brb. reading.

Jenn. Female. Londoner. 23. Bookseller and eclectic reader; I run the gamut from teen romance novels to books where hookers get their intestines eaten. Basically, I'll read most things, and I don't learn from experience.

Sense & Sensibility - Joanna Trollope Modernised versions of Jane Austen's novels are always cropping up in current books, TV shows, films and even youtube series, so I did not approach the first offering from The Austen Project with total righteous indignation. Nevertheless, an official modern reworking of an Austen novel by a contemporary author is a concept that makes me a little defensive - do Austen's works really need rewriting? Aren't they marvellous and still relevant enough on their own? - and so I was more than a little apprehensive when given my proof copy. I'm glad to say, however, that I need not have been worried; Sense and Sensibility is very, very safe in Joanna Trollope's capable hands.

Whatever the genre and whoever the author, reimagining a beloved classic is always a tricky balancing act, and it's one Trollope pulls off and, what's more, manages to make look easy. She is respectful to the original material, but not slavish to it; this isn't basically the Austen book with cars and slang shoehorned in. A lot of careful thought has been put in, that much is clear: the characters are recognisable as Austen's creations, but also excellently adapted to be plausibly at home in the twenty-first century. Elinor is an architecture student trying to pay the bills and keep the household from collapsing in on itself; Marianne's headstrong wildness is here replaced with manic depression, and Margaret is a fabulously stroppy teenager. The men, too, are gorgeously recreated: the sweet but rudderless Ed, the handsome but shallow Wills and, of course, the quietly damaged but earnest Brandon (no prizes for guessing who my favourite is).

Whether you're familiar with the original or not, this version of Sense and Sensibility is utterly delightful: funny, romantic, gloriously written and paying just enough homage while still standing on its own two feet. I think I realised it had won my heart - and, just as importantly, my head - when I found myself talking to the characters aloud, in public, despite of course already knowing how it was all going to end! One of the things I love about Austen's novels is how, no matter how many times you read them, it is still possible to be completely and utterly swept up in them, and the same is true of this version: I can think of no higher praise. Delicious, sparkling and feelgood, I will definitely be shoving this at everyone I know.
Teen Titans: Year One - Amy Wolfram, Karl Kerschl, Serge LaPointe, Steph Peru, John Rauch This is the most darling thing to ever darling.
The Returned - Jason Mott ...wow.

This is a glorious, sad, thought-provoking journey of a book that I've read over the course of a day, from the first intriguing ideas to the inevitable, heartbreaking end. I'm sitting here a few minutes after finishing it trying to construct my review and blinking away a handful of tears.

It's something I think most - if not all - of us have thought about when losing a loved one: why can't they come back, why can't we say what we always wanted to say, please, can we just have a chance not to fuck it up this time. And The Returned looks at that in deep, heartwrenching, disturbing detail. It's a wide scope - the idea that all over the world, the dead are coming back to life - and Mott has made the smart choice to confine the majority of the action and events to a small town in Southern America. Of course it's interesting to wonder how the world would cope with a sudden influx of people, and that's touched on here, but this is very much a novel that looks, not at the economic or infrastructural logistics, but the emotional, the moral, the spiritual ones. And it's stronger for it, I think.

The Returned raises a lot of questions, most uncomfortable, some almost impossible to think about, and it's a fascinating examination of human nature: both the good and the bad. There are endless shades of grey here, far too many awful truths to look directly at, and while I often find myself resenting the 'what would you do' Picoult-esque nature of books that raise questions like this, I did find my mind lingering on this concept, trying to figure out where I placed myself, what I would do in this situation. Mott has a gorgeous turn of phrase, a deft way with establishing characters whether they appear as a brief fragment or throughout the novel, and I think it would be very hard to read this and not personally connect with at least one person.

This isn't a particularly easy read: while not a horror story of crudely shuffling zombies or even one overtly exploring an Us/Them divide, there's an edge of menace threaded throughout the book, a ticking clock, a burning down fuse, that inexorably carries you through to the shattering end. I want to say so much without wanting to ruin any of it for any prospective readers, so I think I'll just tell you, once again, that this is a clever, beautifully written, slow devastating twist of a novel, one I could barely bring myself to put down and one that I think is going to stay with me for a long time.

I want to meet Jason Mott now, and maybe cry all over him. But I'd settle for shaking his hand, and perhaps for thanking him instead.
Chaplin & Company: Starring Ms Odeline Milk (Mime & Illusionist) & Friends - Mave Fellowes This is a gorgeous, magical, sad little jewel of a book, one I took my time over, basking in the beautiful vignettes that form this tale of growing up, of lost opportunities, of sacrifices, changed plans, and growing hopes.

