Trying to Get Lost: A Review of You Were Here by Cori McCarthy

You Were HereCalling You Were Here by Cori McCarthy (Sourcebooks Fire, March 2016) a book about grief makes it sound depressing; although a primary concern of the book is the death five years ago of Jake, a risk-taking prankster, You Were Here fizzes with whiplash-quick dialogue and convincing relationships between those left behind.

Jake’s death, the result of a stupid and avoidable accident, haunts the main characters of McCarthy’s book; his younger sister Jaycee, ostensibly the novel’s main protagonist, attempts to recreate his stunts in order to remain close to his memory, while Natalie, Jaycee’s childhood best friend, has thrown herself into academic success in order to numb the pain of Jake’s death. Joining them in a mission to retrace Jake’s footsteps are Natalie’s hapless boyfriend Zach, heartbroken Bishop and silent, mysterious Mik. The characters grab and retain the reader’s interest; each has a convincing and clearly different voice, allowing you to form attachments to each of them.

Reading YA sometimes makes me feel old, as I have mentioned before in writing reviews; it is not unheard of for me to lose patience with a “troubled” character, not because I don’t sympathise with them, but because when you are 32 like I am, some of their problems seem insignificant. McCarthy’s characters, however, are all compelling, with fears and issues that resonate with a reader of any age. The different ways in which grief manifests itself, for example, is something which is relevant to all the characters, and McCarthy does an excellent job of making the reader care about all of them finding resolution.

If there was anything I didn’t like about You Were Here, I suppose it would be the unsavoury subplot involving Zach’s particularly nasty brother, whose incursions into the story I could have done without. Perhaps fewer references to how beautiful Jaycee is too; how she looked didn’t make any difference to how I responded to the character, and it didn’t seem integral to the plot. These are picky things though; there’s more than enough to enjoy and be drawn into here without being bothered by these details.

You Were Here is fast-paced, with plenty of action, and the chapters are short, allowing the story to zip along satisfyingly quickly. I liked the different ways in which McCarthy gives voice to the characters; the sections from Mik’s perspective, for example, surprised and engaged me, as well as breaking up the narrative. I also liked the development of a squad throughout the book, with angry, solitary Jaycee being joined and supported by the friends she has grown apart from. Jaycee is a brittle and difficult, and convincingly rebellious character, and I think it’s a brave decision to cast her front and centre in the novel, as well as one which allows her gradual recovery from Jake’s death to become clear. From the synopsis, I assumed this would be one of those YA novels which wants to make you sob into a pillow, but I don’t think that’s the intention here, which is far more impressive; You Were Here engages you with complex characters and relationships, as well as emotional reveals, rather than poking you until you cry. It’s a book with force and power, as well as dark humour, and I recommend it.

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A Review of The Girl from Everywhere (and a small moan about book-hype)

EverywhereEvery now and then, I am reminded of Alex Turner’s immortal words at the beginning of Arctic Monkeys’ video for I Bet You Look Good: “don’t believe the hype.” Since joining the book community on Twitter, I have heard huge amounts of chat about certain books; in some cases, like Truthwitch, the hype and almost aggressive online marketing have put me off, but, in others, I have fallen under the hype-spell and read the book concerned. And this is how we come to The Girl from Everywhere.

I have been tweeting about books since September 2015, and I am pretty sure that Heidi Heilig’s book has been all over Twitter since then, despite not being out until March in the UK. I have been simultaneously entranced by the US cover and put off by the UK one, and I feel like I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of The Girl from Everywhere.

For all these reasons, I find it difficult to say useful things about the book. On the one hand, it is original, entertaining and, at times, exciting. On the other, it drags a bit in the middle and, even by the end, my questions about how the time travel aspect of the story worked hadn’t been answered. I almost feel like I’ve been subjected to some kind of mind control process, preventing me from coming up with my own opinion on a book which the bookish world seems to have already made up its mind about.

