The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

I’d heard of this book years ago – it was made into a film in 2008 – but have only just got around to reading it. Like The Storyteller and The Complete Maus, it’s about the Holocaust, and it took me a little while to work up to reading it, as I wanted to make sure I was in a good place mentally.

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a pretty short and (subject matter aside) easy read. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a children’s book, but in feel it reads a little like one, especially because the protagonist is a nine year old boy; however, in approaching this review I’ve assumed that – because of the subject matter – it’s not written for children. I think my opinion would change slightly if it was.

Anyway, the narrative is written from the point of view of Bruno, the nine year old son of a commandant in the Nazi party. We follow his anger at the unfairness with which he is forced to move from his lovely home and his three best friends for life because the Fury has cause his father to have to move to Outwith. We see Bruno settle grudgingly into his new home with the weird fence a little ways away, and slowly forget his three best friends for life back in Berlin as he adjusts to his new surroundings. We follow his as he goes exploring, and one day meets a young boy – about his age – dressed in the cloth cap and striped pyjamas that he notices all the people on the other side of the fence wear.

Sensing that he probably wouldn’t be allowed to explore much if his parents knew he’d made friends with Schmuel (for that is the boy’s name), Bruno keeps the friendship a secret, but visits Schmuel almost every day, bringing stolen scraps of food (Schmuel seems so hungry all the time!) and talking with his friend. One day, Schmuel can’t find his father, and the boys concoct a plan to smuggle Bruno under the fence in disguise, so he can help his friend find his lost parent…

There were lots of criticisms of the book (and I assume the subsequent film as well) in terms of the realism of the story. Historically speaking, a nine-year-old boy, too weak or young to work, would not have been interred at Auschwitz, but would have been killed straight away. And certainly, a prisoner in Auschwitz would hardly have had the freedom to develop a clandestine friendship with someone on the other side of the fence, unbeknownst to the guards and other inmates. However, having finished the book, I don’t believe factual accuracy was the point that Boyne was trying to make with this story.

Like Look Who’s Back – another implausible/improbable/impossible plot around the Nazis and Holocaust, the point is not whether this could actually have happened within the historical context. With The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, the reader is faced with the realities of what did happen through the things that happen to Bruno – Bruno is angry about being forced to move, and children were ripped from their homes and sent to ghettos and death camps. Bruno’s parents argue and seem as though they might live apart, and couples, families, communities were torn apart permanently with no warning. The normality and innocence of Bruno’s story only highlights the atrocities of the things the we know were done, to real human beings.

Also like Look Who’s Back, a major point of the book is the wilful ignorance of the general populace. Bruno’s naïvety and misunderstanding of the horrors and crimes of which his young friend is a victim comes to represent the deliberate blindness of the rest of the adult world – the refusal to see or acknowledge the crimes against humanity that were being perpetrated – while in the former, the insistence of the fictional modern Germany on treating the real Hitler like he and his ideas are a hilarious joke is brought to a point (in the film adaptation at least) when one old woman explicitly points out that people thought Hitler was joking in the 1930s, too.

Ultimately, I found this a very worthwhile read. The point for me was to bring home the humanity and the human impact of these crimes (something that can be lost when looking at the facts, and the sheer staggering numbers involved) – although I do appreciate the point that critics make about the implausibility of the plot. For me, that didn’t undermine the gravity of the facts, but that may be something about which you wish to make up your own mind.

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the house at midnight – Lucie Whitehouse

This was another birthday gift from the ever-generous Book Fairy (she spoils me rotten, I swear) and is deliciously unsettling. A deceptively gently-paced psychological thriller/horror, the house at midnight is set and centred around a large old country manor, inherited by the protagonist’s best friend. Lucas – the best friend – loses his beloved uncle to suicide, and when he inherits his house and art collection, he insists to his close-knit circle of friends that they treat it as a home-from-home.

Joanna, the protagonist, has always wondered if there might have been more to the friendship with Lucas that began at university, and she is nervous about how his sudden bereavement and windfall might affect the dynamics of the group. How can it not change things between them? Still, she rocks up, along with everyone else, for New Year’s, and it seems that she and Lucas are as close as ever. There’s a weird vibe, about the house, though – something about the mural on the ceiling, or the settling noises of the house in the dark and the quiet…

The story takes place over the course of a year, and I did not want to read it after dark! It focuses more on the interpersonal than any overtly ‘boo ghosty’ or ‘argh violent’ type of horror narrative – I’ve always preferred that kind of horror, to be honest. Think Sixth Sense as opposed to Paranormal Activity kind of feeling.

