Plum – Hollie McNish

I don’t really remember when I stopped reading poetry. When I was a child my Mum and I used to read through our Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (favourites were Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning and Dylan Thomas Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night) and I especially loved it when we read Under Milk Wood (Mum’s Welsh accent is a bit rubbish but I still enjoyed it). I would learn poems off by heart – both long and short, but mostly ones I found funny – and I wrote a lot of what can only be described as doggerel.  Some of the most enjoyable events I have been to when working bookstalls at Literature Festivals have been with poets (although I am ashamed to say I found Simon Armitage’s voice so soothing I nearly nodded off listening to him – in my defence it was the last event of the festival and ran until gone 9pm….) but I just don’t read poetry. I will read a verse or two but I wouldn’t think to pick up a volume of poems and just read it…

plumHollie McNish is a young poet and spoken word artist who could bring me back into the world of poetry readers. This collection looks at subjects close to her heart – feminism, motherhood, the trials of adolescence – but also includes some poems she wrote as a very young child. To be fair I think her poems written at 8-10 years old are better than anything I could produce now and they have the charm of a youngster’s view of the world as well as value as verse. Interestingly McNish is still young but one of the poems which spoke to me most strongly was one about grey hairs (and how so many never get to have them) – as Jo Cox said, we really do have more in common than that which divides us…

I may not become a real poetry reader again – prose fiction and non-fiction still has so many temptations for me and there continue to be only 24 hours in the day – but this book has reminded me that I do enjoy the genre. Which means I have loads to look forward to in this year’s Bradford Literature Festival again…

Jane

After I’ve Gone – Linda Green

I read Linda Green’s previous novel because I knew exactly where it was set. I was completely familiar with the park in which a little girl goes missing. In this book I was on slightly less familiar ground – I know bits of Leeds but have rarely been to Mytholmroyd (although I am always amused by the fact that it rarely got a mention in the National news during the floods of December 2015 – too hard to pronounce when Hebden Bridge is so much easier…). Anyway, it is still good to be reading fiction in really mainstream genres, like psychological thrillers, which are set outside of London (or the USA).

30302155The book on one hand follows the love story of Jess – a feisty, take-no-prisoners, kind of girl in her early 20s – and Lee, a little older, working in PR, sophisticated and relatively well-off. And at first it seems like an amazing, whirlwind romance but suddenly Jess starts to see strange posts on Facebook, dated 18 months in the future, full of outpourings of grief. What shocks her is that her friends and family are grieving for her death. In their posts she can see the remains of her life mapped out before her – marriage, a beautiful baby and then, suddenly, a brutal, and possibly suspicious death. But no-one else can see the posts, she can’t even take a screen shot or photo of them: is she losing her mind? She has a history of mental health problems – having a breakdown after the death of her beloved mother when she was just 15 – but she is sure that this message from the future is real.

This is a pacy and well-plotted novel which touches on issues of parental love, domestic violence, public mourning via social media and mental health. It certainly made me think about whether the course of our lives is fixed. Do we move blindly into our future or can we shape it ourselves? Even as the book drew to its conclusion I couldn’t tell if Jess would succumb to the life that Facebook was showing her or whether she would find the strength to fight for herself and for her beloved baby. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and its imitators then give Linda Green a try. Even if you can’t pronounce Mytholmroyd…

Jane

Postman’s Fiancée – Denis Thériault

When I’m on holiday I like to read books set in the area I’m visiting. This year, however, we did a bit of a tour of Northern Europe (Denmark, a bit of Sweden and then Latvia) and I wasn’t in the mood for Nordic Noir so I just gathered up the next half-dozen or so books on my magic spreadsheet of ‘things to read’ (plus our children’s Book of the Month for June and the next title for the shop book group). Most of these were set in the usual places – the UK, the United States, a bit of outer space – but I did manage to include a quirky little novel set in Montréal with a German heroine. A pretty international haul, I think you’ll agree (although I need to get more books by non-European or North American authors read, I know…).

