Sunday, 30 August 2015

REVIEW: The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

The A to Z of You and Me"I'm lying here in a bed, my head full of regret, with only a little bird flitting through a tree to comfort me. Friends want to visit but I refuse them. So my carer Sheila has given me a task to keep me occupied. An A - Z list. Think of a part of my body for each letter. Tell a little tale about it. When I reach H for Heart, what will I say?"

Ivo is forty and is slowly dying. As he lies in a hospice bed, his nurse Sheila suggests a game to keep his mind active. Think of a body part for each letter of the alphabet and make up a story for each one. As Ivo works his way from A to Z, he tells the story of his carefree younger life, of his family and his friends, his triumphs and failures and, most importantly, of his absent ex-girlfriend Mia. Estranged from those around him in his present life, can Ivo learn from the memories he evokes and finally come to terms with his past?

There has been quite the buzz on Twitter about this debut novel and I'd heard mention of it at the start of the year when its author, James Hannah, was featured as one of The Guardian's 'New Faces of Fiction 2015'. In the press release which came with my ARC copy, comparisons are drawn to the work of David Nicholls, Rachel Joyce and Nathan Filer, and the author himself has said that he was influenced by Samuel Beckett. I've not read Beckett or Filer and had mixed responses to Nicholls (I think I must be one of the only people who disliked 'One Day') and Joyce ('The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' was beautiful but so sad that I gave up reading it twice) so I wasn't sure if this one would be a winner for me but the premise sounded unique and intriguing and I was immediately hooked by the sparse, directness of Ivo's narrative voice and his deadpan sense of humor, which really comes alive on the page.

From the outset, it's clear that this is going to be a book that leaves you with tears before bedtime. The comparison with Rachel Joyce is certainly deserved because 'The A to Z of You and Me' certainly has a similar sense of wistfulness and regret cutting through the narrative. And, as with Joyce's 'Harold Fry', Hannah's protagonist Ivo must learn to come to terms with his past in order to find peace in the present. Where Hannah differs from the gentle whimsy of 'Harold Fry' however is in subject matter. It becomes clear as the novel progresses that the deterioration of Ivo's health, as well as his estrangement from his family and friends and the absence of his ex-girlfriend Mia, may well be due to choices he made as a young man. I don't want to spoil the novel by giving away too much of the plot because the slow unraveling of Ivo's past is a real driving force in the plot, however I was reminded of Jon McGregor's 'Even the Dogs' when reading this as there is the same sense of grim fate following Ivo. It's heart-wrenching to read at times because as a reader you can see the self-destructive patterns in Ivo's life before he himself has realised them and the dual narrative does an excellent job at hinting (without ever fully divulging) towards the tragedies to come.

All of which sounds very depressing doesn't it? And, in some parts, the novel is indeed very sad. What saves it from being a gloom-fest of Eeyore-like proportions however is the eccentric style and the quirky observations. Ivo's sarcastic, self-deprecating tone stops the narrative from becoming mawkish or sentimental, and he tells his story with great warmth. The passages about his early relationship with Mia are full of light, colour and sound and you get a real sense for the fun and friendship of his life - both past and present - which balances the darker elements in the novel very well. There is also a real sense of coming to terms about the book, with Ivo gradually making sense of his past experiences and re-evaluating the decisions that he and his friends took in light of what his adult self now knows. So yes, there is a great deal of sadness in this book but it's not a bleak novel because there is a great deal of compassion and dark humour in it too.

I did have a few issues with the ending which I had to read a few times before I truly understood it. After the emotional upheaval of the novel, I'd expected the ending to be a punch to the gut but instead there is a quiet gentleness about it which was, for me, completely unexpected and a little...odd. Even now, some days after finishing the book, I'm not entirely sure what I feel about it and this has made me question some of my other responses to the book and its themes. I also have an issue with the title only in so much as you have to say 'Zee' like the Americans do in order to get it to rhyme nicely - 'The A to Zed of You and Me' just doesn't have same ring to it. Pedantic yes but, as a Brit, this bothers me!

Overall however I found this to be a compelling debut novel with a lot to recommend it. Due to the subject matter, it's not exactly a book I'd say I 'enjoyed' reading - the subject matter is just a little too grim for that despite the dark humour - however it is certainly one that gave me pause for thought. The narrative is taut and well-paced and the dual time-frame structure is very well handled. And I found the characters very human, complete with flaws and insecurities that made them very easy to relate to. Maybe not one to read if you're feeling a bit blue but, as autumn arrives and the nights draw in, you could do a lot worse than snuggle up with this quirky, poignant and thought provoking debut.