Insidiously creepy and pleasurably unsettling, and full of interesting and flawed characters.

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Elegance – Kathleen Tessaro

I first read this book more than ten years ago. (Man, I’m getting old…!) I can’t remember what it was about it that caught my eye first, but it’s become a fond favourite. I don’t re-read very often, but this understated little gem is one that I have come back to four or five times over the years, which in my eyes is a big seal of approval.

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Each time I pick it up, I remember that I loved it, but think of it as a nice light read, forgetting that it actually packs quite an emotional punch! Tessaro writes such a believable main character – she’s incredibly relatable, without being ~~Relatable!!1!~~ (i.e. Manic Pixie Dream Girl or the Cool Girlfriend tropes) – Louise, the protagonist, is realistic and someone I remember identifying strongly with – even as a young teenager the first time I read it.

Louise is decidedly no longer twenty two. She is married, and an actress (well… she’s working in the box office right now, but she’s an actress really…) and although she just fine, she’s not exactly what she would call elegant. In her own eyes, she is certainly no Audrey Hepburn. So one day, when she stumbles across an A-Z of style written by a French fashion expert, entitled with one clean word – Elegance – she knows she’s found a gem…

The narrative follows Louise as she attempts to apply the lessons of Elegance to her life. Taking it often as gospel, and sometimes rebelling mutinously, the changes – small at first – begin to snowball. Hijinks certainly do ensue, but this is what I forget between each read; that it is a very funny book in places, and quite light to read (there’s something a bit Bridget Jones-esque about the idea of a hapless fashion-unconscious married woman trying to religiously follow a guide to elegance in her life), but the narrative never veers into slapstick, as it easily could. Instead, Tessaro effortlessly works in moments of pure pathos; honestly, my heart just ached for this fictional woman. Even though I’d already read the book a bunch of times and knew what was going to happen.

There are two or three key scenes I’m thinking of – I don’t want to describe them because a) spoilers and b) the author actually describes them much better in the book anyway – where I could so clearly see Louise in my mind’s eye. I could feel what she was feeling, and I wanted to wrap my arms around her and be gentle with her and tell her that it’s all going to be ok. The vulnerability of Tessaro’s writing is absolutely breathtaking.

Basically, I love this book and I love the main character and I hope you love them too.

(If you don’t, don’t tell me because it would break my heart just a little bit.)

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

I had never read this sci-fi classic, so I thought this year (of the insanely high reading target) was a good year to remedy that.

I’ve also never seen Blade Runner – the film which is based on this book – and now that I have read the book, I’ll be interested to see the film to see how it compares.

The outline is this: at some point in the distant future, after Earth and society has been all but destroyed by war and disease (‘dust’ in this world, which settles on everything and causes illness, sterility, and genetic abnormalities), most of humanity have emigrated to Mars or other nearby colonies. The only ones who haven’t are the outlaws and outsiders; the ‘specials’ – those who are considered slightly less than actually human due to their genetic damage, disfigurement, disability or simply low IQ, and who are deemed undesirable to help propagate and protect the purity of the species – and those whose jobs demand that they stay.

Our protagonist is in the latter group. A bounty hunter called Rick Deckard, his job is to track down and ‘retire’ the increasingly human-like androids who escape from the colonies by killing their human owners in order to attempt to integrate unnoticed on Earth. The narrative joins Rick on the biggest, most difficult assignment of his career – can he catch the androids? Who is human, who isn’t? How can we tell?

It’s a great story. I’m pretty sure (please do correct me if I’m wrong) that Philip K was one of the first to use the ‘dystopian future, world destroyed by war’ devices which has become something of a subgenre all its own, and he has created a deliciously disturbing and alien world. Humans now have ‘mood machines’ – dial a number and program your own emotions – and a new religion which promotes an empathetic (empathic?) link with an archetype man, linking all living things in a cycle of life, struggle, death and triumph.

