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Lit Review: ‘The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr’ by Frances Maynard

Who: Frances Maynard teaches English to adults with learning difficulties, including Asperger Syndrome. Her insights into neuro-atypical adults helped form the protagonist of her debut novel, The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr.

What: Twenty-seven year old Elvira Carr (Ellie) has lived a sheltered existence due to her overbearing mother, who believes that Ellie’s neuro-atypical mental condition prevents her from meaningful participation. Ellie is not at all prepared to for the real world when she’s forced to do so after her mother suffers a stroke. Together with the help of her neighbour, Sylvia, Ellie  draws up seven rules to help her interact with  people and the world around her. However, when she stumbles upon a mystery surrounding her deceased father, she realises that she will have to go beyond her seven rules if she is to come to terms with the truth.

Why: Having Ellie as narrator makes this novel truly special because for many of us, it’s difficult to comprehend just how literal neuro-atypicals relate to or respond to people and the world around them. For instance, social cues that might be obvious to us “NormalTypicals”  slip right by Ellie. Aside from  the challenges that come with having to live on her own and figuring things out for herself for the first time in her life, Ellie also has to deal with the echoes of her mother’s overbearing and often patronising voice in her head. We feel nothing but empathy for Ellie.

Over the course of the book, Ellie comes into her own as a person. There are victories big and small, such as learning how to use a computer and Google, and volunteering at a zoo. She also makes plenty of mistakes, of course, as in when she decides to help her neighbour Sylvia retrieve her granddaughter. When her world is completely shaken up upon uncovering the truth about her late father, Ellie has to dig deep to find the strength to deal with it and move forward.

Best/Worst Line: “Rules change depending on the situation and the person you are speaking to.”

Verdict: Heart-warming and uplifting, interspersed with some bitter and sad moments, this ultimately feel-good novel hits all the right notes. (7.5/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM75.90

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Lit Review: ‘The Cruel Prince’ by Holly Black

Who: Bestselling YA author Holly Black returns in 2018 with a brand new fantasy trilogy. The Cruel Prince is the first book in the series.

What: After having their parents slaughtered right before their eyes by vengeful redcap general Madoc, Jude and her siblings, twin sister Taryn and older sister Vivienne, are taken to live in Faerie, a land of magic populated by Fey, beautiful but cruel immortals. The story picks up 10 years later, with each of the girls trying to find their place in a world that does not look kindly on humans. Jude is out to prove that she is just as capable as the best of them and wants a place in the King’s court. Taryn, meanwhile,  just wants acceptance and is willing to play by the rules. Vivi, on the other hand, would rather return to the mortal world.

Amidst all this, Jude has to contend with bullying from her Fey classmates, in particular the youngest son of the High King, Prince Cardan. Jude, not one to stand down from bullies, defies the prince, setting into a motion a series of events. She then becomes embroiled in palace intrigues and court machinations, even as a civil war threatens to engulf Faerie.

Why: Fast-paced with the right amount of drama, action, plot twists, cruelty, courage, and romantic intrigue, The Cruel Prince is Holly Black in scintillating form. Hooking you right from the start and refusing to let go, The Cruel Prince leaves one breathless and aching for the next book in the series.

Central to the novel is the obsession with power. This is an obsession that not only ensnares our heroine Jude, but is a fact of court life in Faerie. It is a matter of survival for Jude, however, and she is confronted with ethical dilemmas at every turn. As she navigates the complex dynamics at play in Faerie, Jude doesn’t always make the wisest decisions. Our heroine is flawed in many ways, but we like and empathise with her all the more for it.

The antagonist, Prince Cardan, is as mean as they come, but there’s more to his motivations than meets the eye. Clashes between Jude and the prince build to a climax with unexpected and shocking turns of events, and their relationship, as well as Faerie, evolves as a result of these clashes.

Best/Worst Line: “True power isn’t granted. True power can’t be taken away.”

