Monday, 17 July 2017

Review: Judas

Judas Judas by Amos Oz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first read by Amor Oz, who is (although I didn't realise it at the time) a hugely prolific author. I found it hard to get into, and would probably not have believed you at the start if you told me I ended up giving it a well-deserved four stars! Let me explain.

The year is 1959, winter in Jerusalem. Shmuel, a student, has had his life turned upside down. His father's financial issues mean he cannot support him any longer which coincides with his long-term girlfriend leaving him for her previous boyfriend, the 'taciturn hydrologist,' Nesher Sharshevesky. Dismayed and heartbroken, Shmuel leaves the university behind him; his thesis on 'Jewish Views of Jesus' had come to a block anyway. Drowning in self-pity, his intrigue is piqued by a sign put up, asking for a companion 'with modest conversation skills and an interest in history' to a 'seventy-year-old invalid, an educated and widely cultured man. He is able to take care of himself and seeks company, not assistance.' As Shmuel has been a member of a Socialist group, recently disbanded, he fancies himself a good talker and with bed and board included, this job seems right.

Gershom Wald, the invalid, turns out to want someone to argue and debate with or perhaps, more accurately, to listen to his homilies. From his little attic room, Shmuel puzzles over the arrangement of this house. Gerhsom lives with his ex daughter-in-law Atalia, whose husband's death is never spoken of. Neither is her father's, although Shmuel gathers that at one point that they had all shared the house together.

This book has a slow start, and I struggled to get into it. The language can be quite long-winded at times, as well as repetitive: Shmuel's walking is described as:

'His head was thrust forward as if he were butting the air or forcing his way through obstacles, his body bent forward and his legs hurrying so as not to be left behind...'

multiple times (although paraphrased.) I felt like saying 'enough already! We know how he walks!' But this was a minor thing in relation to the novel in its entirety.

Essentially, there are three strands of plot woven cleverly through the book. On a surface level, there is Shmuel's current circumstances, his gradual intoxication of the unreachable, elusive Atalia, and the uncovering of parts of her world. She is a woman not meant for men, and says so boldly. Previous tenants have come and gone, fallen in love with her, and sent away; Wald warns Shmuel about this, but also recognises its inevitability.

We also learn a lot about Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-60, and the years leading up to it: a fascinating history lesson in Ben Gurion and the setting up of Israel as a state. Knowing very little when I went in, I now want to learn more; I always believe that any well-written novel makes the reader want to read further. Wald and Atalia's late father had completely opposing views: Wald believing that Ben Gurion was right and violence was necessary for Jews to reclaim their homeland, whereas Atalia's father, perhaps naively, was adamant that a peaceful settlement could be arranged. When Atalalia's husband died, silence severed the house. Shmuel's job is to partially alleviate this historic silence.

The third strand is where the title of the novel comes into play: Judas. Through their debates, and through Shmuel's musings and his thesis, Judas is central character, but off-stage. Shmuel, himself atheist, poses the proposition that without Judas Christianity would not exist.

...if there had been no Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion there would have been no Christianity.

What a fascinating concept! - and not one that I have ever considered before. Shmuel begins to
believe that Judas Iscariot was in fact the most loyal of Jesus' disciples, believing in him more than he did himself. Did Judas want Jesus to be crucified to prove to the world he was the son of God? Even though Jesus cries that his Father has forsaken him, Judas encourages him to return to Jerusalem. Judas waits for Jesus to saved and when there is no immediate revelation, he hangs himself.

What a thought-provoking, and thoughtful novel. Oz has a lovely turn of phrase, using different words to pose the same old cliches we often hear, such as the chicken/egg scenario:
...question posed by the rabbis of old: how was the first pair of blacksmith's tongs made?

There is so much depth to this novel, and I strongly urge anyone to read it. I'll leave you with one line that has stuck with me:

We [Jews] are all Judas. Even eighty generations later we are all Judas.

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this wonderful novel.

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Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: Behind Her Eyes

Behind Her Eyes Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now, this is Britain's answer to Gone Girl. A fantastic woman-centric thriller with twist after twist. In my opinion, it's a lot better than Girl on the Train. And very different to Gone Girl. So, although it may appeal to readers of those books, be aware that this is something slightly else...

Louise is a single-mum, living in London. Despondent after her divorce, she meets someone in a bar and they feel a certain 'something.' All it is is a kiss. But to Louise, this is major. Her 'man-from-the-bar' has added to her life, the thing that was missing: lust, and excitement.

So, trust her stupid luck that this man turns out to be her new boss at the private psychiatric clinic she works as receptionist. Dismayed, she hides from him on his first day, but realises this can't continue. And it turns out that David is married! Repulsed by the idea, Louise is determined to put him to the back of her mind. But things don't work out quite as planned.

