September Book Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Everything, Everything follows the story of a young girl named Maddie who, due to complex health issues, is unable to go outside. This means her visitors are few and far between and she is entirely confined to her house. She’s seen the comings and goings of neighbours in the house next door – they move in, they move out – but when Ollie and his family move in, something is noticeably different. As first love blossoms between them, the formerly rigid walls of Maddie’s existence start to blur and she finds herself contemplating things she never imagined. A whirlwind of events sends Maddie’s world spiralling through tumultuous changes that might just change her life forever.

This book is something else. It’s one of those novels that you just know is going to leave a lasting impression. It’s a masterpiece which effortlessly combines witty humour with intriguing characters and ground-breaking plot twists to leave the reader reeling. In short, it’s the perfect read.

It speaks volumes that the first details we are given are Maddie’s medical notes. Her identity revolves around her condition and it’s the first thing we learn about her as a character. It’s shaped who she has become but I love that, as the novel progresses, she doesn’t allow her condition to define her. It takes a struggle, but a big part of the narrative is Maddie’s search to discover who she is without her illness, and that makes for a very compelling read.

Mothering is an important theme in the novel, explored through two very different female characters. Maddie’s mother (who is also Maddie’s doctor) is often cold and clinical without meaning to be, and it becomes clear why as the narrative unfolds. Then there’s Carla, the warm, caring maternal figure to whom Maddie confesses her real feelings. Maddie confesses that she feels more comfortable talking to Carla because she doesn’t want to make her mother sad. As Carla’s backstory is revealed, we discover that she fled Mexico and left her family, believing she wouldn’t survive. Having experienced such difficulties, she’s able to better understand Maddie’s need to really live instead of simply leading a safe existence that isn’t really living at all. I found these two characters really interesting. On the one hand, I pitied Maddie’s mother, particularly when the big plot twist hits at the end of the book (I won’t spoil…), but I also felt a strong sense of betrayal for Maddie. Given her predicament and the emotional strain put on her after losing her husband and son, her actions are understandable, but still incredibly damaging.

I thoroughly enjoyed following the progression of Ollie and Maddie’s relationship throughout the book, anticipating their next encounter with the turn of every page. In particular, I found Yoon’s description of their bodies intriguing. Ollie is constantly in motion while Maddie is Zen and still, thinking and observing a world that doesn’t include her. With a simple sentence, she captures this beautifully: ‘His body is his escape from the world, whereas I’m trapped in mine’. Two opposite entities, almost at odds yet inescapably drawn to the other. Ollie, who has experienced physical and emotional abuse from his father is restless and, perhaps on a physical level, always ready to dodge some advance. Maddie, contained in her home, unable to physically leave, has retreated into her body, has become a very thoughtful character, with no use for constant movement because it doesn’t get her anywhere. There are some truly beautiful ideas in the book, like the chapter on skin. Yoon explores the idea that some cells renew while some don’t; we change the upper layers of our skin every two weeks while some don’t renew at all and that’s what ages us. ‘We can have immortality or the memory of touch. But we can’t have both.’ This is why I love literature. So many ideas that are so beautiful and complex and unimaginable; some are too big to wrap your mind around and plenty remind you how wonderful the world is. Yoon ties that in to her narrative, giving the novel an existential tone which is thought-provoking and entertaining in the same breath.

Among the banter and witticism that allows Yoon to maintain a light-hearted tone throughout, there are definitive moments in the book which carry a significantly darker undertone. The unfolding abuse inflicted by Ollie’s father next door is certainly one of them. I also thought Zach (Olly’s friend) was a key addition to the narrative, a kind of wake-up call – a reality check – a way of grounding the story in relevant contemporary issues. Zach is gay and wants to be a Rockstar – two things his parents absolutely loathe – so he pretends to be someone he’s not while his parents remain ignorant (or choose to ignore) how damaging this is to their son. This isn’t just a story about a sick girl falling in love with a boy. This is a story about the dark side to life; the ugly, the marginalised, the unspoken. Zach pinpoints the issue perfectly: ‘Maybe growing up means disappointing the people we love’. The adults in this book undoubtedly fail their children, regardless of intention. Maddie’s mother causes a lot of emotional damage for her daughter, Ollie’s dad is physically abusive to his family, and Zach’s parents force him to create a version of himself that is socially acceptable. This speaks to the emotional damage often inflicted on millennials and young people by a society that is often set in its ways and unwilling to welcome change.

The short chapters make the novel very easy to get through and also give it a scrapbook-feel thanks to the little drawings and document inserts. The episodic nature of the book makes it feel like you’re paging through a collage of Maddie’s life, filled with her whims, her musings, her observations as you flicked through snippets taken directly from her diary. I found some of them as erratic as the thoughts that flit through the human mind, and that was such an interesting way to consume a piece of literature.

To conclude, Everything, Everything is the first book I have EVER completed in a single day. If that doesn’t convince you to read it, I don’t know what will.

 

October Book Review: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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August Book Review: Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith by Shaun Hume

This novel follows the adventures of a young boy by the name of Ewan Pendle as he struggles to find his place in the world. As an unexpected twist turns his life on its head, Ewan begins to discover a place where he might just belong after all, with friends like Mathilde and Enid that he can count on. Between monstrous white wraiths, a possible betrayal inside the walls of his new home, and a training regime that threatens to break Ewan’s spirits, this is a heart-warming coming-of-age story with plenty of creativity to keep things interesting.

With moments that made me happily reminiscent of the Harry Potter series – the idea of a trio at the helm of a narrative woven with excitement, mystery, suspense, and a little comedy, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith fits neatly into the kind of fiction all children love to grow up with. It’s the kind of tale to fuel imaginations which, I think we can all agree, is one of literature’s superpowers.

I enjoyed that the story started in media res, thrusting readers into the midst of the action without having to wait to be eased into this fictional world. Sometimes a narrative of this genre can take a while to unfold, but I didn’t find that here. Despite the fantasy element, there are some genuinely human themes that help to make the narrative more believable and authentic. Underneath all the fantastical details, at the centre of it all, this is a story about a foster child wondering why he isn’t good enough – why no family wants to keep him and love him as their own son. As a protagonist, Ewan has a kind of childish innocence which endeared me to him.

