Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Shelf Esteem: Marriage Material and The Bone Season


*turns smoothly round in wheeled armchair*

Why hello there, literary Sluttery! We've got three wildly different books this time, all of which at least rank "good". This is a huge relief as rubbish books shouldn't ever be allowed.

I've already got stuck into my first book for next time, Burial Rites, which has been highly recommended by Twitter and you, so if there's something you absolutely love and must share, tell me about it. I'm also reading the massive stack of Y: The Last Man which I've kindly got on loan from my friend Helen - please excuse me, I've just got to lock myself in a room until I've finished it.

Happy reading! On to our first book.

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera
Shelf worth: 4/5


(lengthy preview on Amazon)

I really enjoy Sathnam Sanghera's journalism. He's sarcastic without being cruel and he's very good with words, as was also evident in 2009's The Boy With The Topknot, his excellent and  moving memoir about growing up in Wolverhampton and realising his dad had a mental illness.

Marriage Material is Sanghera's first novel, based on Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale which, mea culpa, I ain't read. There's a handy cribbing version here, but as we're not at school I'd just throw yourself in.

During the prologue, I was a bit worried that he was just going to write a fictionalised version of himself. It read exactly like his columns, especially introducing our first-person protagonist Arjan, a bespectacled creative who has swapped Wolverhampton for London thanks to school, university and eventually cash (tick, tick, tick). While Sanghera's wryness gets no less wry after the prologue, it settles down into an absorbing read as characters and family tensions emerge.

Arjan returns to Wolverhampton after his father's death, first to help his mother Kamaljit in the family shop, and then to wallow in an existential crisis when his relationship with fiancée Freya breaks down. Intertwined is Kamaljit's relationship with her sister Surinder, told during their teenage years in the 70s, before Surinder shocks the family with a mixed-race elopement. Surinder reemerges towards the end of the book, and is so sparky and entertaining that it's a credit to Sanghera's love for his characters that Kamaljit manages to be three-dimensional, rather than a disapproving paper cut-out.

Just as with his last book, surprises come from our hero finding out that the people he knows are fallible, or something other than he had pegged them as. Sanghera is extremely good at people, and however unappealing or fleeting their appearance, each person we meet feels entirely credible - and sometimes those appearances are seriously unappealing. A good-natured and entertaining read that proves it isn't just Caitlin Moran ably flying the flag for Wolverhampton.


The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Shelf worth: 4/5


(preview on Amazon)

This hugely entertaining debut novel gets a full five stars for the first two acts, and then drops a bit for the  final section which can't match the cool plotting of the previous chapters. Regardless, it's a smasher.

Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is a high-level clairvoyant who is mollisher, or second in command, in a criminal gang based in Seven Dials in mid-21st century London. Britain does not look kindly on clairvoyants, and is now run by the Scion regime, who also look after science, behaviour and schooling and making sure nobody has any fun.

When she is caught on the hop in a Tube carriage one night, she is forced to use her dreamwalking powers to kill, and is soon captured and taken to a dangerous location that was once Oxford, and is now Sheol 1. Scion is a puppet government under the control of an alien race called the Rephaim, who round up clairvoyants every decade in the titular Bone Season (I can see the Hunger Games-esque marketing material now).

Paige piques the interest of Warden Arcturus, the consort of the Rephaim bone sovereign, and under his command has to work her way through a series of tasks and battles while also trying to find an escape. But obviously, and because this is quite a long book, not everything is quite what it seems.

Shannon, who only recently graduated from Oxford, has sold this into 20 languages, and it deserves to be huge. Not just with the YA Hunger Games crowd, but with anyone who appreciates a superb yarn: tonally, it's in a similar vein to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or The Night Circus - minus the breathiness and once Erin Morgenstern found her footing.

