Tag Archives: America

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

DATE FINISHED: August 9th, 2012 

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Every year, Trinity High School raises money by recruiting its students to sell chocolates. One year, Jerry Renault says ‘no’. At first, this is on instruction, the result of a unique kind of bullying instigated by a select clique known as The Vigils; but soon Jerry is making a stand of his own – although he is not quite sure why. Warped Vigil mastermind Archie is behind Jerry’s initial refusal, but his power is challenged when Jerry refuses to stand down. Can Archie regain control of the situation; and if not, will Jerry have proven or achieved anything? A war that is much bigger, and much more explosive than a box of chocolates has begun…

THOUGHTS:  The Chocolate War could easily have been a straightforward exercise examining the fears and humiliation of peer pressure, bullying and conformity with a side-order of positivity and the championing of self-esteem, self-belief, self-awareness (etc), but Cormier goes much further in this chillingly human story, full of challenging ideas. Read more of this post

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In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig

DATE FINISHED: July 18th, 2012 

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  Benedick is miserable: recently divorced, acting career in the doldrums, at war with his father, and barely able to look after himself, let alone his two young children (who ex-wife Georgie keeps insisting spend time with him). Taking refuge in the home of Ruth, the woman who raised him as one of her own, Benedick suddenly realises he can remember almost nothing about his real mother, who committed suicide when he was six years old. Inspired by a book of fairy tales written and illustrated by Laura, he embarks upon a quest to discover more about her, whether she was mad as many of her ‘friends’ seem to claim, and what drove her beyond the brink.

THOUGHTS:  In the sheer unlikeability of lead character Benedick, Craig sets herself for a potentially huge downfall – he is irritating, whiny, hypocritical, rude, quite simply unpleasant. Those readers who force themselves beyond this, however, will be rewarded Read more of this post

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

DATE FINISHED: May 13th, 2012

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  18 year old Merricat (Mary Katherine) is derided by the villagers when she ventures out of the Blackwood family home for supplies. The scandal of a poisoning years earlier (of which her elder sister Constance was acquitted) hovers over the family home, where the two girls and their ailing Uncle Julian live, and Julian daily relives – or tries to remember – the day that changed their lives forever. When Constance invites their Cousin Charles into the family home, Merricat does everything within her powers to make him leave, from asking him outright, to storing up ‘magic’ words, to…much worse. But Charles is equally determined that Merricat must go. Who will win?

THOUGHTS:  Like I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, I’m certain I would have loved this book if I had first read it when I was 14.   Read more of this post

The Adventures of Vaclav the Magnificent & His Lovely Assistant Lena by Haley Tanner

DATE FINISHED: May 12th, 2012

RATED: *** (3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Both children of Russian immigrants to Brooklyn, Vaclav and Lena have been inseparable since the first day they met and saw the magic act at a Coney Island sideshow. Vaclav becomes magician-in-training (with his lovely assistant Lena), and nobody questions why Lena barely eats and spends all of her time at Vaclav’s house or why he should do her homework. One night, Lena disappears from 10 year old Vaclav’s life with no explanation, leaving a gaping wound where VacLena has been separated. It is only when Lena re-finds Vaclav on her 17th birthday that the missing pieces are slotted back together…

THOUGHTS:  The third person, present tense narrative reflects Vaclav and Lena’s growing grasp of the English language, which did initially grate on me, but became less grating as they grew older. Read more of this post

The Grifters by Jim Thompson

DATE FINISHED: May 2nd, 2012

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Like his mother before him, Roy Dillon is a grifter, living off the short con. But one day, one of his standard tricks nearly kills him, and he is forced to re-evaluate. Conveniently, he is offered a straight job as a sales manager; but his lady friend discovers his gift for the grift and offers him a deal of her own. Roy is ready to play a new game, but will the women in his life allow him to make up new rules?

THOUGHTS:   This is pulp fiction? It’s a quick read, yes, but there’s more to it than you might expect.   Read more of this post

Angel of Brooklyn by Janette Jenkins

DATE FINISHED: April 27th, 2012

RATED: *** (3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Beatrice is raised in small-town America by her distant father, an amateur taxidermist, alongside her brother’s dreams of becoming a preacher. When this life comes to an abrupt end, Beatrice finds herself on Coney Island – at first selling postcards, but later playing a starring role, as the Angel of Brooklyn. Lancashire lad , Jonathan, whisks her away from the ‘glamour’ of the boardwalk, and Beatrice switches the hustle & bustle of small-time entertainment for the gossip of a tiny village without even a picture-house. Beatrice adapts to her new life in Anglezarke, but as all the young men sign up to serve their country, tensions rise amongst those left in the village.

THOUGHTS:   I did not immediately warm to this book. Read more of this post

Was by Geoff Ryman

DATE FINISHED: April 23rd, 2012

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Orphaned Dorothy Gael is raised by her Aunt and Uncle in a bleak Kansas farmhouse of the 1870s.  Her unhappy life is filled with thankless chores, society visits with Aunty Em, the long trek to school, and the unwanted attentions of Uncle Henry.  Only substitute teacher Frank offers any hope of salvation, through the power of imagination.  Interwoven with Dorothy’s story is that of young Frances Gumm, later to become Judy Garland immortalising Dorothy in glorious technicolour, as well as that of a young man called Jonathan who becomes obsessed with Dorothy as his own life slips away.

THOUGHTS:   This novel is at its strongest when focusing on the past, the land of Was.   Read more of this post

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

DATE FINISHED: April 20th, 2012

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Annie and Buster – also known as Child A and Child B – have been a part of their parents’ conceptual/performance art projects throughout their childhoods.  As they try to carve out their own identities as adults, they begin to realise just how much their lives and personalities have been affected by their unusual upbringing.  Each for their own reasons, the younger Fangs return home, but just as they are beginning to try to make sense of things, their parents disappear.  Is it a horrific murder, as suspected by the police; or is it just another work of art?  As Child A and Child B attempt to flush their parents out of hiding, are they facilitating some greater scheme, or are there bigger issues to contend with?

THOUGHTS:   Where does art end and life begin when the medium of your artwork is not a pen or paintbrush, but human experience?   Read more of this post

Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster

DATE FINISHED: October 5th, 2011             

RATED: *** (3.5)

SYNOPSIS:  9 year old Walt is plucked from the streets of St. Louis by the mysterious Master Yehudi, and promised that he will be taught how to fly. At a farm in Kansas, Walt is put through a tortuous 33 step program but his sharp wit sees him through, and after he stops fighting, realises that for the first time he is in the midst of a family that loves him. But with flight achieved and showbusiness stardom beckoning, is the future really as bright as it seems?

THOUGHTS:  On one level, I really enjoyed this book. Walt and Master Yehudi are great characters, and the story sucked me in immediately. Read more of this post

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

DATE FINISHED: September 25th, 2011             

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Four teenagers from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys are singled out by small-time crook Frank Minna, and together perform whatever dubious tasks are set them with a sense of pride: they are the Minna Men.  When Minna is murdered, Lionel Essrog (Tourette’s sufferer, social outcast and general figure of fun), is determined to find out who is responsible, and why.  Figuring out who he can trust is another matter altogether…

THOUGHTS:  Told from Lionel’s point of view, this story is as much about the workings of a tourettic mind as it is a murder mystery; not to mention a great excuse for Lethem to play with the sounds and structures of language through Lionel’s tics.   Read more of this post