The story provokes some pretty fundamental questions (questions modern sci fi is still exploring, with no sign of any actual answers) about the line between man and machine – if we can program our emotions, and integrate machinery into our bodies – and if we can build organic matter into artificially intelligent bodies, and have that intelligence be self-learning and always developing – and if the damage we do to each other and our world so damages our species that society begins demoting certain categories of human from humanity… then what makes a human being a human being?

I didn’t really get the ending – it felt a bit sudden – so if anyone has any clever insight on this please do let me know in the comments… but basically, I loved this story and will definitely read it again. It’s looking pretty good for a 49 year old… it could have been written today, to be honest.

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Life in a Fishbowl – Len Vlahos

To open this post I am going to borrow a phrase from an awesome woman and wonderful children’s TV presenter I did some work for a few years back.

Ahem.

CRIKEY PYJAMAS!!!!!!!!

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Honest, you guys, hooooly macaroni was I not expecting this book. It was a birthday gift from the wonderful Book Fairy (thank you darling!) and Heavens to Murgatroyd I wasn’t completely ready for it!

Life in a Fishbowl looks like it might be very silly. I wondered, actually, if it mightn’t be the same sort of absurd/sublime that The 100 Year Old Man was… BUT IT ISN’T.

Fair warning – and many, many trigger warnings – this book covers such light and happy subjects as terminal illness, amnesia, euthanasia, post-truth media entertainment, exploitation, online vs. offline identity, and the ethics/value of human life/selling human life/selling human life if it’s your life you’re selling.

Oooooooooookay then.

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The basic premise is this – the protagonist, Jackie, is a teenage girl with a relatively normal life. That is, until her dad, on being diagnosed with aggressively terminal cancer, attempts to sell the remainder of his life to the highest bidder (to help pay for the inevitable medical bills and support his family when he’s gone). If that’s not enough, it turns out the the highest bidder is, in fact, a TV station who wants to make a reality TV show out of Jackie’s family during her dad’s final days. The nation (of course) tunes in avidly to watch a dying man and his family.

This is a YA book – emphasis on the young adult, here, as obviously there are plenty of themes which may not be suitable for younger readers. It covers a lot, and the author does come obviously down on one side of a fairly contentious ethical argument, which feels a teensy bit preachy at times (to me anyway) – but really, it was a well written and incredibly gripping story. As a reader, you guiltily identify with the audience in the book, hungrily voyeuring on Jackie and her family in their grief – you want to know what happens, but you’re also on Jackie’s side in resenting the intrusion and wishing her and her family some privacy and dignity. It’s a really interesting dynamic to experience as a reader, and it prompts some uncomfortable self reflection through the use of the patently absurd – kind of like The Hunger Games, actually. Like – I don’t really believe that a TV show following a dying man 24 hours a day up to his death would be commissioned, just like I don’t really believe that a show where kids fight each other to the death would be… but it’s juuuust close enough to reality to make for some extremely pointed social commentary.

Ultimately, this was a very griping narrative, and I loved what the book had to say about identity and community. At times I thought it was a tiny bit over packed with ISSUES, and at times I felt that the author was making their ethical argument at the expense of the narrative… but I read avidly, and (after an appropriate break to let my heart rate slow down!) I will probably read it again. Some extremely interesting food for thought and possible discussion points.

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The Ladybird Book of Dating [Ladybirds for Grownups] – Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris

This was a birthday present from a friend – particularly apt as we have spent many a hilarious time flipping through dating apps together! – thank yooooou, lovely friend! 😀

Another in the recent trend of nostalgia/satire (we millennials do love nostalgia… almost as much as we love irony…), The Ladybird Book of Dating is very much written in the style of the old children’s reading books, meaning it’s about ten words long, and takes about 30 seconds to read.

Ok, I exaggerate slightly, but you get the idea – it’s a joke, and one that is all the funnier for knowing when the joke should be done, now. Honestly, I screamed with laughter at some of the pages – old-school style Ladybird art offset with scathing and hilarious captions.

Definitely not one for the kids!

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

This book – which title takes up almost half of my whole blog post! – was another prize from Literary Bingo a few months ago, and has been sitting on my TBR pile ever since. I has no idea what to expect – I hadn’t really chosen the book myself, but the cover looked interesting…

Whatever I was expecting – it wasn’t that!

