Wednesday, 2 April 2014

What I've been reading: Fearless, Gentlemen and Ladies, and Namesake

As I write this, I'm looking at my 'just read' pile with an element of horror because it appears it's taken me almost seven days to read one slim practically-a-novella and a YA book. Yikes. Still, as we're here...

Gentlemen and Ladies by Susan Hill is, it appears, not the kind of book one reads quickly. It is also not at all what I expected. I'm used to the dark intensity of her horror and detective fiction, whereas this felt more like the few Barbara Pym novels I've read than anything else. Set in the '60s, in a rural community of gentlewomen of straightened means it is, in some respects, a comedy of manners.
 It's Hill's third novel (did you know she had her first book published when she was in sixth form? This almost warrants an interrobang) and Gentlemen and Ladies does give the sense of a young, talented writer imitating her peers and influences with a rather serious face.

That said, it's still a formidably accomplished novel. From the moment one of the characters suffers what is essentially a panic attack I was recognising the bleak psychological realism I recognise as Hill's trademark. Still, I noticed that her authorial voice is both less ruthless and less compassionate than it later becomes. She is as scathing as one would expect a comedy of manners to be towards the despicable, the silly, but her connection of 'unsympathetic' and 'mental illness' troubled me, as did the ease with which she 'lets off' her 'good guys'. Then again, the gentleness is probably a good thing. We don't want me left sobbing into my spotted hanky, again.

So, to conclude this over-long review - good book. A little dated, and unexpected, but worth a read, especially if you have not yet sampled Hill because horror and crime are not your thing.

Have to say, I don't read a lot of YA any more, by Fearless by Cornelia Funke makes the cut based on recommendation from a trusted source (thanks Jem!) and it's a total treat. The sequel to Reckless, it's an adventure quest in a world where fairytales are real. Sound clichéd? Alright, but this is dark. Reading it as an adult, I can see just how pitch-bloody-black the premise behind this novel is. It isn't an adventure quest, it's a story about the industrial revolution, about the dirtiness of empire building, the force of social segregation and racial intolerance. It's an all out, vicious, political narrative masquerading as a kid's fantasy novel/ love story. Okay, vicious is a relative term - it is still YA - but there is some really clever stuff happening here, and - as folklorist and adult - I do love playing 'spot the reference.'

My only gripes are a slow and slightly fragmented start (a problem that I also had with Reckless) and trouble telling the characters' ages. This is, after all, a YA book about adult stuff, and while the MC is apparently 25, this isn't always clear from his actions and behaviours. Still, a brilliant read.

While I'm here and talking about YA, I'm going to chuck in a review/shout-out for Namesake by Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton: a beautifully drawn and utterly compelling webcomic that - if you don't like screen reading - can also be purchased in trade paperback. It tells its story so well that even a foul-mouthed darkness junkie like myself didn't realise it was PG rated until I'd read over a third of what's online. These days I just hang around waiting for it to update. Obviously, the form and genre might throw up a few problems for some readers (eg, as the story develops, I'm noticing the threat and darkness are being kept in much tighter parameters than I might otherwise like) but it's fun and its fresh and it's clever. Well worth your time.

Wow! That was positive! Have a good week.

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