Room Worth a View – Room by Emma Donoghue

ROOM-IIThis is an old review from April 2011 that I posted on Amazon. I’m reposting it here as it dovetails nicely with the next book I will review – Above by Isla Morley 

Being aware of the rather unappealing premise of ‘Room’, it wasn’t a book I wanted to read. Despite the praise heaped upon it, I had expected it to be the sort of voyeuristic account of great suffering that passes as entertainment these days. My book group however, were keen to read it, and so I acquiesced agreeing to give it a try. I have to say my original assumption was well wide of the mark. Right from the beginning it is obvious that this novel is something special.

The story (as you probably already know) is narrated by ‘Jack’, a five year old, who has only ever lived in ‘Room’. Jack’s mother has been kidnapped and held for seven years. Jack is the product of her kidnapper’s unwanted attentions. Knowing the book had a child narrator had also put me off reading it. I tend to find that books written with a child’s voice are normally pretentious and hard to read. Room’s Booker prize nomination had done nothing to allay these fears.

Although Jack’s voice is not entirely consistent with how I imagine a five-year-olds might be, it is the making of the novel. For a start, that something so pure and innocent can come from such bleak circumstances, makes the novel bearable. Secondly, Emma Donaghue uses Jack’s over-simplified understanding of the world almost without fault. She uses the space between reality and Jack’s view of reality to convey events in a much more powerful way than writing about them directly. The whole novel is the ultimate example of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’.

It is curious that the most exciting point of the novel is about halfway through. Though I feel novel’s the gradual relaxation of tension is entirely justified (mirroring, Jack’s return to something like a normal life), it does make the last half of the novel feel over long. That said, following Jack coming to terms with ‘Outside’ is well-handled and almost as heart-breaking as his incarceration. For a book about such a dispiriting subject, `Room’ contains a surprising amount of humour; Jack’s unique view of the world, does show us all up to be rather foolish.

‘Room’ is a highly readable novel. Although not always pleasant, it is never depressing. If, like me, you are wavering about reading it, then I would say ‘Room’ is well worth a view.

By Robin's Books Posted in Books

Lost in a good book – Libriomancer by Jim C Hines

LibriomancerUKI almost didn’t read this book. It’s cover is terrible. I know one shouldn’t judge and all that, but there are so many books and such little time, you’ve got to have a filtering mechanism. But then… it is called Libriomancer and libris (at the risk of sounding like Pooh Bear), means books. Oh, and libraries.

So I figured I might at least read the back cover: ‘Gutenberg, secret societies, magic in books, reaching into books and drawing forth objects’. That sounds bloody great! It also sounds like Polly Shulman’s Grimm Legacy books, which I loved. Behind the tacky, off-putting cover lurked the germ of brilliant idea.

So I read it.

I was right. Libriomancer is bloody great. OK – it’s not aiming for literary greatness, but it is hoping to deliver a fun, action-packed and slightly silly story. Which it does, perfectly. Indeed behind the light veneer is some pretty scholarly stuff. You can’t write something based on other works of fiction like this without knowing your texts inside out. One might almost have to qualify as a Libriomancer.

Isaac Vainio is a disgraced libriomancer. He’s not meant to practice any more, but when vampires turn up on your doorstep and try to kill you, it’s probably time to stop following orders. Rescued by a plucky dryad, he tries to piece together what is going on. Isaac embarks on an adventure that explores many of SFFs common tropes; pokes fun at them, tinkers with them, and uses them to build something original, whilst managing to make you think about the themes underpinning whole subsections of the genre.

There’s some clever stuff here. A classification system for vampires, all based on the many works of bloodsucking fiction. The newer ones are harder to kill, exemplifying the theory put forward in Scream 2 that each iteration has got to be bigger, nastier, scarier and harder to kill. There’s a gentle examination of the role of women in genre fiction. A hot topic right now. Hines shows how absurd female characters have been in the past, and what they might be like if they were real people.

The possibilities of things that could be brought into the real world through the pages of fiction are endless, and Hines has some loose and vaguely sensible reasons for why you can’t bring through Superman or the One Ring. I have no idea whether the rules stack up to close scrutiny, but they worked well enough to keep me interested and maintain a logical consistency. The shadowy league of libriomancers, the ‘Porters’ has enough revealed about them to make them intriguing whilst keeping the reader hanging out for more.

