Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Books We've Loved This Year

We're fast approaching autumn, and many of us will have read at least one book this year that we absolutely loved and can't stop recommending to people.  For me, there have been two, about which I have already waxed lyrical: The Gargoyle  by Andrew Davidson and Skin Lane  by Neil Bartlett.  Here, three bloggers give you their favourite book of the year so far.

"Blue Boy" by Rakesh Satyal
Recommended by Brian Centrone from New York 
(Site: BrianCentrone.com Twitter: @BrianCentrone)
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a love for all things Indian: The Food, the culture, the men (especially the men), and the literature. So it was not a surprise that when I came across Rakesh Satyal’s Lambda Award winning novel Blue Boy, I fell in love at first read...
Set in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1990s, Blue Boy tells the story of young Kiran, an Indian American trying to fit in. His world is split between the Indian families his parents socialize with and the very Middle-American kids and teachers at the public school he attends. Poor Kiran doesn’t feel he belongs to either world and the situations he finds himself in in both groups are just as awkward and endearing as they are funny and heartbreaking.  Kiran believes his difference is Divine and sets out on a journey to transform into who he feels he really is, the reincarnation of Krishna himself.
A magical voyage of self-discovery, spiritual understanding and pop culture references, Blue Boy is the book for every boy who had a secret love of dolls, ballet and singing, and for every person who grew up wondering where they belonged. This novel will not disappoint. 

"Free Fall" by Nicolai Lilin
Recommended by Marc Nash from London 
(Site: Marc Nash's Kindle Store Twitter: @21stCScribe)

War memoirs are dominated by those of WW2 and of course Vietnam. This memoir of a more recent and modern war blows those portraits out of the water. The second Russian war in Chechenya was dirty, pitiless and ultimately pointless on both sides. Lilin was a conscripted sniper in a specialist anti-terrorist unit that fought on the front line in ordinary clothes rather than uniform. He paints brutal pictures of the effects of modern weaponry on human flesh, but not in a Hollywood relish of gore fashion, but rather one that makes you realise why soldiers try and avoid engaging in combat with the enemy from any closer than an airborne helicopter gunship. This updating of the deadliness of modern weapons again removes us a million miles from the Vietnam/WW2 battlefield axis.

The cruel treatment and dispatch of captured prisoners on both sides, in order to send a message to the enemy, is graphic and yet almost neutrally detailed. And finally, I have never come across better descriptions of physical states of being during battle. The physiological symptoms of a body overtaken by fear, exhaustion, sensory deprivation, concussion from a grenade, are astounding pieces of writing. There are some ruminations on the purpose(less) of the war, as the book begins with a Kafkaesque account of his conscription and ends with a short but debilitating section on his failure to adapt back into civilian life and an undiagnosed PTSD. Lilin's writing is so good as to bear the weight of its gravity, its philosophising and to convey the mix of muscle and technology throughout: "God was a haven for our souls, the only place not regulated by military code". Simply stunning. 

"Blueeyedboy" by Joanne Harris
Recommended by Jemima Valentino from Shropshire 
(Site: JemimaValentino.com Twitter: @jemimavalentino)

"Blueeyedboy" is the brilliant new novel from Joanne Harris: a dark and intricately plotted tale of a poisonously dysfunctional family, a blind child prodigy, and a serial murderer who is not who he seems. Told through posts on a webjournal called badguysrock, this is a thriller that makes creative use of all the multiple personalities, disguise and mind games that are offered by playing out a life on the internet.

The word ‘creepy’, is somehow not enough. Harris has truly opened up her dark side and within these brilliantly crafted pages, unfolds a story of a lonely 42 year old sociopath who lives with his mother and his online friends. Through his web journal, his disturbed mind is truly let loose, his style - intelligent bordering on genius, his motives - dark and intensely dangerous; pulling the weak and vulnerable into his tribe, badguysrock.

Our Blueyedboy dreams of killing mother, stalks a blind child prodigy and harbours an unhealthy fascination for Albertine, a girl that holds more influence over this life than he dares to admit. As he entices Albertine out to play on badguysrock, we realise that there is far more to their relationship that meets the eye.

Just as you think you know this would-be serial killer and can predict his actions as easily as Columbo, Harris throws in a twist, and then another, and another until the entire story fits together like the perfect jigsaw and leaves you breathless.  I have read some intense books this year, and have loved many, but Blueeyedboy jumps to the top of the pile. Now this book is inside my head, I don't think it will ever leave.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Book Review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

Families. Sometimes they're a bloody nightmare...

Vampires have enjoyed something of a revival in recent years.  Teens have swooned over young adult fare such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, while more adult stories have played out in Southern soap True Blood and kitchen sink comedy drama Being Human.  Matt Haig's interpretation of the vampire myth has most in common with Being Human, introducing us to a typically English suburban family who are struggling to suppress their darker instincts.

Peter and Helen Radley are a middle class couple with a wild past that they never discuss.  Their children, Rowan and Clara, are outcasts at school because they are different; they are incredibly sensitive to sunlight, can barely stay awake during the day, and have all kinds of strange cravings and allergies.  Rowan and Clara feel like freaks, clueless as they are to their true heritage.  But that changes one night, when Clara is attacked on her way home from a party.  Self-defense soon becomes dinner.

Terrified that their quiet village life could be turned upside down, Peter contacts his brother Will, also a vampire, to help them clean up the mess.  And it is when this devil of a man steps foot in Bishopthorpe that things really begin to fall apart.

The Radleys succeeds as a novel because the focus is never on the characters as supernatural creatures.  For the first chunk of the book, the two teenagers are unaware they are vampires at all, they are simply angsty teenagers, and the author treats them as such.  Similarly, Peter and Helen are presented to the reader as parents struggling to raise their kids right even as they hurtle towards their own marital and mid-life crises.

Matt Haig's humour permeates the story.  There are plenty of vampire in-jokes, such as the scene where a potential victim jokingly refers to Will as "Dracula", to which he replies, "I prefer Count Orlok."  There's a hint of satire in proceedings too: Helen entertains the idea that she is not the only vampire housewife in Bishopthorpe; surely there must be other women in her book club who have given up a life of bloodlust and depravity in order to conform?  As her son Rowan later points out, not only are they vampires, but they are also British: "repression is in our veins".

There are times when The Radleys doesn't work, although these are few.  The co-existence of a secret vampire subculture and a clandestine agency dedicated to tracking bloodsuckers could have been explored more fully, as could the history of some of the more fascinating side-characters such as vampire Isobel and policewoman Alison.  These small faults, though, are more than made up for by the larger than life, wicked Will Radley, who dominates the page the moment he is introduced.  He'll tear your throat out without a second thought, but for a moment you might just want him to.