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Sara Taylor – The Shore

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Broad horizons. Land’s end.

Publisher: William Heinemann (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-434-02309-7
First Published: 19th March 2015
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2014
Rating: 5/5

Chloe’s glad to hear Cabel’s dead. He tried to hurt her sister. The girls live with their Dad in a small house; they aren’t as well off as their ancestors. But the ancestors didn’t have great lives either.

It’s easier to carry on the summary in this way: The book sports a ‘fractured narrative’ (a term Taylor uses herself), a style in which the author looks at one person’s life as a short story, then looks at one of their relatives, and so on so that you end up zipping from the twentieth century back to the nineteenth and into the future, learning about the various branches of the same family tree. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

The Shore is a fantastic book. From the first chapter – the first story – it pulls you in and whilst there are dips every now and then it soon draws you back, yes, not unlike the tide.

Taylor’s writing is lovely. She uses a variety of persons and tenses, ensuring each story is different, and whilst every chapter boasts its inevitable literary style, the characters are varied. The world building is naturally limited in space – most of the book is set in the same place – but unlimited in scope. Taylor aptly describes her settings but there’s space to put your own mark on it; much of the beauty of this book is in its potential for numerous visuals. (And for the most part it doesn’t matter how you see the setting as although there is history in the book, other genres are more important, for example, fantasy.) What’s not so varied are the themes; this is part of the book’s concept. Underlying almost every one are a few particular ideas: to have or not to have children, to do what is right or not, to drink or not to drink, to stay or not to stay – the same basic themes run throughout.

Most poignant of these is surely the question of children. It’s a question that isn’t in every single story – some of the chapters are about children themselves so it wouldn’t be appropriate – but individual agency and the right to choose, most particularly in the sense that throughout history women have had that mother, home-maker role to play, are very important to the text. A lot of the women in this book are happy to have children, but many of them are not so keen. The second group are most often victims of abuse. You also have a few members of the family tree who know how to use herbs to prevent pregnancies and the stories surrounding them are full of neighbours coming to their door for help. It’s a study of choice, the ability or not to choose, the extremes of either choice, and history.

Always in the background, or in the foreground, abuse. It’s often the same characters who happen to feature, whether in person or in reference, and one in particular who has an affect on a number of people. The Shore can be hard to read on occasion; Taylor doesn’t shy away from telling the details. And the cycle continues; Taylor shows the classic concept of traits, decisions, in this case abuse, passing down the family tree however in this case it’s not quite the stereotype – it misses generations, it comes in from another branch, and so forth.

The book presents itself as your average nostalgic read, one of those books that is quite comfortable in its telling if not its content, the sort of book about American life that can draw non-Americans to it due to the setting being so different. There’s a hint of magic in this book, there are paranormal elements, and there’s some science fiction. It’s these three elements that stop the book from dipping too far (in the way I suggested earlier) because there comes a point where everything starts to come together, when things you didn’t know you needed to know about, things you didn’t know anything about, all get twisted up into that very satisfying literary notion, that feeling that causes the recently coined phrase ‘you guys, this book!’ Taylor doesn’t just deliver a gratifying literary experience, she delivers a gratifying literary experience with bonus points. And she plays with the concept of religion in an interesting way.

There are a few houses in this book, but two are more important than the others. These houses are as much characters in their own right as Manderley and are a further factor that unites the already tangled family members. The houses keep the family grounded in their history; they couldn’t leave forever even if they wanted to.

The Shore is exceptional. It’s written well, it’s planned well, it’s executed well – it’s everything well. It’s a subtle thrill that bowls you over mentally, intellectually, without requiring you jump up and down about it, though you surely will.

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

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Jo Walton – Among Others

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A book about books and fairies.

Publisher: Corsair (Tor)
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-10653-7
First Published: 18th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Mori can see and talk to fairies. With her twin gone and her mother out to get her, too, she runs away and ends up living with her absent father and his sisters. Sent off to a prestigious boarding school, she’s out of place but finds solace in the library. She’ll try to stop her mother gaining power if she can and will read the entirety of the library’s science fiction section in the interim.