This is a series that could run and run. The overall plot is a little daft, but who cares?  It’s a fun book and it pays homage to books and the people who love them. I would happily spend more hours in the company of Isaac Vainio and the fevered imagination of Jim C Hines.  Which is lucky as book 2 Codex Born is available now.

Many Thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of this book. 

Bleak House – Arms Wide Open by Tom Winter

arms‘They sit in silence at first, the two of them sharing in a holy communion, the transubstantiation of mere chocolate into feelings of love and security.’

It’s always nerve-wracking picking up a new novel from a writer when you’ve loved their previous work. Tom Winter’s Lost and Found was one of my novels of 2013. I even got my book group to read it and they all loved it too. How would Arms Wide Open compare, could it possibly live up to my expectations?

Probably not.

In tone and humour the books are very similar. Winter is very good at highlighting the absurdities of life. Trite though it may be to say it, his observations are funny because they’re true.  What made Lost and Found for me, is that the whole cast of characters had a perfect synchronicity.  They worked together in unison, separate notes combining to make a beautiful ensemble piece. Arms Wide Open has a wider cast, and there a few characters are slightly off key. Both novels, I think, are very English affairs and the introduction of two American exchange students in Arms Wide Open didn’t quite work for me.

The overall tone here is different too. Lost and Found is bittersweet, and ultimately redemptive. Here there is redemption of sorts, but the story is more bleak and the finale is more bitter than sweet. So on finishing Arms Wide Open, I wasn’t left with a warm fuzzy feeling that I had with L&F. Rather than ‘life throws curve balls, but good things do happen’, it’s more ‘life’s a shitty mess and then you die’; probably forgetting who you are.

So because I didn’t enjoy Arms Wide Open as much, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an inferior novel. After all, total enjoyment is a pretty good qualifier for measuring the quality of an experience. But what if it’s me? Maybe I don’t like the book as much, because it didn’t offer the redemptive assurances I was looking for? If that’s the case, maybe it’s a better book. It reflects my own life, my own fears and worries; it’s not the pages of a book I’m staring into, but an abyss. This stirring up of negative emotion might make it a stronger book.

OK, the abyss thing was overstating it, but here’s why I found the book discomfiting.

When reading Lost and Found I was 39. 40 was only a few months down the way, but not yet reached. Despite being not overly worried about this milestone, it did hit me quite hard when it finally arrived. Now, I’m 41. Closer to 80 than to birth (as my 8 year old helpfully pointed out this week). There is suddenly a feeling that my best years are behind me. I’m probably not going to set the world alight now (see my Stoner review).Things ache more than they used to. Nights out, are not only rare, but also require about 3 days to get over. The world is not so much an oyster but a mountain of dirty washing. My marriage, whilst not over like Meredith’s, is after ten years and three children starting to calcify. There is the sense, as Winter puts it, that,

‘…it’s like life is made of concrete or something and I’ve already set. No one tells you when you’re young that your life is going to harden and solidify, That you wake up one morning and find it’s turned to stone and that you’re not actually some architectural marvel, you’re a pavement.’

This is wonderfully, beautifully spot on. It’s also bloody depressing. In addition to picking out my deepest neuroses directly from my brain, Winter backs this up by writing about degenerative illness. As any regular readers of my blog (should there be any) will know, my Dad has Parkinson’s. A comparatively slow degenerative illness compared with Jack’s, but the idea of personalities being subsumed by illness is one that strikes a chord with me at the moment. The third strand of woe that Winter tugs at is the parent-child relationship and he pretty much sides with Philip Larkin. As my children grow up and the teenage years loom ahead of us, books like this strike terror into my heart. Winter is a fine chronicler of the agonies and ecstasies of family life (with heavier focus on the agony).

All in all it’s perhaps not surprising that I came out with idea that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped. Whilst I didn’t get my redemptive resolution of Lost and Found, on reflection I find it impossible to know which of Winter’s two books is the best. What I do know if you want someone to display the absurd side of life, whilst dealing with some serious themes, and if you want to have the occasional belly laugh, you could start by reading Tom Winter.