Verdict: An absolutely engrossing, juicy read with plenty to keep you interested and guessing. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM55.90

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‘The Transition’ by Luke Kennard

Who: Luke Kennard is better known for his five collections of poetry, one of which won the Eric Gregory Award in 2005. In 2014, he was selected by the Poetry Book Society as one of the Next Generation Poets. The Transition is his first novel and was long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

What: Karl Temperley is the hapless, underachieving poster boy of generation rent. Sent out into the world armed with a graduate degree in Metaphysical Poetry worth £78,000, he quickly learns that intimate knowledge of John Donne and Henry Vaughan didn’t really amount to a whole hill of beans in modern day London. Disenfranchised, cynical (when he can muster the energy for it) and accompanied with too much wit, Karl finds himself employed as a sweatshop academic, churning out “study aids” for students. Unable to cover rent or basic necessities —due in part to his penchant for “flavoured coffees the size of poster tubes” — and the demands of his somewhat eclectic teacher wife Genevieve, he turns to benevolent credit card companies to make ends meet. There is, however, a limit to their benevolence.

Charged with credit card fraud and looking at 15 months in prison, Karl is offered the opportunity to participate in the Transition in lieu of jail time. The Transition is ostensibly a rehabilitation programme designed to instil teachables such as financial planning, dental hygiene and time management. The goal, one is led to believe, is to reintegrate programme participants into society as productive and beneficial members. With no options left, Karl enrols with Genevieve, and are placed as “proteges” under Transition mentors Stu and Janna. Living arrangements are top notch, and the programmes, eye-rolling though they might be, seem to be helping. At least for Genevieve if not for Karl.

But of course, it’s too good to be true. Karl discovers that the Transition is a cover for a sinister-ish programme threatening to separate him from Genevieve.

Why: I was drawn to the book because it promised to be funny, and it is, although much of it is owed to Karl’s wry and deadpan observations and repartees. The dialogue between the characters is something that Kevin Smith would put in a script, which can both be fantastic and abysmal simultaneously. Karl is a throwback to the mid-90s when grunge and alternate youth were in ascendance; when young people in their 20s fresh out of university were generally bitter and recriminatory. It’s funny in the way that Reality Bites was funny, which is to say that it won’t be funny for everyone.

But Kennard does litter genuinely funny lines throughout the novel:

  • In describing a bad incident: “A turn for the worse was taken.”
  • In getting advice: “If you want my advice, don’t get involved with any conspiracy nuts or Stalinists or anyone who wants to bring down Western Civilisation. I love Western civilisation. It’s brilliant.”
  • On the joys of staying in: “Most of all, he loved being free of the responsibility of having a good time.”

The Transition tackles a few other themes aside from that of the modern impoverished. These include themes of mental illness, societal integration, George Orwell’s 1984 and perhaps love. The latter is a bit strange because clearly Karl loves Genevieve, but it’s never made very clear why. She’s not particularly lovable and Karl’s love can be better described as an obsession that has run on for too long; an unhealthy co-dependence would probably be a fitting description. Nevertheless, there is love.

Did I mention there was a secret, sinister plot?

Best/Worst Line: “A turn for the worse was taken.”

Verdict: A fun dysopia which is probably less dystopic than it intends to be. Both Karl and Genevieve deserve a smack every now and then. (7/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90

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‘Cogheart’ and ‘Moonlocket’ by Peter Bunzl

Who: Peter Bunzl is a BAFTA-award-winning animator, as well as a writer and filmmaker. Cogheart is his debut children’s novel, and Moonlocket is the second book in the series. The third book is slated to come out some time in 2018.

What: Set in a vivid steampunk Victorian era England, Cogheart is the story of spunky Lily Hartman, whose life gets thrown upside-down when her father mysteriously goes missing. She is stalked by silver-eyed men who will do anything to get their hands on one of her father’s mechanical inventions, the eponymous Cogheart. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to face them alone — she has the help of Robert, the clockmaker’s son, and Malkin, her mechanical fox. They also find a friend and ally in newspaper reporter, Anna. As they begin to figure out who the men chasing them are and their reasons for doing so, Lily also uncovers the truth about her family.

In Moonlocket, Robert’s past catches up with him when a criminal mastermind, the Jack of Diamonds, breaks out of prison and appears at his father’s workshop searching for the mysterious Moonlocket. Robert discovers that the locket is a memento from his mother, who left him and his father when Robert was just a boy. Together with Lily and Malkin, Robert goes on a quest to discover the mystery behind his family only to uncover dark secrets that plunge them further into danger.

