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Helen Slavin – Crooked Daylight

Book Cover

The definition of magic?

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 204
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-29567-9
First Published: 24th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 3/5

When their grandmother dies, Anna, Charlie, and Emz inherit her cottage and the woods that surround it, but, already having homes of their own (well, Emz lives with Mum) they decide to let it as a holiday rental. One of these rentals is to a mysterious young woman who likes to bathe in the lake they’d always been told to avoid, and when they spot a man in the woods the sisters are worried. And it seems their grandmother is still around, helping them. Amidst this are the sister’s own stories of relationships, deaths, and young adulthood.

Crooked Daylight is the first book in a planned series focusing on three modern sisters who may have a little magic about them.

This is an interesting take on the idea of magic. It’s the sort of thing that’s been done many times before but not quite in this way which sounds like a paradox and therefore requires explaining. The three sisters – Anna, Charlie, and Emz (whose full name is Emma but as that isn’t revealed until near the end there’s plenty of space to speculate whether, perhaps, Slavin had thoughts of the Brontë sisters in mind) – are people living in our present day with our mobile phones and conveniences. This time period isn’t so much explained as it is shown through slang and the sisters’ often abbreviated language. (Sometimes it can seem as though they are a lot younger than their ages which may be a turn-off for some.) The various housing involves terraces, town houses, and their mother’s new state-of-the-art home… but then there’s also their late grandmother’s cottage in the woods that Slavin’s descriptions infer to be your fantastical wooden thatched cottage. So it’s a meeting of modern reality and slightly older fantasy, but it’s still not that simple. Slavin doesn’t explicitly address the magical elements until near the end which has the effect of pulling you deeper into the narrative as you try to work it out. Is there any magic, really? What sort? Is it just something supernatural?

So Slavin has aimed for something between reality and fantasy that skews more towards reality. It’s the sort of usage that brings to life those times when we wonder how something no one could have had a hand in could be so coincidental. It all works very well.

However, to go back to those characters and their ages that are hard to believe, it can be difficult to relate to them. It’s not that they are dislikeable per se, but they do at times get into drama and other people’s business when they should mind their own, for example one time they have a quite valid worry about a person’s safety but instead of approaching them – a tenant – to mention it, they use their privilege as the holiday home owners to enter the cottage and look around without asking whilst the woman hides in another room, uncomfortable. Another occasion sees one of them becoming quite snotty with some women who so far have done nothing to her (barring trying to stop her and her sisters when they run off with their grandmother’s body to cremmate it in the way they, the sisters, feel it should be done). There’s a disconnection between action and reason.

A seemingly minor element but a compelling one – the sisters’ mother, Vanessa. Vanessa is very different to her daughters and her own mother alike; whereas Hettie (the sisters’ grandmother – Vanessa’s mother) had something magical going on about her and so, it seems, do Anna, Charlie, and Emz, Vanessa is a scientist who lives in an incredibly modern home. Her home is so modern her daughters can’t work out how to use it and whilst this factor may bring about an extra few centimetres in the gulf between mother and daughters, there’s the slight suggestion in it that Vanessa is trying to forge her own path. Whilst the daughters are modern but affected by this magic of their grandmother’s, Vanessa is left out. Her daughters may feel neglected, and that may be true, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder on – why is Vanessa so different? Is it simply that Slavin wants to bring to the fore the difference between traditional magic, superstition, and up-to-the-minute scientific findings, or is it a look at how a person left out will try to forge their own path, their own identity? It may be something, it may be nothing – this reviewer may be over-thinking it – but it’s interesting to contemplate and the difference between mother and daughters will doubtless be further explored as the series continues.

There is no major plot-line in this book which can make it difficult to keep up with the goings on. Various threads and a large number of secondary characters make it feel like a soap opera at times but when the narrative focuses it’s pretty good. It takes a while for that particular thread to become less blurred, to show what it actually is, but the pace gets swifter once it’s settled into. It’s a case of having a lot of information at once, presumably to set up the scene for the series, but it would’ve been better for it to be unwound slowly.

