Paperback RRP £7.99
Many of the negative Goodreads reviews for Gone Girl exemplify the classic traits of the casual book reviewer: “I didn’t like it because the characters were meeean.”
That’s kind of the point. Twisted, obsessive characters appear to be Gillian Flynn’s forte. Neither Amy nor Nick is the good party, but I still read this book cover to cover in a matter of hours and cared about where the plot was going. Lack of empathy is no excuse for disliking this book.
I disliked it because, by the end, it was soap-opera levels of unbelievable.
I’ve given it three stars because I had a lot of fun reading it: the cliffhangers were thrills of the cheapest (best) kind, coming thick and fast; the gripping diary entries; watching Nick throw more and more shit at a very large fan. It was like a really good Nicci French novel.
And part of the problem actually lies there. The midway plot twist has been seen in a French novel (I won’t give it away but it’s one of the most well-known ones). Maybe it’s been in other places, too, but I’m not well-versed in crime novels. I called it before I’d got halfway through the first section (which might be because I REALLY like that particular Nicci French novel, but I’m not sure).
Then the book continued and I thought Oh, right. There’s more to say? OK. OK let’s hear it. And for a little while, Flynn stokes many a fire of hatred for one half of the central couple, and it’s compulsive reading. There are some fantastic lines (paraphrased: “I’m penniless and on the run. How fucking noir.”) Amy’s distaste for just about everyone is portrayed with an uncomfortable level of realism.
And then it just balloons into this great grotesque mockery of a made-for-TV film.
I refuse to believe in the sheer unprofessionalism of the police. I refuse to believe that some of the clues left scattered about would be understood quite so quickly by the person discovering them, given how said person is presented. I refuse to believe that anyone is so insane as to actually exist in the ending situation that the characters just settle into. The characters are sick, but they’re too sick. Flynn tries her best to build it gradually but it still didn’t fly with me.
I enjoyed Gone Girl a ridiculous amount. Unfortunately, that involved reading a large amount of ridiculous. Good try, but not a great one.
Title: Waiting For Gonzo
Author: Dave Cousins
Publisher: OUP Oxford
When it comes to writing for kids, Dave Cousins is pretty good. His debut novel 15 Days Without a Head was a Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week, was nominated for the 2013 Carnegie Medal and has been longlisted for the 2013 Branford Boase Award. With any justice, Waiting For Gonzo will gain him even more accolades.
Oz moves with his sister Meg and his mother and father to the small town of Slowleigh. Resigned to his fate, Oz decides to try and make friends through his greatest strength – joking around. He chooses a seemingly random portrait of a girl in the hallway to draw a moustache and glasses on. Unfortunately, the girl turns out to be infamous bully Isobel ‘Psycho’ Skinner. Vendetta ahoy.
As if that’s not bad enough, Oz then has to deal with the discovery that Meg is pregnant. After some initial jokes (which, for some reason, Meg finds less hilarious than intended), Oz takes it in his stride, nicknaming the unborn baby ‘Gonzo’ after the character in the Muppets. The book itself is a chatty, breezy epistolary story, written from Oz to Gonzo as he imparts earnest wisdom to the newest member of the family.
Teenage readers are notoriously difficult to please: they vary as much in terms of relationship knowledge as they do in genre preferences. Writing a book with a universal appeal across that age group is no mean feat. Cousins, however, manages it with an enviable, unique style.
He hits all the right notes. Oz has Ryan, who is THAT friend – you know, the nerdy LARPer who is sometimes a little difficult to admit to knowing. There are crushes, and the well-meaning, if cringeworthy, parental encouragement that comes with them. The cheeky humour made me laugh aloud several times (not least when Oz charmingly nicknames Ryan’s bearded grandfather ‘Grandalf’).
It is so refreshing to read a plotline on teenage pregnancy that circumnavigates the judgmental nastiness. Cousins certainly doesn’t ignore it – Meg mentions how sick she is of being stared at on the bus. But he shows a different side: in this case, there is our hero Oz, who accepts the situation with love and enthusiasm.
