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Book Review: Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth

I might not have discovered Kings of the Yukon so soon if Adam Weymouth’s book hadn’t been shortlisted for the PFD/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to a bloggers’ event in London where we met the authors, who read excerpts and answered questions, before copies of each book were available for us to take home.

The Yukon River is almost 2,000 miles long, flowing through Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea.

Setting out to explore one of the most ruggedly beautiful and remote regions of North America, Adam Weymouth journeyed by canoe on a four-month odyssey through this untrammelled wilderness, encountering the people who have lived there for generations.

The Yukon’s inhabitants have long depended on the king salmon who each year migrate the entire river to reach their spawning grounds.

Now the salmon numbers have dwindled, and the encroachment of the modern world has changed the way of life on the Yukon, perhaps for ever.

Adam Weymouth canoes downriver through Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea when the salmon he is hoping to encounter should be making their way upstream to their spawning grounds. What he finds along the way is evidence of the extent to which the river connects everyone who lives in and around it; how what happens on one stretch ripples through to others, be they around the nearest bend in the river or hundreds of miles away and across a man-made border.

Kings of the Yukon details the alarming levels of change and damage done and it’s not simply because there are inherent difficulties in balancing subsistence fishing with commercial practices while also ensuring a healthy ecosystem. This doesn’t simply boil down to being a numbers game; it’s the size and therefore weight of the individual salmon which is shrinking, as well. And changes in fishing practices aren’t the only ones to have affected the river and its fish (and human) population; the discovery and commercial exploitation of oil and gold in the region have taken their toll, sometimes in unforeseen ways and not always in the most obvious of places.

If any book can help us to see the connection between living creatures, be they sprawling humans or spawning fish, and their environment, it is this one. While also being sadly indicative of what is happening in so many ecosystems around our planet, Kings of the Yukon is an enlightening and sensitive look at the plight of the salmon and people along this almost 2,000-mile stretch of river, highlighting the need for collaborative work across borders, as well as between interest groups, when looking for solutions. Read more

Book Review: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I can’t even remember when or where I bought it, although I have a feeling that I wanted to read more Australian fiction while I waited for a new Tim Winton book to come out. I still didn’t read it back then but it leapt out at me when I was trying to find a book title with J for this month’s A-Z Challenge.

Summer, 1965.

Late one night, thirteen-year-old Charlie Bucktin is startled by a knock on his window.

His visitor is Jasper Jones. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is intriguing. And he needs Charlie’s help. In the dead of night, the boys steal through town, and Charlie learns of Jasper’s horrible discovery.

Burdened by a terrible secret and the weight of a town’s suspicion, Charlie feels his world closing in.

After this summer nothing will ever be the same again.

Jasper Jones and I may have taken our time getting acquainted but I am so very happy that we finally did. He’s a shadowy and enigmatic character when he first appears outside Charlie Bucktin’s window. Pushed into the margins by life while still only a boy, he’s held up as a bad influence and ignored until bad things happen and people need someone to blame. There were even moments in the book where I wondered if he would turn out to be a figment of Charlie’s imagination.

Jasper Jones’ name may be on the cover but it’s the younger boy, Charlie, who narrates the story; the fledging writer whose window Jasper comes to when he needs help. The two boys aren’t friends before this night but they will form a bond to keep a terrible secret from the rest of the town. As Charlie says:

“I trust him. I really do. And not because I have to. I think he’s probably the most honest person in this town. He has no reason to lie. He has no reputation to protect.”

Secrets and stories abound in this small town, taking on a life of their own and replacing facts with suspicion, prejudice and myth. Their misguided actions were well-intentioned but it’s hard to see how the secret can remain hidden. Charlie will have a long, tortuous summer unable to talk to anyone else about it. Read more

Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

There’s an insistent pull to the rhythm of its opening pages that drew me into Guy Gunaratne’s debut In Our Mad and Furious City, a novel which gives voice to “London’s scowling youth” and “those of us who had an elsewhere in our blood.”

For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.

While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.

Guy Gunaratne’s characters may inhabit an urban landscape bordering on one familiar to me from having lived in north London but their experience of the city is worlds apart from my own. As one of his narrators says early on in the book: “Most others only knew us from the noise we made at the back of the bus.”

