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A Station On The Path To Somewhere Better

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on March 25, 2018

I received a free ARC version of this book from Simon and Schuster UK Fiction in return for a fair review.

For twenty years, Daniel Hardesty has borne the emotional scars of a childhood trauma which he is powerless to undo, which leaves him no peace.

One August morning in 1995, the young Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of ‘two weathers’, of irresistible charm and roiling self-pity – set out on a road trip to the North that seems to represent a chance to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.

I hold my hands up. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book very much. This was something I’d chosen based on the very fact that it was so different to anything I would normally pick up. (Apparently, just reading the same five books over and over again doesn’t make for a great book blog – who knew?).

And I am so glad I gave it a go. This blew me away. This is such a well written book. It is a novel of two parts: the first, a thriller, of the lead up and description of the traumatic event, the second, a more psychological take on the after effects of witnessing something so awful, and Daniel’s attempts to craft a life from the fragments left behind. A shift in narrative and pace like this could throw a lesser author off, but Wood handles it very well.

The story builds and escalates as you read. We learn that, from the beginning, Daniel’s mother is not keen on the idea of her estranged husband taking Daniel on this roadtrip. But we assume that this is for no other reason than because he is a flakey father, he has let his son down numerous times before, and that he can’t be trusted not to take Daniel somewhere unsuitable. And the first part of the novel is just that; we start to see the unravelling of Fran’s lies –  he takes Daniel to a seedy pub, he feeds him junk food. Because we are seeing the story through Daniel’s memories (or indeed, his interpretation of his child-self’s memories as an adult who has already had to recount this story numerous times, to police, to relatives, to therapists…more on this later), dark hints are laid throughout the narrative that the worst is still yet to come. We know, almost from the offset, that something terrible is to happen, and that Daniel himself will survive it, but the other ‘twists’ are, in effect, told to us far in advance of them happening. It adds a terrible sense of foreboding to the narrative, everything becomes heightened and claustrophobic. It is very powerfully done.

The narrative style is worth a comment. It is a complex mix of the childhood naivety of the young Daniel, combined with hints to the emotional damage of the older Daniel, the sense that he’s had to recount the story many times before, and a fear that he’s forgetting, or misremembering. There are times when his guilt comes through, when he tries to justify his behaviour or the fact that he didn’t realise what was going to happen. This is very much the story of someone still in the grasp of PTSD – which becomes evident as we hear of Daniel’s life post the road trip. It is very cleverly, and sensitively handled.

That Daniel is a fan of the programme his father works on is no coincidence. He listens to the audiobook of it at first to pass the time in the car, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the only work of fiction that he is listening to. Once the lies and inconsistencies from his father first start to reveal themselves, they steamroll. There is something very poignant in the description where Daniel, desperate to distract himself from what’s going on, makes calculations as to how long the battery on his walkman will last. It is a moment of stark contrast; reminding us how young and childlike Daniel is, and yet how terrifying and adult the situation he finds himself in is.

The prose is beautifully written, and quite often as I was reading I found myself outrightly admiring the writing style. It may be the English nerd in me, but I really appreciate the way that Wood handles language. It is rich and brilliant, and also chilling in parts. On the one hand, there is the description of the physical geography of the road trip, which carries a preciseness with it that fit’s Daniel’s attempts to recreate the story as accurately as possible. On the other, Wood manages to capture the uneasiness a bad gut feeling which creeps across Daniel and the novel, until you are certain that the only outcome can be tragedy.

The ending, for some, could be seen as slow paced, but personally I enjoyed the shift in tone. We see the enduring effects those fateful days have had on him, and how he lives under the shadow of his father – a man who he is terrified of turning in to. This is not quite a story of healing – that would be too simplistic – but there is something almost like hope at the end. It is a realistic hope, it is not the fairytale kind, there is still work to do. (Work has already gone on, of course, there is mention of his coping mechanisms, therapists, the things he has done to counteract the wrongs of his father, but as in life, there is no magic solution, these are all just stations on his path to somewhere better.

Overall, this is a very strong, dark, thriller. Not for the faint hearted, it doesn’t shy away from trauma and the aftershocks in a way that stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. I couldn’t tear myself away, and I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.

Five Stars

The characters I wanted to be…

Posted in Books, Favourites, Opinion, Personal
on April 22, 2017
Characters I wanted to be

I’m playing around with the imagery I use for blog titles at the moment – expect to see a few different things until I settle on my look!

It’s hardly surprising that so many of us bookworms have a secret hankering to be one – or more – of the characters in the books we read. Escapism is a large reason for most of us reading after all. And for those of us with an over-active imagination (ahem) it’s all too easy to insert ourselves neatly into the story and rewrite chunks of the novel to suit our purposes (more on that later).

I remember doing this frequently throughout my childhood, and teens… and okay yes, still even now. (Hey, why be a grown up with a job and bills to pay when you can instead be some lovelorn heroine somewhere?).  So, here are some of the characters I remember wishing I was. Including all the embarrassing ones. Please don’t judge.

