Review: Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

ghachar ghochar.pngThe Premise: a short novel about a family whose elevation from a cramped, unimpressive home to greater wealth and security brings more problems than they might have thought.

Thoughts: for such a slight novel (only 192 pages), there’s a lot brewing in Ghachar Ghochar, all dealt with in a brisk style yet somehow superbly developed. The narrator (unnamed, just to add to an ever-growing list of books that does this and thus makes my life difficult when it comes to reviewing) focuses on the different members of his family in a series of nuanced and subtle chapters, giving the reader a sense of really getting to know the various members of his believably peculiar family.

That’s all quite vague, isn’t it? The book begins with the narrator frequenting a coffee house and apparently desperate for guidance from a waiter, which is a fair indication of his general ennui – a feature repeated throughout, particularly in his barely-a-job occupation with the family business. It was this, combined with his wife’s astonished response upon discovering that the businessman she thought she had married was not entirely real, that brought Ghachar Ghochar to life for me. In an oddly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory way, the narrator and his wife share their home with his parents, uncle and sister, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that creates tension and humour in equal measure; the section in which his mother bullies his uncle’s girlfriend on the doorstep was particularly entertaining.

In Conclusion: it’s a brief read but a really engaging and vibrant one. Ghachar Ghochar could have been twice the length and still just as entertaining and compelling, which is not something I would say about many books.

Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

samuel hawleyThe Premise: after years on the run, Samuel Hawley returns to Olympus, Massachusetts to start a life with his daughter, Loo. But Hawley bears the scars of a dangerous life – literally, with bullet wounds riddling his body – that, it appears, is pretty difficult to outrun.

Thoughts: I won this book in a giveaway by the publisher on Twitter; if I hadn’t, I’m not sure that I would have picked it up, which would have been a shame. It’s an exciting and intriguing story; in hardback, it looks enormous and, in fairness, it is pretty long at nearly 500 pages, but the story whizzes past at such a rate that I didn’t really notice the length.

Tinti has neatly divided the book, with chapters telling the story of Loo’s life in Olympus, learning about her mother’s death and father’s life alternating with Hawley’s past, with each of these chapters focusing on how he got his bullet wounds. When different narratives interweave, I usually find myself with a strong preference for one or the other, but I enjoyed both the flashbacks and the present in The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, especially the way the sections about the past led up to the present. It also helps to create the ambience of a thriller, particularly as Hawley’s criminal dealings become more dangerous and evident; I wouldn’t ordinarily read something in that genre, but this has made me think I should be more open-minded.

Tinti has a real gift for characterisation; I liked the small-town mentality of Olympus and how this was expressed through a cast of interesting, albeit largely not very pleasant characters. The shady characters of Hawley’s past are menacing without being caricatured, while Hawley himself is enigmatic and creepy. There are intriguing background subplots in the form of Loo’s relationship with a boy whose mother hates Loo and Hawley, as well as the connected subplot concerning the bitterness between the community’s fishermen and the campaign to restrict their activities. It all helps to build a rich and fascinating atmosphere.

In Conclusion: an excellent read all-round, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley would be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys thrillers, mysteries or family sagas. It’s an expansive yet intimate novel which both entertains and unsettles.

Poetry Review: Plum by Hollie McNish

plum.pngThe Premise: a new collection of poems from British poet Hollie McNish, this time focused on the development from childhood to adulthood.

Thoughts: since reading McNish’s previous work, Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood, I’ve been a big fan. I found that collection really relatable in the way McNish wrote so honestly about pregnancy and being mother to a young daughter, and I found plenty to relate to in Plum too, with McNish taking her reader through from early childhood to adulthood, encompassing topics like school, religion, friendship and part-time jobs. McNish creates an intimate atmosphere, and it has the overall effect of making Plum feel like a conversation of whispered secrets with a best friend.

Alternating between topics like the demonising of teenagers in ‘No Ball Games,’ and the empty promises in ‘Politicians,’ along with amusing anecdotes about working on the photo counter in Boots and plotting about which print to place at the top of the wallet to embarrass both employee and customer when the pictures were collected. I like McNish’s ability to mix humour with serious commentary; in Plum, she mixes her current work with poems written when she was a child and teenager, and, ironically, it’s often these earlier poems which concern themselves with wider issues.  McNish’s brief introductions to these poems are self-effacing and witty, mocking her own teenage earnestness at times. It all adds up to a collection that confronts important questions without ever seeming pretentious or trying to lecture its reader.

now we must plan to meet
in diaries
don’t dance in pjs/
share the bed

you do not comb my hair
for hours, to practise plaits
– drink tea instead

There were a few poems in Plum that I found particularly relatable; ‘Call On Me’ laments the fact that adults are so often geographically distanced from their friends at the time when they are most needed, juxtaposing the lost innocence of childhood friendships with the more formal nature of meeting up as grown-ups. I found myself nodding along in a way that I would have found very embarrassing if I was reading it in public. In the poem ‘And We Talk,’ McNish exposes the hypocrisy of modern parenting, when mums “talk about the seed packs for handy fat-free snacking” but “when children beg the park from us we tell them we are chatting; McNish has a real gift for spotting these seemingly insignificant moments of modern life and pointing them out in a strongly worded but un-preachy way.

In Conclusion: if you’re an admirer of McNish’s previous work, or of Kate Tempest, I highly recommend Plum; it follows on from Nobody Told Me while widening the scope of subject matter, and it’s hugely successful in doing this. I love McNish’s poetic style; the language is deceptively simple, allowing it to really pack a punch, and the poet’s voice is strong throughout. Hollie McNish is a really exciting talent.

YA Review: Fall in One Day by Craig Terlson

Premise: it’s Canada in 1973 and Joe’s best friend Brian has gone missing, along with his strange father, who has put Brian’s mother in the hospital. Amid news reports of the Watergate scandal, hippies and many references to Steely Dan, Joe is determined to find out what happened o his friend.
Thoughts: I received an e-ARC of this book via NetGalley, having requested it because I was on the hunt for some obscure and unusual YA. Fall in One Day delivers in both respects; I’m really keen to find more YA set in different historical periods, even those that aren’t really so long ago, and, although Nixon and Watergate are far away from Joe’s search for Brian, they help to create a general atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia which work really well in the novel. I would hope that an actual teen reader (rather than a wannabe-teen-but-actually-mid-30s one like me) would be attracted to the idea of reading something with an unfamiliar context like this.

The story itself is unpredictable, with the air of a thriller about it. There’s a big shift in tone and focus about two-thirds of the way through, which adds a new dimension (not literally – it doesn’t turn into a space travel epic) to the plot. It feels jarring and strange to the reader, but that’s exactly how it feels to the characters too, so it works. I stayed just the right side of convinced by Joe’s anxious pursuit of Brian; it’s melodramatic, obviously, but believable and I did find myself both really wanting to know where he was and why his dad had taken him.

There were a few little things that niggled; Joe is always really rude to his mum, which annoyed me, and some of the psychadelic dialogue didn’t fully convince me. But these are little issues in a YA book which is generally intriguing and original.

In Conclusion: Fall in One Day is a refreshing change of pace in YA, where contemporary stories and fantasy seem to dominate. I’d love to read more YA set in different era; it’s already a given in general fiction, and something I hope becomes more mainstream in YA. Fall in One Day is a great place to start.