The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”

927167You know when you sometimes decide to read a random book, completely on a whim, and then you turn that final page and let out a breath you didn’t know you were holding, before giving yourself a self-congratulatory pat on the back for making a terrific choice? What a feeling, right? Well, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was that kind of novel for me.

I can’t remember who recommended this to me, whether it was a friend or an article I read somewhere—but I owe a debt to whoever the person was that brought this book to my attention. The Outsiders is an intense, breathless novel which explores gang culture in 1960s Oklahoma, focusing on the two types of people that make up our narrator Ponyboy’s world: the Socs, rich society kids that have it all; and the greasers, who aren’t so well off. For Ponyboy, one of the latter, his life is basically one big battle between the two groups—with often horrible consequences.

Hinton envelops the reader in a world that for most will seem so far removed from their own life, as we feel every punch thrown and each bitterly cold night. It’s hard not to feel something for these young kids with their strange names and futures that promise so little. The relationships are more than just casual camaraderie: this is a group that, in reality, is one big extended family. Some are orphans, others victims of abuse from their parents. But they all have each other—and this love is what drives a narrative that is often heart-wrenching, but also at times heart-warming and playful.

Sure, there is heartache and loss—what else would one expect from the circumstances in which these kids live? Yet there is joy and laughter too. The in-jokes, the ribbing and teasing—even the inevitable arguments that flare up between different members of the group—all show that this is a world that these kids have adapted to, each in their own way. Of course there’s toughness to them all—there has to be by the nature of the world they live. Switchblades, guns and even safehouses are all readily available, and all are accustomed to the blood and violence which is a part of their everyday lives.

Nevertheless, throughout The Outsiders you can’t help but feel that these are a bunch of children well out of their depths; resourceful on the surface undoubtedly, but inside as scared and alone as the next person in the group. Hinton explores this with an assured touch, deftly and subtly exploring a culture in a narrative style that is clear and precise—making the narrative better for it. This is a feat that is made all the more impressive considering Hinton was just 17-years-old at the time of writing the book, and I marvel at the fact she could write such a touching story of love and loyalty at such a young age.

The Outsiders is an impressive novel and one which I would recommend to, well, everyone. It’s hardly a “feel good” story, not by any means, but Hinton’s heart-wrenching exploration of trust, friendship and love—through such a vulnerable, youthful voice—makes for a gripping, emotional read; a reminder, perhaps, that we should all try to “stay gold.”

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

“That was another one of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”

13536315(2)I get the impression that Julian Barnes is a bit of a Marmite writer, but safe to say I am decidedly in the camp that rates The Sense of an Ending highly. It’s just a slip of a novel – a novella, really – at 150 or so pages, but Barnes still manages to pack in a carefully constructed, emotional tale of love and loss.

In the book, we follow a group of kids at boarding school, and the introduction of a new member to their little clique: Adrian Finn. Barnes explores all the playful little jokes, intrigues and conversations that inevitably make up childhood and school life – but with plenty of clever philosophising to boot.

Finn is markedly different from his classmates, that much we are assured by our admittedly unreliable narrator Toby Webster – one of the group of friends. Webster discusses Adrian’s superior intelligence, his penchant for discussing the bigger questions, and as the group leave school and move on in their respective lives, there is already an undeniable tension lurking in the narrative.

Barnes’ novel—winner of the Man Booker prize in 2011 – reminded me often of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Not only because of similar themes of people drifting apart, friendship and loss, but also the idea of how we never really know anyone at all – even those closest to us. Our minds work in mysterious ways, and sometimes this understanding is impossible to grasp from an outside perspective.

The Sense of an Ending has beautiful prose and is endlessly quotable. It captures your attention and holds it, just as the mysteries are steadily unravelled and the questions answered. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the ending lets it down. The “twist”, as it were, seems a little off, and ultimately at odds with some of the other characters’ reactions. Sadly, it left me a little cold after the intrigue that had come before.

