Review: “The Shock of the Fall” by Nathan Filer

Another recommendation, but unlike ‘Empire of the Sun’, I practically devoured ‘The Shock of the Fall’.

Dealing with the untimely death of his brother, Matthew Holmes works through guilt, despair and pain in this haunting novel. The pace is unrelenting, and as such it’s difficult to find a suitable place to stop – there are so many questions, and even the answers bring more until your head, much like Matthew’s, is swirling in an unstoppable vortex.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the opening, until I went back to it: it’s one of those ones where you need to understand the context of the novel, and the tone of Matthew’s illness, in order to appreciate the hurried and clumsy opening. It’s the perfect representation of how Matthew starts his writing, and the tone continues throughout so that you feel his anguish with him, and are desperate to crawl inside the pages and help him.

Filer’s career as a mental health nurse is blindingly clear through the sentimental and stark details in his novel. The setting it at once familiar and discomforting, highlighting the cyclical nature of Matthew’s illness, and how difficult it is to recover when memories repress you physically and mentally.

Without giving more away, this is a stunning debut from Filer, and provides the real shock of the fall into a novel that strips back what we tend to hide, and exposes a wound that is initially horrifying, but heals to show the potential of forgiveness and peace.

Review: ‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

I have to confess I didn’t know much about the Japanese and Chinese involvement in World War Two at all prior to reading ‘Empire of the Sun’, and that has to be its main appeal: its detailed insight into life in the East during this horrific period of history. That is, perhaps, as far as my interest goes in this book, as in terms of a story I found it hardgoing and dry to read.

Part of that is because of the level of detail; minute geographical points about the airfields and Jim’s routes to and from Amherst Avenue as he rolls around Shanghai were complex and fairly mind-boggling. That might just be my inability to keep up, but everything got very baffling very quickly. For instance, I could have sworn that they travelled for nearly a month to reach Lunghua Airfield Prison, yet it seemed that Jim could just nip back and forth between it and Shanghai, which didn’t seem plausible after everything we’d been told.

It was a repetitive narrative style as well. It felt like Jim’s name would be eternally etched on my memory after being on every second line, a pronoun nowhere to be seen. Likewise with Basie and Dr Ransome; I dreaded seeing them turn up. Part of me thinks the repetitive structure could quite easily represent the mundane nature of war; waiting around for death or further transport, prisoners didn’t have a thrilling life, and it was quite interesting to see that Lunghua pretty much set up a schooling system to combat this. So maybe it’s understandable, but you have to have a lot of patience with this book.

I also felt that there were subtle nuances meant in character’s actions, but these were sometimes indecipherable. Dr Ransome, in particular, was something of an irritating enigma; I could get that Basie was using people left, right and centre, but the implications of Random being corrupt were so nuanced I struggled to see the wood for the trees. It was the same with some of the other adult characters, and even Jim at times when it was unclear whether he accepted or misunderstood his role as camp skivvy.

The most interesting bit, without being flippant, was after the ending. J.G. Ballard’s insights into the war were fascinating, and one comment sparked a particular debate between a friend and I: Ballard claimed the Allies will always be weak for being apologetic for their actions in the war, as no matter what they were combatting, they still felt evil. It was something I’d not considered, but the feeling of guilt perhaps does run a lot of our history, and it was interesting to consider which elements of the war are told not through fact, but through emotion.

Having had this recommended to me, I wouldn’t pass it on to anyone else; although interesting from a historical perspective, as a novel it lacks compelling characters and incidences, and anything that might well be interesting is muddled in the mire.

5 Reasons to Read ‘Tsunami Kids’

The breathtaking story of the Forkan family after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, their story from survival to success is something everyone should experience, and here’s just five reasons why…

1) They’re real people – there’s nothing show-y or conceited about the Forkans, they’ve worked damn hard to get where they are.

2) There’s no understanding tragedy until you’re told its real life implications – films like ‘The Impossible’ try in spectacular style, but the real definition of tragedy comes from the normal and everyday being shattered in this book.

3) Memorials count – the parents who lost their lives in this devastating event deserve to be remembered, as do those the boys experience along their journey for their inspiration, courage and determination.

4) An indictment of education – an unusual choice on my own part, but sometimes it’s worth remembering that education is not what you learn in the classroom, it’s the experiences that shape you into the wonderful personality you are.

5) Give back – not only do 10% of the profits of the book go to helping the boys achieve their dream of building a children’s home in India, but it’s worthwhile having a look (if not investing) in the product that’s going to earn them this dream, and invest in their charity adventure.

Find out more about the boys’ endeavours on their website here, and find the book on Amazon and other retailers.

UPDATE: Just bought a pair of these beauties – looking good and supporting the brothers’ cause, win win situation!