The book’s highlight is the excellent midnight heart-to-heart between Meg and Oz. This scene touches on humorous points such as Meg’s cravings (pickled gherkins), but also tackles the fear that Meg feels about giving birth, and about coping afterwards. It’s brave, and a total joy to read. Oz reads like an easy-going, mischievous boy would. I could have been spying on my younger brother’s thoughts. Perhaps more importantly, Meg sounds exactly as you would expect: she’s in emotional turmoil, pretty terrified of the whole birth business, but still makes time to be sarcastic and argumentative. That level of characterisation doesn’t come easy. Cousins is to be commended.
The book also benefits from one of the most dedicated publicity tie-ins yet. Oz loves music. His playlists help him through the misery of being stranded in Slowleigh; he gifts Ryan with a custom playlist to make him “cool”. Brilliantly, Cousins has used his musical knowledge to bring Oz’s playlist to life, and you can listen here.
Canny, punchy and laugh-out-loud, Waiting For Gonzo is a riot.
Author: Elizabeth Reeder
Publisher: Kohl Publishing
The main story explored in Elizabeth Reeder’s second novel (and Kohl Publishing’s well-selected first) is quite extraordinary by itself. Rachel Roanoke and Hal Fremont court for a day, marry, and plan to have fifty children – one named after each state. They track each birth using a carved map hung on the wall.
It’s a given that Fremont is, in part, about the tough endurance of maternal love (this review is fittingly being published on Mothers’ Day in the UK). But by no means is this book a strung-out gimmick. It is a sprawling, relentless epic. If you sit and read, the Fremont family’s mythology comes out of the page and grows around you – a steadily-enveloping oak, wrapping its trunk around a foreign body.
The sexism and expectation around traditional masculinity is thoroughly dissected. Hal’s only son, Tex, has to attempt to live up to his father’s standards. The eleven other girls – chronically ignored by their father – grow and individualise as best they can. Reeder illustrates the irony beautifully: Hal can view his daughters as one unit all he likes, but much of the novel is necessarily given over to their adventures and accidents.
With such a collection of children, you might expect Reeder to tip over into placing each one a little too neatly into a pigeonhole (“This one likes wearing pink, this one’s a tomboy,” for example). That never happens. Each child is a carefully-wrought individual. None of them are ever fully laid bare in 2D. You can find yourself leaning towards picking a favourite or despising one of them – before realising that their position in the family line-up has shaped that particular facet of them, and that they are so much more than what you see them as. Late in the book, I found myself detesting one of the youngest children for her apparently selfish actions; then, without didactics or fanfare, it became obvious that she only did what she must to stop herself going mad. Therein lies the true magic of Fremont: you must accept the beauties and curses of the whole family. They feel real.
Touches of magic realism and the sense of a deep natural power wind like gold thread through the whole thing, enhancing its charm and pull over the reader. Reeder’s imagination buoys up a narrative that would get mired down in others’ hands. Some details are genius, like baby Cole being unable to sleep unless she can see the stars.
The huge family is never still; their energy pulses through each word. There is a skilfully-created sense that any one of the children could disappear at any moment. Some of them do. And when death visits the family, you feel the loss with a keenness that might surprise you.
Fremont is a masterful, shattering examination of that special brand of madness with which only your family can infect you. At times it simmers like Jeffrey Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides; sometimes, the text feels like a lyrical, magical spell, in the fashion of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.
Read it slowly. It is a story to be savoured, cried over, and celebrated.
Author: Madeline Ashby
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Publication date: 2nd August 2012
What if we could build humanoid companions? Would we vanquish loneliness? Or would people treat human-humanoid relationships the way mixed race and same sex relationships have been and are viewed?
What if superintelligence turned on us?
For someone who is not especially clued up on sci-fi past the odd Doctor Who episode, I never thought I’d end up being engrossed by a novel that asks these questions. Yet Madeline Ashby has created a debut novel that deals wisely and warmly with our fears of a technological future.
