Tag Archives: fiction

Book Wars: Five Star Billionaire Vs. Bend, Not Break

2 Mar

This week I reviewed two books about China for Stylist magazine’s Book Wars feature: Bend, Not Break, a memoir written by Ping Fu, and Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. Eastern promise or new world nightmare? Billionaire’s a good ‘un but Ping Fu’s true story of overcoming terrifying hardship to reach the dizzying heights of success got my thumbs up. Enjoy.

Click here to read the full reviews

Book Reviews: Five Star Billionaire vs Bend, Not Break

Book Reviews: Five Star Billionaire vs Bend, Not Break

 

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Camus by numbers (in a good way): You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

3 Apr

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander MaksikI’ve just heard that Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing was on Sunday’s TV Book Club. Unfortunately I missed the show, but I read the book last year and really liked it. Set in Paris, it’s a cleverly told, elegantly expressed story that explores the battle between morality and free will (in a Not Lame kind of way). Does it make sense to stop yourself from doing something because you know it should be wrong? Can a good person do something bad without being driven by external factors? If you found yourself at turning point, how would you react? Rights, wrongs and lot of existential sub-tones made this a captivating read for me. Plus I tend to be a sucker for any novels set in Paris. Here’s my review that featured in a mag last year…

I’m always keen to read books recommended by my favourite authors, and this compelling debut comes with a particularly exciting stamp of approval – bestselling writer Alice Sebold hand-picked it to launch her new boutique publishing imprint, Tonga, in the US.

Set in an international school in Paris, the story centres round William Silver, a charming young literature teacher who uses unconventional methods to engage his students in passionate debates on everything from Sartre to religion, truth and morality. He’s adored by impressionable student Gilad, and desired by countless female pupils, including headstrong Marie. But Will doesn’t live up to the ideals he promotes, and temptation will cause his life to unravel at breakneck speed.

On the face of it, this could sound like an age-old story of teacher/pupil power abuse. But through literary references (Shakespeare, Camus, Faulkner) and a mixture of narrative voices (the story is told by Will, Marie and Gilad), Maksik forces us to question whether anything is ever really that simple. His teenage characters are brilliantly complex, their voices portraying a convincing mix of bravado and insecurity that draws comparison with The Catcher in the Rye. But it’s Will who’s the real enigma- unable to apologise for his actions and never once trying to justify them, he often bears resemblance to Camus’ anti-hero, Meursault.

You Deserve Nothing is a bold choice for Sebold – fans of the sentimental, dream-like essence of The Lovely Bones will be struck by Maksik’s stripped back prose and the quietly foreboding intensity of the subject matter. But it’s a necessary vehicle for Maksik’s weighty central motif: how should we live our lives, and by whose ideals? Prepare to be left with more questions than answers.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon: a powerful little book by a playwright known for packing a punch

26 Mar

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon, review, book review, fiction, author, literacy, Penguin, playwright, BritishLike most Londoners, I’ve encountered my fair share of weirdos on the Tube. Vomiting drunks, end-of-the-world preaching psychos, the man who took time out of his life to tell me I have a Really Big Head (he wasn’t that weird actually, mostly just honest). But the day I finished The Colour of Milk, a new release written by playwright and novelist Nell Leyshon, I BECAME the weirdo. Because as I was standing there squished against someone’s armpit in the rush hour chaos, I hurled towards the ending and was so shocked that my jaw dropped open and I was stuck with a guppy-fish like facial expression for an amount of time that would have made my fellow passengers worry for my sanity (and their safety).

Because The Colour of Milk is a book where you KNOW something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t make it any less shocking when it happens. Set in 1831, it’s told through the voice of 15-year-old Mary, an illiterate farm worker with hair ‘the colour of milk’. Living on a farm her family, Mary avoids beatings from her father by working tirelessly from dawn to dusk. It’s a grim existence, punctuated by violence, but what Mary lacks in physical strength she makes up for with a strong will and a sharp tongue. When her father sends her to work for the local vicar’s invalid wife, she starts a journey that will lead to both her freedom and her downfall.

i don’t like to tell you this. there are things i do not want to say. 

but i told my self i would tell you everything that happened. i said i would say it all and for this i must do it.

