you and your basic human desire to be social. In a way this novel spoke to me directly, because I related on a very personal level with the loneliness felt by Isabelle, the construction of social events in her mind. I was terribly lonely when I moved to a different city, leaving all my friends behind. Gradually we lost contact, and I found it immensely difficult to make new friends. It got to a point so severe that I did something incredibly stupid – for want of human contact. It’s sad and pathetic, but so real. Elizabeth Stout painted this in such a raw, open way. It was quite tough subject matter to navigate through.

Despite loneliness being the driving force behind the main characters’ actions, there were many more complex themes driving the plot forward. Amy’s burgeoning sexuality, Isabelle’s anxious, overprotective and even jealous tendencies towards her daughter, feelings of inadequacy, lack of communication and even Amy feeling a little embarrassed of her mother, were just some aspects explored by Stout, and which made for often uncomfortable reading.

I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this book. It was difficult, at times revolting. Despite this, I couldn’t put it down. The narrative was compelling; with Strout interweaving the minds of the two protagonists, combining two very separate outlooks on the same world (which I suppose is the reality of our lives, viewing the world through a million different perspectives), and setting them amidst vivid descriptions of the town, the slow, almost zombie-like townsfolk who, as it happened, had very real, very raw lives of their own.

This book was brilliantly written, the exposition foreshadowed almost poetically, and the emergence into truth almost like a blossoming of understanding, which I felt fitted in marvellously with the subject-matter. The novel ‘came of age’ beautifully, in a way which is wistfully reminiscent of much of our growth and understanding. This novel is about learning to love, learning to let go, and learning to ‘live’.

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Flowers from the Storm

I hate love stories. I hate stories written purposely because there will be a romance in the end, and all we get are a string of sex scenes punctuated by poor dialogue and a laughable plot. I don’t mind a bit of romance sprinkled into a plot otherwise meant to be something different. I don’t mind a coming of age novel with a blossoming romance between its pages.

But let me make it so very clear thatI hate erotic novels with a passion. They are sleazy and make me roll my eyes. Sex scenes are just porn, really, cheap and designed to enthral.

However, this book was not an ‘erotic novel’. I was duped into this ‘historical romance’. I was offered the title on a Kindle buying spree. Flowers from the StormLaura Kinsale.

It was £1.99 and the ratings were high, so I thought, who cares for a blurb and bought it anyway. I started reading the first page on Saturday night.

Oh, some arrogant rich man is having sex with another man’s wife. Classy.

Then the man began to have a pounding headache. You know an author does not insert a pounding headache, one that makes one incapable of performing basic needs, for no reason. I was intrigued, but also tired, so I put the kindle away and closed my eyes to sleep.

I didn’t touch it again until Sunday night, when it ensnared me in a vortex of mathematical equations, and a headache that morphed suddenly into lunacy. What. 

I desperately wanted to stay awake that night reading but the husband was getting irritated with the light of my kindle and I was tired.

I lay like a foetus all Monday, folks. I read eight hours straight, I only stopped once because a woman called me about a job interview and another called about a gym membership. I did not eat and did not drink. I was lost in this world.

This world of mathematicians and Quakers and dukes and it sounds so silly and frivolous but there was something so tangible and real about it. I was ensnared, I tell you, bewitched by someone’s hand. Drawn by characters on a page into a world I did not want to leave, and was not ready to leave at 1:10am last night when I turned the last digital page and felt an ache of loss in my heart.

I didn’t expect to love this romance the way I did. So I thought about it. I desperately wanted these two characters to be together by the halfway point. I was on tenterhooks throughout the book, and upon glancing down at see how much I’d read, realised that even at 19% my heart was beating furiously. At 30% I felt nauseous with anticipation. At 50% I felt dread and my nerves were clanging.

Not halfway through the book and already we were being taken on a roller coaster of small literary climaxes. Of fiends and cold baths to cure ailments of the mind and human apes. A field day of all emotions readily available to man, inspired by the actions of people who do not even exist.

The story was compelling. The premise rich and intriguing. The plot vibrant, never ending.

A rogue duke with a pounding headache pronounced a lunatic and put in an asylum. His mother thinks it is a punishment from God for his waywardness. He had some sort of stroke which rendered him incapable of communication, but to medical practitioners, who didn’t know this, he appeared a lunatic. I felt I was being exposed to the depths and layers of nineteenth century thought and medicine, of notions of ‘propriety’, of religion, and this made the story so plausible. Nothing like the crudely assembled plots of other romances I have tried and hated. I was reading about the treatment of ‘lunatics’ – in this case a man with temporal loss of some cognitive part of his brain due to an accident, but also the ‘lunatics’ around him – the stigma with which mental illnesses were viewed, the class system; I was reading about all this and more, and not just a historical love story.