Amy and her mother Charlotte are von Neumann humanoids; they can multiply (known as “iterating”) and heal themselves. Each set or “clade” of vNs has certain abilities (such as photosynthesis, or climbing). Amy and Charlotte live with Amy’s human father in an uneasy futuristic America. Charlotte’s malfunctioning vN mother, Portia, breaks into Amy’s school and attacks Charlotte, killing a small boy in the process. Amy devours Portia in order to stop her doing more harm – in doing this, she stores Portia’s data on her own memory drive.
However, Portia’s error is that her “failsafe” has broken – and that means the command not to harm humans is not a part of her make-up any longer. Amy goes on the run and finds that different organisations want to use her as a weapon, want her unique flaw, or simply want her dead.
This is a brave book that does an admirable job of filling in the possible “What ifs” of a future where technology is built into everything. Madeline Ashby tackles issues such as family ties, the nature/nurture debate and the relationship between humans and artificial intelligence with enthusiasm. Her creative imagery fabricates a world that is very much her own: when reading, you believe the prejudice and the terror that some of the humans are feeling.
This notion of a time when robots can be either cherished or easily discarded is gripping. Amy’s stunted growth means that she sees things differently to other vNs – her naivety is tragic but winnng. Watching her forge relationships by herself is, at times, very tense. She is a protagonist readers can really root for.
Sometimes the technical jargon gets in the way, particularly at the beginning of the book. You do get past this, however, and the language soon becomes familiar. My main issue with the book is a section that deals with a flashback of Portia’s: this seemed disjointed and jars the flow of the book. It perhaps would have been better to form a separate novel out of that (I actually hope there will be – Portia’s a terrific character with a surprisingly complex background).
By the end, vN has worked a satisfying tale from an imaginative premise. Ashby does a good job of immersing the reader in her vision of the future, through strong images and well-written prose. Overall, it’s a gripping read – check it out, even if (and maybe especially) if you’re not a sci-fi reader.
Title: Midnight Pirates
Author: Ally Kennen
Publisher: Scholastic Children’s Books: Marion Lloyd Books
Miranda’s mother, Pinkie-Sue, and her father, Cormac, own The Dodo hotel in St. Austell’s, Cornwall. The family have good friends and family connections in the area, including a relation known as Aunty Mad (which, really, could be short for something or could just as easily be an epithet) and eccentric Kernow native Mrs. Garroway. Miranda’s has just been fired from her part-time job, and things get worse: her parents announce her father’s book publication will take them to America and that they are selling The Dodo. Miranda, her older surfer brother Cal and her precocious younger brother Jackie are put on a bus towards St Anne’s boarding school but Jackie doubles back and goes back to The Dodo. What follows is an adventure book that adheres to a great formula: including all the best elements of children’s stories in one book.
Kennen goes from talking about mermaids to discussing pirates with ease, and includes exciting elements of double agents and hiding out. Classic twists (like benign characters turning out to be anything but) are well-worn in this genre, but are still treated with skill. Kennen is also adept at sketching out the background for her story. The Cornish landscape and wildlife is skilfully and sensitively evoked; Miranda’s caring attitude towards “her” seals is wonderful to read.
But topping the bill is Kennen’s portrayal of unusual concepts. This really comes through when writing about things such as teenage girls playing mermaids, and Miranda pondering the existence of the ghost of the man who built one of the hotel’s towers. The microcosm within The Dodo is rich, yet at the same time, the book maintains the illusion of a madcap, uncertain, semi-wild place where literally anything could happen. If it did, the three children would certainly be smart enough to handle it.