Review: ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini

Where to begin? I adored ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, ‘Kite Runner’ broke my heart, and now there’s ‘And the Mountains Echoed’. Whilst it definitively cannot be called my favourite of Hosseini’s trio, it’s beautiful in its own way and certainly has its emotionally crippling moments…

…until the end, that is. I need to get it out of the way, and begin at the end, which was in all honesty an anticlimactic disappointment. I accepted that, being a Hosseini book, happily ever after couldn’t be a legitimate possibility, but the mundane details of the final chapter were too much to bear. I didn’t need Pari and Abdullah to run into one another’s arms basked in the glow of sunset, but some form of closure was needed on their relationship, and instead it felt very hollow in its lack of intimacy.

Likewise, I felt disappointed in Markos and Idris’ stories – they were characters I felt bonded to in their fighting-underdog mannerisms, and yet they were just left without any form of reconciliation with the world around them, or with the main storyline. It was a shame for such compelling characters to be left dangling without resolution after building the foundations of their lives for the reader.

But again, remember the end is where I began. The rest of this book made me want to cry at the sheer beauty of it. In all honesty, the beginning was my favourite bit – the allegory of the div (a sort of monster) taking a child from a family and the father’s struggle to get him back and be freed of guilt was absolutely haunting, but simultaneously so beautiful I wanted to cry. Follow this up with the story of Pari and Abdullah and you’re a wreck before you even reach the third chapter. It’s something Hosseini is masterful at, crafting devastatingly beautiful familial relationships. Indeed, Pari’s future relationship with her adoptive mother, Nila, is crushing in its failure to launch and the consequences of this. Parwana and Masooma’s unspoken sibling rivalry is the final in the triad of loving yet emotionally burdened relationships, again a haunting indictment of the life-altering power of sibling relationships.

It’s a different take on his earlier writing, where we follow one story through to its completion, and in some ways this works; seeing a tangle of lives altered by intertwining circumstances reminds us how everything has far-reaching and potentially damaging consequences (just think about Iqbal’s fate). In some ways, though, it doesn’t, but I suppose this depends entirely on your own personality – are you someone who prefers to be an onlooker in a segment of life, or wants to see it through to completion? I suppose, in a sense, this means there’s something for every type of reader, and regardless of your investment, there is (as with any Hosseini book) the promise of an intense emotional impact after reading, and the mountains echo their message across its readership for longer than it takes to read the book.

Review: ‘Last Letter From Your Lover’ by Jojo Moyes

I have loved Jojo Moyes ever since I was sent an advanced copy of ‘Me Before You’, which felt like it broke my heart in two. So, having been entranced, I’ve felt the need to work my way through her novels, and the latest one on the list was ‘Last Letter’, the tale of Jennifer Stirling and Anthony O’Hare’s ill-fated affair spanning from the 60s to the present day. It was a touching and sentimental tale, but I have to admit, I don’t think it will become one of my favourites out of Moyes’ books.

The time setting does a lot for the tension of the affair that the book revolves around; they might have been dubbed the swinging sixties, but things were still done a certain way, and breaking from those roles had severe and long-lasting consequences. Enter Jennifer Stirling, a woman who married according to the rules but fell in love despite them. She’s a main character you root for both in terms of her repression as a woman in this time period, and in terms of her clear vitality when around O’Hare; she’s two separate people rolled into one, and you know which one you want to triumph.

Likewise, O’Hare’s change from pompous reporter to fragile man almost beyond his time is perhaps the most touching element across the whole book. He’s emotional without become a sap, generous without being a pushover; a man who knows what he wants, but also (for the most part) knows how to stop himself from jumping over the edge.

I think what stopped me from fully immersing myself in ‘Last Letter’ was that it felt very self-conscious. It was very aware of what it wanted to be, infrequently coming across as pretentious and a bit too desperate to give a moral message throughout. Indeed, reading it on my kindle showed how many of the moral quotations had been highlighted for their seeming significance, and while they did sum up the movement of the story succinctly, they were too frequent to be quite a resounding as they hoped to be.

I think, as well, that bits were left unexplored. Jennifer’s accident and it’s side effects were dealt with initially but tailed off under the weight of the letters. Likewise, hints at Jennifer’s mother knowing something were left, and Laurence (for all his faults, deservedly or undeservedly) bore the brunt of the social responsibility for events. Likewise, Laurence and Clarissa were both concluded in much the same manner, with poor Moira being ignored completely despite the sadness of her own little story, and as such everything felt a bit repetitive.

I also wasn’t a massive fan of Ellie Haworth, a woman who agonised over things that were patently obvious and yet managed to get everything she wanted, removing the reality of Jennifer and Anthony’s bittersweet missing of one another, slipping through one another’s grasps at every turn. It made the tragedy of their loss over the years seem unnecessary and frivolous. I hadn’t invested in the whiny tones of Ellie, and therefore didn’t see her as learning from their story, more that she just fell on her feet, and just like Laurence the deserved or undeserved nature of this is down to the individual reader.

