The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote – Dan Micklethwaite

I work in what is possibly the loveliest bookshop in Yorkshire (modesty forbids we claim anything more – but if you all want to insist we will accept all accolades). It should come as no surprise then that authors enjoy doing events for us. Or even just popping in for a coffee, to be fair. We love to do talks, signing sessions and even film shows in store but one of my favourite formats is a book launch. Mostly because it usually means that the author is local (but a little bit because there is an outside chance of a glass of vino…). And if the book is a debut that’s even better – we’ll be able to brag that we did the launch for their debut when they win the Booker/get a huge movie deal/marry royalty. Or just get them to come in and sign more stock later, whatever. This week we have a double whammy – a book launch for a Yorkshire author from a publisher based less than 20 miles from Bradford.  The launch is on Thursday night, starting at 7pm – come along if you like!

dan-micklethwaite--donna-creosote--paperbackAnyway, onto the book itself. Donna Crick-Oakley lives on the top floor of a block of flats in Huddersfield and, it seems, wishes the world could be more like the books she reads – which are largely tales of chivalry, of knights and princesses. In the early part of the book she decides to brave the outside world by costuming herself as a knight-errant (okay, she doesn’t have any actual armour but gets very creative with a range of kitchen metal ware). This doesn’t go well but does reconnect her with Sammy, a boy she knew at primary school and who gave her the nickname she uses in her fantasy life: Donna Creosote. A large part of the story is, it seems, Donna’s daydreams of her adventures which bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Don Quixote. This is no coincidence – Don Quixote is, famously, a man driven mad by his overindulgence in chivalric literature – and you quickly realise that Donna is a very unhappy, troubled young woman.

Dan Micklethwaite has previously written poetry and short stories and, interestingly, this novel reads like a short story. But, rather wonderfully, a short story which has enough time and space to develop properly and just enough poetry to remind me of the fairy tales Donna loves. And it isn’t all about the fantasy world either – the problems that beset Donna are very real ones about her relationship with her parents, with men and with alcohol. Donna Crick-Oakley seems to have very little self-esteem: Donna Creosote is stronger and more confident. She just isn’t real. I was expecting this to be a funny, quirky little story with, possibly, a developing romance and although it was all these things it was much more. Sad, a bit frustrating, and thought-provoking too. And (hooray) no happy ever after.

Jane

Nina is Not Ok – Shappi Khorsandi

I have written before about comedians turned novelists – and on the whole I have had positive experiences of the whole thing. I do really enjoy a story which can make me laugh out loud and comedians, with their years of experience of closely observing the people around them, seem to me to be well placed to write great characters. And, of course, it isn’t all about the laughs – the clown who laughs to hide an inner sorrow is virtually a cliché… I may be a bit shallow though and I tend to only read novels by comedians whose actual comedy work I enjoy. I can’t even imagine wanting to read fiction written by Jim Davidson or Bernard Manning. Shappi Khorsandi, however, is someone I have seen and enjoyed both on tv and live so I was looking forward to reading her first novel.

ninaGiven the plot outline – Nina is a 17-year-old who is sure she doesn’t have a drinking problem; even though she does things she regrets while drunk; even though her father was an alcoholic; even though she needs to carry drink around with her to make it through the day at college and even though she is lost and drifting after her boyfriend met somebody else on his gap year – I was expecting something bittersweet, with a lot of arguing with parents and, towards the end, a new romance to replace the shallow ex. Boy was I wrong…This book has laughs, it has totally believable teen characters (complete with teen reasoning) and it has, I think, a pretty good idea of what it is like to be young today. And then it has a scarily graphic depiction of what it is actually like to be an alcoholic before you are old enough to vote. We are not spared the vomit, the lost hours and the downright risky sexual behaviour. We suffer the slut-shaming, the gossip and the rigours of rehab along with Nina: we experience the love for a little sister which keeps Nina plugging away at her recovery and we feel the support of best friend Beth. This is pretty immersive stuff and I really loved it.