There are two relatively small reasons Midnight Pirates doesn’t get the full five stars. One is that, with much of the action bundled in towards the end of the book, the last quarter feels suddenly very cramped. Had Kennen spread the events over a few extra pages, the pacing would be more balanced. The other is a tiny niggle that I suspect most readers won’t pick up on – but it’s something that makes me grind my teeth again and again whenever I see it. Miranda’s rival, “chief mermaid” Morag, is described as being rather sizeable and having “chocolate-covered canines”: the fat/bad message is so present in many children’s books, and I think it’s something to watch out for.
My concerns aside, however, this book is largely a winner . This would be an ideal book for children to enjoy on their own, as there is a glossary of the more difficult phrases (particularly those in Cornish – I can ask for ‘some more bread please’ now!) at the end of the book.
Kennen is no stranger to writing great fiction. Her debut, Beast was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2006 and won the 2007 Manchester Book Award. Her second book Beserk won 2008 North East Teenage Book Award and was again nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Just before Midnight Pirates came 2012’s Bullet Boys, which made the 2012 Guardian Prize longlist. And that’s only a handful of her accolades.
I get the feeling that with Midnight Pirates, Kennen has hit upon a solid formula that will grab the attention of readers aged nine and over – and, let’s face it, their parents too.
After all, when could you ever resist something with pirates, mermaids and kids in charge?
Title: Girl Meets Underworld
Author: Jess Watkins
Publisher: Opis Publishing
Published: 12th February 2013
It’s starting to get increasingly hard to find a YA story that doesn’t include vampires and love rivalry. Girl Meets Underworld dutifully meets these conditions whilst doing very little to add anything to one of the most popular genres around.
Central character Stella is stopped before a suicide attempt by Conner, who turns out to be a vampire. The familiar premise walks even more familiar territory before the story is finished, including vampires who find self-control difficult around human delicacies and a rival love interest who happens to be a werewolf.
Jess Watkins is the latest in a series of young writers creating fiction in Twilight’s shadow. She is not an entirely bad writer – with more practice she could become a competent short story writer. Unfortunately, Watkins is poor at structuring and pacing the events. The central romantic pair fall in love at turbo speed, forgoing any romantic tension and credibility. Stella is made to forget a crucial part of her own story through the manipulations of a certain older vampire (I won’t spoil the revelation for would-be readers) – and then, miraculously, remembers everything and realises what has happened only a few pages later.
The plot continues hopping across lilypads in the same way for the rest of the book. Potentially interesting elements of the world, like vampire haven ‘The Blood Palace’, never get the expansion they deserve. Due to this, any uniqueness of storytelling is washed away whilst the love-trianglees fritter back and forth, desiring, attacking and saving each other over and over.
Overall the read is largely unexciting. It is a shame, because though young writers should be encouraged, it is tricky to want them to continue writing like this. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the duty of editors and publishers now is to resist accepting pale bestseller imitations in favour of honing talent.
Girl Meets Underworld will provide undemanding readers with a quick fix of supernatural romance. For those who are more discerning, however, it’s a patchy read that never fleshes out the interesting parts of its own world. Instead, it opts firmly into staying in the safe vampire fiction ballcourt.
Author: Emily Snow
Publisher: Emily Snow Books
New year, same genres. The wave of Kindle porn keeps insistently rolling on. That would be just dandy, if the porn was actually any good. Will there ever be a decent, balanced erotic novel with good vibes and wholesome messages? Let’s see.
One of the most recent contenders is Tidal by Emily Snow, which has apparently sold many copies. I’m not surprised. Erotica does that.
This time around, young actress Willow (who apparently has brown hair but who I just see as Lindsay Lohan) has just been released from rehab and is offered the lead part in a remake of a surfing film. It seems that sports where you fall over a lot are a great place to get some hot sex, because Willow has handsome devil Cooper as her coach. The obvious happens.
It’s a hastily-written book with the expected structural and linguistic issues. Throughout the book it is obvious that Snow cannot decide on her target audience. She liberally peppers speech with swearing (which, instead of causing shock or impact, comes off as childish). Irritatingly, she props up her story with near-constant references to popular culture, which instead of supporting the narrative comes across as Snow trying to shoe in some relevance to today’s young adults. It is a very lazy tactic.
