Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

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“What do you do with all this bank, Josie? Be a lot easier if you just lifted your skirt.”

“The only reason I’d lift my skirt is to pull out my pistol and plug you in the head.” 

So. Turns out that I love Ruta Sepetys. I was pretty sure that I loved her after reading “Between Shades of Gray”, but now I am 100% certain. She has done it again. This one is, dare I say it, even better.

Seventeen year-old Josie Moraine lives and works in a bookshop in 1950 New Orleans’ French Quarter. She also works as a cleaner in the brothel that her mother works in. Josie has spent her life dreaming of another world, a world where she does not have to pick up the pieces of her unreliable mother’s escapades; where she is not known as the daughter of a prostitute. Josie wants to apply to go to college and see what else life has to offer, but the world she has always known seems to keep bringing her down.

I love that this book didn’t simplify a subject matter that it easily could have reduced to “books, good; prostitutes, bad”. The characters are brilliantly rendered, in particular Josie and her mother’s brothel madam, Willie, who acts as a sort of surrogate mother to Josie. Their relationship is full of warmth, albeit in an unconventional setting. It would be easy to write a brothel madam as somehow corrupt and at the beginning her character could go either way; however, Sepetys has instead created an incredibly complex character in Willie, who I ended up completely respecting.

Josie is smart and streetwise and heavily influenced by her upbringing, whilst wanting to break the cycle. I thought that the difficulties she faced really highlighted the struggles that some people do face to escape circumstance and poverty. How do you make something of yourself when you’re born to a mother who doesn’t care? How do you go on to do the opposite of what everyone expects? Can you be whoever you want, get to college, be a success, when the world you come from doesn’t recognise what that means? I loved that at the beginning Josie yearned to be a regular college girl from a normal family, but in the end she accepts that she can go to college and still be herself, that those two things are not mutually exclusive.

“Willie said normal was boring and that I should be grateful that I had a touch of spice. She said no one cared about boring people, and when they died, they were forgotten, like something that slips behind the dresser. Sometimes I wanted to slip behind the dresser. Being normal sounded perfectly wonderful.

Josie’s predicament is claustrophobic at times and her continual let-downs at the hands of her mother are gut-wrenching. Josie is trying to find a better life but it feels, at times, like the whole world is against her. She makes some mistakes and makes some silly decisions, but ultimately, all she wanted was a mother who loved her and all she wants now is a better life.

There is one scene in particular that really stuck with me, where you really see what can drive women to become prostitutes and the attitudes men have towards them when they do. The kinds of poverty, gender politics, power-play and misogyny that is involved. It is profoundly shocking to me, still, despite the fact that is certainly not news, that such things did and still do happen to women all over the world.

The other characters are also brilliant. The storyline with Charlie and Patrick is absolutely heartbreaking and I really loved the way that Sepetys dealt with the love triangle storyline.  I would have liked to have seen more of Jesse. I loved the bookshop and Josie’s room above it. There is also a cast of supporting characters who are either wonderfully kind or brilliantly horrid. And the ending. The ending! I don’t know what else I can say without spoiling anything. Read it, now!

The Ages of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

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“I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different—unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.”

The Ages of Miracles is a book about an ordinary family and the way that their ordinary lives are changed when the world itself changes in an extraordinary, yet initially subtle, way.

One day, the rotation of the earth slows. Days become a tiny bit longer. Every day, daytime stretches more, but there is no pattern to this addition; one day there may be an extra hour, the next an extra five minutes, the day after that an extra ten. Nobody knows why this is happening or what impact it will have. All they know is that the days are getting gradually longer, the 24-hour clock is getting out of sync and, of course, that life is going on regardless.