Many Thanks to the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book. 

111/10010 – Binary by Stephanie Saulter

binaryThis book is book two in the Revolution series and a direct sequel to the excellent Gemsigns. If you haven’t read Gemsigns, then read no further.

Gemsigns is a great book. Perhaps a little heavy on the details, but it’s a rich dystopian novel that examines prejudice and what it is to be human. It does what all good science fiction novels do. It makes you think.

Binary is a direct follow on from Gemsigns, featuring the same characters. With most of the world building done in the first novel, this is more a straight-forward story with less sociology, and I think it suffers for that. Binary’s story is an interesting one, but I didn’t find the themes it explored as thought provoking as those in its predecessor.

Saulter’s tendency to info dump is still present, and this time I found the information more confusing than enlightening. It details complicated computer systems, nested shadow companies within the Gemtech industry, and theoretical genetic manipulation techniques. The volume of information given sometimes overwhelms the story.

The structure also vexed me. There’s a straightforward narrative interspersed with flashbacks to events years before. This is nothing wrong with this in principle but whilst the flashbacks are predominantly written from the perspective of Aryel, one or two of them weren’t, with little or no indication that this was case.  As a result, I’d be reading for half a page or so, before realising that it didn’t makes sense in the context of what had come before, and that I must be reading about another character. I’d have to stop and reread in light of this realisation which jarred me out of the story.The arbitrary nature of the flashbacks’ point of view, highlights that they are only there to divulge important plot information. It goes back to series’ biggest issue; telling rather than the showing.

That’s the negative stuff out of the way. It shouldn’t stop you from continuing on with this intriguing set of books. Binary is a good read. It’s exciting and keeps the reader hooked and entertained until the end.  Once you’re past the info overload, the political skulduggery gives rise to great suspense scenes and interesting twists – some obvious, so much less so. The provenance of gems, Aryel, Rhys, Callan and computer savant Herran is a mystery but will that mystery be resolved?  

The villain from the previous novel, Zackva Klist has turned over a new leaf. Her gemtech organisation wishes to start afresh, a partnership with the gems. Is she simply trying to maintain a commercial footing in the new world order or does this new compliance hide sinister intentions?

Again there are interesting parallels to the real-world, particularly in the area of equality and prejudice. Saulter also uses her world to extrapolate what technology’s next steps might be, focusing on the human-tech interface. I haven’t read many cyberpunk novels, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but this has the feel of post Facebook/Twitter cyberpunk.

Overall I enjoyed Binary, it’s a interesting tale that takes place in a well constructed world, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed it doesn’t match Gemsigns for depth of vision and incisive observation.

Many thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of Binary.

Animal Pictures – Animal Kingdom Infographics by Nicholas Blechman

information-graphics-animal-kingdomI love infographics. I can lose hours staring at them. But whilst they’re pretty, and feel informative, I’m not sure how much of the information actually sticks. This could well be my mind, but I find Infographics are great to display a particular point, (where they can be very persuasive),  but I don’t find them useful for retaining factual knowledge. Having said that, I reiterate, I love infographics.

Animal Kingdom is a beautiful book. It’s vibrantly coloured, has tabbed pages for ease of use and contains all sorts of interesting tidbits of information contained within. It’s broken down into 8 sections. These are mostly unrelated to one another, and the order appears arbitrary (Species, Senses, Record Breakers, Food & Drink, Family, Habitats, Killers and Man’s Best Friend). This sections do not build on each other nor is the information grouped by species, habitat or location. That’s OK as the sections are well labelled, and the tabs to help you locate the section you are looking for. Having said that, there is no index. So if we were doing homework (for these book are aimed at children), we’d probably be more likely to plum for one of our more traditionally arranged books. The lack of index is, I think, a criminal oversight.

I gave the book to my 8 year old to read. He is probably at the lower end of the age range this book is aimed at. He liked it. The visuals he found interesting, and there isn’t too much text to switch him off. He did keep reading for a reasonable length of time.  His major comment was, he liked it, but ‘preferred books that were arranged by type of animal.’ As I said, he is at the lower end of the range of this book, and is still at that ‘I want to read about sharks’, phase of using non-fiction books. Animal Kingdom takes a more holistic approach to its information.

