Wednesday 25 November 2020

Dead Rock Stars, Guy Mankowski

Thanks to the author for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Emma Imrie had always dreamed of being a rock star, of writing songs that really meant something. She’d been on the cusp of success when her life was cut tragically short, leaving her younger brother Jeff to navigate his grief without the support of his distant parents. He is sent to spend the summer on the Isle of Wight with a childhood friend who is unlikely to provide much emotional support. Finding himself truly alone for the first time since his bereavement leads him to releasing some of the emotion he’s been holding back, and reading Emma’s diary to discover what really happened.

The two narrative strands - an older Jeff remembering that strange summer, and Emma’s narrative through her detailed diary entries run parallel, but it is Emma’s voice, her story, that looms largest, as it seems she did in life. The diary entries come thick and fast and so we don’t get to know Jeff as deeply, to start with at least. It leaves a slight disconnect and a sense of apprehension of how the space will be filled when we reach the last entry. There’s plenty still to come however, and although there were parts of the story that didn’t feel quite right, the way Mankowski writes grief is raw and honest. Jeff’s need to understand what happened, his feelings of wanting to keep reading the diary because it feels like it’s keeping part of his sister alive, are heart wrenching and relatable. Mankowski’s strength lies in the contemplation of life and death and the places in between.

Jeff’s parents are largely absent from the novel, but we do get a good sense of Emma’s relationship with her mother. The opening passages detail Jeff’s single experience of seeing his sister perform in Camden, of his mum’s disgust at the world she has chosen to make her own. Throughout the diary entries we see many examples of them being unable to compromise or understand each other’s point of view. They are clearly neglectful as parents, leaving the siblings with damaged self-esteem and a desperate need to feel wanted. As Jeff matures over the course of the book however, he comes to understand how his mum was also just human like them, trying her best to cope with difficult situations and relationships.

Mankowski’s skilful world-building is demonstrated successfully in this novel, whether it be the beauty and peace of the sea, or the London of Emma’s dreams. He teases out the contrast between reality and fantasy. Never is this more clearly drawn than in Jeff’s memories of going to collect Emma from hospital after her first overdose. He encapsulates the many faces of the city and its potential for both good and bad.

There’s a strong sense of a coming-of-age novel in this book, both for Emma as she tries to cope with her disillusion, and for Jeff as he struggles to make sense of his grief at such a formative age. The combination of Emma’s diary entries and his own memories show how her unfortunate relationship experiences turned him away from the idea of love, afraid of letting people in for fear of the damage they could cause. Perhaps because Emma’s character is so strong, his own self-doubts and dreams get a little lost. It feels slightly out of character or unexpected when he expresses certain views, but they are also authentic representations of the teenage experience. In a way, his summer on the island is a chance for him to find out who he really is, although the shadow of his famous sister is never far away.

A compelling read that might try to cover a little too much ground, but nonetheless does so with style. References to the Riot grrrl movement and other cultural references from the 1990s had me diving into online research and opened up some interesting topics. This is a well-written book which manages to make an absent character incredibly present and nuanced. A great read if you’re interested in the 1990s Camden music scene, the idea of the tortured genius, or a coming-of-age book that will fully immerse you in the world of its characters.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Polina, Bastien Vivès, Translated by Polly McLean

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Polina follows an aspiring dancer from auditions as a child through to adulthood, trying to find her way in the world while reluctant to let go of what she was taught in her formative years. Bojinsky is famed for his high standards and often reduces students to tears, leaving them convinced they should quit dancing for good. He is no less exacting in his training of Polina, but she is determined to stick with it. When she moves on, she begins to realise others see his technique as old-fashioned and try to get her to forget what he taught her. She finds herself torn between the two, studying with him in secret and jeopardising her position at the theatre school. There is a sense of Polina being over-burdened and pulled in too many directions throughout which adds a sense of heaviness, of enclosure, to the novel.

The depictions of ballet training play on some of the over-done stereotypes - her mother tells her not to show if it hurts when the teachers test her suppleness in the early pages of the book. Bojinsky’s views that you can’t be taught grace and other basic elements required of dancers also feels at odds with reality. He is an unsettling character, demanding and unreasonable, and I spent large sections of the book worried that his behaviour was going to escalate. Polina’s devotion to him seems illogical on the surface, but she feels a sense of loyalty to him because he saw something in her and kept her working hard to achieve her potential. There’s a sense that he shaped her as a dancer, even though her career diverts from his technique. Their relationship made me quite uncomfortable, but it was interesting to see the dynamic between mentor and pupil explored.

Polina rarely seems happy, caught in constant conflict with herself and eager to please others before herself. When she suffers setbacks that would be fairly devastating they are quickly passed over and this can create a slight distance with the emotional side of the characters.

The plot progresses at quite a pace, leaving much left to be assumed as we jump forward across the years. This can help sweep you along with the story with no time to stop and dwell, but it can also be a bit jarring as you have to discern how much time has passed and where we find Polina now.

