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Claire Watts – How Do You Say Gooseberry In French?

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Soleil, piscines, et fils.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 250
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-514-37812-0
First Published: 1st July 2015
Date Reviewed: 11th August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Molly is spending her summer holidays in France with her penpal’s family. It’s lovely but Lea is a little too interested in boys so whereas Molly would rather do a variety of things, they end up at the pool almost every day. Slowly, however, Molly begins to come out of Lea’s shadow and finds friends amongst Lea’s acquaintances. And even though Lea’s got a hold on most of the boys, there may be one for Molly, too.

That feeling you get when reading The Enchanted April? Not the plot, and not the characters, but that beautiful, relaxing, peacefulness and overall atmosphere, the serenity of it? That is exactly what it feels like to read Watts’ book. How Do You Say Gooseberry In French? is the same as von Arnim’s book in spirit. It’s like a modern-day young-adult spin on the classic. It’s just gorgeous. There is a plot but it lingers in the background, humming in the flowers. There are characters and they’re important, but it’s the whole that you will take away from you. To say this is the perfect summer read isn’t an understatement. (Excuse my wintertime posting!)

Moving on to characterisation, the way Watts writes Molly is intriguing. For much of the book Molly, our narrator, talks about everyone else, it’s as though she’s peeking through the window. This is effectively correct – Molly likes being part of the group but she doesn’t really do much, she just goes along with what the somewhat selfish Lea wants to do, but she isn’t boring. The running commentary of the nuances between French and English, the use of French itself and Molly’s thoughts, carry the book along as much as Lea’s constant switching of affection. Molly’s differences to her penpal and the differences in culture enable Watts to explore various themes, which she writes as smoothly as she does everything else. Molly stays in the background without being in the background. She tells her tale, but unlike many narrators of books wherein they themselves aren’t important, she makes her own mark – passive at times, headstrong when required.

And she comes into her own. It’s a nice transformation to witness as our heroine, who might as well have been nameless at the start, takes the reigns, changing from telling the story of others to telling her own.

Days are spent lying by the pool and wandering around hill-top castles. Markets and towns and tourist spots are visited and detailed so that you can picture them yourself. Food is prepared, bakeries are visited, continental breakfast on the terrace is taken. The writing fits it all perfectly. Molly writes well for her age – it’s this rather than the feeling that the author is writing – and many readers no longer in their teens may find they relate to her well as will, I don’t doubt, many teenagers nowadays; the book is up-to-date but low on slang.

So you’re not going to rush through this book on a wave of adrenaline. It’s not like that at all. But you will keep turning the pages; it’s easy to lose track of time reading it as you tell yourself ‘just one more chapter’. You may find you finish it quickly, just as Molly’s holiday is over all too soon. There are few books like this one, especially nowadays, but that’s a good thing.

How Do You Say Gooseberry In French? is simply wonderful. It’s got everything a YA book ‘requires’ and everything for anyone else. And, well, southern France – how could you resist?

I’ve met the author.

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Amanda Craig – The Other Side Of You

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Tale as old as time.

Publisher: Abacus (Little, Brown)
Pages: 100
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-349-14172-5
First Published: 2nd February 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st February 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Will discovers his aunt has been killed in their flat, he runs away from those who did it. Leaving his estate behind he finds sanctuary in the middle of a residential square, climbing over a fence into a a garden that’s running wild. Dirty, scarred, worried and self-conscious, he begins to learn about gardening and stays hidden, pruning back the plants to bring the place to its former glory. But although he has food enough he lacks the money for other things and so he starts to venture outside the fence.

The Other Side Of You is a novella written for the charity Quick Reads. In keeping with the context and mission, the book sports simple language; it also has bigger print and a hundred pages. The idea is to produce a book that is accessible as well as good for those who want to read but may not have much time.

As you will expect, Craig’s book satisfies these well. The book fits the current recurrence in literature of fairytale retellings; the story is set in present day London with all the realities, hardships, rich spots. It leans on the basic traditional tale for its names – making it easy to see where Craig has chosen to stick as well as deviate in her retelling – as well as the message, but beyond that crafts a different story.