It is the tale of Odeline Milk, eighteen years old and moved to London to make her fortune as a mime artist, who dresses like Charlie Chaplin, writes endless lists in her notebook, lives just a little outside of reality, and is searching for her father, a circus clown who bewitched her mother eighteen years ago.

It is also the tale of the eponymous run-down houseboat she moves onto, the lives it has seen and touched, and how they softly intersect as the years go by.

It is also the tale of those who live on the waterway with her, running from bitter pasts in the hope of a better future.

The writing is nothing short of glorious: Fellowes has a distinctive turn of phrase, an almost compulsive attention to detail that makes it difficult to look away or pay attention to anything else while you're reading, so rich is her world. I can't count the number of times I almost - and actually did - miss my bus stop when reading this on the way to work or on the way home; there's a definite sense of being transported, of being brought within the book and into the heads of the various characters. This book is fragile but with a core of steel, much like its heroine, full of a sumptuous cascade of words that I wrapped myself up and lost myself within.

Chaplin and Company is sad and hopeful; some things will change, some things won't, and there's a brittle thread of loneliness and missed connections running through the novel that can make the simplest of things utterly heartbreaking. I wiped away a few tears at the end, I'll admit. But it's ultimately uplifting, as new families and friendships are formed, and trust starts to overcome prejudice, fear and ignorance. Fellowes is a genuinely stunning writer and one I would absolutely love to see more of; if her debut is this good - and it really, really is - then I can only expect even greater things in future.

Cosmo

Cosmo - Spencer Gordon This is a highly surreal, dark swirl of pop culture, emotions and modern society, sliding the scale from the deliciously, depressingly absurd - Leonard Cohen advertising Subway, a pornstar trying to perform when trapped inside a dinosaur suit - to the minute, sharply human moments that deliver a real punch to the chest - a mother waiting for her increasingly estranged son to sign onto instant messenger, a widower trying to smoke himself to death in his taped-up garage - and everything in-between. It'll be attention-grabbing stories like the one where Matthew McConaughy drives through the desert finding apparently dead clones of himself that get the most recognition, and rightly so, but Gordon also has an eye for the quieter, infinitely touching moments that take place out of the spotlight, like a sister trying to teach her younger brother to overcome fear, with dark, horrible results. Cosmo is both funny and desperately sad, a selection of surprising, thought-provoking and unusual stories that never stop pulling the rug from beneath your feet. Whether clambering inside the mind of a real-life shooter, writing a seemingly endless sentence about Miley Cyrus, or exploring the neuroses of a beauty queen, Gordon portrays frantic obsession, glorious despair and the barest tendrils of hope in beautiful prose, engrossing and fascinating, building fantastic structures of words only to topple them back down again. Possibly my favourite story in this collection, though, is Frankie+Hilary+Romeo+Abigail+Helen: An Intermission, a tangle of words and dates and events that should read like a Wikipedia article and instead takes you on a journey of tenuous links, missed opportunities and blind ambition that is utterly mesmerising. This whole book is mesmerising, actually; a series of transient, often heart-breaking moments that shouldn't link together but absolutely, gorgeously do.
Rogue Touch - Christine Woodward Rogue has always been one of my favourite superhero characters - possibly because the X-Men movies were my gateway to comic books, and who couldn't fail to fall in love with Anna Paquin's adorably wide-eyed and lost interpretation of the character - so I was really excited to get this book! I enjoyed it a lot; it's a thoroughly engrossing story of first love, isolation and self-acceptance, with a smart sci-fi twist.

Rogue Touch reimagines Rogue's origin story yet again, and we find her eighteen years old and on the run, with no plans and very little hope until she befriends the mysterious and unworldly young man who seems to be following her. But is he everything he seems to be, and where is this desperate roadtrip leading?

This is a lovely book: well-written, well-paced, intriguing, romantic and imaginative. Rogue's voice is individual and sympathetic, and the story unfolds with twists I didn't see coming. It's definitely worth reading, suspicious as I initially was when I first heard Marvel were publishing both this book and the (fabulous) She-Hulk Diaries.

The Marvel aspect of this novel is perhaps where it falls down a little, and is my one problem with it, actually! This is an atmospheric, gripping and moving story about first love, about a teenage girl coming to terms with an ability that could be a gift or a curse, who is part of a bigger picture that she could never have imagined. It's just not necessarily a story set in any recognisable Marvel universe. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, but since the novel promises that this is a story about Rogue, it's a little jarring to read a whole book with no references to the larger universe she's in; no X-Men, no superheroes, no one else with powers like hers. It's more like a clever and enjoyable sci-fi love story with a main heroine I'm predisposed to like than a book written about a well-known superhero character.

