NW, Zadie Smith (Penguin, 2013)

An experimental novel that is as unpredictable as the UK’s capital of diversity, inequality and loneliness

NW

Zadie Smith tells the stories of Nathan, Felix, Keisha (later Natalie) and Leah, all of whom, the author included, grew up in the North-West of London. Despite their shared origins, each character will go on to live different lives in this Dubliners-esque tale.

The word tale would actually be disrespectful to Smith’s prowess, as she proves with NW that she is in fact a master of realism. She clearly has an excellent understanding of human day-to-day life and behaviour. Nonetheless, in a novel whose aim seems to be to put a name and a face to the people we walk past every day on the tube, the bus and the streets of London, the characters are a little transparent and difficult to picture.

Despite this, the novel is fast-paced, mirroring life in the capital, and there is never a dull moment, with the author switching with ease between the points of view and perspectives of multiple characters. You will have to be on your toes reading NW, as it is sometimes easy to lose track and get lost.

In terms of genre, this one is very hard to define. Some would say it contains elements of post-modernism, but it is not as simple as that, and I have a feeling that the author would not like to be given a label. This is simply Zadie Smith; it is her genre, and it is fresh and revolutionary.

On the whole, NW is extremely thought-provoking novel that proves life – work, relationships, surviving – is difficult regardless of your situation. We do however witness a clear North-South divide in a novel that makes us question life as a whole.

Are we doomed by our backgrounds? Do our upbringings determine our futures? What choices do we really have in life? And is it the survival of the fittest in this concrete jungle?

3.5 Books

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Joyland, Stephen King (Hard Case Crime [Titan Books], 2013)

A new coming-of-age novel is on the block, and it’s from a rather unlikely suspect…

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First there was Holden Caulfield, the “catcher”, and then the “wallflower” Charlie, but now Stephen King, typically known for his ability to thrill and terrify, has brought us Devin Jones, a new teenage protagonist we are able to empathise with.

Devin recounts the story of his time working at Joyland, a funfair in North Carolina, where he has taken up a summer work placement. In his 20s, he is nursing a broken heart from a previous love, naively believing she will change her mind; but it is another girl who will be on his mind throughout the summer.

Linda Grey had been found dead just four years previously after entering the Horror House ride. Her ghost still looms, and Devin, intrigued by the mystery, begins to dig deeper, making some horrifying discoveries…

King himself stated that the image of a wheelchair-bound boy flying a kite on the beach was the inspiration for Joyland, and this image comes to life, as Devin forms two very special, yet different, bonds with the boy, Mike, and his mother, Annie.

We must not forget that King is not completely alien to “coming-of-age” writing, as his collection Different Seasons, to which Joyland beautifully alludes at times, contains elements of the genre. This novel nonetheless demonstrates King’s masterful versatility as a writer, as he effortlessly blends together horror, mystery and Bildungsroman in under 300 pages.

Although I’m not fully convinced by the efficacy of the novel’s funfair setting, and the fact that it is a little predictable, Joyland is undoubtedly a very gripping novel, in which Stephen King weaves his magic, giving us murder, the loss of innocence and heartbreak in a novel which is destined to become a cult classic.

4 Books

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The Yard, Alex Grecian (Penguin, 2013)

The Yard

A year after Jack the Ripper’s string of murders stuns Whitechapel, and there is another killer on the loose in London, the city at the centre of the world.

Alex Grecian expertly interweaves the stories of multiple characters within, and related to, Scotland Yard, leading with the protagonist Inspector Little, who has just joined the “Murder Squad”.

Grecian’s ability to effortlessly glide between stories makes for gripping reading of a novel which echoes the style of a movie, a TV show or even a graphic novel, such as Grecian’s own Proof.

Nonetheless, the author’s tense and suspenseful style somewhat casts into the shadows what is really a rather mediocre plot, which does not produce anything that is extremely exciting or revolutionary.

The novel provides us with an interesting look into the workings of Scotland Yard, and also the developments of forensic science during late 19th century, when many were highly skeptical about the use of fingerprints for identification.

While the story itself is easy to imagine, I was only able to picture modern-day London; the description of Victorian London was not wholly convincing, and I felt that it lacked the muggy, noisy and bustling atmosphere which I tend to associate with the capital during that era.

The Yard is, on the whole, a well-produced, promising debut novel; it is a definite page-turner, in which style and form nevertheless triumph over content and story-line.