The writing is generally good. Slavin often uses unconventional words – onomatopoeias, for example – that are distinct because we tend to use other words, but this becomes a quirk you look forward to and the meaning of these words is always obvious. But there is a shortage of commas – sometimes clauses that are meant to mean one thing read as something else.

Crooked Daylight is a nice read but quite disjointed. It ends well, suggesting the next book will be very good (and a lot higher in magical content) so if you like the general idea you may want to read it or at least keep the series in mind for when the next one is out.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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When You Are Given A Book You Already Own

A photograph of two copies of Elizabeth Chadwick's Shadows And Strongholds

I’ve spoken before about having multiple copies of books (and will always remember Jeanne’s comment about how she and her husband gave away any duplicates they had when they set up home) and I’ve spoken about that gift-giving situation where there’s discomfort if you ask if the person’s read the book yet. Today I’m combining the two topics.

There have only been a few times in my life where I’ve been given a book I already own and almost all those occasions have involved people thinking about what I’d like and simply not knowing I already had the book they chose for me. The gifting presents a question: what should you do – give away the new copy, give away the old copy, or keep both? The last is usually a bit much but I’ve a story about that in a moment (this is besides the research copy/reading copy I mentioned in my multiple copies post). I’m personally not fond of the idea of saying, ‘thanks, but I already own this,’ as it’s asking for hurt feelings – whatever you choose to do, between the choices of giving away a copy or keeping both, you’re going to end up with an item that the person will presumably spot on your shelves and positive assumptions should be made.

My most recent story, then, the one mentioned above, is one I’ll always remember. I once read a book series in order and didn’t read any other books in between volumes. I mainly read them in the living room, a common room. That Christmas, I received, from someone who didn’t live with us but was often around, the next book that came after the one I’d just finished. But I already had a copy of this book waiting for me, just not in a common room.

The thing is, this present showed me how much effort the person had gone to in choosing me a suitable present. We had briefly spoken books but not about the series; they had obviously noted not just what I was reading but which was the next book in the running order. In terms of effort and thought, it is the best present I’ve ever received and the person was more acquaintance than friend. Both copies were the same but then they weren’t – one was just a book on my shelf, the other was a thoughtful gift. That the person passed away shortly afterwards made that copy all the more special to me and so I have kept both my own previous copy, which I use as my flick-through, and the one they gave me which will be kept for sentimental reasons and because I will in due course pass it on to one of their relatives.

Another story: a friend who, during my ‘Lisa Jewell phase’, when I was just re-entering the world of books as my post-school hatred started to wane and I was following her career in earnest, bought me Jewell’s latest. I’d already read it as I lapped up every new release within the first week of publication, but the gift showed a lot of thought. I passed this copy on.

There is a time and a place for multiples and things you wouldn’t normally keep. There are also times to pass a book on.

Have you any book present stories you’d like to share?

Tahmima Anam – The Bones Of Grace

Book Cover

One epic love letter.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-67977-2
First Published: 19th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2016
Rating: 4/5

Zubaida was studying in America when she met him: Elijah, a man she came to know for just a few days; she had to leave for Pakistan when her university department’s hopes of uncovering an ancient fossil were realised. But when the project came to an abrupt halt, Zubaida went back to her native Bangladesh and married her childhood friend, effectively bringing an end to her acquaintance with Elijah. Years later, after meeting and splitting from him again, she has chosen to tell him everything in a letter.

The Bones Of Grace is a somewhat epic story that also includes another story within the story. It’s the sort of book you’ll likely either love or hate (very difficult to rate!) but either way appreciate the background detailing.

What first strikes you is Anam’s writing – it’s sublime. There are no two ways about it. It’s the sort of writing that is so wonderful, so well put together, so constant, that it has a very real affect on the novel’s flaws. You won’t dismiss the flaws, but you will feel as though you want to dismiss them. But what’s interesting is that this isn’t necessarily Anam’s natural writing style, it’s all Zubaida – during the story within a story, where we hear directly from Anwar (and it’s just that Zubaida has included his words in her letter) the writing is very different. More… male, appropriately. (Anwar is a man looking for his past love who puts his search on hold when he runs out of money.) Zubaida’s words, the flow of her writing, does make up somewhat for what could be called a frustrating narrative.