Initially, though, Snow’s writing is all right. Her lead Willow is believably damaged and vulnerable. In particular, the way in which she is used by her jet-setting parents as a source of income is sadly credible and those moments are genuinely very moving. If Snow was just to focus on the way Willow rebuilt herself and her confidence, I would be on board with it. I found myself hoping for that.
And as far as the erotica goes, it’s a lot more realistic that 90% of the market. Cooper actually uses a condom (I could have high-fived Snow for putting that in). Snow writes sex well, if a little tamely.
But those brief sparks of decent writing stand out like sore thumbs, because the rest of the book is awash with misogyny. Cooper is a nasty piece of work for a character who is meant to be a romantic lead. He repeatedly enters her personal space when she is unwilling to have him there – he drops by her beach house after she has specifically told him she wants to go to bed (rampant consent issues right here). He calls her “Wils,” a nickname she hates, even after she asks him not to. Disturbingly, he tells her that she is unable to get away from him because she needs his help to train for her film. Essentially, Cooper is an attempt to copy the cold, intense personality of Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, but comes across as manipulative, cruel. For someone who is meant to be a desirable human rather than a supernatural being, Cooper is a frighteningly unforgiving bully. It’s terrifying. Willow is a broken woman with two stays in rehab to her name and she gets this soul-destroying brute as her love interest?
Only one thing tops Cooper’s awfulness. His even more loathsome friend Eric greets Willow by telling her he masturbated to her music videos. And he’s meant to be a comic character. Er.
Willow’s responses at these points are troubling too. She claims she hates Cooper (rightly so) but in the same sentence reveals how much she wants to kiss him, because he is handsome. She appears to think that Cooper’s good looks and “sexy” accent (Australian) override his inappropriate behaviour – a damaging lesson. It is worrying to think about how the book could teach more impressionable female readers about the “acceptable” way to be treated by a potential partner.
As for Eric, she lets him hug her, basically saying it’s nice to be around someone with a sense of humour. OK. That’s… healthy.
It all calms down a bit when Willow and Cooper form a proper couple, but with a first half as shocking as it is, Tidal and its existence is unjustifiable.
So, there we have it. More misogynist rubbish to pack into the erotica market. If you’re a woman reading this book and you find Cooper a turn-on, I feel for you. Your self-esteem, like Willow’s, must be through the floorboards.
After a struggle, I finally finished Girl in White by Sue Hubbard (Cinnamon Press). Art critic Hubbard branches out into books to explore the life of German Modernist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Modersohn-Becker died a short time after giving birth to daughter Mathilde, whose curiosity is the impetus for this novel.
Unfortunately, Hubbard is too good at her day job. The prose is stretched thinly over solid facts, and the mixture does not work, instead creating a stilted structure. The writing style is rather old-fashioned, using a storytelling/reporting style in order to relate a lot of information in a short space of time. This makes the prose rather dull. It would have been more interesting if the action being described was to unfold first-hand for the reader to witness properly.
Sometimes the dialogue reads as stilted and very non-naturalistic. Often, Hubbard falls back on simplistic telling instead of showing, not bothering to explore concepts properly. Sometimes the writing is downright lazy. A castle is “like something out of Sleeping Beauty”; a bed is “like something out of Heidi”. Hubbard should have used her own words to communicate her own meaning, instead of borrowing images.
The clumsy wording continues throughout. Sometimes, phrases are awkwardly put: “a cheekbone pressed against an unshaven cheek” is possibly meant to refer to the cheekbone inside the skin. The structure of the sentence would suit the cheekbone of another pressing against an unshaven man – but that makes very little sense too. Another example is “[Paula] handed him a rose. But he turned away without taking it”. How can you hand something if the recipient doesn’t take it? “Offered” would work better.
