That Girl from Nowhere, Dorothy Koomson

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It’s been a while since I was on here. Things haven’t been the easiest, but there’s also been some wonderful moments – such as my wedding. I needed to take a break from reading things with a purpose and just read, but I actually have only read 2/3 books in the last couple of months, what with one thing or another. I was having a bad day the other day and my gorgeous husband took me to WH Smith and told me I could buy any book I wanted! It was a hard choice, and I ended up having to use my blog to see if I liked an author or not. It was actually really useful to have all those memories wrapped up in the blog, and so I am returning to review books again so that I always have that option when I can’t work out what book I should buy. I really haven’t had a lot of brain space recently, so it might be that the quality of my reviews slips, but practice makes perfect.

So here we are with a failsafe author for me – Dorothy Koomson. Her hard hitting, gritty and realistic books have both broken me and built me up over the years. She hides nothing, shys away from no subject and addresses all those things most of us try to avoid. That Girl from Nowhere was no different.

Clemency was adopted as a baby into a white family with a very racist and abusive uncle and a cousin who grew up to be the same way. After the death of her beloved father, Clemancy moves to Brighton with her mother to start a new life, having just left her partner of many years because he lied to her. Little does she know that this will set into motion a series of events she can’t control, leading to her finding herself in ways she never thought possible.

Koomson’s characterisation is always excellent. I struggled a little bit with Clemency’s mother and cousin. Both seemed to much made out to be the bad guy, but this was resolved a little bit towards the end. There was a definite lack of maternal affection throughout which made Clemancy’s mother seem almost abusive herself, and there was a lot of institutional racism even in the blended family that was uncomfortable to read. I’ve never before considered what it must be like to grow up as a black child with white parents, and it really opened my eyes to what a struggle it could be.

I liked Koomson’s use of a few incidental characters to strengthen Clemancy, especially Molly, a fellow adoptee whose role in the novel is minor but impact on Clemancy’s life is huge.

I wasn’t such a fan of Koomson using emails from Abi to Jonas. I didn’t feel like this added a lot to the story, or even to Abi’s character, and was an unnecessary addition.

Overall, the book was moving and dealt with issues such as adoption and euthanasia with compassion and understanding. As always, Koomson is a must read!

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What if change isn’t enough?

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It’s been almost 3 months now since I handed in my notice and moved down to Cheltenham because my health was so bad I simply couldn’t go on as I was. I think the last time I updated you on my health was after a bad Sunday at church and since then it’s just been book reviews.  I’ve just been pushing things down and out as much as possible because there’s so much on my mind.

I’m getting married in 74 days – that should be exciting.

I have a job that’s 14 hours a week – compared to what I used to work that’s nothing, that should help.

I’m living with Jack – if that doesn’t make me happy then nothing will.

Here’s the problem…

I’m not happy.

Things aren’t ‘good’, or ‘fine’ or ‘okay’. It’s not even that I’m not happy. I’m simply not okay.

I am so tired. I have written about my fatigue before and it isn’t any better. I had to cancel plans with friends today because I just wasn’t well enough to make it out the house, yet I managed to get myself to McDonald’s to have an unhealthy binge that resulted in me coming back and having a total spiral. But my eyes are tired all the time. My body feels heavy. I wake up tired, I move around tired, and I go to sleep tired. It’s no wonder I haven’t the energy to write on here very often.

You see, my problem is the combination of things that are wrong with. The fatigue. The anxiety. The depression. The eating disorder. The physical pain that comes from slipped disc/sprained ankle/bad knee (that one’s relatively new). I feel like Rasputin in Anastasia (film) sometimes…

“in the dark of the night I was tossing and turning, and the nightmare I had was as bad as can be. It scared me out of my wits. A corpse falling to bits, and I opened my eyes and the nightmare was me.”

