Sweet Caress

Buy SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

When Amory Clay is still at boarding school, her father shows up one day to take her for a drive – a journey that ends with him driving the car into a lake in an attempt to kill both of them. But that isn’t really the end of the journey for Amory, because this experience colours the rest of her life, particularly when it comes to her relationships with men.

Desperately searching for a more suitable father figure, she develops an infatuation with her uncle Greville. It is he who introduces her to photography, a hobby that becomes a passion that becomes a job. Through her camera lens Amory gets to see the tumult of the middle half of the twentieth century, always convinced she’s a part of it, always convinced she can actually capture a story – or, better, a truth – on film.

From the easy defeat of Mosley’s blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street (which only helps generate a sense of cosy complacency about fascism), Amory’s work takes her to burlesque Berlin during the slow, simmering rise of Nazism. Thence to a US in jazz-infused splendid isolation just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and, following the Allied invasion after D-Day, back to a Europe that has adopted a new casualness towards seeing mutilated bodies left unburied by the side of the road.

Along the way she embarks on various transient relationships with fellow photographers, but it is the relationship with a Scottish commando she meets in war-torn Europe that lasts the longest. Her oblivious search for a replacement father figure pretty much ends with her finding the closest match to her own father. He was a damaged First World War veteran. Her husband is damaged in the Second. Through him she comes partway to understanding what her father must have gone through.

Ultimately this is a novel about stories, linked loosely together by the wars that destroy them. The book is interspersed with period photographs that give the sense of this being a memoir rather than a work of fiction. Their presence emphasises that pictures aren’t really worth a thousand words – they hint at stories, but only give an unreal sense that they tell the whole thing. Amory still has to fill in the gaps.

Sometimes Amory feels a little too lascivious, following her passions into bed rather quickly with many of the male characters that cross her path. It takes quite a long time for the reasons why to start to become clearer.

Though it continues afterwards for several more chapters, the novel effectively ends in Vietnam, a war Amory’s country isn’t even involved in but which she feels drawn to nonetheless. Here she can finally leave her father behind, in another war that robs a generation of countless stories, even if those men do come home too.

The Storm

Buy THE STORM by Virginia Bergin

The second book in Virginia Bergin’s post-apocalyptic YA series starts where the first one left off – with gobby teenager Ruby Morris on her own in a world where nearly everyone else has been killed by an extraterrestrial plague bedevilling the water supply (and specifically, the rain).

Brushing off the other survivors she has collected in her travels (including the nerdy Darius Spratt and the mute little girl he’s protecting but knows only as Princess), Ruby continues her endless search for her dad. Despite everything she has seen that suggests a high probability he died bleeding and screaming, she just knows he’s still alive, and that might mean her little brother Dan could be too. And she’s right – but the route that will take her to them is going to go through some very dark places.

The world may have fallen into chaos after the killer rain first fell, but it is no longer quite as chaotic as it was. Crossing paths with an army that is enforcing a new kind of order, she learns there might be a cure, that she might be an important part of that, but that the military might not have the most virtuous of intentions for it.

Ruby herself was the weakest point of the first book in the series. However brilliantly depicted she was, I felt she was a bit too relentlessly obnoxious about everything and everyone. And she’s still got a mouth on her in this book, but in this one we’re allowed to see what’s beneath that hard shell. Far more vulnerable than she lets on, perhaps she isn’t quite as different to nerdy Darius she tries to convince us she is.

The plot takes some deranged twists, but also meanders around a bit, and the ending comes quite abruptly. Indeed, whilst things come to more of a close than they did in the first book, there are some rather significant unresolved threads that suggests Ruby’s ordeal is not quite over yet. And the novel’s done enough for me to want to check out the next one.

Jonathan Unleashed

Buy JONATHAN UNLEASHED by Meg Rosoff

By all appearances Jonathan Trefoil is living the dream. He works in marketing in New York City and has a stunning girlfriend who everyone would tend to think is well out of his league. He knows his life isn’t all that fantastic, of course. Marketing involves getting excited about stationery and hanging around trendy, trendy hipsters with a penchant for verbing nouns. And his girlfriend Julie sees him as a bit of a curio. She knows it. He knows it.

