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Helen Irene Young – The May Queen

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Women and war.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 214
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-539-99706-1
First Published: 25th April 2017
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2017
Rating: 3/5

May lives in the Cotswolds with her family, but one day Sophie leaves and life changes; May can’t shake the feeling that the boy she likes, Christopher, is the reason for Sophie’s disappearance. Deciding to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, life in London results in new friends and new tragedies, but also the potential for marriage – it’s just that May can’t quite see herself married to John while thoughts of Christopher linger in the background.

There is a lot to like about this book. Looking at World War Two from the point of view of a female member of the military, Young’s research is evident and there’s much here that isn’t often discussed in fiction at the moment. You’ll take away a few things you’ve learned but it never feels as though you’re being told too much.

The story itself is good, too. Besides the tragedies, which in view of the page count do happen quite often (besides the fatalities of war), Young presents a great little study of home life. May’s relationship with her mother is fraught by criticism and what seems to be a lack of love from mother to daughter, yet at other times Ma gives much; the effect is such that Young provides you enough to really ask yourself what is going on – it’s up to you to decide the dynamics of the relationship.

Besides this, there’s a good balance of other domestic and social points – runaway sisters and illicit affairs looked at alongside the every-day of war, basement parties, being out and about when sirens could sound at any minute.

Unfortunately there is a lack of detailing in the book. The May Queen does not have any filler sections but the writing is disjointed. The book reads as an extensive plan for a novel, so you’ll have a fair sense of what’s going on but because the scenes aren’t fleshed out enough there can be confusion. The writing is bare in the same way as the detailing.

Where do the characters stand in this? Some are mostly developed, others less so. The book shines best during the second section, set in London, where the story moves with the new location, separating May from her family and allowing you to get to know her better.

This is a good look at the Wrens and the way people lived through war, just a sparse look. It will appeal most to those wanting to read about women’s roles in the war and the way life continued throughout.

I received this book for review.

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Phillip Lewis – The Barrowfields

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A contemporary coming-of-age tale with a slice of Southern gothic.

Publisher: Sphere (Hodder)
Pages: 348
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63682-8
First Published: 7th March 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th April 2017
Rating: 5/5

Henry’s father wanted to be a writer. Growing up in a house without books in a town that didn’t value reading, he struggled, achieving a little success but ultimately not getting far, in part, by that time, due to his need to get things right. Henry himself thus grew up around thousands of books, housed in a large library in a large foreboding house. As he grows up himself, he too struggles to find success, his life marred by the disappearance of his father, other family deaths, and communication problems with his family that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

The Barrowfields is a magnificent work that reads like a great work of American literature. Lewis’s writing style is subtle, beautiful, and the book feels as though it is from another time. It’s very much literary fiction, the plot simple but full of meaning. The end result is a book that is in many ways an easy read, and for all the right reasons.

At its heart are two major elements: the effect of parental neglect and loss on children, and the wonder of literature. The effect on Henry of his father’s leaving is huge but he doesn’t often confront it directly, he can’t. Lewis’ characterisation is fantastic, the author makes you second-guess for a very long time as to the worth of the story as a whole whilst simultaneously giving you plenty of other reasons to keep reading, which has the effect, particularly by the end, of demonstrating how damaging being silent can be but also showing how it can be difficult to identify problems when you are on the outside looking in. Even though you spend the entire book in Henry’s head, you are kept back from many of his deepest thoughts – what he portrays as his deepest thoughts are often layers of disguise.

It is perhaps easier to see where parental loss has an effect (I apologise for using that word so much) in the character of Threnody, Henry’s sister with whom, as a child, he had a terrific bond. Henry is very open about his sister and as Lewis’s character development shines throughout the novel, it is through Threnody that all the hurt and pain is revealed. (Lewis’s sibling relationship here, in terms of literary bonding, is influenced by his becoming a father early in life.) Yet The Barrowfields is not a depressing book. Whilst Lewis deals with the darkness of his subject, he includes a lot of humour in his description and dialogue, enough to make you laugh out loud.

This humour brings us to the second major theme of the book – this is a book about books. About books and literary studies and grammar and the classics, even book banning and burning. The Barrowsfields is soaked in references to classic works of many genres and eras – literature is what father and son bond over, what son and daughter fill their time with, and what Henry often discusses with his friends. Harper Lee. Faulkner. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe. Marion Zimmer Bradley. References are sometimes blunt (a character asks someone if their situation isn’t straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird), others are woven into the text in such a way that the book seems at its heart a love letter to literature. Many references are made to Southern literature, matching Lewis’s setting of North Carolina. It is difficult to explain just how satisfying this novel is; it goes above and beyond many others.