That’s what I feel like. I’m so broken and burdened with everything that I despise myself with such a passion – I’m my own nightmare. I had a kid at work tell his mother how he could ‘see all my fat’ the other day… I mean, I don’t actually have a uniform at work yet and I’ve worked hard and had to buy new clothes that I can’t afford in able to be able to dress according to their dress code, and I’ve really made an effort to look smart despite the fact that half my clothes are too big and half are too small (nothing ever seems to fit my size/shape). And this kid just stood their pointing, telling me he could see all my fat, and when his mum called him out on it he said, ‘yeah but mum, seriously, just look at her’. That wasn’t great for my confidence I have to say and no amount of smart comebacks that you can tell me I should think or say will change the fact that he was right. I am fat. I hate my body. I hate that I can’t bend down properly because it hurts too much in various places. I hate that I can’t walk very far or run anymore. There is not a single part of my body that I like and I didn’t need some kid to point that out.

My eating is really bad. It’s hard to have a binge eating disorder because I don’t think they’re very well understood. Anorexia gets a lot of press and I’m not undermining it, but binge eating isn’t life threatening and so is often ignored and certainly doesn’t receive the attention it needs to. Long term, it’ll cause a lot of problems but in the short term, it’s not doing me any immediate harm. Except I can’t stop eating. And then, when I’m done, I go home and I look at my body and I want to cut most of it off… my arms, my legs, my big fat tummy that a kid was so shocked by he pointed it out… I just want my body to go away.

Then the anxiety starts. I caused this, this is all I deserve. I tried to write in my journal for the first time since moving to Cheltenham tonight, and all it has is a big hole through the three pages I wrote because it all got too stressful. I feel sick all the time.

And where’s my faith? That thing that I’m supposed to cling to? I don’t even know if I have that anymore. My faith in the church has been gradually diminished over the years – from my university church that didn’t notice when I stopped attending for three months because of hand, foot and mouth disease/scarlet fever at the same time, to my current one where apart from one couple who regularly checks in on me and Jack, not a single person has tried to make me feel a part of their community… I was lying here earlier tonight, Jack’s away at work, and I realised that despite attending this church for 3 months, there was not a single person I could call to come round to help me. My belief in God is dwindling as well. And that’s scary for me. He’s always been the rock I hold onto, but the longer I feel like this the less I can believe that he gives a toss.

Then, of course, there’s the constant depression. The sadness no one can explain. The black cloud I live under that also grows inside me, building in my chest until I can’t breathe. Or maybe I just don’t want to take my next breath. I don’t even know the difference anymore.

I grip onto my love for Jack like it’s the only thing keeping me afloat. I picture his face if I went through with the things in my head. From the minute he’s gone to the minute he gets back I am scared and alone but I hold onto the fact that he loves me and everything that he is doing to support me. He is working 2 jobs. We are living on a very tight budget. He is planning a wedding. He manages the household chores, the cooking, the cleaning, the shopping, the food preparation, the washing… without him I’d be living in a pit. He’s my rock and I couldn’t do this without him.

I just wish I could make it easier for him, but how can I when I can’t even make it easier for myself?

I literally transformed my life style… left my job, the place I lived and have changed everything about the way I was living my life.

But…

What if the changes I’ve made aren’t enough? What do I do then?

Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar, DJ Connell

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The Premise:

From the moment he is born, Julian’s mother decides that he has ‘star quality’ and will achieve great things. But his father’s fear difference could hold Julian back, especially when they are forced to relocate to Hobart. Will Julian find the place he belongs? Or will he fall by the wayside?

The Verdict

I did not enjoy this book. It was too much like a biography – a bunch of nonsense things that happened to a person before they became famous that helped to make them who they are. Whilst for people who like biographies, this is fine, for me, it just wasn’t enough – definitely not my type of fiction. It’s the book for my June book club meeting, and after The Hate You Give it was a massive disappointment!

The genre and the writing style aside, I have to say that Connell paints what I can only assume is an accurate but rather bleak picture of 1960s Australia, in which homosexuality is a ‘dirty little secret’ and those who openly express their orientation in Tasmania are marked as outsiders. Julian’s homosexuality is made clear from about page 2 of the novel, making it a natural part of the narrative, and his keeping it a secret is a part of his every day life. Whilst it seems to me that ‘star quality’ seems to be a euphemism for homosexuality, there are also elements of Julian’s nature that could also account for this reference. It seems that Connell attempts to inhabit the mindset of 1960s Tasmanians and is, in this sense, successful, as she creates a very realistic and believable society with their own damaging preconceptions and idiosyncrasies.