What’s more, Jonathan’s dogs know it. They’re not even his dogs – his brother flew off somewhere too exciting for dogs, let alone Jonathan, and left Dante the bordercollie and Sissy the spaniel cooped up in Jonathan and Julie’s increasingly cramped apartment. Julie can’t stand them and thinks they’ve got it in her for. He can’t admit it to her, of course, but Jonathan’s already got his suspicions that the dogs are taking over his life – and in more than one sense of the phrase.

There’s a definite Adrian Mole vibe running through this novel. Jonathan is overly introspective and insecure, as disbelieving of his good fortune landing Julie as everyone else, and frequently spends time indulging daydreams and other fantasies. Some of them feed the grand comic book slash novel he’s working on called New York Inferno, recasting everyone he knows (and everything that annoys him) in a version of Dante’s (the poet’s, not the dog’s) Hell based on New York City.

Whether Dante and Sissy really are showing a sentient concern for Jonathan’s life and are trying to nudge him in a better direction, or whether he’s just projecting on to them his own sense of self-doubt, is a nice joke that Meg Rosoff keeps going for much of the book. The novel manages to pivot around its furry plot devices without actually being a very dog-heavy book, so even this cat person wasn’t put off.

And it’s a bit more cheerful than Rosoff’s How I Live Now too.

The Virgin Suicides

Buy THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides

The five Lisbon girls manage to be the main topic of conversation on their 1970s Midwest suburban street without even doing anything. Part of it is their unique attractiveness (not even classical beauty – more a captivating allure). But most of it is their mystery. Living almost a secret life, largely separate from their peers, they are kept deliberately anonymous by their similarly (but more wilfully) anonymous mother.

To the teenage boys who live in the same neighbourhood, the Lisbon house looks reasonably normal from the outside, and the girls seem close enough physically not to be out of reach. But when Mrs Lisbon agrees to a party – the first and last party her daughters ever have – the boys learn just how far away the girls really are. The party comes to a sudden terrible end when the first of the daughters kills herself in front of everyone. Within a year, all of her sisters have followed her.

We never learn the name of the narrator of this novel. He (if indeed there’s only one of them) is ultimately as anonymous as the Lisbon girls. He isn’t really a character – nor really much of a narrator, for that matter. He’s more of a curator, collating news, rumours and speculation about what happened to the girls (years after the fact), his narration more of a commentary linking it all together.

For all Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful writing – perfect sentences that may focus on the prosaic and the domestic (like a more literary Stephen King perhaps) but which are sometimes closer to poetry than prose – I was left utterly unaffected by his robotic storytelling. But maybe that’s the point.

The picture he paints of America is of a place where nobody really knows anybody else. And maybe, despite it coming in a novel about five suicides – five child suicides, no less – that’s the most depressing thing of all.

This is the Way the World Ends

Buy THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS by James Morrow

George Paxton is a very ordinary man, even though he loves his slightly macabre job chipping names and epitaphs into gravestones. Prudence and being sensible are very much at the core of George’s straightforward approach to life, so he leaps at the chance when offered a free hazard suit to protect his daughter from all the effects of a nuclear war. Sure, he has to sign a contract accepting responsibility for any future nuclear conflict that does occur, but George doesn’t worry about that. The free suit buys him peace of mind. His daughter will be safe if the bombs do fall.

Unfortunately George doesn’t even get back from the shop with the suit before the city disappears from his rear-view mirror in a 1-megaton thermonuclear fireball. His daughter has probably been minced by a thousand shards of broken glass travelling at almost the speed of sound. If only she had been wearing her suit, thinks George; everything would have been fine.

Meanwhile the end of the world is only the beginning of George’s trials. He’s now going to have to answer for letting it happen. After all, he’s already signed the document that lays the blame at his feet. He may come to regret being rescued from the radioactive wasteland by some black-blooded ghostly types. These ghosts, who refer to themselves as the ‘unadmitted’ are not echoes of the past, but spectres of a future that will never be – all the people who will never be born because the world has incinerated its own potential.