3.5 Books

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Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (Vintage Books, 2010)

Her Fearful Symmetry

Many years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife, which has been widely reviewed, receiving mass critical acclaim; but, having read several negative reviews of Niffenegger’s follow-up novel, I wanted to read it in the hope of producing something a little more complimentary. Unfortunately, I will only be able to do that to an extent.

Her Fearful Symmetry seemed so promising from the outset; a family feud continues in the afterlife as Elspeth leaves her flat (adjacent to Highgate Cemetery, London) to the twin daughters of her estranged twin sister, Edie, who currently reside in Chicago.

Initially, I was excited to see various examples of fairy-tale imagery, akin to that of Alice’s fantasy world, particularly in relation to the contrasting “mirror” twins, Valentina and Julia. However, this never fully materialises, as only fleeting magical allusions are made throughout the novel.

This pretty much sums up Her Fearful Symmetry as a whole: incomplete, rushed and lacking that special “something”, which was more than present in Niffenegger’s previous  novel The Time Traveler’s Wife.

There is, nonetheless, another interesting storyline, revolving around Marijke and her husband Martin, whose OCD drives her back to Holland; however, even this emotional story is concluded rather abruptly and anticlimactically.

Audrey Niffenegger’s effortless prose, and her expert knowledge of Highgate Cemetery (obtained by volunteering there herself as a tour guide), certainly create a beautifully gothic setting for this novel. I just feel that it needed more time, nurturing and definitely more pages, in order to carefully round up these well-crafted, interweaving plots.

I guess this is why I try to avoid reading multiple novels by a single author, especially if he/she has already produced what I would consider a “classic”. Nonetheless, I do have faith in Niffenegger, and I feel that she will impress with her next full-length novel.

I sympathise with her as an author, because of the mountainous challenge she had to face in attempting to live up to her ground-breaking debut novel. I believe that to produce one masterpiece, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, is an outstanding achievement, which I hope will be recognised in the near future, through its publication as a “classic”.

It would, however, be a momentous, yet extremely difficult, feat for an author to overcome the “second novel syndrome” and go on to produce multiple classics, deservedly cementing his/her name in literary history for centuries to come.

3 Books

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One Day, David Nicholls (Hodder, 2010)

Featured in online newspaper ‘Arthur’s Daily Book News’
http://goo.gl/SBXNi

One Day

Dex & Em; Em & Dex. The couple get together on 15th July in 1988, the night of their graduation. On the same date, over the next 20 years, we visit the two protagonists in a non-linear, and almost epistolary, narrative style, reminiscent of Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Dexter Mayhew, now a television presenter, lives a cavalier lifestyle and thrives upon a cocktail of sexual affairs, drugs and alcohol. As a reader, one of the most difficult decisions will be whether or not to feel sympathy for Dexter, who finds difficulty in dealing with the pressure of fame and the eventual fall into obscurity.

Hard-working Emma Morley battles confidence and self-belief in her dream of becoming a successful writer; meanwhile, she finds work as a primary school teacher and has an unfortunate string of hopeless boyfriends.

You will find yourself desperately hoping that Emma and Dexter will be together, a couple who are simply meant for each other. Nicholls’ writing expertise shines through in this masterpiece, which will tug at your heart strings and leave you with a tear in your eye. By the way, try to avoid watching the movie adaptation beforehand, in order to avoid spoiling the twists and turns of this emotionally turbulent novel.

Nicholls more than establishes himself as a master of romance fiction with One Day, simultaneously displaying his great sense of humour, which will have you laughing out loud. This is more than can be said for Ian, one of Emma’s boyfriends, and a relentlessly awful comedian.

I feel that One Day would have benefited from a more consistent use of the present tense; at times, the story lost its emphasis, whilst the flow of the normally effortless narrative was disrupted, as a result of it slipping into the past tense. Nonetheless, this is one of the finest romantic-comedy novels of the century, which, in the style of Nick Hornby, and High Fidelity in particular, also gives us an educative look into British life in the 90s. One Day – original, hilarious and heartbreaking – is destined to become a classic.

4.5 books

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The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Black Swan, 2008)

‘Thanks for the beautiful review [...] all best and much respect.’
Markus Zusak, 2013 (via Twitter)

The Book Thief

Narrated by Death – not something that can be said about most novels; however, Zusak pulls it off wonderfully. A dry sense of humour, short and blunt sentences, as well an interaction with the reader are all characteristics which make Death the perfect narrator for The Book Thief.

