Monday 5 January 2015

Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey

Maud gets muddled about all sorts of things these days, but she is sure of one thing: Elizabeth is missing. In her obsession to find out what has happened to her friend, Maud's quest takes her back to a long-forgotten mystery from her past.

Elizabeth Is Missing hit close to home, making me think of my own grandmother, who is 92, and growing increasingly forgetful and confused. And like Maud, she has very fixed ideas that no one else can quite work out where they came from. But they make perfect sense to her. It did not help matters that Maud's daughter in Elizabeth is Missing was named Helen - my mother's name - and her granddaughter Katy (though they were very different people from my mum and me.)

It was a courageous choice on Emma Healey's behalf to write this book entirely from the point of view of an elderly lady with some form of dementia. Written in the first person, the prose is in a sort of stream-of-consciousness, a mixture of past and present as Maud gets her thoughts confused, with gaps between scenes, and the search for elusive words (which may turn up in the next paragraph as if they were never missing.) Each sentence is in the present, although we can observe where it contradicts the thought that Maud had just a couple of lines back. We get to experience Maud's frustration and fogginess while seeing what she forgets, as she forgets it. This fictional view inside a fading mind encourages empathy, patience and understanding. Maud's world is not the same as the one she physically inhabits, but is a world of the mind, of past and present perceived as fluid and changing. 

Maud's memories are bound up in repeated behaviour and in objects, which take her back to a time in her past, in the 1940s, when her sister Sukey disappeared. Her recollection of seventy years ago is far more lucid than her short-term memory, which just will not retain information. She will latch onto small details, ask strange, apparently meaningless questions, such as where would be the best place to plant marrows? As well as the memories of her family, their lodger and her missing sister's lodger, a "mad" woman recurs in her flashbacks, making scenes, but for the most part seemingly unrelated to everything else Maud remembers. As well as perhaps being a parallel to her elderly self, one wonders if the "mad" woman's strange behaviour will be the key to unlocking the mystery. And ultimately the clues were in plain sight all along, if only Maud (and the reader) could figure out what they meant. 

Elizabeth is Missing was an excellent book to start 2015 with, a compassionate psychological study, and a compelling and satisfying mystery. A remarkable, perfectly-crafted debut. 

Sunday 4 January 2015

Mini-reviews: It, The Last Englishman, Flowers for Algernon

It - Stephen King

2014 was the Year of Stephen King for me: although I had read his books before, it wasn't until last year that I recognised what a wonderful storyteller he is: not the mere writer of horror stories his reputation suggests - King writes about people, makes you care about them, and then, once you've grown attached, he makes you fear not just whichever monster they face, but fear for his characters. And as such, It really isn't "a horror story about an evil clown" at all. Yes, it is gruesome and unsettling at times, but the novel did not frighten me half as much as the idea of it did - and the clown does not appear nearly as often as I'd been led to believe. I still don't think I'd be up to watching the 1990 TV film adaptation though. I really. Don't. Like. Clowns. (I learned that a young Seth Green - Oz in Buffy - played the younger version of Richie Tozier. YES. Perfect.)

Just as someone once described Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, (a very different book, with similar themes) what happens in It really isn't what it's about. Yes, there is a shape-shifting monster whose favourite disguise is as a murderous clown called Pennywise, but really the book is about the perils unique to childhood, it is about a hostile place, the power of people to ignore what is going on under their noses, it is about the strength in friendship to overcome monsters visible and unseen. At over 1500 pages, It was nearly double the runner-up for longest book read last year, but not a word was wasted, not a page dragged. King has a rich prose, taking his time in building up the town of Derry, inducting the reader into the Losers' Club with Bill, Ben, Richie, Beverly, Eddie, Mike and Stan, and weaving together past and present as our characters' forgotten memories of the summer of '58 slowly return to them as required in the battle against It.

Key quotes: "That's what happened when you got back to your used-to-be, as the song put it. The frosting on the cake was sweet, but the stuff underneath was bitter."

"If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one - probably a child - who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it."

The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome – Roland Chambers.

To most people, the name Arthur Ransome is synonymous with quaint English adventure stories for children, full of decent English children in a time when they were allowed to run free, sail, camp, climb mountains and play at being adventurers, explorers and pirates with no supervision from anyone older than the age of twelve or thirteen. All as jolly and wholesome as anyone can wish for! But before he came to write the Swallows and Amazons books, Ransome lived a very different life as a journalist, witnessing first-hand the Russian revolution and cosying up to many of the biggest names of the Bolshevik movement so well that ultimately, his every motive and movement came under question. In The Last Englishman, Roland Chambers attempts to unravel the mystery of Arthur Ransome, only to find the writer to be a slippery fish indeed!

