A contemporary take on the myth of Athena

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

The-Helios-DisasterTranslated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. … He looks at me. At my shining armour. … Lean against him. His arms, which embrace me. We cry together. … I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of this heart. I have a father. I am my father’s daughter. These words ring through me like bells in that instant.
Then he screams.
His scream tears everything apart. I will ever again be close to him Never again rest my head against his chest. We have met and must immediately part.

In Greek myth, Athena, one of the Olympian goddesses, is born of no mother. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestus to split his head open.  Out pops Athena – emerging fully formed in her armour.  However, this is modern-day Sweden and the ground is covered with snow. The girl who is twelve sheds her armour and leaves the house – the neighbours take charge of her.  They won’t believe that Conrad is her father. ‘Conrad is bit different, after all.’  She’s taken in by social services and given a name – Anna Bergstrom.

Then they find her a family. They already had two boys and had always wanted a girl. Sven and Birgitta live with their teenaged sons Urban and Ulf in a village of teetotallers and a Pentecostal church. ‘Most people were in both.’  Birgitta tries to involve Anna in family life, but Anna spends more time with Urban who persuades her to start speaking in tongues in church. Eventually she ends up being committed.  All the time, she dreams of her father – she’d been sending secret letters to Conrad. She’s desperate to find him again and to run away with him…

This is a strange story. Naturally it requires a suspension of belief to believe that was how Anna is born, but the intensity of the telling is such that you’re readily absorbed into it. At 125 pages, it can easily be read in one session. I immersed myself without thinking too much until after I’d finished reading it.

When I had finished, I was full of questions.  Why did the author called it The Helios Disaster. If you read the book and then Google ‘Helios Disaster’ you’ll find the answer to that question.  I wanted to know too if Athena had anything to do with Helios in the Greek pantheon of gods? Helios was the Greek sun god, one of the Titans, he drives his chariot through the sky each day. Apart from them both appearing in Homer’s Odyssey, (and some computer games inspired by Homer!) along with practically all the other Greek gods, I couldn’t find anything to connect them in the myths of antiquity, the connection alluded to above appears to be of the author’s invention.

You’ve probably wondered if Linda Boström Knausgård is anything to do with Karl Ove Knausgård, the author of the autobiographical series of novels My Struggle. Yes, she is his wife.  I did chuckle once during this novella – Birgitta takes Anna shopping in the city and Birgitta buys a book, ‘I’ll take one by our own … He’s just had a new one come out,‘ she said.  A little in-joke to acknowledge the publishing phenomenon he has become.

The Pentecostal community is an odd one too.  Glossolalia – or speaking in tongues – is an essential part of their way of worship.  In the book of Acts in the Bible, it tells about the Apostles speaking in tongues, where each person there heard their own tongue being spoken – it’s rather the opposite with Anna … less being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather something altogether more ancient and Olympian.

No-one understands Anna, neither her foster family nor her doctors. She, our narrator, tries to fit in and sometimes, just fleetingly, she feels part of the family, but always she ultimately holds back thinking of her father.

The author is also a poet, and that shows in the short sentences and rhythm of the text, preserved in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation.  I always enjoy reading modern retellings and reimaginings of old myths; The Helios Disaster is a challenging and thought-provoking example. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate links), please click below:
The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård. Pub Feb 2015 by World Editions. Paperback original, 125 pages.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard) by Karl Ove Knausgård

 

Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

“This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway … This is the road to hell”

The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the-a26 Quite a few bloggers (notably Stu and recently Guy) have already discovered and loved the novels of Pascal Garnier, the French author of some decidedly bleak, black comedies of the purest noir! Having acquired a couple of them, I picked his short novel The A26 to begin my own exploration.

Set in the 1990s, this is the story of an ageing pair – brother and sister – Bernard and Yolande. Bernard works for SNCF, the French railways, and has terminal cancer. He has now finished work:

As for his boss and his colleagues, he knew he wouldn’t be seeing them again. It was no sadder than casting off an old pair of slippers. In taking leave, he had married death – that was why life had so often made him suffer. Now he would say ‘yes’ to everything, good and bad, sunshine and grey skies alike; this November afternoon it was the latter.