So, to begin with the good things, The Girl from Everywhere takes in multiple time periods and various global locations, all thanks to a unique time travel concept and a cool-sounding ship. The relationship between the main character and narrator, Nix, and her father, Slate is fascinating; the whole thrust of the novel is that Slate is obsessed with traveling back in time to prevent the death of Nix’s mother, but nobody seems sure how this will impact on Nix and, you know, whether she’ll still be alive if his plan works. The diversity of the rest of the characters has been widely and rightfully praised in the reviews I’ve read, and the friendship between Nix and Kashmir is a high point.

My problem with The Girl from Everywhere lies mainly in the time travel element of the story. Slate can navigate his ship to any time and place, as long as he has a map of the place produced during the time he wants to visit, so he is always seeking a map of Honolulu in 18something, because this will enable him, in theory, to save his lost love. This is all fine. But, if they can only travel to eras for which they have a map, how can they go into the future? There’s a part of the book which takes place in New York in 2016, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t possible within the time travel parameters set out in the book. I don’t have a great record with understanding time travel, but I do have a massive brain; if I am missing something and have just failed to understand, I’m prepared to accept that, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

I wish I hadn’t been subjected to so much pre-reading hype about this book. I don’t think of myself as particularly suggestible, and if people tell me what to think, I usually think the opposite just to be awkward. But I can’t help but feel that my experience of The Girl from Everywhere was ruined somewhat by the amount of hype it received. This is also probably the first time I’ve felt genuinely guilty about not enjoying a book, because of goddamn Twitter; Heidi Heilig seems extremely nice and is very supportive of other writers on social media, and this all made me want to love The Girl from Everywhere, but I just didn’t. Personally, I would like to engage Slate’s method of time travel, procure a map from August 2015 and sail back to a time when I hadn’t heard of this book, so I could enjoy it on its own merits, rather than being told what to think for five months before even getting my hands on it.

Islanded Amid a Crowd: A Review of The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

lonely.pngThe Lonely City by Olivia Laing (Macmillan-Picador, March 2016) is a unique book, unless there is a whole genre of non-fiction focusing on the idea of loneliness, and I have just been blithely walking past that section in Waterstone’s for my whole life. I came to The Lonely City as a huge admirer of Laing’s previous work, The Trip to Echo Spring, which centred on alcoholism and its impact on the lives of legendary writers.

 

This book takes a similar approach, with Laing using her own experiences as a starting point, before expanding her analysis to the work of artists, both well-known and obscure. Much time is spent on Laing’s experience of finding herself unexpectedly living alone in New York. I was interested in the idea that one can be profoundly lonely when surrounded by millions of people in one of the world’s great cities, which I suppose shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The descriptions of Laing’s increasingly desolate apartments provided an almost visual representation of what loneliness looks like, and this focus was then transferred, for example, to the paintings of Edward Hopper, and the representations of loneliness to be found there.

What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?

Laing’s chapters studying the last two of these questions was one of the most compelling for me, and made me consider my own use of mobile technology and social media. I don’t suppose it’s groundbreaking to suggest that we are becoming increasingly isolated even as the world becomes more accessible, but the ways in which Laing presents this idea are intriguing. Another chapter which resonated with me was the one in which Laing considers the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and how this created loneliness and isolation for its victims. I was, I suppose, dimly aware of how the first AIDS sufferers were treated, but viewing this injustice through the prism of loneliness exponentially increases the sense of empathy created.

As with The Trip to Echo Spring, I enjoyed Olivia Laing’s style, even when the subjects being discussed were challenging, unfamiliar or unpleasant. The unflinching examination of the life and work of David Wojnarowicz, for example, provided an effective means of demonstrating the effects of social isolation, and led me to question whether such people are isolated because of their experiences or whether their experiences lead to their isolation. Laing is sensitive without being mawkish, exposing difficult truths without ever passing judgement. There’s a quality to her writing which is almost dreamlike, reflecting the sense of detachment one feels when isolated from one’s surroundings.

I could easily go through all the topics mentioned in The Lonely City and explain how fascinating they are and how compellingly Laing presents them, but to do so would be to take away from the experience of actually sitting down with this book. The reflections on psychology, science and technology, as well as the analytical approach taken to art, all create a work which is unique and emphatically worth reading.