This is a nice book, made with high production values. It’s very pleasing to the eye, and it’s great to browse through. Quite what its longevity would be, I’m not so sure.  It strikes me as the sort of book that would sit on the shelf; admired but rarely used. As I own a host of infographics books that I rarely read, perhaps that’s a personal failing rather than one of the book. A lovely book then, but probably a luxury rather than an essential purchase.

Thanks to the team at Templar Publishing for sending me a copy of this book 

 

The Last Guardians – The Shattered Crown by Richard Ford

ShatteredHerald of the Storm was a one of the most pleasant surprises of 2013. I had few expectations but after a slightly over-long build up, it blossomed into a thrilling heroic fantasy with some of the finest characters I’ve encountered in fantasy fiction. I’m not sure I realised at the time of reading how much I had enjoyed it. When The Shattered Crown dropped through the letterbox, I was inordinately excited to find out what would happen next. I’m pleased to report that Ford has used the solid foundations of book one to support a phenomenal second instalment.

I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I don’t think I’ve found a fantasy book this exciting since discovering David Gemmell 25 years ago. Fantasy has evolved a lot since then and I think with The Shattered Crown, Ford probably eclipses Gemmell. Modern writers have to deliver a more rounded product. I used to joke that Gemmell books were all about ageing warriors, heavily outnumbered, making one last stand against the odds. (Actually this isn’t really a joke, that’s what they were about.)

Ford’s novel has an element of that. A dire force is descending on Steelhaven, and there is a veteran warrior waiting to come out of retirement to fight for the city, but there is so much more. As I said in my review of Herald, the key is in the characterisation. Gemmell’s were as two dimensional as they come. They swung swords and cussed a lot. Ford’s have greater depth. He’s created epic heroes with credible fragility.

The fate of Steelhaven is focused mainly around its new queen and her two new bodyguards. All three of these characters appeared in Herald, and they are a strong triumvirate. Merrick Ryder, a womanising squanderer has found the chance for redemption, but will he take it? The arrival of some new elite knights and a shadow from Merrick’s past threaten to push him over the edge. His internal struggles will decide whether a kingdom stands or falls.  The two women form a bond; The taciturn warrior and the queen whose every decision is scrutinised. Should she marry for the money that is desperately needed to pay her armies, or wait for her doomed lover to return?

Other characters from Herald prove vital too.  Waylian continues his apprenticeship as Ford’s magic system starts to take some shape. His mistress has seen and done things that turn the stomach, but she has Steelhaven’s interests at heart, doesn’t she? Ford leaves the reader guessing as to just what Waylian’s true potential may be and whether he’s right to implicitly trust his mentor.

Nobul Jacks, former soldier, blacksmith and now a policeman is a character that is pure Gemmell. It was the death of Nobul’s son that opened Hearld of the Storm, and he is driven by demons and wanted by powerful men. It’s a potent combination that leads him down dark pathways.

Finally there is Rag. I must confess to not being entirely convinced by her at first. Her flip-flopping between ruthless Guild member and street kid with a heart of gold, felt a bit convenient, but by the end of Shattered Crown I was converted. She’s a girl with nothing, and few prospects more likely than a knife in the back. Rag is an appropriate name as she is tossed on the capricious winds of treachery that blow through the criminal underworld. She is a chameleon, a survivor and the final piece of Steelhaven’s puzzle.

The novel’s strongest asset is its sense of impending doom. A dire army is descending on the city, and all plans and manoeuvres must be completed by the time it arrives. This gives the novel a great sense of urgency, far stronger than if the army had actually arrived. The unseen foe is far more menacing in the reader’s imagination. The sense of fighting a hopeless cause is The Shattered Crown’s strongest similarity with a David Gemmell novel.

The plotting in this book is much tighter than in the first and as a result it is a much slimmer tome. At under 400 pages The Shattered Crown is slight for a fantasy novel, but Ford achieves as much as many authors do with twice this length. Not a word is wasted. This an excellent book with excitement and intrigue in every chapter. There is still little resolution by the end and lots of threads are left untied. When I started reading Gemmell all those years ago, he’d already written half a dozen novels, so I had plenty devour. It’s a little early to be calling Ford the heir to David Gemmell, but I hope he hurries up with volume three so that I can continue the comparison. This is a fine follow up, from an exciting talent.

