Saturday, 28 April 2018

Author Meets Reviewer - Bonnie Pipkin

Having read and reviewed Aftercare Instructions I was fortunate enough to pose some questions to the author, Bonnie Pipkin, facilitated by Nudge Books and Legend Press. My thanks to them.

Nudge Q&A with Bonnie Pipkin
(Questions by Gill Chedgey)

1. Firstly, may I say I really enjoyed Aftercare Instructions and read it in nearly one go! The first thing I wondered was when did you start writing and where did you get the inspiration for the book?

Thank you so much! Reading it in nearly one go is something I hear quite often from readers, which is definitely a compliment for a writer, but it’s also ironic how LONG it can take to make a novel read FAST. I started writing the book in my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. This program was a deep exploration of craft, so the novel went many directions before it found the right path, however, the inciting incident always remained the same: a girl named Genesis would have an abortion then walk into an empty waiting room. That scenario came to me first as the flash of inspiration. Then I had to get to know exactly who Genesis was and what she wanted most. 

2. I know it’s only one part of the story, but many might feel that abortion is a contentious subject for a book aimed at a younger audience. Did this bother you during the writing? Did you ever have any reservations? 

Never! I’ve always been drawn to edgier subject matter and content. I suppose that may be part of my personality, but I also whole-heartedly believe that the tough stuff needs to be talked about; it needs to be normalized and discussed without shame. It actually excites me to write stuff like this because I know I’m pushing the boundaries that need to be pushed. Young people don’t get enough credit for what they can handle. It doesn’t matter what we adults think: they’re going through it with or without us, and I’d rather be with them.

3. Gen is a great character and there’s plenty for kids to identify with when they read about her. Is she based on someone you know?

It’s hard for me to remove myself from Genesis. At some point before, during, or after, she really became me. So much of how she reacts to situations is how teenaged (and grown up) Bonnie would act. The events of the story aren’t events that happened to me, but I definitely draw from life and what I know when I write, so I’m deeply woven into the character. Which is why I have to laugh when I read people talking about how selfish she is and how she makes some really terrible choices. I just want to ask: “Have you never made a mistake?”

4. When we first meet Gen, she’s been through a hell of a lot, including being abandoned at the Planned Parenthood Clinic. You write so convincingly that I was really worried that you might also have been through some of these challenging and emotional events?

I’m no stranger to the challenging and emotional. While I myself wasn’t abandoned at a Planned Parenthood Clinic after having an abortion, I know first-hand what loss feels like. I know what it feels like to be disappointed by someone and have to take the reins and figure it out for myself. I have been very close to addiction, depression, and all the other darker themes in the novel. On the flip side, self-discovery through art has always been a huge part of my life, just as Genesis has to rediscover her passion for theater. And support from awesome girlfriends has also always been crucial in my life, just like Gen’s.

5. I really enjoyed the play script sections of the novel and I thought that was a clever device. It also got me thinking that this story would translate well to stage or screen. Might this be likely in the future? 

I would love that! As for its likeliness, there have been some conversations that I hope translate into reality at some point! But that it exists as a novel people can hold in their hands is enough for me at this very moment. 

6. How do you write? By that, I mean do you have any strict routines, superstitions or rituals that you adhere to?

Oh man, it could be stricter! I pretty much start each week re-defining my process and trying out new ways to trick myself out of procrastination. I had a conversation recently with another writer about how much of writing time is spent *not* writing. The stories are always swimming around in my head. I could use some better rituals though. I have to mix things up in my process or I get stagnant. Sometimes private dance parties help get things going, and sometimes twenty-minute sprints of writing do the trick, but mostly it’s about getting to the page. This is more successful for me when I schedule my writing time for the morning, but it almost always falls naturally to the afternoon. So, if you live below me and hear stomping around in the afternoon hours, it’s for a good cause. I promise. 

7. You seem to have an ability to get into the minds of young people. Do you see yourself concentrating on the Young Adult readership? 

Thank you again! Writing young adult is my main concentration now. I can’t say for sure if this is where I will stay forever, but for now it is the most exciting and raw place for me to work from. As for readership? Anyone, any age can read YA!

