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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Review: The Weight of Water, Sarah Crossan

Yesterday, I took my Year 7 English class to the school library. I had asked the library if they would do a book promo with them (especially since World Book Day is coming up) as some of the class were getting a bit disillusioned with reading. I'm lucky enough to work in a school with a fantastically stocked library and really knowledgeable librarians. They showcased about 20 different books, and I wanted to read all of them myself!

The one that struck me to pick up, however, was this one - The Weight of Water, by Sarah Crossan. All it took was a few words from the librarian to convince me that this was a book I needed to read.

Kasienka is a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old from Poland. One day, her father disappears, leaving a note that simply says he has gone to England. He does not say for what, nor when - or even if - he will return. Not accepting this, Kasienka's mother drags Kasienka along with her to England, and they end up in Coventry.

Told in a series of short poems, Crossan gives great insight on what it must be like to be a young girl in a foreign country, particularly when the people of that country are not particularly disposed to like you. They see you as an invader, someone to sweep the rug out from under their feet.

Some of the problems that Kasienka has to deal with are being placed in a class in which she is older than everyone, simply because she cannot yet read English fluently; the rise and fall of being under the notice of the popular girl; being herself when it comes to sports - should she allow herself to be noticed or not? - and romance.

Home life is not much better. Dragged out every night to search the streets for her Tata (father), the only kindness that she and her mother seem to receive is from a neighbour called Kanoro. When Kasienka finally does find her father, it's not the happy ending she expects.

Apart from being a refreshing way to tell a story, the poetic narrative represents Kasienka's struggle to assimilate into the new culture, language and all. It stutters along, like Kasienka is stuttering her way through her new life, a life she didn't ask for. Each poem is a maximum of a page long, yet no more words are needed to tell us about that particular part of Kasienka's ongoing challenges. It makes it more poignant and hard-hitting.

This book implores us to be a kinder. Even if that were the only message, that would be enough.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Review: Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

A snowstorm on the fictional island of San Piedro off the Western coast of the US is the setting for this literary crime novel. It is 1954 and a man called Kabuo Miyamoto stands accused of killing a fellow local fisherman, Carl Heine.

The story flits between the present day courtroom and flashbacks of the principal characters, both those a part of the case and those watching for various reasons. The story feels quite slow to get started, due to the author's detailed and meticulous description of every little thing, it seems like, but once the characters and the case are properly introduced, the story feels a little more rewarding.

This is not just a murder case, however. World War 2 and Pearl Harbour do not seem that long ago, and distrust of the Japanese are still evident - in fact, it is, in part, what the prosecution builds his case around. Romance between two of the characters as children is tainted by their communities' mutual distrust. Identity as a theme is explored deeply, not least with the Japanese whom have made the USA their home and are heartbroken when they are forcibly sent back to Japan.

This is definitely more than just a simple murder mystery. The flashbacks add so much more to a court case that is interesting on its own - Kabuo and his family; Kabuo's wife, Hatsue, and her family; Ishmael (Hatsue's childhood sweetheart); Carl Heine's mother and father. These people weave in and out of each other's lives leaving marks and memories that cannot be easily as swept away as the Japanese are to the country of their parents.

There were some difficulties with this book, however. It's definitely a story that you need to invest a lot in before it seems there is any pay-off. The vast swathes of description sometimes detract from the meat of the story and it can't always be argued as necessary.

Despite this, the people, their lives and their fates, are compelling and rewarding enough to keep going to the end of the novel.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Review: Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid, Michael Coolwood.

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

There seems to be no other way to start this review: What a spiffing yarn Coolwood has spun.

Milligan Clodthorpe, an aristocratic gentleman of the arachnid variety, takes up an invitation from his relatives to spend some time in the country at his familial seat, Newbury Towers. Yet it is far from the relaxing holiday he anticipates.

Bainbridge, an associate of the family, swaps his newly acquired human body with Clodthorpe's. Clodthorpe, utterly outraged, does his utmost to persuade Bainbridge to swap back. But Bainbridge is a wily one, and leads Clodthorpe on a merry dance across space to do so. From quaint, human village fetes (a species which Clodthorpe often villifies) to battleships and asteroids, Bainbridge makes it as hard (but entertaining for the reader) as possible for Clodthorpe to regain his body. Aided by his trusty man, Forsythe, and encouraged by his cousin Gertrude and and former comrade Pigstick, Clodthorpe's adventures are set out in a most witty manner.

It's certainly one of the most original stories I've read, not least from the characters. Clodthorpe is a character who finds himself utterly out of his depth, which renders the action that much more entertaining and the supporting characters more valuable.