Language flexes and evolves for the voices we hear. Selvon, Ardan and brothers Yusuf and Irfan, a loose alliance of friends from school all share a street language: “our words clipped and surging with our own code… Our friendships we called bloods and our homes we called our Ends.” The language used is telling, yet it also has a beat and musicality of its own, something akin to the grime music Ardan writes.

Speaking in a register that borrows words and expressions from their multilingual community, the language of the second generation ‘youngers’ contrasts with that spoken by the older first generation narrators. Their language is still that of the home they left behind: Nelson from the Caribbean island of Montserrat speaks patois while Caroline is unmistakably from Belfast.

The rising tension in the novel mostly stems from events which happen off-the-page – the book opens just after the soldier’s murder, riots take place at the end of their street – but you can see it impacting upon the characters’ lives over the 48-hour time period of the novel. It’s frightening how recognisable the events are, mirroring real-life ones, yet written in a way which puts them in a whole new perspective. Read more

Book Review: Home by Karen Dionne

Helena is driving home from the lake with her youngest daughter when a report comes on the radio that she never hoped to hear. Now in order to protect everything she has, she needs to return to a place she thought she’d long left behind her.

You’d recognise my mother’s name if I told it to you. You’d wonder, briefly, where is she now? And didn’t she have a daughter while she was missing?
And whatever happened to the little girl?

Helena’s home is like anyone else’s, with a husband, two daughters and a job she enjoys. But no one knows the truth about her dark and twisted childhood.

Born into captivity and brought up in an isolated cabin until she was twelve, Helena was raised by her terrified, broken mother and the man who held them both prisoner – Helena’s own father.

Now with news that he has escaped from prison, Helena instinctively knows that her father is coming for her and if she wants to keep her family safe, she must find him – before he finds her. Even if that means returning to the darkest parts of her past, the scariest place imaginable, home.

Extracts from a translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Marsh King’s Daughter are included throughout Karen Dionne’s novel, Home, which was originally published in hardback under the same title as the fairytale. It slots in well around Helena’s story in Home (whose early years were certainly no fairytale) and serves as a useful reminder of how dark and brutal fairytales actually were before we became more used to their sanitised versions.

Without the inclusion of Andersen’s tale, I might not have seen Helena’s present-day semblance of normality as the ‘happily ever after’ she’s worked so hard to provide for her and her family. Something that eluded her own mother after life in the marsh. I could rue the secrecy surrounding her past that now backfires, while also realising that it was a way of protecting not only Helena but also her husband and children from it. She’s determined that her daughters enjoy freedoms she never realised existed, and is vehement in her defence of these. Read more

Book Review: The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

The Good Son of the title wakes to find himself in a nightmare situation, one where he has no recollection of what happened and that only looks worse with every minute he delays reporting it.

You wake up covered in blood
There’s a body downstairs
Your mother’s body

You didn’t do it? Did you?
How could you, you’ve always been The Good Son

When Yu-jin wakes up covered in blood, and finds the body of his mother downstairs, he decides to hide the evidence and pursue the killer himself. 

Then young women start disappearing in his South Korean town. Who is he hunting? And why does the answer take him back to his brother and father who lost their lives many years ago.

You-jeong Jeong positions us inside the head of her main character from the instant the metallic tang of blood wakes Yu-jin up. We walk the scene of the crime with him, making each discovery as he does, and all the while listening to his inner monologue. And it’s this which made The Good Son so interesting for me. I had to know how he was going to piece together what had happened the night before but also how hiding the evidence and going the investigation alone was going to pan out for him.

We soon find out the cause of Yu-jin’s confusion and realise that he’s not going to be a reliable narrator. Not that he hides this fact. Early on in the book, he tells us that

Honesty is neither my strong suit nor something I aspire to

This, together with his erratic reasoning and behaviour upon discovering his mother’s body, certainly don’t seem to correspond with that expected of a diligent student waiting for law school entrance exam results. Or someone with the focus he once must have possessed to become a champion swimmer.

Yu-jin’s task is complicated by the flashbacks he experiences, which are by their very nature fragmentary. Likewise, entries from his mother’s journal at first appear to be more of an uncomfortable invasion of privacy than in any way helpful.

I was Mother’s only son. That was the rule.

