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Posts tagged ‘narrative’

DODO INK – Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen

Hi guys. Slowly trying to catch up with reviewing for my 52 books by 52 publishers reading challenge. Here’s number 4, and the publisher is:

 

 

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Dodo Ink is an independent publishing company based in the UK. Founded by author Sam Mills (The Quiddity of Will Self, Corsair, 2012), digital publishing and marketing specialist Alex Spears, and reviewer Thom Cuell, Dodo Ink will publish original fiction, with a focus on risk-taking, imaginative novels. We are looking for books which don’t fall into easy marketing categories and don’t compromise their intelligence or style to fit in with trends. We are passionate readers, and we believe that there are many more who share our appetite for bold, original and ‘difficult’ fiction. We want to provide a home for great writing which isn’t being picked up by the mainstream.

Find out more about them here.

 

The book I’m reviewing is…

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We were told that our mother’s life was terminated by killer bees while vacationing in San Marcos, Mexico with Dr Vargas at his family home.

 After her mother dies in bizarre circumstances, heiress Eugenie Lund is abducted by Dr Vargas, a charismatic Svengali-like figure who educates her according to his own philosophy, an esoteric blend of anthropology and psychiatry. Isolated from outside influences, Eugenie’s life is spent on the run across North America and Europe, existing on the fringes of society, always trying to keep one step ahead of her past. 
Taking in Mexico, Las Vegas, and the underground rave scene, Dodge and Burn is a psychedelic road trip recounted in beautifully crafted prose that pulses with frenetic energy.

Inspired by the likes of Carlos Castaneda and Hunter S Thompson, this is an exciting, iconoclastic debut novel from a remarkable new voice. 

Well. Where do I start with this one? It is quite frankly nothing like I’ve ever, ever read before!

When it says ‘psychedelic’ in the blurb, they’re really not kidding. This story is all about one girl’s mission to find her missing sister and to make sense of the universe around her, and is written as a series of notebook/diary entries interspersed with the narrative and point of view of an outside character who is trying to track her down. Eugenie’s universe is quite different to many other people’s: she relies on heavy psychedelic drug use, Wiccan rituals, tribal practices, meditation and all manner of other things to make sense of her own world and access modes and forms of perception and existence that are completely alien to most of us. It leaves you wondering, quite often, what is real and what Eugenie is imagining or hallucinating. Often you’re left to decide that for yourself. For this reason the writing is lyrical, poetic, surreal, and quite ground-breaking. It is truly a reading ‘experience’ and quite unique.

This doesn’t mean it’s hard to read. On the contrary, I read in Seraphina’s essay on the writing of Dodge and Burn and she stated that she wanted Eugenie’s voice to sound “scholarly, yet popular in a generally even tone” and she’s achieved that perfectly. I did have to read a few passages a couple of times over, but that’s not because of the writing style, it’s because the concepts that were being described were so new to me that I had to try to understand them as much as I could in order to understand Eugenie. You get a real sense of who Eugenie is under the surface and you yearn for her missing sister along with her; you are endlessly curious about the world and alternative ways of living, just like she is. She pulls you into her bizarre reality along with her, and it’s a lot of fun.

I loved Ben, Eugenie’s husband. He is calm and collected most of the time, and only really aggressive if he perceives a threat towards Eugenie. You can feel the love between the couple radiate off the page. The way he doesn’t altogether understand Eugenie and what she talks about, but humours her and supports her and goes along with her rituals and things anyway, is truly adorable and lovely. He isn’t perfect and he has a fairly dark, criminal past, but Ben’s sole purpose before meeting Eugenie is to travel the world and take part in dance raves, and afterwards it seems to be protecting Eugenie to the best of his ability. And I like him for that. He is not averse to violence but doesn’t indulge in it for the sake of things.

Dr Vargas, Eugenie and her sister’s captor, reminded me a little bit of Count Olaf from a Series of Unfortunate Events. I guess this is probably an annoying comment for the author to read as obviously Count Olaf has never had any bearing or influence on this character, and in fact Seraphina’s own stepfather was the influence there. But just to give you an idea of what it’s like if you haven’t read the book, the circumstances are similar in that he makes the children’s lives miserable by kidnapping them and exercising his sheer dominance and power over them in an almost magical way to keep them under his thumb for years and years. He is dangerous and evil and conniving and greedy and, quite unlike Count Olaf, he should be taken very seriously indeed. He really is quite an unpleasant character.

The mystery of Eugenie’s sister Camille and where she’s disappeared to is truly fascinating. The ending of the book just utterly took my breath away; I did not for one second expect it to happen and yet it makes so much sense. Then, of course, you have to decide if you believe the twist to be real. I personally do believe it, but that’s up for you to figure out for yourself. I’d love to hear your interpretations of this book.

