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Sara Taylor – The Lauras

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A common name. An uncommon story.

Publisher: William Heinemann (Random House)
Pages: 298
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-15077-7
First Published: 4th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd August 2016
Rating: 5/5

When Ma wakes Alex and says they’re leaving, it’s a surprise; Ma and Dad often argue but life goes on. Not this time – Ma has a plan, a long journey to various states, to find various Lauras, and Alex is to join her. School’s about to finish for the summer anyway and Alex is glad – it’s starting to become difficult. (If you read my review of Taylor’s last book you may remember I found summarising that difficult, too.)

The Lauras is Taylor’s second book and it features the same general excellence and talent for seeing right into things and commenting on them, as The Shore.

The Lauras centres around the road trip, the journey that holds everything together. It’s that symbolic use of a journey and the progression of time, growing into one’s self, learning how to be comfortable in your skin. Taylor’s wonderful prose, full of her own dialect, flows slowly, letting you enjoy the story and grounding you in the setting. It’s the sort of book that, if you’re not from America, sounds like it’s set in a whole other world – blisteringly hot days, southern states. Taylor says what needs to be said and nothing more. Things aren’t hidden but they aren’t overly apparent either; they simmer in the background. It’s quite like Thelma And Louise – various bits of plot scattered throughout conversation.

There’s a lack of pronouns in this book but you don’t really notice it at first. Alex is a unisex name therefore it’s really down to your experience as to which sex you imagine Alex to be. Know more men called Alex and maybe the character will be to you a teenage boy. Know more women and the reverse may happen. The use of a unisex name is intentional; throughout the book you get snippets of description – clothes, objects, things relating to the character – that question your visual of Alex.

Genderlessness – Alex is happily androgynous. As one great section towards the end shows – a scene in which a gay friend gets Alex to play dress-up – gender can be an either/or situation, a neither situation, or both at once. The great thing about this subject here – well, one of them as I’m not sure a review could deal with all of them – is that this is an excellent book for discussion. Taylor’s decision is to not tell you one way or the other about Alex. (Will you find out anyway? The point Taylor makes is that there doesn’t need to be any pigeon-holing.) You wonder and that is okay. In writing Alex, Taylor is looking at our social need to label. It’s one of the biggest, core things in society, in regards to our forming relations and emphasising with people and Taylor shows that this is understandable, as it’s been this way for a long time, whilst showing how little gender matters. And, crucially, why it doesn’t matter.

Most of this exploration happens in the subtext. Taylor is all about getting you to think for yourself and without telling you to do so, though by the end of the book the subject’s been covered in a direct manner – the author waits until you’ve had time to process your thoughts by yourself. It’s a fairly short section focused on bullying and as with everything else it’s to the point. It’s a sensitive exploration and highly accessible.

Taylor uses Alex’s coming of age in her detailing of the mother’s story, contrasting, comparing them. It’s interesting how vivid a picture of the mother you get, and Taylor’s inclination for the reader’s imagination to hold sway is active here. Your image of Ma, whatever it is, is correct.

Ma’s story unravels away from Alex’s, during it, but the two narratives get their time. And – you knew I’d get to it eventually – Ma is where the title of the book comes in. There have been various people called Laura in her life and this extract says everything you need to know:

    She’d been quiet for a while before answering, so I wasn’t sure if she was inventing a cover story, if I’d been right in guessing she’d rechristened them all to make the remembering easier, or if she was trying to determine herself why it was that so many of the women who had had a lasting impact on her were named Laura.
    “First of all,” she said, “they’re not all Laura. You’re conveniently forgetting everyone else. My girlfriend who ran off with the preacher wasn’t named Laura. Second, when we got to Florida you were complaining that every kid in school was named Jason or Brittany – it just so happens that when I was born everyone was naming their daughter ‘Laura’. And third -” she paused for a drag on her cigarette – “well. When you’re eight or nine, say, and you make your first best friend, they’re the greatest person in the world and you know that you’ll be friends forever. But one day one of you moves away and they leave a vacancy. And then you meet someone with the same name, and because you’re eight part of you thinks not exactly that they’re the same person, but they were made from the same block of clay, maybe. And you try to get the new Laura to fit into the hole the old Laura left. And when you get older it doesn’t matter that you know things don’t work like that, because your ears will be primed and your heart will beat faster at the sound of that name. It will stand out to you and make something inside you go soft, and since it stands out you’ll pay more attention to them, and if you pay more attention more often than not you wind up being friends with them, until you look back when you’re forty years old and realize that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important, and it isn’t just coincidence but the eight-year-old you trying to fill in the hole that the first Laura made.”