Why: The world that author Bunzl has created is one teeming with mechanical wonders — remarkable clockwork animals and beings that need to be wound with a key. But these are no mere machines as they are endowed with the capacity to think and feel. The book brings into relief the question of what makes one human — is it merely the ability to self-propel, or is there something more profound behind automation?

In Cogheart, Lily and Robert both grapple with individual loss, each having to navigate their way through crushing life events and find the courage and strength to carry on. The pace picks up considerably in Moonlocket, with high adventure and strange hijinks thrown into the fray. But ultimately, the overarching theme of the novel is what it means to be family and how one can choose who is family.

Best/Worst Line: “Life can be painful. And if you can’t change what’s happened today, bide your time, until you’re strong enough to fight tomorrow.”

Verdict: Bunzl weaves an imaginative and thrilling tale of mystery and adventure, imbued with a lot of heart — great for children aged 9 and up who’s hankering for something a little out of the ordinary. (8/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM29.90 each.

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‘I Am Thunder’ by Muhammad Khan

Who: Secondary school teacher Muhammad Khan wrote I Am Thunder as a response to the three British schoolgirls who fled to Syria to join ISIS in 2015 — this is Khan’s debut YA novel. He took inspiration from the children he teaches, as well as his own upbringing as a British-born Pakistani.

What: Muzna Saleem is a 15-year-old British Pakistani who harbours a secret ambition of becoming a novelist, even though her parents have decided she should become a doctor. Muzna isn’t brought up to disobey elders or to rock the boat, and so she goes along with her parents’ fantasy. Her quiet and unassuming life gets disrupted when she meets high-school stud, Arif Malik, who, to her utter surprise, takes an interest in her. She discovers a troubling secret about him and his brother bears a grudge against the powers that be for what he perceives to be the demonisation of Islam. As they start down a progressively darker path, Muzna has to make a difficult choice: keep quiet and betray her beliefs, or speak out and betray her heart.

Why: The perennial question of whether to follow the head or heart is addressed in two different scenarios in this bildungsroman. Muzna is made to question her beliefs and desires, and has to find the courage to do the right thing, although it is not always clear what the right thing is. The struggle here is very real.

The novel also examines the idealism of young people and their easy exploitation by opportunists and extreme ideologies. Exploitation, the book carefully shows, is a gradual process that simultaneously preys on vulnerabilities but also reaffirms and panders to the ego. It is a study of contemporary psychology, and attempts an explanation at the all too familiar lament of the naivety and simple idealism of the young.

Best/Worst Line: “I am Muzna. I am the cloud who brings the rain.”

Verdict: While the novel is not unpredictable, it is ultimately an empowering and uplifting story with a lot of relevance today for teens and adults alike. (7/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for the ARC.

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‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Who: George Saunders was, prior to Lincoln in the Bardo, an award-winning short-story writer, with his collection of stories Tenth of December particularly singled out for commendation. Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunder’s first novel, won the 2017 Man Booker Prize.

What: Young Willie Lincoln, the most beloved child of the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln’s children, is dead. For one night, he finds himself in the bardo — that intermediate space between life and death in the Nepali tradition — mingling with other of his ilk. The dead who remain (they are slightly freaky a la Beetlejuice) are unaccepting of their fate; they believe they aren’t dead but merely ‘sick’ and their coffins are ‘sick-boxes’ where they recuperate. They cling on because they believe that they can be healed of their ‘ailment’ and thereby return to the material life that they are unable to give up.

Although most young children tend not to linger on in the bardo, Willie, believing that he has instruction from his father to stay, resists the call to move on. However, his guides in the bardo — a homosexual suicide, a printer engorged with lust and a terrified man of the cloth — know that to remain and wallow would bring about a grievous end to the boy. Matters are made worse by late night visit of Willie’s grief-stricken father, which convinces the young boy that his waiting is justified.

Why: Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most deserving Booker prize winners in recent memory. Centrally a study of grief, suffering and loss, it is also the role of attachment in contributing to these psychological states. Lincoln in the Bardo is an explication of the Buddhist concept of suffering as a self-inflicted pain brought about by the inability to separate the essential self from its desires. Being caught up in the tendrils of attachment prevents the ensnared from pursuing good, final ends — or again in the Buddhist tradition, from pursuing enlightenment. Attachment is fundamentally selfish, and the selfishness manifests physically in those unwilling to leave the bardo, i.e. those unwilling to set down their lives in the ‘former place’. Willie’s guides, for the first time in a long time, find themselves in a position to go beyond themselves to see that the young boy ‘passes on’.