Often laugh-out-loud funny at times, Barnes’ novel is still definitely worth the read. His carefully formed sentences have you asking questions that you know full well won’t be answered until the end, so you read breathlessly on in search of answers. The Sense of an Ending must have done something right, because it ultimately left me wanting to read more of Barnes’ work. I therefore await his 2016 release – The Noise of Time – with baited breath. With him you never quite know what you will get.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…”

25970139What an intensely probing novel Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is. In some ways, this novel—the first in the Southern Reach trilogy—defies a proper summary; rather like Area X, the mysterious, secluded wilderness that for thirty years has been cordoned off from the public, and has largely remained unknowable.

Eleven expeditions have been sent to Area X before, one ending in a hail of gunfire, another mass-suicide. For this, the twelfth foray into this strange, shifting place, four women set out to find answers—an anthropologist, surveyor, psychologist and biologist, our narrator. All are nameless and events are told in the form of our narrator’s written journal—which makes it difficult to know exactly who to trust.

It quickly becomes clear that our narrator is not telling us everything as the members of the expedition quickly find trouble. A mysterious tower—or ‘tunnel’ to everyone but our narrator—yields some disturbing discoveries. On the walls, mysterious words stretch across, snaking down to a seemingly never-ending number of levels. The words are alive, teeming with a multitude of critters and made out of lichen and moss, and something else lurks in the shadows. Our narrator’s decision to plumb the depths and see the words first will have interesting repercussions.

Perhaps inevitably in this dreamlike wilderness, tempers soon fray and minds wander. VanderMeer’s novel recalls the hit television series Lost, with its increasingly complex island which seems to live and breathe itself, messing with the mind of its inhabitants. It was a show that gave out information sparingly, and Annihilation reveals its snippets of information equally slowly, building in an intensely gripping—and often decidedly creepy—fashion.

Everyone on the expedition seems to have set out with their own agendas, some more nefarious than others, and, of course, VanderMeer doesn’t give us all the answers—far from it. With another two sequels to come, Annihilation gives the reader enough to tease and cajole, leaving us wanting more—and he leaves Area X sufficiently mysterious enough that he could take the narrative forward in any number of directions. This reader is excited and intrigued to see how the series moves forward.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

24789156In all honesty, even after giving myself plenty of time to digest this one, I’m still not sure what I think. David Lagercrantz can write—that much I know—and I definitely enjoyed parts of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, but, in the end, to try recapture the brilliance that was the original Millennium trilogy might just have been too much to ask.

Mikael Blomkvist is back, but his star has diminished a little since we last saw him. Perhaps inevitably after the scale of his successes over the past few years, Blomkvist is struggling for that killer story; instead burying himself in mindless novel-reading, missing the spark he had when he was a young reporter, hungry and ambitious. Ultimately, Blomkvist is burned out—until a mysterious phone call and a meeting in his local pub one day prompts his interest. Even if it is only because he hears of a young woman—a genius with computers—on the grapevine.

Meanwhile, Millennium magazine is struggling, forced to take on a new merger with the type of business people they wouldn’t ordinarily afford a single glance. Lisbeth Salander, on the other hand, is tackling her own agenda, going deep into the highest level of information she can in order to gather information on her father’s criminal empire: the National Security Agency. The mysterious group ‘The Spiders’ lurk in the shadows, and tracking them down will require Salander to confront both the past and present.

Lagercrantz has done a good job bringing Stieg Larsson’s characters to life on the page; Salander in particular feels fully formed and as explosive as always. Yet he’s also managed to put his own feel on the world, creating some interesting characters—in particular August, the young son of renewed professor Franz Balder, expert in artificial intelligence and the man at the centre of a group with a vested interest in his research. August was a breath of fresh air throughout the novel.

So what exactly feels off? In all fairness, I don’t think Lagercrantz did anything wrong as such, I’m just of the view that Larsson set the bar too high with the other books. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a valuable addition to the series—or, a decent ‘stand alone’ or piece of scandalous fan fiction, depending on who you ask—and I’m glad he will be doing more. He’s just going to have to up his game.

The Martian by Andy Weir

18007564So, a quick glance through the many 5-star reviews and positive comments from my friends  on Goodreads, suggests that my review is going to go down like a lead balloon. A disclaimer before we get started: I didn’t like much of the book at all, and I don’t understand the hype that surrounds it.