It’s that decision to say ‘yes’ to everything that is driving Bernard now – and for his remaining days, in doing that he will get his own back on the cards that life had dealt him. Bernard never married, he lost his love to another long ago when he had to look after Yolande.

Yolande never leaves the house. They live in gloom, for in the entire house there is only one opening on the outside world – ‘a hole made specially’ in the shutter. Yolande has never been the same since she was dragged from the house in 1945 to have her head shaved, accused of a liaison with a German. She’s a hoarder, never throwing anything away, obsessively cooking or watching the world through her pinhole…

Yolande could have been anywhere from twenty to seventy. She had the blurry texture and outlines of an old photograph. As if she were covered in a fine dust. Inside this wreck of an old woman there was a young girl.

The whole area has been blighted by the building of a new motorway, the A26, driving a swathe of mud and concrete through the land; life isn’t the same and when Bernard’s thoughts turn murderous, it provides the ideal place to dispose of things… (one is reminded of the Vogon Constructor Fleet’s mission to drive an intergalactic highway through Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

What Bernard does may be very nasty, but Garnier elicits some pathos in us for him, in the same way that John Wayne as the terminally ill gunslinger in the film The Shootist seeks to regain his dignity in death.

The A26 is just 100 pages long and we learn all we need to from Bernard and Yolande, of their lives and loves all lost. There’s no wastage in this slim volume. It’s a very black story indeed but with touches of comedy that always surprise you and a plot that keeps you guessing until the end. Translator Melanie Florence has done a splendid job to maintain the French feel.

The A26 connects Calais and Troyes to the southwest of Paris.  It is known as L’Autoroute des Anglais and I’m glad Garnier’s books have made it over the channel to us thanks to Gallic Books –  I’ve yet to read a volume from them that hasn’t delivered.  Deliciously dark, funny and complex, I’m going to have to read a lot more by Pascal Garnier. (9/10)

P.S. Title quote from ‘The Road to Hell’ by Chris Rea.

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The A26by Pascal Garnier, trans Melanie Florence. Gallic Books 2013. Paperback, 100 pages.

Now it’s Sylvia’s turn

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Bell jarYesterday I reviewed a new YA novel by Meg Wolitzer called Belzhar (here), in which a depressed young woman was helped back to good health by a special English class that studied Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and then kept rather special personal journals. Reading this book made me pull my copy of The Bell Jar off the shelf and to finally read it straight after.

The Bell Jar has one of the most memorable novel openings ever:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sicl, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

* * *The discussion below contains plot spoilers – you have been warned* * *

The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman, an honours student in English who gets a summer internship at a glossy magazine in New York where she ‘was supposed to being having the time of my life.’ She begins to find the expectations of the kinds of life on offer to her at home or in the city as being underwhelming, constricting and stifling and she turns in on her self in her bell jar. We get flashbacks to her schooldays and her near engagement to Buddy Willard, we hear her mother’s hopes that she’ll learn shorthand so she has a fallback position as a secretary. Esther gets worse and badly treated by one doctor, attempts suicide, but was found in time and thanks to a benefactor given help in a good private psychiatric hospital. The book ends with her just about to re-enter life and return to college.

I knew the novel was very autobiographical, closely paralleling Plath’s own life – I didn’t know that she had used a psuedonym – Victoria Lucas. It wasn’t published under her own name until 1967, several years later and not in the USA until 1971.

Of course, I was aware of Plath’s suicide, but didn’t realise this happened just one month after the novel was published in 1963. Knowing this makes reading the novel with its hopeful ending even more sad. The same happened when I read the late Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story back in January of this year – it too has an upbeat finish showing that the black dog of depression can be beaten. It’s just so sad that these two authors, Plath just 30 and Vizzini 32, had so much life still to come. This book has left me wanting to read more about Plath and I will start with Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson (which Shiny co-ed Victoria reviewed here).

I do hope that Plath envisaged that Esther Greenwood would be able to re-engage with life and live it to the full – there is a hint in the novel, which I was grateful for, and I’m glad to have finally read this book. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963. Faber & Faber paperback, 240 pages.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson.

 

 

 

A novel of fragile youth and Sylvia Plath…

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

belzharuk

Meg Wolitzer is best known for her quirky feminist novels about gender politics. I admit I’ve not read any of them, although the comedy aspects of her novel The Position appeal, in which a couple’s children discover that their parents are the creators of a sex manual featuring themselves, this event having ramifications that last through the ensuing decades.