I think what impressed me most about this novel is just how well Khorsandi puts us in the place of such a young woman. I guess it should always be easier for an author in their forties to write about characters twenty or thirty years younger than for someone in their twenties to really know how it feels to get old. One is writing from remembered experience and the other from, at best, good research. But it is rarely as accurate as this – the best and, for sure, the worst of a very young woman learning how to live with her particular demons.

Jane

Lily and the Octopus – Steven Rowley

Let’s be upfront from the beginning here: I have had pets (dogs when I was a kid and cats as an adult) all my life and I have always been very fond of them. But I would never really describe myself as someone who has such a strong emotional bond to an animal that I am distraught when they, inevitably, die. This may be because I started my pet owning career with short-lived things – hamsters, gerbils, a series of goldfish all called Harry Worth and even a tank of woodlice – and got quite used to them popping off at regular intervals. Or I am a cold-hearted woman. One of the two. I also do not personally subscribe to the whole ‘rainbow bridge’ thing – I don’t really believe in an afterlife for humans so why would I think there was one for pets? Anyway, I don’t think there is anything wrong in investing emotionally in animals to such an extent – I just have never been able to do it myself. I am, however, very fond of my current cat Rosie (so long as she hasn’t done anything unspeakable in the conservatory…).

lilyLily and the Octopus is, however, a book about a man and his dog who appear to share a huge amount in emotional terms. They are, in fact, the love of each other’s lives and it is, in many ways, wonderful to see the depth of their attachment. Lily is a dachshund with an irrepressible love of life and her owner (if that doesn’t sound too mercenary a term for such a close relationship) is a writer named Ted. Ted, recently single, enjoys his life with Lily doing all the things best friends do – scrabble night, movie night and, of course, the night they discuss which boys are cute – until the day he realises that Lily has an octopus on her head. Yep, I did a double take at this point too, but it becomes obvious that this is in fact some kind of growth and the rest of the book is about how Ted deals with it.

I’m not entirely sure how to describe this book. I started out thinking that the octopus is some kind of metaphor or figment of Ted’s imagination. He is, after all, a writer and all those in-depth conversations he has with Lily (in which she is sometimes philosophical, sometimes as excitable as a puppy) can’t be real. Can they? There is a hint of magical realism – especially once the Octopus starts talking back to Ted – or maybe allegory. Anyway, I really loved the way I was drawn in to trying to work out what the story was trying to say at the same time as following the actual narrative. In the end, and without giving away too much of the plot I hope, I found I ended up contemplating love, grief and the overwhelming (although often repressed) need for companionship. And even this cold-hearted woman shed a tear or two towards the end…

Jane

On the Other Side – Carrie Hope Fletcher

I’m going to confess, and its not something I’m particularly proud or ashamed of, but when I asked for an advanced reading copy of this book I was not really aware of the author. I mean I’d sold plenty of copies of her first book, which offers up advice to teenagers and young adults, but I’d never read any of it and I’ve never seen anything on her YouTube channel. I’m really, really not her target audience (too old, too cynical) and, try as I might, I can’t read everything. But the brief plot description – of a woman who dies at a ripe old age but finds she can’t move on to her own personal afterlife until she deals with secrets from her life which are weighing her down – was intruiging so I thought I’d give it a go.

11I’ll be honest, it took me a while to warm to the actual book. Even Bex told me she didn’t think it was my kind of thing but I persisted with it and I’m glad I did. I did care about Evie, the main character, and I was interested to know what secrets she had which were holding her back from moving on. The story which explains this was warm and I felt so sorry for Evie and the sacrifices she made for love. The world she moves to after she dies (and before she is able to pass on to her own version of heaven) is a rather magical version of a block of flats she lived in as a young woman and it was probably this part I liked best. Especially the kindly guide who helps Evie to understand her next steps.

