Sunday, 7 February 2016

Review: 'The Ballroom' by Anna Hope

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Where love is your only escape...

1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Wake by Anna Hope was one of my favourite books of 2014 (review here).  I remember being amazed at how a story that was quiet in so many ways could be so impactive; how Hope could tell a story of the lives of three women over the course of five days and manage to say so much about post-war Britain.  The Ballroom manages to do just the same thing.  Through Ella and John's story, Hope manages to weave a commentary on the treatment (or lack of treatment) of mental health in the early 20th century without that commentary weighing too heavily on the plot or leaving it feeling laboured.

The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a simple wish to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute.  There are other 'residents' who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today's standards (Ella's friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior.  Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance.  A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance.  Ella and John's meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt.  Their story isn't melodramatic.  It's gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.

I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters.  The way that they grow and change subtly until they're someone different entirely.  Alongside Ella and John's narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer.  Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn't the way to prevent the "spread" of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental 'deficiency' are quite capable of productivity.  Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era.  Gradual and utterly believable.

The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates a frazzled atmosphere.  There's an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate.  Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard I was actually hurting my hands and just willing both the characters I loved and those I hated to get the endings they deserved.  I closed the novel in tears.  Admittedly, that's not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.  

Overall:  Anna Hope's writing and characters are beautiful and I just don't feel as though I can convey in a review quite why they're so terrific.  If you want to read historical fiction that will sneakily worm its way into your heart and stay there, I can think of few authors to recommend more highly than Anna Hope.

Date finished: 18 December 2015
Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader's Copy)
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review - thanks, Doubleday!
Genre: Literary fiction; Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday

The Ballroom is out on 11 February 2016 and you can pre-order now at The Book DepositoryAmazon or Waterstones.  You can also currently get Wake for your Kindle for a bargainous £1.99!  

Sunday, 31 January 2016

On Reading for Book Clubs

I've always wanted to be part of a book club.  Meeting with like-minded people over a drink or two to gabble about a book sounded ideal.  The reality has been...disappointing.

During the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I've felt a renewed vigour for reading and have been excited about it again.  I've rifled through my collection of books and been full of enthusiasm for the older books among my stash, the quirkier classics and the darker literary fiction.  I've started to get into graphic novels and tried out comics.  The more I've read, the more excited I've been about talking about reading.

Until a week ago.

My book club's next "meeting" is on Thursday.  The chosen book is The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop.  I wasn't overwhelmed with glee at the choice, not necessarily being swayed by endorsements by Woman and Home magazine, The Sun and The Daily Mail.  A colleague had finished it early and offered to lend it to me, though, so I figured I'd give it a try.  And just like that, my enthusiasm for reading fled.  I've watched episodes of Blacklist and The X Files in the evenings.  I've messed about on apps on my phone.  I've scribbled in my journal.  I've done all sorts of things but read.  I've read a few pages here and there and I haven't liked what I've read.  The writing is haphazard, awkward and clunky.  Characters stand next to each other gazing at their reflections in mirrors and give physical descriptions.  The descriptions of buildings and settings are saccharine and feel flimsy.  For a book written by a woman, the male characters are surprisingly sexist and I'm not sure if that's a character trait or how Hislop writes men.  Either way, reading about a man telling his wife that she's beautiful and that's the main thing so stop interfering in men's business is just plain annoying.  So I stopped reading it.  I chose my love of reading over my love of being in a book club.

It might get better.  It might be gripping historical fiction and I might just be missing out on something great.  It  might just be that I'm not in the mood for it at the moment.  I'm not sticking around to find out.  It turns out that one of the most important things about being in a book club is finding readers who have similar tastes to you, otherwise it becomes a chore.  I was reminded about this old post about why reading shouldn't be something that's hard work; it should be the opposite.  So I guess that this post is part musing and part resignation?  I'm going to stick on the book club's email list for a little while longer to see where they go but I'm no longer going to pretend to myself that I'll read whatever they pick just so that I can be in a book club.  