Many Thanks to Caitlin at Headline for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

Mining for Gems – The Walton Book Inspiration

jowaltonOn reading Jo Walton’s ‘What Makes this Book so Great‘ I was struck by two things. How many great sounding books are out there that I’ve never heard of, let alone read, and how many books I’d bought because they looked good and never got around to reading. Strictly speaking I know the extent of the second one, I’m just in denial about it. A number of them have an entry in What Makes this Book so Great.

I’m not a big fan of book challenges. I know a lot of bloggers run them, but I don’t like to add constraints as to where I go next. Still Jo’s list is fairly wide ranging, so it barely constitutes a constraint and I do own several of the books already, so I thought it would be a fun idea to read and review them in context of Jo’s reviews. These are all online, so should be easy enough to link to them and run a compare and contrast.

It is undoubtedly going to be a long and drawn-out read-through. I’m already part of the Hodderscape Review Project and have belong to a book group, so that’s two books a month I’m committed to reading, combined with my burgeoning blogging commitments (so many great books, so little time!) there is rarely time to squeeze in a novel from whatever the reader equivalent of a slush pile is.

But I’ll give it a go…

I’ll start with the books I own and first up will be Octavia Butler’s Kindred. This has just been reissued by Headline, and I am fortunate enough to have been given a review copy, so that seems like a good place to start.

books

A few of the unread books in my house that are also in Jo Walton’s book. Yes I have a problem.

After that, I own the following:
Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack (a book I rushed out and bought on the strength of Walton’s review).
The Dragon Waiting by John M Ford.
Red Shift by Alan Garner.
The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson.
Growing up Weightless by John M Ford. Another book I ordered on Walton’s say-so.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. (I’ve had this for years but have been too scared to read it.)

Then are those that I don’t own yet but will probably by at some point.

Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. (I bought the second volume today in the charity shop. Volume 1 is very high on my wish list.)
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
China Mountain Zhang – Maureen McHugh
Some Samuel R Delany because Walton loves him, and I’ve never read any.
Jasmine nights by SP Somtow
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Some Steven Brust and maybe just maybe some Lois McMaster Bujold.
Orbital Resonance by John Barnes (I loved Luther Blisset’s Q, so what not this? (that’s an 80′s Football joke))
Corrupting Doctor Nice – John Kessel
The Chronoliths – Robert Charles Wilson

So there we have it. It’s a bloody big list, and I could have chosen several more, if the wind has been blowing in a different direction. I have no idea how long this journey will take, but I know I’ll read some interesting stuff along the way.  I do hope you’ll pop in every now again and see how I’m getting on. If you’re lucky I’ll be in a Little Chef eating a Jubilee Pancake!

What makes this book so great?

whatmakes

‘…I imagine he knows magic, if he’s reading books. The book itself doesn’t matter. It’s that he found another world in it.’ Rene Denfeld – The Enchanted

Ok, so this quote is written about a violent psychopath, but if you’re reading this review, and even thinking about reading this book, you’ll understand what Rene Denfeld means. I certainly imagine Jo Walton fully comprehends.

I first encountered Walton’s work reading Among Others, a book unlike anything I might usually consume. It beguiled from start to finish and was my stand out book of 2012. The girl in Among Others, Mor, is a prodigious reader, as is Jo herself. Somewhere in ‘What makes…?’ Walton explains how she can read up to and beyond a book a day. I thought I read quite fast, but this is reading as a superpower.

As a result of her rapid consumption, rereading books has become a necessity for Jo and this book is a chronicle of her adventures reading novels she has repeatedly enjoyed through the years. The books are almost exclusively science fiction/fantasy.

On the face of it this is a curious book to publish, especially in hardback. A cover price of £25 does seem a little steep, especially when you consider the essays were first available (and remain so) on Tor.com. With many publishers (well one major fantasy one anyway) trimming their hardback lists, Corsair’s decision seems bold bordering on reckless. That’s not to say the book is not a fine beast, because it is. It looks great and Walton’s relaxed but incisive writing style make it perfect for dipping in and out of.