A lot of mature themes find their way into the narrative, and this is something which has always fascinated me about children’s fiction. Despite the young audience these stories often appeal to, adult themes are always prevalent. There’s something wonderful about that because it’s almost like a hidden meaning that you can come to discover later on when you’re older and wiser, even though you believed that you’d already extracted all the meaning from the story the first time around. I feel like this book offers that; there’s a possibility to return to the story to find that it holds new meaning every time you read it.

The idea of a world existing parallel to our own has always intrigued me and I think it makes a good premise for any story. A world that can include anything – where anything can happen and we can be anything we want to be – that’s always going to be a thrilling concept. Especially when that world is filled with creatures and swords and things altogether not of our world. That’s part of what makes this book so entertaining. There are so many good ideas that are really imaginative, like the brainic lamps at school…but I won’t say any more; you’ll have to read the book to find out what they do!

With the three main characters, I really liked that they were all outsiders but also very strong. Enid and Mathilde are both feisty characters and exactly the kind of female role models young girls need to see reflected in literature today. They’re not just in there for decoration or to pad out the narrative, Ewan really needs these girls to help him along the way, just as they need his friendship.

All in all, the book has good pacing. There’s always something happening, and the reader is given certain chapters solely dedicated to revealing snippets of a character’s back story. I liked the addition of mystery and the unanswered questions which are purposely left unresolved as a teaser for the sequel which may just follow. If we do get another instalment, I look forward to reading about Ewan’s journey to embrace his own identity and start to value himself more as a young man who may have had to stifle his yearning for affection, but now no longer has to. When you think about it, the emotional damage endured by orphans and foster children is really heart-breaking, but in amongst all that, this story is funny and quirky and filled with plenty to delight the imagination. It’s a really good balance of reality and fantasy, enough to leave you thinking about the fate of the characters while picturing the world in your head.

 

If you fancy taking a look for yourself, you can get your hands on a copy right here: http://a.co/hwnPDVX

 

September Book Review: Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

 

July Book Review: The 5th Wave series by Rick Yancey

*There is a film adaptation of the first book starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Alex Roe, and Nick Robinson. It was released in 2016 and there were speculations about a sequel making it to the big screen, but nothing has been confirmed (I suspect because the film may not have made enough money at the box office).

 

The 5th Wave is about a teenage girl named Cassie who finds her world invaded by aliens known as The Others, and must fight to save herself and her family as five waves of invasions ensue. The first wave: no power. The second wave: a swell of natural disasters. The third wave: a deadly plague. The fourth wave: Silencers – the Others assassinating survivors. The fifth, they have yet to figure out. In a world of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness, Cassie strives to hold on to her humanity and save her little brother, Sam. Along the way she has to figure out who she can trust, if anyone is even left.

I read these novels a couple of years ago now, and enjoyed them enormously, which is why I decided they were worthy of a review. The way Rick writes kind of reminds me of John Green – the way he crafts such beautiful sentences and has such a wonderful rapport with language.

…‘The Hum of all our things and all of us. Gone. This is the sound of the Earth before we conquered it. Sometimes in my tent, late at night, I think I can hear the stars scraping against the sky.’…

It’s enough to make anyone jealous.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this series was that I went into it expecting a conventional end-of-the-world story, and I got so much more than that. Yes, Cassie’s world is ending, and yes, her family is in danger and she’s terrified. But the only way I can describe this story is that it’s unapologetically human. It throws all our faults and discrepancies right at us. It calls us hypocrites and shows us everything we’re still doing to cause damage to the Earth. It shows us just how selfish we are. And yet it gives us hope. One of the things Cassie struggles with the most is her loneliness and her fear of losing her humanity. As she scours a deserted gas station one day, she ends up shooting a man out of fear that he’s about to shoot her. From that moment on she carries around the guilt of what she did, and begins to question what the invasion is really doing to the humans left. And then she puzzles it out: How do you rid the world of humans? You rid the humans of their humanity. Fear turns people into impulsive kill-or-be-killed creatures, and Cassie fights against letting them succeed with her. Sam is the thing she clings to throughout the novel, and I think he’s the reason she doesn’t crumble because of her actions. The thought of fighting for her brother is what makes her put one foot in front of the other each day.

Something Rick handles really well in the series is the idea of corrupting a generation. Sam, along with Ben and so many other surviving children find themselves being trained up as soldiers to fight the Others, and in the process, are robbed of their childhood innocence. Sam’s transformation throughout the series is, arguably, one of the greatest, but also one of the most unnerving. He’s been hardened by his military training and acts out against Cassie, gradually distancing himself from her. I found this loss of innocence a really intriguing part of the narrative. In a dying world, the remaining humans have no qualms in corrupting younger generations if it means their survival, and I think this really speaks to the way we as a species often sacrifice things in pursuit of bigger goals. Arguably, the children are the only people left to fight the invasion, but still, there’s something troubling about the way Sam changes. Perhaps is speaks volumes about the way our world today expects children to grow up too quickly.

I was slightly disappointed by the ending to the series. As an eternal optimist, I had hoped that Cassie and Evan would have the happy ending they deserved just as Ringer and Zombie do, but I also (annoyingly) understood why not. Even though he proved himself to the humans, Evan was still part of the invasion, and had to make up for that by sacrificing himself to destroy the ship. But still. I found his and Cassie’s relationship heart-breaking and heart-warming and frustrating, and it was honestly one of the reasons why I finished the series so quickly. I like that they didn’t have a perfect relationship. Instead it was filled with betrayal and confusion and uncertainty and resentment and compassion. It was a real relationship, and it didn’t feel like the typical star-crossed lovers tales I think we’ve all grown so accustomed to.