Saunders’ narrative structure takes a little getting used to at the onset. He uses a pastiche of actual works to set the context for the night Willie dies, filling in the missing bits with his own accounts. He borrows extensively from the copious amount of Lincoln literature to set the background, revealing not only just how divided opinions over Lincoln and the Civil War were at the time, but also the fundamental untrustworthiness of eye-witness accounts. These divergent accounts are scattered throughout the novel, but a particularly telling one was a passage where these various eye-witnesses failed to provide a single, coherent account of the moon the evening before Willie died:

Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening. (In A Season of War and Loss by Ann Brighney)
In several accounts of the evening, the brilliance of the moon is remarked upon. (In Long Road to Glory by Edward Holt)
There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds. (Wickett, op. cit.)
A fat green crescent hung above the mad scene like a stolid judge, inured to all human folly. (In My Life by Dolores P. Leventrop)

Nevertheless, the various individual voices, each tinged with their own specific set of attachments and back stories create a greater texture to the novel by providing, in various times and places, comedic relief, lush historic background and character tension to the overall narrative. But perhaps the winningest element of the novel is Saunders’ descriptions of loss and grieving — the beloved are not easy to give up.

Best/Worst Line: “’This is the hardest trial of my life,’ he confessed to the nurse, and in a spirit of rebellion this man, overweighted with care and sorrows, cried out: ‘Why is it? Why is it?'”

Verdict: A masterful study of loss, longing, grief and suffering with a touch of the whacky. Touching, funny and poignant. (9.5/10)

Trivia: The movie rights for Lincoln in the Bardo have been acquired by Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman. No cast, director or release date available as yet. It is a dark and atmospheric piece with fantastical elements, and would require the disciplined whimsy of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Just say no to Tim Burton.

Availability: Hard cover, RM79.95.

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‘Manhattan Beach’ by Jennifer Egan

Who: Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the postmodern novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. She takes a more traditional storytelling approach with historical novel Manhattan Beach, published last year.

What: The novel begins with Eddie Kerrigan paying a visit to mobster Dexter Styles at his home on Manhattan Beach. Eddie’s 11-year-old daughter Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father on this visit, and it leaves an indelible impression on her – she gleans from the encounter that Dexter is crucial to the survival of her family. Years later, her father has mysteriously disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard at a job once the exclusive purview of men, who are now soldiers abroad. By sheer will and gumption, Anna becomes the first woman diver at the Naval Yard, doing the job of repairing ships underwater. Then, a chance meeting with Dexter at a nightclub throws open a doorway to uncovering the complexities of her father’s life and why he vanished.

Why: The main narrative revolves around Anna Kerrigan and how she navigates a world vacated by her father and overshadowed by war, the Great Depression, and the shared responsibility of caring for her disabled sister, Lydia. It is a tale of quiet fortitude and doggedness, of coming into her own during an era of limited options and opportunities for women. But while the story is anchored by Anna’s life, the narrative switches between her perspective and that of the mobster, Dexter’s, chronicling his rise in the underworld. In the last third of the novel, the spotlight finally turns to Eddie and the misfortunes that led to his disappearance early in the story.

Essentially, this novel traces three distinct but intertwining stories recounted in the close third person to give the reader insight into their inner lives. Each character’s story is languidly told, replete with lush details and poetic nuance to the point where a less patient reader might find the pacing off-putting. A thread that connects all three is their individual need to break from their present circumstances, and the resulting consequences of attempting to do so. A constant prop is the ocean, but it does take on a metaphysical nature as it envelopes each of them in different ways.

Best/Worst Line: “He hungered for a sense of progress, of new things approaching while old familiar ones receded. It seemed far too long since he’d had that sensation.”

Verdict: It’s a sweeping novel with cinematic scope that unfolds at a protracted pace. (7.5/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90.

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‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng

Who: American Chinese author Celeste Ng’s much anticipated sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, is the winner of the Goodreads Choice Award 2017 for fiction. It follows her standout debut, Everything I Never Told You.