I have to confess myself very ignorant about such a momentous period in history, and as such I found this biography heavy-going at times, but also fascinating, leaving me wanting to read and understand more about early twentieth-century Russia. As a biographer, Chambers draws Ransome as a curious, enigmatic figure, but shows little admiration for him as a man, showing him to be a far more difficult, sometimes naive or irresponsible, and curmudgeonly figure than his character “Captain Flint” – Nancy and Peggy Blackett’s Uncle Jim – the retired adventurer who might be closer to how Ransome would prefer to be remembered.

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

One of the science fiction classics of the 20th century, Flowers for Algernon is presented as the journal of Charlie Gordon, a young man with learning disabilities, who is eager to be the test subject for an experimental IQ-increasing drug trial. His journals (misspelled at first) chart his progress from "simpleton," working as a janitor in a bakery, to a genius who puts the world's leading scientists to shame. As well as his increasing intellect, Charlie's progress reports portray his emotional development and his new understanding of the world and the people within it. This is a bittersweet experience, when he comes to recognise the cruelty of his "friends'" jokes at his expense, and that intelligence brings as much trouble as it solves.

Flowers for Algernon is an important novel, as important now as at the time when it was written, raising discussions of personhood, and the treatment of the mentally disabled. It asks how far identity comes from one's perception of the world, and raises the question of the ethics of pushing the boundaries of nature through science: is it a miracle or an abomination best left alone?

Key quote: "Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."

Thursday 1 January 2015

Looking forward: 2015

Hello and a happy new year to you all. I hope you've had a lovely night, whether you were out partying or, like me, having a quiet evening in with TV, books or internet. I had made great plans to have a big Back to the Future marathon with all my friends, lots of pizza and nibbles - and then December 30th came around and I'd organised nothing. So instead, I just put the second and third films on (I saw the first one quite recently) and watched with my parents. I'm quite disappointed with how many people in the real world don't instantly associate the year 2015 with Back to the Future part 2: hoverboards, flying cars, etc.

My New Year's resolution this year is simply to try to be kinder and less self-centred. But I've also taken the time to reorganise my reading and writing life and plan some excursions.


Last year I set myself a read one/buy one rule regarding my book collection, but that did not have the desired effect of shrinking my to-read pile, as I did not take into account rereads or books that were already in the house, ie borrowed from parents. This year the rule is read three, buy two - and only books from the pile count. I know some bloggers are imposing a 3:1 or 5:1 rule on themselves, but I don't have the willpower to do that.

I intend to carry on filling in the gaps in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, which should not be too much of a challenge as here are only about six I haven't read now. But I want to have read those six by the end of the year.

A more long-term plan is to read or watch all of Shakespeare's plays in the next five years. Will I stick with this? Who knows! I read a few last year, and have studied some in school and uni, so that's at least ten down already.


After throwing off my writer's block last November and managing to succeed in NaNoWriMo, I intend to continue with my novel in progress, and finish the first draft this year. I took a break in December but now we're into the new year, I'd like to get that finished.

I plan to take the Rilla of Ingleside book-to-script adaptation out of the mothballs and get that finished this year, for my own satisfaction.

And I would like to have another bash at NaNoWriMo in November, see if I can match and beat last year's success.

Getting organised:

I have had to admit defeat. I have no more bookshelf space. Not that that's going to stop me - my first big purchase of this year is going to be replacing my six-shelf bookcase with an extra-deep six-shelf bookcase so I can fit twice as many books on the shelves. (Admittedly having two layers of books is not ideal, but it must be better than the shelf balanced on my to-read pile under my desk.)

When this arrives, I will reorganise my books and get rid of any I don't intend to read again. Likewise, I will be sorting through my clothes, CDs and DVDs - many of the latter I bought just to watch once, thanks to there being no Blockbuster any more, and the films not being available through Netflix or the library.


This year I may be able to go on holiday to America. I've not done this before because it's hard to ask friends to go with you when you're all poor and single and don't drive - it's a big expense - but when I grumbled about this to a friend who is a bit older than me, she suggested going with me. I'm thinking Boston.
I'd also like to go to York, which I've been meaning to visit for years (and which Hanna tells me is very good for book shopping.)

I'd like to go to see friends living in Liverpool, Bath and Cardiff, who I don't get to see much, and one of whom I've not seen in years. And I plan to return to Coventry and shop at the Big Comfy Bookshop once more.

When I visit my sister in London, I will seek out new bookshops on each trip, not just returning to Foyle's every time.

Finally, I'd like to meet up with some of YOU lovely bloggers in person! I've made some great friends through blogging, but have only met Ellie in person, two years ago. So, what about it? Who would be up for a book blogger meet-up to invade the bookshops for a day?
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