You have to suspend belief to read this book. Craig unapologetically nods to dreams and the almost impossible, blending difficult and achievement in interesting ways, with Will gaining something incredible at the end that in hindsight you see Craig’s workings towards it. It’s the awesome lucky happenstance she seems to say, ‘work at it and things will come’ even if your own is more realistic. Secondly, in terms of realism there is a lovely magical realism/paranormal aspect to the book where Will hears a voice that carries him on, helps him get over impossible fences and so forth that looks to a phenomenon called Third Man Syndrome.

Due to the book’s shortness character development is understandably swift but it’s good, Will beginning with a major lack of knowledge of many things and quickly picking up meanings and concepts. The other characters are devices and this works well. All focus on Will.

The Other Side Of You is a great little book. This slow reader loved it.

I received this book for review.

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Nicola Cornick – The Phantom Tree

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Those of both history and the present.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 420
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45504-7
First Published: 29th December 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Alison ran away from her abusive cousin she had no idea that opening the inn door would whisk her away from the 1500s and straight onto a 21st century street. But that it did; when her cousin, now father of her child, sends her away, she returns to the present but though she adapts well to modern life she yearns to return to her son. Meanwhile, Mary Seymour deals with continuous accusations of witchcraft and a house that doesn’t want her. And forefront in her mind is the promise she made to Alison to somehow leave word of baby Arthur.

The Phantom Tree is a time travel book in a similar vein but different voice to Cornick’s previous novel, House Of Shadows. This different voice is one of the stand-out elements – Mary Seymour’s narrative, in particular, is very different from Cornick’s previous narrator, yet the author keeps her writing itself the same. It’s an interesting element that speaks highly of Cornick’s ability to develop characters whilst not changing her style too much.

Interesting, too, is the basic plot and the way the time travel has been included. There is one particular plot point that’s very predictable – the character really should have put two and two together earlier – but other than that it’s well done. Cornick hasn’t created anything new in the way that the time travelling happens but it’s the detail that’s good, the way she’s used a well-used device and just got on with the story – with time travel used so much, there’s little need for basics.

The characters are well drawn. We aren’t given much of Alison’s first days in the present, more of a quick nod, as the focus is on her search to get back. It is easy to wonder every now and then how she could have learned so much in a fairly short time but not unbelievable considering her personality. Throughout Alison is the stronger of the two heroines, and although it is true she’s mostly a modern-day character anyway, reading about her in the past shows a person who could fit in anywhere.

In Mary Seymour’s case it’s very intriguing; Cornick has exploited the lack of knowledge we have about Mary, Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour’s daughter, and really gone to town with it, making Mary not just accused of witchcraft but actually able to see the future. Mary’s magic does contribute to an ending that some may find a bit far-fetched given our collective lack of knowledge (not far-fetched in the concept of fantasy!) and there’s something she shares with another that’s very fantastical. Thus this book goes beyond the sub-genre of time travel – it’s a full on historical fantasy with some hearty romance included.

Speaking of far-fetched, the clues left for Alison by Mary are very vague to the point that unless you trust in their relationship, and the continued significance of it despite the years apart, you may find it hard to believe. This element does stretch the imagination somewhat, though it’s more due to the way less time is spent on the sleuthing and because of the requirement for word and symbol association.

The two heroines are obviously distanced so there’s not as much room for development there as you might have hoped – this is a dual narrative that may never cross paths – but the other relationships in the book are very good. Adam, Alison’s ex-boyfriend of the modern day, is a TV historian, a role which turns out to be as excellent as you would hope in the context, and Mary gets a romance too. Cornick spends time on Alison’s search for Arthur and this thread has a very poignant ending.

There is one issue with this book as a product that unfortunately affects the reading – somewhere towards the middle the proofreading disappears. Cornick’s good writing remains throughout but the editing errors are numerous.

The Phantom Tree has a fair story, strong characterisation and great writing, and a fast pace and attention keeper even during the too-fantastical parts, but more time needed to be spent checking it over before printing.

I received this book for review.

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Samantha Sotto – Love & Gravity

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The apple sometimes falls very far from the tree.

Publisher: Ballantine (Random House)
Pages: 284
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-399-59324-6
First Published: 7th February 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

When Andrea sees a boy seemingly inside her wall whilst she plays the cello, she knows he’s real, but a resent loss in her family’s life means her explanation is not taken well. In time she starts to push the event out of her mind but one day it happens again and it’s impossible to ignore. As Andrea becomes an adult she tries to work out what’s happening and who the boy is. At the same time 400 years in the past, a young Issac Newton attempts to use science to understand the girl who he realises is from the future.