Books like these are the reason I love indie publishing companies: Penguin Random House or Hachette probably wouldn’t have looked at this twice and that is a massive, massive loss for them. Read it! Four big shiny stars from me.

four stars

 

 

 

Kingdom by Russ Litten

It’s books like this that make me wonder…just how much pure literary gold is hiding out there that I might not stumble across? Kingdom is published by Hull publishing house Wrecking Ball Press and it is absolute magic. Many many people need to discover this and read it.

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“My name is Alistair Kingdom and I was born a ghost…”

A stranger appears in a prison library and assaults a guard. Locked in solitary confinement, he tells the story of his life and death.

Kingdom is the dark, achingly grotesque and somewhat third novel by Russ Litten.

This is such a unique book, with a concept that I’ve never seen tackled before and a flawless narrative that sweeps you along with the main character as he goes through an emotional and fascinating journey.

Alistair Kingdom wakes up in a dirty, dilapidated house one day with no memory of who he is or where he is. As we follow his story throughout the book, he slowly begins to realise that he has no physical presence and that no one can see him or hear him. What follows is his emotional AND physical quest to remember who he is, what’s happened to him and how he can escape this Hell in which he’s found himself.

The writing style is emotive, it is very funny, it’s chatty and, remarkably, it made me relate to the character despite his baffling situation. You never lose that hunger to find out what his story is and it keeps you gripped throughout the book. When you do find out who he is after a series of suggestions and hints and revelations throughout the book, you are taken completely by surprise, and my God is it a powerful realisation! You think, ‘I should have known this all along.’ The assumptions I made throughout, which seemed so obvious at the time, were suddenly blown to pieces by the truth of it and that’s why it makes such a lasting impression.

One quite interesting aspect of the writing style is that it jumps from present tense to past tense from paragraph to paragraph. For example:

“Door. I could not remember it. I groped about for it. Door, door, door. The word wouldn’t come. It bothered me. Other words had come, like wall and snake and sky and grass and roof. Why not door? Why the gap?

I can’t work it out and I can feel the frustration building inside…so after a time I give up, I abandon the mental quest and I’m wandering around the garden, restless, trying to distract myself, trying to fasten on to anything familiar.”

This really worked effectively in my view, in that it a) managed to convey that sense of confusion and lack of time perception that plagues Alistair, and b) feels more realistic in terms of how people actually speak in conversation. They don’t stick religiously to one tense in story telling, especially of this nature, and as the whole book is Alistair relaying his story in conversation with a prison officer, it just makes the novel feel so much more authentic. It’s a real demonstration as to how writing “rules” could often hinder rather than help, as there would be many who would say that this book breaks narrative and writing rules. But to me, it’s a big success on the part of Russ Litten.

It is such a bright and vibrant piece of writing and every description is so rich and brings the image so clearly into the reader’s mind. It really is talented writing. It allows us as readers to rediscover the world again just as Alistair does, through a new pair of eyes that haven’t seen everything already.

I also love the characters in this book. Gemma, the girl Alistair inadvertently falls in love with; the small vulnerable boy Ryan who he grows attached to, the various men he detests on moral grounds. Each character conjures a new human emotion in Alistair and makes him a little bit more human with each new experience or interaction. As he slowly becomes more material and gets his senses back, humans and other ghosts continue to affect and influence him in a number of different ways. It is fascinating to see how people have such an effect on one person and it is very expertly done.

Mr and Mrs Reader, you MUST pick up this brilliant book and read it. You won’t have another experience quite like it.

 

Gabriel’s Angel by Mark A. Radcliffe

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Gabriel Bell is a grumpy 44-year old web journalist irritated by the accumulating disappointments of life. He and his girlfriend Ellie want to start a family, but Gabriels has so few sperm he can name them and knit them flippers. So it’s IVF, which is expensive. Losing his job was bad enough, but getting run over and waking up to find himself in a therapy group run by angels really annoys him.
In Gabriels’ group are a professional killer and his last victim, as well as the woman whose car put Gabriel and herself in a coma. From this therapeutic community, just beneath Heaven, they can see the lives of those they have left behind and how they cope. Will the one hit wonder resurrect his Eighties band for a reunion tour? And can Ellie and her friends retrieve what they need from Gabriel’s comatose body, so that she at least can finish what they started?

If the group do well in therapy they may be a allowed to pass into Heaven, or go back to finish their lives. If not, it’s Hell. Or worse, more therapy.

Have you ever wanted to find a book that is equally hilarious as it is heartbreaking, thought-provoking and moving, gentle and yet action-packed? You need to read Gabriel’s angel. It is a truly unique book.

Part of the beauty of it is just how easy it is to read – I got through this book so quickly and smoothly, like a hot knife through butter. But while it’s easy to read, it’s certainly not because the writing is simple or not trying hard enough, it’s just because the writing style is so crystal clear and yet so inviting at the same time. It has a very original concept at the heart of it, which makes it appealing to me in a literary world swamped with millions of stories that are so similar to each other. The idea of there being a celestial group counselling facility somewhere in the astral plane between life and death is both hilarious and fascinating. How do you go about tackling such a concept?

