book review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

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A LADDER TO THE SKY by John Boyne
★★★★☆
Doubleday, August 2018 (UK)

 

I couldn’t have gone into A Ladder to the Sky with higher expectations; John Boyne set the bar pretty high with his last novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies – my favorite 2017 release and easily one of the best books I’ve ever read – and though it doesn’t quite live up to that standard, A Ladder to the Sky was every bit as enthralling as I hoped it would be. The novel follows Maurice Swift, a young aspiring writer who desires success at all costs, and though he writes decently, he isn’t able to come up with plots of his own. So he sets out to steal other people’s stories, at higher and higher costs.

I guess I’ll start out with my main criticism, then – I expected (perhaps erroneously) that this book was going to be an examination of the heights you can reach if you’re willing to sacrifice your soul, but in reality Maurice doesn’t seem to have much of a soul to begin with. Though he’s a well-constructed character, I did find that he was more of a flat-out villain than the antihero that I had been hoping for. This only became an issue for me in the final section, when some of his actions became almost unrealistically evil, and were never morally grappled with in a thorough enough way to warrant my own engagement or emotional investment in this character’s arc.

And I know that seems like a pretty big gripe, but despite the fact that A Ladder to the Sky is centered around Maurice, the majority of the book isn’t told from his perspective. The novel begins with Erich Ackermann, an old and respected German novelist, who confides a secret in Maurice who then goes on to exploit this to further his own career. Each section unfolds similarly; a character recalls his or her own relationship with Maurice, and each story is in its own way horrifying and heart-wrenching. The section narrated by Erich did end up being my favorite, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact?) that Boyne recycles a character arc that anyone who’s read The Absolutist will quickly recognize. I was still highly invested in Erich, and I did quickly become intrigued by Maurice, who, despite the aforementioned complaints, is a thoroughly captivating figure. I guess I just wanted to end up rooting for him, not against him. But I don’t know what that says about me.

Perhaps the most delightful element of this novel is the meta commentary on the publishing industry. There were moments that I found jaw dropping because I couldn’t quite believe that Boyne was bold enough to publish something like this. I mean, of course it’s fiction. But we all know that the kind of schmoozing and chronic ladder climbing you find in this novel are hardly artistic inventions. It was nice, though, to read something this honest (if embellished for fiction, of course). It was also a pretty drastic departure from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but I honestly think that’s a good thing; one of my favorite things about Boyne is that he’s not the kind of author to write the same book over and over. A Ladder to the Sky was fun and moving and unexpected, and I’d encourage anyone to read it.

book review: This House is Haunted by John Boyne

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THIS HOUSE IS HAUNTED by John Boyne
★★★★☆
Other Press, 2013

 

This House is Haunted is essentially a love letter to Victorian and Gothic literature – it’s like if you put The Turn of the ScrewJane Eyre, and the complete works of Charles Dickens into a blender, with an occasionally tongue in cheek contemporary spin. It’s also a reminder of why John Boyne is one of my favorite authors; there’s such a compulsively readable quality to his prose, where it’s witty and compelling and tense all at once.

I feel like a very common pitfall of the ghost story horror genre is phenomenal buildup to a sort of anticlimactic conclusion, and I’m sorry to say that this isn’t really an exception. This is filled to the brim with delightful ghost story tropes that fans of this genre will adore (a spooky Gothic mansion, creepy children, a standoffish caretaker, a harrowing family history), and I loved the experience of reading this novel, but as we got closer to the end, I became more confident that I was going to be disappointed, and sure enough, the climactic scene and denouement left me pretty cold. There’s also an entire element of the resolution that didn’t totally work for me (the presence and identity of the second spirit I thought took away a lot of the tension).

But, all that said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this book. I loved the way Boyne played into certain familiar tropes while subverting others. I loved our heroine Eliza, who’s both vulnerable and strong-willed. And, to give credit where it’s due, creating a compelling ghost story as a contemporary author is hard. How on earth do you write a conclusion that’s fresh, devoid of cliches, and appropriately scary for your modern reader? I still haven’t found a ghost story that totally works for me in this regard, so I’ll have to keep looking. But for its wonderful buildup, vivid characters, and clever prose, I’m rounding up my 3.5 stars.

top 5 tuesday: New to Me Authors in 2017

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

DECEMBER 12TH – Top 5 (OR 10!) new to me authors in 2017

I wasn’t initially going to do this topic since it slipped my mind this week, but I was #blessed with a snow day today and have nothing better to do, so why not!