Among Others falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism. A book about books, it’s mostly the thoughts of a reader with a bit of spell-casting thrown in.

Something that’s intriguing to discuss is the way Walton deals with magic in this book – it could be argued there is no magic. What exactly is magic, after all? The reader does not see much of Mori’s mother and there are no incantations or blood bindings – such things are spoken of but never really shown. This is not to say there is no magic as such, more that it could be argued the magic is the magic of nature – Mori finding comfort in nature and in her imagination. This is what makes the book fall between fantasy and magical realism. Whether it’s magic in the typical sense of the word is down to the reader’s own interpretation.

And that is a wonderful thing. That Among Others can be interpreted in various ways makes it special. When Mori speaks of adults having power over her are they really casting spells or is it her fear of the unknown, of these relatives who are strangers to her? Her mother is unsafe to be around – the authorities wouldn’t have sent her to her father if Mori were dreaming it – but is this mother actually a witch or is it more of a metaphor? Is Mori using the idea of magic to cope with abuse? In the time span of the book, a year or so (barring a glimpse of the past), Mori gains knowledge of sexual desire and has her first boyfriend. She also grows as a person, very much so, and another section that could be viewed as a metaphor concerns the last time Mori deals with her sister, and her grief.

I’d like to talk about the scene concerning Mori’s father – the person Mori has obviously taken her ‘reading genes’ from. The potential abuse is never mentioned again – Mori wipes over it but not in a way that suggests she needs to in order to cope with it, more that she does not, or did not, understand what was happening. Mori seems not to see the issue with it and never speaks of it again. As a reader you can see the issue with it, the potential for the book to take on a different tone; it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But then Walton makes you question what you’ve read, whether accidentally (and, if so, this should have been rectified) or on purpose – Mori’s not phased by it and comes to enjoy her father’s company, as a meeting of equals if not as father and daughter, and whilst you are only ever in Mori’s head, nothing further happens or is asked. I don’t think one could say that the suggestion that Daniel is interested in his daughter is wrong, but certainly you’re challenged by it.

Another thing to love is the way Walton deals with Mori’s acquired disability. It’s always there but never takes over the plot; a good depiction of disability that states the pain and then lets Mori’s personality shine through.

So this is a book about books. It’s the diary of a reader, a list of what she’s reading with commentary. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And in a way it is; particularly for those who read science fiction and fantasy, Among Others is like coming home. References to classic science fiction abound (the book is set between 1979-1980). (This means that those who don’t read science fiction are less likely to understand the references, however it’s the sheer passion and the intellectual literary conversation that Walton emphasises, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch every nuance.) In a way, however, it’s an issue – you are essentially reading the naval-gazing diary of a teenager who thinks she knows it all. A very ‘today I did this… and this…’ diary.

Now this isn’t so bad by itself, even if it is a bit boring sometimes to read about someone reading and doing little else – the problem is the name-dropping. This book reads as an attempt to gain love, it’s the written version of Walton putting her hand up and saying ‘author I love, notice me!’ Mori, or, as could be asserted given Walton’s age and preferences, Walton herself, gushes profusely about Ursula Le Guin (who incidentally blurbed the book, making this a nice cushy circle) and various other authors, most of whom are still around today and thus liable to read Walton’s love letter. It’s very much as though Walton has written this book to get noticed so she can get in with her idols and it’s all very cliquey and doesn’t feel very welcoming – because it’s not really. This book is for authors.

This is where the magic – be it stereotypical or not – gets let down. Pages about books and then, oh yes, I forgot, this is meant to be about magic, must add it in… and now I can get back to talking about myself and my love of science fiction. The book is very low on plot, the characters are fairly well developed but evidently not important (a great pity considering some of the content), and really all there is to take away – all you are given to take away – is a long list of books you should be reading. The ending, whilst powerful in its way, showing strength, doesn’t solve the puzzles Mori unwittingly sets for the reader.