The paperback edition of 'The A to Z of You and Me' is published by Black Swan and is available now from all good bookshops and libraries. An audiobook version is also available.

My thanks go to Alison Barrow from Transworld for providing me with a proof copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

REVIEW: A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg

A Want of Kindness: A Novel of Queen AnneI was a little daunted when ‘A Want of Kindness’ dropped on the doormat, sent my way by the Real Readers review programme. Whilst I enjoy a historical novel from time to time, I know very little about the Restoration Court and even less about Queen Anne, the book’s main protagonist. The three page ‘Dramatis Personae’ at the start of the book did little to allay my fears so I was pleasantly surprised upon starting the novel itself to discover a readable and absorbing novel about a fascinating and often overlooked period of English history. 

We first meet Anna as a sickly ten-year old, an odd figure amidst the glitter of the bawdy Restoration court. Cards, sweetmeats and gossip with her Ladies of the Bedchamber make up the bulk of her life and Anne is blissfully oblivious to the intrigues and scandal of the court around her and unaware of the part she is to play as a pawn for the troubled Stuart dynasty. As she grows to maturity, we follow Anne as she marries and bears children, overcomes intense personal grief and withstands the political manoeuvrings of her closest family and friends to become heiress of England and the Queen that we know of today.

Joanne Limburg has clearly done her research when writing this novel. From the very start, Restoration England pours off the page and you get a real sense of life in the confines of the court. The chapters are interspersed with many of Anne’s genuine letters which give a real sense of her voice but also serve to show how naïve she is amidst the growing scandal that will result in her sister, Mary and brother-in-law, William, overthrowing their father, King James II, in order to keep England as a protestant nation. Anne’s passivity can be rather frustrating at times and it wasn’t until later in the novel that I began to really empathise with her, as she struggles under the pressure of producing the next Stuart heir. The constant miscarriages and stillbirths that Anne faces are heart-wrenching and you get a real sense of the devastating sadness that she must have faced in her life. Anne shows extraordinary courage in the face of repeated grief and in her later battles with personal illness, but you get the sense throughout the book that this is a woman better suited to a simpler life than that of heir apparent to the throne of England. Infuriating character traits, such as her over-reliance on her closest confidantes, are understandable when you read Anne’s story, in which friends are hard to find and everyone seems to be playing a game that she has little understanding of.

My sense from reading this book is that Anne did indeed suffer from ‘A Want of Kindness’ – her life was one often dominated by other people or by national pressures so much bigger than she was. Joanne Limburg has done an excellent job of giving her readers a sense of Anne’s character and world, although I could have done without some of the more obscure vignettes that make up the earlier sections of the novel and I’d have preferred the book to continue into her time as queen, rather than abruptly ending just before she takes the throne. Some of the fonts used in my advance copy were also rather off-putting, especially those used on Anne’s letters – a real annoyance as these are one of the most fascinating parts of the novel! Minor niggles aside however, this is a fascinating glimpse into a forgotten corner of English history and an absorbing portrayal of one Queen’s long and painful personal history. Fans of Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory and Sarah Dunant will find much to enjoy here, as will other readers who enjoy an absorbing delve into English history. 

A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg is published by Atlantic Books and is available now from bookstores.

NB: This review has also appeared on Amazon and on Goodreads

Sunday, 9 August 2015

July Wrap Up

Yes, I'm aware we are 9 days into August already. Time kind of ran away with me towards the end of July and, between spending a weekend visiting my best friend (and buying books - because eBooks don't count towards a book-buying ban right?), busy times at work and the usual chaos of daily life, suddenly - BOOM - we're a week into August and, just like the white rabbit from 'Alice in Wonderland', I'm late! July was a bit of a funny reading month for me. I don't really feel like I read a lot but my records show otherwise. I think I spent a lot of the month in a post-'Watchman' hangover so some of my other reads this month kind of passed me by a little. Either that, or I've just been more forgetful than usual recently! Anyway, my Goodreads list shows I read some really excellent books this month so, without further ado, let's move on to them!

