YA Review: Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield

flight of a starling.jpgThe Premise: Lo and Rita are sisters, raised in the family circus; they never stay in one town for more than a few days, so their family is all they have. They’ll marry into the circus, keep performing for their whole lives: until Lo meets a boy whose life is entirely separate from everything she knows and she begins to question what she really wants.

Thoughts: Lisa Heathfield is a superb writer of YA novels; her previous works, Seed (about teens trapped in a cult) and Paper Butterflies (a heartbreaking story of abuse) both caused me to have the kind of emotions that you want to avoid experiencing in any kind of public space. Heathfield knows exactly how to construct a beautiful, touching and deceptively simple story in order to pull on the heartstrings of her readers and Flight of a Starling is no different.

I’m fascinated by stories set in circuses or involving performers, from Angela Carter’s novels to Nights at the Circus and The Lonely Hearts Hotel, and Flight of a Starling is a worthy addition to the list. The descriptions of the day-to-day life of the circus, as well as the performances and performers, are exquisitely detailed, creating a strong image for the reader. The relationships between the characters in the circus, centring on Lo and Rita but also their bonds with their parents, grandfather and friends are compelling and absorbing; it’s a relatively short book and only took me a few hours to red, but I still felt immersed in the story.

Like Kate Ling’s excellent The Loneliness of Distant Beings, Flight of a Starling explores the idea of a life predetermined by the choices of your parents, and even their parents before them; while Ling’s characters railed against living their whole lives enclosed in a spaceship, Lo comes to question whether she wants to spend her whole life in the circus, a feeling that springs from meeting Dean. Their romance is sweet and lacking in overblown melodrama; it shows Lo seeking a more ‘normal’ life, even the like of which others might try to escape.

In Conclusion: Lisa Heathfield should feature in any discussion of top YA writers; Flight of a Starling is yet another assured, emotive and well-executed narrative that packs a punch. I feel like it’s a story that will stay with me.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books of 2017

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is about our favourite books of the year so far. I’m going by what I’ve read this year as opposed to sticking solely to books published in 2017 (although most of these were). They’re not in order because that’s just too hard. Picking just 10 books from everything I’ve read this year was tricky enough!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I adored this book, its central character, the way it surprised me; you can read my review here. I’ve seen a lot of talk about it on Twitter too which makes me very happy.

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
This completely astonishing YA book has stayed in my brain all year; teen Mary and her messed-up story of being jailed for the murder of a baby is unlikely to leave me any time soon. Here’s my review.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli
I am in love with this beautiful book of inspirational women, and very happy to be reading it with my daughter for a second time.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
I remain horrified that this didn’t make the Baileys shortlist. It’s a devastatingly gorgeous, sometimes traumatising story of two orphans and a circus, and that description in no way does it justice.

Augustown by Kei Miller
A really striking depiction of a small town in Jamaica, showing poverty, racism and family divisions. I really recommend this book.

The March trilogy by John Lewis
This set of graphic novels depicts the Civil Rights Movement, from the perspective of longtime Congressman John Lewis, who played a leading role in the fight for equality. Everything about these books is outstanding; the art, the storytelling style and the way in which the facts are presented.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
Hard to get into, but ultimately a very absorbing and epic story of horse-racing, prejudice and families. I still feel like this should have won the Baileys prize.

Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood by Hollie McNish
Excellent collection of poetry and prose, based around McNish’s experiences of pregnancy and motherhood. It’s all so relatable and real; I wish I’d had this when I was going through the early days of parenthood.

Here I Stand, edited by Amnesty International
This is a sometimes disturbing but always compelling collection of short stories based around human rights. I’ll be using it at school next year in conjunction with Amnesty’s excellent lesson resources.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
A superb mix of magical realism and topical coverage of the refugee crisis, this really grabbed my attention and pulled on my heartstrings. It’s a gorgeous book.

Have you read any of these books? Or are you tempted? Please link me to your lists in the comments. It’s not like I’ve already got a zillion books to read…

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.