This was my first time reading a graphic novel and although it was easy to get wrapped up in, I was left wanting something more from it. The illustrations themselves nicely capture movement and resist being bogged down in too much detail. For fans of ballet and coming-of-age stories, this is an interesting book to pick up.

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Wednesday 11 November 2020

Shirley, Charlotte Brontë

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Shirley is perhaps Charlotte Brontë’s least read novel today, but this historic, social novel, has a lot to offer. The book doesn’t have one overarching narrative thread - there are the industrial depression and Luddite uprisings, some elements of romance, and plenty of social commentary. Most prominent however, are the two main female characters - Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar. Their positions are opposite - Shirley has money and is strong-willed and defiant, Caroline has no fortune and is more obliging, but both find difficulties in their status. It becomes clear that for many, money takes precedence over all else, meaning that Caroline cannot marry the man she loves, and Shirley is wary of potential suitors, as well as being reluctant to give up the liberty her single status affords. 

Brontë is forthcoming with depictions of the plight of women. 

What do they expect them to do at home? If you ask, they would answer, sew and cook. They expect them to do this, and this only, contentedly, regularly, uncomplainingly all their lives long, as if they had no germs of faculties for anything else - a doctrine as reasonable to hold as it would be that the fathers have not faculties but for eating what their daughters cook, or for wearing what they sew. Could men live so themselves? Would they not be very weary? And, when there came no relief to their weariness, but only reproaches at its slightest manifestation, would not their weariness ferment in time to frenzy?

Caroline has very little autonomy, even being refused the opportunity to make her own money as a governess, and so finds herself with no occupation to stimulate her mind or add interest to her days. She ponders what her life will be like with very little chance of marriage. Her home life is unhappy; she has no contact with her mother, her father is dead, and her uncle is not pleasant company.

As is often the case in Brontë’s writing, the characters are well-drawn. She is expert in providing descriptions that instantly give a sense of personality, revealing anecdotes that show their true nature. The opening chapter introducing the three local curates contain cutting appraisals and touching stories that will keep you amused and curious. Some parts of the novel drag a little, but the character sketches are little gems scattered throughout. 

Despite there being hardship and unrest present, the main characters are not suffering themselves from the downturn in industrial work, so this always feels like a background feature rather than the main thrust of the book. In our introduction to Robert Moore we are told that he little thinks or cares where his workers get their daily bread when he lets them go, which may fool you into thinking the plight of the industrial worker will play a much more prominent role. In fact, little space is given to the working man.

This is a novel that’s hard to define. Some sections are slow but others are utterly gripping. The headstrong Shirley, famously based on what Charlotte imagined her sister Emily would have been if she’d been born into wealth and health, is a force to be reckoned with, and shows herself to be more than capable of holding her own time and again. There are some touching moments that some may find a little twee but which I enjoyed. Illness and mortality are a concern, and remind us of the fragility of life. It’s said that Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and the loss of her siblings during the writing process, changed the course of the story. We’ll never know for certain what Charlotte had originally intended for it, but what has come down to us is worth picking up, with Brontë's command of the language in her beautiful prose evident throughout.

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Friday 6 November 2020

Second Cousin, Once Removed, Kenneth L. Toppell

This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to the author and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Henry Atkinson is an ageing attorney who has taken up genealogy to fill the gap left by his now separated family. To his surprise, he discovers a professional hitman in his family tree, and when he makes contact becomes convinced he is responsible for the death of his uncle Ira. When a woman, Carolyn, turns up from his uncle’s business he is certain his life is in danger. What follows is a race across states both running from, and searching for, his cousin Shelley.

The premise is a tad unusual and you find yourself wondering why the characters are acting as they are. They seem to very easily adapt to life on the road, discarding their true identities, and predictably, falling in love with the person they’re pretending to be married to. The search for Shelley and the twist that makes them re-assess their morals are not particularly engaging. There are attempts to build suspense and mystery with repeated mentions of an incident that happened long ago, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The reveal is also fairly inconsequential and largely a device to progress an already convoluted plot.

The characters don’t have a lot of depth - Henry develops a lack of self-confidence for a while and Shelley apparently only accepts jobs where the target is not a good guy, but there’s little in the way of real development. Carolyn is quite an outdated portrayal of a female character. There’s a lot of descriptions of her physical appearance that will make you cringe and she’s often demure and subservient. Despite some blatant gender stereotyping, Toppell does at least give Carolyn and Marian, the only two female characters, an active role in the denouement.

Each chapter is narrated by either Henry, Carolyn, or Shelley. For the most part they pick up where the previous chapter left off, but there is occasional overlap to show scenarios from multiple points of view. The first chapter from Shelley’s perspective is one of the more exciting moments in the book as up until then he is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. 

Overall, not to my taste, but if you enjoy dialogue-heavy writing and exploring the mindset of a professional killer, you might enjoy it more than I did.