But I want to look like this

never goodnightNever Goodnight
by Coco Moodysson

This graphic novel is set in 1982 and tells the story of three young girls who start a punk band. If that sounds oddly familiar, it may be because Coco Moodysson’s husband, Lukas Moodysson, adapted it into his 2013 film We Are the Best! (It’s an excellent film, I highly recommend it.) Having seen the film first, I was initially confused by some of the differences I found in the book but I’m trying not to compare the two.

12-year-old Coco lives with her divorced mother and her 17-year-old sister Magda. Their mum’s a bit of a party animal and gives the girls a lot of freedom. Coco’s best friend since third grade is Klara. Klara’s big sister Matilda (her age is never given but it’s implied she’s very close in age) often hangs out with them, and the three of them have decided to start a punk band. None of them can play an instrument but it’s punk, so that doesn’t matter.

The story is about female friendship first and foremost, touching on a few coming-of-age moments such as trying alcohol and starting to see parents as human beings. These girls have turned to punk because they are outsiders by nature, and they’re proud of it. They’re scathing of mainstream music and they talk about politics and environmental issues. The day they first heard the Clash they all cut their hair into spikes and dyed it black. But they’re also a little socially awkward, reliant on each other because they can’t really talk to anyone else.

Continue reading “But I want to look like this”

We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

I had read conflicting reviews of this book, so I’d put it to one side for a while. But then along came the Books on the Nightstand Summer Bingo, with that classic square “A random book from a shelf”. So I stood in front of the TBR shelves, closed my eyes, waved my hand around, and lo and behold this was what I picked out.

The framework is the story of two girls’ friendship in Naples in the 1950s, but through Elena and Lila we really get to know a whole neighbourhood and all the minutiae of money, class, society and education that will affect the lives of everyone born there.

To begin with Elena and Lila are not all that different. Elena, who narrates the story, is the daughter of a porter at the city hall, while Lila is daughter of a shoemaker. Elena admires Lila from a young age and so wants to be her friend that she hangs around nearby, playing with her doll at the same street corner, until Lila has tested her bravery enough times to form a lasting bond.

“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us…Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this.”

Continue reading “We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us”

It became frightening to step back onto firm ground

getting-the-pictureGetting the Picture
by Sarah Salway

When new publisher Dean Street Press offered up any of their books for review, I picked this one partly because the synopsis sounded good but mostly because they had a quote from Neil Gaiman on the cover. Not the greatest reason but I think it worked out.

The book opens with Maureen accompanying her model friend Pat to a photographer’s studio. Maureen is married with a young child and the photographer, Martin, specialises in nude portraits – tasteful ones, but nudes all the same – so Maureen is nervous to be there but undeniably attracted to Martin. Cut to 40 years later and Martin is moving into a retirement home. He writes a letter to Maureen to tell her that he picked the same home that her husband George is in, because he wants to finally understand why she went back to her husband after their affair ended.

Continue reading “It became frightening to step back onto firm ground”

A gleam of light in the impenetrable mystery

The Little PrinceThe Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
translated from French by Katherine Woods

This is my first read for Classics Club and it may have been an odd place to start, or maybe a very good place. I’m not sure. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected and yet, thinking about it, I really should have known exactly how it would be.

First of all, it’s a children’s book, which I knew, but so many adults rave about it that I suppose I thought it wouldn’t read quite so very much like one. Also, it was written in the 1940s and has the moralising tone to suit, though it’s an unusual set of morals that it’s selling.

The story is wonderful, by which I mean both that it’s lovely and that it’s full of wonder. A young pilot crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert and there meets and befriends an alien who has travelled to many worlds. The alien, the little prince of the title, tells the pilot about his home world and his travels and the life lessons he has learned.

Continue reading “A gleam of light in the impenetrable mystery”

Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial?

seconds-bryan-lee-omalley

Seconds
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

This is a sweet, funny graphic novel from the author and artist behind Scott Pilgrim, very much in the same vein. It blends real life with fantastical elements and has a strong female lead. What’s not to love?