Mark A. Radcliffe takes this idea and runs off with it, producing a novel full of humour and philosophical messages. At the heart there are a number of very different character types – Gabriel, the main protagonist, who is innately good but is struggling with the stress of being made redundant and going through IVF. Yvonne, a successful but bitter woman who was murdered by the evil Kevin who has no moral compass whatsoever. There is Julie, the woman who accidentally crashed into Gabriel and caused them both to go into comas, who had the misfortune of having to take part in a counselling section in limbo just as she was starting to find real happiness. There is Christopher, an angel who suffers constant internal turmoil as he second-guesses the morality of all of his own actions and decisions. Clemetius, the main ‘counsellor’ angel, shows himself to be a dodgy character more and more throughout the story – showing that even those who are meant to be ‘perfect’ in Heaven can’t pull this off.

There is also a parallel narrative that is going on on Earth involving Gabriel’s bereaved wife and her best friend, and Julie’s ex-boyfriend and his disappointing life and unrealised dreams. Hilarious antics occur both after death and back on earth, with hare-brained schemes to retrieve sperm from a comatose IVF patient to desperate attempts to reform an old 80’s band with has-been old men. With such a wide spectrum of colourful characters and events, this book was endlessly entertaining.

It explores questions such as: Who deserves a second chance or redemption? Has the way you have lived your life been worthy or wasteful? What is right or wrong, and can anyone be 100% good or bad? Does the world owe us anything? Can anything be intrinsic when all we do nowadays is question how everything works? Gabriel’s Angel  completely modernises and rewrites the idea of God and how he works, reflecting the ever-changing nature of today’s society.

‘Think of it like this. A modern God, a God in touch with the nuances and struggles of modern life, would know that the things people do are not necessarily indicative of who they are. That sometimes, quite often in fact, we need to look beyond the actions of a person and see inside them to truly understand what motivates them and who, in fact, they are. Moreover, a modern God would recognise that it is by addressing the inner turmoil that can haunt you all, that one might truly address sin.’

…Finally Yvonne spoke. ‘Oh my,’ she said softly. ‘Someone has killed God and replaced him with a social worker.’

Gabriel’s Angel is published by the amazingly successful independent publisher Bluemoose Books and I enjoyed it so much. There is no question about it: if you don’t give this book a chance, you’re making a mistake.

Digging The Vein by Tony O’Neill

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Digging The Vein by Tony O’Neill is a fascinating insight into the grim and despairing world of a heroin and class-A drug addict. Published by Wrecking Ball Press, the book explores the extreme highs and lows of human existence and shines a light on the rapid spiral into depression and degradation that drug addition can cause.

On a relentless Los Angeles summer day, you walk barefoot over broken glass and melting tarmac to meet your connection, praying that he will extend your line of credit to one more bag of heroin. You are alone, penniless, and wracked by violent withdrawals. Last night you robbed a psychotic crack dealer named Shakespeare, and had to abandon your apartment for fear of reprisals…

The novel is set in Hollywood, but the setting is far from bright. There are a lot of gritty scenes in this book, but what the author does brilliantly is show the reader how the addict feels about the drugs he’s taking. We know what he’s doing and that he’s poisoning his deteriorating body. Instead of being explicit and saying “I was hooked on drugs, I loved them more than I loved myself,” the author SHOWS the reader rather than TELLS. He does this by describing the drugs and the drug-taking process in an almost poetic manner: “There’s something in the ritual that you learn to love – opening the balloon of heroin and placing the dope into the spoon, which is stained dark brown with old heroin residue and coasted black with carbon on the underside. There is a smell to Mexican black tar heroin…caramel or treacle mixed with the smell of lost childhood summers. The smell of a strange nostalgia, of a yearning that you can’t explain…” A real show of literary talent.

The protagonist knows full well what he is doing to himself, he knows what his deep-rooted issues are, and he knows what is good for him and what isn’t. But the book doesn’t try to be judgemental, and it doesn’t try to provide a moral to the story. It shows the reader how rational, and at the same time irrational, a drug addict can be. He has no motivation to change his own habits or ways of behaving sometimes, and yet he’s fine to criticise others with no perception of the irony: “It’s as I’ve always said, drunks got no class to them. They’re worse than crack heads, stumbling around breathing their fumes on you. A fucking liability.” The author and the narrative work to show What Is, not necessarily What Should Be. In many ways it is a breath of fresh air from the normal format of a novel.

