The Smell of Other People’s Houses- Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

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Alaska in the 1970s, a typical summer day

Alaska was a lost place in 1970… a location which no one can particularly relate to. Except of course Hitchcock, who grew up there, creating an aura of the authenticity of the poverty and setting. It was time of social revolution, where in this novel the boundaries between child and adulthood are blurred beyond conception.

There are four protagonists Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank, with the story being woven between their viewpoints. It creates an intriguing variation for the reader because their lives are revealed through this medium, with the stories being surprisingly knitted together by the closing chapters.

Ruth is arguably the pivot of the plot: her parents have by tragic circumstances fled (as no self-respecting book these days can have a child with 2 living parents it seems) and this leaves her with a strained grandmother and a plethora of rules. This environment creates a palpable sense of tension, especially when Ruth becomes rather involved (ahem) with a popular boy.

On other hand, Dora has the predictable cocktail of the hapless mother slurring her Sundays with beer, and a father who thinks it’s fun to beat her up. Just to make things more interesting, Hitchcock also decided to make her have Inupiat origins so that there could be scenes of racism as well. Which is fine if this was a creative writing project of how many different social problems you can portray in one sitting, however if you’re reading it the main thing that comes across is a desperation to: reveal the scope of characteristics you can write about, appeal to every liberal audience and seem to be supremely intelligent. Which is fine, as long as you don’t want anyone but your inflated version of self to like your book.

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Alyce is sadly a stereotypical story: girl has dream, but family duty calls. Goes to do family duty (here fishing because for some reason the father can’t hire someone or has any friends) and wishes that she could be persuing her dream, ballet-dancing. Readers supposedly are emotionally invested in this girl because of the “heart-wrenching” situation, until (after she has a supernatural whale moment which is frankly weird) she eventually goes to this ballet audition after months of no practise and aces it, which in reality would never happen, but neither do random whale moments. Sorry to ruin the story, but you know you already saw it coming,

Then just to add a male voice so that there was a vague stab at equality (which was never truly reached) there is another storyline. I know, you’re bored already of all these characters vying for attention and so am I. Hank, who it seems thought that running away from his mum and despicable stepfather (because no one in Alaska can have any unclichéd background) was a great idea. The best Hitchcock could do was describe him as a ‘mangy stray dog’ and ‘short and squat, with stubby legs’. Because if a parental figures has stubby legs, you know you’re trouble.  I honestly don’t think if you are living in Canada that just because you hace a bit of family disagrements you will take your two brothers and just go off. That’s all there is to it: people are not that stupid. And then to have a brother who fell off a ferry, (ditto earlier comment as this is out-right stupidity) be magically saved by whales. Really.

So in short, it’s disastrously confusing and although the writing is at first enchanting, by the fifth page it’s clear that the deep-seated editing went into the opening scene and that by the end of the first chapter they thought that ‘Well, if they’ve read this far, they’ve probably bought it and the hook of elaborative worked, so who cares what they think later on.’ Even the better language is simplistic with deer’s hooves being described as ‘pointy like a ballerina’s toes’. (Yes, because there is only one pointed thing in the entire universe, with it also an inappropiate comparison as it makes things more muddled as this girl has no interest later in dance as opposed to Alyce.)

Surprised how this came to be on the Carneige Shortlist.

TBR Tuesday- My Top 5

The average reader has at least 65 books on their TBR. I am no exception. It seems that every time I even look into a bookshop window (it just proves how good Waterstones is at promotion!), it gets much, much longer. Stops at the library are dangerous. Books on display, all waiting to taken, except when you do crumple into the temptation, they merely end up sitting in your shelf accusingly because you have no time to read them, given that you have at least 10 other library books you need to read first. The result? Awkward chats with the librarians, asking for ‘just one more extension’ on the book, when really you know it’s not going to be read in two weeks, is it? Or, you bring it back at the end of the time sheepishly, and when asked “How did you find it?” you dip your head in embarrassment and say “Oh, well, it was on that shelf over there and I just saw it as I walked in” and scuttle away before you can feel their quizzical gaze on you. You once (when asked) pretended that the plot was original indeed, however it was, all things considered, an anticlimax. Why did I think it was an anticlimax- is that what you’ve just asked? Well, although you thought a knowing shrug and nod of the head was a sufficient answer to that one, they clearly did not.

So, here is what’s recently joined the party of my TBR, which is turning more and more into a rowdy Glastonbury mosh pit than anything else, with books battling it , roughly pushing each other out the way for the coveted number one spot.

I will start with Number 5 (just to add to the suspense) :

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred has limited options in her society, The Republic of Gilead. The dominating one: have children. If she doesn’t, then she’ll be punished and live an exiled life in a wasteland, destined to die of radiation sickness. Yet can fear of the law repress Offred’s dangerous desire, desire which does not conform to the rules?

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I’ll admit it. I’ve never read any of Atwood’s books, and it’s high time that I start. In a time of such political upheaval, this didn’t seem like such a poor choice to help me reflect upon events, either.

4. Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

Quite Ugly One Morning is a humorous murder mystery set in Scotland, with a sassy journalist, Jack Parlabane, for a protagonist. He unwillingly finds a corpse and then willingly shoulders his way into the centre of this investigation. Filled with (apparently) remarkable dialogue and wonderful characters.

