For better or for worse.
Publisher: John Murray
First Published: 25th June 2002
Date Reviewed: 19th October 2014
This is Meloy’s first collection of short stories, each confined to a scene or two and centred on emotion and the individual.
Half In Love is a short book that contains some magnificent stories and some average stories which, whilst not being in the same league as the author’s later work, do house that specialness that is unique to her.
Meloy is an expert at characterisation, pulling you into the character’s lives from the first moment; this is exactly what happens in these stories. A handful of pages long, and with Meloy’s writing style remaining as sparse as ever, you don’t expect the sheer amount of ‘pull’ there is to these stories. It’s as though an entire novel has passed before you, the stories being at once so in depth you feel you know everything there is to know about the characters whilst at the same time not being long enough. The characters practically leap off the page and it’s almost as though the lack of details as to who they are – hair colour, build, and so forth – lends the reader a freedom to truly know them. It doesn’t matter who these people are beyond the one specific subject Meloy is concentrating on. You know them.
There are a few stand outs. Four Lean Hounds, CA. 1976 presents the awful moment a man discovers his wife has been unfaithful with his now dead best friend. The way it is revealed to him is both subtle and obvious. It’s an excellent piece. Native Sandstone is pretty average by itself but the meaning in it, of wanting to keep to traditional, the status quo, for no real reason, is something to think on. Ranch Girl shows what happens when you let a bad situation control your life, as does, in a different way, Garrison Junction which is interesting in part because the author goes back to the characters in another tale. And then there’s Aqua Boulevard – quite chilling, really – and The Last Of The White Slaves – which doesn’t focus on exactly what you might think.
There are some stories that seem not to be so thought out, with less meaning to them, and so you do find yourself coming down from the literary high on occasion. That said, doubtless which stories work will differ per reader.
Sporting less tight a theme than the later collection, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Like It, you could be forgiven for thinking that Half In Love will not be as good. But if anything it is likely to appeal to more people and could well be said to be better in general.
And given that Half In Love was Meloy’s début, that’s not bad at all.
Write what you know, having made people tell you about themselves.
Publisher: Pushkin Press
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 16th October 2014
Ella Amanda Milana, owner of lovely curved lips and defective ovaries, is a substitute literature and language teacher in Rabbit Back. Whilst the town boasts many writers, only nine have ever made it to Laura White’s Literature Society – but now Ella has been invited to join as the tenth member. Little is known of White, but everyone reads her children’s books. Little is known of the society but the writers are now famous. Nothing is known about the strange goings on in the library wherein the content of books is being changed.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a novel in a similar vein, atmospherically, to The Night Circus and The Snow Child and given its complexity, bizarreness, and otherworldliness, comparisons work best when trying to describe it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it works, much as it’s difficult to say anything definite about Laura White, but it just does. It’s all rather brilliant. The writing isn’t so brilliant, but as it is a translation one can’t really consider the writing the way they would normally.
There are many elements in this book, many themes, and most answers you have to decide upon for yourself, making the story ripe for discussion. It’s dark, the sort of dark that deliberately tries to hide itself and is all the more dark for it.
It’s probably best to start with what is apparent from the start – this is a book about books, about writing. It is a book for readers in that specific sense, in fact it could be said that the entire book is a plan for a book, for many books. You could in theory, ironically, take ideas from this book for your own, and I would say that this is one of the points. Jääskeläinen looks at the different concepts, the writing process, with a certain honesty than is nevertheless soaked in the strange fantasy world he has constructed. It is thus somewhat satirical.
The author turns the notion of writing what you know on its head. The writers of the Society, these geniuses identified as children, get all their ideas from the other members. A crucial part of the novel is The Game, a somewhat sadistic ritual in which each member may ‘challenge’ another, instructing them to answer a question about themselves or something they likely know about with complete honesty. To spill, as they put it, for fodder for the other’s next book.
So here we are with these ‘geniuses’ who seem to lack inspiration, ideas, and possibly the talent to even form the words. The questions ‘what is talent? What is special?’ are asked on a constant basis. Similar are questions of plagiarism and the extent to which a person should be allowed to write about what they hear. Jääskeläinen cleverly looks at his discussions from various angles, rather as his characters literally look at angles, pulling you along and back and then leaving you to laugh, or to be shocked at where he ends up. What does all of it mean? Are the authors really lacking in their own ideas? Where do ideas come from? And is there a point at which placing people on pedestals, seeing them as untouchable by our inferior selves becomes ridiculous?
And what of children, these young people who White writes for, whom the characters in turn give birth to for the sake of their partners, have but do not love, are incapable of having? Children in general form a large part of the book as Jääskeläinen studies the idea of children from an adult’s viewpoint, a particular viewpoint that conflicts with the wholesome way we are supposed to look at it. It makes you feel sympathetic, it makes you cringe and feel bad for the fictional children, and it makes you think. Detached from the usual emotions that surround the idea of having children, this book really makes you think and it’s really quite uncomfortable.
