I’ll wait in the car – ‘Follow Me Down’ by Tanya Byrne

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I think I am too old for this book. Where others might see a thrilling plot I saw deliberate artifice. Where some might see a young woman clouded by passion, I found a rather irritating teenager. I read a reasonable amount of Young Adult fiction, but rarely do I they make me feel like an out of touch and world-weary parent.

This is probably because I tend to read dystopian YA. The end of the world through the eyes of a teenager is much as the same as it is for grown-ups, except perhaps that the collapse of humanity is more poignant if you have children of your own. Follow me Down is essentially a teenage love story, albeit against the background of a mystery.

Be warned. This review contains mild spoilers.

I wasn’t that impressed with the novel from the outset. The setting and three central characters had me rolling my eyes. At Posh Boarding School. New Girl from overseas, catches the eye of Most Popular Girl (who is also a self-obsessed manipulative bitch) and they vie for the attentions of Filthy-Rich and Rebellious boy. There is also a Dark and Scary Woods in which Bad Things Happen. Characters and settings that hardly feel original or inspire any confidence that you’re in for a treat. Especially when you add in Geeky but Dishy new teacher (Think David Tenant playing you know Who?)

In reality, Tanya Byrne more than succeeds in bring fresh life to old constructs. Her settings are well drawn and the characters have more significantly more depth than I expected. As the novel opens Most Popular Girl is missing, but as she runs away all the time, should anybody be worried? The story is narrated in the first person by New Girl, and is split across two time lines. One leads up to the disappearance and the other away from it.

There is a lot of ambiguity in this novel, which at first I enjoyed. Just how much does New Girl know? Was she involved? Why did she and Most Popular Girl fall out? Was anybody really raped in the woods? This final question gives rise to the novel’s strongest strand: An exploration of modern attitudes towards sex, particularly focusing around society’s perception of rape, and the difficulty of reporting it as a crime. Byrne offers much food for thought around girl’s blaming themselves and the difficulty of saying no, once you’re alone together. It’s important and affecting stuff.

Byrne also examines and exposes the father-daughter bond. There is a beautiful passage where New Girl talks about the change in the relationship between her and her father. At four, he could fix anything. Her protector. At seventeen, it is she who protects him from the harsh realities of modern teenage-life. It’s sad and regretful tone, made me want to hold my own children close and never let them grow up (also saving a fortune on new shoes).

There may be some great writing, but I found Follow Me Down to be overlong. There is altogether too much teenage gushing about the wonderfulness of New Girl’s boyfriend, and the way her heart skips when she sees him, and how she’ll die if doesn’t. I’m possibly being unfair; I remember feeling like this whenever my romantic life wasn’t going according to plan (most of the time). I remember my Mum telling me it would get better. I didn’t believe her, but of course she was right. It is only now that I’m grown up and married that I understand what love really is. What had come in those early years was merely infatuation. Now I’m in a place where I just want to tell New Girl to pull herself together and stop being so melodramatic. Of course this is a true depiction of teenage romance. I’m just too old to want to hear about it.

For the purposes of the plot, the identity of New Girl’s squeeze is kept secret. It’s clearly either Filthy-Rich and Rebellious or Geeky but Dishy, with a couple of incidental characters thrown in as conceivably possible outliers. New Girl only ever refers to her boyfriend as ‘him’, which works at first, but Byrne tries to maintain it over far too long a period. By the end it was clearly just a device to keep us guessing. This didn’t quite fit in with the first-person narrative. If New Girl is telling us a tale of terrible woe and trauma, why is she doing so in such a way to keep us in suspense. It isn’t credible, nor is the fact that both main boyfriend contenders insist on calling her ‘Miss Surname’, for the entirety of the book. One because he’s can being ironic, the other, because he’s her teacher. Again, this might have worked for a smaller amount of pages, but the device is used for too long, and it becomes irritating.

The novel’s climax is interesting. The resolution is mostly satisfactory, although the full extent of boyfriend’s duplicity stretched my credulity beyond acceptable limits. The drama between New Girl and Most Popular Girl is consistent and accurate, and one of the novel’s greatest assets. Overall, Follow Me Down is a well-written, intriguing novel, that keeps you guessing. Whilst the central mystery held my interest, the drama around it wasn’t for me, but I’m not sure it was ever the author’s intention that it should be.

One final observation, my wife described Follow me Down as ‘good’. Considering she often rates very fine books as ‘quite good’ this is definitely a positive review. It takes a lot to impress my wife (in books at least, her taste in men is less attuned), so this book is doing something right. She shared some of my dislikes but felt the strength of the writing and the delicate balancing of the mystery far outstripped any failings. As she’s never wrong, it rather renders my review obsolete!

Many thanks to Sam at Headline for sending me a copy of this book.

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And the Land is Dark – ‘The Round House’ by Louise Erdrich

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I’ve been fortunate in 2013 to enjoy a number of terrific books. Books that brought a smile to my face and put joy in my heart. Books that I can hand to anybody and say, ‘read this, you’ll love it.’ The Round House isn’t one of those books. But it might just be the best novel I’ve read so far this year.  The stories I’ve gravitated towards in 2013 have tended to be contemporary, set in the UK and been about the absurdities of modern life. They have often mirrored my own existence. The Round House is far away from this.