This autumn she has published her first novel for a teenaged audience and it has the potential to have some crossover appeal. More on that below, although my title of this post does give it away.

Belzhar is narrated by a teenager known as Jam, who is having mental health problems. It begins…

I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on the staff or faculty, they’ll insist I was sent here because of “the lingering effects of trauma.” Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.

Jam knew Reeve for precisely forty-one days. He was a tenth-grade exchange student from London, spending a term at Jam’s school in New Jersey. He was very different to all the American boys, Jam describes him as looking “like a member of one of those British punk bands from the eighties that my dad still loves…” Jam fell for him hard and it seems he really liked her too, but we don’t find out until much later in the novel what happened between them and how he died.

The Wooden Barn is set deep in Vermont. It’s a really supportive community, a small school full of teenagers that need help to get their lives back to normal; no cell phones, no social media, the students are given time and space to heal.  Jam is assigned to share a room with DJ, who has eating issues and squirrels away food to binge on when stressed. The two girls seem to get on together, but DJ is a bit jealous that Jam, a newbie, has been picked to take the ‘Special Topics in English’ course.

In fact, it will be last time that Mrs. Quenell teaches this course, for she is retiring. Each term she selects just five students, from across the years. The course focuses on a single writer – a different one each time – and this final time, she has picked Sylvia Plath. She hands out copies of The Bell Jar, and despite feeling stunned, the five are almost itching to read it and to see how Plath’s autobiographical novel resounds with their own experiences.

The other thing Mrs Q. does is to give each student a journal – red leather-bound, old, well-made writing books:

“Once the spirit moves you,” says Mrs. Quenell, “you will write in the journal twice a week. And you will all hand your journals back to me at the end of the semester. I won’t read them, I never do, but I will collect them, and keep them. Like the writing itself, this is a requirement.” (p33)

The five will find that writing in their journals will transport them to a world they will call Belzhar, where they don’t have to be sad any more.

Jam, Sierra, Marc, Griffin and Casey, will become very close friends over the next weeks.  All will get the chance to tell their own stories of how they ended up at The Wooden Barn. It won’t be easy, there will be obstacles to overcome but, as you can imagine, it will make them stronger and able to accept themselves again.

Belzhar is aimed primarily at a YA audience, particularly those who enjoy John Green’s novels (another YA author I haven’t read yet), and Megan Abbott’s later novels for older teens.  However, the inclusion of The Bell Jar as a catalyst and the obvious comparisons between Mrs Q. and John Keating (Robin Williams, R.I.P.) in Dead Poet’s Society may interest other readers.

The Wooden Barn seems too good to be true. Of course, we only read about it through Jam’s eyes, so we get no real idea about the rest of the school or any real therapies to help its ‘fragile, highly intelligent’ pupils. Do such schools really exist? Mrs Q is well aware of the effects that her class and the journal writing have; she would have been fired long ago had the secrecy not been maintained. A certain amount of disbelief has to be suspended.

The book also tried rather too hard to be inclusive, one diversionary sub-plot felt rather shoe-horned in. There is no sex, bar a little teenage groping and occasional swearing – even though Jam is only fifteen it felt too safe at times.

I rattled through this novel, just about finishing it on a return train journey to and from London. My first reaction to it though was to pull The Bell Jar off my shelves the minute I got home to finally read this modern classic – which I did, and I’ve just started, (I’ve ordered a DVD of Dead Poet’s Society too). Both of these are good things and should be encouraged – whether you need to read Belzhar too is up for debate… (6/10)

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Source: Publisher. Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, pub 9th October by Simon & Schuster, UK paperback original, 272 pages.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Dead Poets Society [DVD] [1989]

What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

accidents-happen-978033054501301

I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

Getting Dublin’s Funny Bone Back Off the Black Dog

Brilliant by Roddy Doyle

brilliant

I don’t often read or review books intended for pre-teen children these days – I’m keeping up with my now teenaged daughter in YA reading. However, a book by Roddy Doyle for what they now call ‘middle-grade’ readers (why can’t we still say older children?), is a must, especially as I enjoyed his 2011 novel A Greyhound of a Girl for early teens so much, (my review here).