There’s no concrete ending, the perfect road trip never ends and you wouldn’t want to remember a regional destination. But it’s not an ambiguous ending either – things not answered aren’t necessary to know.

The Lauras is a superb book that is likely to stay with you long past the border, long after you’ve left the cheap apartment in nowhere-land. You won’t need much, just a bookmark because you won’t want to lose your place and you’re likely devour this book despite wanting to go slowly to soak it all up.

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Rachel Elliot – Whispers Through A Megaphone

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It’s no good keeping it all to yourself.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 342
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-992-91826-2
First Published: 26th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd August 2016
Rating: 4/5

Miriam hasn’t left her house for three years. All her life she’s been dealing with the effects of her mother – first as it happened as a child, then the repercussions as an adult. She’s also suffering from a worry over her ‘feral’ reaction when someone attacked her. But now she wants to leave the house. Ralph’s been married to Sadie for sixteen years but it’s not a happy marriage; there is something amiss with Sadie and she’s always on her phone. One day, thrown a birthday party he doesn’t want to have, Ralph decides to leave.

Whispers Through A Megaphone is a witty book about healing and living life with its various neurotic aspects.

Jilly Perkins was a genius. Ralph wanted to tell her this, but she hated compliments. They filled her with wind and suspicion.

Elliot’s story is one that’s based in reality with a bit of a bizarre twist that one could say has been added in part to make it easier to relate to. Beyond Miriam’s stay in her house the narratives, numerous on occasion (Elliot details a few strangers every so often, all with their own quirks), and situations are easy to relate to and because of this the humour and skewing slightly towards the extreme mean the book remains light and nice to read instead of bogged down, depressing.

Because the subjects are depressing. The abuse Miriam experienced at the hands of her mother is painful to read and something that happens a lot in our world. It’s affected Miriam to her core; there’s a constant voice in her head that she recognises as her mother’s. Miriam whispers because her mother hated hearing her and threatened her with atrocious punishments. But she’s always been aware of what’s outside her mother’s clutches – in leaving the house and meeting people she knows it’s potentially going to take some getting used to. This is what happens when a child is abused, says Elliot.

Alongside healing, regret is one of the subjects. Ralph’s wife, Sadie, has spent their marriage pushing back memories of her time at university, at the almost-relationship she had with Alison, wishing she’d done things differently, and for lack of anywhere to go, her grief has spilled into all other aspects of her life. She blogs and tweets almost compulsively, telling everyone about what’s going on at home and including things about her husband whose patients (he became a Psychoanalyst to please Sadie, who didn’t like him gardening) are following her. She has developed a crush on her best friend who is already married. She is what people would call ‘high maintenance’ – Elliot shows there’s generally a reason for neurotic personalities. The family is very normal in their dysfunction.

The writing is nice; it’s short, snippy, always to the point. There’s a lot of white space during the many dialogues because the lines are often just a few words long. The pace speeds up during some narratives, Sadie’s, for example, and then back down for Miriam, but it’s never slow. There are some tweeted sections to give you a good idea of Sadie and a brief look-back at the lives of periphery characters. The only difficulty here is when the narrative moves back in time; it’s not always easy to tell what period you’re reading about. It can also be hard not to see Ralph and Sadie with heads of white hair though they’re said to be in their 30s.

This is a book that doesn’t necessarily go the way you think it will. It has an ending of sorts but it’s far more about the exploration. It’s quite clever really, this book that’s about the absolute everyday, looking into the smallest of smallest details – it’s an ‘ah ha’ sort of book, Elliot’s keen sight for what’s behind the surface and her way of interpreting it for us. She says what we often know deep down but have trouble connecting to other aspects of our lives.

Joe Schwartz was the first guest to arrive. He was early, nervous, drenched in aftershave.
Stanley answered the door.
“You look amazing,” said Joe.
“Thanks,” said Stanley, his nose twitching. He hoped he wasn’t allergic to Joe. It was too early in their relationship for hypersensitivity, aversion, turning into his parents.