Among Others will remind you why you seek out book clubs, festivals, and literary conversation. If you know the work of those referenced well, you’ll likely get more from it but on the whole a proper memoir about someone’s reading life and a straight out fantasy book would be better choices.

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Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife

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Lions and tigers and bears… and war and legends.

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion)
Pages: 336
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-297-85901-7
First Published: 1st January 2010
Date Reviewed: 19th June 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Natalia is off to vaccinate children at risk. In a country torn literally apart by war, help is needed. As she and her friend get to grips with their location, she muses on her grandfather, his life, and the tales he told her.

The Tiger’s Wife is a many-layered book. Good but with vague purpose, it is enjoyable but decidedly average.

The main problem where lack of success is concerned is the way Obreht chooses to write her story. The natural choice of main character was the grandfather but instead Obreht opts to tell the story through his granddaughter. It shows – Natalia is severely underdeveloped. There is no reason to care about her, nor anyone else. Everyone is forgettable.

This way of telling a story, through someone else, may work at times – Lockwood and Nelly in Wuthering Heights are fine, as is Wells’ time traveller speaking of the past – but in those cases there is a basic disconnect, a sub-textual acknowledgement that the narrator is just a device. In The Tiger’s Wife, whilst Obreht may see Natalia as a storyteller, she also includes enough about the woman herself to suggest she wants us to relate to her, to warrant detailing her life. Granted, Natalia is a device through which Obreht also teaches us about the Yugoslav wars and life at the time, likely chosen to bring about a similar affect as a memoir might have, but it doesn’t quite work.

The other problem is more opinion – some readers may find the book too vague. You are left to work out Obreht’s point by yourself; Obreht actually says near the end that she isn’t going to tell you what it was about. The problem is, it can feel like you’re grasping at straws. Suffice to say it could be argued the book was written to fill gaps, to provide a taste, to be beautiful.

And it is beautiful. Obreht’s writing is stunning. There are too many details but the style, structure, words, linger in your mind. It’s typical to describe a good début as not being like a début – this is an apt description of The Tiger’s Wife.

The social and political information is telling. Obreht leaves no stone unturned – she wants to inform readers about the division of Yugoslavia and that’s what she does. She weaves in diversity, showing the different cultures and how to some people the difference mattered, how to others it did not. She is incredibly candid about the way children can be, adults can be, when they are on the cusp of something big but not quite there – the way war can be appropriated to satisfy selfish and bad behaviour.

Those first sixteen months of wartime held almost no reality, and this made them incredible, irresistible, because the fact that something terrible was happening elsewhere, and at the same time to us, gave us room to get away with anarchy. Never mind that, three hundred miles away, girls sitting in bomb shelters were getting their periods at the age of seven. In the City, we weren’t just affected by the war, we were entitled to our affection. When your parents said get your ass to school, it was all right to say, there’s a war on, and go down to the riverbank instead. When they caught you sneaking into the house at three in the morning, your hair reeking of smoke, the fact that there was a war on prevented them from staving your head in. When they heard from neighbors that your friends had been spotted doing a hundred and twenty on the Boulevard with you hanging none too elegantly out the sunroof, they couldn’t argue with there’s a war on, we might all die anyway They felt responsible, and we all took advantage of their guilt because we didn’t know any better.

Obreht explains without trying to apologise, she explains to show what division, what war, can do, how it can change people.

The book is heavily influenced by folklore and The Jungle Book – Kipling’s original rather than Disney’s adaptation. Through these she explores social and cultural problems, domestic violence, the way people will see what they want to see, take from a situation only what aligns with their thoughts. This folklore is where the magical realism comes into play, the story of a man who cannot die and the titular story of a woman who befriends a tiger, scandalising a village that cannot understand it.