When I joined the book club, the first read I made it to a meeting about was Bossypants by Tina Fey.  That was followed by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  So far,so good.  I missed a few meetings then because of work but the choices were solid - The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton and The American Boy by Andrew Taylor.  I read a short story horror collection by Joe Hill, 20th Century Ghosts, which was definitely not within my comfort zone and wasn't necessarily my thing but was at least interesting to discuss.  Recently, though, my interest is waning.  The club went through a run of lengthy non-fiction books that weren't on topics that I was interested in.  An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield, which sounded far too much like self-help for me.  H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which doesn't really appeal to me because I'm actually quite frightened of birds.  The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson, which I was never going to read because there was no chance I was financially supporting Boris Johnson in any way.  The books I've suggested have never been 'chosen'.

If one of the books I read every month is going to be for a book club, they need to be books that I actually want to read.  Not necessarily ones that I would have chosen for myself but ones that intrigue me or that it seems as though there's something I'll take from it other than just the opportunity to discuss it with someone else.  I'm disappointed that being in this book club hasn't necessarily turned out how I wanted but I'm excited about reading again and I'm going to keep it that way!

I'd be interested to hear whether I'm just contrary and not made for a book club or whether anybody else has had similar experiences?  Any tips on how to keep engaged with a book club that isn't going in the direction you thought it would?

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Graphic Novel Review: 'Nimona' by Noelle Stevenson

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.


"Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism!"

I have a feeling that 2016 will be the year that I really get into graphic novels.  I bought a little stash recently and it's taken a considerable degree of self control not to devour them all over the past couple of weeks.  Not that there would have been anything wrong with that of course but they're quite pricey and I'm vaguely trying to keep the number of books I'm buying down a tiny bit until we actually have shelves again.

Nimona hasn't really helped my resolve.  It's genuinely funny in a dry, sarcastic way (the best way) and the story is fun without being too frothy and I really enjoyed it.  There are dragons and some appropriately fantastical-sounding science. There's also magic, a powerful organisation with dubious motives and plenty of disguises.  I'm sorry, but really - what's not to like?  There's a quote from Rainbow Rowell on the front cover that describes it as "full of humour and heart" and I'll be damned if she isn't spot on.  I picked it up wanting something to distract me from the lingering effect of The Collector and I don't think I could have picked a better diversion.

For a relatively short book that has plenty of action, there's a surprising amount of character development.  Nimona is a kick-ass shapeshifter full of bravado and snippy comebacks but she's also vulnerable, with a dark side that's more fond of villainy even than the kingdom's most wanted villain, Lord Blackheart.  Lord Blackheart, meanwhile, fights against the established power (the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics) and is lauded as a villain but is obviously conflicted.  Plenty of the other characters are equally well fleshed out.  It could have been just another bad guy v. good guy story and the wit would have carried it but it was smarter and more subtle than that.

And since this was a graphic novel, let's talk about the art.  I was a big fan.  It's vibrant and colourful but without feeling flippant.  The panels darken and the colours deepen as the story does, creating a sinister atmosphere that sets off the writing perfectly.  I may not know much about graphic novels but I do know that this was one I "got" and really liked.

Overall:  Colour me pleasantly surprised! Nimona is a fabulous pick if you're an adult looking for something to keep you entertained for a few hours that has a bit more about it.  I'll be keeping an eye out for Noelle Stevenson's comic series, Lumberjanes, without a doubt.

Date finished: 16 January 2016
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Graphic Novel; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in May 2015 by HarperTeen

Need more convincing?  You can look at an earlier version of the first three chapters for free HERE!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Crimson Petal and the White: A Read-Along!

I bought The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber at the end of last year and it looks amazing.  It also looks very long.  And what do long books need?  A read-along!  

I can't actually take the credit for this idea.  It was Hanna's.  We were talking about the book and she suggested a read-along.  I was that easily persuaded.  I'll post a schedule nearer the time but my current plan is to split the read-along across 6 weeks, starting on Sunday 14th February and finishing on 27th March.  This means we'll be reading about 140 pages a week. I'll do a post every Sunday with some prompts or something based on the week's reading for us to talk about.