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a WatchmanGo Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

I've already written a post entirely devoted to Harper Lee's not-a-sequel in a previous post, so I won't discuss it at length again here. I'm aware that the novel has had some fairly bad press since release, particularly over is the US, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's certainly not as polished a novel as 'To Kill A Mockingbird' but there is something about the raw intensity of Jean Louise's feelings that I really connected with. I also felt that the ending of 'Watchman' is less neat and less idealistic than that of 'Mockingbird', raising some difficult questions about the way that we deal with race and identity that are just as relevant today as they were at the time of writing. In fact, the only thing I didn't like was the day glo orange cover we ended up with on the UK edition (above left) which gives equal prominence to 'Mockingbird', as if UK book buyers wouldn't have a clue who Harper Lee is without having a massive reminder of her previous novel on the cover. Seriously, why couldn't we have the classy US version (above right) which is gorgeous - all dark and blue and moody and a perfect reflection of the novel's tone? I know cover design is a carefully chosen thing so I'm sure the UK publishers had their reasons for tango-ing the cover but I still feel hard done by when I see the US version.

I picked this up after listening to the always excellent 'Hear Read This' podcast. It's recently been the Waterstones Classic Book of the Month and has also been re-jacketed and reissued by Penguin with a gorgeous travel poster artwork cover. Set in the summer of 1920, this slim novel follows Tom Birkin, a survivor of the First World War, as he travels to the country village of Oxgodby to uncover and restore a medieval wall painting. Once there he falls into the rhythms of village life, meets a fellow survivor of the trenches and even begins to fall in love. Gentle, poetic and poignant, this is a slim book that packs a powerful punch. It's a book about the small pleasures of life, about what is lost during times of trauma and about re-connecting with life following the horrific disorientation of the trenches. Elegantly constructed, this is one of those novels that stays with you long after you have turned the final page - even as I type this, I find myself returning to it turning over scenes and images within my brain and seeing them again in a new light. It is in no way a pretentious book but it has layers within layers, with the central themes of the burial and uncovering of the past repeating throughout. A beautiful novel and one that I would highly recommend.

The Sleeper and the Spindle
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Chris Riddell)

And the award for the most gorgeous read of the month goes to....! Seriously, this book is BEAUTIFUL - from the translucent paper on the cover to the hints of luxurious gold hidden within the stunning black and white artwork, the actual physical copy of this book is a beautiful item to hold and read. The fairytale within is not bad either - a darkly thrilling re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in which a princess is sent to sleep by a spindle, a curse spreads across the land and, in a neighbouring kingdom, a queen with snow white skin sets out on a quest on the eve of her wedding. Neil Gaiman has worked his usual magic on the traditional fairytale tropes, providing a Queen who will decide her own future and a Princess who is not what she seems in a delicious blend of the familiar and the new, all shot through with Gaiman's unique brand of dark comedy. The artwork by Chris Riddell deserves a special mention too - it's absolutely stunning and fits the story perfectly. I recommend reading this for the story first and then going back to the beginning to allow yourself to be absorbed in the pictures. If you're not a fan of Neil Gaiman's work already, I doubt that 'The Sleeper and the Spindle' will convert you but, if (like me) you enjoy his particular brand of twisted fantasy, then this is yet another winner. Plus did I mention it's absolutely gorgeous??!

Only Ever YoursOnly Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

I'd heard a lot of good things on both podcasts and booktube about this YA novel. Set in a future where girls are no longer born naturally but are instead bred in special schools, the novel has been favorably compared to Margaret Attwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' (one of my favourite dystopians). And, indeed, the premise of this novel is fantastic and worthy of the comparison. In 'Only Ever Yours', the 'best' girls become Companions and will live with their husbands and produce sons. For those remaining, life in a sanctioned brothel as a Concubine, or hidden away forever in the schools as a chastity, are the only options. Consistently amongst the highest rated girls in their class, best friends Frieda and Isabel are sure they will become Companions to high-ranking men. But, as their final year commences, Isabel does the unthinkable and, as their future husbands arrive to choose brides, Frieda finds she must fight for the future that once seemed so secure. As I say, a fantastic premise but one that I do feel could have been executed a little better. Which is not to say that this is a bad book - the plot packs a punch and I think it handles issues surrounding the portrayal of girls and women in the media, eating disorders and the cult of celebrity very well indeed. That said, I personally found many of the main characters to be vapid and bitchy, with little to distinguish between them. I'm aware that this is partly the point - the intense social conditioning they undergo results in the girls becoming insecure emotional wrecks - but it's hard to like characters who are so self-absorbed and there was no one unlikable enough to be really interesting either. Maybe the comparisons with 'The Handmaid's Tale' did this one a dis-service for me - that's a pretty high standard to set after all - but I did find it disappointing in parts. I had such high expectations and, whilst the premise is extremely unique and packs a real punch, I just never really connected with the characters and this, for me, deadened the emotional impact of the plot. 