Anne of Green Gables

Lord knows why. She was always getting into scrapes, but I suppose she was good hearted and it mostly turned out alright for her. Apart from when she dyed her hair green. It was probably because I share in her tendency for bossiness.

Jo March AND Beth March

Okay, this probably needs some explanation. Really I wanted to be Beth, except she was a little bit boring and then there’s the whole bit where she dies. I liked the idea of everyone thinking I was good and nice and on some elevated level of moral high ground. BUT, what I really liked was Jo’s sense of adventure and trouble. I could definitely see myself having lots of fun with Laurie and being a writer like her… And in my version, there’s none of that German professor lark. She marries Laurie like she was meant to (Laurie may well have been my first crush – is that embarrassing?), lives in the lap of luxury over the road, and writes till her heart is content, whilst listening to Bethy play the piano. Seee? Much better than the original.

Lyra Belacqua

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m quite the fan of His Dark Materials. I love Lyra’s world of armoured bears, of witches, daemons, gyptians… I so wanted to be her, to have a best friend in Pan and to have the affection of Will Parry. Lyra is so cool. She’s fearless, adventurous and clever with a firm sense of right and wrong. Plus she’s really good at telling lies and I’ve always been rubbish at that. She garners respect from characters she encounters – characters who, we are made to understand, do not give their respect easily. She’s got an alethiometer which tells her anything she asks, she travels throughout different worlds, and she can do anything that she puts her mind to. Which is exactly why I used to wish and imagine myself as her all the time. Needless to say, I rewrote the ending of this one in my mind too – my version was much neater, much less literary but much more heart-warming (for those that have read the books, all I’ll say is all the worlds stay open in my head).

Bella Swan

Yeah, let’s move on sharpish from this one. I’m sure there was a reason why, as a 17 year old at an all girls’ school, I found the idea of having a sparkly vampire boyfriend attractive, but I can’t for the life of me remember why.

Darrell Rivers

Pre-aforementioned all-girls’ school. I think I was mostly attracted by the idea of midnight feasts and playing tricks. Needless to say I felt very short-changed when I arrived at mine.

Mildred Hubble 

Before Harry Potter came out, Mildred was my absolute hero. For a number of reasons – mostly, because she was the worst witch, and thus something I could identify with. She was also always scruffy looking – again I could definitely sympathise with. And she had a best friend called Maud, which seemed to me to be the most fantastically antiquated name ever (and therefore fantastic). I think I was just the teenie tiniest bit obsessed with magic too. Although curiously, I never fancied being Hermione. Funny that, eh?

Alice in Wonderland

Pretty inevitable really given my name and the fact that I live in the town where Lewis Carroll lived (probably only for five minutes, but why let that get in the way of a good tourist trap). Her adventures in Wonderland and through the looking glass were exciting, bizarre, intriguing and – well – filled with wonder. Aside from Carroll’s way with words (particularly poetry), I liked the idea that you could go exploring, talk to animals, grow big and small and escape the murderous queen of hearts.

So of these all, I think Lyra was the character I most desperately wanted to be, but Bella Swan occupied too much of my imagination too. (Cringe. Sorry. I know I’ve disappointed you all).  There were lots of other worlds that I wanted to be in, but these didn’t have characters I particularly wanted to be – such as Harry Potter, The Discworld, some of Marcus Sedgwick’s novels – perhaps that’s for another blog though.

Did you have any characters you wanted to be?

Cosy Comforts and Cuppas

Posted in Books, Personal
on March 27, 2017
the books in my room

I’ve been rubbish at blogging recently. Really rubbish. My goal of posting at least once a week has completely gone out of the window. My last update was on the 12th February. Whoops!

In my defence, I’ve been rather busy since then. I’ve moved house and job, and have (shockingly) a slightly longer commute than my previous seven and a half minutes. I’ve also had a few weekends away, had to repair my car (curse you small stones causing my window screen to crack) and generally found that my evenings seem a lot less free than they used to be. Oh, and I now live in a different county to my boyfriend – you’d have thought this might mean I have more time on my hands, but actually, it really doesn’t .

Anyway, my point is, I’ve been busy – not to mention adjusting to a different life. And while things have been settling down, all I’ve wanted to read are my cosy comfort books. They make me happy – but they don’t exactly make for good blog fodder. If I’m entirely honest, I’ve been listening to more audio books than actually reading much (well, I may as well make some use out of my commutes, eh?).  I’d feel like too much of a cheat if I tried to make out that I’d read any of them.

Anyway, I’ve come to the end of the month’s grace period that I gave myself. I’m pretty settled at work, and I’ve learnt to put up with the hardships of moving back in with my parents (temporarily), and all that I must endure in the way of having my laundry done for me, and meals cooked. It really is a hard life.