You'll need to pay attention because this is "show don't tell" writing, frequently at the reader's expense. Shannon writes in engagingly clipped prose, and as well as an incredibly densely-thought out world with lots of clairvoyant classifications, there's a lot of reworked cockney slang. One of the terms, which I'd only guessed at, wasn't explained for 150 pages. Even though it was mentioned on page 2, I still had no idea what Paige's trade of mollisher was until I read the appendix, having cheerfully thought it was something like "fighter with a large stick". It really doesn't matter, however much or little you understand, it means less exposition and more being thrown into an engaging world.

The last third tails off a bit, and there are a few terms which stick out like a sore thumb and feel silly in comparison to the rest. I'm not sure there's enough to fill out what is apparently planned to be a seven-book series, but this is one book you won't regret reading in a hurry. A very bonne season. And that is actually in the book, so don't come groaning to me.


She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
Shelf worth: 3/5


(preview on Amazon)

This isn't out til next week. How fancy do I feel? Pretty fancy. Sedgwick is apparently a god akin to Jacqueline Wilson among the youngers, and as I mentioned last time, young adult fiction is often just as spectacular as that aimed at adults, if not more so.

This gets off to a cracking start as 16-year-old Laureth quietly not-quite-abducts her seven-year-old brother Benjamin and heads off to fly to America to find their writer father, who has disappeared while researching a book about coincidence. Exactly why she has to take her brother with her unravels beautifully during the first chapter - Laureth is blind. I can't remember the last time I read a novel with a blind lead, if at all. Worrying. I found Laureth fascinating, particularly the conclusions she draws from not seeing, and how she gets about, alone and with Benjamin.

There is a constant tension from Laureth having to keep Benjamin calm, not get found out as blind, and keep out of the way of suspicious adults. It all feels exhausting, and Sedgwick writes this brilliantly. Supporting characters are also entirely credible, from the mysterious man who finds their father's notebook and starts their adventure to New York, to their father, drawn in flashbacks and pages from his notebook.

This skewed a little too young for me to get completely drawn in. The tenser final scenes went over the top pretty quickly and then tied themselves up amazingly neatly. But the final paragraph of the final page really made me go "Oh you clever sod." This is a jolly good present if you have an early teens sister, but it's well worth a read for you too.

7 comments:

  1. I've just downloaded Kiss Me First, which has got off to a really interesting start - the links to social media all feel very familiar and close for comfort. Frankly anything would be better than Harvest - never mind the Booker, that might win my award for the dullest book I've read this year.

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  2. Oh SUPERB! I saw Lottie Moggach at a Shoreditch House lit salon in the summer and that book sounded amazing. I hope it's good. I shall duly ignore Harvest, thank you.

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    1. Did you watch The Village on BBC1? All very serious acting and frankly bloody miserable, but not really terrible at all?

      Harvest felt exactly like that.

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    2. Oh God that sounds like the complete opposite of fun. Nope, completely missed it. Thank goodness! Did you ever read A Year of Wonders? That has a village in it. And some serious stuff. But it is WICKED. (official verdict)

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  3. Where do you stand on leaving books unfinished, Kat? I'm much less tolerant of books that piss me off these days, but can't help feel that I'm not giving myself chance to get into them - especially not with the blasted preview function on my ereader. How long do you give a book? Read the entire thing or give in if you're not gripped by the first half?

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    1. It completely depends on what else happens. I started Snuff by Terry Pratchett (who I love) earlier in the year, but got distracted by work and other books and haven't gone back to it. I think part of the thing is it being so much harder to carve out a proper chunk of time to just sit down and read! I've got tons of books I'm only halfway through - most I'll go back to, start again, and enjoy properly, but if something really doesn't take my fancy then there's not much point. I remember it took me three goes to get past chapter two of Captain Corelli at sixth form, but I did really enjoy it in the end. Gone Girl though - I got four pages in and somehow found something else to do!

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    2. You're right. If I'm busy, I'm much more likely to pick up a book that's an easy read - something that I can just fall into. Especially when it comes to non-fiction. I'm reading two books by war reporters right now, but they're not really the kind of thing that you can read in one go!

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