Recently I’ve Read … The Turning Point by Freya North

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The Turning Point is the first Freya North novel I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, I downloaded another of her books almost as soon as I had finished this one – always a good sign!

For me, the defining feature of this novel was that I always felt I was reading about real people, never about Characters in a Novel. It feels as if you are part of their lives for the duration of the book.

The central characters are Frankie and Scott. Frankie is a children’s author who, when the book opens, is struggling with writer’s block. Aside from this, she doesn’t feel there is anything missing in her life. Contentedly single, she is in the process of settling into a new life in Norfolk with her nine-year-old daughter, Annabel, and her thirteen-year-old son, Sam.

Canadian composer and musician Scott lives in British Columbia, where he is also contentedly single. His central focus is his twenty-year-old daughter, Jenna, whose epilepsy makes her father especially protective.

A chance meeting between Frankie and Scott soon leads to love. Despite the miles that separate them, they decide to make a go of things, facing disapproval from Frankie’s mother and sister in particular.

The novel shows how certain relationships can have life-changing impacts. Frankie’s relationship with Scott makes her reassess her life: is Norfolk the right place for her to be? And is she planning to uproot her children for the right reasons. North explores the tension that stems from the need to balance family and romance.

Additionally, Scott gives Frankie a new outlook on life. She hasn’t really settled into her new community or gotten to know anyone: Scott encourages her to connect a little more with those around her.

The central relationship between Scott and Frankie feels real and the immediate connection between the two is very convincing. This makes the ensuing twist all the more gut-wrenching. Seriously, tear jerker doesn’t even cover it in this highly emotive and involving novel.

The supporting characters are just as well-drawn and engaging as Scott and Frankie. Both locations – Norfolk and British Columbia – are beautifully depicted: I am hankering after holidays in both locations now!

Scott and Frankie’s careers are interestingly portrayed, too, particularly Frankie’s: the depiction of her writer’s block in particular rang many bells, and I desperately wish her Alice and the Ditch Monster books were really available!

There is evidence of very thorough research here, particularly into epilepsy – which is informatively and thought-provokingly depicted – and First Nations people and customs. These topics are smoothly incorporated into the narrative, too, ensuring that the dreaded info dumping is neatly avoided.

If I had one slight niggle it was that the ending felt a little bit abrupt and clean-cut after the emotional trauma that had preceded it.

Overall, though, this is a skilfully written novel that really pulled me in and was difficult to put down. Freya North has created a cast of characters that feel like real people. A word of warning, though: that twist really is a shocker and, unless you have a heart of granite, you will need plenty of tissues on hand.

Recently I’ve Read … Noonday by Pat Barker

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Noonday, the final novel in Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy, will be published on August 27th. Many thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy to review.

The Life Class trilogy focuses on three artists – Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville – who we first meet as students at the Slade School of Art. The first two novels – Life Class and Toby’s Room – chart the trio’s experiences of the First World War. Barker is, of course, a renowned chronicler of this conflict and is best known for the harrowing, haunting and peerless Regeneration trilogy.

Few books rival the power and impact of the Regeneration trilogy, and Life Class and Toby’s Room are no different. However, it is more useful to view them as companion pieces to Barker’s masterpiece, rather than inferior successors. These two novels mine the same territory as Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, and do so fascinatingly. The territory I’m referring to is, of course, that of the horrors of trench warfare, but also issues of gender (particularly masculinity and its relationship to conflict), class and identity. These books also consider the role of art in wartime and are well worth reading.

It is worth pointing out, though, that Noonday would function just as well as a standalone than as the culmination of a trilogy. Indeed, its main ‘draw’ is not that it concludes a novel cycle but that, for the first time, this gifted chronicler of the First World War turns her hand to the second.

For me, Barker’s skill as a writer of historical fiction is characterised by two qualities. Firstly, she has a gift for defamiliarising well-worn ground: for instance, there are plenty of novels about the First World War, but none like the Regeneration trilogy. I am going to stick my neck out a bit (a risk because my knowledge of this area is by no means exhaustive) and say that she does the same with the Second World War in Noonday.

Most homefront novels I have read are somewhat romanticised: they focus on the pluckiness of the Brits during the bombing raids, on Blitz spirit, the togetherness of communities and on doomed romance. I have never read one quite like Noonday, which brings home the horror of the air raids and stresses the imminence of death in a vivid and harrowing way. In this novel, both Elinor and Kit are working as ambulance drivers, whilst Paul is an Air Raid Warden. Barker certainly pulls no punches when describing the scenes all three encounter on a regular basis. Her descriptive powers ensure that these scenes are chilling and immediate.