The theme of the infested, plague-ridden books continues throughout. You are completely on your own for this one, for it is never formally answered. It just continues, words keep being jumbled, stories are changed, and therefore books are burned. A version of a book should never buck the trend of the previous, it should always be the same.
Can you like anyone in Rabbit Back? Similarly to the characters themselves you may find someone you like for a short while before you inevitably end up sitting at a different table. But this book is not about liking people or getting on, and it’s safe to say that Jääskeläinen is using them as much as anyone else. In the hierarchy the author is surely top dog and that is a big part of what makes the book a crack in the fourth wall.
Is it all a metaphor for ideas and writing, a metaphor for story creation and difference? What’s real? See for yourself.
You won’t get any answers, perhaps there aren’t any. But you will have a fantastic few hours studying this book.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
So, it’s Saturday and I’m hoping to get a lot of reading and cheering done. I’ll be updating this post throughout the day and, as you know, I intend to begin earlier than the official starting time. I’ve scheduled this post a short time before waking so that those of you who subscribe via email receive the link to it.
10am: 3 hours before the official start time
Ready to read. I think I’m just going to pick up Maile Meloy’s Half In Love, one of the books I included in yesterday’s photo, because it’s short (short stories, actually), and I’ve dipped into it many times without reading it completely, so I think I should use today to try and read it from start to finish. I’m hoping to have it finished before the official start time as I would like to cheer for longer than I’m signed up for.
Saying this in advance, I’ve turned off comment moderation today (I usually have it set to send any new-to-my-blog emails to moderation) so there may be some spam on various posts. Good luck to everyone who is reading today!
1pm: the first hour
I’m about 40 pages from the end of my first book and getting ready to cheer. Haven’t had lunch but will eat in a bit. Reading: Half In Love
4pm: 4th hour
Had lunch, spent a while cheering, finished the book. Thinking of starting Shields Of Pride next.
9:30pm: 9th hour
I’ve cheered, I’ve had dinner, and I’m on page 68 of Davina Blake’s Past Encounters. As much as I love Elizabeth Chadwick, her book wasn’t appealing to me at that moment. Starting Blake’s book, which I was thinking of leaving because my review’s not due until December, I was hooked from the first chapter. Enjoying it very much at the moment. Now I’m off to make a coffee, cheer a little more, and then carry on reading for a couple of hours. Reading: Past Encounters
12:30am: 13th hour
- What are you reading right now?: Past Encounters by Davina Blake
- How many books have you read so far? 1
- What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? More of the one I’m currently reading
- Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those? Parents wanting to chat – it was very early on so it was okay
- What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far? The number of people, it’s awesome! As for personally, I’m surprised I’ve managed to read a fair amount given I’m enjoying cheering so much
If I’m going to take part in the last few hours tomorrow, I had best get some sleep. I’m over a quarter of the way through my current book and loving it. Reading: Past Encounters
9:30am: 17th hour
Back, reading, cheerleading. Went to sleep at 2am in the end so have read a fair amount. Reading: Past Encounters, 152/428 pages
12:30pm: 24th hour
Spent the last couple of hours reading, now back for a last bit of cheerleading before the end. Reading: Past Encounters, 225/428 pages
- Which hour was most daunting for you? 13th. 2am here and I had to finally stop for the night. Daunting because I worried I’d sleep in too late the next morning!
- Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? I think any high-rated book would be good, Hunger Games for instance.
- Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? Everything’s been so organised and well done, so no.
- What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? The organisation has been excellent.
- How many books did you read? One and a half, around 400 pages.
- What were the names of the books you read? Half In Love and Past Encounters
- Which book did you enjoy most? Past Encounters, really loving it.
- Which did you enjoy least? No choice here, really, with only two books, though I didn’t enjoy Half In Love all that much.
- If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? Know that there’s a lot to do but that it’s a lot of fun; make ample time to cheer because often you’ll have people on your team starting to read later so you have to check back.
- How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? Very, and both roles – reading and cheerleading.
I almost missed the Readathon. Having not been on Twitter much recently and having been away from the blog, I forgot all about it. But I’ve now signed up and am hoping I’ll be more successful than last time when I fell ill at just the wrong moment.
I’ve signed up to be a cheerleader, too, and for the first time. I’ve often wanted to cheer but never knew if I’d be able to uphold the bargain. This time I reckon I will and as I spent so long commenting last time it made sense to make it ‘official’. I’m excited to see how it all works and to be given a formal list.
I don’t have any definite choices for what to read, only a short list of possibilities, including the books in the photo. I actually really like the idea of choosing one long book as suggested here, however as a slow reader it would double the amount of the I’ve-not-read-much feeling.