Let’s be honest: The Martian does have a terrifically cool premise. A super smart astronaut is left stranded on Mars after an accident and – despite being much better equipped to handle the situation than your average human, with his impressive skill-set – his chances of survival are minimal. In his own words, he’s pretty screwed. Still, he won’t take it lying down, and despite his hopeless circumstances he sets about building and cultivating what he can in order to give him a chance of staying alive. So far, so good.

The problem is, Andy Weir‘s book contains a central idea that promises so much – but then doesn’t deliver. I’ve heard various cries of this book being “unputdownable”, and indeed the Financial Times opines on the cover that it is “utterly nail-biting.” Hugh Howey announces that it is “white knuckle intense”, on the blurb. I can let you all know now that my nails are fully intact, and that my skin remains the same colour. I was, well… mostly bored.

I must clarify something: it isn’t the science. I’m all for complex texts that challenge your way of thinking. In fact, Weir should be congratulated for managing to make his book as accurate and factually correct as possible. However, The Martian loses its way a bit for it. Put across by Mark Watney – whose smugness and attitude is overbearing at times – I found myself essentially uninterested by his daily attempts to improve his situation. Then again, I don’t particularly like Robinson Crusoe so perhaps some of this was to be expected.

I think The Martian had it’s moments – some of the jokes were amusing – and it is kind of impossible to not have some kind of sympathetic thought about someone plunged into that situation. Yet the narrative style was one which I couldn’t get on with at all, and as a result I found myself not as invested in the story as I would’ve expected to be from a book of this nature. Plus: the novel always looked like it was going to limp to a disappointing conclusion from the outset.

It’s obvious this book wasn’t for me, so I’ll stop here and save you all some time. Overall, The Martian sets up a nice idea which it never quite delivers on. I often found the book monotonous and I couldn’t get myself invested in the story. On a lighter note: I am yet to see the film, but I think it could be something I would enjoy. It’s a story that – if done right – could come across wonderfully on the big screen.

Mort by Terry Pratchett

833444No question about it, Mort is definitely Terry Pratchett’s best Discworld novel yet. For many, Death is one of Pratchett’s best, and most fully fleshed out characters—no pun intended—and he properly comes to life (okay, I’ll stop now) in Mort, the fourth book in this high-end epic fantasy series.

“I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.”

Pratchett is on top form here, and Death is as hilarious as ever with his witty comments and dry humour. At the beginning of the novel, we see that Death has decided to take on an apprentice—Mort—who is a young boy of sixteen that suddenly has a job prospect that he never could have imagined. Free board—albeit in Death’s mysterious house with its many shades of black and three-dimensional rooms full of sand-timers—and access to the company horse. What more could he ask?

Quickly, and somewhat inevitably, life as Death’s apprentice unfortunately isn’t all it’s cut out to be, and when Mort takes an interest in a princess whose soul he should be ushering into the afterlife, things quickly begin to backfire. This time Pratchett’s narrative seems to be tighter, more assured. It’s impossible not to have a feeling that the plot bumbles along randomly—what with Pratchett’s random, unexpected asides and subplots. Yet Mort feels less jumbled, with a clear direction—and it’s a better novel for it.

The thing that really makes this story, however, is the different light in which we see Death portrayed. Viewed in the others novels as a hooded, scythe-wielding, emotionless figure, Pratchett subverts this and we finally see Death as he does not want to be seen. Without wanting to reveal too much, Death has his own agenda for taking an apprentice, as he pours over his ledgers and tries to go on his own mini, hilarious adventures. After all, Mort allows him to have a rare night or two off.

Pratchett is really at the top of his game here, and Mort is perfect: a light-hearted and fun read, with a surprisingly moving message at its heart. I’m currently mourning the fact I have to wait until the eleventh Discworld novel—Reaper Man—to get to the next instalment in the “Death” sub-series—but I’m sure that in the meantime, Pratchett has many more delights and wonders up his sleeves.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

9317452At the risk of revealing myself as terribly uninformed, I had heard people comment positively on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, but had, for some odd reason, formed the opinion that it was some sprawling non-fiction epic which chronicled the history of England’s capital. I think I might have got mixed up with the works of Edward Rutherfurd—but enough of my silliness.