The book could be read in more or less any order, though is presented chronologically. I read them in order over a number of weeks. Reading a couple of entries when I had a spare ten minutes. Most of them are specific to individual books whilst some (of the better ones) focus on reading style and habits.

Whilst I don’t think this is a perfect book, I really enjoyed reading it. It introduced me to some books I’d never heard of that sound wonderful, waxed lyrical about some books I love, and perhaps best of all, reminded me of some books I bought many years ago but haven’t got around to reading. Walton has a magical ability to make every book she’s enjoyed sound like the best book in the world. My to-be-read pile has swelled considerably since reading ‘What Makes this Book so Great ‘.

A great book begets great books. My fist Walton inspired purchase.

A great book begets great books. My fist Walton inspired purchase.

The book is a curious beast. I can’t decide whether it’s best to have read the books Walton talks about or not. On the one hand, if you’ve read the book, you’ll have a shared reading experience and a point of reference. Alternatively, this could be seen as a handbook of undiscovered gems, ready to set readers on fantastic journeys of discovery.

Many of the authors appear, are ones Mor loved so much in Among Others, and give further insight into the qualities of some of the genre’s seminal texts. There are a couple of authors who feature a little too heavily. Lois McMaster Bujold and Steve Brust are clearly Walton favourites. Whilst I can see their merits as authors, there are at least a dozen posts focusing on each of the pair’s books, which if you were somebody who is unlikely to read a book by either author, possibly wouldn’t switch you on to them. Walton is quite good about spoilers (there aren’t many and they are well telegraphed), but even so it’s hard to wax lyrical about a 10+ book cycle without losing some readers along the way. I skim read many of the Brust/Bujold entries. It feels like there are so many books available to start would be futile, though I know Walton would completely disagree with this sentiment.

Unlike Among Others, I think you have to have a predilection for fantastic fiction if you are going to enjoy What Makes this Book so Great. This is more about the nuts and bolts of the novels and is essentially a conversation between one sci-fi lover and another. Walton’s writing is effortless to read, and inspiring time and again. A valuable addition to any SFF reader’s burgeoning bookshelves.

Many thanks to Grace at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book. 

In Bloom by Matthew Crow – Extract

in bloomI recently posted this review of Matthew Crow’s excellent YA novel In Bloom. It is an examination of the devastating effects of teenage cancer. Poignant yet never maudlin, the narrator of In Bloom, Francis Wootton, is a current day Adrian Mole. Francis is funny, often when he’s not meaning to be, and above all he is eminently likeable.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the novel is the relationship between Francis and his brother, Chris. As a dad of three boys, it is one of my sincerest hopes that they all get along once they are grown up. If they loved each other as much as Francis and Chris do then I will have done my job well. The extract I have chosen exemplifies their bond as Chris tries to ease the pain of one of the side effects of Francis’ chemotherapy.

I pressed it first to the front of his head and began slowly pulling it back from his fringe. The razor made a different sound as it sliced through the first few strands of hair, and became harder to pull. Chris’s shoulders tensed as I dragged the blades back towards the crown of his head.

Then I stopped and remembered everything I had meant to say before.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, holding the razor tightly in place. ‘I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.’ I didn’t say what for. Didn’t say that I was sorry I was ill. That I was sorry he and Mum had to be there all the time, and had to worry all the time. Didn’t say that I was sorry that everything had changed because of me, and that Chris’s hair was being ruined just because mine was. I just said sorry, and hoped that he’d be able to work out the rest for himself.

Everyone went quiet except for the razor, which kept buzzing like a bee trapped in a jam-jar.

Amber looked at me worriedly and at Chris, who tensed and then flinched.

‘It’s OK,’ he said, holding up his hand and taking the razor from me.

He stood up, still holding the razor against his head, so that I could lie back down.

Bloody hell, Francis, it’s stuck,’ he said, yanking hard at the blades. ‘Jesus, it really is! I’m serious . . .’

Amber put her hand over her mouth to stop herself from laughing. Chris yanked at the razor and swore at the top of his voice as it ripped some hair from his head. A smooth runway of pink flesh led from his forehead to the crown of his head. He grabbed a mirror, looking panicked, and swore again as he observed the damage.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said between giggles once Chris began to smirk even though I could tell he was gutted. ‘I’m really sorry.’