My problem with the book as a whole is that I’m not sure of its timeline. I do like a novel to have a firm time setting – a reason why I enjoy historical fiction – and I didn’t get a sense of that here. Everything seemed to be set in the current day which is fine except it needs to cover Evie’s life from 27 to 82. I think this is the point where Fletcher’s youth shows – when you are very young it is so hard to realise that life could be very different in 50 years time. The writing wasn’t bad and I can see Fletcher maturing in time but at the moment I was continually struck by a feeling of youth. And also Evie’s family situation reminded me of the sitcom Miranda (but rather more tragic) which was always a favourite with my nieces (who are in their early 20s). In fact, I think I may have read my first novel which could be classed as ‘New Adult’…

Jane

 

Wolf Road – Beth Lewis

My house is full of books. I mean really, really full. Rob and I both buy books, we both had a bit of library each when we met (with surprisingly few duplications – a couple of Pratchetts and English dictionaries and that’s about it) and, though work, I get a lot of proofs (advance reading copies). And, to make things worse, with the ARCs I can’t pass them on to charity shops for resale when I’ve read them. I can donate them to schools, hospitals and the like but anything I don’t want to keep ends up being put in the recycling. I’ll leave you to think about that for a moment. If I don’t love a book enough to give it permanent shelf room I have to send it to be destroyed. After a particularly heavy clearing-out session I usually feel like a mass book-murderer – more than a little unclean…So that is why I have a Kindle – I can get most of my proofs as e-books and, within a few months of getting mine, I could almost feel my house getting a little lighter. If it weren’t for publishers tempting me with actual books sent to the store and having the occasional roadshow there is almost a risk of a repeat of the film Up. So, thank goodness for the lovely people at Harper Collins for inviting us booksellers to an evening of books, wine and nibbles recently over in Manchester. I came away with an almost embarrassing amount of books (three tote bags – it is an addiction…), a signed copy of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep and lots of good intentions to read them all and make sure I tag the publisher. And I’m going to start with Wolf Road.

wolf roadI’ll confess. When I got my copy from the Manchester event I already had a copy lined up on my Kindle. This meant that I was reading it without referring back to the plot outline or a blurb on the back of a physical copy and, initially, I was pretty sure I was reading a book set in late 19th century America. Think John Wayne films or Stef Penney’s Tenderness of Wolves. Think guns, bleak winters, trapping for furs and candlelight.Elka lives with her rather strict grandmother after her parents went North in search of gold but, when a big storm hits, she is taken in by a man she calls Trapper (and who, as the years go by, she thinks of as ‘Daddy’). Years pass and she learns to hunt and survive in their remote cabin  with only infrequent trips to the nearby town. It is on one of these trips that she meets Magistrate Lyons and discovers that Trapper is, in fact, a wanted killer called Kreager Hallet. The story then follows Elka as she heads North herself – away from Kreager and in search of her parents. It becomes more and more apparent that the setting is actually a postapocalyptic near future – set after something Elka herself refers to as the Damn Stupid – and that Elka herself is a remarkable woman. We get the whole story from her point of view and in her voice – everything is written in a way I can only describe as a really bleak Little House on the Prairie accent – and we discover the secrets of her past as she does. Her life seems to be nothing but hardship, sorrow and loss and yet we see her growing and developing her relationships with both people and her environment.

What I loved most about this book – aside from the plot, the voice of Elka and the wonderful descriptions of the world she lives in – was the fact that almost every character I cared about and admired was female. Some of the villains are women too but in Elka, Lyons and Penelope we are treated to three strong, flawed and very admirable females.

Jane

 

Copper Promise – Jen Williams

It seems to be increasingly common online for some authors to give away free stories to entice people to buy and read their full novels. For Jen Williams and in my case, this strategy has paid off.

I’d heard good things about this author from a few people, enough that I was willing to shell out £0.00 for her story “Sorrow’s Isle”. This short but complete piece provides an introduction to the characters of Wydrin, “the Copper Cat”, and her companion Sebastian. What was rather surprising was that the female Wydrin is the brash, arrogant leader of the pair, while male Sebastian represents the calmer, quietly thoughtful aspect of the two of them. I read it and was instantly hooked.

18667112So, with my appetite whetted, I purchased “The Copper Promise”. In short, it was a fantastic, exhilarating read. Williams’ characters are diverse, conflicting and complementary, often all in the same chapter. The book follows Wydrin and Sebastian whom we’ve already met, but also throws the displaced Lord Frith into the mix as well. Wydrin and Sebastian are hired by Frith to help him seek a weapon that will enable him to retake his stolen homestead. However, Frith’s quest accidentally sets free an ancient dragon-god who takes to the skies and wreaks destruction upon the realm.