Julian himself is a frustrating character. He is pampered by his mother and bullied by his father, but believes that he is destined to do great things. This belief in his destiny makes him lazy and almost unbearable as a protagonist. His flair for story telling, and constantly embellishing the truth with unnecessary lies, as hard to pin point at first but one of the key reasons I disliked him so much.

To be honest, I don’ have much to say about this book. It really wasn’t for me and I wouldn’t seek out this author again.

After You, Jojo Moyes

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The Premise

After 6 months of looking after quadriplegic Will Taynor, and falling in love with him, Will committed assisted suicide at Dignitas. Now, estranged from her family because of her complicity in his suicide, Lou is trying to build a life for herself in London, that will bring honour to the legacy that Will left her. But how do you move on from love? And when Will’s past interrupts Lou’s stagnant life, can she move on from his memory, or will she always be trying to please him?

The Verdict

I felt that this novel had more to it than the original. Rather than just relying on the unusual romance between carer and their charge, there were several layers to this book and it addressed more than one serious issue.

It was helpful that aside from one chapter, the narrative was solely from Lou’s point of view which meant that it flowed a lot better. The interspersion could have been done without – the reader could have learned some of the truths about Lily retrospectively as Lou learned them – but it wasn’t as much of an issue was the constant interruptions in the first novel.

Moyes developed the 2D characters of the first novel a little better in this one, especially in the case of Lou’s mother, who makes some progression as a person herself. Her children, and husband, come across as very un-supportive of her developing some feminist attitudes and ways, which is disappointing in a generation where we are more and more encouraging them in ourselves. It added comedy rather than depth to the narrative, undermining the positivity of the presence of some actual character development.

Moyes attempts to address serious issues such as rape, co-erced, drunken teenage sex, grief and depression. It’s a big ask for what I would say is an average author. I felt like the rape and co-erced sexual componant wasn’t given enough seriousness or time. She used it as a way for Lily and Lou to bond, which was fine because victims of similar crimes often do, but it was a story tool and I hate that about it because it undermines the seriousness of those crimes. Lily is offered no counselling and very little support after what happens to her, and with very little build up, she was suddenly being blackmailed and hit on by a 40 year old man (who was trying to bribe her for sex). There was little preparation for the content which I think actually needs a trigger warning. But the worst thing about it is that it is purely a literary tool to move Lily and Lou’s friendship along, without any real consideration for the seriousness of the crime, and no consequence for the perpetrators.

Moyes portrayal of grief is a little more successful – the ‘Moving On’ group seems relevant and thought through, and it was interesting to observe people addressing their different grief. Lou’s attitude towards it wasn’t great, especially how she suddenly became ‘healed’ when the others were still in the early stages of their grief. Perhaps that reflects the short lived nature of hers and Will’s relationship, perhaps it’s a reflection of the passion for life that she and Will shared, but actually it just felt like she moved on and very little consequence, even willing to give up her goodbye speech to Will to his daughter who didn’t know him.

Speaking of Lily, let’s talk about her mother for a moment. Moyes seems to love a flat, 2D, bad guy. Last time it was ‘Running Man’ Patrick, obsessed with exercise and oblivious to everything else. This time it was Lily’s mother, a self centred, uncaring woman, unable to cope with her teenage daughter and willing to palm her off onto any other human who offered. This was an unacceptable portrayal of motherhood, and by referring constantly to her wealth and big house, implied that it was this that was at the cause. Moyes tried to flesh her out by portraying her as a gold digger, but she was an unrealistically negative character and Moyes could have done better.

Overall, though, I did prefer the story to the previous novel. Lily added some more interest in the story, as Will’s daughter, and it was interesting to see Lou try to balance who she is with suddenly becoming responsible for another person. Lou’s relationship with Sam was also a highlight, but again, she falls in love too quickly. The ending was secure, it was good that Lou went off on her adventure and started trying to live again.