9781786071132_1In the Postman’s Fiancée we meet Tania, a young Bavarian woman who moves to Montréal to improve her French. She falls in love with a customer at the café she works in, Bilodo a quiet and shy postman, even though they never speak beyond orders for drinks and food. When Bilodo has a serious accident and loses his memory Tania poses as his fiancée in an effort to make his love for her a reality. If you think of a cross between Amélie and While You Were Sleeping in book form (with additional haiku) you’d not be far off. The plot is rather like a French farce, as Tania tries to keep the amnesiac Bilodo from any contact with his past but it also has a strong thread of sadness (or maybe I should say ennui, it sounds more appropriate with a french twist) running through it.  As well as the french feel to the book it has a rather spare elegance, like the haiku used throughout. I read this as a standalone novel but there is an earlier book, featuring some of the same characters, whose plot intertwines with it which I have now added to my ‘to-read’ list.

Jane

 

 

Vindolanda – Adrian Goldsworthy

As well as reading and talking about books I’m quite partial to a laugh. Rob too, especially when politics is happening. We are prone to relieving the tension by trying to have whole conversations made up of quotes from some of our favourite comedians. Monty Python and Blackadder feature heavily, of course, as does the Mighty Boosh but our fall-back funnyman usually seems to be Eddie Izzard. Not sure why – apart from him being a pretty amazing guy, hilarious, clever and able to do stand-up in multiple languages – but bread guns and spider-gravy are part of our natural vocabulary. I mention this because it is impossible for me to think about the people who invaded these islands back in  AD43 without saying (quite possibly out loud) ‘we’re the Romans’ in a very squeaky voice. Which made reading historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s novel, Vindolanda, entertaining in a way he probably didn’t expect.

9781784974688Vindolanda was a Roman fort near to Hadrian’s Wall (although it was built before the wall itself) which I have visited a few times – full of low walls (another Izzardism) and with fascinating displays of what everyday life would have been like in the first century AD. It is in this area that the novel is set and where the hero, centurion Flavius Ferox, is responsible for keeping the peace between the Romans and the British tribes. His job is being made all the harder by a mysterious druidic figure known as the Stallion and the possibility of a Roman traitor. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Ferox is a bit of a maverick, with a past involving a missing woman and a drinking problem. This kind of policeman is a standard figure in crime thrillers (which this is despite its historical setting) – I can see no reason why they shouldn’t have existed in Roman Britain…

Goldsworthy’s detailed historical knowledge is obvious here. The military systems, the layout of forts, the life of the wives of senior officers, the politics of the relationships between the invaders and the native peoples all flow effortlessly onto the page. I never felt, however, that I was reading anything but a gripping crime thriller. Story always seemed as important as the historical facts. If you are looking for a series for fans of authors like Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden or Robert Fabbri from the ending of the book it seems obvious that Ferox will have further crimes and mysteries to solve in future volumes.

Jane

Holiday reading June 2017 – a bit of YA

Today has been a bit of a day for making decisions (largely of a political nature) and I got to thinking that a lot of that kind of thing goes on in YA books. The target audience (12-18 or 15-24 year-olds I guess, certainly not me….) are often having to make the first big decisions of their lives – about what subjects to study, what future careers to aim for, about what they stand for politically, about what sort of adults they want to become. They are deciding whether to form relationships, where they fall onto the spectrum of sexuality, politics, religiosity and social tolerance. Some of these decisions will be wrong. From the perspective of 20 or 30 years it is easy to see that a choice made at 17 is not final: at 17 it feels very decisive.

25458747In Non Pratt’s Truth or Dare the main characters, Claire and Sef, need to decide how to make a lot of money in order to finance Sef’s brother’s care after a catastrophic brain injury. They decide to raise cash by filming dares and promoting them on some sort of Youtube-like channel and become Truth Girl and Dare Boy. The story is told in two main sections – one each from Claire and Sef’s points of view – and no final decisions can be made until both are able to see the other’s viewpoint. Pratt really seems to be able to speak in the voice of modern young people – their doubts, fears, joys and passions. She manages to touch on issues of sexuality, race and social privilege without making them the centre of the story (which remains as Claire, Sef, their burgeoning relationship and their fundraising attempts). It is particularly refreshing that Sef is a young British muslim lad but his story is not one of radicalisation or terrorism – his cares and concerns are those of any young man of his age (although he still has to deal with racism and islamophobia, obviously).