I could easily do 10, but I think I like the challenge of narrowing it down to 5.

123715Agatha Christie.  It’s hard to believe I only read And Then There Were None earlier this year – I feel like I’ve been reading Christie for so much longer.  Since then I’ve read five more Christie novels – Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Three Act Tragedy, Sparkling Cyanide, and Crooked House – and none of them has received less than a 4 star rating from me.  I’m not even a little bit tired of her books, and I can’t wait to read even more in 2018.

7195John Boyne.  I know, I won’t shut up about John Boyne, but I just think he’s brilliant.  I’ve only read two of his books so far – The Heart’s Invisible Furies and The Absolutist, and no, I’ve never read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – but both of them ripped my heart out, which, if you know me, is something I particularly enjoy.  He also published this fantastic Guardian article today about why women are better writers than men which is worth checking out, particularly if you hate Jonathan Franzen.

Also this was the single most iconic moment of 2017:

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recp_vsv_400x400Lisa McInerney.  Another Irish writer I discovered this year, when I read her genius debut The Glorious Heresies.  This book knocked the wind out of me in the best possible way.  McInerney provides a really brilliant exploration of crime and poverty in contemporary Ireland – her novel is is moving and profane and challenging and utterly fearless.  I’ve never read anything like it.  And her character Ryan Cusack still haunts me.  I can’t wait to hopefully read the sequel, The Blood Miracles, next year.

38185Mary Renault.  I’ve only read one Renault novel so far, Fire From Heaven, and it took me the better part of three months, so that probably doesn’t sound like the biggest endorsement ever.  But it’s one of those books that’s completely worth the effort that you need to put into it.  Renault’s research into the life of Alexander the Great is absolutely impeccable, and I have so much admiration for her as a writer and historian.  I didn’t want to rush straight into The Persian Boy, the next book in her Alexander trilogy, but I really look forward to getting around to it in 2018.

3p216vdmMin Jin Lee.  I haven’t stopped talking about Pachinko since I read it very early this year, but that’s only because that book ripped my heart out and positively haunted me.  I still find myself thinking about that novel and its characters – and since I’ve read about 90 books since then, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.  I haven’t gone back and read Lee’s debut yet, but I intend to, and I will definitely pick up anything she publishes in the future.

Honorable mentions to: Donal Ryan, Leigh Bardugo, M.L. Rio, Caite Dolan-Leach, Mira T. Lee, Josh Malerman, Maggie Stiefvater, Edward St. Aubyn, Kanae Minato, David Mitchell, Mohsin Hamid, David Vann, and Brian Friel.  And probably others.

Who’s your favorite author that you discovered in 2017?  Comment and let me know!

top 5 wednesday: Authors I Want to Write Like

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

November 29th: Authors You’d Want to Write Like

rehost2f20162f92f132f299a903d-6b20-45a5-a38d-37370b6d0286Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life is the book I want to write.  I mean, not literally, because Hanya already did it, but the incisive and thoughtful quality of her prose is exactly what I strive for in my own writing; there’s such an effortless quality to it that I admire so much more than overly flowery prose.  Her characters are nuanced and multidimensional; her story is utterly devastating… all of the elements that come together and make A Little Life extraordinary are things I hope to achieve with a book some day.

“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

– Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life


8719Donna Tartt: Okay, maybe I lied – if there’s any book I wish I could have authored more than A Little Life, it’s The Secret History.  I mean… I live in Vermont and it’s the setting I’m most comfortable writing, and I have a huge interest in the classics, and I love academia-based narratives, and I love literary thrillers… but Tartt got there first, alas.  But I’m not mad because I think she is such a tremendous talent.  I know that some people think her prose is pretentious, but I find it absolutely mesmerizing.  If I can write a paragraph half this good in my lifetime I will be very happy.

“It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown I back, throat to the stars, “more like deer than human being.” To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.”

– Donna Tartt, The Secret History


7195John Boyne: The aspect of Boyne’s style that I admire so much is his ability to flit back and forth between gravity and levity – The Heart’s Invisible Furies is the only book I can think of that made me actually laugh out loud, and cry on different occasions.  Sometimes I think I should write a book as unapologetically dark as the two I mentioned above, but then sometimes I think I should try my hand at dark humor, and Boyne would be the model I would turn to in that case.  I mean, even The Absolutist, as depressing as it was, had some unexpectedly comedic moments.  Although I usually think I’d rather make readers cry than laugh, I think doing both would actually be ideal.

“Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”

– John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies


994Hannah Kent: Kent’s prose is superbBurial Rites is one of the most atmospheric novels I’ve ever read – I would love to write a book like this where prose and setting and characters all come together to create something so striking and devastating.

“Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.”

– Hannah Kent, Burial Rites


 

585John Steinbeck: Okay, so, I used to think I hated Steinbeck.  I couldn’t stand The Grapes of Wrath or The Pearl, and I was very surprised when I enjoyed Of Mice and Men but quickly wrote it off as a random blip – so no one was more surprised than I was when I fell so in love with East of Eden earlier this year.  So when I say I want to write like Steinbeck, I mean, I want to write like Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden.  Everything about that novel’s construction is a masterpiece.  (I can’t take Steinbeck haters who haven’t read East of Eden seriously.  I mean.  Give it a chance.)

“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”

– John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Honorable mentions to Kazuo Ishiguro and W. Somerset Maugham who both nearly made the cut.

Which authors would you like to write like?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

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THE ABSOLUTIST by John Boyne
★★★★★
Other Press, 2012

 

The Absolutist is a tender and harrowing exploration of love, betrayal, bravery, and cowardice, set in the trenches in France during World War I. The story begins in 1919, with twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler making a trip to Norwich to deliver some letters to the sister of a man who had died in the war, Will Bancroft. Through a series of flashbacks, Boyne explores the relationship between Tristan and Will, and while it’s clear from the beginning that there isn’t going to be a happy ending, it ended up being even more devastating than I had expected. This book ripped my heart out, so naturally, I loved it.

Tristan Sadler is everything I could want from a narrator – complex, sympathetic, flawed, and seeking atonement, and though his guilt is present from the first page, it isn’t until you’re deep into the story that you really understand the extent of it. Tristan’s struggle with his identity as a gay man provides the novel with its central conflict, which Boyne addresses with sensitivity and nuance.

Boyne’s prose is understated and compelling, as he deftly weaves together this complex tale, whose barely-300-pages belies its thematic richness. From the synopsis I was expecting a rather cut and dry love story, but the reality of this novel is more intricate and unexpected, and a lot sadder.

This is only the second John Boyne novel I’ve read after The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but both left me awestruck, devastated, and wanting to pick up another Boyne novel immediately. The Absolutist and its characters will haunt me.

book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

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THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
★★★★★
Hogarth Press, August 2017

This book wasn’t perfect, but then again, the books I rate 5 stars rarely are. But I loved it. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I can’t remember the last time I read something that managed to be both wickedly funny and devastating, often at the exact same time.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sweeping epic about the life of a gay man growing up in twentieth century Ireland. The story begins with Cyril’s mother, Catherine Goggin, being denounced by her village church for becoming pregnant at 16 and forced to relocate to Dublin. Deciding she can’t raise the child alone, Catherine gives Cyril up for adoption to a very odd couple who constantly remind him (in a surprisingly humorous way) that he’s “not a real Avery.” The closest companion that Cyril has is his friend Julian, whom he loves and idolizes in a way that he’s forced to downplay as the two grow up together.

This is an ambitious novel which spans about seventy years, addressing themes of sexuality, religion, the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic church, as well as how attitudes change over time. As a protagonist, Cyril is incredibly flawed – he makes arguably unforgivable mistakes, but never out of malice; always out of a desire to find his place in a society that refuses to accept him. Despite the absurd humor, at its core this is a very sad story that actually moved me to tears more than once.

Much like The Glorious Heresies, another fantastic contemporary Irish novel that I’d highly recommend, The Heart’s Invisible Furies subtly makes use of fate as a prominent theme. Characters show up in each other’s lives with a regularity that stretches coincidence, so fair warning, you’re going to need to suspend your disbelief early on. But this is ultimately a story about how Cyril and Catherine come to find one another – you learn in the first few pages that they eventually reconnect, so it’s always a question of when and how – and though neither is actively searching for the other, they weave in and out of each other’s lives in unexpected ways, never knowing the other’s identity. It’s such a moving saga of these two flawed but strong individuals living with their regrets and the mistakes they’ve made.

I’ve seen some reviews that criticize this book’s length, and it’s a fair point. I thought the pace was fantastic until the last hundred pages or so, which I thought could have been condensed. But for the most part, I absolutely flew through this – I couldn’t put it down and I was sad when it was over. This was my first John Boyne novel, but it will certainly not be my last.

I chose this book as my August Book of the Month selection.  If you’re interested in checking out this great subscription service, use my referral link!