I think I have discovered the reason why I always have so many problems doing annual round-ups of my favourite books. Sneaky publishers keep bringing out so many wonderful titles in the first half of the year – oh, sure, they are publishing to be considered for literary and popular prizes and to have books to offer at major literature festivals up and down the country but they could spare a thought for book bloggers! Or maybe I should just declare my own timetable and do my ‘best books of the year’ to coincide with the tax year rather than the calendar one? I need to consider this – if I can find time while catching up with all my potential new favourite books: a list in which I am definitely including Kit de Waal’s wonderful new novel.
The Trick to Time is the story of Mona, a dollmaker from Ireland living in an English seaside town. As she approaches her 60th birthday she looks back over her life – a childhood in Ireland, the loss of her mother and her closeness to her father, her escape from small town life and move to Birmingham, where she meets her husband William. There they experience joy, when Mona becomes pregnant, and the horrors of being Irish after the 1972 IRA bomb attack. Mona then has a stillbirth – made worse by the fact that, in the early 70s, it was assumed that the best way to help families cope with this loss was to virtually pretend the child had never existed. Mona now seems to lead a solitary and lonely life but we find that when she does connect with others her aim is to help them – in the way that she was helped at the hardest time of her life.
I’m not sure if I can quite describe what it is that Kit de Waal does in her books which make them so wonderful. Part of it is the characters: they are very ordinary people who are put into, in some ways, everyday situations but the way that they deal with them transcends the ordinary. I think what I love most is the fact that she sees the extraordinary in everyone. I laughed with these people, basked in their love and wept with them. While you read their lives they are as real to you as your own family. It is a deeply emotional experience but it is one I can never regret – I feel the weight of these people’s lives in every page.
My childhood was full of slightly odd, and very Westernised, views of China. Hong Kong Phooey was a favourite post school cartoon, we all sang along with Carl Douglas and occasionally called each other ‘Grasshopper‘. But our first introduction to the reality of Chinese culture came from watching the best tv series ever (imho), Monkey… In later years I thought I had moved away from (non-edible) things oriental (although I did read and love the book which Monkey was based on) and, like many others, I have been guilty of reducing a great and ancient civilization to a cuisine and a visit to see the Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum so I decided to try to correct this somewhat by reading Hero Born, the first volume in an epic series which has been described as a Chinese version of The Lord of the Rings…As I read it though I was reminded of how much the culture of the Far East we are familiar with now.
The story, we are told in the introduction, follows two Chinese Patriots who are part of the fight by those faithful to the Song Empire against the Jurchen invaders. These young men, however, die very early in this volume and we move to the fates of their as yet unborn children. This volume – the first of three – concentrates on Guo Jing, son of Skyfury Guo, who finds himself raised on the Mongolian steppes in the camp of the great Genghis Khan. He is trained in martial arts by a group known as the Seven Heroes of the South (although there are actually only six for most of the story), and aided in secret by a mysterious Taoist. Although he doesn’t know it a battle was arranged for him and Yang Kang, son of the other Song patriot, to take place when they are eighteen and his teachers (or shifus) have been planning this training since before his birth. It is, in many ways, a simple story of a boy who is trained to fulfill his destiny but it is also wonderfully complex. The historical and political situation in 1200AD China is covered in great detail – this is also a very well researched historical novel – and interwoven with a sort of fantasy tale of chivalry and revenge. It also includes a lot of complicated fight scenes, some romance and political intrigue.