But for all these niggly little faults, ‘Last Letter’ held at its core a love powerful enough to resist decay or harm, something sustaining and beautiful despite the circumstances and decade in which it arose, which is pleasant enough to amble through at one’s leisure.

‘Last Letter’ was a swift movement through tragedy after tragedy with a bittersweet resolution, but it’s political and moral awareness stopped it from becoming a charming insight into human emotions as the other Moyes’ novels have always been. Sometimes repetitive in scenarios and statements, it will not become a repeated read for me, but is worth setting time aside to indulge in this novel just to believe in the restorative power of love, and the belief that memories sustain us rather than drain us.

My Best Friend

My Best Friend

At 25, to come back to a primary school-esque essay topic seems counter-intuitive. It goes against everything we teach the next generation about inclusivity, accepting all and appreciating the value of each person, rather than placing value judgments.

We’re wrong.

Because we can have a best friend. We can have more than one. All of our friends could be considered the best by our own qualitative scale. And I’d like to talk to you about one of mine.

There’s never a moment he isn’t happy to see me. Or you. Or anyone. He’s the most social thing I’ve ever known, willing to let anyone and everyone prove themselves to him. He makes no judgment and asks for none in return, just an understanding and love. I suppose you could say he just has a positive attitude. Even on those days where everyone struggles to get up and carry on through the sludge and slime of reality, he powers on through. Naturally, this isn’t just for himself: he does it for you too. He’ll walk the vast expanse of the kitchen, scale the mountain of stairs, leap upon the highest of sofas, if it means bringing a smile to your face.

And emotional sensitivity? Forget about it. You’re sad? Have a cuddle. You’re happy? Let’s run! You just need some quiet? Let’s lie side by side and just be. We adapt. We have a silent conversation. Eyes sparkle and connect, and we know, we just know how to be around one another. I can’t call it beautiful because it’s so much more than that.

Beauty is skin deep, it’s a truth universally acknowledged. One moment glossy and groomed, another muddy and mucky. Covered in his own food (or yours), shivering from an unexpected shower, flying forward against the breeze. That’s beauty; the unashamed running to meet you, the unreserved and animalistic appreciation of the food you provide, the gentle nuzzling of a hand proffered in love.

He was beautiful in all ways. I’ve never seen a place light up more than when he was around.

And now it’s dark, and it’s cold, and it’s empty. Because my best friend was so tired, so very tired. We would never have been ready but it was time to say goodbye and let our boy find his field in the sky, where no one dared to serve mixer with meat and where the belly rubs never end, and no one gets cross if you accidentally walk in mud or bring a birdie home as a gift.

You were the best decision we ever made, my friend. And I can only hope we let you know that every day of your wonderful life. There were no owners, no subservients. There was a family, and that family is broken without you.

Good night, my best friend. We’ll love you forever.

5 Reasons To Read ‘A Christmas Carol’…

Yes it’s March, but having started Charles Dickens’ classic, ‘A Christmas Carol’, during the Christmas break and having to put it down for other things, I got around to finishing it last week. And it was stunning. So instead of reviewing something that I don’t feel I could do justice to, I want to encourage everyone to get involved with this gorgeous piece of Victorian literature.

1) It’s a short story – I am in no way saying brevity is always a friend, but in this case if someone is wanting an easier introduction to Victorian literature (which can often be convoluted in expression and needing contextual knowledge of the era) then look no further. This is short but packs a punch, showing us very clearly that the human condition is our own to shape.

2) To know where the Christmas spirit came from – have you ever said or heard someone say ‘God bless us, every one’?  Or talked about the true meaning of Christmas? This is the origin of the moralistic idea of Christmas in a modern age that has been corrupted by personal and financial greed – take a step back and look at where one author found the true meaning of the season to lie.

3) Celebrate the anti-hero – a lot of Victorian literature has weeping and wailing, fits and swooning, but here’s a place to believe in the redemptive power of emotions. From being a hard up git to realising that money can be the root of happiness as well as evil, Scrooge’s night-time journey moves him swiftly from grouchy to gratuitous, and his transformation is as believable as it is touching.

4) The message lasts – It’s not just a Christmas story – we should be living each day thinking of who we want to be and what impact we want to have on the world. Whether it’s helping family or supporting the sick, we should make the most of every life.

5) It’s beautiful – There are many books that are emotional and touching, but this is a thing of beauty. Through the message, the characterisation of the Crachits, the haunting fantasmagorical nature of the tale, and its sheer ability to last through the ages, it truly is a special story, and I can only hope it touches generations to come.