It's for that reason I'm giving this book four and not five stars; I liked it a lot, and definitely recommend it, but as a longtime fan of both comics and X-Men in particular, I was disappointed that I wasn't given more of the wider Marvel universe to explore.
The She-Hulk Diaries - Marta Acosta I had somewhat mixed feelings when it came to writing this review; not because I didn't enjoy the book (I really did; more on that in a minute), but because the actual creation of particular imprint makes me a little uneasy. As a fan of both comic books and chicklit, I'm of course delighted by Marvel's decision to publish these fun books based around their female superheroes; but I'm also aware that it's often very difficult for women to be taken seriously as comic book fans, and the creation of a special series for female readers in which the characters worry about shoes and boyfriends is not really the way to further make them part of this world. A lot of female comic book fans that I know expressed anger when I told them that I was reading this book, and inclusivity does not come from singling out female fans of comics, then giving them a frothy, specifically girly novel to read. So while I'm now going to talk about how much I enjoyed The She-Hulk Diaries, and how excited I am about embarking on the other book from this imprint - Rogue Touch - I wanted to show an awareness that this is a complicated area, and I'm not completely comfortable with this idea of female-oriented superhero chicklit.

Having said all that, this book is utterly delightful. It's fun, it's likeable, it's periodically laugh-out-loud funny, it has action, mystery and lots of romance. I'll admit here that my knowledge of Jennifer Walters and her big, green alter-ego is somewhat limited - although this book has made me order her more recent comics series, so that's about to change - but whether you're a casual film watcher/comics reader or a more hardcore fan, I think there's something here for both; lots of specific knowledge isn't required for reading enjoyment, but there are fun nods in there for people who know more. And, well, while Tony Stark doesn't ever actually appear in this book, references to him often manage to be wonderfully scene-stealing!

The content is a superhero novel mashed with a chicklit novel, keeping the best tropes of both. Jennifer wants the usual things - a job, an apartment, a boyfriend, to periodically get out of the house and do something that isn't work-related - but she's also got to contend with She-Hulk, her superheroic alter-ego who makes it virtually impossible to keep any of the above things! On top of all this, the Avengers have relegated her to the sidelines, the press are hounding She-Hulk's exploits, and her nemesis is being just a little too quiet... If you're looking for non-stop action, this takes a while to get going, but the different aspects of the plot are woven excellently together and come together for a brilliant climax with a few things I didn't quite see coming! There's also a brilliant scene at a fashion show that I won't spoil for you, but I'll never look at Karl Lagerfeld the same way again.

So maybe it is a little sexist, with a plot that centres around boyfriends, fashion, smoothies and self-actualisation. But the writing is good, the characters are strong, and I think the trick here is not to take it too seriously! I've given this book five stars because it was absolutely everything I wanted out of superhero chicklit: fun, nerdy, exciting, and almost ridiculously enjoyable. I'm now going to run to the other book in this imprint, and I can't wait!
The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul - Deborah Rodriguez Chicklit with suicide bombings.
A Treacherous Likeness - Lynn Shepherd Lynn Shepherd is one of those writers I'd been intending to read for a while, but somehow had never got around to. I wish I hadn't waited so long, because this is a fantastically atmospheric mystery novel.

I'll admit to not knowing much about the Romantic poets themselves, but the twisted and disturbing picture painted here, woven around existing facts, is enthralling and engrossing; as the plot unfurls and darker and darker truths come to light the book becomes breathlessly impossible to put down, even if you have work early the next morning! By the final, horrifying, conclusion there's still the unsettling feeling that all may not be as it seems, and you've passed through an exhausting but satisfying journey into the complicated and frequently immoral world of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shepherd's writing is smart, managing to sound period-appropriate while still giving knowing winks to modern readers. Charles Maddox, the central character, manages to be both sympathetic and unknowable, a tricky combination that shouldn't work but does. And the depictions of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and others of their set are vivid and plausible.

Gorgeously written, moving and disturbing, this was an absolutely fantastic book; I can think of no higher praise than to say that I've just ordered my copy of Tom-All-Alone's, I so desperately want to read more from this writer and of this detective.
Skinny Bitch in Love - Kim Barnouin I'll admit it up front: I've never tried out the Skinny Bitch cookbooks. But I've never been once to resist novels with delicious cooking in them and so was very excited to read this! It was everything I wanted: fun, romantic and full of sumptuous descriptions of diving-sounding food. Clementine is a brilliant heroine: smart, determined and talented, but with enough of a vulnerability to remain likable, while she has a supporting cast full of fabulous characters, including her smart-mouthed roommate, a handsome fellow vegan chef, and the mysterious billionaire Clementine can't help but be attracted to. While of course the plot isn't exactly a roller-coaster ride, it did go in a few directions I didn't expect, and left me feeling very satisfied. A delightfully frothy, feelgood read, perfect for summer (if it ever gets here!)
The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde Mysteries #1) - Lyndsay Faye Although not the Batman novel I momentarily hoped it might be when we first received this into stock(!) this is an absolutely brilliant historical mystery novel that I fell utterly in love with.

