Browsing Category:

Books

The Zero And The One

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on May 9, 2018

I received an ARC from Legend Press in exchange for an honest review.

A bookish scholarship student, Owen Whiting has high hopes of Oxford, only to find himself immediately out of place. Then he meets Zachary Foedern from New York. Rich and charismatic, Zach takes Owen under his wing, introducing him to a world Owen has only ever read about.

From Oxford to the seedy underbelly of Berlin, they dare each other to transgress the boundaries of convention and morality, until Zach proposes the greatest transgression of all: a suicide pact. But when Zach’s plans go horribly awry, Owen is left to pick up the pieces and navigate the boundaries between illusion and reality to preserve a hold on his once bright future.

I galloped my way through about 80% of this book. It’s intriguing, with a sense of tragic mystery, and you want to understand what has happened. However, as I got closer to the denouement, my pace slowed down somewhat. And I’m going to try and unpack why in this review.

This is a dark, coming of age, novel, with a twist. Our protagonist Owen, is a classic outsider. He doesn’t fit in at Oxford, and, because he’s gone to Oxford, he doesn’t really fit in with his family anymore. So, understandably, when Zachary appears – all confidence, cleverness and self-assurance – it’s understandable that Owen is all too eager to be taken under his wing. Zach pushes Owen, and at first it’s good – he brings him out of his shell. But all too soon it gets riskier, and darker, until he proposes their final dramatic act – a suicide pact – an idea conceived apparently on the basis of philosophy and how suicide is a perfect act.

Of course there’s rather more to it than this.

There are shades of Brideshead Revisited throughout, though one rather gets the feeling that Ruby intended his work to be a more intellectual version of it. And as it gets darker, the claustrophobic nature of it reminds me a little of Christopher Isherwood’s Alone in Berlin. Ruby is clearly well read, and has taken influence from a vast spectrum of literature. You can tell this in the way that it is written – the prose itself its very good. But it does lack the follow through.

The novel dips between the present and the past. It begins with Owen on his way to Zach’s funeral, so everything we hear about Zach is told via flashback. This almost works, it’s almost a confessional, it’s almost very clever – but it doesn’t quite get there. It is a sympathetic way of writing – everyone who has been bereaved will understand the need to revisit memories – but it fails to really bring anything new to the story. We don’t get the impression that Owen might be hiding anything until right at the end of the book, he’s far too parrot like in his reporting of life with Zach. It’s a compulsive confessional in many ways, except you don’t see the final confession coming.

It has to be said that none of the characters in this novel are particularly likeable. At first you so desperately want to root for Owen – the shy, unassuming person who has just lost his best friend – but as it goes on you learn that he’s actually quite unfeeling and callous. It makes it hard to empathise with him. Zach is extreme, and brash. When we meet Zach’s twin Vera, she is equally bizarre and unsympathetic. When you have a novel which is made up of entirely unsympathetic characters like this, it does make it hard to care about the outcome and this is what I found happening as The Zero And The One reached its denouement. What should have been thrilling ended up seeming a little bit flat. It should of been dramatic, but because I didn’t care enough about what happened to the characters, it didn’t work, for me at least.

Ultimately, this book thinks it is more clever than it actually is. It’s not bad – the writing itself is good, if a little pretentious in places. Some parts are better thought out than others. The faux philosophy and quotes from the fictitious Hans Abendroth The Zero and the One book are some of the best bits of this novel. There are some aspects which make the reader feel uncomfortable – which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, as bits start to unravel it does start to become a bit… ridiculous. There’s enough plot in the latter chapters for at least three books, and so some of it becomes superfluous. And it’s not believable.I’d give the first part of this book 4*s, but unfortunately the ending really does let it down – so its 3* from me.

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!