And I could imagine almost every day of your childhood, because it would have been documented in films or on television – in that way, you had probably lived a deeply unremarkable life, had experiences without specificity, and that had bothered you, the way my own past grated at me. All the things that irrritated you were things that I longed for, and all the things you longed for were things I took for granted.

I want to tackle this narrative before moving forward (hopefully the above extract exudes the quality and how the narrative can be both beautiful in what it says and, to use a word from the extract, grating). Whether Zubaida is annoying is really up to you, your personality, and, likely, down to your own experience of love and heartbreak. That Anam has captured her particular tale in a very honest way is hard to dispute – I think we’ve all had times when we’ve realised we’re dwelling too much on something and need to stop discussing it, and that that doesn’t always mean we stop thinking about it – it’s just a case of whether you’re happy to spend 400 pages on it and, indeed, whether you believe in this woman, Zubaida, writing a 400 page letter of excuse and apology.

Of course without the number of pages, we wouldn’t have a novel, we’d have a pamphlet, a novella at most, so this is where the background and ship-breaking comes in.

“It’s a cruel industry. For years we’ve been working slowly, patiently with the owners. Suddenly she comes and tells us how terrible things are. A film isn’t going to change anything.”

Anam uses Zubaida to look at the end-of-life of ships, in this case a cruise ship. There is the time when the ship is created – overseas – and sets sail, multiple times – overseas – and then, when it’s deemed too old, it comes to Bangladesh where men work for little pay, breaking it into pieces to be sold on. Zubaida comes to the beach as a translator for a western reporter who is looking to make a film (and possibly press charges against the management). Through Zubaida, Anam shows the horrors of the situation – the lack of safety, the deaths, and the exposure to chemicals and other toxic ingredients the workers face. It’s a uniquely-realised story. The inclusion of Anwar’s story, in which he comes to work at a ship-breaking beach, adds to the level of detail involved.

Then there is the palaeontology. Zubaida’s passion is the study of the fossil of a walking whale – a creature that slowly evolved to live under water whilst other creatures evolved to live out of it. Her journey is set around her attempts to get access to the fossil, first overseas then through the removal and sending of the bones to America. The journey shows the conflict between work (the will to, in this case) and relationships. Anam is an anthropologist which means you get a lot of detailing, but her writer self stops it becoming too much.

Amidst this is Zubaida’s lifelong mental conflict – she was adopted, lives in a well-off family and her fiancé is rich, but she doesn’t know anything about her birth mother and starts to feel a need to know where she came from. This is where privilege and class enters, where the underlining of Zubaida’s poorer beginnings limits what there is for her to know. It’s there in the background when she begins to question, no matter what category the question comes under; her thoughts of love, duty, and Elijah are informed by her adoption. In meeting Elijah she finds herself thinking of things she’d never thought about before and quite possibly never would have otherwise, and family duty and a general lack of mental strength hold her back from taking it further. She has all this luxury in consequence of being with Rashid, she’s lucky, she shouldn’t be thinking of Elijah. But she is thinking of him.

And amidst this turmoil is a minor story – minor in how much time it takes up (it’s big in terms of real-world impact) – of war, of the effects of it and of war crimes coming to light. Zubaida’s mother has spent her years working towards justice. Her father’s work and business has been ethical. You see glimpses of the Bangladesh war.

Now the ‘twist’, if it can be called so, that you start to see when Anwar makes his entrance (because if a stranger becomes involved you know there’s got to be a connection somewhere), isn’t as predictable as you might first think. It’s quite likely you’ll guess correctly, and, yes, of course this part of the narrative could be considered a device because how likely is it that it’d all happen in real life and so on, but it’s a novel after all. The reveal is pretty satisfying – it won’t blow your socks off but it may well make up for any frustration you had been feeling due to the way Anam goes about it. Make no mistake – don’t go assuming the twist the main reason for the book. It’s not – the book is all about the journey, the writing, the history, the palaeontology, and the ship-breaking – but it does give it an extra lift.