Written by Mary after she learns how to write, the narrative has a sense of urgency that becomes extremely compelling – maybe it’s the fact that Leyshon bashed out a draft in just 3 weeks, or maybe there’s a little more at work here. Occasionally, the grammar felt a little bit too perfect (although I just tried to sneak through it again and find some examples and I’m a bit stumped to be honest), but overall it’s hugely believable and even more so when Nell herself was reading it out in her native Somerset accent at the recent Penguin Bloggers Event (see below pic). Add a strong sense of foreboding to repeated references to ‘the colour of milk’ to add rhythm and structure, and you get a particularly polished little book of 172 unputdownable pages.

I had the pleasure of meeting Nell Leyshon herself at the Penguin event. A truly lovely lady with an enviable CV (she was the first woman to be asked to write a play for Shakespeare’s Globe since 1599- no typo!), she describes The Colour of Milk as a love letter to literacy, and to literature. But not in a lame-arsed, highfaluting, inaccessible kind of way. Instead, this is a book that explores how reading and writing sets us free, in the most basic and literal sense. But what’s also interesting is that what gives Mary the chance of a better future will also have an irreversible effect on her life.

Nell Leyshon reads The Colour of Milk at Penguin Bloggers Nighthumans and animals, he said, are quite different.

ain’t that different to me, i said. there’s things they both do that’s the same.

Are we meant to think that ignorance is bliss? Does Mary trade in her ignorance for her innocence? Maybe, but I don’t think that’s the message. Instead, I think the implication is that without the ability to write, to communicate, Mary’s suffering will have been in vain. But with her words and her experiences transformed into the physicality of pen and ink, her story can be told. Finally, she has something important to say – and unlike when she tries to speak back to her father or her employer- her voice will be heard.

and so i shall finish this very last sentence and i will blot my words where the ink gathers in the pools at the end of each letter. 

and then i shall be free. 

Read it now – I think the Tube could always do with a few more weirdos…

Paperback recommended read: The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood

26 Mar

the godless boys naomi wood

 In my never-ending quest to get through a million books a month (approx), sometimes my memory isn’t able to cope with the excessive influx of verbiage. I’ll admit it, I’ve been known to forget characters’ names, plot lines, and especially endings, of books  that I’ve read just a few months ago. But this isn’t the case when it comes to Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys, which I read over a year ago. I can still remember the salty tang of the sea and the brutal tenderness that the book threw at me. With the paperback out in April, I really recommend you put it on your radar (it would make an especially good book club read). Here’s my mini review…

Whoever said religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed at dinner parties might need a rethink, as this tale of faith and power from a young British writer is bound to get tables talking. The Godless Boys envisions a 1950s England governed by the Church. Following a period of political unrest, all non-believers are exiled to the Island, where religion is illegal. We join the story in 1986 when a new generation is growing up on the Island. Nathaniel, a beautiful yet dangerous 16-year-old, is the leader of the Malades, a group of boys who patrol the island looking for believers, or ‘gots’, to punish. In their uniform of military jackets, tight jeans and shaved heads, the gang initiate a campaign of violence and harassment.

When an English girl appears on the Island looking for her missing mother, Nathaniel is shocked to find himself falling for her. But then his best friend Jake discovers his secret and the consequences will change their lives forever.

An exploration of gang terror with whispers of A Clockwork Orange (although a lot less violent) and a nod to the rivalry in Lord of the Flies, the novel also has shades of 2006’s This Is England.

But it’s the surprising tenderness and cliché-free sentimentality that sets this story apart. Woods’ degenerates care for their mothers, idolise their fathers and secretly long for love, but feel increasingly trapped by the stark isolation and loneliness of island life. A sub-plot of unrequited love and redemption is particularly poignant. The language meanwhile is vibrant and evocative, with frequent and unusual references to the sea giving a tangible bitterness to this sharp story about lives saved, and doomed, by faith.