And this brings me on to the second quality that defines Barker’s writing for me: she writes historical fiction that never feels like historical fiction. In her work, it always feels as if we are watching people’s realities unfolding; we are witnessing the characters’ present. This is what lends a gripping sense of immediacy to Noonday: some scenes are almost heart-stoppingly tense.

This trilogy got off to a bit of a wobbly start with Life Class: the three central characters were difficult to like and, consequently, hard to care about. I thought that changed in Toby’s Room and, in Noonday in particular, Elinor, Kit and Paul seem much more developed and easier to invest in. This is a good thing as the novel also touches upon more personal themes such as friendship, rivalry, marriage and the loss of a parent. Barker’s ear for dialogue is also in evidence here, making the characters and the action seem that much more vivid. There is also some very interesting – and hackle-raising – material on the contrasting status of male and female war artists.

I do have one niggle regarding a subplot involving a medium. The lady in question, one Bertha Mason, is a fascinating character, especially since she seems to be both the genuine article and a fraud all at once. However, I was a bit befuddled as to how her story complemented the main plot, particularly as she departed the action a bit abruptly. It seemed to be that her presence commented on issues surrounding death, loss and making peace with the past but this is a wild guess: I can’t quite seem to work it out. This may well be me being a bit thick, but it never seemed clear how Bertha’s story commented on the novel’s main themes. There seems to be a lack of clarity here.

Overall, though, this is a gripping and unusual take on the Second World War. The action is every bit as harrowing, vividly rendered and skilfully portrayed as I expected as an admirer of the Regeneration trilogy. Definitely worth adding to your TBRs come Thursday.

Recently I’ve Read … Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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Elizabeth is Missing won the Costa First Novel Prize last year and is one of the most talked-about books of recent times. As is usually the case with much-hyped novels, readers divide themselves into two camps: the faction that insists the hype is well-deserved and those who maintain that it definitely isn’t. Indeed, I have recommended the novel to two people; one couldn’t finish it whilst the other finished it but hated it (my reputation as a reliable Recommender of Good Books is in tatters round my way).

So where do I stand in this great debate? Well, somewhere in the middle as it happens.

On one hand, Elizabeth is Missing is an incredible achievement and a remarkably assured debut by a young author (depressingly, many up-and-coming authors are now younger than I am. That is a Thing that has just started happening recently, along my lower back starting to ache in damp weather).

Like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, this novel’s most striking feature is its startlingly authentic and unique narrative voice. Our narrator, 80-year-old Maud, suffers from Alzheimer’s and her condition is convincingly portrayed. Maud will make you laugh and cry – often at the same time.

I have an idea there was something I had to remember about Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted me to get her something. A boiled egg, or some chocolate. That son of hers keeps her on starvation rations. He won’t even spend money on new razors for himself. Elizabeth says his skin is raw from shaving and she’s worried he’ll cut his own throat. Sometimes I wish he would. The miser. If I didn’t pop round with the odd extra, she’d waste away. I’ve got a note here telling me not to go out, but I don’t see why. It can’t hurt to nip down to the shop. (Healey, p. 6)

Considering our ageing population, this story is a timely one. Healey’s unflinching portrayal of society’s reaction to and treatment of the elderly is enough to pull anyone up short.

We follow Maud as she attempts to find her missing friend, Elizabeth. This modern-day ‘quest’ is interspersed with flashbacks to 1946, when Maud’s sister Sukey disappeared. Is there a connection between the two incidents?

There is, however, something a little disappointing about this book. I would say that this disappointment has more to do with what we are led to expect from the novel than any defects in the novel itself. This book is very misleadingly marketed. It’s tagline is: “How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?” Furthermore, the Observer review draws comparisons to Gone Girl and describes Healey’s debut as a ‘gripping detective yarn’. This is setting readers up for a big disappointment. This is not a mystery or a gripping yarn: the solutions to both plots is pretty obvious from the outset (and I think that’s the point really, so no complaints). Consequently, the actual plot is rather flimsy and insufficient to support the weight of the issues explored. It feels like the same points are being made over and over again, rather than that a gripping narrative is unfolding (again, this is very much The Point, I think).

This is not a plot-driven novel, then, or the pacey mystery it is presented as. What it is is a detailed exploration of a terrifying disease. This is brought home right at the end when Healey delivers a suckerpunch in the form of a truly tragic ending.