This blackly comic novel reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, specifically Slaughterhouse Five, and not simply in the plotline of a man being taken into a surreal world parallel to our own where he has to answer for the violent ridiculousness of his entire race. James Morrow shares Vonnegut’s somewhat despairing view of mankind’s self-destructive streak – laughing because you have to, really.

It was written at a time in US politics when key members of Reagan’s administration were trying to convince him that it was possible to win a nuclear war, and recommending he adopt the SDI missile defence system. Morrow makes it quite clear that believing we can ourselves be safe from the enemy’s nuclear weapons whilst at the same time believing the enemy will always be at risk from ours creates an illusion of safety and supremacy that only makes nuclear conflict more likely.

As it is, both the US and Russia deny firing first in this novel, though one or other of them may have launched an ‘anticipatory retaliation’… So still the other guy’s fault, then. Moments of satire, including a fiery argument over whether to use a nuclear submarine’s missile launch tube for purpose or for growing oranges, reminded me of Dr Strangelove taken to an almost surreal extreme. Morrow’s descriptions of nuclear devastation are also darkly comic and surreal, annihilation and suffering made all the more horrific by being described almost flippantly, like imagery from a Monty Python cartoon segment.

There are funny asides where the novel appears to be a vision Nostradamus is having for the future. These could have seemed incongruously daft, and also ended up Pythonesque in the wrong way, but Morrow makes it work. The scenes with the smug, conceited Nostradamus casually predicting future doom from a safe distance, where he knows it won’t affect him, help hammer the novel’s message home.

Ordinary people enable the destroyers of the earth by either supporting them or claiming there is nothing they can do anyway. But they can’t absolve themselves of guilt and try to shrug off responsibility. Just because George Paxton is the only normal person whose name is on the charge-sheet doesn’t mean he is the only normal person who should have to take the blame.

The Rain

Buy THE RAIN by Virginia Bergin

Love me a good story where almost everyone dies early on. Virginia Bergin has found a particularly brilliant way to off her characters – the killer is nothing less innocuous than water. Specifically, rain.

At the start of this YA novel, teenager Ruby has just kissed the boy of her dreams, Casper, in the hot tub at the party of a mutual friend who lives on a Devon farm. No sooner has she begun to recover from that than their friend’s parents are dragging them out of the hot tub. Not because they’re getting up to something they shouldn’t, but because the radio and TV have just gone haywire with warnings to get inside and stay there. It’s about to rain, and the rain is filled with a killer bacteria that causes immediate cell breakdown. Bleeding from all orifices, etc, etc. There is no cure.

Of course rain doesn’t stay in the sky, nor on the ground. It’s soon in the pipes too. By the time anyone works that out, Ruby is pretty much alone. And she’s not good on her own. Scared, thirsty (desperately thirsty), she has to adapt to a life where pretty much everyone she knew is now dead – and where some of those who have survived are the last people she would want to share the post-apocalypse with.

I beetled through this book. Bergin’s version of the end of the world is not completely unfamiliar, but it’s strung together with a plotline that focuses on chasing the most basic of human needs – something to drink. This drags Ruby into plenty of dark scenes, as the bottled water runs out and that jar of old sauce won’t quench the thirst of everyone who tries to grab it. There’s one particularly horrific scene where people swarm on a public swimming pool. Bergin well understands that no matter how bad things could get, there will always be people around who make it worse.

If the novel has a weakness it’s unfortunately Ruby, who is given a somewhat forced character arc that involves her being rather unpleasantly obnoxious for a good stretch of the second half. I felt a bit alienated by her then, but it all comes good in the end – enough for me to want to check out the second book, anyway.

How I Live Now

Buy HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff

Daisy has been sent away from the impossibly high standards of New York City to stay with her rustic relatives in rural England. Here, her father hopes, Daisy will ‘get over’ her eating disorder. Or at least, as her stepmother hopes, not be such a burden on a family unit that has Daisy’s spoilt stepbrother very much at its heart rather than Daisy.