Don't Try This at HomeDon't Try This At Home by Angela Readman

Short stories are something I keep promising myself I'll read more of but I often worry about the 'hit-and-miss' nature of a collection.Having been nominated for the Costa Award earlier this year and coming highly recommended by a number of my favorite bloggers, I decided to give this one a go and I'm really glad I did. This is a fun and sharply observed debut collection with hints of Angela Carter at her darkest. Some stories definitely resonated more with me than others - the title story, in which a girl saws her boyfriend in half to allow him to multi-task, was a real winner; as was the twisted fairytale 'When We Were Witches' - but there were no complete duds and the collection holds together very well, with a nice mix of lengths and a writing style that, at its best, sparkles with wit and dark comedy.

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The second book I've read from the Bailey's Prize 2015 shortlist, Sarah Water's latest is a fabulous study of society, class and female existence set in the early 1920s. Genteel widow Mrs Wray and her discontented spinster daughter Frances are obliged to take in lodgers, a modern young couple of the 'clerk class', called Len and Lillian Barber. Their arrival brings new life into a house filled with post-war grief but it also brings dangerous desires that will have tragic consequences. A domestic drama with a sting in the tale, this is part love story, part crime novel and completely engrossing - despite being over 500 pages long, I stormed though it. Waters always writes beautifully and has a real gift for imbuing subtle tensions into seemingly innocuous activities. I found the class aspects really interesting and you get a real sense of the disintegration of the old social order and the changing face of British society, with the tension between the two extremely well portrayed. I did find the ending a bit disappointing - without giving away spoilers, it seemed to provide a last minute 'get out clause' for the characters without resolving the central moral dilemma. This is a relatively minor niggle in an otherwise excellent novel however. Another Sarah Waters triumph and one that I would highly recommend.

So, that was July. As I said, I read a lot despite the pre-'Watchman' anticipation and post-'Watchman' fug! I'm hoping that August will be equally productive - I'm currently tackling Hanya Yanagihara's much-hyped 'A Little Life' (so far living up to the hype completely), alternating with Patrick Rothfuss' fantasy epic 'The Name of the Wind', and I've got a fairly wobbly TBR pile crying out for my attention too so I'm not short of next reads! As always, I'd love to know what you've been reading recently and your thoughts on any of the books I've mentioned today so please leave me a comment down below or join the bookish chat on Twitter @amyinstaffs. And, until next time...

Happy Reading!


Saturday, 1 August 2015

INTERVIEW with Marie Phillips: Author of 'The Table of Less Valued Knights'

The Table of Less Valued Knights
Back of the start of June, I had the pleasure of meeting Marie Phillips, author of 'Gods Behaving Badly' and co-writer of the BBC Radio 4 series 'Warhorses of Letters'. Marie was one of the guest speakers at the annual dinner of The Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur, an organisation of Arthurian enthusiasts of which I am a member (if you like Arthurian myths and legends, check us out - new members always welcome!). Following the dinner, Marie greatly amused us with a reading from her latest novel, ‘The Table of Less Valued Knights’, a raucous take on Malory's 'Morte D'Arthur' and other classics of Arthurian Literature.

The book, which has recently been published in paperback, follows Sir Humphrey Du Val of The Table of Less Valued Knights – Camelot’s least prestigious table – as he comes out of imposed retirement to take on a quest for the mysterious Elaine, a damsel in distress with a secret to hide. Along the way, Humphrey and Elaine become embroiled in the troubles of the young Queen Martha of Puddock, who is running away from her odious fiancé Prince Edwin, meet a twelve year old crone and are given a magic sword with a mind of its own by the Locum of the Lake (standing in for the full-time Lady, of course!). Soon they are embroiled on a great Arthurian adventure – although one that is a bit different from the usual stories you might have read!