As a protagonist, I found Cassie to be quite grumpy, for which she obviously had a very good reason. She’s heroic – not because she was born brave or selfless – but because she’s afraid and uncertain and guilt-ridden, and despite all of this, she still gets back up and keeps fighting. She has a very strong sense of loyalty, to her family but also to the survivors, and she’s really well grounded. I found I could picture her quite clearly in my mind because she seemed so ordinary like the rest of us, so I suppose that’s why I liked her so much; a good protagonist always makes you feel like you could be them or know them.

Most of all, I loved the philosophical aspect of the series. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be me? What does it mean to love? I love all these big, unanswerable questions, and I love it when writers weave them seamlessly into their narratives. It helps to give clarity to this thing we call life, and it also helps to keep the narrative grounded in the midst of an alien invasion. Rick has a wonderful way of fashioning scrumptious sentences, complex characters, a genius plot, and a series of life questions in a stunning series of novels that I have already re-read several times.

I don’t think I have to give a recommendation for these books. They sell themselves.

 

August Book Review: Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith by Shaun Hume

June Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

After You follows the story of Louisa Clarke as she copes with losing Will, battling with grief, loneliness, and a sense that she’s living a life that doesn’t feel like her own. After the tumultuous events of Me Before You, Jojo Moyes takes her readers on a journey through the aftermath of grief, weaving a great tale of love, loss, and healing.

In tone and subject matter, this sequel couldn’t be more different from the first instalment. One of the reasons I enjoyed Jojo’s first novel so much, was because it was so up-beat and light-hearted, despite the serious issues dealt with in its pages. With the arrival of the sequel, comes a notably darker quality, as the reader is plunged into Louisa’s grief-riddled life. It really is fantastically-written, and despite the sadness that almost saturates the narrative, there are still moments of humour which offer a kind of throw-back to the first novel.

Jojo really highlights the worst parts of experiencing grief. Louisa misses the purpose that Will gave her; she misses their daily routines and ends up feeling like she’s living someone else’s life. At the end of Me Before You, Will tells Louisa in his letter, Just live. It was a such a lovely sentiment, but in the sequel, Jojo actually tackles the reality of fulfilling his wish. How do you go on living after losing someone you love? What meaning does life carry? Louisa harbours a lot of anger, and ends up drifting. She travels. She returns to England. She sleeps with a couple of strangers. She ends up living in a flat and working at an airport, waiting to regain a sense of purpose. This is the ugly side of grief that no one tells you about. And if there’s anything Jojo’s good at, it’s making people talk about, and look at things head-on, because that’s the only way you can acknowledge the issue itself.

I also found it interesting that Louisa felt she had to move away from home because of the implications of Will’s decision to take his own life at Dignitas. The legal side of euthanasia isn’t always something we hear a lot about, but through the course of this novel, we discover that Camilla had to step down from her long-established career as a Judge, and even Bernard and Josie, Lou’s parents, suffered in their personal lives and stopped going out to avoid the gossip. I think it really speaks volumes about the implications of stirring idle chit-chat, the ripple effects, the way it ruins people’s lives. But the situation also means that Louisa is part of a minority, and this affords her a different kind of perspective of media. The news and the papers all have their own take on the events which led to Will’s passing, and it makes Louisa wonder what else the news stories don’t say – the hidden truths behind the articles. How many other people are judged wrongly like she’s been judged? Again, Jojo highlights an important issue about the way we invest in media; the way media sways us to one way of thinking and eliminates any room for subjectivity. The media objectifies individuals, turning them into stories – commodities – instead of humans with emotions and feelings and reasons for what they may have done or experienced.

The fact that Louisa moves to the city – to London – is very significant. The city grants her anonymity; allows her to make herself small. The city space is so vast, and yet so isolation and confining, unlike her village life back home in Stortford with its curtain-twitchers and gossips. Louisa is unable to share her real story – even at a circle for grief. She feels like a fraud and gives Will a fake name so that she at least has something to share with the rest of the circle. I don’t think it’s in any way a coincidence that Louisa is denied the right to grieve, because I think there’s a bigger message at play here. Society only hears what it wants to hear, and it’s symbolic that the only people who eventually listen to Louisa’s story, are the other people who are grieving in the circle. When she finally breaks down and tells them everything because she can’t carry the truth by herself anymore, their initial reaction is shock, but they’re also surprisingly supportive. This little circle of grieving individuals are marginalised from society because of their grief. In fact, it’s highlighted in the novel when they discuss how those around you seem to think it’s acceptable to grieve only for a certain amount of time before you’re expected to be better and get on with life. I think with the recent rise in conversation around mental health, Jojo highlights the need for more sensitivity when it comes to a person’s emotional state. Sometimes people cannot simply ‘be better’; sometimes healing takes time – takes set-backs and struggles, and even then they never get back to the person they were. Grief changes you.

Among the other bombshells that are dropped in this novel, I really enjoyed reading about Josie’s character arc. In the first book, she was the archetypal British mother-figure: never sitting still, doing all the housework, and never really taking any time for herself. Through the course of the novel, Will’s influence trickles down into her life too. The way he encouraged Lou to better herself gets Josie thinking, and she begins to nosy at Treena’s university texts. She discovers theories of sexism and feminism and female oppression and joins a poetry club. She stops shaving her legs and her armpits and refuses to do all the cooking and housework. It felt good to hear her rant during Grandad’s birthday party. It kind of felt like she was saying it on behalf of women everywhere. But despite the funny moments, I was also glad that it was kind of serious. Josie is just one example of how women often limit themselves in life, and when she begins to branch out and try to better herself, her husband feels threatened by that. Not for selfish reasons, but because he’s scared of losing her. He doesn’t want his wife to outgrow him and find that their relationship no longer means to her what it means to him. I think this, too, is a really important message. Female progression doesn’t equate to male regression. Just because a woman wants to improve herself academically or emotionally isn’t a threat to the men in her life; it simply means that she understands she deserves more in life and wants to reach her own potential. I’m so glad that Josie went through this in the novel, because I feel like it’s so important to tell women that they deserve whatever life they want, whether that’s to be a housewife, a career-driven individual, or even just someone who branches out and loves to learn in their spare time. Also, that’s it’s never too late to start.