The novel also tackles themes of loneliness and the need to feel at home with one's body. Pigstick's arc is a good example of the latter, while Clodthorpe's adventures show how his loneliness can be tackled by the deceptively simple solution of worthwhile company. Instead of hastening back to his own dwelling when his body is recovered, he ponders on the virtues of staying with his relatives. "Being alone with my thoughts in Eggart was not entirely healthy was it, Forsythe?"

A cross between sci-fi and a healthy dose of the self-deprecating and humorous British nature, Confessions of a Gentleman Arachnid is a thoroughly enjoyable story.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Review: The Painting and the Piano, John Lipscomb and Adrianne Lugo

Note: I received a free copy of this memoir in exchange for a review.

The Painting and the Piano tells the story of John "Johnny" Lipscomb and Adrianne "Ady" Lugo. The memoir, divided into scenes, shows how the tragedies that we encounter as children can linger on into adult lives - no matter how we try to escape from them, they can come back to haunt us unless we have the tools to deal with them. However, at the risk of telling a story of heartbreak, let me reassure you that there is always hope.

Adrianne lives in foster care, a very happy life until the agency from which she was fostered comes along with news; the biological parents want to visit Adrianne. Reluctantly, the foster parents agree. Sadly, it does not stop there. It's a long, slippery slide until a court grants Herb and Elaine, Adrianne's biological parents, the right to take their daughter back. Adrianne can never admit to Herb and Elaine being her parents, however. Despite Herb's genuine efforts, Adrianne keeps asking when she can go home. Elaine presents as a monster - abusive, cruel, and almost tyrannical, Adrianne finds as many things as she can do to escape the disgusting flat she's been forced into. It isn't until a teacher at her school notices her bruises that her story begins to turn around.

Johnny was caught up in a similarly horrible custody battle, forced to lived with his alcoholic mother and step-father. What starts as a few drinks as a teenager turns into a years-long battle with alcoholism.

We meet Adrianne and Johnny again as adults, both battling addiction, both finding solace in each other from unhappy marriages.

If not for the ending of this book I would still be in turmoil now. Both Johnny and Adrianne have such a way with words that you are there, in their homes, watching the scenes unfold, and you are in their heads, willing things to be okay but heartbroken and frustrated that they cannot be, due to the unfair laws of the land. I found Adrianne's story most particularly affecting, not least in Elaine's cruel choices and determination to keep her from the people whom she really loves and whom really love her.

Though heart-wrenching throughout, there are great messages of hope in this memoir. Addiction can be overcome. There are always people who want to help and who want to love. Finding friends and family, whether blood or no, who can support you, is more valuable than any amount of wealth or supposed financial security. It's definitely something that, at the risk of sounding cheesy, will make you reach out to your nearest and dearest.

Review: The Invasion of the Tearling, Erika Johansen.

The Invasion of the Tearling is the second installment in this thrilling trilogy by Erika Johansen. It is unusual in that it is the second part of a trilogy that actually gets better, which I do not often find. Perhaps this is because the worldview expands to beyond Kelsea and characters in her world.

Having stopped the human shipment to Mortmesne, the victor in the invasion of the Tearling during the reign of Kelsea's mother, she now has to decide what she can do to stop the Mort Army. Her commanders know they can only delay, but they do so as much as possible in order to buy Kelsea more time. 

Kelsea, meanwhile, though her heart and soul are wrecked with how she can protect her people, her mind is elsewhere. She starts falling into fugue states, which takes her back to the pre-Crossing, to a woman called Lily. Her own identity and emotions becomes wrapped up in Lily and what happens to her. 

Meanwhile, there is another mystery to solve: the identity of the Red Queen of Mortmesne. One of the overriding messages of this book (and the last) is the power of names, seen in how Kelsea changed hers to pay tribute to her foster parents, and how the Red Queen is fiercely protective of hers. 

There is the issue of identity, too. Kelsea is changing, not only in herself as the ruler of the Tearling, but also in appearance. This causes not little crisis for herself and those around her. Being plagued by her fugue states and the dark thing, who pops up in Kelsea's fireplace from time to time to bargain with her, and her obsession with finding out who her father was, gives her only so much that she can bear. 

The dual narrative of Kelsea and Lily gives more life to an already thrilling story, and ensures that the reader has plenty to explore. Sometimes, it can result in a little bit of a book hangover switching from one side to the other, but that just shows how absorbing each narrative is. 

Definitely another story to keep the reader up into the small hours.