Sunday, 17 May 2015

REVIEW: The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

This debut novel, due for publication on 4 June 2015, came onto my radar at the beginning of the year when author Laura Barnett was featured in The Guardian as one of its New Faces of Fiction 2015. The premise of her novel, 'The Versions of Us', sounded intriguing - three versions of two people's lives, one relationship in three different ways. I added it to my 2015 watch list and was therefore thrilled when publishers Orion sent me a NetGalley proof of the novel. I don't know about anyone else but I do find it a bit nerve-wracking reading something that I've been really looking forward to. There's always a worry that you won't enjoy the book as much as you'd hoped you would or that you've over-hyped it in your head. Fortunately, my worries were unfounded - 'The Versions of Us' was every bit as unique and interesting as I'd hoped it would be. 

The premise is simple - Eva and Jim meet whilst at university at Cambridge in 1953. The seemingly small decisions taken that afternoon, and in subsequent meetings, alters the course of their lives and leads to three very different futures for them. Billed as 'Sliding Doors' meets 'One Day', the premise could be gimmicky but is handled with great skill so that you never lose track of each narrative or get confused as to which version of Eva and Jim you're following. I also really liked the fact that there is no one 'good' or 'bad' timeline - each version of Eva and Jim's lives has it's highs and lows and Laura Barnett cleverly uses this to play with reader expectations of 'happily ever after'. Without giving away any spoilers it's hard to say too much however I will say that my favourite 'version' of Eva and Jim ended up being the one I expected to like least!

I also liked Eva and Jim themselves. Laura Barnett has made them very rounded characters. Both of them have their flaws - sometimes the decisions that they make made me so mad! - but they remain likable throughout the various versions of their respective lives. And it was nice to see a 'relationship' novel that focuses as much upon the individual character's professional and personal lives as it does upon their romantic relationships and watching the development of the varying versions of Jim and Eva's professional careers was one of my favourite aspects of the novel. 

I have to say that I raced through this book in a couple of days - each version alternates and Laura Barnett generally leaves you on a cliffhanger after each one, so it was really easy to get absorbed into the story. I can see fans of 'One Day' really enjoying this book for the characterisation and playful take on a relationship (although if you didn't get on with 'One Day', don't let this comparison put you off - I personally didn't enjoy David Nicholls' bestseller and yet I loved this!). I also think that fans of Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' will enjoy the way that 'The Versions of Us' plays around with timelines and narrative structure. A great addition to a summer TBR - and a perfect novel for those seeking a more 'literary' summer read to pop in their holiday suitcase - I hope that Laura Barnett's debut gets the attention it deserves. Highly recommended, this has been one of my favourite reads of the year so far so, if I've encouraged you to check the book out, 'Versions of Us' will be published by Orion on 4 June 2015. As always, let me know what you think in the comments below or tweet me @amyinstaffs with your thoughts.

Until next time, Happy Reading!


Monday, 11 May 2015

REVIEW: We Are All Made of Stars by Rowan Coleman

We Are All Made of StarsI was lucky enough to be approved for a proof of Rowan Coleman’s new novel, We Are All Made of Stars (due for publication 21 May 2015), by the publishers Ebury via NetGalley. I haven’t yet read Rowan’s previous novel, The Memory Book, but it has made its way onto my TBR via the recommendation of several friends, who all praised its gentle treatment of a difficult subject and said it had a page-turning quality. So I was therefore very excited to get my hands on a proof of her next novel, especially as I was looking for a pacy, page-turning read following the two 600-page mammoths I tackled last month (see my April Wrap Up post for more on those!)
And I have to say, We Are All Made of Stars did not disappoint .The novel is set around a palliative and respite care home, the Marie Francis Hospice, and is told by multiple narrators who lives gradually intertwine as their connections to the hospice become apparent. There’s Stella, a nurse who writes letters for dying patients to send their loved ones but is herself nursing heartbreak at home; Cystic Fibrosis sufferer Hope, angry at the world because of her condition; and academic researcher Hugh, whose life is more lonely than he’d like to admit.

I sometimes struggle with multiple narrators, finding that by the time I’ve got into one person’s story I’m being forced to switch viewpoints. Oddly though, I didn’t really find this at all with this novel. I enjoyed the different voices, all of which Coleman has made distinct and easily distinguishable, and I found that the layering of the narratives quickened the pace of what can, at times, be a heart-breakingly sad and intensely moving plot. I particularly liked Hope’s voice, a mixture of world-weary sarcasm and humorous observation which made a nice contrast to some of the weightier chapters.