The introduction of Will’s daughter was a jaw-drop-moment, and I have to admit that I found her very frustrating and wanted to yell at her a couple of times for taking advantage of Louisa and for smoking in the flat, but in the end, after discovering what she’d been through, I developed a kind of fondness for her.

I also hated Richard. I hated his new way of doing business – the corporate suit hired to tighten the reigns. The threat about having time off. Her no longer having the time (or the approval) to have a little banter with customers and chat with them over the bar. Too. Much. Pressure. Definitely says a lot about the strain of today’s workplace and corporate greed.

This book was a whole lot to take in. The emotion. The action. The horror. The relief. The heartbreak. I could go on. I was dubious that Jojo would be able to match the success of Me Before You, mostly because, how could she write another story without Will in it? But he was in it, just in a different way. He was imprinted upon the lives of the people he left behind, and his memory was everywhere, and that kind of made it okay. Sam and Lily and the Moving On Circle – they were all welcome additions to Louisa’s world, and even though the grief was heavy to read about, it was so worth it. This book was exactly the closure all Jojo’s readers needed; it was the perfect way to end Lou’s story, and it was also the perfect reminder that grief is manageable. Sometimes it might be unbearable, but it is manageable.

 

July Book Review: The 5th Wave series (including #2 The Infinite Sea and #3 The Last Star) by Rick Yancey

May Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I first discovered Will and Lou’s story from watching the 2016 blockbuster starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin. I feel like this is often a source of resentment among fans of any book which has been given an adaptation on the big screen, but given that I probably wouldn’t have read the book if it hadn’t been for the film, I would say that’s a pretty narrow view of the situation.

This story has a big and unapologetic heart which works well in both mediums. Most of all, I enjoyed that it felt like a real story instead of a pretentious one, as romance novels sadly often do (though that’s in no way a detrimental thing, apparently, since I watch them all the time).

Me Before You follows the story of Louisa Clarke, an eccentric, optimistic young woman, as she struggles with unemployment, living in a pretty crowded home with her family, and a secret from her past that she’s carried for too long. When a local caring position crops up, she decides to try her hand at it, only to thrust herself into a situation she could never have foreseen. Lou’s life becomes a whirlwind of emotions, deep sadness, controversy, but most importantly, love.

First off, I like that the Will’s quadriplegia is dealt with in a no-frills kind of way. Shameless jokes, hard truths, and seriously near-the-bone jokes act as a kind of icebreaker into Will’s disability, and I think that might be a contributing factor to the book’s obvious success. Jojo doesn’t tiptoe around the issue, instead she just shoves it in our faces, saying simply: he’s a quad. There is a funny side if you allow there to be one. Deal with it. Will is so self-deprecating and sarcastic about his own situation that, after the first initial discomfort, the jokes just become sort of natural. It’s really refreshing because this is a much-needed step towards deconstructing the stigma around disability, and humour is clearly the best way to get that conversation started.

While this novel is so clearly about acceptance and love and human resilience, it’s also about the much simpler things in life that we all experience at one time or another. Louisa has grown up on a council estate, like many British people do, and with that comes the inevitable hardships of low incomes and unemployment. Me Before You reflects on the wider impacts of a recession, which is certainly relevant since we’re still seeing its effects in today’s economy.

Both Lou and her dad go through a period of unemployment in the book, and for each of them, it’s degrading – even depressing. For the young generation that Lou represents, it’s hard because of a lack of skills and experience, and for the mature generations, it’s hard because, in Lou’s dad’s case, he’s only ever had one job and he’s much older in a society that’s often looking for fresh, young minds. It’s all very ironic – Lou can’t get a job because she has little experience, and her dad can’t get a job because he’s got too much experience. It certainly emulates the vicious circle of job hunting that I’ve experienced.

More than anything, I found Treena’s love of learning to be one of the things I connected with the most.  At one point, she admits: ‘I’m really desperate to use my brain again. Doing the flowers is doing my head in. I want to learn. I want to improve myself.’ Throughout the novel, the two sisters battle with their torn loyalty to their family, themselves, and each other. They both feel that they have a certain responsibility to contribute to the family’s living costs, but there’s also a kind of understanding that one of them could – and should – go and spread their wings while the other stays home and does their bit to help the family. I found this really interesting because that’s actually really true. In England, it often works out that one sibling moves away and flourishes while the other stays home and settles for a quiet life close to the family home. I’ve never really considered it before, but Jojo highlights a pretty important aspect of life here. While it’s important to look after family and help out where you can, there shouldn’t be any kind of barrier to young people going off to better themselves in the big wide world. And there shouldn’t be this stigma that there’s only room for one of the children to grow away from the family. Treena, much like me, loves learning, and knows exactly what she needs to do with her life for it to be a fulfilling one – both for her and for Thomas. But it takes Lou a little longer to realise this, and I guess that’s another important message to take away from the book. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to figure out what you want or what you need to do with your life, just as long as you don’t give up. This story is really about the real ups and downs of family life. Two sisters falling out over who should have the bigger room and who should stay at home to help mum and dad pay the bills. Two sisters sharing sisterly moments and secrets they don’t feel they can burden their parents with. Real life.

When it comes to Will and Lou’s relationship, I think it’s an important distinction that they both challenge one another equally. The book highlights the reality that, in society, people often assume that physical disability involves mental disability, and this is one of the things that Will resents more than anything because it leads everyone around him to think they know what’s best for him. So, when Lou accepts that this, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth, that’s when she begins to find it much easier to work with him. From that point onwards, they develop a natural respect for one another, and are able to interact on an equal footing intellectually. Will challenges her to broaden her horizons, encouraging her to read newspapers and books she would never have read before, to watch films with subtitles and start questioning what her future could hold instead of merely settling for what she already has. And in return, Lou challenges him to live again – to go out and do things. Essentially, to give life another chance. And I think it works for them both. Even if just for a short space of time. In fact, Louisa grows so much (in a metaphorical sense), that she literally outgrows her box room, and cannot stand the thought of moving back into it once she’s moved into Treena’s room because it makes her feel so claustrophobic.