One thing which I would have liked to have seen in this book is more of a story arc, or a plot, as it didn’t seem to have one. Saying that though, by its very nature this book doesn’t really have a logical ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ – it begins with addiction and continues with addiction. This is actually a very clever reflection of how life probably feels to an addict who just cannot find a way out, no matter what they do. The form of the novel reflects the unfortunate reality of some people’s lives. This book is an exploration of a lifestyle, an open window showing the reader into a whole new world, rather than one which takes us on a specific journey with a start and a finish.

The whole story isn’t completely dark – it features humour, loyalty, heartbreak, and human endeavour. I read it on a conference trip and must admit I sailed through it. It is very well written, rhythmic,  interesting. It is something different, and that, to me, has to make it worth reading. If a novel stands out in your mind for positive reasons and leaves a lasting impression, then the author has done their job correctly. Well done to Tony O’Neill and Wrecking Ball Press.

Every Day by David Levithan

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Every day, I am someone else. I am myself – !know! I am myself – but I am also someone else. It has always been like this.

Each morning, A wakes up in a different body. There’s never any warning about who it will be, but A is used to that. Never get too attached. Avoid being noticed. Do not interfere.

And that’s fine – until A wakes up in the body of Justin and meets Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. From that moment, the rules by which A has been living no longer apply. Because finally A has found someone he wants to be with – every day…

This is quite a good premise for a book and I found myself really intrigued when I picked it up from the shelf in Waterstones. It was a good little read that entertained me through a bad week.

This book was enjoyable enough, but I feel like it could have been a lot more, or perhaps could have done with being a bit longer to develop things a little more. A (the main character who wakes up in a different body every day) seems to fall in love with Rhiannon in a matter of minutes, and the narration doesn’t really give enough depth for it to be convincing or gripping. That said, perhaps a longer novel wouldn’t really be a good fit for the YA genre.

The author is particularly adept in this novel at conveying other kinds of emotions though – depression, heartbreak, joy, drug withdrawal symptoms, low confidence and self-esteem. Levithan paints a comprehensive picture of how life can be for the average teenager, and how different life can be from one teen to the next. It was fascinating to see how he tackled the subject head on, and he does it successfully. He is not afraid to face the big issues head on.

I have to push harder to get Kelsea through the day. Any time I let it, the weight of living creeps in and starts to drag her down. It would be too easy to say that I feel entirely ignored. People talk to her, but it feels like they are outside a house, talking through the walls.

What’s clever about the book is that even though we get only one day with each character, the protagonist IS each character for the day and so we know them far more intimately than if they were just ‘extras’ in the bigger picture. Each character IS the bigger picture.

While not one of my favourite books this year, it’s well written and, as I say, enjoyable enough. Brilliant for Young Adults, but I think as I get older, my reading tastes are getting older too. *sobs*

What did you think of this? Am I completely wrong? Has anyone read the sequel? Should I give it a shot? Please comment below!

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

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Jude and her twin Noah are close until a tragedy drives them apart. Now they are barely speaking – and both falling for boys they can’t have. Love’s complicated.

Wow! This book was just absolutely stunning. Every single page was a real work of art, shining with literary elegance. This will compete to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Initially what attracted me to this book was the fact that it’s about twins. Being a triplet myself, I tend to take advantage of reading stories about multiple births, because I like to see how writers approach the subject. I related to this book because I love my sisters intensely the way that Jude loves her brother Noah, but that doesn’t mean that it’s plain sailing growing up. When bad things happen between you, there is that tinge of sadness and longing there that means you will always find yourself back to each other and making up. This strong, loving bond was so apparent in this book and is probably part of the reason I fell in love with it.

If one twin is cut, the other will bleed

I love how each of the twins have a very distinct voice, and yet both voices are written so poetically. The way they think and the way the narrative is written completely reflects the twins’ artistic personalities. Noah expresses his views and perceptions of life by regularly imagining the situations he finds himself in as paintings or portraits, and gives each one a name:

…the yelling reaches us.

It’s loud, like the house might break in two. Same as the other times lately.

(Portrait: Mom and Dad with Screeching Tea Kettles for Heads.)

Noah also speaks in metaphors throughout the book which gives the narrative a real richness and makes it unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Instead of saying something straight forward like “I muster up courage and fight back,” he says, “So I grow. And grow, and grow, until I head-butt the sky. Then I count to three and go freaking berserk.” Instead of saying, “I was thinking a lot about Brian,” he says “And then it happens. Brian rises out of the darkness of my and takes my hand like he did in the movie theater and pulls me to him.”

Jude, on the other hand, has become super-paranoid, agnostic, and superstitious since the tragedy occurred, and responds to every day situations in her life by pressing some kind of old wives’ tale, fable, or proverb on to them:

This is what I want: I want to grab my brother’s hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders.

Things don’t really turn out like you think.

To reverse destiny, stand in a field with a knife pointed in the direction of the wind.