Sure, the media is full of images and stories of terrorist attacks here, atrocities there, British military action all over the place, but when was it any different? So Daisy doesn’t pay much attention to any of that – even more so when she meets her cousin Edmond. They’re not even sure whether it’s okay for cousins to fall for each other in the way Daisy and Edmond do, but it’s not as if they choose to.

Then there’s a massive attack in London. Daisy’s civil servant aunt leaves them alone to head into Europe on a diplomatic mission. The British military ships out. And in the English countryside Daisy and her relatives are given an official warning to stay inside their remote cottage because of a smallpox epidemic. But there is no smallpox. The country has been invaded.

How I Live Now is from start to end a visceral novel – a visceral love story followed by a visceral trek behind enemy lines in a near-abandoned corner of Britain. Most of the war (if there is indeed a war being fought) happens off the page. Daisy’s experience of it is to see what’s left after the killing has already been completed. Her war is one of ruins and separation, and rumour and propaganda.

Driven by fear and a need to protect Edmond’s young sister, Piper, she feels her way through the plot. There isn’t time to think. And when she does, her mind is usually elsewhere anyway. It’s a short novel, despite being eventful, and sometimes I felt that it would have felt more immediate had Daisy been narrating it in the present tense, rather than commenting on it from the safety of a future we know she gets to see, even if not everybody else does.

I had actually seen the film version of this one before reading it, so I remembered what would happen. I also remembered several rather bleak scenes (that reminded me of the bleaker parts of The Road) that aren’t in the novel at all. Not entirely sure they added much except extra trauma.

Room

Buy ROOM by Emma Donoghue

It’s Jack’s fifth birthday, which he will celebrate with his friends, Rug, Meltedy Spoon, Remote and TV. And his Ma, of course. She lets Jack watch plenty of TV today. TV always has plenty of interesting things to show Jack – things happening on planets other than Room.

Room isn’t a planet, of course, it’s just a room. A soundproofed room with an unassailable deadlock. To Jack this is indeed an entire world (the only one he has ever known), but to his mother, kidnapped and imprisoned many years before whilst still a student, she remembers there is more to life than this. But she decides to keep the truth from Jack because he might never need to know. She fears they might never escape from the man who comes to ‘creak the bed’, as Jack thinks of it, the man she despises in every way but one – that he gave her Jack.

Sometimes Ma just needs to be Gone for a while. Jack doesn’t really mind. An innately social creature, he has made friends out of everything. Brought up with an understanding of his surroundings confused and muddled by the blurred lines in cartoons on television (where a rug might indeed talk back), he might never be able to cope in the real world. But he’s going to find out.

Jack’s innocent but unintentionally bizarre observations make this a surprisingly funny novel, given its plotline. At times he comes across as a bit of a faux naïf, casting a light on the ignored oddness in the way we live our lives, but with no greater point to make.

At other times – and in one sucker-punching scene (which finally revealed something that may not have gone over this reader’s head had I been a woman, it did occur to me) in particular – his obliviousness to strange things that of course don’t seem strange to him highlights the consequences and dangers of social isolation. His concept of the world is entirely skewed through the dearth of human contact, with nobody to challenge, question or correct his assumptions, even only by observation on his part.

Some plot points stretch credulity a little far, but they are just minor, fleeting and forgivable contrivances to give Jack’s story a spine. The novel belongs to him, far more so than his mother. She may be a victim, but Jack is not. And that is entirely down to the lies she’s told him to protect him.

Nature’s End

Buy NATURE'S END by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka

Earth’s biosphere is being slowly choked. A decade from now (which probably seemed a lot further away when this book was published in 1986), the Amazon rainforest has been reclassified as a desert. Much of urban America swelters under a semi-permanent cloud of toxic smog that is unable to blow away due to climatic change and perverted wind patterns.