Many current and incredibly relevant topics surface throughout the novel – from the threat of Lou’s dad’s redundancy, to the transformation of the library to include more technology than books. From working with Will, she begins to notice just how inaccessible our world is for wheelchair users, and how insensitive people are when it comes to disabled individuals. But she also gets to see just how much people are not alone because of technology and because of disabilities when she discovers the online community of quadriplegics. She comes across so many differing opinions about euthanasia – all of them passionate – and begins to realise the sheer scale of this debate in modern society. As her time with Will increases, and her understanding of his situation begins to grow, it becomes more about seeing past her own views of potential suicide as being wrong, and more about understanding, for Will’s sake, what his life if like and how she might be able to help improve it. I think it’s ironic that despite all the things she organises for Will to try and change his mind, in the end, the one thing that works the best, is, quite simply, her company. Despite all the other things she organised for him – the horse racing, the orchestra, the holiday – the one thing that improves his quality of life, even just for a little while, is the fact that Louisa spends time with him. I can’t help seeing that as a vital message for readers to take away from this book. Despite the fact that we might not understand someone’s disability, that it might even scare us, and that we might be afraid of offending or appearing to pity them, the one thing we can do to help is to give our time to people like Will. To listen to the individual’s voice instead of the disability.

But just as Will and his family have their own demons to battle, Louisa, too, has a secret she has to face head-on. I found it quite upsetting to read what happened to Louisa all those years before, but it did make a lot of things drop into place when the big reveal finally came. Through Lou’s character, Jojo explores the effects of rape, and the way that, in Lou’s case, it makes victims retreat into themselves, to make themselves small and insignificant. Lou stopped being extravagant and confident and started covering herself up, blaming herself for encouraging the attention of the men in the first place. She stopped believing in herself, and limited herself to the small borders of her town, not bothering to stretch her horizons and plan a future for herself. Instead, she made herself small, and importantly, only harmed herself more in the process.

I like that we get to see the situation from different perspectives throughout the book, since Jojo gives us a handful of chapters from different characters. Camilla. Steven. Nathan. Towards the end of the book, I think it was much more effective for readers to experience Lou’s grief through Treena’s eyes, since it represents the way Lou becomes closed-off (quite literally closed-off from the reader), because grief is a very private, very isolating experience. Jojo has constructed a very careful, very thoughtful narrative, and one that I really enjoyed reading.

I think Jojo deals with a lot in this novel. A lot of things that need saying and need to be discussed, but aren’t always easy to say out loud. And she threads them deeply into the narrative in a way that combines comedic value with hope and despair and grief and laughter. It’s a very difficult thing to achieve, but Jojo nails it absolutely, and gives us something to read as well as allowing us to take away a lot of very important things. An absolute must read.

 

June Book Review: The 5th Wave Trilogy by Rick Yancey

April Book Review: Demelza by Winston Graham

*There is a BBC adaptation of this series starring Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson. Seasons 1 and 2 have already aired, Season 3 is currently being filmed.

 

Winston Graham’s Demelza sees the return of the characters we grew to love in the first instalment of this series. Now married, Ross and Demelza find themselves enduring the ups and downs of married life. Amid the newness of starting a family, Ross is still fighting for the miner’s rights and attempting to keep his own mine prospering during a time of great poverty and dwindling mines. As his wife, Demelza continues to seek out her new place in society, striving to better herself rather than embarrass both her and Ross, and now their child, Julia, with her unladylike behaviour. In her efforts to secure the happiness of a close friend, she sets plans in motion which could destroy Ross’s trust in her, ruin their marriage beyond compare, and create a rift between Ross and his family at Trenwith.

This book has so much more happening in it when compared with the first novel. There are more elements of danger, and tensions run high as Demelza begins to overstep her boundaries. But the storyline surrounding the new relationship between Mark Daniel and Keren Smith is, I think, what provides the novel with a notably darker tone. There are plenty of small but effective moments of foreboding which inevitably create that feeling of anticipation, and once again Winston’s description is notably on-point. Take this chapter opening, for example:

‘It was an easterly sky, and as they reached Falmouth the sun was setting like a Chinese lantern, swollen and crimson and monstrous and decorated with ridges of curly cloud. The town was a grey smudge climbing the edge of the bay.’

Winston’s words have a way of transporting the reader directly into the heart of Cornwall and all its pastel beauty. But it isn’t just the landscapes. The description is often in the detail, for example (and – prior warning – I am about to reveal a major spoiler), during the moments following Keren’s death. The broken moonflower laying on the threshold, still damp and fresh, but soon to fade, a beautiful metaphor. The way the sun falls into the cottage, illuminating the sanded floor which is scuffed with the marks from their shoes during the struggle. The robin entering the cottage and leaving almost immediately because of the eerie quiet. A lot of nature seems to enter the domestic space at this moment, and I find that very interesting. In fact, women are often linked to nature throughout the novel, particularly to flowers and fruit. In a way, it is demeaning, but it stays true to the way women were portrayed and considered during that period in history, and it also brings an interesting dynamic to Winston’s detail. At the Warleggan party, we see Demelza’s entrance through the eyes of the gentlemen at the party. This reflects the way that women were consumed as commodities through the male gaze; something to be looked at and enjoyed, and it’s this subtle narrative decision that has such a significant impact despite its quiet delivery.

As the eponymous title suggests, this novel seems to tell the story considerably more from Demelza’s point of view, but also from the perspectives of other characters. It makes the narrative feel well-rounded and thorough, and only helps the reader to understand each character much better. Winston leaves no corner of his fictional world untouched; he delves into every facet, giving us an up-close and personal insight into the lives of the working class. I especially loved the chapter when so many members of the community came together to help build a house for Mark and his young bride. What better way to describe the sense of community and that unmistakably English trait of lending a hand to a friend in need?