8. I know that being an avid reader is almost compulsory for a writer, so a question I always ask is whether you can remember the first book you read that moved you to tears (if any have)?

I am a big crier, seriously. Even cooking shows make me cry. And there is one part in my novel that always makes me cry as well, from the writing stage through each edit. The first novel where I remember bawling my eyes out was Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. SPOILER ALERT: It was the first time I’d experienced a young person dying in a book and it was something I was lucky enough not to have faced myself yet. Books are beautiful, safe spaces to explore these situations and emotions. 

9. And finally, having enjoyed this novel so much, something else I am always bound to ask is when we can expect another one!? 

There’s one in the works now! It’s slowly pouring out of me, so it will probably be a little while before it’s in your hands. I hope sooner rather than later though! The next book will also hover on the edge and push boundaries, I assure you!

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Don't Make A Sound - David Jackson

I was unfamiliar with David Jackson’s work and the Nathan Cody series before reading this gripping new thriller from Mr. Jackson and I was worried that my ignorance of the first two Cody books might inhibit my appreciation of this third one. Not so. If anything it has made me want to see exactly what happened to Cody prior to this!

This is a most disturbing and uneasy read. I think that’s true of any story where you have children in jeopardy. It is a chilling tale. It’s fairly slow to start, with a clever opening chapter that persuades us to think that we have a nice cuddly story of a middle aged couple’s devotion to one another and their family .The revelation that all is not as it seems is one of those chilling moments. I don’t do spoilers or give anything of the story away if I can help it so I’ll say no more.

The plot is relatively straightforward for the majority of the book with an unexpected twist at the end that could do with a little more exposition. But it’s a real ‘never-saw-that-coming’ moment which, as thriller readers, we all love don’t we? Isn’t that part of the reason we read thrillers? There is a romance type sub plot amongst the police officers which I don’t think adds a great deal to the story as a whole other than offer us a little character development but the ultimate relevance may be better understood by having read the previous Cody novels.

The characters for the most part are believable in that the villains are suitably villainous but I did have problems with one of the children who at ten had an enviable emotional intelligence and whose cognitive processes exceeded those of many adults. It just didn’t ring true. Crucial to the plot without a doubt but if you’re a stickler for realism it might grate. 

However nothing is perfect and nit picking is not a fulfilling pursuit. It’s a rollicking good read and it has the potential of an ‘unputdownable’ . A straightforward narrative well paced as a thriller should be. There’s lots of nasty bits, some not very nice bits and some in-between bits. I’m not sure that all lived happily ever after but this is no fairy story. It should satisfy Mr. Jackson’s existing fans and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t gain a few more on the way.

My thanks to Readers First for the opportunity to read and review this book.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Lucy and Linh - Alice Pung

Apparently this jewel of a book was published a few years ago with a different title. Fortunately Legend Press had enough foresight to republish with a different title. And so it resurfaces now reading as fresh as it must have done in 2014. 

This is one of those books that covers the entire spectrum of your emotions and will have you both laughing and crying, suffused with anger yet  pacified with calm. Intended for the YA readership this book surely transcends age as so much of  it is relevant to a wider audience. 

The premise is relatively simple and certainly not original; under-privileged and bright student gains entrance to elitist prep school and has to deal with all that entails.  But it is what the writer does with that premise and how she does it that gives this novel such a turbo boost to the Mean Girls (but with brainpower) routine.

I guess if Lucy Lam wasn’t as intelligent as she is this whole story might not get off the ground at all but fortunately for us she is,  despite some wobbles of self esteem and misinterpretation of core values. It is the latter two that give her the journey the book describes. She comes through it all remaining true to her intrinsic self, maybe not entirely unscathed but arguably a better,stronger person.

The book is an epistolary to Linh  and again, whilst this is not a new structural device in fiction it is used very well here and you don’t actually see what’s coming until nearer the end of the book. It’s a consummate masterstroke. And Lucy is such a well drawn character you simply can’t help but engage with her and will her to make the right choices and decisions. 