Love & Gravity is a story of time slip and travel that takes the idea of an undiscovered box of papers and crafts a bold tale from it.

Sotto has based her story on a factual person, inviting interest because her tale is fantastical and ascribes the person with a purely fictional romance. However despite the obvious implausibility of it, Sotto has surely chosen the right person for the job. Using Issac Newton works well; it’s hard to dispute the thought that Newton could have been interested in time travel, a subject of scientific interest.

And beyond the travel, as much as it may sound an oxymoron, Sotto has stuck to reality. The amount of research and the effort to get things correct is evident – though the author doesn’t info-dump. Sotto has woven all her ideas around and in between Newton’s own, always defaulting to a mathematical or scientific reason or method for what she creates. She incorporates Newton’s theories and discoveries in such a way that even a person who dislikes fantasy may be interested in the book.

The writing is at times overly descriptive. There is a lot of use of that construction wherein a reference is made to something and then the next paragraph re-describes the item in other terms – think ‘cake’ and ‘the pink sugary confection’. A few contemporary phrases have crept into the historical sections. But the writing does the job and isn’t bad at all.

The mystery surrounding the ‘postman’ could be considered predictable – there’s a good chance you’ll guess correctly immediately and there’s also a chance, no matter whether you guessed or not, that you won’t like this particular element.

But, and this is a big ‘but’, this book is very difficult to put down. The readability of it doesn’t excuse the flaws, nor will you gloss over them, but the novel is enough of a page-turner that you’ll want to keep reading regardless. Sotto has upped her time travel game – this, her second book, has a lot less going on which means that whilst a lot going on wasn’t a bad thing in the first, this new book is more refined. Suffice to say that if you like time travel novels, it’s very likely you’ll like this one.

There’s a lot of romance towards the end; at times it seems the whole atmosphere of the book might get taken over by it but this is not the case. Sotto is always aware – it’s evident as you read – that a balance must be struck between providing a satisfactory time travel experience and sticking to the concepts we as a society have come to see as important were time travel possible, namely that one shouldn’t change history, should be wary of changing themselves, should consider doing things that would have a very minor impact.

Of note is the fact that the characters may not be forever memorable – they may be, they may not be – but that it doesn’t matter. The focus here is on the fantasy, the history, the possibilities of science and the power of music, and these objectives hold the novel together and keep it going. This is a book steeped in time and cultural history and references, very aware of it, using them openly and to good effect.

It works very well.

Love & Gravity is that rare book – it may have flaws but you may well find you can forget them. Recommended? Yes!

I received this book for review.

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Zadie Smith – Swing Time

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Pa pa Americano.

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-14415-2
First Published: 15th November 2016
Date Reviewed: 21st December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Our nameless narrator has struggled through life, feeling in the shadow of her best friend – someone who often hates her – being uncomfortable living with a mother who, in trying to better herself, has always pressured her daughter to be someone she’s not, and working for a performer who has many demands and idealised projects. She recounts her days in these contexts and in the context of song and dance, two things that have always had their place in her life.

Swing Time is a book with a lot of promise and at times sensational writing that unfortunately doesn’t achieve much.

Smith’s writing is wonderful. She has a lot to say – though, as many have noted, too much at once this time around (the book could have done with being trimmed in the subjects department) – and in general she says it very well. Situations and characters, both good and bad, leap off the page; everything feels very real. She’s opted again for familiar settings and thoughts but she does it so well it really doesn’t matter.

In regards to that ‘in general’, there are some occasions where the writing misses the mark in ways it didn’t in Smith’s previous, NW, that look directly to current trends. Phrases needlessly hyphenated – ‘brand-new’ – and descriptions that are exactly the same as what everyone else is using right now – ‘gunmetal grey sky’ – that suggest editorial input rather than the original words. But Smith’s style is so winsome you can’t help but carry on reading.

Because this book is a page turner. The page count is daunting but Smith knows when enough is enough, using short chapters when it fits, and expanding the sections later on as the book gets to the weightier subjects. It’s a case of if you’ve liked her before you will most certainly enjoy this book no matter the flaws.