Her late grandmother is with her wherever she goes, and she lives her life by her grandmother’s superstitions, as a way of keeping her close to her. It’s Jude own personal coping mechanism, and again, this fact oozes out from the pages without having to be spelled out. What makes this terrific writing is that Nelson doesn’t need to explicitly spell out how her characters feel or think – the narrative style does all the talking, so that with each new beautifully written sentence, we get to know the twins and how their minds work in a much more intimate manner.

There are a number of love stories in this book, and I think the author portrays and conveys love so convincingly, far more than a lot of other authors I’ve read recently. I could almost feel the love in my own heart as I read through each couple’s stories. Their passion, desire and heartbreak seep through the pages and enter your head and heart.

Each character is so wonderfully unique and vivid, and their quirks, strengths and weaknesses are well developed. The twins’ family feels like a real family, and I really grew to love Brian and Oscar, the twins’ respective love interests. This book makes us realise as well that no one is perfect, and that mistakes can be made by the best of us, even with the best intentions.

I’ll Give You The Sun seems to have it all: gorgeously artistic language, fantastic characters, great pace, love stories, intrigue, mystery, and scandal – all with the accessibility of a Young Adult novel. It is an absolute masterpiece of a book. You need to read this. I don’t tend to score things by stars, but this one is a ten out of five. Amazing.

The First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom

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When the residents of a small town on Lake Michigan start receiving phone calls from the afterlife, they all become the subject of widespread attention. Is it the greatest miracle ever or a massive hoax? Sully Harding, a grief-stricken single father, is determined to find out. This is a story about the power of belief – and a page-turner that will touch your soul.

I really enjoyed reading this. Whether or not the characters in this book are really receiving phone calls from heaven (and you will have to read the book to find out, as I’m not giving it away here!), the subject matter still makes the reader probe and analyse their own beliefs and possibilities. This book explores the subjects of philosophy, religion, morality, friendship, grief, family and more. A real study in humanity.

When the phone calls start coming through, the sensation you get, like someone has poured cold water down your spine, is a true testament to Albom’s writing ability. He hits the nail on the head each time he describes the various reactions and emotions of the characters who receive phone calls from their late loved ones. He doesn’t just stick to the “how miraculous and amazing is this” angle for everyone involved – he portrays varying emotions in each of his characters and backs them up effectively with interesting back stories and paints a realistic picture of each person’s life.

Each character was easily believable and likeable, however, I do feel that because of the large number of characters in the book, it was difficult to really feel like I got to know them well. I feel like the story could have worked as well with fewer characters with more development and insight into each of their lives. However, I don’t feel like anything is taken away from the book as it is. I just love getting to know characters really well in a book, and I felt like sometimes there wasn’t enough time to go into each person’s story enough for them to really feel familiar to me by the end of the book.

Mitch Albom manages to maintain a good rhythm within the narrative and I didn’t feel bored or as though I wanted to walk away from the story. By about half way through, I was desperate for answers. This can surely only be proof that Albom has achieved what he set out to do with this wonderful story. While the book is set in a small fictional town in America, it is accessible enough for an English foreigner like myself to feel at home within the pages. Each character, family, community within the story is easy to relate to – they are not too far removed to stir some kind of emotion within me.

While I have read books that are likely to stick in my mind longer than this one, I would urge anyone to read it. I really enjoyed it, and ultimately, that’s what all authors should aim for when writing great reads such as this one.

Blog Tour Q&A: James Hannah discusses The A to Z of You and Me!

The a-z of you and me pb

Hello and welcome to Words Are My Craft for today’s stop on James Hannah’s The A to Z of You and Me blog tour! This is such an honour, because as you already know, the book was a wonderful read. Today, James and myself take part in a Q&A, discussing the book and how it came to its brilliant existence. Enjoy!

James Hannah (c) Claire Cousin 1

There is a lot of excitement about this book already, with media attention and nominations for literary awards. Can you describe how it feels to have your first published novel become so successful in terms of acclaim?

Does it go without saying that publishing is not a straight meritocracy? It does in my house. My bookshelves are packed with reminders of that.

What I see when I consider the critical response to The A to Z of You and Me is a small number of passionate people who have taken it and embraced it and worked both persistently and enthusiastically to put it in the hands of the people they would most like to respond to it.

Certainly I worked very hard to make it a successful piece of work on its own terms, but it takes (often other people’s) dedication, creativity and wisdom to persuade readers to choose that work, to bring it towards the top of their teetering reading piles, to open it and to read it.

So the feeling I’d describe is one of surprise, relief and gratitude. Surpriefitude.
(Also: luck.)

How did the idea of setting out the narrative in an A-Z format come about?

I was having a sit and think about constants in life. What are the things that we are all subject to before gender, before nationality, before society impinge? What is common to everybody? Well, in basic terms, everybody has a body of some kind. And everybody has a language of some kind. And it was a short hop from there to begin compiling those kinds of stories that occur in everybody’s body.