There are some epigrammatic truths peppered throughout the narrative that set you thinking and if I were to voice any criticism it would be that some of these philosophies might arguably be too mature for the characters in the story and the intended readership. But that’s what gives it a broader appeal and in my opinion makes it a better book ultimately. There are some issues regarding class and race and the big social divide debate continues. However it is a fiction, it is a story to be read, to be  entertained by and if desired to educate - parents, teachers, pupils. 

Monday, 16 April 2018

Aftercare Instructions - Bonnie Pipkin

A sunny day, a garden chair, a new book by a writer unfamiliar to me - what better way to while away a spring afternoon. Plus I thank my lucky stars that despite being an Old Adult (who’s never quite grown up) I do enjoy fiction intended for the YA readership. The book in question is Bonnie Pipkin’s first novel and it would be disappointing if it was to be her last.

The premise could be viewed as contentious within the context of today’s sometime fractured society and the extreme views of many within it. For the story deals with teenage abortion. Not exactly a barrel of laughs you might be thinking and you’d be right but stories like these that deal with sensitive and emotional issues are important for highlighting more than one side to a challenging debate.

The main protagonist is Gen. The blurb insists on using the diminutive instead of her full name which I loved as it offered two interpretations which I saw as running parallel to the premise of the story in that there are two sides to most questions. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know her full Christian name because I’m not going to tell you! Gen seems to have had a lot to deal with in her seventeen years and finds a semblance of security and grounding in her relationship with Peter. However Peter abandons her at the Planned Parenthood Clinic which gives poor Gen something else to deal with. The novel shows us how she deals with her past and her present comes to accept who she is. 

The narrative offers a first person account interspersed with a play script which fills in the details of Gen and Peter’s relationship.I thought this was a clever device especially as using dialogue as a descriptor allowed the reader to absorb the salient facts of the relationship without a load of unnecessary waffle. That can be a drawback in the debut novel where the writer feels they must throw everything they have at the reader. That trap is avoided . And again it’s a device that links in with something that happens to Gen further into the novel. I’m sorry but I just can’t tell you, I will not do a spoiler! That goes for the chapter headings too which I also enjoyed and thought were clever. 

It’s a very accessible and easy to read book which can perhaps belie the power within it. Some strong characters populate its pages, always very necessary when you’re trying to appeal to the younger reader. And I think this should resonate well with that intended audience.  It is set in the United States where some systems and protocols differ from the UK.  I found myself fleetingly thinking of John Green and Louise Rennison, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower but it is a story that finds its own voice and transcends the geography, and my comparisons!

A laudable debut. Young Adults? You’re in for a treat. My thanks to Nudge Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The Pharmacist's Wife - Vanessa Tait

My first instinct was to deride a comparison with Sarah Waters whose work I love but having completed the novel I totally understand the parallels. At times this book makes for uncomfortable reading but it covers a wide plethora of issues regarding women in the Victorian age. 

Our ‘heroine’ (forgive the pun, read the book to get the pun!) is Rebecca Palmer who has married a pharmacist. The book begins as Alexander Palmer opens his new pharmacy. Without revealing too much neither Alexander nor the marriage is all that it seems or indeed all that it should be. Alexander’s desire for fame and fortune with the manufacture of a new compound overrides any integrity or humanity he might have, not to mention his fetishes. Dispassionately he administers his new drug to his wife to ‘pacify’ her. It is only Rebecca’s awareness and intelligence that enable her to find a path out of the labyrinth of deceit and skullduggery which she manages to parry with some of her own. 

This dark and brooding tale threatens to engulf its reader with the gloom, despair and unpleasant proclivities of the majority of male characters. Homage to Dickens here with the aptly named partner of Alexander Palmer (which I won’t divulge as I think it would be a spoiler to do so). Gabriel and Lionel seem to be the exceptions. The female characters are well drawn and guide the reader to the outrageous inequalities of the Victorian age. They also help to illustrate how drug and drug dependency haven’t changed throughout history sadly and the book doesn’t seek to sugar coat the tragic consequences. Intentionally the writer draws our sympathies towards the female characters, the trio of Rebecca, Evangeline and Jenny.