The characters did not fall in love upon their first meeting. There was too much between them, and too many differences in who they were and where they came from for this to be even a passing thought in their heads. After the ‘accident’, and the lunatic asylum, there was a beautiful, gradual build up. Slow, progressing character development, mind development, and after the halfway point, a strong sense of duty deteriorating and blossoming into something richer, stronger, more passionate. There was rich pain, all the characters’ misgivings, their drawbacks, their fears and their hopes painted so richly. Their pain was my pain, literally, I loved it!

That is why it satisfied beyond belief. It was satisfying as ‘romantic literature’ – something I previously despised. However I genuinely feel as though something is now missing from my life. And I know this feeling very well. I had it first at the tender age of nine after reading a book so rich my entire existence paled in comparison. Of course my existence hasn’t paled, but doing daily things now feels irritating. I feel like I need to go back into that world, and I can’t, and I want to be severely upset, but I can’t because the book had a happy ending. See? Why do I react this way if the book ends on a good note? Why do I feel so incredibly dissatisfied, even though I honestly loved reading it? My gut feels wrenched, folks. Perhaps this book awoke in me something I didn’t know I wanted? I want –  I don’t know what I want – and it’s all this book’s fault.

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The Age of Miracles

This is a review.

The Age of Miracles is a coming of age debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker.

As debut novels go, this one was outstanding. Walker did not waste a single moment getting to the point, which I found refreshing and mesmerising.

The tale followed the story of an eleven year old girl ascending slowly and painfully into adolescence, chronicling all the awkwardness of the age, in an apocalyptic time when the earth begins to slow, rendering the days longer. With each cycle around the sun, more minutes are added to the day, and this phenomenon is called the ‘Slowing’.

It was a new idea, and what made it plausible was that it was backed by scientific theory – which gave life to the events unfolding.

I loved how Walker combined the coming of age with this almost sic-fi plot line, and wove them together seamlessly. This was a girl, growing up, going to school, experiencing what we have all experienced with friends and parents and troubles that might seem insignificant to an adult but could make or break a child struggling to make sense of their rapidly changing world – and to have that world very literally change around her too, is remarkable.

Walker, I felt, took a great idea and delivered it excellently. I did not feel as though I was reading words. I felt submerged in the tale and when I was jerked out of it at one point because it had got so dark out that I literally could not see the words on the page anymore, I felt as though I had resurfaced from another world.

It takes a great deal of skill in writing to make you feel like that, and I think Walker has delivered this very well. I would say it was the defining factor of this book. It is a beautiful tale, tragic and extraordinary. I had me thinking about it days after I had turned the last page, and I found myself wanting a bit more.

I would give this book five stars out of five, and would love to read more from Karen Walker.

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After I Left You

By Alison Mercer.

I found this book by chance in a town called March, in March, and I read the blurb and thought it would be interesting, and so much to Damian’s disappointment (he thinks I buy too many books and is heavily concerned about where I am going to put them all) I carried it to the till.

Every broken heart has a history.

Anna Jones went to university in Oxford, at a college called St Bart’s. While there she meets a group of people who later become her friends. The relationships she has with these people are at times complicated and even fragile, everybody being young and wilful and in the process of growing up.

The story starts off in the present day, with Anna heading towards middle age. She has a chance encounter with her old ex, Victor, and this brings in a flood of all the old friendships and experiences of her past, which make her realise that she needs to face up to what happened at St Bart’s so long ago.

But what did happen? This huge question creates an atmosphere of suspense and trepidation throughout the book, and it is done so creatively and also craftily that there were certain points where I could not put the book down. I always wanted to know more!

I think the strength of this book lies in the massive secret that is slowly being unfolded. However the plot of a book cannot rely alone on the buildup to exposition, and what really carries this book forward is the wonderful characterisation, the strong, complex portrayal of human behaviour, relationships, the selfishness and insecurities of youth, all interwoven into these characters, making them very real and sometimes hateful. I also couldn’t help falling slightly in love with some of them.