Shortly after, she meets Adele - David's husband. Alarm bells ring. How can she be friends with someone who she's lusting after? But Adele seems so lonely, and so effusive in her offer of friendship
Sarah Pinborough
that Louise can't say no. Bonding together over their gym and spa sessions (David and Adele are rolling in money), the friendship grows deeper. But unfortunately, so does Louise's relationship with David.

It starts with pretty innocent flirting, but quickly he ends up in her bed. Disgusted by herself, what can Louise do with the mess she's got herself into? How can she be sleeping with her friend's husband? And there seems to be a sinister side to David: not only does he appear to be drunk so often, but Adele is afraid of him. Never said aloud, but Louise isn't stupid. Not being allowed your own credit card? Having to make timed phone calls twice a day to check on her? Something isn't right in this marriage.

When her son Adam goes away with his father for a month, Louise is determined to get to the bottom of this. What hold has David got on Adele? Why has he prescribed her so much medication? And at the same time, she finds a revelation of her own; Adele seems to have a solution to her night terrors. But even that is strange. An old notebook written by a teenager, in a book apparently gifted to Adele by David? Nothing adds up. Louise needs to know.

And she's got in far too deep to get out now.

This is a fast, pacy compelling read. Pinborough really knows how to make you keep turning the pages; the twists come thick and fast. It is partly told from Adele's point of view, and partly from Louise's, with occasional flash backs to Adele's time spent at a rehabilitation centre in Scotland after the death by fire of her parents. In this way, the reader feels as though they have reliable narrators. But, still nothing adds up. It's infuriating! - which makes you keep reading.

It's hard to sing the real praises of this book without giving away the final twist. Each time you get to the 'end,' you think you have it worked out. But, the punches keep flying and it's only in the crucial last chapter that you know the whole truth. I won't say anything more than that, you'll have to find out for yourself. But it's a shock to the system. I was mulling over this book for ages, flicking back to see any clues that had been left. It's definitely something that could be read twice.

The one criticism I have of it, is that some of the language is just too melodramatic. To give an example: '... I still felt stabbed in the guts with a shard of my own broken heart.' Thrillers are, by their very nature, dramatic - but this is too much, I almost laughed! With a few edits like this out, this may even have been given a five star review.

Overall - excellent: go out and get a copy!

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this brilliant book.

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Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Review: Paper Butterflies

Paper Butterflies by Lisa Heathfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

BAM. That's how this book hits you.

From the very first page we are introduced to June, at this point five after her mother has recently drowned, surrounded by her new family - stepmother Kathleen and stepsister Megan. Her dad is still around but works, so Kathleen is the main caregiver, and she follows the stereotypical fairytale step-mum: maliciously, uncomprehendingly cruel. Every time June thinks something is going to change, she's let down. 'Oh, look! She's made me a lovely birthday tea with a nice cake!' But all this is an elaborate way for Kathleen to further her torture of June. Unfortunately it's not exactly a fairytale ending with a prince to ride off into the sunset with, but she does find some escape.

She meets Blister, a boy from a house of seven, and finds her salvation. As much as possible, she spends her time with him and with his welcoming family who are the antithesis of her own. Although she tells Blister a little of what goes on at home, June cannot tell him the full story. And no one else knows. She berates herself later for not telling, but how can a child blame themselves when they are that scared? June is convinced that no one would ever believe her. But, as the years go by, she lets Kathleen know she is not beaten, fighting back by not reacting or small acts of retribution. But it doesn't stop.

One form of abuse that I'd never really considered before is the way Kathleen forces June to eat. To eat and eat beyond satiation... 'She wants me to be fat.' So, June's life at school is even harder, when children tease her and call her names. She feels embarrassed eating in front of Blister's family:

'I know what they must think. I want to tell them. I want them to know that me being a bit overweight isn't my fault. That I don't want to eat everything Kathleen puts in front of me but fear makes me do what she says.'

And that's what keeps her quiet: fear. But what child could speak up for themselves in that situation, however hard June berates herself in retrospect.

This is a painful read. It feels odd to give it four stars, meaning 'I liked it,' because I didn't exactly enjoy reading it. But Heathfield has created an entirely compelling read, with a horrific unexpected climax. The ending, a note from Blister (giving away no spoilers), is beautiful. Throughout, you are really inside June's head, and you feel her embarrassment, her shame and her righteous anger. That's the mark of a good author.

But I would definitely warn people away from this book if they have experienced any form of abuse themselves. I can't speak from experience, but I imagine it might be too hard to read.

Apart from abuse, it is also about the power of friendship, and that's the redeeming quality here. Blister and June's friendship starts as childishly innocent, and gradually morphs into a deeper relationship of love. It's wonderful to watch them blossom despite the world around being so dark.

I devoured this book in a day. (Well, an afternoon and a morning). It's a very fast read. I would recommend it, but with that caveat: not for anyone with personal experience, or for people who are particularly sensitive. This book hurts.

Thank you to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this. I really want to go out and get Heathfield's debut novel now, but maybe I'll have to wait until I've got through a few more in my TBR pile...

Excellent. Four stars.

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