The foreboding nature of the house has its place, forever towing the line between being in the background and becoming a character in its own right. It’s what situates the novel firmly in gothic territory, beckoning over another couple of classic works – Du Maurier, Brontë – but remaining almost defiantly apart from them. The plot line here is often on the back-burner but it smolders constantly until Lewis gets to the place you come to realise most makes sense to explain it. Whether or not the house has or had a direct influence on the rest of what happens is left up to you to decide; Lewis, through his characters, never says one way or another. It’s the big old dark creepy house with the residents who are used to it.

The Barrowfields sometimes takes patience, holding back much for a while, but it rewards in spades. It also takes a sudden seemingly odd turn during the middle – one of those occasions where a character joins the narrative half-way through and due to experience you wonder if it’ll work; it does so with good reason. This is very much a bildungsroman, and you learn along with Henry, at his pace. It reads as partly autobiographical, the extent of the detail, the depth of the knowledge that seeps from it.

It’s just glorious. If you want to read something classical from our present day, if you want a book about books and a skilled, careful, look at heavy themes that will nevertheless make you feel positive, this is your book. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review.

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Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

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And question society.

Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House)
Pages: 307
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75263-7
First Published: 11th July 1960
Date Reviewed: 30th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s the 1930s and Scout and Jem live with their father, Atticus, a lawyer in a small town in Alabama. Scout is just starting school and finding her way around things she doesn’t understand including subjects Jem seems to know a lot about. As she grows a little older she understands more about her father’s work and when Atticus is employed to defend a black man against a charge of rape, the family will have to deal with people heavily prejudiced against black people and the whites who support them, and Scout will come to learn about the variety of people in a country starting to move towards equality.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a semi-autobiographical novel inspired by Lee’s experience in a similar role to Scout, the child of a man in a similar role to Atticus. It’s a rather quiet book that makes its points with aplomb.

There are many fine elements in this book – the look at race, of course, but also the use of location in a way separate from that, the characterisation, and the general feel of it. It’s a book that if published today would likely be called literary fiction and it’s one that benefits from reading it considering a few viewpoints. How might it have been received if published in the day it was written? How would it have been received in its day? And what value does it have for us today? (That last one can be partly found in the answers to the other two questions.)

The plot meanders between strong, hard-to-put down chapters and easygoing scenes that in another book might make you wonder how much it was worth it – this is where the characterisation comes in. Lee’s strength in developing characters means that you want to keep reading and has that wonderful effect of making the characters feel real. This is of course likely due to the autobiographical element but beyond that it’s just pure talent; no matter how major or minor a character they are given what’s needed to make the book read as pure reality. Scout doesn’t understand much of what she hears, but Lee provides enough for the reader to comprehend it all. What’s lovely about Lee’s choice of narrator and narrative style is that you still get a complete picture of the other characters. There’s quite a bit of humour and a lot of love.

Lee’s look at racism and the burgeoning idea of equality is interesting. The book revolves around it but Lee never lets it take over the text itself – there’s the sense that she wants to make her point but in a way that means you get a positive experience alongside the bad, a good experience of the south of the time in both general life and the way many people supported black American rights, and in order to stay true to her narrator. The impact it may have today may not be as much as it would have been – this is where you need to consider the context in which it was written because as a look at what had been happening earlier in her life, the book is very powerful.

Lee incorporates various social circles into the story, mixing them together. Not too much – the book stays true to reality – but in ways that further support what she’s trying to do, such as Scout and brother Jem sitting with the reverend of the black church when in the court room – for Scout she’s sitting with friends, for the author it’s an extra show of support for the defence. (On that ‘not so much’ I’m thinking of the lack of time given to Tom Robinson directly – he says very little in the book, the focus there is more about how the white, privileged, people are helping him, which of course puts across the idea of tolerance in general and the way in which things had to change.) Lee’s fictional community includes people of many backgrounds and by the end a number of economic and social issues have been covered. Most of note, perhaps, is the story the children construct in regards to Boo Radley and the ultimate revelation of who he is, a well-crafted few segments that display childhood thoughts and kindness with a lot of heart.

The overall quality of the book is evident from early on, but it’s one that’s good to mull over because the more you consider it, the more you see.

I’m keeping this short – there’s only so long one can carry on in review form about a book that has been studied for years, especially when it’s their first read – but suffice to say To Kill A Mockingbird is a very good book.