Unexpectedly, both in the first instalment and in this one too, I really enjoyed discovering more about the Cornish copper mining industry. It has been quite interesting to discover just how difficult an industry it actually was. There were lots of risky investments with, often, no capital to really back the ventures, and little chance of profit at the end of it. I think this is communicated really well with the closing of Grambler in Demelza. The closure begins with the managers of the mine and Francis stopping the machines at noon. Then we move to the last of the miners staying behind to chisel away what little copper they can find before the water levels rise and make it impossible for them to keep working. Lastly, we’re left with the image of Zacky Martin sitting alone in the mine, reflecting on his many years at Grambler. The way the scene plays out, slowly trickling down from the owners to the lone working-class miner, illustrates the tragedy of the trade. It may have been devastating for the mine owners to lose business, but it was more often than not life and death for the miners, and it was their livelihood – their pride. I found this one of the most poignant moments in the book, and also one of the most human and emotionally provoking.

Winston provides a hard look at the quality of life back then. We’re taken along with Ross and Dr Enys as he visits one of the region’s prisons and describes the inmates as animals in cages, begging for food and money with no access to fresh air, medical attention, or toilet facilities. The scene ends with them having to amputate Jim’s arm because of the spread of infection, and him losing his life. Not long after his young wife, Jinny, finds out, she tries to hang herself, no doubt out of grief, but I also couldn’t help wondering if it was because she knew she would be a burden on her family once again, without a husband to support her anymore. This, for me, showed the real effects of poverty and loss, and the injustice showed to working class people throughout history. It is clear that Winston intended this book to contain a lot of hard-truths as well as enjoyable fiction, and I think that’s part of what makes the novel so appealing. Plus, there has always been something attractive and pleasing about the Robin-Hood type figure, throughout literature, and I think Ross Poldark embodies that idea. The idea of one of the higher classes displaying sympathy and compassion for those beneath him. Perhaps it’s because we’d all like to be the one to display such humanity, we just don’t know how. Literature has a funny way of allowing us to explore the versions of ourselves we’d like to be.

While some of the details of the books have been adapted and changed slightly for the TV show, I still feel like the essence of the story remains the same. This is a story about community and relationships, and the every day struggles of life in a mining community. The casting is inspired, and the performances are really what makes the show such a continued success. But as with most great TV shows and movies, the book came first.

 

May Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

March Book Review: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

The first novel in Winston Graham’s series, explores the lives of a small mining community in Cornwall during the 18th century. The protagonist, Ross Poldark, returns home from the American Revolution to find his sweetheart engaged to another, and his father recently deceased. Having inherited his father’s humble home, Nampara, and its accompanying land, Ross sets out to restore the family mine in the hopes of providing work for the local community and distracting himself from his own heartache. Along the way he takes in a poor urchin child from a neighbouring town and sets her on as his kitchen maid, despite the scandalous gossips this incites.

The first thing I have to say about this book, is that Winston had a talent for cultivating description. He has a way of transporting the reader into the scene because his description is so alive and convincing. He also seems to have a gift for communicating emotions and sensations in a way that makes the reader understand their own feelings. Putting emotions into words is probably one of the most difficult challenges a writer can face, and Winston seems to achieve it effortlessly.

When you’re dealing with dramatic fiction, the narrative can sometimes feel lacking because nothing overtly spectacular happens, and this essentially means that the characters are very stripped-back because they become the focal point of the story. But I think the intricacy of Winston’s characters is what makes this novel so interesting. Because they’re the novel’s sole interest, there cannot be any vagueness, and Winston seems to grasp that perfectly. He knows his characters inside out and that’s the reason it’s so easy for the reader to believe what he writes. I particularly enjoyed the concept of the protagonist, Ross. He is, without doubt, a man of the people. Kind of like a Robin Hood figure, I suppose, except more ordinary and therefore real. Throughout the story, he struggles with his class, being that he is still a cut above the working class thanks to the land he inherited from his father. But he also possesses a keen sense of justice and, having grown up with the young men in the village, he still cannot help but to enjoy the banter and friendship with those lower than himself. Ross very clearly despises the hypocrisy and superiority of his social class, which seems to allow him to retreat an entirely different space where he identifies with the working people but still retains his title as a landowner. I would argue that for him, Nampara is a kind of safe middle-ground, which happens to be closer to the working class houses than to those of the middle and upper classes. His father, Joshua, the youngest son, did not inherit the family estate and therefore had to make his own way in the world. I find it interesting that Winston chose to explore this. The life of the eldest son who inherits the family fortune is a tale many people are more familiar with, so I can’t help but feel that Winston very deliberately chooses to give a voice to the unspoken stories of history. Throughout the novel he tells the story of the ‘ordinary man’, the marginalised, the poor, and all of this provides a very interesting dynamic which ultimately allows Winston a way in to creating a discourse and, arguably, a critique of social class.

As with any novel set in a historical period such as this one, there can be no half-heartedness in terms of historical content, and Winston does not disappoint. Whether or not the periodic details are accurate (and I have no idea if they are because I am certainly no history buff), the historic details appear to be so in depth that it feels like a real story. I think it’s safe to say that when a writer manages to make fiction feel like a true story, they have done their job. This novel seamlessly integrates its fictitious elements with those historical details which are carefully woven into the fabric of the narrative. I don’t normally indulge in a lot of historic fiction, but Winston may just have changed that.

Personally, I enjoy a novel with plot twists and big reveals, but this kind of writing doesn’t necessarily use those conventions. Instead Ross Poldark explores the drama the characters encounter in every day life. And maybe it’s a good thing that this book didn’t give me the plot twists and dramatic unfoldings I’ve come to expect from good fiction. Perhaps what Winston is doing is far more important because it’s subtle and effective in its own rite. He suggests that there is something intriguing in every day life; intriguing enough that it doesn’t need to be amplified in order to be thrilling. I think he must have been a people-watcher, because he seems to be interested in exploring human nature and human behaviour in a way that lends the novel a philosophical element which is something I always enjoy. And despite the fact that this could also be dubbed a romance novel, I think Winston cleverly keeps the romance from enveloping the distinctly human aspect of his work. Don’t get me wrong, I love the evolution of the relationship between Ross and Demelza, which transcends the limits of their master and servant roles and ends up becoming a deep friendship which leads to compassion and admiration. But I make no mistake in surmising that the focus of the novel is intended to explore the conflicts of social class, and the struggles of the mining industry.