Set in the recent past, 1988, in the American Midwest, The Round House opens with a rape and attempted murder. The victim is a Native American, Geraldine, mother of thirteen-year-old Joe. The narrative follows Joe as he and the rest of his community try to come to terms with the attack. It’s a slow meandering tale, but is incisive in its examination of crimes big and small.

There are many layers and nuances to this novel. At the highest level it’s a murder-mystery, but its true strengths lie much deeper than that. There is an examination of the complicated land politics that govern Indian reservations; the inconsistent rules that decide which law enforcement body can try and punish criminals. This problem and its deep ramifications provide the novel’s moral and ethical backbone. The role of Catholic missionaries for good and ill is looked at, as is the way in which Catholicism has become ingrained into Indian traditions.  It’s a fascinating portrayal of an ancient culture vying for recognition and acceptance in the modern world.

Beyond the tribe’s spiritual culture, it is also revealing about the mundane aspects of reservation life. Families, food, jobs, law and order, all artfully revealed. This gentle reverence for life’s small events put me very much in mind of the prose of Anne Tyler. Most of all however, this is coming of age tale. His mother’s terrible ordeal flings Joe from the border of adolescence deep into adulthood. He and his friends criss-cross the reservation hunting for clues to the identity of his mother’s attacker. Their interactions, as a unit, and their individual relationships are reminiscent of Stephen King’s story ‘Stand by Me’. The smooth innocence of childhood rubbing against the harsh realities of adulthood is expertly portrayed. It’s a beautiful evocation of the journey from boy to man.

This is a novel light on plot, yet strong on story. It’s characters are a beautifully drawn ensemble cast of heroes and villains, shirkers and grafters, friends and enemies. They made reservation life almost tangible to me, despite being cosseted here in middle England. From beginning to end, this is a powerful novel, with an important message. I didn’t always enjoy reading The Round House, but its quality shone throughout. This is a book to immerse yourself in, soak up its characters, their pain and their victories. High quality fiction and highly recommended.

Many Thanks to Sam at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book for review.

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Humanity – ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig

humansMatt Haig’s novels have crossed my radar a number of times. The Radleys piqued my curiosity, but I’ve never got around to reading it. Whilst I worked in Waterstone’s I had so many requests for ‘that book narrated by a dog’ I felt I must read it myself, yet never managed to. The Humans, Haig’s latest novel, has had a fairly heavy presence on Twitter for quite some time and everything about I heard about it made me think it was my sort of book.

This is in part because Matt Haig is one of the few authors I’ve encountered that uses social media to his advantage. His congenial style, and willingness to converse, rather than plug, make you want to like him and his books. His wonderful blog for Booktrust doesn’t do him any harm either. So, when Canongate sent me a copy of The Humans to review, it was probably the highlight of my tiny blogging career.

I was not disappointed. The Humans is one of those rare books that makes writing look effortless. There is no strain in reading it. Nothing is forced, it’s just pure unadulterated storytelling. It’s the sort of book that makes you think you could be an author, ‘There’s nothing complicated about this, I could do it, no bother.’, belying just how much talent you have to have to write something this good.

The story is beguiling in its premise. Andrew Martin, professor of maths at Cambridge solved one of maths’ great unsolveables. At which point he was exterminated. He was then replaced with an alien life-form tasked with eradicating any evidence of his new theory, up to and including murdering anybody Martin had told. The imposter comes from a supremely intelligent species that operates through pure logic. They have decided the human race is not psychologically equipped to cope with the ramifications of Dr Martin’s discovery, and so, for the good of the universe, they decide to put the boot in.

This plan goes wrong from the outset, when Professor Martin’s doppelgänger finds himself naked, running down a Cambridge street. Instead of carrying out his mission, he becomes entangled with the law and processed into the mental health system. From here he starts to learn more and more about the humans.

‘Humans as a rule don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting and only then once they are dead.’

Much of the novel’s strength comes from everything about humanity being an anathema to its narrator. The alien questions all our basic assumptions and calls us on life’s absurdities.

‘A cow is an Earth-dwelling animal…which humans treat as a one-stop shop for food, liquid refreshment, fertiliser and designer footwear.’

The author derives much humour from this but he also uses it to prise the lid off humanity and give it a good stir. In this respect The Humans resembles The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but instead of a human going out into the universe, the universe has come for a home visit.

As the alien recovers from his ordeal, he sets about trying to do his job, but he finds it more difficult than he expected. He discovers fragility and compassion amongst humanity that he did not expect. Andrew Martin’s life was in turmoil, yet his family remained bound together, why was this? The alien delays his mission to find out more, sending him on a most unexpected journey.

It is Haig’s contention that the binding force of humanity is love, and it is our ability to feel pain that gives it strength. This novel contains many deep, contemplative observations on the nature of love, familial and marital. Its accuracy is breathtaking.