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Tom Connolly – Men Like Air

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43488-3
First Published: 21st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th February 2017
Rating: 5/5

Finn hops on a plane from London to New York City with girlfriend Dilly, looking forward to seeing the sights but most importantly to maybe finding his older brother, Jack, who looked after him as a child. When he meets Jack, the man is coming down with the flu and Dilly decides she doesn’t want to stay in what she feels is an underwhelming place, so they move on. In due course, Finn will find himself employed at a swanky art gallery after stealing money from a location in front of it – Leo, the owner, will be impressed by his guts and the idea of having someone so unsuited to the art world in their sphere. And the man Leo used to meet for breakfast everyday, brother-in-law William, will continue being content, nay, happy, with his simple routine.

Men Like Air is a book that uses stereotypes unashamedly in order to do what it wants to do. It’s all about character and is a whole lot of fun.

The book has everything you’d expect of a good novel that’s all about characters rather than plot. Even the plot, which is mostly day-to-day (in Jack’s case, for example, for a long time this book is mostly about trying to live through the flu, a level of detailing and time provided to routine illness that Connolly is obviously adamant needs to be realistic and is a welcome change from the very brief moments of illness or just being told someone is sick that happens in other books) will disappoint if you’re expecting a good one. There is a plot but the ending is quick, sudden, and not particularly satisfying outside of its prognosis for the characters. Go into this book for plot rather than characterisation and you’ll likely not enjoy it. (You can also go into it looking for patches of bookish discussion.)

In many ways, then, the book is a parody. The quick ending sports a brief forward-flash of what will happen in a way that mimics the ending of Mansfield Park – yes, two very different books that nevertheless share something specific. The time spent on the characters, making them real, is matched by the time having a laugh and doing things that reminds you they are fictional. Connolly uses a lot of devices to good effect – the extreme personalities, the use of female characters as supporting roles, the use of a past year when the present would have been fine, scenes that don’t do much to push the narrative forward. One could say it’s literary fiction that bridges the gap – literary fiction that those who don’t like literary fiction will enjoy just as much as those who do, even more so, perhaps.

New York is shown as both a tourist destination and in its day-to-day life. Finn looks forward to seeing it and there is a brief sudden trip up the Empire State Building but other than that the tourism happens in bog standard restaurants and lesser internationally well-known places. And the tourism mainly consists of Finn walking around. It is in some ways a character itself, especially when it comes to William’s ruminations on the mornings and beauty of it, but more than that it’s Connolly’s admiration that shows through. Evie Wyld’s blurb on the front cover says it perfectly: “An epic love letter to New York City.”

Coming to the narration, then, it’s third person past tense and moves back and forth between the characters with often a mere single linked sentence – if you’re not on the ball you may have to backtrack when you realise the point of view has changed. It’s the sort of narrative choice that can come under fire but with all the comedy and intentional extremes it’s easy to view it as another carefully considered device. Connolly often details, briefly, the situation of strangers who pass by the characters, adding to the comedy, but ‘briefly’ is the word – it’s quick, stopping before the time you’d get bored of the idea of a detour.

This is, as the summary says, a book about male relationships, but for all the comedy, parody, and simple delight of the work, it can seem a subtle one. In many ways it’s a book about the self. Is it very ‘manly’? Yes, but as said above, whilst the woman support, supporting is a device. There is often a female aspect at work, for example standing up to sexism, even whilst in the first chapters the worrier know-it-all whirlwind that is Dilly may make you want to stop reading (another feeling Connolly has created and knows when to stop – he’s quite the master of this sort of storytelling).

It is difficult to say exactly why this book is so good. It moves slowly through the days (if you ever forget that there is Jack’s continuing flu to remind you), slowly through everyday routine. You feel you’re learning something or being told something without being able to pinpoint exactly what. Things that suggest it would be boring. But it’s not. It takes time but it makes you smile, it steeps you in New York without really exploring it or detailing much about it (one assumes many of the locations – restaurants, galleries – are fictional), it allows you to laugh at it as well as with it. Throughout you can see the author considering his reader and, much like he has his characters, he’s considered many different types of reader rather than the idea of a whole.

As Wyld’s blurb continues, “…bold, absorbing and very funny.” Men Like Air is a super book that needs to be read – reviews will only ever be able to go so far in explaining it. It’s a book for mornings, for lunchtimes, for evenings. A book for weekdays and weekends. There is so much to it and whilst you may wish you could have spent longer seeing where the characters went, you won’t feel at a loss.

I received this book for review.

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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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