Book Review: Clover Moon, by Jacqueline Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_clover_moonJacqueline Wilson is admirably prolific. Penning her 100th title, Opal Plumstead, in 2014, Wilson is one of the biggest names in children’s literature in the UK and abroad. Clover Moon continues her fabulous work with vivacious female characters in historically-set fiction for children.

Clover Moon lives with her large family in the squalor of Cripps Alley, a slum in Victorian England. She’s the eldest of six children, and she spends most of her time entertaining and looking after her four half-siblings, her beloved sister Megs, and the other children who live in the alley. Clover’s own mother died in childbirth with Megs, and her father has since remarried a wicked woman named Mildred, who cares very little for Clover and beats her given any opportunity. Life in Cripps Alley is grim, yet Clover (who has been taught to read and write by the crippled doll maker, Mr. Dolly) remains forward-thinking and mostly hopeful about her future.

That is, until she loses the one person she loves most in the world, her sister Megs, to scarlet fever. With a life of servitude to Mildred or poorly-paying factory work ahead of her, Clover plans to escape Cripps Alley and runs away to a home for destitute girls, where a new realm of challenges and surprises awaits her.

Wilson does a fantastic job of truthfully exploring the grim realities of slum life in the Victorian era, without resorting to melodrama. Yet while Clover Moon explores the harsh realities and deep sadness of the time, the unwavering vibrancy of Clover herself keeps the tone up-beat and the plot moving.

At a hefty 385 pages, I would find it difficult to recommend Clover Moon as a gateway for new readers into Wilson’s work. However, veteran readers of Wilson’s fiction will no doubt devour this new tale from the bestselling author – it even features a short cameo appearance from Hetty Feather, one of Wilson’s most well-known heroines. Best of all, the ending is open and abrupt – it’s very possible we’ll be reading more about Clover Moon in the future.

Reviewed by Emma Bryson

Clover Moon
by Jacqueline Wilson
Doubleday Children’s Books
ISBN 9780857532749

Book Review: Autumn, by Ali Smith

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_autumnWhile this novel was promoted as the “first post-Brexit novel” it is far more than a story about opinions and divisions. Rather, it reads like poetry and narrative twisting together. The chapters are interspersed with reflections, lists, words, musings which create an impression rather than telling a straight line story.

But there is a story line, or rather two. Elisabeth (the spelling matters) is an art history lecturer struggling with the down-sizing and marginalising of her subject. The second story is about a 101-year-old Daniel Gluck who was her neighbour and babysitter in her childhood. He is now in a care home and she acknowledges the part he played in introducing her to, “arty art,” in which she majored at university. Even the subject of her dissertation, Pauline Boty, is based on a real person and the real events surrounding her life and works. It is this movement between worlds which are real and imagined that gives the book such beauty.

Autumn is the first of a quartet based on the seasons. Ali Smith has already established herself as an inventive writer and the way she plays with words, thoughts, time and events is innovative and exciting. This is not a straight-line story. The plot moves forward but slips sideways to fill in the spaces at the edges. Amid such innovation she uses an ageless framing device for the overall story. At the beginning the young Elisabeth is asked for a” Portrait in Words of my next door neighbour”. Towards the end of the story we are given the completed exercise. It is written in the unpunctuated language of a young girl, but the portrait includes much of what has been uncovered in the story.

I enjoyed Autumn more as a drifting, reflective read than a gripping tale. It reminded me that language can be so much more than words on a page. Language can paint, can emote, can create.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Autumn
by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9780241207017

Book Review: The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_lesser_bohemiansThe woman in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is still a half-formed thing. The Irish 18-year-old arrives in London to study drama and to “make myself of life here for life is this place and would be start of mine”. She meets a brooding troubled actor twice her age and their relationship unfolds in a series of excruciatingly lovely and excruciatingly awful episodes.

They each bring some serious baggage to the relationship, recalling some of the dark themes and the damaging nature of secrets that McBride covered in her first novel A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, which won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and a slew of other awards.

There’s drugs and drink, squats and bedsits, drama and literature and many of the other accouterments of a ‘bohemian” lifestyle, albeit the lesser one of the title.

And there’s sex, lots of sex. McBride pulls this off (excuse the pun) with explicit but not graphic descriptions, and with a female sensibility that will resonate with many readers. It took me back decades to when I thought my own virginity was a millstone which held me back from experiencing LIFE because I too had run fast and far from a small town to university in a big city.