This is a book best read away from food. Natalia is a doctor and Obreht describes training in detail. She also has a fascination with the physical affects of sinus problems which are relayed without notice and may put you off your lunch.

The Tiger’s Wife is far from bad but there is an air of ‘written for acclaim’ about it, which was of course realised when it won the Orange Prize. It can teach you a lot but it’s not particularly well-paced and keeps its secrets beyond the last page.

Read it if you will but don’t put it above others on your list.

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Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

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He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 424
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-25089-0
First Published: 3rd July 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2015
Rating: 2.5/5

It’s 1686 and Nella moves to the home of her new husband in Amsterdam. She expects happiness but instead receives a frosty reception – she’s not particularly wanted, her sister-in-law is clearly mistress of the house, the servants seem too big for their boots, and her husband makes no move to consummate the marriage. Instead of the life she thought she would have, Nella finds herself living in a mystery and this only increases further when her husband buys her a miniature of their house and the creator she assigns to complete it appears to know an uncanny amount about the family.

The Miniaturist is a book that could have been amazing but is sadly held back by a lack of focus, poor writing, and a decisive gap between the characters and the readers.

Burton seems to have chosen the 1600s to gain the attention of history lovers. The book could have been set at some other time at no cost, and the characters do not at all conform to the time period. By this I do not mean the way they defy convention – indeed servants on a par with their masters is not unbelievable – more it’s the way Burton wields power that is an issue. As an example, Nella has a fit over something most of her era would naturally have a fit about, before doing an about turn and completely changing her opinion within hours, emulating views of the present day.

Is Nella confident or nervous? Burton cannot decide. One moment her character is close to being obnoxious, the next she’s a delicate flower who will not speak a word. She leaves the house without question one day, then stays in her room and lets people make all the decisions for her the next. It is clear that Nella is a device – this is a plot-driven novel – but there is nothing to hang on to, so to speak. Burton hasn’t made up her mind and wants both worlds.

The characters never come into their own. You’re never given a reason to care about them; they are distant from the first page to the last. A lot of this is down to the way the author chose to write her story – the particular way she uses the present tense, third person narration, does not allow the reader to feel they are at all close to what’s happening. Instead there’s the sense Burton realised, at some point, that she should have been writing in the first person but didn’t want to rewrite what she already had. Nella does lots of thinking and imagining when dialogue would work better. Everything is too detailed, info-dump is common.

Much of the issue is that The Miniaturist is full of drama. Full of drama to a melodramatic, unnecessary degree. As the book progresses it reads ever more like a prose version of a theatrical production, the problem being that theatre has to be expressive to reach the audience at the back of the room but a book by its very nature has no requirement for it. Disaster follows disaster to a silly level and social issues are packed in like sardines.

As said, this book is not very well written. Whilst modern language is natural – a book in old English would be difficult to read – very modern slang and colloquialisms pull you out of the story. Burton moves between ‘oldy-worldy’ English grammar, modern English grammar, and American grammar, making for dialogue that doesn’t ring true. (The characters may be from Amsterdam, but they would not have peppered their language with Spanish grammar, for example.)

Lastly, it must be said questions are not answered. The question of the miniaturist is never answered. There is a half answer that spells out who they are in terms of background, but you never learn the mystery nor do you ever really meet the miniaturist. The question of what will happen to these characters now they are in a bad position is completely forgotten.

The Miniaturist is strictly okay. Read it if you will, but don’t pass up the chance to read another book for this one.

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Mikhail Elizarov – The Librarian

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Taking fandom a little too far.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 408
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27027-0
First Published: 2007 in Russian; 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 7th March 2015
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Russian
Original title: Библиотекарь (Bibliotyekar) (Librarian)
Translated by: Andrew Bromfield

In the mid 1900s, a man called Gromov writes several books that don’t do particularly well and are thus forgotten. As time moves on, however, various readers start to find an inherent value in his work. They form ‘libraries’ of people and these libraries often fight to the death to obtain original copies (the only copies worth bothering about) and supremacy. Alexei finds himself in this world; due to his uncle’s death he was looking to sell an apartment and was accosted by these ‘readers’. They want him to be their leader.

