My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh

Sometimes I read a book that I really enjoy and it’s difficult to be able to say why exactly I enjoyed it.

My Sunshine Away is one of those books.

A young man tells us the story of a girl in his neighbourhood who was raped, a girl that he had become obsessed with. One who he continues to be obsessed with long after her rape.

The boy live with his mother, he has two older sisters who live away from home and an absentee dad. Lindy lives across the road from our storyteller and he tells us he first fell in love with her at the age of seven. Seven years later, she is raped and seemingly everyone’s a suspect, including our boy.

I’m referring to him as ‘boy’ and ‘storyteller’ because the truth is we never actually learn his name. He never refers to himself, and nor do any of the other characters.

I find it an odd choice to leave him nameless. The only thing I can imagine is to try and make the reader feel like that they are themselves the centre of the story. If you’ve ever been an adolescent boy, it’s very easy to put yourself at the centre of this story, named or not. If you’ve never been an adolescent boy, then I would imagine it’s just as easy (or difficult) to understand as it would be if he had a name.

Name issue aside, it was an easy book for me to get into, the atmosphere of a child growing up in a small town near New Orleans was wonderfully vivid, you could almost feel the heat of summer coming off the page and the characters were all well drawn.

The characters all felt so real, which is to the book’s merit, because this isn’t really about the rape, or our boy’s growing obsession. It’s a coming of age story, realising that the world is not so innocent after all, and that we can’t stay nestled in the safety of childhood.

It’s a piece about characters, but more than that, because although the plot is secondary to the character development, there is still a plot there – which some character pieces seem to forget about.

One colleague of mine – one who I feel doesn’t really get books – described the book as ‘tangent rape’ – for the reason that the book centres around a rape, but the narrator goes off on tangents describing events from the neighbourhood that help to explain what’s going on.

From talking to her, she wants a book that goes from Plot Point A to Plot Point B that has a very defined bad guy and doesn’t deviate from the action. What she has failed to realise is the subtlety of a book like My Sunshine Away.

The tangents help to slowly build a foundation for this world that our characters inhabit, so that when the plot developments come they feel natural, understandable, and while that means they lose the initial surprise factor they somehow become more shocking, more impactful.

We feel like all the other residents of the neighbourhood do. How could we not have known? Why didn’t we realise? All the signs were there.

Definitely worth a read – but if you’re after action scene after action, this may not be the best book for you. Pop and see a film instead.

Advertisements

the long way to a small angry planet by Becky Chambers

I thought it was due to the fact that I was writing a screenplay for the BBC Writer’s Room at the time, but all the way through reading the long way to a small angry planet (no capital letters) I couldn’t help but think what a great TV series it would make.

Then, a colleague who also read it, said it reminded him of Firefly that I realised it wasn’t just me.

long way… tells the story of a crew of a spaceship who are travelling to the centre of the galaxy in order to ‘punch’ their way back and create a shortcut to open up trade with a dangerous and violent race who are occupying a planet there.

As a child, I was brought up on Star Trek: Voyager, and then stumbled upon Star Trek: The Next Generation myself shortly after. As such, my view of the future of humanity has always been quite a sanitised, civilised, perhaps unrealistic one.

In a lot of other science fiction stories (be they Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or even Deep Space 9) the future is a lot more uncertain. Alien races all conflicting with each other, humanity conflicting with itself and the starships conflicting with space itself.

In short, I’ve always struggled with the other kind of sci-fi because it always feels a bit grubby and hopeless compared to the utopian Federation presented in Voyager.

But I didn’t struggle with this book. It was a wonderful read, with a fascinating set of well-drawn and varied characters – by no means an easy thing when trying to introduce characters of several different alien races at one time.

The only issue I had with it, was the ending, after a solid two part ‘episode’ towards the end of the book, several strands feel like they’ve just been left dangling, and after the action up to that point, the ending feels lifeless and flat.

Perhaps another book is coming – and if it does, it’s one that I will definitely read – but as it is, it feels like the show was cancelled mid-season.

Moving by Jenny Eclair

A few months ago I was listening to Graham Norton’s Saturday morning radio show and his guest was Jenny Eclair who was talking about her new novel: Moving.

 

The interview was a bit of hard work for a casual listener doing his housework as Jenny didn’t let her natural, bubbly personality be restrained by the medium of radio. She was loud, quick, jumping from topic to topic – and generally very funny.

When talking about the book – about an older woman going from room to room in her house as she prepares to sell it, and reminiscing about the history of each room – she talked about how she had become fascinated by buildings and the history they contained.

The novel, if I’m honest, sounded to me like there wouldn’t be much plot, and I assumed that it would be more of a series of comedic essays and tales, anecdotes and stories weaved into one through the shared history of one house. So I didn’t rush out to get a copy.