However the great strength and enjoyment of The Lesser Bohemians is a continuation of the starkly original style which almost defies definition, that McBride introduced us to in her first novel. Her sentence structures can almost run backwards, there’s unconventional word use, using nouns as verbs, and the word spacing and kerning is erratic. It’s almost stream of conscious narrative but is much more than this too – the technique enables us to tap directly into the psyche of the woman making for an intense and surreal read. It is like slowly driving on an unsealed road. Sometimes it’s smooth and familiar, then a pothole jolts you to a new consciousness and you have to retrace your steps. This slows you down but makes for a most satisfying and rewarding journey.

For example, only a few pages in, we are settling into a lonely Saturday in her bedsit when “Waiting, behind the distractible time, a little bit of pain. Just a tipple. Hardly a thing. Almost pretty pink petals cigarette burns on my skin. Bouquets exist, rosiest at the shin, contemplating though up my thigh. It’s a pull rope for the wade of hours on my own, and matches slice for slice all diversions I know”. It’s a hang on, WTF moment. Did that mean what I think it meant? And The Lesser Bohemians is full of these moments.

It’s a book that is also about identity, reinvention and the power others have over our view of self. We are two thirds into the book before she is named, by him, and he is named, by her, only 40 pages from the end. In A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the final sentence is ”My name is gone.” In The Lesser Bohemians the naming signals a form of redemption and personal reconciliation, although not necessarily an unequivocally happy ending.

So if you like your fiction dark with shocking shards of brilliant illumination, and your characters flawed, sometimes unlikeable but utterly human; and a style that can pull you through a hedge with just about every sentence, this is a book for you. If you don’t like that kind of stuff, I’m sorry for you but look elsewhere.

The Lesser Bohemians has just been nominated for the avant-garde Goldsmiths Prize, which McBride won in its first year, 2013.

Reviewed by Rose Boyle

The Lesser Bohemians
by Eimear McBride
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355161

Book Review: Us, by David Nicholls

cv_usUs arrived with the fanciest packaging I have yet encountered as a blog editor. The box was a corrugated cardboard suitcase, covered in stickers for each city visited by our main character. It included a travel pillow, and a packet of English barley sugars. The review proof copy of the book has a slipcase and a great, understated cover design that I didn’t look at closely until I realised at the end that it may have given me a clue as to what would happen over the course of the book. No expense has been spared for this expected bestseller by David Nicholls, the follow up to One Day. And at the time I received it, it was still in the running for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

This book absolutely deserves to be a bestseller, and I would expect it to be a hit for the Southern Hemisphere summer sales. But I will say it wasn’t a huge surprise to see it knocked off the Man Booker list when it came to the shortlist time, if only because it is too straightforward, less experimental and certainly less grand in scale than most Man Booker prize-winners of the past few years have been (including The Luminaries).

Nicholls proves in this book that he is an expert observer of family life. Our narrator for this book is a 50-something year old scientist, who has had his ups and downs career-wise, regarding as the greatest period of his life as the moment he realised his now-wife was his perfect match. Unfortunately, the book starts with his wife shaking him awake in the middle of the night to inform him that it is time they went their own separate ways. This news comes as their only child, Albie, prepares to go away to Art School to study photography, and as they are about to embark on a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe as a family.

The depiction of Douglas is so detailed you feel as though he is a great friend, somebody you know everything about and love despite his occasionally despicable actions, generally involving his son, who he has never understood, nor felt understood by. This relationship hits home as a parent as well as as a child. There is so much as a child that you cannot possibly ‘get’ about your parents, no matter how much you know of them. And as a teenager, so often you are so wrapped up in your own concerns, how can you possibly be expected to care what your parents are going through?

The book is as much about the interaction between chaos and order as it is about human relationships, and this is where the subtext lies. He says, of Connie’s superior parenting ability: “…she never seemed resentful – or only occasionally – of the hours and days and weeks that he consumed, the attention he demanded, the irrational tears, the trail of destruction and spilt pain and mashed carrot that he left behind, never repulsed or angered by the vomit that stained our new sofa, the poo that found its way into the cracks between the floorboards…”

Douglas’s own reaction to this chaos of childhood was to try and force it to be ordered, through gluing together lego sets (I recently watched The Lego Movie, there are echoes of the dad in this with Douglas’ actions), through trying to encourage his way of thinking in his child. As an only child, I can understand this imbalance of parenting between two parents, and I felt I understood a little more about my own father’s reactions to my own life choices from this.

This is a wonderful trip through Europe and a family’s relationships, which is funny, truthful, and very well written. I recommend it to anybody as a great read this coming summer.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Us
by David Nicholls
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN 9780340896990