From my English-Language-studying days, I found it strangely gratifying to notice Winston’s careful use of dialect throughout the novel. As Demelza slowly moves up in social rank from kitchen maid to Mistress of Nampara, she understands that her language has to adapt too. She becomes genuinely interested in learning and discovers an appetite for acquiring new skills. I found that her dialogue reflected this really well. As she becomes well-spoken, this is reflected in the way she speaks on the page, but as soon as she interacts with another character belonging to the lower classes, she notably slips back into her old, considerably coarser sociolect. As an English student, I got a little kick out of that. I think it demonstrates Winston’s attention to detail which overall creates this very vibrant representation of a small mining community.

Of course, I have to discuss the setting of the novel, which happens to be Cornwall. Like in the BBC adaptation of Winston’s novels, Cornwall feels like another character in the book. It is tangible and has a definitive kind of flavour. It’s a tempestuous setting which matches the mood and tone of the book, enough to enhance the narrative and elevate it to another level.

So if you’ve been on the lookout for a book which is going to throw you a bit of a curveball and take you by surprise, this could be it. It’s refreshingly human, simplistic in style, but complex and filled with light and shade, enough to keep you turning those pages until the very end.

 

April Book Review: Demelza by Winston Graham

February Book Review: Fallen by Lauren Kate

(I would like to say that no books were harmed in the reading of this novel, but as you can see, the great big tear dissecting the spine of my copy attests to quite the opposite. I have my younger clumsy self to thank for it. Any kind of damage to a book makes me want to weep in a dark corner, so this makes me very, very sad).

In case you didn’t know, this novel has actually been turned into a film adaptation starring Addison Timlin, Jeremy Irvine, and Harrison Gilbertson. (You can watch the trailer here à https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuCkCc7tRn4&t=4s). I think the film looks really great, and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen when it’s finally released, but as of right now, the release dates for different countries still require confirmation. Obviously some details have to be whittled out when a book becomes a screenplay, but I have to say that this adaptation looks like it stays pretty faithful to Lauren’s original narrative, which is always a bonus for the original fans.

In preparation for the film, I decided to revisit the novel by going back to where it all started. I first read this novel when I was still in high school, roughly seven or eight years ago now – which seems absolutely mental. I still remember where I read it – on the sofa, curled up with our Christmas lights twinkling around me in the living room. It was miserable outside, so I felt all cosy and warm with my book, reading all about the mysterious and intriguing happenings at Sword & Cross academy. Back then I absolutely fell in love with the book. There was something about the creepy setting and the complete mystery of the narrative that drew me in and captured me, so much so that it gave me chills.

Returning to the story and to the characters now, though, I was surprised to find that my reading of the story was an entirely different experience. I still felt a certain kind of appreciation for everything I’d fallen in love with the first time around – the setting, the characters, the plot twists – but I found the writing style slightly less satisfying. I think this is most likely because the books are much different to the ones I read in high school. Now, especially after studying Literature at university, I find that my reading list is far more varied and diverse. This is a good thing, but it also means that the books I grew up with don’t hold the same magic they did the first time around, which is sad, but true.

Still, Fallen remains a fun and arresting read, and I think this has a lot to do with the timeless love story that lays at the heart of the narrative. It still provided me with a perfectly good way in to the story. I love that the reader is kept in suspense right up until the final chapters when the climax starts to hit. The end scene is probably one of the most poignant and effective scenes in terms of description. I love the way the mood is conveyed, and I especially liked the final image of the girl sleeping fitfully, dreaming of wings as two angels shake hands in the rafters. Not a lot is revealed or even said in terms of dialogue in this scene, but for me it’s still one of the best scenes in the book because of the simplicity of it. If you strip it down to the basics, it’s three characters in a room, but it’s the description that packs a punch and delivers a wonderful end to an interesting novel that remains with you long after you turn the last page.

As the reader, I think we often share Luce’s frustration because none of the others, particularly Daniel, will tell her anything. They feed her certain details, but not the whole truth. From a practical angle, that keeps the readers hooked and ensures that they will follow the narrative to the end to find out what’s really going on, and I think this works well for the novel. Personally, I’m not a big fan of third person narratives because I always feel too distanced from the protagonist. The reader doesn’t become as immersed in the character’s inner monologue, instead we just get fed their thoughts and emotions through the narrative voice. However, I suppose it does allow for Daniel’s point of view to come in right at the end, so I think it’s probably the best choice for this story.

As I previously mentioned, the setting was the thing that struck me the most during my first encounter with Lauren’s novel. I loved the eerie darkness of Sword & Cross, the mystery and isolation and almost gothic feel to the whole book. I don’t think I ever got that from any other book until I read Lauren’s novel, and I think that’s by far one of its strongest selling points. In a way, the setting is almost like another character with its dark shadows.

So, to conclude, if you’ve been on the lookout for a romantic novel filled with suspense and plot twists and haunting landscapes, Fallen ticks all those boxes and plenty more. Romance novels can quite often feel like knock-offs of other great love stories: clichéd and regurgitated, but Lauren manages to explore something very original in a very beautiful way, and I think that’s why I was so eager to revisit the book again. The novel forms a kind of bildungsroman, as many young adult novels do, and offers lots of relevant themes for younger readers to immerse themselves in: love, friendship, identity struggles, dealing with guilt…I could go on, but I won’t. Instead, I suggest you read the book too. You won’t regret it.

 

March Book Review: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Book Review: Dangerous Lies by Becca Fitzpatrick

Dangerous Lies is Becca Fitzpatrick’s latest novel, and follows the story of a young teenage girl caught up in the witnessing of a crime. The narrative follows her search for a new identity as she is whisked into witness protection. Stella struggles with her old identity, unable to simply leave it behind her in Philadelphia as she is encouraged to. Along the way, she begins to learn more about herself, and is finally able to notice some hard truths about her old life.