Occasionally, there are fleeting moments of charm – such as when Paula gets to grips with the English phrase “learning the ropes”. However, the choice to constantly switch from moving, fully-characterised moments to other, inconsequential passages leaves the reader no time to process or connect with the events or characters. Too often there is irritating painting talk: both Paula and Hubbard come across as obsessed with painting but not necessarily in a good way.
Not all of the characters are fully formed or particularly tangible. Paula’s father is an exception, but even this is sometimes inconsistent. The narrative would be much more interesting if it focused on far fewer relationships and concentrated on building them up, instead of featuring a huge cast of brief appearances.
Overall, Girl in White reads like a first draft. It’s trying to portray a family affected by war (something Sue Eckstein does much better in Interpreters); it’s also an attempt to evoke connections through works of art, except it cannot stand up to the subtle charm of Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht and her debut The Tiger’s Wife. I didn’t hate this book – I just felt indifferent.
It’s been going around for a fair while. What if Shakespeare wasn’t – well, Shakespeare? If you didn’t know about the Shakespeare authorship debate before The Hollow Crown era of BBC this summer, you probably didn’t escape the media ripples from Derek Jacobi’s clumsy namedrop of the Oxfordian theory; maybe you were one of the people who was entertained and/or mortified by Anonymous (which I am told is a good laugh).
In The Marlowe Papers, early modern scholar Ros Barber explores my favourite Shakespeare-wasn’t-Shakespeare theory. What if Christopher Marlowe – author of The Jew of Malta and the bloke played by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love – didn’t die in a Deptford tavern brawl? What if he just hid away and carried on writing?
Published by Sceptre; hardback £12.80
The Marlowe Papers is “a novel written in verse”. Don’t let that put you off. In fact, this should encourage you to read it. Echoing the rhythm and metre of early modern stage plays, the epic poem is beautifully constructed. Barber is a gifted poet: each line can be savoured. Her word choice might get lost in prose; in poetry, her skill gets propelled to the forefront.
What about the story? Barber concocts an alternate future for Marlowe by sending him abroad and embroiling him in all manner of adventure. Sometimes, it’s laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it’s very moving. Clever nods and references give the story a realistic grounding. The people Marlowe meets, loves and hates get to take the form of characters we know as Barrabas, Jaques, Prince Hal and more. Furthermore, Barber convincingly writes the process by which Marlowe is a slave to his creative brain: several times he answers question with a silver tongue, and is met with snide rebuttal. But he just can’t help it, and you really believe that.
Thematically, the poem repeats animal imagery – fish being caught to mirror court intrigue, for example – without being trite. My favourite theme is language and arousal: there is a beautiful passage in which Marlowe and the “dark lady” of the sonnets reach orgasm by speaking Marlowe’s forbidden name. I won’t give it all away – you must immerse yourself in Barber’s spell to get the proper effect. Other lines, like “London seduced me. Beckoned me her way / and spread herself beneath me, for a play” effectively capture the heady pull of city life and its possibilities.
Barber’s poetic skill extends to the way she guides her narrative with a steady hand. She manages to build and maintain tension where necessary, to dissipate it naturally and without interrupting the excellent overall flow. If it helps, The Marlowe Papers is just over 400 pages long; I read it in the best part of two days.
The book is two things at once. It is a scholarly work, informed by meticulous research and an obvious love of the subject at hand. There is a generous glossary and index should you find yourself wanting to investigate the characters further – but the work is never obscured by academia, and Barber herself writes that the notes are not necessary to understanding the meaning. It is also a stirring, emotional epic. It is lovingly written; in turn, I ended up loving Marlowe himself, as well as some of his supporting cast (the well-presented Henry Wriothesley in particular).
The Marlowe Papers, with its beautifully presented cover and typesetting, would make an ideal gift for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s canon. But it is also a great example of poetry written well – give it to any poetry fans in your life, too. Finally, it is a unique piece of literature – you must read it to experience it fully, and the effort is worth it.
I’ve handed out a flurry of five-star reviews recently, but please believe me when I say that The Marlowe Papers merits the accolade.