Eleven-year old Julia lives with her mother and father in California. She is a sunshine kid who lives in a stucco house in a cloudless neighbourhood. Her father is a doctor; her mother used to be an actress; her Grandfather lives nearby and keeps obstinately giving away his possessions. Her best friend is named Hanna. Julia has a crush on a boy from the neighbourhood named Seth. In other words, Julia’s world is the world of an ordinary eleven year-old girl. However, the slowing changes things. Hanna moves away to a Mormon collective in Utah with her parents, who believe the slowing is the sign of something apocalyptically big. Julia’s mother begins to get mysterious symptoms, her natural physical and psychological rhythm seemingly knocked out completely by the change in day and night. The world becomes divided into “clock-timers” (those who continue to live by the 24-hour clock and ignore the light and darkness) and “real-timers” (those who attempt to adjust to the new days and nights, ignoring the 24-hour clock completely). This divide causes problems in neighbourhoods and communities of real-timers spring up in the dessert. Seth’s mother is suffering from cancer and Julia does not know how to talk to him about anything. Bullies start getting meaner. Julia’s father starts acting strangely, staying at work late, and a distance forms between her parents.

I really like the way that the ordinary problems of growing up are intertwined with the science-fiction aspects of the story and that the differences between the two are sometimes difficult to untangle. Which events are due to the slowing and which are part of growing up? All of Julia’s problems are fairly typical, but it is interesting to think about which ones may have been intensified by the sense of impending doom that the slowing instigates in people. Could this have caused people to behave in more extreme ways, act on desires they would not necessarily have acted on before? Perhaps.

“Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

There was the sense that even the smallest, most unexpected changes can amplify things or make people act in unexpected and not necessarily positive ways. I like the idea of everything being interconnected; the social world as being a complex ecosystem that even the subtlest changes can transform beyond recognition. How would we cope with such an event as the slowing of the earth? Even small changes can have a very large social impact. This is interesting to think about in not only an environmental sense, but also in terms of changes in government, law and fiscal systems. Even subtle changes in any of these things can influence change in unexpected ways.

However, I also felt that Julia’s isolation, confusion, eventual sense of belonging and acceptance of certain things coming to pass definitely gives the sense of this being a coming-of-age story, albeit in a slightly different guise. Even in a rapidly changing world, unrequited crushes are still a major concern for adolescents. There is the sense that these inner battles are more powerful than anything that is happening externally in Julia’s world. That the angst of the adolescent experience is universal, no matter what events transpire.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

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Should I be worried? Kugel asked.

You should only worry, said Sergeant Frankel, about the things you can control.

If I could control them, said Kugel, they wouldn’t worry me.

Exactly, said Sergeant Frankel.

I decided to read this due to a colleague’s description of it as a comedy book about death and a Jewish man finding Anne Frank living in his loft; I also read reviews comparing it to Woody Allen and how it perfectly encapsulates “that dread feeling of being alive”. As an part-time sufferer/full-time fan of Allen-esque angst, how could I resist?

Hope: a Tragedy is a strange book. It’s about a Jewish man named Solomon Kugel who moves his family from an urban life to a rural farmhouse in order to start anew. His mother is terminally ill so she moves in with them. Someone is burning down farmhouses similar to the one Kugel and his family live in; this is one of the (many) causes of his worry. He then discovers an elderly, ailing and cranky Anne Frank living in his attic, writing a novel and defecating in the air vents.

And as for the hope? Jove, Kugel’s psychiatrist, believes hope to be the cause of all human misery. There is so much evidence against optimism, yet humans still foolishly remain optimistic, therefore remaining miserable. Hope is irrational. According to Jove, Hitler was an optimist, because he thought he could change the world for the better. And by trying to make the world better, Hitler made it worse. Ergo, an optimist is certainly not a good thing to be. This interestingly twisted philosophy is threaded throughout the book and, indeed, the way in which Kugel interprets the world around him.

The book is a fairly simple structurally, as well as being a super quick read. Although not particularly varied in narrative or tone, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kugel’s angst-ridden inner monologue as he tries to figure out what to do about his mother, Anne Frank, his family, the arsonist and life in general.