When one passed by my desk, however, my curiosity was piqued enough to slip it in my bag and take it home for a read.

Celebrity novelists as far as I’m concerned face one danger when writing their books. Namely placing themselves as the main character in their story, or by writing in the stand-up voice which is the reason I struggled with Dawn French’s books. It’s difficult to engage with a fictional character that is obviously based on a real person.

The only way it would be possible is if it’s so true to life you could believe that the events being described had actually happened to that person. So, when Dawn French’s voice came out of a sixteen year old girl on page one of her novel, I couldn’t invest in what was happening and I soon gave up.

Eclair deftly manages to avoid this trap, by simply writing about a character that is so obviously not based on herself. Of course, when Edwina pulls herself out of the bath on page one and looks at the tiny silver-haired woman in the mirror, the reader is thinking of Jenny Eclair, the name they’ve just seen displayed larger than the title on the front cover.

But the writing is of such a quality and the characterisation is so spot on that the fact that Jenny Eclair wrote this book is quickly forgotten.

Thoughts instead, turn to how long the premise can last. Edwina, despite her advancing age, rattles through the rooms of the relatively large house, that the reader is left wondering just how many rooms there will turn out to be – or indeed if the slightly senile Edwina will simply just do two or three tours of the building.

The book, though, is actually split into three sections, Edwina’s forgetful meandering, Fern’s 1980’s education and Lucas’ present day return to the city, Moving is in itself is like construction of a house.

Edwina’s tour of her crumbling town house is simply the foundation for the bricks and mortar of Fern’s experiences in Manchester and Lucas’s tales of the past are simply the furnishings of the house that is Charlie.

Charlie is the character around whom the story revolves, despite the fact that he is absent for much of it. Our three main characters define him with their tales of his life.

Mother.

Lover.

Brother.

It is only through all of them that we get a complete understanding of who Charlie was, what his story was.

The end of the book returns to Edwina to provide a coda to the story, to put a lock on the front door and leave Charlie’s story told, and then in the final few pages we learn that while it may seem over, it was simply the foundation for another story.

I enjoyed Moving much more than I thought I would, because it was well written, revealed enough to keep you satisfied, but not too much that you didn’t keep going and it made me think.

In short, Moving was moving.

(Oh, come on, you didn’t think I could resist that, did you?)

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black

This may come as a bit of a surprise to the people who have read my last few reviews, but I actually LIKED this book.

I’ve been on a run of books that while ok, I’ve picked holes in. Take Underground for example. When I read that, it was ok, nothing special, but it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever read either. However, by the time it came to writing the review, I wrote quite a bad review of it.

Maybe I’m still getting over A Little Life (the best book in the world ever, go and read it. Whatever you’re reading, stop right now and go and read that. Except this review – carry on reading this review).

Or perhaps I’ve been picking books where the premise showed promise (must remember to use the phrase ‘premise promise’ at some point in the future), but ultimately disappointed. That was certainly the case with Underground.

 

Maybe the books are just shit, and it takes me stopping and thinking about it while I write the review to actually realise it.

Let’s find out.

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black begins with a double killing at a family home in a small, peaceful town. Rowena and her son are killed by two men, but her ten-year old daughter escapes.

The premise promise (tick) from the dust jacket is as follows:

“Her escape is now the key to the killings – and how to stop them. Injured, half frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. A place that could be even more terrifying than what she’s running from.”

Except it’s not. Nell’s story gets parked for much of the story, and the place that she ends up, COULD be terrifying if we approached it from her point of view, but we actually see things from the point of view of a kindly old man who tends to her.

That’s not the fault of the book, though, that’s the fault of lazy marketing. “Let’s tell them a ten year old girl is in danger, that’ll reel ‘em in.”

 

The ACTUAL premise is a homicide detective, Valerie Hart investigating a series of grisly murders that appear to initially have no connection. At the same time, she must face up to a returning ex-lover and an investigation by the FBI

What I liked most about The Killing Lessons was that there was no convoluted attempt to mask the bad guys or add a twist at the end. The killers were there from the beginning, even getting their own POV chapters. This was a simple, old-fashioned good vs evil thriller and because of that it worked.

Valerie Hart was a sympathetic enough character to illicit some empathy from the reader, and yet flawed enough to make her an interesting character to have leading you through the plot. A good enough character that surely a series of crime thrillers won’t be far behind her.

Is there anything more to say about this book, he asked, stalling for time as he tried to think of a way to end the blog… It was a little gross and graphic in parts, but for some people that’s the appeal of these books.

I enjoyed it – and the important thing is after having written my review, I still liked it. Liked it enough to read a second book featuring the lead character.

So, for the first time since A Little Life – I’m giving a book the Alex Stamp of Approval. Go out and read, please.