So I now have no excuse but to get my act together and start blogging again properly.  I have some ideas for upcoming blog posts that I’m really excited about. I love writing. I forget how much I love writing when I take a break from it, and as soon as I start again it all comes flooding back to me.  That probably makes me sound like a massive nerd. I probably am.

My new job doesn’t involve as much copywriting as my previous one; I’m more more concentrated on the other aspects of marketing. It’s exciting for me – and certainly pushing me out of my comfort zone a little. And because I’m writing less in my day to day job, I’m more excited about writing outside of work.

So now, sat in my old bedroom, surrounded by all my old books, I’m ready to talk literature, lifestyle and tea again, until I’m blue in the face.

Enjoy!

My Writing Heroes – Terry Pratchett

Posted in Author Spotlight, Books, Favourites
on February 12, 2017

This wasn’t the blog post I was expecting to write today, I was planning a review on Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (which will have to wait for another time now). However, last night Terry Pratchett: Back in Black was shown on TV, and, once again, I was reminded of his genius.

I have written about Terry Pratchett before, on my old blog, where I marked his passing the best that I could do, with some inelegant words. There I dwelt more on the tragedy of his illness, and his bravery in facing Alzheimer’s. I was devastated when I learnt of his death, and I could write thousands more words on that, but today I want to concentrate more on his writing – it is, after all, his legacy.

I can’t actually remember which Pratchett book I read first. I grew up in a household of books and there were always Discworld novels around, so I am assuming that I just picked one up one day and started reading. I do have memories of specifically choosing Terry Pratchett books (Truckers and Diggers) to take on holiday with me when I was about 13. I also own several of his audio books on tape rather than CD. The point I am trying to make here is that this has not been a short flirtation with his books, but rather a long standing relationship. Whenever I find myself in a book store with no particular book in mind, I gravitate towards the Pratchett section. Only yesterday, I found myself in Foyles (shop of dreams), eyeing up some of the beautiful hardback editions of his work.  Not bad for someone that never used chapters, and added footnotes to fiction – breaking every rule in the novelist’s handbook.

So why Pratchett? I am not particularly a fan of fantasy after all – certainly not adult fantasy. I like Harry Potter, and His Dark Materials, but the adult stuff, not so much. I tried to read The Lord of the Rings a while ago and really didn’t get so far, and there is nothing quite so likely as to stop me purchasing a book as it being called ‘the such and such saga’, or having ‘the book of the…’ or ‘the cycle of’ in its title. Prejudiced, perhaps, but life is short and even I can’t read everything in that time.

I think though, that’s exactly the point, with Pratchett. Yes, the Discworld is entirely fantasy. Yes it has mythical creatures in abundance. Yes there is magic. But then there is also DEATH, and his horse, named Binky. For every fantastical element that Pratchett introduces, he brings us back down to earth again with a pithy comment on the human condition. DEATH, for example, in Mort decides he fancies a different sort of career, and toddles off leaving someone else to do the dirty work for a while. And whenever he talks about the wizard academics at the Unseen University, their squabbling could ring true of any other university. They’re naughty, they’re fickle, they play games and indulge in silly academic politics….and their librarian is an orangutan who refuses to be turned back into a wizard.

He also uses discoveries that we’re all familiar in his books. Hollywood, the printing press, Australia, the postal service – everyday things get a second re-examination from Pratchett. Their familiarity allows them to become tropes of fun. He was able to look at things in a different way to the rest of us, to see the silliness behind the scenes, normally with an exasperated character at the centre of things who never asked to be there anyway, thank you very much, and can they please just get back to what they were up to before?

He had a way with words that was truly remarkable too. The way he could write a phrase that not only had you picturing exactly what he meant, but would also have you laughing to yourself, was truly exceptional.  It’d be silly to wax lyrical about this, instead I’ll just pop a few examples in so you can see for yourself:

“For an old woman Mistress Weatherwax could move quite fast. She strode over the moors as if distance was a personal insult.”

“She was also, by the standards of other people, lost. She would not see it like that. She knew where she was, it was just that everywhere else didn’t.”

“Some pirates achieved immortality by great deeds of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”

“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,” he said. “Have you thought of going into teaching?”

“Many people could say things in a cutting way, Nanny knew. But Granny Weatherwax could listen in a cutting way. She could make something sound stupid just by hearing it.”

I could go on… Of course the other thing to note about Pratchett is how brilliant all his names are. Nanny Ogg. Rincewind. Vimes. William de Worde. Mort. Lord Vetinari. Nobby Nobbs. Mustrum Ridcully. They all conjure up a picture, don’t they?

Pratchett is the writer who inspires me the most. I wish, so heartily, that I could write like him, that I could use language and words and wit in the way he did. I know it takes hard work and perseverance, and when I read Pratchett’s novels, I am reminded why it is worth it.

I still have so much of the Discworld series to discover. I am lucky that I’ve been rather slow in reading them, and so after last night’s programme I decided to treat myself to The Night Watch – mentioned specifically last night as being one of Pratchett’s darker, more serious additions to the Discworld. I can’t wait to start it.