rachel cusk: outline

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Faye is a writer who is contracted to teach a creative writing course in Athens. During her flight she gets talking to her neighbour and she hears the tale of his life. Whilst teaching her class she sets them tasks which reveal more of their lives and she meets various acquaintances during her trip.

This is an odd book. There is no real narrative, nothing really happens and the central character has no character, however that seems to be the point. Faye acts a screen on which other peoples lives are played out. It’s beautifully written and short but ultimately goes nowhere and that seems to make the novel more about style than substance.

Frank mclynn: lionheart and lackland

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Born into the great Angevin dynasty and with Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine as parents, neither Richard nor John were expected to rule the Empire. John was his father’s favourite, Richard most beloved of their mother and whilst each were given some responsibilities, the heir was Henry the Young King. However the family fall-outs and rebellion meant that Henry died before ascending the throne and Richard became King of England and Aquitaine. Richard the Lionhearted is a heroic figure, talented at war he was successful on crusade and despite being captured whilst returning he survived to fight the old enemy, France. Dying as he lived at war, Richard was succeeded by his younger brother John, who quickly disposed of rightful heir Arthur and set himself up as a despotic ruler who lost much territory in France and almost lost England as well.

McLynn’s book is excellent, he shows deep research and understanding of events in England and France as well as their implications on a Europe-wide scale. The contexts of the time mean that historically Richard is regarding as a hero and John as a villain but it is not so simple. Richard used England as a cash cow to raise money for war and crusade, he spent as little as six months in the country as king, preferring his domains in Aquitaine. John inherited an empire on the verge of collapse and history has not been kind to a generally unsympathetic figure. McLynn’s talent is to bring both characters to life. Only one quibble, the absolutely tiny font!

David mitchell: the bone clocks

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I’m being honest here…I haven’t finished the book. I’ve tried, but I’m stuck and getting nowhere so this review may amended in the future.

I generally like Mitchell’s work, I loved Jacob Zoet but this is more like Cloud Atlas in structure but more tangential. I’m frustrated with myself more than the book!

Sara Novic: Girl at war

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Before the war Ana was a normal girl growing up in Zagreb, a tomboy with good friends and a sick baby sister. Then in 1991 everything changed. Suddenly Ana was a Croat and Zagreb was a target for the Serbs, bombings happened and family friends were conscripted. Ana’s sister became sicker and sicker, her only hope was a charity airlift for treatment in America. Getting to Rahela to safety meant crossing the border and on the way back life changed for Ana.

This book is written from two perspectives, Ana aged 10 and living through the war at first hand, and Ana aged 20, rediscovering her past from her unsettled present in New York. The story is multilayered, it is not just about the horrors of war but also about how those horrors are dealt with by the people involved and the people who come into contact with them. At first I wasn’t two keen on the story but then it hooked me in and I was entranced.

Marc Pastor: Barcelona Shadows

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Barcelona 1917 and the city is in the grip of fear. Amongst the poverty and need, the people are scared as children are disappearing off the streets. A body is found, twisted and drained of blood, and the rumours of a vampire at large in the city grow. The local police are of two minds, Corvo wants to track down the killer at any cost but his superiors are less keen. Could it be because they are aware of the vice that lurks in the darkest parts of the city where anyone is for sale, regardless of age?

This is short book and a beautifully crafted one, the story is based on true events and is horrific. Barcelona a hundred years ago was a rough place with huge distinctions between poor and rich which meant that the vices and depravity were not always investigated. Using ‘Death’ as a narrative voice is novel and lends a different perspective. The translation is generally good but sometimes adds a discordant note by the use of certain vernacular which doesn’t seem right, eg. ‘bum’. That is the only niggle though, this is a gripping gothic tale.

Jenny Blackhurst: How I Lost You

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Emma is a woman living a quiet life in Ludlow, she keeps herself to herself and seems to have few friends but a love of deli-food. However Emma used to be called Susan and she has recently been released from psychiatric custody after serving time for the murder of her son. Susan suffered from a form of post-natal psychosis and cannot remember killing her child. During her time in custody her husband divorced her and, despite the new identity, Susan will always be a child-killer. The Susan receives a postcard with a picture of a child on it and the message ‘Dylan – aged four’. Is it her son? Is he alive?

The first half of this book is fantastic and very original. Susan is a sympathetic character, she does not appear to the monster portrayed and her best friend really roots for her. As she looks into the ‘death’ and her conviction Susan begins to believe there was something more to what went on and the reader is with her the whole way. However the plot starts to get sillier and sillier and that’s when I started to lose faith with the story. In the end I found the whole thing laughable, too many conspiracies and over the top goings on, which spoilt it for me. The writing is spare but really gripping and Blackhurst can obviously tell a story effectively, the difficulty here was that there were too many stories which overtook a very credible and intriguing premise.

Jessica Knoll: Luckiest girl alive

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Ani seems to have it all, a successful career as a writer on a magazine and an envious lifestyle in New York, mainly funded by her Wall Street, blue-blood fiancee. However as Ani starts to narrate it is clear that she has secrets that she has tried to move away from. Ani is about to get married and is suffering the standard pressures of weight loss and anxiety, she is also concerned about the filming of a documentary about the events that happened at her school during her teenage years. As Ani narrates she reveals how a bright girl with an ambitious mother joined a prestigious school on scholarship and the horrible events that happened in her first year that have scarred her to date.

The first few pages of this book had me concerned – it’s very ‘chick-lit’. A bitchy but talented heroine is planning her wedding and it’s all designer this and diet that. However once the story of TifAni FaNelli begins to be revealed I became gripped. Pulling together lots of different topical issues around the behaviour of teenagers, a portrait of privilege, mental illness and violence emerges. This book has been described the next ‘Gone Girl’ – well just about every novel with a first person female narrator and a twist in the plot is so described – this is something different but equally original. I didn’t think I’d like it but I could barely put it down.