I enjoyed this book but think that calling it a Chinese Lord of the Rings is a bit simplistic. Think of it more as a cross between that, the fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a fairly hefty dose of Kung Fu Panda. But without the panda. The pace of the book might seem a little odd – a mix of philosophy and choreographed fights – but this is actually the point where it reminds me of the favourite of my youth, Monkey. Jin Yong is a hugely popular author in China and has been honoured around the world: although national tastes differ I am willing to give a writer who has sold over 300 million books worldwide a try. You could too – you may well love it too…
Everyone has their own view of what is normal. I normally have weetabix for breakfast (lots of milk, a little dash of sugar and a few raspberries, mmmm) but to some that would be quite peculiar. They may hate soggy, milky mush or just not be able to face eating until lunchtime. They may have dietary needs, either through health issues or training needs for some kind of sport, which mean they need to eat a high protein, low-carb meal to start the day: they have their own normal. Some people may baulk at the idea of eating the same thing every morning – they may thrive on creating a unique meal each day. Everybody’s normal is valid for them but, I wonder, do they ever stop to wonder where their view of ‘normal’ comes from? Or, maybe more importantly, where the normal of those they consider to be complete oddballs has its source.
Eleanor Oliphant has what she considers to be a very sensible attitude to life. She wears the same clothes to work each day (selected from a choice of a couple of pairs of black trousers, a few white blouses and some sensible flat, black shoes), spends her lunch break eating a ‘meal deal’ from a local shop and doing a crossword (thereby avoiding waste – eating a whole pack of ham/cheese/tuna before it spoils is hard when you live alone – and keeping her mind active) and speaks to her mother every Wednesday (even if she’d rather not). So far she seems like someone I should be emulating – I could have an extra five minutes in bed if I didn’t have to decide what to wear each day and, on the weeks when Rob is away, I do sometimes have to either throw away food or eat the same thing every day for a week. And I should certainly ring my Mum more often… However, Eleanor also buys a couple of bottles of vodka each week – what has happened in her life that she needs to blot out her weekends? That is where you realise that, whatever she claims, Eleanor Oliphant is really not completely fine. It seems she is going to continue with her pattern of work, predictability and weekends of total oblivion indefinitely until two things happen: she sees a man who she believes is ‘the one’ and she, along with a colleague from work, helps an old man who has a fall in the street. These two things lead her to start changing her life – and she discovers that planning for her future leads her to start investigating the past she had managed to forget.
Eleanor is a wonderful character – so well-drawn and yet so deeply, deeply flawed. The more we learn (along with her) about her past the more we realise why she needs to drink a couple of bottles of vodka each weekend: anything to avoid remembering. The book is so well written that you feel with her – the plans to make herself into a more conventionally attractive woman, despite the physical as well as emotional scars she bears, the irritation with those who don’t manage to live in as organised a way as she does and the crippling horror of the memory of a blighted childhood. We may not all share Eleanor’s dark past but reading this book made me realise that we all have our own demons to deal with: her’s are just larger and scarier than mine…
We are often asked if we can get authors to do signings at our store. Partly because readers really want to meet their writing heroes and partly because they want to show off what a beautiful bookstore Bradford has. We get suggestions about authors both locally, nationally and internationally famous and we’ve had a few in. Last year saw visits from both Henry Blofeld and Jilly Cooper and local boy Dynamo had them queuing round the block a few years ago but some of our most popular events are with authors who both live in Yorkshire and set their fiction there. We’ve hosted increasingly crowded launch events for pharmacist turned Bradford Noir writer A.A.Dhand (watch out for book three this summer) but I think we’ll have to face the fact that Michael Stewart, former writer in residence at Theatre in the Mill at Bradford University, now owes some allegiance to Huddersfield where he is Head of Creative Writing. His newest book, however, has such strong links to the Bradford District that I’m sure he’ll be in the city to talk about it soon.
Ill Will is an attempt to answer one of the great questions raised by literature (and by one of the most interesting academics, John Sutherland) – is Heathcliff a murderer? More importantly it fills in those three years between Heathcliff running away, after hearing Catherine saying that it would ‘degrade’ her to marry him, and his return to Thrushcross Grange as a wealthy but heartless man. In the original novel we just have to accept the change but it was one of the things which I had a major problem with. The other one being how on earth I was meant to consider Heathcliff a romantic hero – easy enough when I was a teenager but as an adult I realised he was basically a wife-beater, and probably a rapist too. Which is a bit of a digression but, luckily, it is a question which also gets answered.