Completely absurd and delightfully batty, the story follows Allan Karlsson, starting with the moment he escapes out of the window of his nursing home on the day of his 100th birthday party. The narrative meanders along at a decent pace from there – never going quite where you expect it to go – and taking in much of Allan’s past as it goes. There’s 100 years of it, after all!

This is another one which hops around in time, but honestly, the whole thing’s so topsy-turvy that that’s hardly the jarring experience I’ve found it to be in some other books. What the style did remind me of – weirdly enough – was what I wished Catch-22 was. By this I mean the absurdist tone; one of my biggest struggles with Catch-22 (which longtime/regular readers my recall I didn’t actually ever finish) was feeling like I was having the whole surrealist point – WAR IS ABSURD! ISN’T WAR AN ABSURD THING? IT’S SO ABSURD AND SURREAL HOW HUMANS KILL EACH OTHER!!!!1!!!! – shoved in my face over and over at the expense of the narrative. Jonasson’s novel, in contrast, made some of the same kinds of points through similar methods, but at about a billionth of the volume. The seed of serious reflection is gently planted in your mind, and softly watered with humour and antics… instead of being bludgeoned in the face with the point.

And it is the same point! Somehow, this silly story about a grumpy old man’s adventures (and how he remembers his past adventures as a less grumpy, less old man) makes a subtle and clever point about the absurdity of global politics, war, and how human beings treat each other when they stop thinking of each other as human beings and start thinking of them as part of a system.

Of course, if you don’t want to think about all that – and it can be rather tiring to think about all that, admittedly – you can simply enjoy the incredibly improbable and delightful story!

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The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

It’s been a mental few weeks. I’ve had a birthday, had my phone stolen, had a pretty horrid bout of illness… it’s all been a bit up and down! I haven’t had quite as much time or energy for reading as I’d have liked, and blogging therefore fell off the bottom of my priorities list for a couple weeks.

Sorry ’bout that.

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Anyway, the good news is that I got a bunch of books for my birthday (yay! What a lucky girl I am!) and convalescing is a good time to be reading, so now that I’m properly back in the swing of things, I should be able to get enough posts going to get back to my normal twice-a-week schedule.

Without further ado, then…

This was recommended to me by a friend as a fantasy series I’d probably enjoy, and going by the first instalment, my friend was not wrong! It’s a nice chunky paperback – really gives you plenty of story to get stuck into – with a unique style that’s kind of a mashup of steampunk/Victoriana, fantasy, crime/mystery/heist type thing… really, it’s pretty cross-genre, which is really enjoyable. It could be described as YA, I guess… but I would think it’s aimed at more of an adult audience (although it’s definitely PG-13).

A couple of things that took me a while to get used to:

Lynch hops around in timelines – like, a lot. The whole book was like mini-cliffhanger after mini-cliffhanger; you’d get a few chapters into one era, the main characters would have enough time to get deep into a ~*situation*~…. and suddenly it would be ten years earlier, only for the cycle to repeat itself! It was a bit jarring at first, but, like in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (whose author changes character perspective rather than time), once you get used to it it really adds to the narrative thread, as the simultaneous storylines support and develop each other.

The other slightly grating thing was a world-building element the author uses to make the world of Locke Lamora sufficiently ‘other’ than the real one in which we live. I’m not going to say too much about this, in case you read the book and completely love the device I mean (or just don’t even notice it)… I don’t want to shatter the illusion for anyone. I will say this though – when the element was first introduced, I immediately suspected that this would be a question we never really get answered in canon. It’s not integral to the plot, or maybe it doesn’t need answering, and it’s just a nice imaginative twist of decoration… but (slight spoiler-ish alert) it doesn’t get answered. At least not in the first book – maybe Lynch is playing the long game.

Anyway, neither of these two small niggles were anywhere near enough to stop me devouring The Lies of Locke Lamora, and getting the next two in the series from the library. Fair warning; the series isn’t complete yet – but the next book is due this year, so hopefully this won’t be another Rothfuss on our hands. Yeah, Rothfuss… I’m looking at you – again!

Really well-constructed and enjoyable first book. Can’t wait for the rest of the story!