The Librarian is a somewhat ambiguous book that looks at obsession, power, and the Soviet Union in a darkly humorous satirical manner. Heavy on gore and strict in its dealings, the content presents a rather unique premise to study.

Elizarov takes the basic idea of literary interest and runs with it. The ‘readers’, as they call themselves, are in essence fans who have taken their loyalty too far. Elizarov essentially looks at the way people find meaning in books and heightens the effect, giving the books power to change readers’ lives. Of course there is always the unanswered question: did Gromov know about this effect? (And did he plan the effect to happen?) This is cause for some of the humour because Elizarov provides extracts from the texts for your perusal and these extracts are undeniably dull. Whilst it is never studied, there is reason to believe that Gromov’s work is truly mundane to the extent that it means Elizarov’s characters are stereotypical fanboys and fangirls. Essentially, we’re looking at the extremely dedicated side of fandom here, the people who find meanings no one else would, and whilst Elizarov isn’t laughing at this concept itself, the way it is placed on those of older generations makes it easier to accept.

So, whether ‘true’ or not, these people are finding power in Gromov’s books. Regular people who work in factories; mothers and daughters; old ladies in nursing homes. The various books when read in one sitting with rapt attention instil inhuman strength, dominance of mind, incredible happiness, beautiful (if unreal) memories and so forth. A lot of the humour can be found in the first section of the book, which reads like a factual report and details the sudden coming to power of a group of elderly women who break through the ward doors, kill all the staff, and take over the building.

This book is very, very violent. Elizarov doesn’t shy from the details, presenting battles in all their graphic detail. And much of the book is about battles, which means it can be hard going. This said, it’s difficult to become numbed to the violence here, as it can be in other books (The Hunger Games comes to mind). You may find it repetitive after a while, but the battles are all as horrific as the first and you never get used to it.

There is a lot of commentary here about the Soviet Union. I can’t pretend to know a lot about this slice of history and it’s fair to say you may feel as though you’ve missed something if it’s not a period you’re particularly familiar with, however considering everything I’ve said above it should be noted that there is enough to ‘get’ in this book that doesn’t depend on knowledge. The basic ideas are obvious and aspects like false memories can be viewed as possible propaganda.

In view of knowledge, however, the writing must be examined. Be it due to the original prose or simply the decisions of the translator, The Librarian is rather dry. It can be difficult to read and unfortunately the eloquence and rather exceptional language doesn’t help. It’s fair to say some of the points and subtlety are lost in the words and where the plot is composed mainly of battles this is more prominent than it could have been otherwise. There is also the fact that many of the characters are referred to by both their full names (and patronymic) and a pet name, and then also a ‘comrade’ name and additional pet names; it’s more confusing than your average Russian novel may be. This, coupled with the constant usage of full names and a basic lack of characterisation (this is very much a plot/meaning-driven novel) takes the issue further. The translation comes with a great many proofreading errors, enough that it does impact the reading.

The book changes its focus towards the end, and this is where most of the ambiguity kicks in. There are a fair number of possibilities but you may still be surprised where it ends up. It could be argued that it finishes without finishing, forever loitering on the borders of an ending, however this is part of the point and something to take heed of when you come to sort through your thoughts. Much can be said: should we consider Alexei the author of the book? Have Alexei’s dreams come true, albeit in a roundabout way? What is Elizarov suggesting by the intimation that all these books can be read one after the other?

The Librarian is an exceptional example of hidden meanings and messages; making the reader work it out doesn’t get much stronger than this. It is dull, writing wise, and it is graphic, and it is absolutely, incredibly, bonkers, but it is also a very good book.

Unique and fascinating, be careful not to let yourself be too enthralled by The Librarian; you never know how much the cost of such a love may be.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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