The crime and mystery elements of this novel are totally overplayed; the actual ‘plot’ has more in common with Waiting for Godot than with Gone Girl. But I reckon the fault lies more with misleading marketing than with Emma Healey, who has created a truly memorable, wholly authentic voice in Maud.

Recently I’ve Read … Us by David Nicholls

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It was pleasing to see Us, a domestic comedy-drama rather than an experimental, state of the nation, or heavy historical tome, being long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.

The novel is narrated by Douglas, a middle-aged scientist. His life is thrown into turmoil when his wife of many years wakes him in the middle of the night to announce that she is leaving him.

Despite this bombshell, the couple decides to have one last family holiday with their teenage son, Albie. This European Grand Tour is a grand farewell for Connie, but for Douglas it is a golden opportunity to persuade his wife to stay.

For me, Us was terribly cliched. Of course it is the man who is the rational, dull and unemotional scientist and the woman who is the free-spirited, ditzy artist. And of course the teenage son smokes pot and has a fraught relationship with his father.

The material is highly unoriginal and the narrative less than compelling. There are moments of fine humour, though, and this may well be a witty, engaging and insightful novel for some.

Recently I’ve Read … Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

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The ‘funny girl’ of the title is Barbara, who prematurely ends her reign as Miss Blackpool in order to follow her dream of becoming the British Lucille Ball.

Casting off her victor’s sash and tiara, Barbara heads to swinging 60s London. After a brief struggle, Barbara is reinvented as Sophie Straw and becomes a household name as the star of the trailblazing sitcom Barbara (and Jim).

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My relationship with this novel see-sawed somewhat. At first, I just couldn’t seem to engage with it. Too many similar male characters were introduced at once and they all seemed to blur. This contributed to the slightly sketchy feel of the piece: to me, Hornby’s prose read like a script with little in the way of fleshing out.

Indeed, the whole novel is lacking in atmosphere and I never felt the author was fully able to evoke the atmosphere of the 1960s. The sitcom Barbara (and Jim) was only ever vaguely rendered, too.

However, as the novel drew to a close, I did become involved with the characters – though never really Sophie/Barbara, who remained distant. It was the writers, Tony and Bill, who won my affection, and the really rather lovely producer, Dennis who won my heart.

The novel’s finale engages with some very interesting themes, particularly ageing and identity, and the changing status of popular entertainment. The whole novel is a love letter to, and a reminder of the artistry of, the 30-minute sitcom.

These are unusual and worthwhile themes to examine in fiction so, all in all, Funny Girl is a very interesting novel. But its world is too hazily sketched and difficult to picture. Ultimately, this book feels frustratingly incomplete and vague, like a script waiting to be brought fully to life.

Fantasy Fiction Week: Favourites on a Friday: The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

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In Spring this year, I finally got all caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire and joined the lengthy and impatient queue for The Winds of Winter. Although I, like many others it would seem, had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the series since the lacklustre A Feast for Crows, leaving Westeros behind for the time being left something of a void in my reading life. Searching for something equally immersive to take its place, I stumbled upon Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy.

In many ways, this trilogy was the logical next step after A Song of Ice and Fire. The latter is a textbook example of the grimdark approach to fantasy writing, which simultaneously borrows from and inverts the Tolkien tradition. In this respect, Abercrombie follows in Martin’s grimdark footsteps, with morally grey characters and anti-heroes in abundance.

Indeed, it is the characters that make this trilogy a standout in my opinion. It is hard to pick a favourite but, if pressed, I would probably plump for Sand dan Glokta. Glokta was once a dashing young hero and a renowned swordsman. Something of a hero, he was captured and tortured during an earlier conflict. Broken, crippled and bitter, he is now a torturer for the Inquisition and the sort of appealingly cynical character that can give Tyrion Lannister a run for his money.

Glokta’s closest rival for my affections is Logen Ninefingers, a deeply feared Northern warrior who is desperate to escape his violent past and his brutal alter-ego, ‘The Bloody Nine’. I am also inordinately fond of Jezal dan Luthar, a promising swordsman who starts off as insufferably selfish, shallow and vain and becomes … ah, well. That would be telling.

Joyously, there are some intriguing female characters here, too: the fabulously flawed Ardee West and the ferocious Ferro Maljinn. Looming large over all the aforementioned, however, is Bayaz, the First of the Magi. Bayaz has been in self-imposed exile for generations but has recently returned. What are his motives and is he a Gandalf or a Sauron? In this world, it isn’t easy to tell, and it isn’t impossible for one character to be both.