I won’t be seeking out Moyes – I get too frustrated at her characterisation of the side characters and her stories are too reliable. But it was a relatively enjoyable read and a very different tone to the original.

Allegiant, Veronica Roth

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The Premise:

Now that their city knows the truth, Tris and Tobias want to travel outside to see what, as divergents, they can do in response to the video that has revealed their importance. Desperate to escape the city that is now under the control of Evelyn, Tobias’ mother, they leave without authorisation and come across an unexpected world. What do you do when you discover that everything you know is a lie? And in a world where everyone you know is considered damaged, who do you save?

The Verdict:

I was a bit nervous about reading Allegiant after the disappointment of Insurgent, but I am glad that I’m stubborn and insist on finishing a series if I start it because Allegiant brought back a lot that I loved about the first novel that the second lost.

MASSIVE SPOLIER

Tris dies!

I am always complaining about how authors set their characters into impossible situations and yet, remarkably, the protagonist always survives. When Tris decided to go into the control room rather than her brother to face a deathly serum, I tutted and ploughed onwards, knowing that despite all the adversity Tris would survive and the novel would end with her and Tobias happily moving on with their lives. And when she defeated the serum and didn’t die immediately, my frustration grew. Now she was facing David, who of course had a secret inoculation against the death serum. When she went for the memory serum deployment and got shot, my cynicism told me that aid would soon be rushing to her side. But it didn’t. Then she saw her mother, and rather than encouraging her to return to the world she was desperately trying to save, Tris’ mother said yes, your work is done, come with me now. And Tris died. It was a moving moment, but from my point of view the real triumph there was Roth’s, who had the audacity to kill off her protagonist properly. It was both heart wrenching and satisfying at the same time, a victory for realistic, modern teenage fiction, but a loss to the world that Roth created. I was impressed with the skill that Roth wrote the scene, which will stand out in my mind as a highlight of the entire series.

Of course, Roth had to pave the way for her to be able to do this. Rather than focus on the singular narrative of Tris, she created a dual narrative which alternated, a little ad hoc, between Tris and Tobias. This made up for the deficit in Insurgent by adding a little more depth to the narrative, however, Tobias’ character was stiff and unnatural. Despite being given his own voice, he was still Tris’ Tobias, with little depth or character beyond what Tris had already painted. Even his attempt to go along with the failed revolution was a little boring because he didn’t have the depth of character that made us really sympathise with his struggle or his final choice. There was also not enough build up to the fact that all he wanted was a mother and he was willing to risk the safety of his city, his friends and everything he knew to give her a chance to come back to him. Evelyn failed as a character precisely because she wasn’t the sort of person to put family first, and her desire to be a mother could not fulfil her dictator tenancies. Killing Tris off was impressive, but giving Tobias a mother to replace her kind of undermined their relationship by showing that Tobias was just desperate for a strong woman to love him, and when he lost Tris, his mother was going to become enough.

Some of Roth’s world building was fascinating, especially the use of propaganda which is portrayed as a truth and then systematically taken apart as Tobias and Tris make several different discoveries. The fear of the ‘other’ here is not gender, or skin colour or orientation but an invisible genetic different. The genetically pure decided that anyone with altered genes was problematic, and altered their history so that future generations would believe this. This was an indictment of current society, where we take differences and nurture them into hatred rather than building a better world together. Tris’ understanding of Caleb helped with this belief – he made the decisions he made because of who he was, not necessarily because of who his genes made him, and she had to learn to forgive him completely before she could move on.

I don’t think enough was made of Tris’ heritage – the link to Edith Prior or the history of her mother who joined the city later. A clandestine love between David and Tris’ mother was detrimental to the main narrative as it wasn’t gone into in depth and seemed like a clumsy afterthought. Roth’s story is very plot drive, and lacks the depth of some of the mature fiction that focuses on the building of a world and characterisation as a priority. Everyone seemed to fall into a character cliche – the boyfriend, the best friend, the side character who died and their loving family – and there didn’t seem to be much else to them. The focus was Tris, and partially Tobias.