Katie is the head chef at a restaurant called Seconds, but her dream is to own her very own restaurant. She has started to make her dream come true but it isn’t going smoothly. Her ex-boyfriend Max keeps turning up at Seconds, she’s having an affair with the man she’s supposed to be training up to replace her, and the builders at her new restaurant keep calling with bad news. When she causes an accident through negligence Katie knows something has to change…and somehow it does.

“Katie disappeared into the pantry. It was pretty pathetic. She sat there heaving and trying to make herself cry. The saddest thing was that she couldn’t have a moment away from herself. And then, through a crack in the floorboards, she saw—something.”

This has elements of a classic folk or fairy tale, including the idea that being able to put right mistakes won’t necessarily result in everything turning out perfectly. It also has a lovely strand about female friendship, as Katie alleviates her loneliness by getting to know her waitress Hazel. In familiar Bryan Lee O’Malley fashion, there are no clear right answers and Tim and I argued about the ending, before agreeing to accept that it isn’t the ending.

“Katie’s heart wouldn’t stop racing. Was her memory meaningless? Her experience insubstantial? Was she losing her grip on reality? Was she even awake?”

The art style is simple and atmospheric, with some beautiful set pieces. For instance, one double page is given over to a top-down view of the Seconds building, like a floor plan occupied by people and furniture. It reminded me of a page from one of the Usborne Puzzle Adventure series, with subtle jokes and hidden clues to the story to come – and I mean that as a compliment; I loved my Usborne Puzzle Adventures and still have several of them in my library!

Katie is an imperfect, relatable lead character. She’s strong and confident when she needs to be, fragile and heartbroken in hidden moments. She makes mistakes and she tries to put them right. She’s a bitch on a bad day and beloved by all on a good day. She doesn’t want to be alone but she doesn’t want to give up her dreams for a boyfriend. And she talks back to the narrator, which I found hilarious.

So now the only question is: will Edgar Wright please make a film of this? It would be really really great.

Published 2014 by Ballantine Books/SelfMadeHero.

Source: Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.

A sunburst split the seams of the clouds

The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton
by Lauren Groff

A good friend mentioned this book to me because it features a friendship between two girls, one of whom has lupus, and that was enough to interest me. However, that is just one plot thread in a novel that has so much going on you could easily accuse it of that typical feature of the debut novel – that the author threw everything into it – except that that sounds like a bad thing and I really really enjoyed this.

I tried describing the story to Tim and I think overwhelmed him with all the stuff, and yet it doesn’t read like a plot-heavy novel because the writing is lyrical and the elements are given room to breathe, not rushed through. I’m not quite sure how Groff achieved this in just 360 pages but I suspect it is because she has wound everything up together, so that it is all linked.

“We have run through the dark orange days of July, run through the summer mornings soft as mouse fur, through the drizzle, through the baking heat…This is called solace, our morning run.”

The central character is Wilhelmina, or Willie, Upton, a 28-year-old archaeologist who turns up on her mother Vi’s doorstep heartbroken and lost after a disastrous affair with a married man. She has come home to Templeton, the small New York town where she not only grew up, but was the direct descendent of the town’s founder, the semi-legendary Marmaduke Temple. Vi decides that this is the moment to reveal to Willie that she is not, as she had been told, the result of free love in a San Francisco hippy commune, but instead that her father is someone in Templeton, someone Willie has known all her life. But Vi doesn’t tell Willie who, instead she gives her a clue about his ancestry, sending Willie digging through the town archives and old family letters. Alternate chapters are narrated by characters from the town’s past, giving both a flavour of the history of the town and clues to Willie’s quest.

Back in the life Willie has run away from in California, her best friend Clarissa is seriously ill, having been diagnosed with lupus on the brink of multiple organ failure and now months into a treatment regime that is kept quite vague, frustratingly for me as I had an obvious interest in that part. This was inevitably the thread that was going to be hardest for Groff to sell to me and to be honest I think it was done pretty well, with only a couple of minor misfires. Clarissa teeters between exhaustion and boredom/frustration at being home and not able to work, which rang pretty true for me. Her boyfriend Sully cares for her but is angry at Willie for not being there, for having disappeared first on a months-long archaeological dig and now back to her mother.