Abercrombie’s characterisation may take top billing but the sheer quality of his writing comes a very close second. Pithy, witty, sharp and wise – I highlighted something every few pages.

The plot focuses on the conflicts of several different continents.  It would be a crime to give too much away here, but I did feel that the trilogy fell down a little plot-wise. Whilst I am fully aware that this sense of disappointment was the Whole Point, the finale does raise the question of the extent to which a fantasy novel can flout the conventions of the genre and still deliver. Which is interesting enough in itself, really.

Although I found the plot slightly shaky at times, The First Law Trilogy makes it onto my favourites shelf on the strength of its characters and on the quality of Abercrombie’s prose.

There are three standalone novels also set in the same world: Best Served ColdThe Heroes, and Red Country. All three are pretty high up on my (ridiculously long) TBR.

Fantasy Fiction Week: Recently I’ve Read … The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower Book 1) by Stephen King

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The Dark Tower series is the prolific horror writer Stephen King’s foray into epic fantasy. It took him over thirty years to complete this seven-book sequence, almost as long as it took me to pick up my first King book after a near-lifetime’s awareness of his works.

The Gunslinger is the first King novel I have read but I was familiar with his stories decades before they became age-appropriate. My late brother was almost thirteen years older than me and, when I was small, he held the keys to an adult world to which I desperately wanted access. He had a record player (and a CD player as well. I’m not that old). He had books. He had a Spectrum computer. Barbie, My Little Pony and She-Ra held only limited appeal once I’d got my eye on that lot.

When you grow up with a much older sibling, your journey through popular culture is accelerated. Example: when I was five I was listening to the Fall. When I was six, this was my favourite song. And when I was nine, my favourite story was The Sun Dog by Stephen King. Although my brother didn’t go so far as letting me read the novella for myself, he did regale me with some edited highlights.

It's coming for you, Kevin. It's very hungry. And it's VERY angry.
It’s coming for you, Kevin. It’s very hungry. And it’s VERY angry.

As gripped as I was by the story, I was also utterly terrified to within an inch of my life. It is perhaps for this reason that I steered clear of King’s books until last month. Yes, at the ripe old age of 33, I finally felt Ready.

But not quite ready for the full-blown horror stuff. I was drawn to King’s take on epic fantasy, due to my own interest in the genre.

The Gunslinger is very short and reads more like a curtain-raiser to the series than an addition in its own right. It introduces us to the central character, the eponymous Gunslinger himself, also known as Roland of Gilead. It is here that the meshing of genres first becomes apparent. On one hand, the tropes are western right down to their sand-covered cowboy boots. Roland is a Gunslinger and he is in pursuit of a man in black. Roland pursues his quarry over a desert landscape. So far so familiar.

Yet these western tropes are fused with others that fantasy readers will immediately recognise. For Roland is also a knight of sorts. His intriguing, though hazily rendered, backstory is filled with hawks, castles, pseudo-duels, ballrooms and courtesans. And the man in black is also a sorcerer.

Not content with mixing western tropes and fantasy elements, King adds some post-apocalyptic dystopian strands, too. The Gunslinger doesn’t inhabit our world, though there are echoes of it: customers in a bar sing Hey Jude, for instance. Roland’s world has undergone some upheaval, a Fall of some kind. Our own world exists somewhere, though. From our world comes Jake Chambers, a young boy from contemporary New York with whom the Gunslinger forms a rather touching relationship.

If all this sounds like a confusing hotchpotch, then it is at times. But King just about manages to pull it off. Yes, there is a frustrating lack of clarity in places. The Gunslinger is journeying towards the Dark Tower, but why? At this point, who knows? King’s writing can be infuriatingly confusing. But it can also be utterly brilliant. His dialogue is often masterful: biting and laconic. There are some vivid and visceral scenes, too, making The Gunslinger the perfect novel for a visual reader like myself: you can see the endless desert and feel the arid heat.

Most importantly for the first in a seven-novel sequence, The Gunslinger holds a great deal of promise for the volumes to come. The Gunslinger himself is a promising character, though he is laconic and lacking in imagination. As such, he often appears rather one-dimensional and functional. He is thus in need of some back-up in the form of some engaging sidekicks; sidekicks who are conveniently and tantalisingly prophesied to arrive in the next installment.

And will I be reading the next installment? Yes. The Gunslinger may be confusing to the point of being impenetrable at times, but it ultimately lands on the right side of ambitious (just). I am hoping that the storytelling and world-building clarify in volume two. If they do, then this will be a compelling and immersive series.