Sunday, 16 October 2016

Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee

I bought this book almost two three years ago, when Maggie Gee was keynote speaker at the Society of Authors North event at the Imperial War Museum North, Salford. Yes that’s how far behind I am with my reading. 

This is an incredibly well written book and it is extremely engaging. The point of view switches constantly between the three main characters – Virginia Woolf, who has come back to life and materialized among the manuscripts of her work that are kept in a private collection in New York, Angela Lamb, a novelist and expert on Woolf and Angela’s daughter, Gerda, who runs away from school to join her mother first in New York and then in Istanbul.   

All three characters are rounded and believable. Gee admits that Woolf is fictionalized, though to some extent based on her diaries. Nevertheless, the Virginia Woolf presented here seems very much to me as she would be if she was suddenly whisked into the 21st century. Both Angela and her daughter have to face some demanding logistical problems and these are to some extent what keep us reading. 

That and the voice which is delightful, with some difference for each character. 

What will happen after Istanbul where the three of them attend a conference about Woolf’s work? A final chapter offers a suggestion and indeed hints at an explanation about how it all came about.  In the end, though, it is left for the reader to decide.    

Monday, 3 October 2016

Any Other Mouth by Anneliese Mackintosh

This is a truly extraordinary book. The blurb suggests it is a novel. Soon into reading you’re convinced that it is a series of unrelated short stories and then about a third of the way through you realise that the stories are related. The protagonist is the common factor.
Anneliese Mackintosh keeps us engaged.  Each “story” or chapter is relatively short and totally unpredictable. There is no recognisable story arc. She uses no well-worn formula. There even seems to be a different voice in each piece though we eventually recognise Greta’s voice as a unifying factor. Greta changes as she moves through her grief for her father.
The stories are not given to us in chronological order. Yet there is a logic to them: they track the changes that bring Greta to where she is today.
Frequently biographers use fictional techniques to enhance their work. Here we have a writer of fiction using the habits of memoir to keep us intrigued.
This all certainly works: I personally could hardly put this book down. Mackintosh’s prose is also of the finest.      


Saturday, 3 September 2016

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

If you’ve read and enjoyed E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It you’ll enjoy this. It is a sequel, written much later and it is also somewhat darker. It was the winner of the Costa Book Awards 2014. Great news indeed that a children’s book has won that prize.
We meet the same children as before. Cyril, Robert, Jane and Anthea are now grown up.  The Lamb is now a young boy and a further sibling, Eddie, has appeared. The Psammead, the sand fairy, is back too, though considerably less powerful than before and bringing with him a rather dark past.
A prologue presents us with an interim visit, just two years after the first, in which he takes them forward to 1930. The children see photos of themselves as grown-ups and notice that the older boys are missing. Adults reading the story may have a frightening insight at this point. Children may not understand what this means. However, this proves to be not too much of a spoiler.
Kate Saunders retains the atmosphere of the earlier Nesbit novels. Of course we still have upper middle class southerners. Times are changing, however, under the influence of the Great War. There are changes, too, for the sand fairy.  
A very satisfying read all told.    

Sunday, 28 August 2016

After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross

This book is certainly well written. One would expect nothing less of Gillian Cross. It is also high concept, dystopian and presents a disturbing near future. Unusually it is not young adult though protagonist Matt does a lot of growing up. I’d describe it as fluent reader though Matt is probably about fourteen. Well, youngsters like to read up. It impressed me because above all it scared me. 

The crash of the five major banks causes food shortages, hoarding of food and raids at gunpoint on the homes of those who hoard or who grow their own food. Matt and his family are hoarders and grow their own food. Matt, his younger brother, Taco, and his stepfather, Justin, escape to France where they are accommodated in a huge refugee camp. Life is harsh there. Cross successfully uses fiction to explore the truth of that situation. 

There is a hopeful ending though we still see no easy way out of a dire situation. The story makes one pause and look at what is happening in our own world. It actually isn’t all that different.
A must read for everyone. Well-crafted characterisation, a fast pace and a good amount of tension keep us reading.   

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Chasing Danger by Sara Grant

This book is fast-paced from the start. The opening scene has fourteen-year-old Chase Armstrong shouting “Don’t leave me here.” Sara Grant then gives us a desolate setting.  We can be fooled into thinking the modern pirates mentioned in the blurb have arrived already. But not quite yet. When they do arrive, there’s more to them than the same blurb suggests.
Grant does well to maintain the tension and the pace. The situation with the pirates is bad enough but Chase also has to contend with a mysterious background. Who exactly was her mother? Will Ariadne even be a true grandmother?
Both the emotional and the action stakes are high. Grant maintains a firm narrative balance which achieves fast pace and emotional closeness at the same time. Her characters are extremely clearly drawn. This is also a real page turner. Nicely short chapters also add to the attractiveness. It’s so easy to read just one more chapter.
Who is the book for?  Well, Chase is fourteen, so presumably twelve-year-olds would like to read about her. Later primary, early secondary? Chase feels a little more mature than the Famous Five or characters from the Nancy Drew mysteries. Yet the adventure is similar and at the same time of a higher concept than these. The cover firmly suggests Chase is a teenager who cares about her appearance.    
No matter. I’m a lot older than any of them and I’m looking forward to the next one.