When Heathcliff does run from Catherine he crosses the moors and falls in with a group of men working for a farmer on the far side of Todmorden – only a few miles but a world away in a time when travelling was unusual. He needs to run a second time when he rescues a young girl, Emily, from a beating. She seems to be able to commune with the dead, an ability met with equal shares of horror and fascination, and they begin to use this skill to pay their way over to Liverpool – where Heathcliff is in search of the truth about his origins. He plans to abandon Emily – he has no plan to saddle himself with the care of a young girl – but their lives are soon linked by lies, by guilt and by a need for each other. And she is no meek little girl – as foul-mouthed and devious as Heathcliff himself. It is what they discover in Liverpool, however, which eventually leads to both his change in fortune and the utter hardening of his personality. The boy that runs away is irreligious and angry, full of spite and profanity: the man who returns has been turned into a bitter and vindictive bully bearing all the trappings of a gentleman.
I really enjoyed this book as an explanation for Heathcliff’s missing years – the Heathcliff who I recognised, as an adult, as a deeply violent and unromantic figure. He began as a coarse and embittered boy – money, power and the knowledge of how he came to fit into the life of the Earnshaws turn him into a black-hearted and dangerous man.
It seems that lots of book bloggers are writers in the making. Which makes sense – to be a writer you should, first, be a reader and the reviews themselves are often great pieces of writing – but it has never been something I have aspired to. I’m wracking my brains enough just to come up with how I feel about the books I read so it can’t be surprising that sometimes it all comes out a bit incoherently. (Also I know a number of writers and I’ve heard about how much work is involved – I don’t think I could live with all the editing, frankly…) Bookselling is also a career that often leads into writing – Hugh Howey, Lucy Hounsom and David Mitchell did their turn with shelving, dusting and recommending – but I’m still never going to follow in their footsteps. I do, however, take an interest in authors who work for my employer – some of them are so good that I will even commit to reading the second book in a series. Joseph Knox, who used to work in one of our Manchester stores, has certainly gripped me with his thrillers centered around disgraced detective Aiden Waits.
In the first book, Sirens, Waits gets involved with local drugs gangs in Manchester and manages to help a young woman to escape from their clutches. Sadly some of his actions during that case, and his past history of drug use, mean that he is hanging onto his job by a thread. Even worse, his job is now working the night shift with one of the least popular men on the force, Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe and his time is spent investigating bin fires. That is until they are called in when a dead man is found in an abandoned city centre hotel: a man whose total anonymity is ensured by his filed-down teeth, non-existent fingerprints and completely label-free clothing. His only distinguishing feature is the rictus smile on his face. The plot is complicated by the impending messy divorce of the hotel’s owners, a girl compromised after a night at a local private club who appeals to Waits’ chivalrous instincts and the fact that someone is obviously tailing Waits, someone who seems to know more about his past than he does. The story is alternated with that of a young boy, drawn into a life of violence and criminality by a sinister father figure and, as the book progresses, these two plots begin to intertwine.
Joseph Knox shows an almost disturbing detail of knowledge about the worlds of crime, drugs and inner-city policing. I’m assured he’s a lovely chap but I hope, for the sake of the Head Office team he now works with, that he doesn’t take his research into the office with him. He is certainly a crime writer to watch but if he brings muffins in to work I wouldn’t eat them. Just in case…
Sometimes I like to read books purely for fun or relaxation. When I was at University I read an awful lot of Mills and Boon romances – as a sort of sorbet to all the Shakespeare, Dante and revenge tragedy – and sometimes that is just what I need. At other times, however, I enjoy being challenged by what I read and to experience, through books, the pains and joys, the traumas and adventures of others. Many of the books I enjoy the most, and the ones I love to recommend to customers, are ones that scared me, made me cry or laugh and made me feel. These are not always comfortable feelings but they certainly remind you that you are alive. Some of the most illuminating stories are those that involve children – maybe because we have all been children at some point or maybe because there is a natural inclination to try to protect the young. Of course, sometimes, the child protagonists are the most fascinating – which they certainly are in Mick Kitson’s Sal.