The Bones Of Grace is a slow-paced book. There’s not really any action in it; certainly that it’s one long letter should suggest this as a possibility. It’s very much a literary book, an issues book, wherein the pleasure is in its bookish sensuality.

If you like the sound of that and if what’s heralded as good about it hits the right notes for you, it’s likely you’ll fall completely in love with it. If it doesn’t hit the right note, you’ll likely still appreciate it but it may take you a while to get through.

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Rick Yancey – The 5th Wave

Book Cover

Not the happy Mexican one.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 461
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-34583-3
First Published: 7th May 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th July 2016
Rating: 3/5

The alien ‘waves’ arrived with only ten days warning. For those ten days, a vast mother ship hovered in the sky; humanity went about life as normal, wondering if the aliens would make contact and either becoming excited or remaining indifferent to the idea. Like the other kids, sixteen-year-old Cassie continues going to school and it’s during a lesson that the lights go out, mobile phones go dead, and a plane falls from the sky. Suddenly excitement about alien contact goes silent, as silent as the waves of death the aliens begin to spread.

The 5th Wave is a Young Adult science fiction book that is an easy and often well-paced read but unfortunately suffers due to its formulaic nature and writing.

The story begins well and with much promise – this will not be your usual alien-invasion story, says Yancey, and Cassie quickly quashes her misgivings over using a gun. She will shoot if she has to. It’s all rather exciting. Get past the first section, however, and the true concept reveals itself: The 5th Wave may not be your ‘usual’ alien story (or at least not too usual) but it is your usual dystopian. After that first section wherein Cassie was a character you were fully looking forward to spending a vast number of pages with, two things happen.

First thing: Cassie’s personality changes. She meets a boy and suddenly it’s no longer a question of guns and survival and aliens outside the door (the humans have considered the possibility of infiltration) but looking nice, washing her hair… you get the idea. That Cassie falls in love in a desperate situation is understandable, but that she suddenly pushes the apocalypse to the side isn’t exactly realistic. She’s just survived tsunamis and a plague that wiped out billions, people are dead and every second counts in saving someone only she can save, but let’s have a cuddle first.

Second thing: the narrative switches to other characters. This isn’t a problem in itself, even if it does mean the book leans ever more into that formulaic territory, it’s that Yancey doesn’t tell you he’s switching and the lack of names mean it always takes a bit of time to work out who you’re reading about. The first new point of view matches Cassie’s in that the situation is one you naturally think is hers – Cassie was hurt so turning the page to read about someone being given first aid sounds like a continuation of the narrative. (I myself thought the referrals to this person as ‘he’ amounted to some sort of alien female-led society, which would’ve been rather awesome.)

Following on from this narrative change is the way Yancey goes about answering questions. He doesn’t really need to say anything, the book is entirely predictable once you’ve figured out what his plan is, but as it trickles out you see the influences – The Hunger Games, a certain vampire series, and notable bits and pieces from other books that it would spoil the ‘reveal’ to list, blended together (there’s even some sort of inner goddess spin-off going on). If you’ve read any of those books or seen the film adaptations, you won’t find anything new in this book.

Are the aliens exciting? Not really. They’re said to be very advanced but they’re conveniently limited by our technology at times. They make choices that allow Yancey to keep the story going. And there will be no epic battle with them later on in the series because of the way Yancey has constructed their civilisation.

There is one very good thing about this book and that is the atmosphere, or slight commentary, Yancey includes of political historical situations. Many other reviewers have noted the Colonial era, the British invasion of America and subsequent trampling of the Natives; I myself found a study of the Holocaust. Suffice to say there is something subtle at work where Yancey is looking at invasion, human against human, and showing how awful it is by pitting the whole of humanity together against another species. There’s no real conclusion to it here and indeed it seems more the general assumption of readers that there is this subtext (rather than an obvious sign from Yancey) but as many have seen it it’s something to bear in mind and, whatever it really is, it lifts the book above its narrative, at times giving it an air of literary fiction. It’s just that it’s not enough to keep the book above the narrative in the long run.