What: The story begins with a literal fire, whereby someone has deliberately set ablaze the Richardson house, situated in Shaker Heights, an affluent neighbourhood. The reader is then taken back in time to reveal the history of the Richardson household, as well as mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren, who have taken up residence at a rental owned by the Richardsons. Their worlds mingle in unexpected ways but eventually collide as they find themselves on opposing sides when an old friend of the Richardsons tries to adopt a Chinese-American baby.

Why: The story plays out a bit like a soap but without the sordidness. While Ng takes her time to tell the story, it by no means drags on as she drops tantalising clues throughout the book to make this an engrossing read. Although the characters are not unfamiliar — the picture-perfect suburban Richardson family versus the enigmatic artist, Mia, and her teenage daughter — the nuanced manner in which Ng paints these portraits make them compelling.

At the centre of the intersection of these lives is the youngest Richardson, Izzy, torn between the two worlds on offer: a structured, rule-abiding life of security and stability, and a free-spirited, nomadic one that can promise little but nevertheless is more meaningful and substantial. Fundamental values rub up against one another leading to an inevitable clash of worlds, which in turn spark ‘little fires everywhere’. That these sparks would set something smouldering further deep inside that would potentially turn into a raging inferno becomes the tipping point of the novel.

It isn’t quickly apparent, but at the heart of the story is an examination of what it means to be a mother and the bonds that bind. The decision to follow or not follow one’s passions and where that inevitably leads, for better or worse, is also a thread in the book.

Best/Worst Line: “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.”

Verdict: Ng is a deft storyteller, pulling the reader in from the get-go. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM72.90.

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‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

Who: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. Reservoir 13 was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

What: Reservoir 13 is a novel about a mystery, but is not itself a mystery novel. The book opens with a girl lost upon the moors of the rural English countryside. Nearby villagers anxiously search for the missing Rebecca, Becky or Bex, as she is sometimes known. Her disappearance would anchor the novel which unfolds over 13 years, during which life in the village carries on — people are drawn in, people leave; they fall in love, they fall apart; new lives are had, older ones die. The foxes, badgers and bugs observe their natural cycles, as do the birds, butterflies and bees. But the spectre of the missing girl remains in the collective psyche, appearing in dreams, hallucinations and memories.

Why: One of the finest novels we’ve read in recent memory, McGregor’s narrative structure ingeniously pulls the reader into the book. It’s incredibly meta and sets the reader up from the start to think that a mystery is there to be solved. There are hints and foreshadowing that the resolution is in the very next line, or paragraph, or page, or chapter. The reader is driven by this singular temptation, but meanwhile McGregor creates a lush, vivid background, ostensibly to contextualise the mystery. The man lies. He is not creating a background, but another, richer foreground that will supersede the mystery.

With his austere but elegant prose, his omniscient camera flits from scene to scene in his massive single paragraph structures, controlling the attention of the reader — first to the park keeper who is conducting his annual test of the river water, next to a group of teenagers drinking down a bottle of stolen wine, then to a farmhand who is necking with the parish council’s chair’s wife, and then to reports of sightings of the missing girl who may or may not be responsible for the various incidences of arson in the village. Each year that passes in the village is told within a chapter. The villagers grow a year older, perhaps not wiser, and the same narrative device is repeated to remind readers that though everything is different, it is nevertheless the same.

This may sound a painful and clumsy attempt to stall the progress of the plot; on the contrary, the reader soon finds these secondary arcs to be more important than the resolution of the missing girl. How does Irene deal with an abusive special-needs son? Will the Jackson boys’ flock survive the winter? Will the career-minded Su Cooper adjust to being the mother of rambunctious twin boys? It is these moments in the lives of these villagers — arrayed as a field of snapshots of many separate but interconnected moments — that carry the readers’ sympathies. Resolution, he reminds us, is not found within the solving of a grand mystery, but in the consummation of each individual moment in our lives.

Best/Worst Line: ‘The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She had been looked for everywhere… There were dreams about finding her on the night she went missing, stumbling across her on the moor in the lowering dark and helping her back to her parents. In the dreams the parents said thank you, briefly, and people muttered something about it being no problem at all.’

Verdict: Friggin’ incredible. It’s not a perfect 10 because readers stubbornly clinging on to the need for plot development (a justifiable need, in our opinion) may be frustrated by this book. (9/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90.