Yet there are always exceptions to the rule and that’s also the case here. There was another son who died when Yu-jin was only nine years old and starting to swim competitively; and there’s now a cuckoo in the nest in the form of his former childhood friend now adoptive brother, Hae-jin, who’s on his way home the morning of Yu-jin’s macabre discovery. Read more

Book Review: The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood by Susan Elliot Wright

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood opens with a scene where a crow walks into a kitchen. It happens in an instant, the back door having been opened to let the smoke from burnt toast dissipate. It’s enough to rattle the woman whose kitchen it is, and suggest that, even without being superstitious, things are off-kilter here.

What has happened to Cornelia Blackwood?

She has a loving marriage. But she has no friends.

Everyone knows her name. But no one will speak to her now.

Cornelia Blackwood has unravelled once before. Can she stop it from happening again?

When we meet forty-year-old Cornelia, she’s about to wave her husband off to a conference. She’s also gearing up to go back to work part-time after an unknown incident left her in severe pain, yet still able to manage without a walking stick unless she overdoes it. Life seems to have dealt her a hard blow and we spend the book discovering just how much of one, and what further loss and shock can do to someone in an already fragile state of mind.

By switching between two timelines labelled only as Now and Then in the chapter headings, Susan Elliot Wright’s novel illustrates not only how quickly someone’s life can turn but also how difficult it can be for people to know what others are going through as a result of those changes, or how to reach out and help them in the way they need. Something made all the more challenging when dealing with someone as intelligent and private a person as Cornelia. She becomes well-practised at hiding what she’s doing and being secretive, something facilitated by her current situation and how much time she spends on her own.

Cornelia shares characteristics with the crows which are a recurring motif in the book. Intelligent and independent, crows mate for life, and can be quiet and secretive when close to home. I’d argue that although not outwardly raucous as the birds are, Cornelia’s mind is far from quiet: her thoughts crash around and run out of control, clinging to the most fragile support and building a real sense of there being no escape for her. With each further misstep and unsaid truth, this claustrophobic feeling builds until she’s entangled like a bird in netting and you wonder how she will ever break free. Read more

Book Review: Entanglement by Katy Mahood

As soon as I read her opening description of a murmuration, I knew that I was going to enjoy Katy Mahood’s debut novel, Entanglement. It’s the first of many such arresting images in this novel about those ‘moments’ we share with complete strangers.

On a hot October day in a London park, Stella sits in her red wedding dress opposite John.

Pregnant and lost in thoughts of the future, she has no idea that lying in the grass, a stone’s throw away, is a man called Charlie.

From this moment, Stella and Charlie’s lives are bound together in ways they could never imagine. But all they have is a shared glance and a feeling: have we met before?

Both the title and premise for Katy Mahood’s book derive from a quantum mechanics theory in which (and I am paraphrasing very loosely here) two entities temporarily share a space or interact, due to some indefinable pull, creating a link between them. That may be the science behind it but the book’s appeal lies in how recognisable and relatable this phenomenon is. We’ve all experienced times where we’ve shared a smile, an eye roll or more with a stranger, before continuing on our separate ways. And in Entanglement, Katy Mahood traces those fleeting moments when our lives bump up against those of others.

Entanglement follows the divergent paths of Stella, John and Charlie through almost thirty years from October 1977 to August 2007. It’s a span of time which will take in all the highs and lows of life from falling in love to near breakups to divorce, the joy, the boredom, the mistakes people make and the things they get right. How people change and grow together or apart, the compromises and adjustments they make along the way, how they deal with unfulfilled hopes and dreams and what they consider to be a successful or fulfilling life. It looks at the contrast between what’s important when you’re young and how that alters at different life stages or in the face of a milestone event.

Perhaps it’s because they first share a moment in Paddington station on my birthday that it’s Stella and Charlie’s characters who most captured my imagination. I had a real sense that shared moments gently reverberated through their lives, even if only a faint echo, and that other characters missed out on this by not being as open or present in that moment. Read more

Book Review: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

In Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid charts the trajectory of a young woman who goes from hard-partying groupie to ubiquitous band’s frontwoman in 1970s LA.

For a while, Daisy Jones & The Six were everywhere. Their albums were on every turntable, they sold out arenas from coast to coast, their sound defined an era. And then, on 12 July 1979, they split.

Nobody ever knew why. Until now.