Admittedly there are times when Coleman’s characters do emote a little too openly (and often considerably more eloquently) than I personally found to be believable. A few of the conversations seemed a little deep (as in life, death and the universe deep) given that the characters have only supposedly known each other for a few days. But hey, this is fiction and not everyone has to act like real life. It’s a minor criticism and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this otherwise well-written, well-plotted novel.

Coleman writes with great sensitivity about difficult issues – grief, loss, guilt, trauma – but never loses sight of the humorous, life-affirming moments that keep people going in tumultuous times. I’m not usually a crier when reading but there were moments (well, one particular moment but I won’t divulge – spoilers and all that), that made me feel rather teary and others that had me gasping in shock and laughing out loud. Plus the ending made me squee like a fangirl so that automatically gets the book bonus points.

All in all, I really enjoyed reading We Are All Made of Stars – it reminded me of novels by Jodi Picolt and Dorothy Koomson, both writers who balance an issue-driven plot with excellent characterisation and intertwining narratives. To call the book an easy read would be inaccurate – the subject matter can be very difficult at times – but it was a quick, pacy narrative and it was easy to empathise with all of the characters and get drawn into the story. I can also see this novel being a real hit with book groups as there’s plenty to get your teeth into for discussion purposes but it has that page-turning quality that makes it a quick, enjoyable read. So, if that sounds like your cup of tea, check out We Are All Made of Stars when it’s published on 21 May! As always, I’d love to know your thoughts – or just engage in some book-loving chat – so drop me a comment below or tweet me @amyinstaffs.

Monday, 4 May 2015

April Wrap Up

As my last post might have suggested, April has been a bit of a difficult month reading-wise. I had two 600-page mammoths to read for book club this month, both of which were challenging in their own way and, after finishing the second, I hit a bit of a reading wall. So I took a few days off, caught up on some TV and played some Xbox before re-introducing myself to books via the medium of audio. As a result, I've got my reading mojo back and enjoyed two thoroughly good audio books which made my drives to and from work a good deal more pleasant. So, without further ado, here's my April reading wrap up!

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Mammoth 600-page novel number one. This was actually my suggestion for book group because a) I've never read a Murakami before, b) I keep hearing reviewers and podcasters rave about his writing and c) his work is one of the reasons - along with the film 'Lost in Translation' - that my cousin (and very good friend) Jay became fascinated with Japanese culture to the extent of moving over there, meeting the girl of his dreams and settling down to life surrounded by it. So I wanted to see if the hype surrounding this writer was deserved. My conclusion? It probably is, although I would add the caveat that I feel Murakami's writing might be an acquired taste. By all accounts I might have started with one of his most difficult and surrealist novels but, from reading 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle', I get the sense that Murakami is a marmite writer. There's no doubt that there's a lot about the book which is genius - it is by turns surreal, whimsical, engaging and mesmerising - but I can completely see why a lot of people just don't get it. For example, I would usually endeavor to summarise the novel's plot about now but I'm just not sure that I could summarise this book. Let's just say that it starts with cat going missing and ends with an existential battle between good and evil moving via a morbid 16-year old girl, a prostitute of the mind and an aging war veteran's testimony of a forgotten campaign. Sounds odd? It is. I'm not entirely sure how much I understood of the message of the book - sometimes it made my head hurt to try and follow the plot - but I did enjoy Murakami's writing and his characterisation. In summary, I am glad to have read this. It took me three weeks and it made me feel as if my brain was about to explode more than once but I did enjoy reading it and I would read another Murakami in the future, albeit one of his less surreal novels next time maybe. So, if you're a fan of magical realism or surrealist fiction and you haven't yet tried Haruki Murakami, I'd definitely recommend you give this one a go.

Flight Behaviour
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Mammoth 600 page novel number two! hindsight, it might have been an idea to give myself a bit of break between these two. Still, having finished the Murakami, I plunged straight into Barbara Kingsolver's environmentalist novel 'Flight Behaviour' which is May's choice for my book group. Although of similar length,this is a very different kettle of fish to the Murakami and it was a much 'easier' read for me in that the narrative followed a linear path and the language, whilst beautiful, never left me struggling to understand what was going on. The novel follows Dellarobia, a young mother who is increasingly discontented with her life of rural poverty on a farm in southern Appalachia. On her way to an impulsive tryst with the telecoms guy, she instead stumbles upon a flock of monarch butterflies who, confused by a series of changes to the climate, have headed to Appalachia to roost for the winter. So starts a series of events that will have not only have a profound effect on Dellarobia's life but may also have consequences for the world at large. I've been a fan of Kingsolver's writing since my best friend lent me 'The Poisonwood Bible' a few years ago. The writing style is dense, luscious and richly descriptive and, as a result, the passages in 'Flight Behaviour' which focus on the beautiful, rugged harshness of the Appalachian mountains are amongst the best in the novel. That said, I don't feel this is as rounded a novel as 'The Poisonwood Bible'. I struggled to empathise with Dellarobia who blames everyone around her for her situation in life as opposed to taking a measure of personal responsibility. Her journey of self-discovery is interesting but I sometimes got the sense that Kingsolver was using Dellarobia to write about climate change and environmental responsibility, rather than to tell a story. Whilst climate change is certainly an important issue - and one that deserves to be tackled in fiction - I do like a book to tell me a story rather than give me a manifesto. As a result, I was a little disappointed by the ending to this novel, which felt unresolved and rushed - as if, having got across the message about caring for the environment, Kingsolver just wanted to finish the book. So, for me personally, this was a bit of a disappointment, although it was definitely worth reading and I'm sure we'll have a great discussion about it at book group this coming month.