If, for example, you have ten digits on your hands, you have the whole reason for the decimal numeral system. Did you know an inch is based on the width of the thumb? Carpenters are thought to have developed it as a way of getting a relatively stable and entirely portable unit of measurement. Hence ‘rule of thumb’.

I could go on, but you get the idea: there are a lot of good stories in anybody’s body. So the absolutely pure and long-distant starting point for this book was the notion of trying to develop a set of stories that would mean something to everyone, and would coalesce into a single character.

It becomes clear from early on that Ivo is dying in a hospice. How did you go about tackling the challenge of writing those fantastically written passages in which Ivo is slowly slipping away and in and out of consciousness?

The main task in those latter passages was to work and work at the language until it was reduced to its essential parts. Early drafts started out with Ivo being unrealistically communicative so I could at least get the shape of the action, and get the dynamics right. Then I pared it down over many drafts until he was almost completely silent, but the shape of the established action remained. They’re the shortest lines in the book, but they inevitably took far and away the most time to get right.

Despite its often-upsetting subject matter, the book is also consistently funny throughout the story. How difficult was it to balance the two extremes within the same narrative?

It was never my intention to turn the screw on the gravity of Ivo’s situation. The interest is not for me in the extremes of his illness or even his dying; indeed, I kept his condition to a minimum, and didn’t have him lose limbs or go blind, as many in his situation do.

There is of course plenty of darkness in his back-story, so it could have been prohibitively miserable.

It was important to me to realise the whole thing in as light and expansive a way as I could. Humour and hopeless situations are not mutually incompatible, so I gave the book the working title of ‘The Body Comedy’ as a reminder to myself that I needed to keep it light. It’s interesting though that I’m often surprised by precisely what people laugh at; laughs often arrive because the rhythm is right, rather than simply because a line is some kind of zinger.

Ivo has many flaws and has made a lot of mistakes throughout his life, and yet he is still inherently likeable and, at least for me, manages to rouse sympathy in the reader. How important was it for you that he didn’t come across as the ‘perfect’ protagonist? How do you personally feel about Ivo?

I’m really pleased you think he’s likeable; let’s be honest and say some readers don’t. They think he is too passive and entirely responsible for his own sorry situation. Personally, I think he’s a kind, gentle, thoughtful character who wants to better himself, but simply doesn’t have the tools or support to do so.

There’s a prevailing opinion among certain sectors of certain societies that you can succeed at anything, as long as you try hard enough. But I don’t believe that always to be the case. I think Ivo really does try to get himself out of a situation that is not his fault, and he makes your average number of mistakes. Who among us has not decided to eat that whole packet of biscuits, open that second bottle of wine, or do something extreme just because? It’s not like he develops an addiction, but rather has a pattern of low self-worth.

I found that this book addressed the notion of social influence throughout. We witness Sheila, his carer, attempt to positively influence Ivo’s mood on a daily basis; we see Mia trying to keep him on the straight and narrow; we watch Kelvin try to get him to make amends with certain people. Ivo, in turn, influences how Amber deals with her mother’s death. Was this an intentional theme or something that came about as the story progressed? Do you feel that Ivo listened to himself more than others?

There is the old phrase ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’, which keeps returning to me as I think about The A to Z of You and Me. I don’t think the phrase is true. I think sometimes you end up with friends from the people who remain, and these friendship groups can become toxic or self-defeating.

The difference between past Ivo and present-day Ivo is that, late in the day, he is surrounded by people with a little more ambition for themselves and for him, and that frees him up to make progressive choices. And he has a lot of good to give, and a lot of kindness to realise.

If you like, the entire subject of the story is of Ivo striving to better himself and falling tragically short.

You have been writing for a number of years now, although this is your debut novel. In what ways did taking a creative writing course aid the writing of The A-Z of You and Me? What were some of the biggest lessons you took away from that course?

The A to Z of You and Me was perhaps three-quarters finished when I started the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course, and perhaps two-thirds finished when the course ended. It wasn’t cheap or easy, but it represented a big effort to say, well, at least I gave writing a proper go.

I’d been writing for 18 years by that point (autumn 2011), and had always resisted the idea of going on any kind of course (I’m your quintessential autodidact). However, I felt the time was right for me, and I managed to establish how best to communicate with agents and editors, and understand what they are – in a very general sense – looking for.

Sometimes all you need is to know that a thing is possible, and that keeps you going.

You have an MA in Samuel Beckett studies. What appealed to you to do this and in what ways do you feel Beckett has influenced your own writing?

Perhaps the main thing I could say about Beckett is that I relate to his work in a completely instinctive way that I don’t really understand. Even now I’ve read all of it, published and unpublished, he remains unknowable. The forgivable temptation is to try to explain his work, but I don’t find that helps; it just limits it. I only desire to experience it; I come away with an interpretation so personal as to be worthless to explain.