Rivers of London is, in its own way, a history of London—but of a secret, magical history unbeknown to most of the everyday, ordinary citizens that pile into its tube stations by the hour. It seems obvious to say, but even very early on Aaronovitch’s novel reminded me of the works of Neil Gaiman—particularly the magnificent Neverwhere. It’s easy to see why: both deal with the unknown, unseen magical creatures that lurk in the shadows of the sprawling metropolis that is London.

In Rivers of London, we meet Peter Grant, a London Metropolitan Police constable trying to climb the ranks and prove himself to his superiors. Called to a murder near Covent Garden, he suddenly—while waiting for his friend and fellow officer Lesley to go get coffee—finds himself taking a witness statement from a ghost—and if that isn’t weird enough, it isn’t long before he is being inducted into an off-shoot section of the police force purely formed to study the supernatural goings-on in London. With him, it now contains two members.

Aaronovitch’s novel is a riot, and is clear that as we race through the city’s teeming streets that the author has a real passion for London; there is a feeling that the capital isn’t just being described, it has instead come alive. Peter quickly embarks upon a journey to a much higher calling, and his character is wonderful; his light, self-deprecating humour is a treat, and a perfect compliment to the Aaronovitch’s soft and often hilarious dialogue.

So why, do I hear you ask, have I rated this only three stars? Sadly, despite how good the cast of characters was—and I cannot wait to read more of them in the subsequent sequels—the plot did not hold my attention enough. It was far from confusing and not particularly difficult to follow, but I will be hard-pressed to recommend this book, purely for lack of a gripping, memorable storyline. Sure, the narrative was suitably quirky and entertaining, but it was mainly Aaronovitch’s interesting and eccentric characters that kept me flipping the pages.

Rivers of London is light and fun—a quick read even at just under 400 pages. It has an original premise, has been lovingly crafted, and will leave you laughing aloud often. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of other similar fantasy novels containing the supernatural—such as Gaiman’s Neverwhere—but it is definitely worth a read.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

17824793Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, The Year of the Runaways, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize and has received largely positive reviews—praising the author’s ability to make more human the larger, urgent political questions that are asked daily on the news.

The novel focuses on three Indian men—Randeep, Avtar and Tochi (Tarlochan)—who are representative of modern India, and Navinder, a Indian-British woman who offers the only glimmer of light and softness in Sahota’s dark, heavy narrative.

The Year of the Runaways is a keenly observed account of young men trying to make it in Britain—working illegally; becoming involved in fake marriages in an attempt to gain a visa; all the while trying to maintain an upbeat attitude and stay positive about the future. At times this seems impossible: awful living and working conditions mean tensions are as frayed as one would expect in a Sheffield house where a dozen or more young men suffer from lack of sleep and food.

Sahota plays with his chronology, shifting from past to future and back again as we learn the histories of our characters and the sacrifices they have all made to try secure a better life for them and their families. This information offers an extra layer to an otherwise pedestrian narrative; the prose at times seems dull and workmanlike, as paragraphs and pages drag on with descriptions of job-searching and the characters’ difficulties finding food and sometimes a place to live.

It may sound cold, but Sahota didn’t move me enough; I was often left feeling largely disappointed that I couldn’t invest enough in Randeep, Avtar, Tochi and Navinder’s lives. Of course, the overarching themes—immigration; the naïve dreams of young individuals coming from war-torn countries hoping to find a better life in Britain—are perhaps more important than ever before, and warrant discussion. Yet Sahota’s novel just doesn’t quite do it for me.

The novel had its moments: the way in which Tochi calmly discusses with Navinder his reasons for being in Britain, despite the horrors—like so many others—he has suffered, packed an emotional punch. Yet as the novel wound towards its rushed “let’s try tie this all up quickly” epilogue—which disappointed in its neatness—I found myself increasingly uninterested in how things would turn out.

It’s not difficult to see why The Year of the Runaways made the 2015 Man Booker shortlist—for its big political questions and important themes—but this one just wasn’t for me. Call me heartless—but I expected Sahota to deliver more.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

untitledJust in case you thought the late Stieg Larsson’s first book in the Millennium series— The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—was a fluke, back he comes with this explosive sequel. Larsson pulls no punches in The Girl Who Played with Fire, which is every bit as good as—or arguably better than—its predecessor.