Following her reading, I asked Marie a few questions about the writing of the book so that Fellowship members unable to attend could find out more about her and her work (and so that I could tell all you lovely blog readers about the evening, of course!):

The Shelf of Unread Books: What made you choose King Arthur as a subject for a humorous novel? Was there anything specific about the subject that you felt was ripe for light-hearted exploration?
Marie Phillips: I've always loved the stories of King Arthur and I first had the idea of doing a comic version when I was ten years old. I wrote a story called 'Sir Totale de Zasta and the Holy Grail' about a hapless knight and his long-suffering horse. It was published in my school magazine and I never forgot how proud I was of it. Nearly thirty years later my sense of humour has not changed! I have long been a believer of the adage that no man is a hero to his butler - or in this case, squire. There are so many heroes in the Arthurian tales, and it was fun to look for the feet of clay. It's affectionate, though - everyone is flawed; in the end I concluded that either we all belong on the Table of Less Valued Knights, or none of us do.
TSoUB: The novel is really well-researched and it plays with lots of Arthurian tropes and traditions. What source materials did you use for research? Did you stick to the historical works or did you read more contemporary interpretations of Arthur and his knights as well?
MP: I read a variety of texts, both historical and contemporary. Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (someone should have had a word with him about putting spoilers in the title) was my main historical source. It involved an awful lot of people riding across the countryside and then having a duel. I dabbled in Tennyson, hugely enjoyed the Simon Armitage versions of various historic poems, and read lots of bits and pieces of other source texts when I was investigating specific storylines - that's how I stumbled onto the mention of the Table of Less Valued Knights, which is from the post-Vulgate cycle (don't worry, you don't need to have any idea what the post-Vulgate cycle is to enjoy the book.) I tried looking at some of the recent TV and film adaptations but I didn't enjoy any of them. I gave Monty Python a wide berth - I've seen it before and it's too hilarious, I didn't want it influencing me any more than was inevitable. My favourite source was actually The Once And Future King - TH White's retellings of the Arthurian myths are so breathtakingly good that I decided then and there to not even try to make Arthur's known knights the main characters in my story. Nobody could do it better. Instead I invented my own Camelotians with which to play with. As an aside, I was amazed how hard it was to get hold of The Once And Future King, I had to try several bookshops. Has it fallen from fashion? Everyone should buy two copies right now, one for themselves and one for a lucky child of their choice.
TSoUB: 'The Table of Less Valued Knights' features some really fantastic female characters. Did you feel it was important to have female voices in the book and what was it about Arthurian traditions that inspired you to create Martha and Elaine?
MP: I always try to write good female characters into my books, a world without women is only half a world. But for all that it's easy to imagine that the original stories of knights are stories about men, the Arthurian myths are positively seething with great women - Guinevere, Morgan Le Fay, several Ladies of Lakes of various levels of goodness or perfidy, a significant number of damsels in distress, who are not nearly as wet as the term suggests, and surprisingly many of whom are called Elaine - which is why I needed an Elaine of my own. It would have been a huge disservice to the source material not to have developed some forceful females, even if that hadn't been my inclination.
TSoUB: Was there anything you came across in your research that you found really interesting but had to leave out of the finished novel?
MP: All of the original knights of Camelot. Their stories were just too detailed and rich to give me the space to invent the narrative I wanted, which is why I came up with Sir Humphrey, my own knight hero. I was inspired by Arthur's knights the whole time I was writing, but they don't feature much in the finished narrative. On a different note, I really wanted to have some fun with the fact that the knights in the original sources are always taking the piss out of Cornish knights for being a bit rubbish. Much of this drives Tristan and Isolde, for example. But it didn't quite fit so it had to go.
TSoUB: And finally, if you could choose one of Arthur's knights to carry out a quest for you, who would it be and why?  
MP: I would like the Lady of the Lake to give me a magic pen that would cure writer's block forever. If a knight wanted to go and get it for me so that I didn't get my feet wet, I have always had a thing for Gareth: nice hands, good in the kitchen, loyal to the end.
As a lover of all things King Arthur and all things bookish, I can highly recommend ‘The Table of Less Valued Knights’ – Marie has a gift for comedy and her knowledge of the source material only adds to the amusement as she gleefully subverts traditional Arthurian tropes and gives the traditional themes of the quest narrative an ingenious twist. One of the few books to have made me snort my tea in public (thanks for that Marie!), it’s genuinely funny and a delight for lovers of traditional Arthurian tales and subverted myths and legends. 

Many thanks again to Marie for taking the time to come and visit The Fellowship and also for giving this interview. ‘The Table of Less Valued Knights’ is published by Vintage (Penguin Random House) and is out in paperback now, priced £7.99, and available from all good book retailers (links below).