They were lovers and friends and brothers and rivals. They couldn’t believe their luck, until it ran out. This is their story of the early days and the wild nights, but everyone remembers the truth differently.

The only thing they all know for sure is that from the moment Daisy Jones walked barefoot onstage at the Whisky, their lives were irrevocably changed.

Making music is never just about the music. And sometimes it can be hard to tell where the sound stops and the feelings begin.

The gorgeous cover gave me a pretty good idea that this was the story of a seventies band and I especially love the ticket stubs printed on the endpapers. I did have some misgivings about how enjoyable the interview style of the book would be to read but I needn’t have worried. It works well here and helps set the pace and tone of the novel. So much so that I inhaled Daisy Jones & The Six in one day, all the while feeling as if I was in a sprawling Rolling Stone interview or TV documentary on the band.

I had a love-hate relationship with both Daisy and Billy, I admired their creativity and talent, but not always how self-destructive they both were or how little regard they showed towards other people. Not that I felt this was malicious on their part. They each got caught up in what they were doing to the point where that consumed them. Karen and Graham were a good counterpoint to their excess and I especially liked Karen’s take on the situation within the band, her own personal life, and what she would sacrifice for a career in music. I felt for Graham but empathised more with Karen.

Pete and Warren’s voices weren’t as distinctive as some of the others in the band and I didn’t get as good a handle on their characters. But I have to say that I adored Eddie’s constant bitching. He rumbled discontent throughout the book and made me laugh, which I’m not sure he’d be entirely happy about. Read more

Book Review: The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

Sarah J. Harris’ The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder centres around Jasper Wishart, who faces more obstacles than your average amateur sleuth as he attempts to crack the mystery at the heart of this book. But then, Jasper’s no ordinary thirteen-year-old boy, thanks to the way in which he sees the world.

There are three things you need to know about Jasper.

1. He sees the world completely differently.
2. He can’t recognise faces – not even his own.
3. He is the only witness to the murder of his neighbour, Bee Larkham.

But uncovering the truth about that night will change his world forever…

One of the beauties of a good book is how it can put you inside the head of someone who experiences the world differently to you and this is exactly what Sarah J. Harris achieves here.

I’d heard of synaesthesia, a condition in which senses intermingle, but struggled to picture how it manifests itself. In Jasper’s case, he sees words, numbers and even voices in colour and experiencing this alongside him in the book was a revelation. (Although I also think there is a danger of becoming too fixated on trying to remember all the colours he sees. I had to remind myself there was no test at the end of the book before I stopped doing so.)

Together with his synaesthesia, Jasper also experiences prosopagnosia (or face blindness), which admittedly is a huge obstacle for anyone trying to piece together people’s movements in the days leading up to the disappearance of their neighbour, and immediately afterwards. I had to admire Jasper’s tenacity, the coping mechanisms he puts in place to navigate life as he sees it, and raged on his behalf when someone set out to trick Jasper by using his own system against him.  Read more

Book Review: The Binding by Bridget Collins

Bridget Collins’ The Binding is one book you’ll lust after for your collection with its beautifully finished dust jacket and intricately designed book boards, holding within them the promise that this young man’s story is no ordinary apprentice’s tale.

Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.

Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible. 

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books and memories are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.

The Binding is a remarkably accomplished novel in which Bridget Collins performs some dark alchemy of her own to meld the power of magic and memories with the traditional hand craft of bookbinding and sees a young man’s apprenticeship transform into his calling, the integrity of which he’ll be forced to question when he discovers how others seek to abuse the secrets it hides.

The Binding is split into three sections: the first of these covers Emmett’s apprenticeship, initially in a remote bookbinding workshop on the edge of the marshes and later in the town of Castleford. I couldn’t get enough of the opening half where Emmett learns his craft and almost felt wrenched out of it, grieving a character I’d grown fond of but who was to play no further part.

When the second section threw me into the past, and back into someone’s memories, I once again felt disoriented and it took a little while to right myself. In part, this sensation comes about because Bridget Collins draws me in so deep with her spellbinding storytelling but I also can’t help feeling that she deliberately sets out to upset the equilibrium. It mirrors that felt by Emmett as more of the mystery surrounding his apprenticeship and the memories of others is unlocked. Each time there’s this shift, it throws new light on what’s happening, and ultimately sets up the conflict which plays out in the finale. Read more

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