Sal and her little sister Peppa are running away. They are running from a life lived with their drunken mother and her boyfriend Robert. They are running from what Robert was doing to 13-year-old Sal and they are running from what Sal did to Robert when he told her that, at 10, Peppa was old enough for him to be interested in too. They are going to survive too, because Sal has planned meticulously – buying the equipment and clothing they’ll need with some of Robert’s collection of stolen credit cards and has made a thorough study of survival techniques on YouTube – and because she is driven by a powerful urge to protect her sister. As the girls settle in to this life we see glimpses of what their life had been like – Sal being the one who made sure both her sister and mother were fed and protected, the difficulties of having an alcoholic mother and the fear of the family being split up if their situation were known to the authorities. What shines through is both this fear – which Robert, in particular, used to his advantage with Sal – and the girls’ long term plan to be reunited with their mother. It is a reminder of how young Sal and Peppa are that they see this reunited life as taking place in the Scottish wilderness where they have escaped to.
This is book full of wonderful characters – the two girls are very different but both are engaging – and, it turns out, the family is not as isolated as they thought they were. So, alongside the awful past, we do see a hope for a better future. However, I worry about Sal’s future. Her feelings towards her mother and sister are warm, fierce and protective and she shows fondness for some of the people who help her but her account of her own emotional reactions are oddly stunted. It was heart-breaking to think of a child that young having to live through such awful experiences: it was chilling to hear her speak of them so dispassionately.
I don’t always read sequels and prequels – I often read the first in a series and move on. Not because I don’t enjoy series (particularly in fantasy and/or post-apocalyptic fiction) but because, well, there are just so many books coming out. All the time. But sometimes a follow-up title comes along that I really need to read – often because the previous volume left so many unanswered questions. I read and reviewed The Girl With All The Gifts, Carey’s last book, two years ago when it came out in hardback – I managed to wait until Boy on the Bridge came out in paperback but give in I did…
It took me awhile to work it out but Boy on the Bridge is set some years before Girl With All the Gifts. In the earlier book we meet children who are similar to the zombie-like beings roaming the countryside, the Hungries. But unlike the adult Hungries these children retain many of their human qualities – the giveaway that we are reading about a few years earlier in this book is the fact that for much of the time the main characters only know of the standard sort of mindless Hungry. They are a mixed group of scientists and military protection who are following a previous expedition which left samples from various zombies. They are searching for any variation in soil type, climate, elevation or other environmental factors but find nothing until they reach Scotland. There are an interesting blend of characters – the military side includes a commanding officer who has been sent out as a political move as well as a variety of junior soldiers. The point is made that, after an apocalyptic event, there are limited career options – mechanics, technicians and anyone who can hold a gun will all end up in the army. The scientists are a similar group, although their weak link is their nominal leader who spends most of his time hiding away. The two members of the team we see most of are Samrina Khan, an epidemiologist, and Stephen, a 15-year-old boy who appears to be autistic but is also brilliant. He, in fact, came up with the idea for the gel everyone uses when outside which blocks the scents which attract the Hungries attention. They are also the two team members who have secrets to hide – Dr Khan has become pregnant, which was always going to be a problem on a year-long mission, and Stephen is sneaking out to study the Hungries at much closer quarters than is usually safe.
This is a sort of zombie novel but also one which looks at how people react to stressful circumstances. It is vaguely pleasing to see women in leadership positions but the reaction of the team to Stephen is sadly realistic – he is treated by most of the group as a liability, they feel he is just a child and that his autism makes him a danger to himself and others. I was fascinated by Stephen’s narration of events as he saw them too – he is pretty aware of how others see him but is absolutely certain of the validity of the work he is doing. When this work brings him face to face with a group of children who are living among the Hungries he realises they have found the anomaly they were searching for.