However, complaints aside, I enjoyed Allegiant a lot more than I expected to, and hats off to Roth for following through with the challenging authorial decision to kill off the protagonist (albeit with some painful cliches as Tobias processed her departure). I won’t seek out Roth again specifically, but if I came across something by her I would probably read it. Perhaps it’s time I focussed on some adult fantasy to give me the depth and commitment that I need… I do still have Wheel of Time to finish!

Insurgent, Veronica Roth

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The Premise

Following on from the events from Divergent, Tris and Four and their small band of abnegation survivors head for Amity to hid from Jeannine’s violent attack. They must choose between staying in safety, or heading back into the city and facing their enemy head on. But with Four’s hatred of his father simmering, will they be able to work together to reveal the secret that Abnegation has been hiding? Or will Tris’ guilt regarding the attack and fear of the future stop her?

The Verdict

I thought the film was better.

Phew, confession over and done with. It’s rare, but it does occasionally happen. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film was the fact that Tris had to overcome multiple simulations in order to unlock the message from the outside world. Her suffering was purposeful, and she voluntarily continued it when she was rescued in order to open the lines of communication with the outside world. I found that concept fascinating – that the experiment was growing humans in the hope that one day one of them would be able to unlock the message and reunite the factions with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and it has to be my biggest complaint. Whilst the torture was purposeful in the novel – so that Jeannine could create a serum that will effect all the Divergent, that motivation was not as multi-faceted as the motivation in the movie. In fact, it took Jeannine from villain to too villainous. Whilst it is hard to stomach, the idea of genocide of the Divergent was relevant and could have continued, but Jeannine’s desire for control was over written and over presented (I must iterate here that I’m not saying I can ever understand why people commit genocide, just that it seemed to be Jeannine’s original goal). It was a shame that she became so fixated on the serum so that she essentially lost any of the character that made her a 3D antagonist with layers of complexity. Mixed with the over writing of the natures of the factions (ALL the erudite being obsessed with knowledge and having nothing else interesting about them) and the book became quite dry and basic.

I’ve gone up and down with Tris’ character too. One of the reasons I love her, which I made clear in my review of Divergent (available here: https://readexerciserepeat.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/divergent-veronica-roth/ ), is that she dictates her own destiny. She continues to react to events, rather than being caught up in them against her will, and takes her fate into her own hands when she hands herself over to Erudite. However, Roth’s writing of Tris was rather disappointing. Focussing on her weaknesses – her inability to hold a gun, her missing her parents, her dependence on Tobias and their often volatile relationship – should have made her a stronger character, but like Jeannine, it took away what it was that made her stand out before because it was constantly referred to and made a key feature of the novel. Perhaps it would have been better if this had been more purposeful, but instead it just felt repetitious and boring.

I also have some issues with the relationship between Tobias and Tris. Roth attempts to give it too much of an adult glaze, requiring the 16 year olds to be committing to each other in emotional ways beyond the abilities of a teenager in the throes of their first romantic love. I’m not saying that relationships developed in teenage years can’t become happy adult relationships, I’m just saying that Roth tries to give their relationship adult depth unsuccessfully. The most real times are when they argue, which is a lot in this novel, but Tris’ idolisation of Tobias is a frightening insight into how relationships can become abusive. He has no reason to keep secrets from her, no reason to be paranoid, no reason to distrust her, but these things almost lead to the destruction of the piece of evidence that will ultimately save her life. He is wrapped up in his own ‘thing’, and their relationship is uncomfortable to read throughout the novel because some of the things he does and says are the starts of a relationship break down that could lead to some harm.

Also an issue is that nothing really happened. Ultimately, they allied with the factionless and broke into Erudite headquarters. There was a lot of reading to get to that core content. I don’t feel like Tris really developed as a character and the first person narration limits the development of her co-stars as well. In fact, I think Roth felt this as well as in conversation with Jeannine Tris points out ‘I’m 16, I change’ – a blatant attempt to pretend that there has been any character development at all.

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel was Caleb’s betrayal of Tris. This was unexpected but also understandable – especially when Tris learns that Erudite was split into two parts, those who believe Jeannine unquestioningly and those who don’t. Caleb’s personality and loyalty to faction were clear from Divergent and it is unsurprising that he returns to this belief. In this sense, the first person narration made it even more shocking because Tris truly had no idea, which mean that the reader didn’t either. This was a clever twist, but not enough to rescue the entire novel.