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Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill

Generally speaking, horror is not really my jam. I prefer my ghost stories poignant and ethereal, usually, and – notwithstanding the odd dystopian fiction or political satire – I tend to gravitate more towards happy and fanciful rather than scary and dark. Especially when we’re talking about books – the last couple of horror-type novels I’ve read have just not hit home at all; The Wasp Factory and The Loney, as acclaimed as they both are, didn’t strike a chord with me at all, and I was left thinking that perhaps horror genre literature just isn’t for me.

So, when someone recommended Heart-Shaped Box by (successful in his own right) son of Stephen King, I have to confess it slipped to the bottom of the to-read list a few times. I’m making a conscious effort this year to take recommendations (plus, with a target of 250 new books read in 2017, I kinda need recommendations!) so I didn’t ignore it entirely, but I was ready to encounter either gratuitousness or yet another narrative that I simply didn’t get.

I do so love being proved wrong by a good book!

I’ll elaborate. The thing I tend to not enjoy about horror in films is the gratuitous nature. Gore by the bucket load, the evillest evil the human mind can think of, things that go bang or boo and can’t be beaten, ever, and not a sliver of light or hope anywhere… simply for the sake of it. The point is to scare, to unsettle, or to gross out… not as part of the story, but just for the sake of scaring, unsettling, and grossing out. They leave me with a nasty taste in my mouth and a distinct feeling of being cheated out of a story (complete tangent, here, but this is why I hate the film of A Woman in Black so much, because they took an amaaaaazing play with a brilliant story and an incredibly clever use of multiple roles, minimal props and one re-usable set and turned it into a story-less scare-fest that made me want to sleep with the light on).

Against my expectations, then, I actually loved Heart-Shaped Box. It’s definitely horror… it’s not a nice ghost story about love lasting through death, or a kooky fantasy novel where creatures of dark are just as complex a mixture of good and evil as people – it’s proper horror, with a malevolent ghost and some thoroughly unlikeable living people. The set up is this: the main character, an ageing metal/rock star who collects the macabre (a serial killer’s letters, an actual hangman’s noose, etc blah blah) buys a ‘ghost’ – the ghost is apparently attached to a suit belonging to the dead man, and said suit duly arrives, folded neatly in a black heart-shaped box. As you can guess, dude gets a little more than he’d bargained for, and scary hijinks ensue.

What kept me turning the pages, though (sometimes reading through my fingers, I’ll confess) was the story. There was one! A good one! The characters are complex and three dimensional, and they grow during the story. People who you think are good turn out to be not so much, and people who you think are pretty despicable turn out to be not so bad, actually, and people who you think are awful turn out to be so much worse. The theme of the cycles of abuse becomes apparent a few chapters in, and Hill writes a distinct and clever metaphor around this. I don’t want to say much more, to avoid spoilers, but the idea that the evil that living humans sometimes work on other living humans can echo through the years is a heartbreaking and powerful one. I won’t give away the ending, either, but I will say I wasn’t left with that horrible sourness I get from the horror I was moaning about above.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, and I’m looking forward now to reading more of Hill’s work.

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Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne

I can’t actually remember where I got hold of this. I think I won it in a game of literary bingo? If not, then it was the Book Fairy (but I don’t think it was her…?).

Anyway, for a mystery book on my TBR pile, I quite enjoyed this! It’s YA fiction, and the first part of a series – set in a dystopian not-too-distant future, everything is pretty hunky dory until a catastrophic collection of natural disasters hit, and the not-so-natural consequences that come with it (e.g. chemical leaks, looting etc). Fourteen kids are trapped/hiding out in a shopping mall, trying to ride out the (literal and figurative) storm – fun for the first few hours, and then the reality of the situation hits home. Unusually for dystopian future novels, we actually join the story before the world-changing disaster hits, and follow the characters as everything they know changes, making this a combination disaster novel and dystopian future novel.

It’s an interesting change – usually in this type of genre fiction, something has gone catastrophically wrong with the world, but it happened a few decades to a few hundred years before the story is set, meaning our characters never remember the world before. It changes the feeling of what you’re reading; instead of battling the status quo to try and find a better way (i.e. The Hunger Games, Throne of Glass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Breathe, the Shadowhunters books… I could go on), our protagonists are fighting to return to the status quo, to the happy, stable life they remember – at least, in this first of the series they are.

Ultimately, this isn’t the best example of the genre I’ve come across, but it was very easy to read and kept me turning the pages. I’ll almost certainly lookout the subsequent books in the series at some point.

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