I recently read a YA novel (which I have yet to review) at the heart of which was a bright tempestuous relationship, that is only possible when one is young. As I enter my fifth decade, I found the skipping hearts and trembling innards rather silly. Haig’s novel is about the battered iron core that’s left after years of compromise and altered dreams. It’s about the real deal and is described with perfection.

In this respect The Humans reminded me of Plato’s Symposium, something I read many years ago when I was trying to find a reading for my wedding. Anybody looking for something fresh for a reading or marriage vows should read this book. It is filled with many beautiful passages that encapsulate just what love and marriage should be.

The final and perhaps most heartfelt strand of the novel is that of Prof Martin and his son. I won’t say too much as I wouldn’t do it justice, but the alien’s attempts to repair this foundering relationship are hilarious and heart-breaking all at the same time. They also strike fear into the heart of any dads of three boys that might be reading.

‘Your life will have 25,000 days in it. Make sure you remember some of them.’

It’s hard to describe just how good The Humans is. It’s a book that has something for everybody. After all, it’s about all of us. Funny and life affirming, it’s one of those rarest of books; a feel good read that will stay with you long after reading. Read it, share it, live it.

Many thanks to Canongate for sending me a copy of the book to review. Matt Haig can be found as the Booktrust writer in residence and on Twitter as @matthaig1. He’s well worth a follow. I will of course now be returning to Matt’s backlist to finally read all those other interesting sounding booksm

Quest for Lost Action – The City by Stella Gemmell

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It’s difficult to know how to approach Stella Gemmell’s The City. She is the widow of one of Britain’s preeminent heroic fantasy writers, David Gemmell, author of Legend, one of the genre’s finest novels. She was (I believe) David’s editor for his entire career, and cited as co-author on his last book, published posthumously. The City is Stella Gemmell’s debut novel, but clearly she is an experienced writer. It seems unfair to compare her work to her husband’s, disrespectful even, after all they’re separate people, yet it’s almost impossible not to.This is partly due to the obvious similarities between The City and many of David’s novels. Most of his later novels were historically based, and although The City is out and out fantasy, it feels very much based on real-world historical attitudes and cultures. Characterisation is superficially similar. Most of David’s fantasy novels contain a superannuated warrior giving his all to defend the weak, always in impossible circumstances. The City has them in abundance. Yet here they are given a frailer side. David’s characters were rarely given to introspection. Stella’s have motives beyond defend the weak and try not to die. Unfortunately, as a result, all the pace has been sucked out of the novel.The City is a tapestry; a weave of slighted characters, plotting to avenge themselves against a corrupt megalomaniac. Supreme ruler of The City (it is never given a name) ‘The Immortal’ is rarely seen, yet revered and feared by his subjects. At his behest, The City is perpetually at war with it’s neighbours. Countries and realms have been and gone, but the war, and The City, grinds on and on. The City itself is made up of layer upon layer of buildings. New structures have been thrown on top of old, giving rise to a subterranean city that is as busy and populous as those parts at street level. The City is a labyrinth of streets, tunnels and sewers, twisted and gnarled with age, much like The City’s politics; Byzantine in many ways. It is here in which the novel’s main problem lies. Those who wish to bring The City down feel like they are going into battle with the Civil Service. The City has become a bureaucracy for waging war, it’s ruler a faceless government official.It’s a potentially a neat device. A ruler who is never seen, who is clearly several hundred years old. He’s known to use proxies; does he look old? Young? has there been more then one Immortal, or has it always been the same man? This uncertainty makes assassinating him distinctly more difficult, but it’s hard as a reader to care what happens. War is bad, we’re told. The Immortal doesn’t care about how many of his subjects die in his wars, we’re also told, but the man himself is hardly ever in the novel, so it’s hard to care that much what happens to him.

Before long it’s obvious that something unusual is going on, but exactly what isn’t made clear until the novel’s dying stages. Not in itself an issue, but the reveal is awkward in the extreme. It’s like a James Bond film; one of the ‘baddies’ goes to great lengths to explain what’s going on to one of the ‘goodies’ that he has at his mercy. This level of exposition is unforgivable in any novel, especially after 500 pages of hard reading. (Said baddie then does something completely inexplicable, that I can’t describe because I’ll spoil the book, but it makes no sense whatsoever.) There is no real hint as to any of this as we read, so it’s impossible to meet this horrible example of ‘telling’ with much more than a shrug of the shoulders.

There is some nice meditation on the futility of war, but that alone isn’t worth the entry fee. Read All Quiet on the Western Front instead. It’s not a fantasy novel, but it’s only half the length and says ten-times more. There are some strong characters in this book, but the novel is crying out for one of them to take the story by the scruff of the neck and go looking for a plot. David Gemmell’s plots were often too simplistic, this one is so subtle, it doesn’t really exist. The City contains some nice ideas, some beautiful prose, and even one or two memorable characters. What it lacks is any heart, and its far far too long. Things do rally before the end. The last hundred pages are exciting, but if I hadn’t been reading out of loyalty to David, I would have given up long before I’d reached them.

Many Thanks to September at Transworld for sending me an advanced copy of this book.