The writing is lively and well paced, the novel reads authentically and the atmosphere created is tangible, you can almost smell the streets, a testament to solid research. The cruelty of some aspects the story are spiky to read. It made me edgy but I guess it was supposed to, something of the Victorian gothic among the pages. The conclusion is redemptive, as fictions maybe need to be. I did enjoy the book and I am grateful to Readers First for the opportunity to do so. 

Thursday, 5 April 2018

What Lies Within - Annabelle Thorpe

My earliest awareness of Marrakech was the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, Marrakesh Express’. At the time I thought that ‘striped djellabas’ were some kind of eastern lollipop, I was prone to confectionery fantasy at the time. Later it took on that mystical, gap year type of romantic location. Now, here, to set the record straight is Annabelle Thorpe’s new novel which conjures a place of paradoxes, intrigue and romance with a darker vein insidiously flowing through its streets.

Three friends from university, Hamad, Freya and Paul remain close even though their lives take them on divergent paths. A job proposition from Hamad brings Paul and Freya to Marrakech. There the past and the present unravel, but distinguishing between the truth and the lies are at the heart of What Lies Within. 

The opening prologue infers a crime and indeed there is but it’s sub text almost and is cocooned inside the tapestry of deceptions and bewilderment endured primarily by Freya.  There are some delicious twists in this novel that try to push it towards the psychological thriller genre but it also examines relationships, friendships and the different depths that they can function in. 

Of the three main characters Freya seems to behave with the most integrity, Paul with the least and Hamad somewhere in the middle. My feelings towards them mirrored that pyramid! Of the other characters some were functional, some were redolent of book characters from past times, almost but not quite stereotypical. But the mystique of living in a foreign country was sustained throughout for our ex pats and their interactions with those native to the region. 

I found the book well written and well paced, slow to start, with scene setting and character building.
I enjoyed the way the book gathered momentum as the truths were exposed in alarming quantities. The ending was a little predictable but, realistically, where else could it go? To have left things hanging would have been cruel to the reader!! On the whole I found it to be a substantial and satisfying read. My thanks to Bookbridgr and Olivia Mead at Quercus books for the opportunity to read this riveting tale. 

Monday, 2 April 2018

Every Note Played - Lisa Genova

This is a very easy book to read. By easy I mean it has a well-paced, flowing narrative. It is populated with accessible characters. But that’s where the easiness ends. The rest is very difficult. I was already in tears by page 63. So you’ve been warned!! But do read this book. Even if you’re not habitually a reader……..please…… this book. 

If I may quote from the novel, ‘He knew that Lou Gehrig had it, that Stephen Hawking has it, and was peripherally aware of the Ice Bucket Challenge. That was the extent of his knowledge on the subject, and he wasn’t seeking to know more.’ I suspect that more than sums up many of us. It seems somehow fitting and karmic that this book should be published so close to the sad demise of Professor Hawking as public awareness of ALS may already be heightened and floating in the collective ether. Reading this book will tell you practically everything about Motor Neurone Disease in powerful detail .And the great strength of this book is that it doesn’t do it with clinical, factual detachment, it does it from the sufferer’s perspective, and his aides and carers. You would think that in order to do this so unflinchingly well the writer must actually suffer from a form of MND. But I don’t believe that to be so. It is one thing to do impeccable research and observation but quite another to render all that into such palpable, empathic yet informative prose. 

However to make the story ‘just’ about a concert pianist felled by a crippling illness might not cut it. Instead Lisa Genova expands the tale, like a improvised musical composition, to show the effects the situation. has on others’ lives. Not merely from the everyday, practical applications of caring for someone with such an horrendous condition but how that condition causes others as well as the sufferer to contemplate and maybe atone for their pasts. Not wishing to give anything away there is a curious kind of redemption at the end of the book. 

The main characters, Richard and Karina, are not especially warm characters! But I think that makes the story all the more potent. It makes you think of the old adage of not wishing something on your worst enemy. Their daughter, Grace, is softer but still potent because you feel so much for how she has to deal with this situation. 