This book is definitely outrageous at times, although I didn’t find it quite as shocking or offensive as some people seemed to. It definitely veers towards the satirical, in that there is a purpose to all its statements. As a non-Jew, I think it is very difficult for me to comment on matters of Jewish history and culture (and there were quite a few occasions where I found myself confused by references and had to look up names and other facts), however I feel that the major themes have resonance for everyone. One of the these, as I see it, regards the nature of history and how it impacts on individuals and events in the present and the future. Although we must remember history and learn from it, we must also be aware that it can become a thing in and of itself, with a power over us that we cannot control. For example, Kugel’s mother constantly talks about the Holocaust as though she had been there, when, in fact, she was born afterwards and she has had a relatively comfortable and safe life. The Holocaust rhetoric has, for her, become an overwhelming part of her cultural and personal identity, and she paints herself as a victim at every opportunity. This perpetuation of Jews as victims through generations here seems to be the flipside of remembering the Holocaust in order to prevent its reoccurrence. Could this stance of victim have a negative outcome? This connects with concepts such as self-fulfilling prophecies, cultural stereotypes and human nature itself. (I would be interested to hear other perspectives on this!)

The portrayal of the various neuroses that Kugel suffers about secretly harbouring Anne Frank was very droll, and very cleverly done. There is one exchange in particular, between Kugel and his wife about who they are and are not allowed to secretly house, that was hilarious.

Auslander’s book is hilarious and worried; morbid and full of the joys of life, often simultaneously. There is a very large question-mark about hope and whether one should just be miserable (as Jove urges us to be), but Kugel can’t help but enjoy life sometimes, it seems, almost despite his best efforts.

“It couldn’t be an all-bad world, could it, not with birds who warble and call? Maybe that was the secret – to find the few things that made life just a fraction better, and to focus on those. Bird warbles. Peach fuzz. Puppies barking as if they’re full grown dogs. Nothing great, certainly nothing to justify the rest of it, but enough to keep you going.”

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

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Maggot Moon is set in a dystopian vision of the past. It is not immediately clear when the story is taking place, only that people’s lives are tightly controlled by the totalitarian regime of the “Motherland” and that theirs is a brutal, harsh world characterised by fear, poverty and violence.

It was only afterwards that I read that Gardner’s inspiration for the setting was thinking about historical “what if” questions: for example, what if the weather had been different on a particular day? What if this meant that London had become an inferno? What if this had altered the course of a war?  It’s an interesting thing to think about.

It is in this alterative version of history that we are introduced to Standish Treadwell, a 15 year-old dyslexic boy with different coloured eyes, and his Gramps. Everyone thinks Standish is stupid because of his dyslexia, and he is constantly facing the threat of bullies (both children and adults) because of this. Standish and his Gramps live in Zone 7, which is reserved for outcasts and political anarchists. Standish’s parents have been “taken away” because of their beliefs. All the while, the Motherland is attempting to prove its might by achieving the first moon landing, but Standish and his Gramps think something is not right.

Standish speaks fondly of his friend Hector and his family, who moved next door and then got taken away themselves. The story is not told in chronological order and can, at times, be difficult to follow. Not everything is explained. You have to work at understanding things, and there are lots of different layers to everything.

Standish talks about his life in a very sparing way, but his narrative voice is completely clear. The language Gardner uses is vivid and colourful, but also sparse and precise. This matches the mood of the world she creates perfectly; the contrast between Standish’s colourful, imaginative inner world and the grey, bleak world of his reality. The chapters are short and to the point. It’s a quick read, but challenging, and it is rare to see language used in such a compellingly simple way to express such complex ideas.

I also think that Maggot Moon is the sort of book that needs to be talked about and thought about to be fully appreciated. I found myself puzzling over it for days afterwards, trying to figure out what I thought of it. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Because it is short, you do end up feeling like you want to know more about the characters, their relationships and their lives. This was something I found a little frustrating. However, the power in Maggot Moon is contained within what it does with very little, and how it makes you think.

The only thing that really bugged me was abundance of made-up swear words (just swear if you’re going to swear! If you’re not, there are existing words that will suffice) but that is a particular bugbear of mine and doesn’t necessarily reflect anything other than my own particular tastes.