“There was a painful rubbery silence then, when the noise of the crowd down at the park burbled up to the house and a few chirps from the frog-pool began to rise and the grandfather clock ticked and ticked in the dining room.”

And then there’s the monster. Yes, an actual monster. On the day Willie arrives back in Templeton, a huge dead creature is found floating in the lake that the town is built on the edge of. The creature is dragged to the shore and then away to a laboratory where a series of biologists fail to identify it. But the residents of the town know that it was their monster, that it had been there in the lake longer than the town, and without it everything feels wrong, empty somehow.

This last thread was the one I found difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel. There’s a touch of the mystical or fantasy in the story of the monster. In the historical sections of narrative we learn that troubled souls have always been drawn to the monster (indeed, a number have committed suicide by walking into the lake) and Willie herself may be one of these characters linked to the monster. It’s a fairly clear metaphor for the life of the town and for Willie’s emotional state and sometimes I liked the touch of surreal that it added to the novel, but at others I found it a little out of place.

There is so very much going on in this novel that I haven’t yet touched on. There’s the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Vi and Willie. Hippie feminist Vi appears to have found God and a drippy priest for a boyfriend, much to Willie’s chagrin. And Willie wants to curl up and be a child again just as Vi has found herself ready to move on from being a mother above all else. There’s the similarly complicated friendship between Willie and Clarissa, college buddies who can get on each other’s nerves as well as love unconditionally, who can hold back and keep secrets from each other but also at times be brutally, painfully honest.

There are many more subjects covered, such as the concept of home or belonging to a place, and the importance to some people of having a family history to draw on (though Clarissa, an orphan, seems to feel more drawn to Templeton as a home than Willie is). And of course the mysteries and secrets behind every door, behind every face. Whether it’s a broken heart or something much darker, everyone is hiding something.

“Outside, Templeton was still a pigeon gray, but over the far hills a sunburst split the seams of the clouds and blazed one stamp of trees a strange green-gold. I had dressed in a short yellow sundress from high school because I felt so sad and only that dress seemed to hold an element of light in it.”

Between the chapters there are old photographs labelled with the names of characters going back to Marmaduke Temple and even the last native people who lived on the land before the town was founded. It was perhaps not surprising to find, on reading the author’s note, that the fiction was loosely based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, right down to the town’s famous author – James Fennimore Cooper – who wrote semi-fictional accounts of his town and the characters in it. In fact, readers more familiar with Cooper’s writing than me will probably know that he called his fictional town Templeton and many of the historical character names used by Groff are also his. Groff has written a love letter to her hometown and an homage to its great writer.

Despite its everything but the kitchen sink storyline, this novel is beautiful, with interesting, sympathetic but fallible characters and a very skilled use of multiple voices to bring a whole town to life. Perhaps it would be more generous to call it multi-layered, which it certainly is, as well as intelligent and probing. I will definitely look out for the author’s other books.

Published 2008 by Hyperion.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Book and film: “I just know that another kid has felt this”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky

I must admit that this book came on my radar because of the film, but both book and film sounded right up my street so I thought I’d check it out. I was completely right – this is a very sweet story. I’ll start with my thoughts on the book.

Charlie is starting high school and as a coping mechanism he starts writing anonymous letters about his life to a stranger, as an alternative to keeping a diary. He documents his discovery of girls, drugs, music and sex but this isn’t a straightforward coming of age tale.

“My brother started saying how my sister was just a ‘bitchy dyke.’ Then, my mom told my brother to not use such language in front of me, which was strange considering I am probably the only one in the family with a friend who is gay…
‘Are you high?’
And again my mom asked my brother not to use such language in front of me, which was strange again because I think I’m the only person in my family who’s ever been high…Then again, maybe my whole family has been high, and we just don’t tell each other these things.”

Charlie is socially awkward and, we gradually realise, suffers from some form of depression and/or other psychological disorder. What it is is never stated outright but there are hints that things in his past have affected him badly. He begins as a thorough outsider but gets taken under the wing of brother and sister Sam and Patrick, who cheerfully embrace alternative culture, in the form of music, drugs and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Charlie is also “adopted” by a schoolteacher who gives him extra books to read.