If you haven't heard of the book, it's a historical fiction novel set in Victorian London:  
Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them...
So begins this irresistible voyage into the dark side of Victorian London. Amongst an unforgettable cast of low-lifes, physicians, businessmen and prostitutes, meet our heroine Sugar, a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can. Be prepared for a mesmerising tale of passion, intrigue, ambition and revenge
I've heard nothing but wonderful things about it.

Need more persuading?  Here's the pretty bloody perfect opening paragraph:
"Watch your step.  Keep your wits about you; you will need them.  This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before.  You may imagine, from other stories you've read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged.  The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether"
You can sign up in the linkie below.  You don't have to have a blog to take part - feel free to tweet about the read-along, Instagram your way through the book or keep track of your reading on GoodReads.  Wherever you like!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Review: 'The Collector' by John Fowles

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Withdrawn, uneducated and unloved, Frederick collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is obsessed with a beautiful stranger, the art student Miranda. When he wins the pools he buys a remote Sussex house and calmly abducts Miranda, believing she will grow to love him in time. Alone and desperate, Miranda must struggle to overcome her own prejudices and contempt if she is understand her captor, and so gain her freedom.


"Just those three words, said and meant. I love you.

They were quite hopeless. He said it as he might have said, I have cancer.

His fairy story"

The Collector is really something.  I've been watching a few YouTube channels recently that tend to feature mostly literary fiction and this book is one that came up more than a few times and it flew onto my wishlist.  When Laura bought it for me for Christmas, I waited only as long as it took me to finish a book I'd already started before cracking it open.

The story is pretty simple.  Frederick is a lonely man with little in his life but his aunt and cousin and his collection of butterflies.  When he wins a fortune, it occurs to him that he longer needs to limit himself to butterflies.  The beautiful woman that he has admired from afar can be his.  He can take her beauty and have it all to himself.  So he does.

The stream of consciousness style of the first part took a bit of getting used to but once I was used to it, the effect was completely unnerving.  Fowles' writing is manipulative and disorientating.  I knew that I was reading the narration of a deeply disturbed man who had kidnapped a young woman just so that he could have her as part of his collection and yet I found myself completely taken in by him.  His motives are perverted and his love is deeply flawed (if it can even be called love at all) but he truly believes that if he can only keep Miranda long enough and force her to get to know him, she'll grow to love him. As Miranda wheedles and pleads and lashes out, I felt sorry for Frederick.  His illusion is shattered and his despair is gut-wrenching.  I felt sorry for a deluded sociopath, knowing that he was a deluded sociopath.

I've read a lot of reviews that criticise the second half, which shows Miranda's perspective on the events of the first.  I'll admit that it doesn't have quite the same disconcerting quality (there's something much less unique about feeling sorry for someone who is being held captive) but it does add a lot to the novel in a different way.  It recounts some of the same events told by Frederick earlier but in doing so it throws into sharp relief just how disturbed he is.  It can be repetitive and it can blur off into tangents about art and Miranda's life before she was incarcerated in Frederick's cellar but it's the writings of a woman trapped underground and it fits.  Where Frederick's narrative is told in the past tense and with the benefit of hindsight, Miranda's is told in the present tense and shifts with her moods and the events that she is writing about.

And the ending!  Oh, the ending.  I can't think of any way that I would change it.  Absolute perfection.

When I first finished The Collector, I gave it 4.5 stars for some nagging feeling that the section of Miranda's writings was just a little too long.  Three weeks later, though, and the book is still haunting me.  I still find myself thinking about just how clever it was and how disturbing the closing paragraphs were.  Any book that has that kind of effect has got to have 5 stars, really.

Overall: A dark and sinister novel that is very powerful in its own quiet way.  If you aren't put off by different styles of narrative or by pitiable sociopaths, I really can't recommend The Collector enough.  It had me thoroughly creeped out and pensive while I was reading it and it's still lingering around in the back of my mind.  Just excellent.

Date finished: 10 January 2016
Buy here
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Gifted for Christmas - thanks, Laura!
Genre: Literary Fiction; Classic
Pictured Edition Published:  in October 1998 by Vintage
Originally Published:  1963

On finishing this, I remembered that I also owned The Magus by John Fowles.  Has anyone read it?  Recommendations for other similarly disorientating books are welcome too!