Judging a boy by his face: Wonder by RJ Palacio

5 Mar

Wonder by RJ Palacio, author, review, writer, American, debut, 2012, child, narrator, moralWhen I first heard about this book, my initial and extremely articulate thought was ‘meh’. It’s not that I’m a horrible person, it’s just I felt like this kind of thing (a crossover novel with a child narrator carrying a big moral message) was all a little bit Curious Tale of the Dog in the Night-Time – ish. Which isn’t to say I didn’t love that book – I did – but hey, no one likes a bandwagon jumper.

That said, it took me just a few pages of reading time before I was caught hook, line and sinker by the story of the insanely brave ‘little dude’ Auggie Pullman, the ten-year-old with a facial disfigurement who wins over everyone he meets. When home-schooled Auggie’s mum thinks it’s time for him to go to school, he’s terrified at the thought of everyone staring at him. Having lived a life of second-glances and cruel playground taunts, the thought of pacing the mean streets of a middle school are a little overwhelming to say the least. But Auggie has a huge strength of character that will get him through whatever life throws at him. Somehow, he always comes out smiling. Cue trailer:


A simple tale of the world as witnessed by an outsider, Wonder is narrated by Auggie and some other children in the novel, including his two new friends, his teenage sister, and her boyfriend. This technique offers a wider angle on events, but Auggie’s chapters are by far the most captivating. If you’ve managed to make it half-way through without blubbing, you have a heart of stone. It’s almost as if Palacio was going through a check-list of guaranteed tear-jerkers (Loss of a close relative, check. Death of family pet, check. Overall feeling of frustration at the existence of some particularly horrible people in the world, CHECK). And I have to say, it occasionally teeters into an All-American cheese fest (I think there’s a slow clap moment at the end plus a dubious use of Christina Aguilera lyrics, for example). But, I really enjoyed it. I read it in one, tear-drenched sitting and felt simultaneously depressed and uplifted all at once. Uplifted, because of aforementioned slow clap. Depressed, because I’ve never had a book reveal so plainly how much I have to learn from a fictional ten-year-old.

My one comment is that I  would have liked to have had a section of the story narrated by Julian, the two-faced teacher suck-up who becomes Auggie’s enemy. As it is, he remains kind of one-dimensional, serving a bit of a pantomime villain function in the plot. But hey, this is a novel primarily for kids after all, and all the adults reading will surely know (/hope) that Julian is bound to have problems in later life.

So yes, if you’re a fan of Curious Tale, or if you’re looking for something a little simpler but just as powerful as a literary heavyweight, this debut is well worth a read. I’d put money on it becoming a big crossover success.

In the meantime, I’m curious to hear what you think about child narrators… are they insightful, or irritating? Which books do it best? Let me know!

Sunday inspiration: Alexandra Singer’s amazing story

26 Feb

Tea at the Grand Tazi, Alexandra Singer, novel, review, fiction, books, author, debut

Next week sees the release of Tea at the Grand Tazi, a debut novel by British author Alexandra Singer. Getting your novel published is a commendable achievement by any standard, but Singer’s story is made all the more amazing given that four years ago she couldn’t even remember starting the book that would go on to bring her such success.

Alexandra Singer, Tea at the Grand Tazi, novel, debut, author, Lupus, review

The trainee lawyer found herself on the brink of death after being struck down by cerebral lupus, a rare autoimmune disease that left her in a coma for three months. Two months after she came out of the coma, she asked her family if she had written a novel, unsure whether it was true or she had dreamt it.

She was conscious but completely bed bound with limited use of her hands when her brother found the unfinished manuscript in her flat and brought it to her in hospital. Amazingly, she spent the next four years re-teaching herself to write and setting strict writing targets to complete Tea at the Grand Tazi.

I have yet to read it (it’s said to be an intense, colourful portrayal of a young expat’s journey into the seedy underbelly of Marakech) but with a real life story like that, Singer’s debut definitely deserves to pack a punch.

Kind of puts all your lame writing excuses to shame, doesn’t it?

Your next book club read: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

22 Feb

I’ve been wanting to share this book with you ever since I read it a few weeks back. I cried, I swooned, I got unfathomably jealous of the author’s beautiful way with words… Here’s my review that appeared in today’s Stylist magazine. If I don’t manage to convince you, click here to read Savidge Reads’ excellent review. This is my favourite book of 2012 thus far…

The Snow Child Eowyn Ivey