Smith hasn’t really covered any new ground with her many subjects but they remain interesting. Race is explored – being black and being mixed-race in the 1980s and beyond, the differences as time goes on. Class is explored – the narrator and her friend Tracey were born and bred on a run-down council estate and the narrator’s mother is working to often extreme lengths to prove that she’s better than that. (As such, childhood emotional and psychological problems and abuse is explored, the lectures hammered into the narrator about her ‘no good’ friend, as well as the emotional and physical abuse meted out to Tracey by her father.) The problem we have wherein famous white people go out to Africa to ‘help’ – this is something that we’re really starting to acknowledge now so whilst Smith’s text is timely she is unfortunately only regurgitating what we already know, and it’s really down to the individual reader as to whether that’s okay or not. (Smith does go a fair way here, first exploring the problem of idealisation, ‘let’s go build a school for girls because that will help… and we’ll completely neglect to look at what the residents actually need right now, including the fact the girls can’t go to school because their parents need help with the crops’. Then she looks at the absurdity of publicity that makes the western celebrity look beloved in that country whereas all the people following her vehicle are doing so because it’s a novelty. And so on – it’s regurgitation but it’s on point, ending with an exploration of money and overseas adoption.) And she looks at jealousy and the effects of childhood on mentality, personality. Of those with power and those without.

Our nameless narrator seems to have been used in order to shine a light on every other character, because the woman herself is unremarkable. She rarely has anything positive to say but then again she has had a lot of pushback – being in her head all the time it can be difficult to see when her personal problems are due to her negativity and when they are due to people putting her down, though there is a lot to be said for her childhood. But, yes, the light this allows Smith to shine on everyone else is excellent. We get to explore the impact of Tracey’s early life and choices on her growing up in a way that often provides a commentary – much more subtle than the comments about celebrity and ‘Africa’ (that’s another point, that which country is chosen is irrelevant, it’s just got to be ‘African’). Smith shows well, in the way that your thoughts of Tracey will move back and forth between pity, like, and dislike, these effects. The plight of the narrator’s mother too – her lecturing her daughter on politics, on how Tracey is below her because she, the mother, is trying to be a politician, is working on a degree when everyone else is ‘happy’ to remain where they are; her tireless work to be somebody – shows both the effects of selfishness on children and also the difficulties of social mobility. Through the mixed-race and ‘African’ characters – Smith doesn’t often repeat the name of the place celebrity Aimee makes her school, which may be a point in itself – Smith shows disparities, issues of identity, the differences in perspective, and again, that celebrity focus comes back in the form of appropriation of both culture and individual people.

‘And the dance and music?’ you may ask, ‘the swing time of the title?’ There is commentary on it, in particularly the difficulties of black Americans to gain stage and screen space, and included in this is a whole heap of information and references that have been largely skipped over by western history – this book is a resource. However, the inference of the title that this will be a book about dance is, as you will have noted by the fact I’m only just writing about it now after reams of other subjects, wrong. This book minors in dance.

On these topics it must be said the book is not at all linear. It’s not quite experimental but the narrative does dart all over the place and it can take a few lines to get your bearings each chapter because both time and location are mixed up. Why Smith chose to structure the book in this way is not clear – it does allow the subjects to be dealt with in blocks but by their very nature they are not completely confined by these blocks.

So a problem with this particular output from Smith is that she’s chosen a character who may have experienced a lot but never looks at things in a different way, never really attempts to change things, instead going along with what others tell her to do, and whilst that’s not an issue per se, it is an issue when you’ve 453 pages to spend on it with no real conclusion. The story never goes anywhere, meaning that the ending, if it can be called so, is incredibly unsatisfying. You may have enjoyed the book on the whole immensely, but the end is so incredibly disappointing that when it arrives you may feel that your previously fairly fun reading experience was for nought.

It is difficult to recommend Swing Time outright but it is equally difficult to say that this book isn’t worth reading. If the experience of reading it is of merit – as a prime example let’s use the release date of mid November, assume you got it around that time and then read it beside the Christmas tree (it’s perfect for that) – then it passes with full colours. (‘Passing’ is another subject looked at, and I know I’m going all over the place with my paragraphs; it should give you an idea of how it is to read this book!) If writing, then it’s pretty great, you will most likely be swept up by this book and find it hard to put down. If story, look elsewhere. Characters are somewhere in between.

It’s best to look at what is important to you and then combine that with the overall atmosphere, which is pretty awesome. For here I will say it’s worth a read and to really enjoy it whilst you’re deep into it because the ending is disappointing but isn’t quite bad enough to warrant it not being read.

And if that’s confusing, well, welcome to Swing Time.

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