Now it’s going to be impossible to say much about this novel without using its title – for Brilliant is pretty brilliant!  Firstly, it gives us a child’s eye view of living with someone who’s depressed; then it takes the childrens’ very literal understanding of what the adults call the black dog, and runs with it. Doyle’s black dog becomes a scary phantasm of a real creature, and the children are determined to run it out of town. It all starts when Raymond and Gloria’s parents start mumbling downstairs about their Uncle Ben who is coming to live with them – his business has faltered and he’s not himself at the moment …

Mumbling was different. Chatting often changed into talking, and back to chatting. But mumbling was always mumbling. It was like a foreign language, heard through walls and floors. […] Raymond and Gloria didn’t like the mumbling. They didn’t understand it. But one thing about it was clear: mumbling was very serious. There was never any laughter mixed in with it.

Sneaking downstairs to listen, they overhear their parents and granny talking about the black dog of depression on Uncle Ben’s back, and then their granny says ‘That’s what’s after happening. The funny bone of the city is gone. There’s no one laughing any more.’ 

The children hatch a plan – to investigate all the black dogs in the neighbourhood and see which is causing the problem. Sneaking out, it’s soon evident that none of them are the culprits, and they bump into Ernie, who’s moonlighting as a vampire and joins them in their search. This is when the black cloud over the city morphs into something slightly more tangible yet charged with dread and chasing it will take them on a journey across the city in which they will need to confront their fears and employ good teamwork to rid Dublin of the black dog …

If this all sounds terribly dark for none-year-olds, don’t worry – for on the way they’ll get help from all the animals they encounter from rats to seagulls to beasts more exotic altogether. I’d love to discuss how they manage to achieve their quest, as Doyle uses a literary trope that’s cropped up in quite a few adult novels I’ve read – albeit in a roundabout way, but I don’t want to spoil the story entirely for you. Of course, the road back from depression, as an illness and economically, is a long, hard one, you can’t get rid of it so simply, but the second half of the book is obviously a fantasy adventure, so I have no beef with that. Given that it was written for children, as an adult read Brilliant is overdone, but an interesting addition to the growing collection of recent novels tackling mental health issues. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Brilliant by Roddy Doyle. Published May 2014 by MacMillan, hardback 256 pages.

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.

‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ …

Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

reasons-she-goes-to-the-woods-9781780743769_0 Deborah Kay Davies is one of those writers who does dark brilliantly.

Her first novel True Things About Me (my review) was disturbing yet unputdownable – about a thrill-seeking young woman who gets into an abusive relationship.  Her second novel, the Baileys longlisted Reasons She Goes to the Woods is also disturbing and unputdownable…

It’s about a child, Pearl, and her family. There’s her little brother The Blob, there’s her mother and her beloved Daddy.  The book’s blurb quotes from the nursery rhyme There was a little girl, (which was actually written by Longfellow, I found out!).

When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

Except that Pearl is more often horrid than good. She’s an experimenter on other people – when she gets found out, they don’t like it – especially her mother who punishes her. She hides in the woods behind their house. It soon becomes clear that the mother has mental health problems, and Pearl gets blamed, and as she grows up and becomes a teenager, her experiments get nastier, and her mother carries on getting worse. Her poor beloved Daddy is beside himself with worry.

Some might say that the outcome of the novel is predictable given Pearl’s seeming single-mindedness in her actions; the route to get there though is not so obvious and builds up gradually over the course of the book.

The author, tells the story with a great deal of style. Although the book is nominally 250 pages long, only half the pages contain the story. Each pair of pages contains a one or two word heading on the left, and then a single paragraph that fills the page on the right. So the book is only really about 120 pages long.

Each right hand page is a vignette recounting one snapshot of Pearl’s life, moving from primary school through to teenage years. The extract below is the last third of the first of these little stories that make up the whole:

The living room is quiet. In the entire world there is only Pearl and her father. Her mother laid a fire before she went out; taking ages, leaving instructions, dropping things, then slamming the door and coming back. Now Pearl listens to the sounds coming from the grate as the flames lick each other and purr. From the place pressed against her father’s knee she feels a rippling sensation move through her body, as if a delicate, frilled mushroom were expanding, elongating, filling her up. She exhales slowly. She mustn’t disturb him. He would push her off with his beautiful hands if he woke up.