For me, as with many others I suspect, Wydrin is the star of the show. She’s like a female Han Solo – fearless, reckless and with a host of witty one-liners at her disposal. In “Sorrow’s Isle”, there was a hint that Wydrin may possibly have a goddess’ favour – or certainly her interest at least, which we know may not always amount to favourable treatment. This wasn’t really developed much as a theme in “The Copper Promise”, so I’m hoping that this might be a plotline for later books. I think Wydrin versus a goddess could be a real corker of a book.

I asked Jen Williams herself whose story she thought dominated “The Copper Promise” and she replied “each of their stories are equally important”, adding that “Wydrin is the lynchpin of the group, driving the rest of them forward”. Certainly that’s the way that the book comes across, and that has both positives and drawbacks.

On the positive side, none of the characters are sidelined, and each of them gets to have their share of the action. However, I did find that with no strong protagonist, the pacing floundered a little at times. The scenes with the dragon were brilliant, but it almost represented too big a threat. It was definitely the personal conflicts and obstacles that really kept me reading. Sometimes giving the story over to one protagonist can really help character development. For example, Frith starts out really quite unlikeable. He gains power but doesn’t take much responsibility with it and so ends the novel almost as stubborn and unlikeable as he began it. It is his personal quest that is played out from beginning to end, but somehow he doesn’t seem sufficiently changed by it. In contrast, Sebastian goes through some immense changes both to his conscience and his circumstances, and I was desperate to read more about him. But by splitting the book three ways, it meant I felt he didn’t get the focus his story deserved. But that just made me want to read the next one when I got to the end of this one! Thankfully, there are another two books following this one, and I have full confidence that any character whose full story wasn’t told in “The Copper Promise” will be given due attention in the sequels.

As well as having complex characters, Williams also builds a comprehensive fantasy world. It is marvellously expansive, has elegant rituals and an intriguing history. Sometimes too much knowledge about a world can kill a book’s pace, but Williams interweaves it seamlessly with the plot. The quest of the protagonists takes them from one culture to another, each of which is distinct and fascinating.

“The Copper Promise” is a remarkable debut from a fantasy writer who has proven herself to be one to watch. Her characters include types under-represented within this genre – a strong yet feminine woman as well as a homosexual character (no spoilers as to who it is!).  Such personal traits are not defining or all-encompassing for the characters in question, but merely aspects them which make them that much more diverse and interesting.

Charlotte

The Dog Who Dared to Dream – Sun-mi Hwang

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I am attracted to the quirky. Novels about talking squirrels, friendships with baby moose or hitmen who contract religion, they are all my kind of thing, so a slim little book by a Korean author whose main character is a dog, well, how could I resist. Especially when I realised it was another book by the same writer who’d written the one about the chicken who wanted to fly. Like I say – quirky…

6The main character in this story is a dog named Scraggly who is owned by Grandpa Screecher (so-called because he is forever shouting at Scraggly, her mother and litter-mates) and his wife Grandma. We see her being spurned by her dog family, and looked down on by many humans, because she is so different looking to the other dogs. But, as we find out, she is the only one of her litter which Grandpa Screecher names and she is a favourite with the grandson, Dongi. She is an unusual looking dog too – a reversion to her Sapsal ancestors (a traditional Korean dog breed) – and is made to feel ugly and unloved because of this. Scraggly has a tough life, her family and her own puppies are all taken away from her, she knows pain and hunger and, the saddest part, she even has a phase where she is angry with Grandpa. Her life is hard, but so is her master’s – we just hear less of this because we hear it all from the dog’s point of view.

This is the story of a dog named Scraggly but it is also a fable or parable which makes you consider all kinds of things. Family, love, survival when nothing seems to go your way, self-image and friendship – all these subjects crossed my mind in the course of 170 odd pages. There are delicate illustrations throughout which just enhance the experience – I shall be looking out for more books by this rather wise and philosophical author.

Jane