‘What’s going on?’ Mum said, coming back with a coffee. She had put on more make-up since she’d been gone and looked better for it.

‘Sweeney Todd here developed a conscience halfway across my skull, that’s what,’ Chris said, slumping down on my bed as he teased his fingers over the bald patch, and grimaced.

Mum put down her coffee cup and stepped back to look at him. Amber had her head in her hands and her shoulders were jigging up and down like she was being electrocuted. Every so often she’d be still and take in a deep breath before carrying on with her hysterics. At first Mum just held her hand to her mouth. I thought she was going to cry again, which would have killed the mood, but instead she smiled, and then let out one sly giggle.

‘Sorry,’ she said, and then laughed again. ‘Oh, you stupid sod,’ she said, and burst out laughing, laughing like she hardly ever did, laughing like no one was watching. She laughed so hard she had tears in her eyes, and her nose began to run. Even though she could hardly breathe for laughing she kissed Chris on the head where his hair used to be, then did the same to my head. When she did I could feel her lipstick smear across my skin like a slug’s trail.

‘My bonny lads,’ she said, sitting down on the bed next to me as she tried to get her breath back, ‘what am I going to do with you, eh?’

Many Thanks to Grace at Much in Little for asking me to be on the blog tour.

Intolerable Cruelty – The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

enchantedThe Enchanted is only the second book I’ve read that fits into a very specific category. That being ‘Books that are so well written everyone should read them, but are so harrowing they’re difficult to recommend’. The other book that I can put in this group is The Road, and most people would agree that’s a pretty fine book. The Enchanted left me similarly wrung out.

Denfeld’s book is set in a real world dystopia, the American penal system. Specifically Death Row. There are several points of view, but the two main ones are from an unnamed murderer, and a woman (known only as The Lady) whose job it is to try to find cause for those waiting on Death Row to have their sentence commuted.

For the first few pages I was unconvinced, or rather convinced I wasn’t going to like it. The idea that death row can be an ‘enchanted place’ is somewhat preposterous. Just because the prose was excessively poetic, I wasn’t going to be convinced. Was I?

Well, yes I was. I’m not sure whether Denfeld’s purple prose settled down, or whether I acclimatised to it, but I found myself transfixed. Each sentence pulled me deeper into this horrible world of violence and murder, forgiveness and retribution. So the prison is indeed enchanting, but not in a Disney castle way, but in the manner of Grimm and ‘bring me back my daughter’s heart’.

This is a brutal novel. Almost none of the characters are untainted by tragedy or violence. Perhaps a little too much so.  There are few chinks of light, to give the reader relief, and its hard to credit that quite so many people have been subjected to that level of horror. Nevertheless this is a novel of immense power.

Behind the glorious prose (and despite my initial misgivings, this is a beautifully written novel, not a word feels out of place), this is a meditation on the futility of the death penalty as it is currently used in the US. It is generally anti death penalty, but above all, it dissects the absurdity of leaving men for years with their executions hanging over them. It is about as destructive a thing you could inflict upon another human being. Some might consider it justified, but Denfeld portrays it as cruel and inhuman. The prison system itself comes under fire. A corrupt system, where a handful of bad people control the fate of countless criminals. It highlights the petty thieves and first offenders that are dragged under by a system stacked against them.

The juxtaposition of the stories of a crazed murderer and a woman who tries to commute killer’s sentences is an interesting one. What is evil? Are we all products of our upbringing, and if so, to what degree should this knowledge be allowed to mitigate our actions? One of the side stories describes a crime to which we have been privy to the build up. It would be a hard-hearted reader who did not think this crime was not justified. Against the backdrop of other killers going to the gallows Denfeld makes an interesting point about the mutability of justice.

The Enchanted is a slender novel, with comparatively few words to a page. It’s a quick read, but it’s impact will linger on long after finishing. This is a beautiful harrowing read, that I hesitate to recommend, but find I have to. It’s one of the finest books you’ll read this year.

Many Thanks to Jessica at W&N for sending me a copy of this book