I have Allegiant here to read and look forwards to completing the trilogy, however, my hopes for the final instalment are minimal. I know that Roth has written several novellas regarding characters in the series – at this point it’s fair to say that I won’t be reading them.

Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

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The Premise

Lou Clark lives a simple life, working at the same coffee shop for her whole working life, dating Patrick, a steady man, for the last 7 years. But when the coffee shop closes, she is thrust into an unfamiliar world of care work. Her patient is Will, a young quadriplegic who is struggling to live with the pain and hopelessness his accident has left him feeling. He is determined to end his life… but can Lou save it?

The Verdict

I feel like I’m starting to make a habit of having to make these confessions and have to admit that I knew how this story went as I watched the movie first, a while ago. Both the movie and the novel were recommended by my younger sister. Now, she is very loyal and reads every blog post that I write, and it is with a heavy heart that I have to preface this review by saying that I found this novel very… ‘meh’… for lack of a better word, as I know she loves it!

Perhaps because the shock ending of Will committing assisted suicide was taken away, I didn’t really engage with the story or the writing. Rather than sticking to the first person narration of Lou, Moyes interspersed the odd first person narration of other characters – Will’s mum, Nate (Will’s nurse) and Treena (Lou’s sister). But these weren’t regularly spread out through the novel, they just kind of appeared as an extra that seemed a bit unnecessary. It was lazy writing really – Moyes didn’t want to have to explain it through Lou’s eyes and so brought in other narrators. If this had been regular, or more consistently done, it might have added to the story, but as it is, it is messy and just takes away from Lou’s narrative. Perhaps Moyes’ idea was to wrap everything up with the police report at the end of the novel and reveal that the writing had been a part of the police reports assessing the circumstances of Will’s death. If that was the case, it was even more poorly done than the general narrative. That in itself wasn’t a great framing to the novel – Moyes needs to become an expert in the narrative she is using before trying to frame it in different ways.

The story itself was sweet and honest, expressing the struggles of being a carer for a quadriplegic. I liked Lou’s exploration of the forums for quadriplegics, and found Moyes descriptions of how Lou had to care for Will moving and genuine. The internet is a remarkable resource now for people from all walks of life, and it’s nice to see it being utilised in this way. However, once again Moyes doesn’t really do it justice, ocasionally altering the text to show what Lou is reading but not focusing in on it. There was just wasn’t enough depth.

I found Lou’s relationship with Treena, and Moyes’ portrayal of Treena, especially frustrating. Treena is a 2D, selfish and self centred character. Her attempts to support Lou do not mitigate her absence of action when Lou was assaulted. The chapter in her voice shows a completely self centred character who is petty despite having a child and being at university – such as referring to Lou’s room as ‘it was still my room’. Moyes’ portrayal of the working class family is realistic, but exaggerated to the point where it can be ridiculed.

Speaking of ridicule… Patrick. ‘Running Man’ as Will calls him, is a shallow, self centred, obsessive jerk. At no time is his passion for eating well and exercising celebrated. His job is undermined by only really being mentioned when he makes the mistake of suggesting to Will that he could get better. Patrick had potential to be a deep and interesting character, but Moyes overwrites his obsession with exercise. The only time he felt like a real person was when he got angry about Lou’s holiday with Will – and understandable reaction. Lou had dated Patrick for 7 years and whilst Moyes hints that there was some change in him over that time as he became more obsessed, we see none of the good that Lou once saw in him. Moyes scraped the bottom of the barrel by making him the leak to the press regarding Will’s assisted suicide, which to me seemed out of the tiny little bit of character that he had portrayed. It was fine for Lou to break up with her boyfriend, but Moyes should have spent more time creating an actual believable character rather than getting out some frustration at people who do extreme sports.

Overall, the book was disappointing and despite its serious content, lacked the depth and maturity needed to truly engage the reader in the subject matter. I will read the sequel, once I’m done with Insurgent and Alligient, but after that I won’t be seeking out Moyes again.