Monday, 24 June 2013

Book Review: The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness



Image courtesy of patrickness.com


A Japanese folk tale told to Patrick Ness when he was in kindergarten in Hawaii was the inspiration for this magical meandering story. It is not a straight retelling but it has a lyrical timeless quality that makes the book feel almost mythic.
The Crane Wife begins when the principal character in the book,  a middle aged divorcee called George finds a crane in his garden with an arrow through its wing. He removes the arrow and the crane flies away but the next day the beautiful and enigmatic Kumiko comes into his print shop and George is instantly captivated.
Unlike many stories George isn't a character looking for redemption, instead we are told often of how nice he is, he is even on good terms with his ex-wife. For once this isn't a tale of love conquering all, instead George becomes greedy in his need to know everything of Kumiko's story. The Crane Wife looks at the often destructive power of love, how that desire for knowledge can become all consuming. A constant theme throughout the book is the idea that stories are never ending and change depending on who is doing the telling. Much of the book features a familiar reality with George struggling to communicate with his daughter Amanda whilst battling his desire to possess Kumiko totally and jealously keep her to himself. Amanda is a wonderful character, her anger and tactlessness belying her vulnerable loneliness. Kumiko feels less rounded but I believe this was a deliberate ploy by Ness to ensure we share a little of George's need to learn more about her. We do know she is an artist and makes sculptural pictures using feathers but she believes her work is missing something until she sees George's paper cutting and the two art forms are combined to create something breath-taking that touches people deeply and in ways they can't quite comprehend. Alongside this story is an ethereal and magical tale, gradually revealed to us through the tiles produced by Kumiko and George. Eventually the two strands, reality and myth, converge seamlessly creating a story which is poignantly real yet infused with a magical dream-like quality. The Crane Wife is a story about stories, about art and beauty, love and loss, I had to force myself to slow down when reading it as I didn't want to reach the end. It is a book that drew me in and made me forget the time, a genuine treat to read.

The Crane Wife is published by Canongate Books.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Book Review: Road to Rouen by Ben Hatch

Another day, another book review - I'm spoiling you this week! This time the book is non-fiction (or in Connie's words when she was little "an infection book") I first became aware of Ben Hatch through Twitter. As always when I come across an author I haven't read before I had a look at his work and to my delight discovered his book Are We Nearly There Yet, the story of his family's trip around Britain in their Vauxhall Astra. As a huge fan of Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods is one of my all time favourite books) I thought it would be right up my street. Even better he was a fellow cheese lover meaning I couldn't fail to be tempted! I wasn't wrong and devoured the book in a couple of days. I cried genuine tears of laughter and sorrow reading it. Whilst I'm not actually properly reviewing it here I will just say that I highly recommend you read it.
 I felt bereft after finishing it; imagine my joy then when I discovered the Hatches had been travelling again - this time to France, on a road trip in their cheese scented Passat. I briefly considered ordering a paper copy but needed instant gratification so downloaded it to my Kindle. My  intention was to just have a quick peek to satisfy my curiosity then to read it on our own holiday in France later in the year. My advice to anybody considering the same would be to forget it! Within a few pages I was hooked again and had finished the whole book in less than two days.

Image courtesy of Headline

So why is it so good? Firstly it is side-splittingly funny. The Hatches do seem to have an unwavering knack of finding themselves in situations that are comedy gold to the reader. Their experience with a donkey called Taquin had me in stitches and Ben's plan to sneak food into Disneyland Paris was inspired. His children are a delight to read about, their reactions to trips to the innumerable vegetable theme parks I'd previously been lamentably unaware of, are hilarious and as a parent ring very true. I'm loathe to give too much of the plot away as I don't want to spoil it for anybody but there are several moments that I could quote (and indeed did keep reading aloud to my family). The book though is far more than a series of comic escapades and wonderful though they are it's the more serious, poignant moments that elevate the book onto the list of my must-reads. Ben writes with such honesty I  couldn't fail to be deeply moved, sometimes to tears. He juxtaposes the family's (mis)adventures with a candid and moving examination of his relationship with his wife. Reading Road to Rouen is like having a conversation with a good friend, sometimes you'll laugh, occasionally you'll cringe and other times you'll share a tear but life feels so much better for the time spent together. I said at the start of this review that I'm a huge fan of Bill Bryson, that still holds true but I have to say that having loved the humour and heart in both his travel books I've become an even bigger fan of Ben Hatch's writing.

Road to Rouen is published by Headline.



Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Book Review: The Humans by Matt Haig

Today I'm reviewing The Humans by Matt Haig. Be warned this review is likely to be a bit convoluted and possibly a bit too personal.


image courtesy of matthaig.com


Last August my brother committed suicide. In the dark days and weeks immediately after his death I read almost incessantly. I couldn't sleep because when I closed my eyes all I could see was his body (I had to go to the mortuary with my father to formally identify his body.) When I was awake I read so I could bear the raw grief ripping at my heart. I believe that it's thanks to books I survived those days, I'm not sure how I'd have coped without books giving me a respite from my at times overwhelming reality.

The Humans wasn't published then but I wish it had been. It tells the story of an alien sent from the planet Vonnadoria to remove all evidence of the solving of the Riemann hypothesis (the key to prime numbers which guarantee a huge technological leap for mankind) by eminent Cambridge professor Andrew Martin. The Vonnadorians are horrified by this breakthrough as they see humans as a primitive, violent race not ready for the advancements the solving of the hypothesis will bring. An unnamed alien is therefore sent to Earth on a mission to ensure humankind remains unaware that this secret has been solved. He kills Martin then inhabits his body in order to infiltrate his life and erase all traces of his discovery, by removing all technological evidence and by killing anybody he may have told.
The first part of the book has several comic moments, the alien arrives knowing nothing of human life and finds himself naked and without language on a motorway. Matt Haig has held a magnifying glass to humans here and through the eyes of the alien Andrew we see our often irrational absurdity.
As the book progresses it becomes more poignant, Martin learns more about what it means to be human, thanks partly to a dog, peanut butter and Emily Dickinson.  The 97 point list that features in the book is perhaps the book's shining moment, Matt's skillful blending of the emotional with the humorous means he avoids this list becoming saccharine and it is genuinely moving, my favourite point being "It's not the length of life that matters. It's the depth. But while burrowing, keep the sun above you."
The Humans is a beautifully written insight into what it means to be a human and how pain, sorrow and fear are a necessary part of that. With my grief not being a linear process there are days when I am hit again with an almost unbearable sadness. I know that on those days I will turn once more to The Humans. I don't ever feel suicidal but there are times when I question what it means to live. When I read The Humans I am given an answer.

The Humans is published by Canongate Books.