Whispers Through A Megaphone shows that one shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, that it’s in keeping quiet that regrets are formed (obviously it’s a little different in the case of abuse). It’s a lovely book that uncovers a lot in a short period of time, wading into tough waters whilst remaining something you want to go back to.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Holly Black – The Darkest Part Of The Forest

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Down in the wood where nobody… everybody goes…

Publisher: Indigo (Hachette)
Pages: 324
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-780-62174-6
First Published: 13th January 2015
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2016
Rating: 3/5

Hazel and her brother, Ben, have spent their childhoods visiting the glass casket in the forest that holds the sleeping boy with the horns – everyone has: he’s been there for generations. The teenagers love him with a passion, even whilst knowing he could be as dark as the rest of the faeries residing in Fairfold. One day the casket is found broken, the boy gone, and Hazel thinks she had something to do with it.

The Darkest Part Of The Forest is a young adult fantasy gathering together various bits and pieces from western folklore.

Unlike many books of its age range and genre, the book is set neither in our real world or faerie-land, instead straddling both. All the humans who live in Fairfold know about the fey and respect them – in order to remain at peace – and whilst there are some newcomers who don’t believe (how this can be so I’m not sure) there are plenty of tourists. Tourists who are found dead in ditches because they didn’t know the rules. It’s an interesting set-up and whilst the world-building isn’t too great it’s good enough.

Black favours the same approach to equality in faerie contexts as Malinda Lo did in 2012’s Ash. Her commentary on LGBT relationships stops on the first note that Ben likes boys. In this book, aided perhaps by faerie, love is love and needs no questioning.

It must be said the writing isn’t very good. In fact it’s quite substandard but for the most part that doesn’t matter and Black does ensure the characters sound different.

It’s the plot that matters most, and the only problem with that is that it’s a vague one. Black favours teasing out the story but goes a bit too far, neglecting to provide information when necessary for the reader to appreciate her point. I’m personally still not sure what the ending was about, who exactly Hazel was, and I haven’t a clue about the history she mentions in regards to changeling Jack. And it’s not that it’s an ambiguous ending, it’s that information just isn’t included.

This said, The Darkest Part Of The Forest has enough going for it for me to recommend you try it if it intrigues you. It’s a quick read and a good original idea, it’s just lacking in execution. A retelling of the concept of the faerie tale itself, a mash-up of ideas, and certainly not a bad way to spend an evening, there’s just nothing new in it and others have done it a lot better.

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Ben Fergusson – The Spring Of Kasper Meier

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Blow a kiss, fire a gun.

Publisher: Abacus (Little, Brown)
Pages: 386
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-349-13976-0
First Published: 15th April 2014 in translation; 17th June 2015
Date Reviewed: 15th March 2016
Rating: 3/5

In the year following the end of WWII, the rubble of ruined buildings sprawls across the streets of Berlin. Kasper, a black market trader, is not acquainted with any rubble women until one day he is stopped by one who wants him to find a pilot. She won’t say why but to Kasper it’s clear there’s some sort of underground factor to it.

The Spring Of Kasper Meier is a thriller that looks at a certain aspect of the aftermath of war. It’s categorised under the thriller genre, but doesn’t quite match it.

This is a novel wherein the vast majority of the book doesn’t do anything to recommend itself but the last 50 pages are excellent. It’s a case of the reader having no real idea as to what’s happening, and that’s not good here. There’s no suspense until those last pages start and it just feels like a lost chance. Nine out of ten times you don’t have a clue what’s happening or why you’re reading about a person and even if you manage to figure some of it out the raison d’etre will likely still evade you. It’s the lack of any clues that is the problem.

The writing doesn’t help. There’s a decided lack of commas which means clauses run together so you have to work out what the sentence is saying. Of facial expressions there are too many in each piece of dialogue – speaking then smiling then speaking then surprised then speaking and laughing, that sort of thing. All tell, no show.