After I Left You is one of those novels that will linger with me as life drags me ever forward. It belongs in my bookshelf, a place reserved only for books that evoke something inside me and ignite my mind. This is one such book.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

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I must admit I thought this book would be a boring read when I first opened it, despite it’s magnificent title. The first page was a letter. So was the second and third and, in fact, flicking through the book I found it comprised entirely of letters to people!

How tiresome, I thought. How terribly lazy. But then I remembered that some of the most beautiful books I had ever read were comprised of letters. Letters do not hinder a plot if they are properly written.

I also learnt a new word in the reading of this book, although not gleaned from the book itself! It is ‘epistolary’, meaning ‘contained in, or carried on by letters’.

This book was captivating. The character development was excellent, and through the letters one could see exactly what everybody thought of each other, and how their relationships developed through the stories of hardship and moments of laughter during the war. Characters who didn’t even exist in the novel, their voices created by other characters, were so vibrant and alive, that it was quite an unfortunate disappointment to find they never made an entrance at all.

The story follows the tales of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a covert group formed  in the Guernsey Islands during the second world war. Books were scarce in Guernsey, and so was food and luxuries, but they never lacked for love. The story is told through the multiple perspectives of the Islanders, the majority of whom had emerged from the war unscathed. The letters are sent to a certain Juliet, a writer herself, who, in undertaking a literary project, found herself drawn into the lives of these islanders. What happens next I will let you find out yourself.

I am so glad I own this book now, it is one I would recommend recommend recommend. It’s sad and sweet and also surprisingly informative.

What I loved most about this story was that it was centred around, and celebrated books in a most familial and cosy way. It is not very often that you will come across a book that fits so perfectly in your hands, that sits so comfortably in your soul, that promises to stay with you forever and ever, it’s words a nostalgic echo through the passages of time. So, that being said, I will end my review with one of my favourite quotes from this classic treasure of a novel:

Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.

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The One With the Appraisal (Warning: Contains Spoilers.)

Just another pretentious word used to avoid using the common, cliche word. Aka ‘review’. Yes I can be arty farty like that.

So what am I reviewing?

The Girl With All the Gifts.

M. R. Carey.

WARNING: Contains spoilers. Do NOT proceed if you are unwilling to read spoilers. You have been duly notified. Enter at your own risk.

A girl. A teacher. A soldier. A scientist. Lots of Hungries. And a world so familiar, yet so devastatingly foreign, consumed by the tendrils of mycelial doom.

Does she have all the gifts? Yes indeed, for in her mind the secrets of this apocalyptic universe stay hidden, stagnant, waiting to be unlocked.

Readers, I struggled against myself to buy this book. I had a tottering pile of books in my arms already, my change was running out, it had started to rain. But the pros were shoved circumstantially in my face. It was ever so cheap. And the lady who wanted to get rid of it was enthusiastic that I would enjoy it, despite clearly seeing a ‘Little Men’ and a ‘What Katy Did Next’ wedged firmly in the crooks of my arms.

The bright yellow cover and scarlet inner cover were plastered over with short, sweet, compelling little sentences, little nudges, like a babble of eager voices clamouring for me to take a big, fleshy bite out of this so-called universal wonder.

IF YOU READ ONE NOVEL THIS YEAR, MAKE SURE IT’S THIS ONE.

And

TAKES HOLD OF YOU AND DOESN’T LET GO.

And

AS FRESH AS IT IS TERRIFYING.

Which, I am pleased to say, it was.

Naturally curious, I decided to buy it, and read it. I read it across the Channel, rocking to and fro in a tight little cabin. I poured over it whilst waiting in queues, drinking coffee, travelling on coaches until finally, slumped over a crisp hotel bed, my husband complaining about the clothes I bundled up and threw into the wardrobe in my eagerness to get back to the story, I turned the last page.

But the page turner ended with an anti-climax. I don’t know why. I should have expected the ending, because really what else could have happened?

Truth is, I was awaiting a monstrous, thunderous ending. One which would leave my soul shattered, my heart in pieces on the ground, crunching beneath the literary feet of this magnificent work of art.

The writing was quick-paced, enticing. When I began the story, I knew as much as the child protagonist did. I learnt with her. Which I thought was a brilliant way to go about world building. We do not learn of the apocalypse until the point of view shifts from the child to the adults.

It appeared to be the same old ‘zombie apocalypse’ situation that has taken over entertainment media by a storm, from TV series like ‘The Walking Dead’ to video games like ‘Resident Evil’. Dead people, chasing living people for their flesh.