Told in the present tense, there is a dreamy otherworldliness about Pearl’s actions that belies the fact that a lot of what she does is downright nasty. It’s clear that the mother-daughter relationship never happened and that she idolises her father. She also has a controlling relationship with her few friends, and The Blob too of course. After all, Pearl only wants one thing …

Deborah Kay Davies has again probed the dark side of relationships – different ones this time.  I wonder where she’ll go for her next novel?  As I said at the top, this book is disturbing and unputdownable, an uneasy but thought-provoking read.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies, pub Feb 2014 by Oneworld, 250pp, Hardback.

A sad beginning and a happy ending cut oh so short by tragedy …

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

While I was doing some research into age appropriate novels for younger teens for a post on the topic back in November, I kept coming across books for older teens that I wanted to read myself. This was one of them, so I ordered a copy, and added it to my YA shelf.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyIt’s a kind of funny story is a novel about a teenager suffering from depression. It is clearly autobiographical and Vizzini has said it’s about 85% true. As a fan of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, it sounded as if I’d enjoy this book too.

I wasn’t planning to read it so soon, but a news item from the Huffington Post here made me go straight to it…

The author, Ned Vizzini, then 32 years old, committed suicide on December 19th by jumping from the roof of the building where his parents lived, leaving his wife and son.

Shock over his tragic death drew me to read the novel as soon as I could.  Although my reading was coloured by reality, it is a fine novel, and really helped to understand some of the pressures on teenagers today. It begins …

It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint – it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come ou tin chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.

Craig Gilner is fifteen. He’s spent much of last year cramming to ace his application to Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan. He gets his place and starts school alongside his friend Aaron only to discover that he’s not a natural genius like most of the other students there including Aaron. He’s instantly behind, and anxiety sets in. Discovering pot leads to less desire to get started on catching up, and he’s also jealous of Aaron’s girlfriend Nia, always being the gooseberry.

It all builds up and soon he can’t eat without throwing up afterwards, everything is entwining him in ‘Tentacles’. He needs to find some ‘Anchors’.  He is blessed with a lovely and supportive family who try everything to help – he ends up on medication and with twice-weekly visits to a shrink, Dr Minerva, who helps to anchor him.

However Craig’s medication runs out, and he stops taking it. Soon the depression leads to suicidal thoughts of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge.  One night it just becomes too much and he phones a suicide helpline, who tell him to get to the hospital down the road. He admits himself to the short stay psychiatric unit, and finds he’s not alone, and thus begins the road to recovery.

It all felt horribly real. Craig is unflinching in telling us all about his problems, from the conversations, all the tentacles, waiting for ‘the Shift’ to happen – that live or die moment. It sounds grim – it is grim, but it is also grimly funny in parts.

What was hard to bear was the amount of pressure that Craig was putting on himself – it’s not like it was coming from his family, who still saw a Maths score of 93% as brilliant. That’s not the case though when everyone else gets 100 at this school, (which was based on the Styvesant School in NYC where the author went).

The second half of the book, set in the psychiatric unit, contrasts enormously and young Craig, put in the adult ward as there is no room in the teen one, quickly becomes a good luck charm to the other residents which, of course, is confidence building.  The other residents are, as you might expect, a collection of seriously ill misfits, suffering from psychotic episodes to bipolar, from phobias to self-harming, and not forgetting Craig’s suicidal deep depression.

Ned Vizzini in 2012, (Photo by Sabra Embury, his wife)

Ned Vizzini in 2012, (Photo by Sabra Embury, his wife)

I think it is important for any older teens reading this book to realise that there is a way back from depression and other mental health issues but it is a long road – often two steps forward and one (or more) back, and although an important part, it can’t be controlled by medication alone.

I did well up with tears several times whilst reading this brilliant novel, and when I reached the end and saw the little afterword that tells you that the author spent five days in a Brooklyn psych unit like Craig, you just knew he was telling it from the heart, and his legacy will live on in this book.

My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends at this most difficult time. 

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For anyone who wants to read more about depression, amongst books Ned Vizzini recommended on his website is The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon (see link below).

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, 2007, Miramax/Hyperion paperback, 444 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression by Andrew Solomon