Top Ten Tuesday: How the Comfort Zone Sometimes Lets You Down

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, as chosen by the hosts The Broke and The Bookish, is books outside the comfort zone which we actually enjoyed. My problem here is that I don’t particularly have a comfort zone; I read quite widely in different genres and avoid others just because I am a deeply prejudiced reader and judge everything by its cover. So this week, I’ve been my usual contrary self and carved out my own version of the topic; my top ten is books which should have been safe comfort zone reads but I actually didn’t like/completely hated/threw out of a window.

10. The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
This sounded like it was going to be really good and I bought it in a second-hand shop for £1, so it should have been a winner. But the story of kids having music lessons and someone having an affair with a teacher didn’t really grab me.

9. The Rosie Effect by Graeme Samson
I really loved The Rosie Project, so I expected to enjoy this, but I was disappointed by how it just recycled everything that was good about the first book but in a less entertaining way. Don was endearingly eccentric in The Rosie Project, but in the sequel he was just uncaring and annoying.

8. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This is another book I expected to love; for one thing, it’s about music and, as I love music as much as I love books, this should have been a winner. It was, however, a massive letdown. Obviously it’s actually a Pulitzer Prize winner so nobody actually cares what I think, but I was really disappointed by this.

7. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
This was on my TBR for absolutely ages; it’s a dystopia about a girl who leaves her weird, controlled town to find her recently-disappeared boyfriend and it sounded really good. I just didn’t fall for it though and this made me sad.

6. Fiesta, or The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
I really want to like Hemingway; I find his life story really fascinating and, on holiday in Chicago, I dragged my poor husband to the Hemingway museum and his birthplace. But I just don’t seem able to connect with his writing. I’ve read For Whom the Bell Tolls too, which should have been a banker with my obsession with the Spanish Civil War too, but neither of these books have impressed me. Hemingway’s style is divisive (in case you haven’t read any of his books, he basically hates all descriptive devices and is allergic to adverbs) and I feel like I’ve worked out which side of the divide I’m on.

5. The Master and Margarita by Mihhail Bulgakov
Someone I work with and whose literary opinions I respect loves this book, so I read it, thinking it would give us an intellectual topic to converse about over coffee at school. No. It was absolutely terrible. It made no sense. There was a giant talking cat in it. It was intensely misogynistic. The colleague in question also loves Moby Dick, which is probably the most boring book I’ve ever read, so I no longer listen to his recommendations.

4. The Manifesto on How to be Interesting by Holly Bourne
I know I’m massively in the minority here, and I’ve not read anything else by Holly Bourne (largely because of this one), but I really disliked this book. I disagreed with the central premise that, in order to be interesting, you have to be popular, and, in order to be popular, you have to be completely horrible. The main character in this book does some seriously messed-up stuff and I did not like it even one tiny bit.

3. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
I had such issues with this book. The story never convinced me, because at no point in her horrible, vindictive tapes does Hannah actually come across as suicidal; rather, she just blames a lot of people for her unhappiness, and she makes some very questionable choices along the way. Not least of which is her decision to record her story on a completely defunct medium. I have tested out my thoughts on this book to people with actual feelings and empathy, so I know it isn’t just me.

2. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
I’m actually embarrassed to admit to not really enjoying this. The book was literally all over Twitter for ages and billed as a lost feminist classic; I like to think of myself as something of a lost feminist classic, so surely this should have been a match made in heaven. Umm, no. The whole thing was excessively weird and everybody in it did things which made no sense whatsoever. Sigh.

1.Watch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler
This was one of the biggest disappointments of my reading life. I read The Basic Eight last year and ended up basically in a quivering heap on the floor, unable to cope on the most basic level with how astoundingly awesome it was. Why had I never heard of this book before? It was a revelation. So I sought out Watch Your Mouth, sat back and waited for it to change my life. Actually, it just made me feel a bit icky. Like I needed a shower. Why I thought a book about incest would provoke any other reaction is a mystery but, still; this was a crushing disappointment.

This has been a very cathartic experience. I feel that I have let go of all these feelings of negativity and I can now move on with my life, untroubled by how distressingly unhappy these books made me.