The only difference was that M.R. Carey decided to give a plausible, believable reason for this illogical feeding frenzy. I won’t go into specifics because SPOILERS but I thought the explanations were remarkably on point and actually interesting enough to keep me invested and ‘hungry’ for more.

The world building was solid, vivid. The dilapidated ruin of roads and buildings, left untouched for two decades, the emaciated, frightening appearance of the hungries, their mechanical, inhuman feeding patterns, the way humans had to tiptoe past them because they only responded to sensory interruptions, a mechanism used by the pathogen inhibiting their brains to zero in on its prey; the absolute chaos of the world, the junkers, the makeshift city, fungal takeover.

I suppose the reason why I felt dissatisfied by the ending was because there seemed to be so many threads left dangling! Who are these junkers? What happened to the junkers on their trail? What happened to all the junkers anyway? Why didn’t we get to see Beacon? Why had the communication stopped? What happened to Charlie? How was Rosie abandoned really? Was everybody dead? What happened in the future? Was Miss Justineau really going to be resigned to that meagre job for the rest of her life?

I recommend this book, readers, I do. I just think there could have been more.

The Dream Thieves

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Normally, sequels are a huge splash of disappointment and and a tangled web of unfulfilled fantasies.

The same cannot be said of The Dream Thieves, the sequel to The Raven Boys. The Raven Boys was good enough, but The Dream Thieves surpassed it by leagues and leagues and left it dwindling behind like one of those coal ravaged cities old Dombey mourned over. It was brilliant and sparky and had me on the verge of falling off my seat (well, bed) with excitement at 6am in the morning. When I turned the last page my heart sank in pitiful desolation because I had no idea when the third book was going to be released, and I felt as though I couldn’t brave this taunting anonymity. I still do not know when it will be released, which is very daunting, considering that I gave up on reading Inheritance because the gap between it and Brisingr was too long.

This book started off being very confusing but as I have learnt from Maggie Stiefvater, her confusion is just a pathway to glorious clarity. So whenever I didn’t understand anything, I just carried on reading. Sure enough, my befuddlement lifted and my curiosity was satiated in a most beautiful manner.

Maggie explored her characters in greater depth in her sequel. Suddenly they all had separate lives, and feelings, and opinions which clashed, as opinions are wont to do. They all suddenly made so much sense. You started off the book thinking, gosh what a rambling mess this all is, and finished it thinking, DAYUM, MAGGIE, YOU SORCERESS.

So anyway, yes I fully recommend this book. One hundred percent. I am very hard to please, you see. Roll on book the third!

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The Raven Boys

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You know what made this book so great for me? The prologue. Was it a prologue? The dead, the church, the path? Whatever it was, it was a beautiful, fascinating, magnificent start and it surged in my veins, readying me for something great.

I have been reading quite a lot of dystopia recently and lots of it was, quite frankly, despicably written. There was a severe want for great writers to pen the already great ideas down. Perhaps those writers WERE great writers, but they lacked proper editing, or perhaps they didn’t edit at all.

I was preparing myself for another shoddy fantasy, when I turned the page of the second chapter.

I thought, alright Lenny, benefit of the doubt and whatnot.

I can smell coffee right now and it is making me hunger for it.

This book has caught me in its traps. I am currently reading the sequel (The Dream Thieves) but I am trying my best to take it slow, because the third one isn’t out yet, and I cannot be sitting around hankering after a piece of literature that hasn’t even been written yet, probably! It’s too heartbreaking!

Alright, enough rambling. There are no spoilers in here so do not worry. The book is about a daughter of a psychic. The girl is called Blue. Now how about that for a nice, pretty, unique name? Her fate appears to be crossed with four school boys, who go to Aglionby Academy, an all boys’ school reputed to be full of snobs and rich snotty nosed lads. This isn’t exactly a love story. It is a fascinating tale of one boy’s hunt for a vast treasure (of the spirit kind, not the gold kind), and the dubiousness of whether he will find it before his time (as predicted by the mother of Blue, and her other odd psychic family members) runs out. It is also the tale of the secrets of the boy (Gansey)’s three friends, Noel, Ronan and Adam. Everybody is entwined with a magic of their own; a secret, a history, a ghost.

It was my first book by Maggie Stiefvater, and it is definitely not my last. I have embarked upon the thrilling ride that is this Maggie, and I have discovered some amazing writings by her. The Scorpio Races is one such example. I simply cannot wait to read more!