There are a lot of characters who are damaged in some way, often having suffered horribly as young children, and it is one of the book’s strengths that it acknowledges that this has affected them without making it define them. It is in many ways a joyous book about the good times of being a teenager, and yet serious issues are tackled.

“I just know that another kid has felt this…all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people.”

There are lots of books, songs and films referenced; music in particular is key to the friendships depicted. Which lends itself very nicely to, say, a film soundtrack.

In the world of book-versus-film-adaptation, this is a bit of an unusual case. It’s Chbosky’s only novel to date; he seems to have carved a career as a film and TV writer. Indeed, he wrote the screenplay for and directed the film of this book. So it’s unsurprising that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, with the same tone and the same key moments.

There are some differences. Some plot strands are necessarily jettisoned, which makes the film less nuanced (I’m thinking particularly of Charlie’s brother and sister here, who both had bigger roles in the book). When reading the book I thought there were hints that Charlie might be autistic to some degree, but there was no sign of that in the film. In the film I felt that the Rocky Horror Picture Show got much more emphasis than I’d expected, which reminded me a lot of Fame (indeed, the two have a few things in common and might make a good double bill).

Overall, I enjoyed both film and book. Neither is a classic but they’re certainly better than average and do a good job of balancing tough subjects with a happy, even optimistic, attitude to life.

Published 1999 by MTV Books.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

The defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest

NW
by Zadie Smith

A couple of days after finishing this book I am still uncertain of my reaction to it. I don’t mean whether it was good or bad, exactly – I definitely enjoyed the read – but trying to dig deeper than that I am full of uncertainty.

The narrative slips between stream of consciousness, first and third person, and what I suppose you might call soundscape. This sounds like it would be hard to follow and it occasionally is, but for the most part the story is clear. Inasmuch as there is a single story, that is. I am still wrestling with that.

The novel follows three characters in turn, two of whom are much more closely linked than the third. All live in north-west London, in the NW postcode area, hence the title. This is an area I know a little, having friends there, so it was interesting to read a “native” (Smith is herself from NW) description of places such as Kilburn that I know as a frequent visitor.

NW seems preoccupied by wealth, class and the attitudes of people toward each other, both within and outside their social groups. It examines aspiration, ambition and the lack of those things. But it also looks at identity, how we see ourselves and how others see us and how those things rarely match up, even between partners or best friends.

“To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge…Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbours and herself…At other times…she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.”

These are some big ideas and it’s to Smith’s credit that it reads like a beautifully written story of modern life, not a philosophical treatise. Smith somehow even gets away with writing in dialect, which I usually hate. It’s sharply observed and occasionally very funny.

“Outside he tried to calm himself and realign with the exuberant mood in the street. The sun was an incitement, collapsing day into night. Young bluds had stripped to their bare chests as if in a nightclub already.”

The characters are wonderfully real, complex bundles of contradiction, with interesting flaws and believable back stories, most of which lead back to the same Willesden council estate. Certainly, for a novel preoccupied by ideas of class and self-improvement, there are few scenes of wealth, with the bulk of the story following those who struggle for money (and by that I mean the lower middle class style of money struggles as well as true hand-to-mouth difficulties). In fact, there were a couple of dinner party scenes that seemed so anti-middle-class that I actually cringed.

So the novel is not without fault. The stream of consciousness is perhaps too occasional, the book is divided into very short sections, speech is indicated in different ways in different places (quote marks, no quote marks, dashes, transcript) and there are a couple of complete breaks such as a chapter typeset in the shape of a tree, which between them smacked a little of trying to be literary. It’s also perhaps a little disconnected. I felt there needed to be a more even degree of overlap between the stories.

I haven’t let myself peek yet, but I hear this novel has had some controversial reviews in the press, so I’m now off to check what the Observer had to say… Any of you read this already? Managed to bag yourself an advance copy or rushed out on publication day to buy it? Did it meet your expectations?

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published September 2012 by Penguin.