Becca’s latest novel is yet more proof that she can write a winning piece of fiction. It’s clear now, after her Hush, Hush series and Black Ice, that she can write across genres, whether she’s weaving a fantasy tale of darkness and intrigue mixed with a little of the supernatural, or a tale of people and the complexity of human emotion.

In amongst her punchy diction, Becca explores the repercussions of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, youth, the search for identity, the struggle of self-image, and so much more. I particularly like that she critiques small-town politics through the incident, or should I say, incidents, involving Trigger’s character. She problematises the idea that reporting incidents of abuse just causes more trouble, which is obviously very important. Despite the fact that Trigger’s father is chummy with members of the Sheriff’s department and is therefore likely to get off lightly, Stella and Carmina refuse to quit until they find some sort of justice. They continue to fight for appropriate punishment, showing some much-needed female solidarity. In the end, Trigger ends up getting off lightly with a little community service, and I couldn’t help but read that as corruption of the system.

I love that Becca always has a strong female protagonist at the helm of her narratives; protagonists who don’t need saving because they save themselves. I especially commend the ending of the novel when Carmina ends up being the one to save Stella instead of Chet, her boyfriend. Carmina is the kind of old-school, hard-as-nails softie people can’t help but love, and I found her character to be one of the most interesting with regards to her past. I found her dialogue to be really authentic too, to the point where I could almost hear her speaking through Becca’s words. I also love the way Becca explores the tricky relationship between foster kids and their foster guardians. I found the development of this relationship to be the most gratifying.

All in all, this novel combines everything good about Becca’s writing. All the usual plot twists and surprising reveals that come with Becca’s writing are there, and the setting is about as tangible as if the reader is standing in it, stifled by the heat. This book has some really great action writing, enough to raise the hair on your arms and have your heart racing, but it also has some equally strong drama and genuine emotion. It starts in media res so the reader is gripped from the very beginning, and there’s a really strong message in there about the healing that comes with forgiveness that I personally took to heart.

I sincerely look forward to seeing what Becca has yet in store for her readers in the near future. I may have grown up with Becca’s novels, but I can’t see myself ever growing tired of them, regardless of how old I am.

 

February Book Review: Fallen by Lauren Kate

Book Review: Black Ice by Becca Fitzpatrick

So far I have read all of Becca’s work (the Hush, Hush series) and absolutely love her work. She is one of the reasons I actually started writing prose fiction myself, so I always feel especially excited when I hear she’s got another writing project lined up.

Black Ice follows the story of Britt and her friend Korbie as they set out to backpack the mountains of Wyoming during Spring Break. As they set off to make the drive up the mountain, the wintry weather takes a turn for the worst and they are forced to seek shelter in a cabin. There, they come across Shawn and Mason, two mysterious young men. Throughout the novel, their true intentions become clear, and Britt must rely only on herself to make it down the mountain safely and away from any danger. Along the way, friendships and relationships are tested, and Britt becomes more and more uncertain of who she can trust.

I found Becca’s new book to be a worthy successor to her first series. The characters were appealing and authentic, and the mystery element of the novel really lends itself well to the character development throughout. One of the great things about Britt is that she starts out spoiled and dependent, and through a series of events becomes more self-reliant and humble. One of her flaws is that she depends very heavily on the men in her life: her dad, her older brother, Ian, and her ex-boyfriend, Calvin. As a result of going through some pretty trying ordeals on the mountain, she is forced to rely on herself for survival, and this allows her to overcome her tendency to depend on others. I like the kind of feminist twist to this novel. As the narrative develops, we discover that several girls were killed previously for their intellectual success, and Britt ends up being a poster-girl for the reality that girls can and should succeed.

As for the men in the book, one of the things I love about Becca’s male love interests is that they are never not mysterious. Mason is dark and brooding and confusing to say the least, but that’s all part of the intrigue. I particularly enjoyed riding out the story to the end just to find out what Mason’s story really was. He’s one of those characters that just hooks you as a reader, which made it interesting to gradually watch his story unfold alongside Britt’s. But I liked that he didn’t overshadow Britt’s heroine status. Rather than swooping in to save the day, he complimented her character, and helped bring out her inner strength. If you ask me, that’s the best kind of fictional relationship any reader can ask for.

If there’s one thing Becca always seems to execute flawlessly, it’s language. I love her use of description. She seems to say a lot with a small amount of words, which takes skill. Concise descriptions can sometimes mean the setting lacks something, or just sounds sparse, but Becca’s technique really works. Her language is punchy and effective, and makes for a much more exciting read.

Sometimes, though, I felt that characters were just explaining things for the sake of getting details across to the reader. I suppose that could have used a little more finesse, but it’s a very small critique. Becca’s narratives are always really well laid out, and the reader is never left with questions after turning the last page.

It’s clearly aimed at a young adult audience, but I wouldn’t limit the readership to just that demographic. Becca’s novels are the kind you can return to when you’re older, like your favourite Disney movies which bring back a rush of nostalgic pleasure. I will continue to return to Becca’s novels even though I’m in my early twenties, because I can still recall my very first reading experience and I will always want to relive that. Her books are my guilty pleasure. Or maybe not so guilty. Just a pleasure.

In terms of genre, Black Ice continues Becca’s talent for constructing complex and thrilling mysteries. Unlike her Hush, Hush series, this one doesn’t include any supernatural/fantastical elements. Instead it focuses more on the human traits of the characters, and explores the psychical and emotional strains of a pretty traumatic kidnapping ordeal. I enjoyed the fast-paced narrative with all its unexpected twists and turns which are quickly becoming Becca’s speciality. She certainly has a skill for writing first-class novels, and I’m eager to see what she has in store for her readers next.

Overall, Black Ice is the perfect December read. I’ve read it several times during the year, but it’s perfect to curl up with under a fluffy blanket with a steaming cup of tea and some chocolate on hand. It’s indulgent, heart-warming, and promises an ending which is guaranteed to leave a smile on your face long after you’ve finished the last page.

 

January Book Review: Dangerous Lies by Becca Fitzpatrick