9780141375632In One of Us is Lying Karen McManus gives us a 21st century update on that 1980s classic, the Breakfast Club. In a typical American high school five students have detention – there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a bad boy and an outsider who is both feared and feted for his online gossip column – so far, so close to the film but then Simon, the online gossip, dies suddenly while the supervising teacher is out of the room and things start to go a bit C.S.I.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the fact that nobody is quite what they seem. The bad boy shows that he can be both kind and resourceful (although he’d never admit it), the princess is hugely insecure about her looks, the jock may not be the all-American hero he’s touted to be and the brain may not have got all her grades in the accepted way. We see these young people from their own points of view – each chapter moves from one voice to another – and yet we find that they are not as fixed in their cliques as they first appear. They each have to make choices about who they could become (with shades of Grease as the ‘brain’ makes an Olivia Newton-John style choice of boyfriend) while also trying to work out who could have killed gossip-boy.

contagionMy final YA holiday read was Contagion, the first in a new trilogy from Teri Terry. (This one is a slightly more tenuous link to my ‘decision-making’ theme since it is rather firmly in the post-apocalyptic genre but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.) The book opens with a girl called Callie, in a mysterious facility full of doctors and nurses in biohazard suits, being sent for a ‘cure’. We switch to Shay, in a Scottish village, who sees a poster about a missing girl (Callie) and realises she saw her on the day she disappeared a year before. She contacts the number on the poster and meets Kai, Callie’s older brother. Shay and Kai end up trying to investigate Callie’s fate while dodging the effects of both a deadly epidemic and the even deadlier shadowy figures who appear to be behind it.

Again this book comes from two different voices – Callie and Shay.  They have similarities, especially in the way that they both love Kai, but also very many differences. Callie is much younger, more emotional and less rational – Shay is thoughtful, willing to make personal sacrifices but also more inclined to keep her worries to herself. Towards the end of the book we start to discover much more about the nature of the epidemic, its effects on the few who survive and the motives of those who seem to control its development. There are two more books to come – I think I’m hooked enough to need to know how this ends. Shay, and Kai’s, decisions will be important but I have a feeling that Callie will be the lynchpin (or, just possibly, the firing pin from a deadly grenade…)

Jane

Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett

Nobody ever described space better than the much-missed genius Douglas Adams. You know the bit from the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide about how big it all is?* However, like most sci-fi writers Adams was mostly interested in the bits of space with stars and planets in. Other writers, like Becky Chambers, have written about groups of people travelling through space in various ways but Anne Corlett’s book is, as the title says, about the gaps. The parts that are not there…

spacestarsLike many books this one starts with the end of the world. A virus has wiped out an eye-wateringly large percentage of the human population – a fever, spread by almost any kind of human contact, which last for three days. At the end you either recover or turn to a surprisingly small pile of dust. On a small and isolated planet we meet a small group of survivors – a vet, a preacher, an older woman who believes that God is trying to cleanse the world, a prostitute and a young man on the autism spectrum. They are rescued by a small space ship (manned by a slightly Han Solo-ish captain and his engineer who reminded me a bit of Tasha Yar) and head off to the system capital. The group travel on, eventually, until they reach Earth – and more specifically the Northumbrian coast near to Lindisfarne.

This isn’t really a book about the science of sci-fi. The virus, its transmission and effects (including the fact that it seems to render survivors infertile) are explained well but the bulk of the book is about humans: their emotions, passions and fears. This is a story about the gaps in people – their emotional voids, the people missing from their lives and, in some cases, the gaping holes where their moral compass should be. Some sci-fi readers won’t like this but others – fans of Becky Chambers, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or P.D. James’ Children of Men perhaps – will relish it. Science-fiction isn’t all about rockets and ray guns – psychology is a science too, after all…

Jane

 

*’Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.’