Book Review: Songs About a Girl

saagLook, I’ll admit my dirty little secret, which is – drum roll – that I have never, that’s NEVER, not even as a hormonally charged fourteen year old, been a fan of any boyband.  EVER.  I realise this makes me weird.  I even tried to cultivate a liking for (showing my age now) Take That in their original early nineties heyday just to try and fit in.  But big boots and plaid shirts and Pearl Jam cassettes kept calling me back to the dark side.  I think I was just too weird grumpy depressed cool for all that sweaty lust and screaming and waiting outside the newsagent before school on a Wednesday morning just to be the first to tear out the latest poster in the centre pages of Smash Hits, ready to blu tack to my artex bedroom wall.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I dove into Chris Russell’s “Songs About a Girl” and found myself barely surfacing for air.  This is, after all, a book that is unashamedly about a boy band, albeit one that is told from the point of view of a non fan.  In it we are treated to a rare insight into the backstage antics, the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts, and of course the tensions and bonds that inevitably build between the people that find themselves in this rarefied position.  As readers we are elevated out of the mosh pit (do those kind of gigs have mosh pits?) and taken by the hand up onto the stage to look back out at the stadium that is screaming our name, blinded by the lights.

It’s testament to Russell’s tight plotting, dry humour and deft character development that a cynic like me found myself utterly absorbed by plucky heroine Charlie’s journey as she gets to know the band (and herself) better.  The dialogue and lively banter lifts off the page and makes the characters come alive, and the mysteries and questions at the heart of the narrative keep the pages turning right until the final few lines.  And beyond.

It’s so thoroughly fresh, modern and current that I really can’t explain why this book made me so gloriously nostalgic for the years of teen fandom I never had, but it did.  So, having missed out on it in real life, I’m glad this book gave me the chance to be a boy band fan for a little while at least.  Better late than never, and I’m sure that, were they real, Fire & Lights would undoubtedly have the edge on early-nineties Take That in any case.

Book Review: Paper Butterflies

paper-buttefliesPeople throw the term “heartbreaking” around a lot when talking about books, but with this book, there really is no more fitting description.  At first I found June’s story almost impossible to read.  The unfairness of her situation and the way she was treated just made me want to shout at the pages.  Sometimes, with books that deal with issues this difficult I end up wondering if I even want to enter the world that is being created.  Sometimes they’re just not journeys I can bear to go on.  I never felt like that with this book.  Even though June’s world is so dark, is at times SUCH a dark place to be, I was nonetheless utterly compelled.

Into June’s dark world comes the ray of light that is her best friend Blister.  He and his unconventional family are so perfectly portrayed; flawed and ordinary and perfect and extraordinary all at once, just as those people are who come into our lives at the right time to save us in whatever way they can, or try to anyway.  But it’s all the questions at the heart of the novel that keep you turning the pages – the secrets and lies and bottled up emotions that swirl in June’s unhappy home are almost physically nauseating at times as they twist together and ultimately unravel.

This is a spectacularly well written book – intimate and emotional, steeped with fear, and imbued with a hope as delicate as a butterfly’s wings (paper or otherwise).  You’ve got to be brave to read this book, but it’s worth plucking up the courage.

Book Review: All the Bright Places

atbpUrgh, writer’s envy is a terrible thing. And I felt it on basically every other page, if not more, of this book. There’s just so much I love about the surprising and original writing. And the characters are just so vividly drawn, not just Violet and the amazing Finch, but so so many others as well – their families, their school friends, even the bit parts are so solidly depicted. The love story is so well paced as well, so compelling. Literally could NOT put it down. I think this is one of the most relatable and sensitive depictions of mental health issues I’ve seen, as well as giving a fresh, original and realistic take on it. Totally jealous, and am simultaneously excited for the movie and fearful it won’t live up to my high expectations.

Book Review: I’ll Give You the Sun

fullsizerenderI was transported to the rugged California coast by this beautiful novel, which tells the story of twins Noah and Jude, coming of age in artsy surf town Lost Cove. The POV swaps between the twins and between two distinct timelines, one before the series of tragic events that drove the formerly very close siblings apart and one after. We’re left to piece the story together pretty much as they do, since the assumptions they’ve made and the secrets they’ve kept from each other mean that they only each know half of the story.

It’s not an easy task to deliver two distinct and unique voices within one book but Nelson is pitch perfect. Both protagonists are artistic free spirits so their descriptions are unusual and original and poetic, rendering the novel into life as if it itself was one of the paintings that are so vividly evoked within its pages. The love stories are believable and realistic while also being transcendent and beautiful. The entire cast of characters are interesting, engaging and deeply flawed, fleshing out the bones of the twins’ family, history and community, the whole of which is brought to life with an honesty that is deeply moving.

An engaging, page-turning plot, sumptuous prose and a cast of fascinating characters – one of the best books I have read this year and one that stays with you, long after you read the final words.

Book Review: In the Dark, In the Woods

itditwWell, this book got me into a lot of trouble.  I started reading it one night and literally could NOT stop until it was almost light and I realized I’d better get some sleep.  Then, in the morning, when I should have been doing other things, I snuck away to a hammock to finish it, re-appearing at lunchtime.  Since I was supposed to be spending rare quality time with them, my husband and kids were not happy about this turn of events and I was placed firmly In the Doghouse.  But, you know what, it was worth it.  This book is THAT GOOD.

Castley Cresswell and her five siblings live in the woods under the strict control of their father, whose non-specified religious zeal keeps them prisoners to his cruel ministrations.  This doesn’t stop the siblings taking every opportunity to escape and wonder the woods at night, seeking experience of the world around them as adulthood beckons and an inevitable (and petrifying) tension builds.

Where do I start?  I mean you have the characters – the tough, funny, snarky, vulnerable Castley, the ethereally beautiful Caspar, the rebellious Mortimer, their terrifying father, the list goes on – all so well drawn and vividly rendered that, even though there’s a fairly extensive cast I never once had to stop and remind myself of their identity.  Then there’s the setting – so beautifully evoked that for the time I was reading the book I was THERE in the haunting darkness of the woods, the tumbledown repression of the house, the eerie strip malls, the intimidating high school hallways and grounds.  The atmosphere is so unsettling and dark throughout that, even though this is set in our modern day world, it rarely feels like it.  Early on, everyday things like coldsores and late night corner shops are imbibed with such horror that we as readers are able to see them through Castley’s confused and tainted eyes.  As the story progresses, we share completely in her alienation from the “normality” which surrounds her but which she is unable to be a part of.  And her voice is so strong that we are unquestionably able to see it from this perspective and feel what it would be like to be in her shoes, as one of the weird and feared, but also fascinating and charismatic, Cresswell siblings.  Descriptions of George and several other of the high school interactions were so witty and accurate I actually did LOL.  And, oh man, I was just so in love with Caspar – is that weird?  Maybe it is.

Eliza Wass has written a unique and enthralling book – dark, funny, beautiful and terrifying by turns – which kept me gripped and captured my imagination completely.  Her writing is original and unusual and many of her descriptions and images left me wishing I had thought of them first.  I have already begun to highly recommend this book to everyone I meet, and this is set to continue (starting now).  If you haven’t already – read it.