My response is visceral, not intellectual; I am drawn to it, and when I am reading or hearing or seeing Beckett, I feel at home. It’s in the rhythms for me, and is as soothing to me as the rhythms of Nick Drake’s guitar playing or Alan Wren’s drumming.

I suppose Beckett’s (and Drake’s and Wren’s) influence is in a sense of trying to maintain an absolutely disciplined approach while staying loose enough to retain essential warmth.

But then, you know, I have a vexed relationship with Beckett. After all, I have about as much in common with him as I have with my own great grandfather, which is to say on the one hand nothing whatsoever and on the other absolutely everything.

I’ve always been clear though that I never wanted to imitate him. I don’t want to be some kind of Samuel Beckett tribute act. What would I call myself?

What was the most enjoyable part in the journey of creating this novel – from writing to publishing and promoting – and why? Is there anything you would do differently in hindsight?

It really took me by surprise when people became emotionally invested in what I’d written, which is a bit stupid of me, because that’s precisely what I set out to achieve. To hear some of the deeply personal and moving responses to the book is hugely rewarding, and somewhat unsettling. As for what I’d do differently, well, when I gain a bit of hindsight, I’ll let you know.

Lastly – will we be reading/hearing more from you in the future?!

I should probably start thinking about that, shouldn’t I?

I’d like to extend a huge thank you to James, and the publicity team at Transworld Publishers (Penguin Random House) for offering me the opportunity to play host in such an exciting blog tour.

The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

I am very honoured that Words Are My Craft is going to be a stop on James Hannah’s The A to Z of You and Me blog tour this September! I adored the book and was flattered to be contacted by the Transworld Publishers (Penguin Random House) publicity team about the tour.

AtoZBlogTourTwo (2)

On 2nd September James Hannah will stopping by Words Are My Craft for a Q&A with yours truly. In anticipation of this exciting event, I am posting a review of the brilliant book here. Be sure to get a copy and read it, and stop by the blog next Wednesday to see James Hannah discussing the book!

The a-z of you and me pb

I’m lying here in a bed, my head full of regret, with only a little bird flitting through a tree to comfort me.

Friends want to visit, but I refuse them. So my carer Sheila has given me a task to keep me occupied.

An A-Z list. Think of a part of my body for each letter. Tell a little tale about it.

When I reach H for Heart, what will I say?

How we loved to string crocheted hearts in trees? How our hearts steadily unravelled?

So I begin with A. Adam’s apple.

Will you be there to catch me when I fall?

This novel is deeply emotional and captures the heart and the mind. Ivo is a 40-year-old ex-addict who is dying and slowly deteriorating in a hospice. James Hannah is very clever in that he managed to create such a dynamic and colourful story with a narrative that mainly involves the protagonist spending every day in bed and remembering scenes from his life. The book manages to be active and action-filled and yet gentle, no doubt engaging a wide range of readers.

Ivo has made a lot of mistakes in his past, and is a deeply flawed character. But that’s simply what makes him so appealing. He becomes real, tangible, someone believable – in whom the reader can really invest their feelings and attention. He has abused his body, abused the trust of his ex-girlfriend, and has lost both control and the respect of those around him. And yet, somehow, he never quite cuts the connection between himself and your heartstrings.

Hannah has filled the book with complicated and richly developed characters. His carer Sheila is a wonderful woman, and a real rock for Ivo. We’ve all met someone like her. She takes no nonsense but has time for everyone. She is a constant for Ivo in a terrifyingly lonely existence. Until he meets Amber, an incredibly strong and yet at the same time vulnerable young girl who is slowly losing her mother to cancer. Here we witness Ivo make a positive impact on another person, influence her for the better, when for so long his influence has had a negative affect on those he loves: his ex-girlfriend Mia, his sister Laura, his old best friends Mal and Kelvin. But that’s what this book is about: how one human being can affect another. Mia is the voice of reason in her relationship with Ivo and often manages to steer him in the right direction; Kelvin and Laura try their hardest to get him to talk to Mal again before it’s too late; and of course, Mal has had a bad influence on almost everyone from the start. How can things be made right when time is running out? Is it even possible, considering who Ivo and Mal are?

The concept of Ivo going through the alphabet and telling a story about a body part starting with that letter gives a clever justification to the non-linear narrative, and the non-linear narrative allows the writer to give us certain information only when it will make the most impact to the reader’s experience. At the beginning of the book, we know that Ivo’s ex-girlfriend is gone…but where? Where did she go, and why? What happened? Why is Ivo so ill, so young? And why isn’t he talking to his sister and his former best friend? We can only find out by following Ivo’s numerous stories and let the alphabet lead us to the answers…

For this reason, the novel is well paced, and it has both the appeal and success of commercial work while featuring the beauty of literary writing. It is quite unique in its style. It is breathtaking, it is artistic. It is more than just a bunch of words on paper.