The 5th Wave is worth reading if you want something easy and if you’ve read other dystopian Young Adult trilogies and want more of the same (it is fun in that way – the pages fly by), but if you’re after a good alien invasion story you’ll be disappointed.

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Zelda Fitzgerald In Midnight In Paris

A screen shot from Midnight In Paris, of F Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald

Screen shot from Midnight In Paris, copyright © 2011 Warner Brothers.

I want to explore the interpretation and portrayal of Zelda in Midnight In Paris, played by Alison Pill. (I’ve previously written about the film as a whole here.) I like comparing interpretation to reality and film adaptations are in my head at the moment as I’m writing about them for a future post. Midnight In Paris, being book-led, is one that’s often in mind. This will be a bit of a ‘facts’ post.

Zelda, together with husband Scott, was an emblem of the Jazz Age. The pair are still celebrated for it, as Scott’s books have remained in print and Zelda’s work is becoming more recognised. We’re also, now, writing about her and studying her. The Zelda and Scott of the film are sociable; it’s obvious they have many friends and are part of many circles.

Zelda disliked Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway blamed her for Scott’s declining literary output. (How much we can say about this is difficult but we know they enjoyed a busy social life.) In the film, Zelda introduces Gil to Hemingway and whilst she’s perfectly polite there’s a slight coldness, an indifference. She stays for a few minutes and then wants to head out. So we’re not told about any problems between her and Hemingway but that under-the-surface atmosphere gently simmers. It’s more a suggestion – and would you notice it if you didn’t already know about her life? – but she’s not partying with him, and he seems okay, if not particularly enthused, with the idea of talking to Gil. The film’s portrayal here is one of gentle showing. The rift isn’t something to focus on.

Zelda and Scott’s marriage was plagued by drinking, affairs, and recriminations. Zelda has been portrayed in history as the victim of an overbearing husband. Diagnosed with Schizophrenia, she was increasingly confined to clinics. The film doesn’t look at any overbearing but it does look at the drinking. Zelda gets very merry and towards the end becomes suicidal. We can assume the suicide aspect here is included to show the progression of her life within that short time frame, but it does introduce us to the affairs and arguments because film Zelda, drunk, is wanting to throw herself in the river because Scott’s been seen with another woman. If anything, in the film, Zelda is shown to be overbearing; it’s not obvious that she’s mentally ill, more that she’s in anguish over her husband’s infidelity. Her fairly neutral behaviour early on isn’t linked properly because of the film’s focus on Gil.

As a child, Zelda was spoiled by her mother. Her father was strict and remote. The family was prominent, southern. Zelda liked the outdoors and enjoyed ballet. She didn’t enjoy academics so much – she was bright but didn’t like lessons. The film puts an emphasise on her regional background, her heavy accent, and there is a nod to her education when she speaks of her own work. She vastly prefers parties, it seems.

As she got older, Zelda drank, smoked, and spent time with boys. She was a leader amongst her peers, gaining an appetite for attention, for flouting social norms. Her ruin was prevented by her father’s reputation. All said, she was in a lucky situation and very privileged. What we get from the film in this case is her privilege in the literary circle; she knows many people and, if the real Zelda was like film Zelda, she was happy to share her network. Again, most of what we can tell of Zelda from the film is shown in the characterisation, direction, and in the actor’s bearing.

I was intrigued to find the interpretation of Zelda in Midnight In Paris to be pretty accurate as far as our – admittedly lacking – knowledge is concerned. (I’ll always remember my history tutor telling us to view media and documentaries made for mass consumption, when looking for evidence and opinions, but to be sceptical of the details when we didn’t know otherwise.) Midnight In Paris gets it right. The main limitation is that a film is far shorter than a life so film Zelda does a lot more things in a shorter time. The film shows the dynamics of her relationship with Scott and we could always say the film shows later stages – how problems had started to turn into troubles.

From the film we get someone who could be irrational but also intelligent, well-connected, and friendly. The film deals with the problems openly but remains respectful. You get a good picture of who the real person was.

Which portrayals of real people have you found to be quite or particularly accurate?


Wikipedia’s article on Zelda Fitzgerald, accessed May 2016


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