The book thief is Liesel Meminger, a German girl, who is delivered to the house of Hans and Rosa Hubermann at the start of the novel. En route, she encounters Death for the first time, following the loss of her brother. We are told that they will meet each other on two further occasions.

The first book stolen by Liesel is a gravedigger’s manual which she gathers up from the snow after her brother’s burial. She goes on to steal several others, which she studies religiously; she later learns to read and write, with the aid of her Papa, Hans, with whom she shares a very close bond.

We get a better idea of the mysterious Hubermanns, when they selflessly take in and hide Max Vandenburg, a Jewish fist-fighter. Liesel develops a close friendship with Max, who is likewise a victim of Nazi persecution. The literature produced by Max for his friend Liesel truly enforces the novel’s emphasis on words, particularly in regards to their strength and importance at a time of great oppression and loneliness, where many people desperately desired to escape and rebel.

One of those who rebels is Rudy, a school-friend of Liesel, who, one day, dresses up like Jesse Owens and sprints through the streets of Molching. His affection shared with Liesel, and his constant pestering for just one kiss, makes for a beautiful, yet heart-breaking love story in The Book Thief.

Zusak places us in Himmel Road, at the centre of Nazi influence in Germany, allowing us to witness the suffering of innocent Germans, both at the hands of the British, who bombard the city in air raids, and of their fellow countrymen, who march shackled Jews through the streets to concentration camps.

My only real criticism would be the use of the German pejoratives saumensch and saukerl, which I felt lost their meaning through overuse. However, I feel that with this gem, Zusak has produced one of the most excellent novels of our century – sheer brilliance and originality – and one that I would steal, given the chance.

4.5 books

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Fat Girl Fairy Boy, Carol McConkie (Blue Star Books, 2013)

FGFB_FinalCover

Fat Girl Fairy Boy tells the story of Frieda Kunkelheimer, an ageing Hollywood actress and her make-up artist/closest friend, Robin Morris. Carol McConkie’s skilful biographical narration takes us individually through the lives of each protagonist, from birth, to the start of their endearing friendship and later on a trip destined for South America; a journey which will change their lives forever.

Frieda was always pretty, despite being labelled as ‘ugly’ by Ursula, the stern German grandmother by whom she was raised. A social recluse, Frieda is more content with the company of her animal friends, who return her affection and do not call her nasty names like the bullies at school. But her negligent childhood and further traumatic experiences cause psychological damage, a theme handled excellently by McConkie; Frieda bottles up her feelings leading to emotional detachment, she develops a hatred for mirrors and discovers that the only way to deal with these problems is to run…

Robin finds his love for fashion when dressing up with the leftover materials from his mother’s job. He is mollycoddled by his mother and this pampering leads to a fear of flying, driving and most importantly of illness, with which he is plagued from an early age. Robin’s homosexuality and lower social standing make him feel inferior in the world, until some bittersweet good fortune emerges from a heartbreak, which helps him to achieve his dreams: to become a make-up artist.

McConkie, with her expert characterisation, helps to maintain our closeness with Frieda and Robin throughout their personal journeys and struggles, as if we were part of the story; you will find yourself hoping for happy outcomes to two lives riddled with pain, shedding tears of sadness, joy and laughter along the way.

The author’s versatility as a writer is made evident as she increases the pace, injecting adventure and excitement into the second half of the novel, where a planned plane journey to Brazil goes horribly wrong.

Although this section of the novel contains the darkest parts of Fat Girl Fairy Boy, it is in this disaster that the two friends forget the superficial world of showbiz and consequently find the answer to their problems in the most unlikely place: an El Salvadoran jungle. Frieda finally fills the hole left in her heart by a neglected childhood and Robin discovers strength and boldness from a past-life.

My only complaint about the novel is that I wish it was longer! I wanted to continue reading on and on. Nonetheless, Carol McConkie achieves so much, educating us on decades of US history, through the Great Depression, WWII, 60s counter-culture and Americo-Latin American political relations. In Fat Girl Fairy Boy she has produced an absolute gem – an emotional, well-written novel of friendship and self-discovery – and I look forward to reading more from her!

Reviewed as an eBook for Book Hub, Inc.

Available at Amazon, KoboBarnes & Noble, iTunes,
Google Books, and coming soon to SONY!

4 Books

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