Of course, I bawled like a baby in the last few scenes, but this is testament only to how heart-wrenchingly brilliant this book is. There is such power in every word, none misplaced or ineffective. The novel was a long time in the making and development but this shows in every glowing syllable. You’d be insane not to give it a go.

Be sure to stop by for the blog tour stop on 2nd September!

James Hannah (c) Claire Cousin 1

Wonder by R.J Palacio

wonder

My name is August.

I won’t describe what I look like.

Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

Wonder is a little gem of a book. It’s the first YA book I’ve read in a while. I forgot how easy, but how pleasurable at the same time, YA novels are to read. When I buy new books, I try to jump from one genre and writer to another to keep things interesting, and this one struck me as something different from what I’ve been reading recently.

August was born with a genetic defect that severely deformed his face and left him needing countless operations throughout his life. We enter his story when he is around ten years old and his parents have decided to stop home-schooling him and send him to middle school instead. It’s a risky move, both for his parents and August himself. The world can be cruel, and kids can be even more so.

As a reader, you cannot help but love August. Immediately he wins your loyalty and I felt an overwhelming need to protect him throughout everything he does. He is genuinely very funny, incredibly smart, and so warm-hearted and thoughtful. But of course, many people within the book are not interested in learning any of this. All they see is a hideous face, belonging to someone who would only ruin their middle-school reputation if they were seen with him.

The novel is written in the point of view of many different characters, each with their own sections and chapters within the book. I think the story needed to be told this way to make it more three-dimensional. I was heavily bullied as a child, and I was never able to know what people around me thought and felt about the situation – I was just trapped in own little world of misery, humiliation and fear. And I can’t pretend to care about what the bullies thought, but understanding more closely how it affected the lives of people in my family and my close friends would have been really interesting. And this book offers exactly that in August’s story.

I don’t know if R.J Palacio was ever bullied. Perhaps she wasn’t, perhaps she only imagined what it was like, or maybe she talked to people who have been bullied before. Either way, she conveys a fear and vulnerability in August that perfectly portrays how going through that kind of thing affects a person. How you remember the small, but most intimidating, parts of an event that caused you trauma:

It’s their faces that I kept seeing every time I closed my eyes to sleep. The look of total horror on the girl’s face when she first saw me. The way the kid with the flashlight, Eddie, looked at me as he talked to me, like he hated me.

Like a lamb to the slaughter. I remember Dad saying that ages ago, but tonight I think I finally got what it meant.

Please don’t think, however, that this is just an incredibly depressing book. It is also full of wonderful people and characters who can see beyond August’s deformities. And August is an incredibly strong and resilient person; he never loses touch of who he is or who he should be despite it all. August’s story shows that very often, those who don’t have a beautiful face to hide behind or a popular reputation to uphold learn much earlier on the value of being a kind and decent human being. August knows that he’ll never be attractive, but he knows the power of being good, and doing good things, at such a young age:

YOUR DEEDS ARE YOUR MONUMENTS.

This precept means that we should be remembered for the things we do. The things we do are the most important things of all. They are more important than what we say or what we look like. The things we do outlast our mortality. The things we do are like monuments that people build to honor heroes after they’ve died. They’re like the pyramids that the Egyptians built to honor the pharaohs. Only instead of being made out of stone, they’re made out of the memories people have of you. That’s why your deeds are like your monuments. Built with memories instead of with stone.

The fact that the book is told in numerous points of view gives us an insight into how a condition can affect people who aren’t afflicted by it. August’s sister Via’s story is one that is almost as tragic: she has grown up feeling like she is in the shadow of her brother. Because she’s not afflicted, her parents pay less attention to her and leave her often to herself because, in their eyes, she is more capable than her brother and therefore needs less time. She puts the situation beautifully: “August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets orbiting the Sun. The only celestial body that doesn’t orbit August the Sun is Daisy the dog, and that’s only because to her little doggy eyes, August’s face doesn’t look very different from any other human’s face. To Daisy, all our faces look alike, as flat and pale as the moon.”

But that’s the tragedy of her story: just because she doesn’t need protecting as much as August, doesn’t mean she doesn’t need as much attention. The narrative shows how she, and her friends and parents, deal with this situation.

What I also love about this book is that it allows the reader inside the heads of August’s school friends – Jack Will, Miranda, Justin, Charlotte. Life is not easy for a middle-school child, and they have struggles of their own. Other kids give them a hard time for being around August, and some of the kids handle peer pressure better than others. It’s a really interesting look into how different characters handle the same situation, at such a young and impressionable age. The only thing I think is missing that would add to the story is the point of view of August’s parents, but perhaps that would actually change the tone of the whole novel. It is meant to be written from a young person’s point of view, and I think that’s what ultimately makes it a YA novel.

This book is funny, sweet, an easy read, and thought-provoking. It makes you believe again in humanity. I would definitely recommend this to anyone.

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