The title ‘Every Note Played’ holds meaning on several levels; for Richard because he has played all his notes, the disease has seen to that. The writer offers us a blow by blow, every last detail of ALS’s destructive power. And the book itself is like a concerto; three movements, pre ALS, during ALS and post ALS. 

Very hard to say that this is an enjoyable book of course but I am pleased I have had the opportunity to read it. Thanks to Readers First and Allen & Unwin for the opportunity.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Best Kind of People - Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall is a new writer to me and I am most pleased to have made her acquaintance! Although set in North America and seen from those perspectives legally and sociologically this current work is pertinent and topical to issues in the whole of our muddled world today. Whilst it offers no answers it does highlight the impact on friends and families in a compelling and compassionate way.

George Woodbury is an upstanding citizen of Avalon Hills. From a privileged background George gained an heroic status by defusing a potentially tragic situation when his daughter was seven years old. Ten years later George faces accusations of sexual misconduct. What follows is something of a ‘did he, didn’t he?’ type tale and I have no intention of becoming Ms Spoiler 2018 by divulging whether he did or didn’t! However the focus is very much how this situation influences the lives of his immediate family and their relationships and on a broader level raises awareness of how society as a whole responds to female voices.

The novel details the varying points of view and the different ways in which people respond and deal with George’s basic accusation. In some ways I found George Woodbury himself to be a minor character in the book, whether that was intentional or not I’m not certain. I didn’t warm to him over much but as readers I felt the writer was inviting us to reach our own conclusions about him whatever the final outcome of his trial.

We are somewhat used, nowadays, to hearing of such cases on the news. Sometimes we become almost immune to the headlines, high profile for a few days then being sidelined as another piece of news takes over that big profile spot on the front pages. But we don’t always get to see and understand the effect on the family. This book attempts to allow us a glimpse into the crumbling lives of a family torn asunder by allegations they can hardly believe.

Ms. Whittall draws her characters with love and understanding but that is not to say she allows sentiment to cloud the issues. George’s wife Joan swinging like a pendulum between acceptance and denial seemed very believable and the decisions she made were also very convincing. So, too, George’s daughter Sadie, intelligent, almost stereotypical rich girl but not quite. Her confusion was almost palpable at times and some of her actions understandable because of it. George’s son, Andrew, a member of the legal profession and having escaped the parochial small town returned to support his family in this time of crisis and possibly ends up adding to his own crises. 

No book is perfect and there was some stereotyping and some sections lacked credibility. There is no real redemption in the book but I never felt that was the intention. I thought it was about examining attitudes and effects and asking questions for the reader to ponder long after the book has been read.

Without wishing to ignite non pc gender issues I did wonder fleetingly how different a male response to this book would be from a female’s?

I found the book absorbing and engaging. It was by no means uplifting to put it mildly! But anything that makes a reader think on a deeper level than they may have done previously is no bad thing. My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the opportunity to read this story.

Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro

With my new found determination to restart and sustain my use of the local public library despite my reviewing commitments I put my money where my mouth is and selected this book by Ishiguro last week. 

And what an enriching experience it has proved to be. Originally published in 2009 this is a collection of short stories with a common musical theme. And that theme is used to further explore themes of loss, love and the passing of time as we search for our dreams. Elements of frustration creep in from time to time in these compelling tales. You could almost see them as word symphonies, each story a different movement in the symphony of life. 

I remember reading The Unconsoled and being reminded of Kafka and that feeling returned here quite strongly. There was something both absurd and dreamlike about some of the narrative. As you might expect from Ishiguro it’s multilayered and the music metaphors are seldom far from our conscious and subconscious. I suspect this book may be more for devotees of Ishiguro than new readers but I’d like to be wrong about that!! 

Ishiguro is a joy to read. I feel like celebrating this wondrous collection of words and images so ably put together with a cohesion that insists that Ishiguro is one of the finest writers of our age. A most auspicious start to my rekindled library life.

My reflections on my library usage can be read here.