All in all, Gardner creates some moments of sheer brilliance. I can’t even possibly go into them all without giving too much away, and, despite its flaws, this is definitely one of the most interesting children’s books I’ve read in a very long time, and for this reason alone, you should give it a go.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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I am not quite sure what to write about this book for two reasons: 1) I don’t want to give too much away; and 2) I’m not actually sure what I think. In light of this, I do hope that the following makes some sort of sense.

Nick and Amy are a married couple living in Missouri. Both were previously writers in New York who moved to Nick’s hometown for various reasons, the most prominent being his mother’s cancer diagnosis. Here they live in a big, new house in a quiet neighbourhood. Nick’s mother passes away and Nick and Amy stay. Nick owns a bar with his twin sister and has to deal with his father, who suffers from alzheimers, continually going missing from his nursing home; Amy is the newly unemployed trust-fund daughter of psychologist-turned-writer “soulmate” parents who based a book series named “Amazing Amy” on her life. At the beginning of the novel, before Nick and Amy have even met, Amy is attending the opening launch of her parents’ lastest book where “Amazing Amy” has grown up and married “Able Andy”. The real Amy is single and discussing this disconnect between her real life and her parents’ fictional version throughout her life.

We learn about how Nick and Amy met and then how their relationship develops over time. How they fall in love and get married and live in New York and then have to move away. Ordinary relationship things.

On Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously goes missing. The story is narrated by both of them, which gives the effect of a kind of “he said-she said” tale where nothing is quite as it seems. I liked this aspect of the novel, as it does make you question the truth of both versions of events and, indeed, consider how people shape the truth and interpret events to meet their own agenda or fit in with their own view of the world. Things don’t always add up and the characters definitely do not act the way you’d expect them to act. This moral ambiguity was something I really enjoyed about the world Fynn creates. It is also something that creates a strong sense of unease throughout.

It may not come as a surprise, this considered, that the characters are rarely sympathetic. This has been used by many as a criticism of the story, however I think that the plot itself is driven by this exploration of the darker sides of the human psyche and the ways in which people behave (and, indeed, misbehave) in relationships. This certainly isn’t a thriller with an easy resolution. I can’t say that I felt good after reading it, but I think Flynn was right to end it the way she did. That said, it is not satisfying in the traditional sense, nor particularly frustrating. I felt thoroughly disconcerted and baffled when I finished it, but there was also a feeling that it kind-of made sense. Not a feeling I often get from books, I must say.

I hope this sufficiently conveys why I am not quite sure what I think now, whilst also not giving too much away. I am currently verging on thinking that Flynn is a storytelling genius.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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“Stories have changed, my dear boy,” the man in the grey suit says, his voice almost imperceptibly sad. “There are no more battles between good and evil, no monsters to slay, no maidens in need of rescue. Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case. There are no longer simple tales with quests and beasts and happy endings. The quests lack clarity of goal or path. The beasts take different forms and are difficult to recognize for what they are. And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep overlapping and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there in no telling where any of them may lead.”

The Night Circus introduces us to two very different magicians who appear locked in some sort of feud or debate over their magic and the ways of teaching it. One man has a daughter; the other acquires a young pupil. The men bind the two children to one another and to a magical challenge with unclear rules and no obvious time-frame. The two unwitting children, Celia and Marco, are to be extensively trained for this mysterious game and then eventually pitted against one another.  Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams) is the setting for this game or challenge; a nocturnal circus that appears and disappears mysteriously, full of intriguing performers and magical acts. In this circus, things are never quite as they seem.

The world of The Night Circus is a vivid and colourful one; an elegantly Victorian, multi-coloured place that smells of magic and smoked caramel.  Anything seems possible, and indeed, it is. However, this world is also dark and sinister, full of characters with ulterior and unclear motives. The game, which is never clearly defined, becomes more menacing the more we learn of it. Celia and Marco are mere pawns in this game, used as a way for two older men to scrap with one another by proxy over some ancient feud. Celia and Marco’s lives are completely consumed by this second-hand, vicariously played-out rivalry, and the claustrophobia at their predicament develops and snowballs throughout the novel. Without giving too much away, their lives become inevitably and inexorability entwined in more ways than one, making the inevitable outcome of their situation even more distressing.