The history’s good. That’s the one plus side of the telling – you get a good picture of the period. One of the themes is sexuality, in this case being gay in 40s Europe. It’s dealt with well – there’s commentary when needed but otherwise Fergusson just gets on with it. As the majority of the characters and certainly the main characters are German, there is more time spent on Kasper’s romantic history than, for example, the plight of the Jews. Women also get a look in, though mostly it’s in the form of Kasper’s friendship with Eva.

Like other recent writers of the occupation of Germany by the allied forces, Fergusson doesn’t shy from showing the realities of German life and the way that not all those in the allied forces were good. He shows the horror of it, reminding us that regular people faired the same way everywhere.

The Spring Of Kasper Meier, then, is a book of good history, but otherwise isn’t so great. If you’re able to figure out – or guess correctly – what’s happening early on, you may enjoy it more, but most will want to keep it on the to-be-read pile for a while longer.

I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.

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Sue Gee – Trio

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The healing powers of music.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 308
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63061-4
First Published: 16th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2016
Rating: 4/5

Margaret dies early in the marriage; Steven is devastated but knows he must keep going. One day his colleague at school invites him to a concert and though Steven has no knowledge of music he enjoys it, and comes to enjoy the company of his colleague’s childhood friend. His loss will always be with him but in Margot and her music he sees light ahead.

Trio is a book set in the couple of years prior to the Second World War that looks at sadness, tragedy, and the way we deal with it. A beautiful work of literary fiction, it’s full of originality and sports a lovely uniqueness.

And then the gas masks came. In every classroom, throughout the lunch hour, came the struggle to fit the things on, the coughing and heaving at the rubbery smell, the helpless laughter as the trunks were waved about; the trumpeting.
‘Look at you, Hindmarsh!’
‘Look at yourself, Potts. You look prehistoric.’
‘All right, boys, that’s enough.’

Gee’s been writing for years and it shows. Her writing style is rather like a script; the author includes description in the third person but will then switch to dialogue in a way that means you hear a lot more about the situation in a sort of faux first person. Many of the descriptions of thoughts turn out similarly. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes but it is something that everyone is likely to appreciate, at the very least. It’s a literary dialogue, at once between the author and her characters – rendering them in a realistic fashion – and also between the author and the reader, both a breaking of the fourth wall and a hiding behind it. It means that every single character who speaks – every pupil in Steven’s class who gets a mention – stays in mind as though they were all main characters.

Sadness informs most every part of this book. It’s everywhere but Gee never lets it burden the text itself, meaning that whilst this book may be triggering if you’ve recently lost a loved one, it’s not a book you’ll need to avoid for long. But whilst not burdening the text, Gee never covers up, showing how sadness carries on, lingers far longer than our speaking of it shows. In this way she demonstrates how that point wherein society says ‘okay, enough moping now’ shouldn’t be taken as wholly as we often do – everyone suffers losses and it’s okay to refer to it in the future.

There are various tragedies: Steven’s loss of Margaret, a person’s ‘loss’ of the friend they are in love with (twice over in this case), the way a rebuff of affections can lead to awful conclusions. Many of the losses are connected but few are vocalised. Gee uses a bit of mystery in order to explain certain emotions – they aren’t mysteries you need to work out as it’s pretty clear who is who and what is what, it’s that the emotions need to be hidden between the characters because of a feeling of shame or worry that is down to their situation, their relation to one another, and the time in which they are living.

The book is fantastic right up until the last couple of dozen pages. Everything ebbs along and you’re ready for the inevitable start of the war and in seeing where it takes the characters and then suddenly you’re pulled forward to our present day. There is no conclusion to Steven and his friends’ stories, instead you move on to the latter years of Steven and Margot’s son, a person you’d not met. Why this was done is not clear – presumably it was so that we could learn the outcome of everyone’s lives, but this is small compensation; the information could have been provided in an epilogue or, because there’s really only one character you ‘need’ to hear about, communicated naturally at the end.

As for the musical episodes they are mainly good, if a bit overwritten. Steven’s lack of knowledge means that Gee goes into a lot of detail, romanticising the sounds and effects of music; when it’s part of the subtext it’s glorious. The trio of the title don’t quite make the book what it is – that’s Steven’s role – but they play their part; it’s more that they’re the ones through whom people are connected.

Trio is difficult to put down. It’s a gorgeous escape back in time that for all its – needed – sadness, is gripping. The end does come out of left field but the overall product is wonderful.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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