It was only a series of feelings

I'm the King of the Castle

I’m the King of the Castle
by Susan Hill

I think I may have left it a little too long to write this review because I was struggling to think of coherent things to say. Which is not to disparage the book. I really enjoyed it. I had just fried my brain a little with too much stuff.

This is the story of a fight for supremacy between two 10–11 year old boys. Hill perfectly captures how to them it is of utmost importance, while to their parents there is nothing of import going on. Edmund Hooper lives quietly with his father in their big old family home. He is dismayed when his father employs a new live-in housekeeper, Mrs Kingshaw, who brings her son Charles along. He is even more dismayed when it quickly becomes apparent that Mrs Kingshaw is as much a candidate for second wife as she is housekeeper. Her son is equally dismayed by this idea, partly due to jealousy of his mother’s time, but primarily due to the increasing possibility that he will spend his entire life being bullied by Hooper.

The style is slightly odd and stilted, which I suppose you could say reflects the awkwardness and distance between all these characters who ought to be intimately linked. Kingshaw thinks at one point:

“He wanted to say I’ve come here and I don’t like it [but] I’ve got to stay here [so] why can’t we make the best of things? He was willing to put himself out, he would even, just at this moment, have said he would do whatever Hooper wanted, would acknowledge him as a master of his own territory. But he couldn’t put any of it into words, not even to himself, it was only a series of feelings, overlapping one another like small waves. He was confused.”

The relationship between the boys is cleverly created. Physically they are approximate equals but Hooper has confidence and the home territory, giving him the advantage. He terrorises his prey by subtly observing Kingshaw’s many fears and playing on them. Hooper is also the cleverer of the two, knowing just how to behave in front of their parents so that they suspect nothing. Kingshaw is not a sweet innocent, though. When he gets a chance to have the upper hand he takes it, usually.

There are moments of genuine childish play in the middle of it all that give you hope that the parents will be right after all, that two boys of the same age will always become friends if thrown together. But almost as soon as these moments begin, the seeds of doubt are being sown, as the boys size one another up.

On an aside, I bought the really quite beautiful Penguin Decades edition, with cover art by Zandra Rhodes. I am such a sucker for pretty books.

First published 1970 by Hamish Hamilton.

She thought she’d left her past behind

In Her Shadow
by Louise Douglas

I was sent this book on spec by the publisher, I’m guessing partly because it’s set in Bristol, or at least half of it is. But I must admit that I wasn’t entirely won over.

The premise sounded a bit woolly and to be honest, it was. Highly strung museum worker Hannah Brown has never get over the death of her best friend Ellen when they were 18, especially because she feels that she had betrayed her friend in some mysterious way. What appears to be a sighting of Ellen sparks off a long-drawn-out breakdown, or almost-breakdown, told in alternating chapters to the story of her childhood friendship with Ellen.

The characters are interesting and varied. As well as mousey matter-of-fact Hannah and exuberant arty Ellen there’s Ellen’s brooding, troubled father and Hannah’s sort-of-foster-brother Jago who is a gentle salt-of-the-earth type.

And there is quite a lot going on. In her youth Hannah nurtured an obsessive fixation on Ellen’s father, turning a blind eye to his failures as a father to her best friend. She also got pretty jealous over both Jago and Ellen. In the current day Hannah has a fixation on her co-worker John who is married, though not happily. And she’s having a meltdown.

Which all sounds like it could have been gripping. But somehow…it wasn’t. It was easy enough to read but there were no stand-out passages. The Bristol setting if anything annoyed me because it was slightly clunky, name-checking streets and locations constantly, rather than using more subtle descriptions that Bristolians would recognise anyway.

The Cornish setting was better, combining the romantic wild landscape and the mystery of a big rich house (Ellen’s) and the starker reality of working-class Britain in what I think was the 1970s and 1980s. Douglas showed some love for this setting, subtly dropping in local detail the way I would have liked her to in the Bristol sections.

The climactic reveal of the betrayal was actually better than I had expected, and made me dislike Hannah where up to then I had been on her side. I know the moment itself could be written off as a youthful mistake but she has spent years (16 or 17, I think) doing nothing to right the wrong.

There was some gothic, melodramatic potential for this novel but for me it didn’t deliver.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.