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It will be funny. It will (hopefully) have people making haggis to perfection. It will be a change from the ‘serious’ literary novels. Or so I hope- but I’ll have to read it first to find out.

3.  The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

An amalgamation of science-fiction and fantasy short stories, often finding inspiration in the most mundane of subjects.
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You know me. Any excuse to read short stories… especially since this collection has had overwhelmingly positive feedback. So why restrain myself? (I think somewhere the title ‘The Paper Menagerie’ also resonated with me, because it is too similar to The Glass Menagerie, a play I found amazing, and therefore some biased link was made!)

2. American Street by Ibi Zobo

Fabiola travels from Port-au-Prince to Detroit, in search of that old Golden Dream, and her American cousins. But once her mother is detained in U.S immigration, Fabiola not only has to navigate the high school politics alone, but how to deal with America’s attitude  towards her arrival, too.
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It seems like a relevant novel to read right now, with the immigrant crisis at its peak. But also, after recently reading A.A.Gill’s essay on Port-au-Prince, I’m interested to explore a part of that city from another perspective, even if it is a fictional one. American Street seems like it will be a proper young adult novel, one that I can truly enjoy, and be a wonderful example for the genre.

1.Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Frank and April Wheeler have everything, everything that a couple in the 1950s could want. A new house, two small children, talent. Of course, April never hoped that she’d be a housewife, and Frank never hoped that his job would be so monotonous, but they know that these are sacrifices for the great reward. The reward of a happier relationship and that lifestyle always just beyond reach. But is it? Yates describes the Wheelers’ once noble intentions slowly falling apart, and as they do so, the pair disappoint not only each other, but the people they should have been.
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I’m not sure if “the blurb sounds really awesome” is a good answer, but that’s basically my thinking. I think when I read this there were an acute, yet tender, examination of relationships, done a poignant and unashamed way, which will be refreshing (and sometimes painful?) to read. Also, it is set in the 1950s, and since I have recently been doing so much reading on the World Wars, it will be useful to read a story set in America’s post-war era.
Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts on them? Is your TBR completely random, and changes constantly, or are you quite quick at ploughing through it? Do comment below!

When We Collided by Emery Lord

This novel is a classic summer love story with a difference; not only does contain moments of unrivalled hilarity and it’s counterpart bitter sadness, but it stars two damaged teenagers struggling to face their scarred past in a demanding, unforgiving world.

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It is finally Summer again, and Vivi is new to Verona Cova, and is a vacationer, as they are known to the townies (the people who live in Verona). Whilst working in a pottery shop, Vivi, a burst of colour who refuses to be tied to reality by her medication, comes across Jonah and his younger sister. Jonah is a slowly recovering; his father recently died, leaving his mother to recoil into encompassing grief, and now rarely leaves the safety of her bedroom. Chirpy and energetic though he may seem, Jonah feels excruciatingly weary from the strain of now sharing the role being the parent, and looking after his other siblings , especially since he is only 17. So when he meets Vivi, he is fascinated by her optimistic take on the universe, flamboyant nature and creative ecstatic mind. And Vivi loves how Jonah cares for his younger siblings, and his tender, thoughtful nature. But they belong on different planets; Vivi is a dreamer and can never be pinned down, whilst Jonah is always trying to be responsible, always trying  do the right thing. So when the two planets so different collide, it is clear that this inexplicable attraction between them will have consequences. But to what extent?

I thought that the title was a shame because it does not reflect the novel honestly enough to do it justice! In some ways, the title is completely irrelevant, because it is never referred to once in the novel, and to add to that, it is cliche! Every other love story has a slightly metaphorical, romantic sounding name like that, so the title in my opinion drags the novel down instead of exalting it, which is a shame because I love the novel and I think that it deserves better.

The novel is written in the contemporary style of alternative points of view, switching between the two protagonists Vivi and Jonah.  I adored the novel and thought that it was fantastic until I reached roughly second half; then it became saturated with the details of Vivi’s bipolar disorder: there were some awesome sentences in the first half, where I thought that the imagery created was incredibly strong, even for the such abstract ideas mentioned, but as I neared the end of this novel, this writing flair displayed earlier quickly dissolved, as Lord tried to handle everyone’s reaction to her disorder. Having said that, you will fall in love with the essentially flawed characters as they try and navigate themselves through their darker times, and always try to find that the perspective of hope wherever they go.

It was a fairly typical plot ( wild girl + good boy= fun filled summer), so nothing completely revolutionary will take place, but the characters were developed enough, and the plot was well written, so despite not being ground-breaking, it is definitely worth a read (if you are interested in this side of YA literature). Also, it wasn’t the fact that Vivi was bipolar that set this novel apart, because increasingly there are characters with mental illnesses featured in novels, but the quirk of Vivi loving the whole of Jonah’s family, not just him exclusively, which evolved this love story to becoming much more exclusive.  Aside from that, it was slightly unoriginal, it must be said (e.g skinny dipping happens in most of these types of novels, ice creams on the beach, sneaking into rooms…).

This novel is perfect for a relaxing holiday read, where you can sink into the romance, sea and sunshine, particularly as it is not an overly taxing mentally. I would recommend that the target audience for this novel be teenagers.