So yes, I’m looking forward to tomorrow, I’m going to start early as I have previously, and I’ll hopefully get a book read.
Are you joining in?
Time may change, but there will always be that person in a similar situation.
First Published: 1st August 2014
Date Reviewed: 14th October 2014
Nick won’t give up, so Grace agrees – an otherwise usual day as a property historian/gallery assistant is changed when Grace accepts the energetic Nick’s proposal that they work together on his commission to discover whether a Victorian architect designed for the Great Exhibition. Grace’s life is ruled by her partner (bed and work) Oliver, and she’s done a good job of pretending she’s happy for nine years, but Nick’s offer, whilst overwhelming, piques her interest. Little is known of Lucas Royde’s career before he became famous, but that might just be about to change.
The Crystal Cage is a dual-plot novel that studies the art world and history but later takes a long look at the expectations people have of each other, especially those less well-off (in all ways), than themselves, to good effect.
None of the characters are likeable, however whether or not they are supposed to be is not obviously stated and so it would be fair to say that if you go into the book knowing that this is the case, you are likely to finish it more content than someone who goes in expecting happiness and romance. Be not ye fooled by the name of the publisher, there is little real romance here and, given the subjects, it is all the better for it.
Lucas, for example, is assuming and takes jealousy to an extreme level. A subtle, non-violent level, but one all the same. The man who is quite obviously in lust rather than love hates his rival from the word ‘go’ with scant reason and it can be hard to feel anything for him when he puts himself in such an awkward and socially unexceptionable position with little behind it that the reader can understand. His ‘romance’ is an interesting one, however, in part because of the way the author does not include any details from the point of view of the woman. Indeed the book would have been too long if she had been given a voice and so it may simply be that she was left out for no literary reason, so to speak, but nevertheless the effect is intriguing. You don’t hear a word from Alessia except through Lucas and therefore it is easy to believe that perhaps she is less in love with him than Lucas thinks, she is certainly more desperate and less powerful than Lucas can comprehend. Their story may be sad, and it may be true as much as the fiction can be, but what is left out ensures that there is a further link in the main social theme.
This theme is of control, the expectations I have stated above. Grace became Oliver’s partner in every sense of the word, but it was/is a case of what Oliver says, goes. He was the lifeline she needed – the security, the job, perhaps even the man in a sexual sense – as long as she was at his beck and call. It is somewhat a spoiler to say this, so you may want to move on to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know too much, but the theme continues somewhat with Nick. Bounding, get-up-and-go Nick, whom Grace likens to Tigger. Whereas Oliver’s persona may have been obvious from the start, at least it would have been if Grace had been less in need, Nick allows the author to show how control can come in different forms. Similarly Alessia is controlled by her reported love for Lucas, and by her husband. It’s interesting to compare the two situations because the contemporary version may hit harder, being closer to home than the Victorian period. But of course both are equally damning.
This all sounds very good, and it is, but this theme consumes the end rather than the main section of the book. The book is overwritten. It’s wordy, flowery, and rather repetitive, with ideas being repeated mere pages after they have already been stated. There is also an element of prolonged angst to it that can be difficult to read. The insistence by Lucas that he’s in love when the reader can see that it is pure lust makes the story difficult to continue.
Nick and Grace are rude. They literally run away from people who had made time for them as soon as they, Nick and Grace, realise the person doesn’t have much information for them. They are well-matched in their lack of tact and in their attitudes to others. Lucas is jealous, as said, hateful of too many, and assumes too much.
The mystery has many, many dead ends, and these are convenient, a way to keep the story going. After a couple of these occasions wherein a search looks promising but is then fruitless, it becomes too predictable and the meetings and searches boring. Then, later, this turns 180 degrees when ideas about Royde appear out of the blue with no ‘evidence’ (for Royde is fictional) behind them. Grace makes guesses that are correct, but they are too much of an assumption without the information the reader has been privy to.
Lastly there are a few names and places that invite confusion, and areas that, other than the filler content, could have used more editing.
Yet the history itself is appealing and there is enough factual information for the interested reader to jump from it into their own research. And the ending itself is highly appropriate and rather excellent. Allingham shows all the worries and backtracking of someone in a difficult situation but writes the ending that you could say is expected. She doesn’t make sweeping changes or include roses on doorsteps – she gives you the realistic truth and has her character remain strong. And she shows that backwards can often be a step forward.
Granted the history works best for the themes of control and independence and less so for the romance. It could be argued that the book would have been better without the Victorian romance, and certainly Grace’s story of discovery is more compelling, but the theme itself makes it all worth it in the end.
The Crystal Cage as a title is exactly what it seems to be, just as relationships often are not. It takes time and yes, effort, to get there, but the book is recommended.
I received this book for review from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.