Set during the creation of New York's police force in the mid nineteenth century, this is the first in a series of mysteries centred around Timothy Wilde, a reluctant new recruit with nothing left to lose (or so he thinks). He's a fantastic character with great depth; flawed yet sympathetic, clever but without all the answers. The supporting characters, from his drug-addled, political older brother to the woman Timothy loves, the reverend's daughter with secrets of her own, are all beautifully realised and fully formed, creating a rich and diverse city to lose yourself in.

And it is very easy to lose yourself in this novel; Faye's writing is glorious, complex and evocative while creating a plausibly contemporary voice. She's done her research, but she doesn't beat you over the head with it, instead weaving period detail and information seamlessly into the narrative. New York in the nineteenth century - and the people who inhabit it - are brought magnificently to life, while the plot itself often had me grinding my teeth when my lunch hour came to an end just at a particularly exciting part!

Faye takes a deeply disturbing subject as her first mystery, but it is dealt with sensitively and without seeming to glorify or revel in the tragic deaths of young children. She doesn't shy away from the horror, but also doesn't over-indulge the detail; something I've found in a lot of other historical crime novels that seems unnecessary in some cases and downright disturbing in others. A good balance is struck here, so I have no caveats about recommending this novel, something I sometimes struggle with when it comes to other crime novels.

I am on tenterhooks waiting for the second (and third!) novels in this series; absolutely everything I wanted from a historical crime book and more.
Hawthorn & Child - Keith Ridgway After I'd read this, I must admit that I was unsure why this had been picked as a Waterstones Book Club title, as it certainly isn't one for everyone. However, one morning on my bus journey to work, a man sat down next to me reading it, and we ended up getting into a discussion about it; not something I'm used to doing on my commute (I'm usually too busy trying not to fall asleep into my coffee!) So I'll preface this review by saying that, if nothing else, there's a lot in here to talk about!

There's a lot in this novel full stop, actually. Ridgway's collection of interlocking narratives - to call them "short stories" is to imply that there's some sort of order to them, whereas these are more a collection of beginnings, middles and ends put in a blender and then shaken out over ice - are tied together, sort of, by the figures of Hawthorn and Child, police officers wandering through their North London cases. Sometimes they take centre stage, sometimes they're barely there at all; just figures in the distance, literally in the background of the tale. There are other recurring characters and themes throughout, linking it all somewhat tenuously together; maybe think Cloud Atlas, if you got it very very drunk, beat it up in an alley behind the bar, then set it on fire and pushed it over a cliff.

That might seem like an unnecessarily violent comparison, but then this is a brutal, brutal novel. Real and imagined atrocities twine through the pages, sometimes described in shocking detail, sometimes left stark, implied, and almost worse because of it. But this isn't just a novel of violence and confusion; there's love, hope, sex, adolescence, madness, loneliness and a wealth of the human condition. It evokes more questions than it answers - is there really a pack of wolves secretly running half of London? Is this magical realism or just plain insanity? - and if you're hoping for a mystery novel where you find it all out at the end, well, Hawthorn & Child doesn't even tell you what the supposed mystery was in the first place.

If you're still with me here, then I hope I haven't put you off entirely, because what I haven't said yet is that this book is magnificent. It's dark, romantic, funny, sexy, disturbing as all hell and so, so damn clever. Ridgway's writing is evocative, moving, and perfectly judged, each word in exactly the right place, and it's so easy to get lost in the half-lives and thoughts of its protagonists. I laughed, I teared up, I flinched away from the page, I had to stop in the middle to go to bed and picked it up immediately first thing in the morning. It's impossible to put down not because it's a page-turner, gripping and suspenseful, but because Ridgway's prose sucks you in and you can no longer find the exit; in fact, you stopped looking for it a long time ago.

Perhaps I'm still not selling this as well as I'd like to. But I really did love this; it's something different, something magical and unsettling and so clever I'm sure huge swathes of it went over my head. I urge you to read it. And then find someone to discuss it with, because you'll need them.

Currently reading

A Tale for the Time Being
Ruth Ozeki