The game that they play involves creating the circus, and the descriptions of this fantasy world are so rich and lucid that I ended up feeling as though I was actually there, in this magical circus where anything is possible. The story follows the circus and the central characters over many years, and the introduction of a new generation is effectively done, with the story jumping between a period of around 30 years. At the end of the novel, the years join up and a full picture of events is formed. I thought that this was a particularly effective way of telling this story. Snippets here and there revealed just the right amount to keep me intrigued and vying for more. In the end, I read the entire book in two brilliantly sunny afternoons.

The world reminded me a little of the one portrayed in the film The Prestige, which I watched recently and loved. That Victorian, theatrical, magical aesthetic and setting is one that had never really appealed to me before. Hugh Jackman is undoubtedly partly responsible for my change of heart and for me approaching this book in the way that I did to begin with, however I don’t think anyone should be put off by the setting or the paranormal-esque content. This version of such a world is incredibly well-rendered and detailed, creating, through words, a visually rich world. Did I mention its vividness? I swear I was actually at The Circus of Dreams. I was quite upset to finish the novel and realise that I was actually in Manchester, UK, in my dining room, on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

bookthief

Why did it take me over a year between starting this book and finishing it? I do not have a good explanation for this. I was either too busy or I was wary of reading a book narrated by death; perhaps afraid of the inevitable ensuing existential angst. Such an excuse now seems silly. This book is, yes, about death, its ubiquity during a horrible time in history, about pain and suffering, but it is also not really about death. Death does not write about itself an awful lot. It is fascinated by humans, their lives, what they do to get by, survive and help one another. World War 2 is a time of despair and a display of the very worst humans can do, but also a place where humans show both their best sides too.

A place where words are used in powerful ways, both to cajole people via rhetoric and fear into a belief system they don’t necessarily support, but also to act as a way to stay human.

Liesel, the Book Thief, gets sent to live with foster parents, the Hubermanns, in small-town Nazi Germany after being sent away from her communist parents and losing her brother to the narrator itself. She has already, by this point, stolen a book. Her foster father, Hans, who plays the accordion and smokes roll-ups, teaches her to read and their relationship is built around this sharing of words and stories. We follow Liesel, her family and her community through the years before the war and see how things change for them. From relative peace time to full on war time.

Things are fairly ordinary for Liesel for a time. She plays football in the street with other children. She helps her stepmother with the laundry that she does for wealthy families.  She befriends a boy named Rudy and they join a gang that steals things. Liesel steals books and reads books.

Then her foster family end up taking in and hiding a Jew. It is at this point that the characters really come into their own. Liesel’s development as a thoughtful and fearless young woman is really cemented by her friendship with Max. Rosa, Liesel’s stepmother, who is foul-mouthed and obnoxious at first, proves herself as a woman of strength and integrity, and Hans proves the same about himself (as we had already suspected). Details about Max really add to the sense of tragedy at the loss of his previous life as a free man. He lives in the Hubermann’s basement, and we see flickers of the man he used to be; a creative, spirited person reduced to living in permanent darkness. His and Liesel’s friendship is based on the sharing of stories and creativity that cannot be stifled. The book that he writes for Liesel on painted-over copies of Mein Kampf is incredibly touching and finds hope in friendship and words. I loved that Liesel reads him stories and steals newspapers for him.It is obvious that living such a life makes Max feel dehumanised and that the words that Liesel brings him give him back some humanity.

This, I feel, is the central theme of The Book Thief. That stories and words are central to the human experience. They occur just about everywhere that humans exist. You can take away a person’s liberty and freedom, but their stories persist.

The Book Thief is not a happy book by any means; however the richness of the storytelling and the way the characters are drawn suggests that death has a surprising fondness for humans. In this sense, The Book Thief is a life-affirming book human resilience during a terrible time. It is also unlike anything I’ve ever read, in terms of narration, layout and format. I would rarely say that I would recommend a book to anyone, but this may be one of those rare occasions.