The Daughter of Time | [Josephine Tey]The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (read by Derek Jacobi)

To break the reading slump that descended after finishing 'Flight Behaviour', I turned to audiobooks and found this - an old favourite - on Audible. My mum lent me 'The Daughter of Time' many moons ago and it has remained one of my favourite mystery novels so I was delighted to discover that one of my favourite actors - Derek Jacobi - has narrated this audio version. This slim novel (the audio comes in at just under 5 and a half hours) follows Inspector Alan Grant, laid up in a hospital bed after an incident on the job, as he tries to solve the infamous disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and to discover whether Richard the Third was the villainous monster that history, and Shakespeare, has led us to believe. This was an easy listen - Derek Jacobi's voice is perfectly suited to the grumpy detective and he distinguishes between the other characters well - but the plot does pack more of a punch that it lets on at first. Hidden behind the pseudo-criminal capers is a clever examination of how much we should believe about what we read in books, however factual they purport to be. With the recent renewal of interest in Richard the Third, I very much hope that Tey's novel gets the recognition and praise it deserves and I would thoroughly recommend this to fans of 'golden-age' crime fiction, historical mysteries and Richard the Third alike! 

All the Light We Cannot See | [Anthony Doerr]All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (narrated by Julie Teal)

Maybe this should be mammoth novel of the month number three? Coming in at just over 17 hours worth of listening, Doerr's Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a hefty listen but one that is well worth it. I've been listening to this in chunks for a few weeks- taking time off to listen to 'The Daughter of Time' in the middle - but finally finished it in April, shortly after the Pulitzer award was announced. A beautifully told and lyrical novel, 'All The Light We Cannot See' tells the parallel stories of blind French girl Marie-Laure, who flees with her father to the Brittany town of Saint-Malo when the Germans occupy Paris, and young German orphan Werner, whose talent for building and fixing radios lands him a place at an elite Nazi military academy. As the novel progresses, the lives of these two young people begin to intersect, converging amidst the horrors and tumult of the Second World War. Doerr's writing is beautiful and he has real gift for conveying the senses - the taste of tinned peaches, the sound of the sea, the feel of a mollusk underneath the fingers - and for bringing a sense of magical to the everyday. His characters are also fascinating, each of them complicated and difficult human beings with their own strengths and failings and each trying to make the best of the situation that life has placed them in. I especially enjoyed the fact that, despite the grand scale of the narrative, the book never lost sight of small details of life for each of the characters, allowing the reader to pause and soak up the atmosphere of each scene. I enjoyed listening to this as an audiobook but I have now picked it up as a paperback to read and savour at my own pace - sometimes Julie Teal's narration felt a little too slow for the tone of the story at times and there was the very occasional mispronunciation of French or German word in Teal's narration which jarred slightly. Beyond those very minor nitpicks however, I really enjoyed this novel and the experience of listening to it and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story, expertly told. 

So, that was April. Saved by audiobooks! 'Reading' in a different register - and via a different method - has broken my reading slump nicely so I've got a nice pile of things to get me through May. Next week I'll be posting a review of the latest novel by Rowan Coleman - you may recognise her as the author of 'The Memory Book' which was Richard & Judy Book Club choice from last year - which is due out later this month, and I'm currently reading Holly Black's YA fantasy 'The Darkest Part of the Forest' which promises a unique take on traditional fairy tale tropes. After that I'm looking forward to reading a proof of debut novel 'The Versions of Us', which examines different versions of the same couple and the choices they have made, settling into Sarah Hall's latest novel 'The Wolf Border' and maybe, just maybe, getting change to read a random pick or two from my ever-expanding TBR. 

So, until next time folks, Happy Reading!