The planet can no longer sustain its population. A mystic pseudoscientist called Gupta Singh has a solution for that – at precisely the same time, every person in every country shall drink a vial of liquid. One third of all the vials will be lethal. Scared of the future, holding everyone else responsible, people vote politicians subscribing to the Depopulationist agenda into power across the globe. And now they’ve taken control of the US government too.

John Sinclair is a ‘convictor’, a special kind of journalist who has a knack for finding the dirt – even if there wasn’t any before he started. He brought down a former President of the United States, but Gupta Singh is even more powerful, and is protected by allies and spies everywhere. Faced with environmental apocalypse, much of humanity is no longer averse to suicide (though preferably other people’s), but if Sinclair can bring Singh down, maybe they will open their eyes to another solution. Of course, Singh’s not about to let that happen without a fight.

There’s a bit of a libertarian streak running through the book that may have been satirical – the idea that government is too easy to corrupt and would ultimately prove a negative rather than a positive influence on environmental protection or human rights, the idea that people genuinely want to protect their environment (and each other) and would automatically choose do so if given the power. If satire wasn’t the intention then it’s not particularly convincing.

This novel probably seems a lot less like science fiction than it did when Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka wrote it. We may have made some progress against wholesale deforestation and acid rain, but most international efforts to deal with climate change are still beset with politicians merely playing lip service to concerns to win votes, and targets that only get agreed after plenty of horse-trading. We could still see the balance tip in the way it does in Nature’s End‘s backstory.

Streiber and Kunetka foresaw the digital world, only nascent in the mid 1980s but fully integrated into most people’s lives by the time the novel takes place. The convenience of having a voice-activated smart device to answer questions and manage your life is weighed against the ease of turning those conveniences against you. Technology here is isolating, in the sense that it provides a buffer between its dependents and everyone else, a buffer only noticed when it disappears.

Ultimately, however, it’s not a particularly hopeful novel and I got a creeping sense that it is somewhat revelling in its prophecy of doom – the same sense I get from George Monbiot articles. Even if things do go down the toilet, there’s always going to be someone whose last moment of happiness will be the chance to say, ‘I told you so.’

My Heart and Other Black Holes

Buy MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Jasmine Warga

Aysel is the daughter of a murderer. That would be bad enough anywhere, but in smalltown Kentucky it’s social death. Aysel is so used to the other students at her high school avoiding her – as if a moment of madness might be inherited, or contagious – that she’s given up making an effort with any of them. Life is a lonely business for Aysel, and the only counsel she receives is from thoughts that tell her everyone else might be right about her.

The internet is a dangerous place for someone as depressed as she is, especially when it brings her into contact with another local teenager, Roman, who doesn’t want her as a friend either. He’s looking for someone to commit suicide with, because he’s not sure he can do it alone. He’s got a specific date in mind, to make sure everyone knows this is an act of atonement for something he did – or rather failed to do – on that date a year ago.

So unless she wants to die alone, Aysel has to wait until Roman is ready too. The problem is, in the meantime, they start to get to know each other, and Aysel learns why Roman wants to take his own life. And then she starts to see the effects that their deaths might have, even if he doesn’t.

This is a slight story, though not a slight novel, which allows its characters plenty of space to grapple with the enormity of the issues at its heart. Neither Aysel nor Roman are mentally ill in the same way that Theodore Finch is in All the Bright Places, a book that this one complements nicely, without retreading the same ground at all. Their depression is a response to events beyond their control, a sense of helplessness that has been rendered hopeless by misplaced guilt.

But ultimately it’s a hopeful novel. Not all of its threads are tied up at the end, and some of those that are tied up are tied with barbed wire. As such it doesn’t become unconvincing, doesn’t suggest all happy endings are easy ones, and doesn’t pretend that sadness and loneliness can simply be cured with a little mutual understanding.

Aysel is a wonderful narrator, initially – and superficially – straightforward, but who becomes more interesting when she becomes increasingly conflicted about the friendship that is blossoming with Roman, the only real friendship she has, but one that was apparently doomed from the beginning.