This time, there’s none of the slow build up that was, on reflection, perhaps necessary in the first instalment. Our main players on the stage are set—and we’re ready to dive straight in. Larsson plays on our—and indeed the character—familiarity, as Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist quickly become embroiled in a double murder investigation—and it is difficult to know who to trust.

A year on from the Wennerström success and everyone at Millennium magazine is still on a high: publically, their reputation is through the roof, with circulation going well and themed articles in the pipeline. However, perhaps inevitably, they won’t stop there: a young, ambitious couple—Dag Svensson, a journalist that reminds Mikael of his younger, hungrier self; and his girlfriend Mia Johansson—have come to the magazine with some key information.

Together, they have put together a detailed, revealing exploration of the effects of sex-trafficking in Sweden, including a comprehensive expose of high-ranking figures—in the police, media and government—involved in abusing young girls. Once again, Sweden is set for some explosive headlines, and certain people will not want that information coming to the public attention.

Salander, not one to miss out on something she feels strongly about, begins to investigate the material herself. This time, the desire to remain anonymous and not tell anyone of her actions backfires horrendously, and it isn’t long before she is the subject of everyone’s attention: Dragan Armansky, her one-time boss; Mikael Blomkvist, with whom she has cut off all contact; and the police, who are ready to bring her in, and are out for her arrest.

The media attention has exploded; Salander’s face is all over the news, details of her personal life and tortured childhood printed across the internet for all to see. As she goes into hiding she realises that there’s more to this than meets the eye; her past has come back to haunt her in the worst possible way. Even for a woman of Salander’s means and talents, there may not be a way out. After working all her life to remain anonymous, Lisbeth’s story has begun to leak out.

The action in The Girl Who Played with Fire is relentless. Larsson unravels the mystery one page at a time, but it never feels slow—there’s enough high-octane car chases and fights to keep us thoroughly engaged. The book races towards its furious denoument and the reader is left breathless and stunned. There is no other choice: Larsson’s finale— The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—awaits.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

22501028Disclaimer: I’m a little bit on the fence with this one. Despite Anne Tyler‘s long and distinguished career—including publishing 20 novels in just over 50 years and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons (1988)—the 2015 Man Booker-shortlisted A Spool of Blue Thread is the first of her books that I’ve actually read. Overall, I’m a little disappointed.

If there’s one thing Tyler’s writing is commonly known for, it is exploring American family and marriage; the everyday, ordinary details of life. Her latest novel is no different: Denny Whitshank embodies the idea of detachment versus attachment; a longing for freedom battling against the need to settle down and mature. His mother Abby is the picture of devout, familial love.

The story here is that there is really no story. Tyler chronicles the multitude of arguments, exasperations, secrets and jealousies that make up every family narrative. There’s nothing wrong with her writing, at times both beautiful and charming as we explore the Whitshank family across multiple generations. Linnie and Junior, their son Red and his wife Abby—in addition to their four kids and three grandchildren. The jumps from past to present, and vice-versa, are never jarring—indeed the different viewpoints occasionally bring about interesting revelations not spotted before.

The problem is, this happens too rarely: for some people the slow, meandering narrative that unspools—rather like its title suggests—is what will make the story what it is. The tiny nuances of the novel may intrigue and delight as the novel begins to surrender its secrets. Unfortunately, there’s no big climax, nothing revelatory enough to warrant the build up. Of course, that’s the point: there isn’t supposed to be—but so often was I left wanting more. Perhaps I was in the wrong mood.

Tyler writes quirky, eccentric characters, but designs them in a way that the Whitshank family could be any of us: each with our flattering attributes, and those not so endearing. Perhaps this is why it is difficult to invest in any of the family—at times I struggled to feel a thing for any of them, despite the fascinating way in which Tyler explores the family dynamic, pointing out that we can all be blind to other people’s wants and desires.

Overall, this was far from a bad read. Tyler writes with enough verve and humour to carry the book forward—but I think in some ways this is a Marmite book. Harbouring a need for high-octane action and a page-turning “thriller”? A Spool of Blue Thread is not for you. If, on the other hand, you would prefer a slow-burning mediation on what family really is all about—there may just be nobody better than Anne Tyler.