Saturday, 29 August 2015

Portable Magic: 'The A-Z of You and Me' by James Hannah


Hi you.

Now, here's a thing to admit in a book review: I don't want to tell you about this book:
Not because it's isn't worth talking about. Far from it.

And not because I'm being precious and I want to keep it all to myself. It's just ...

I want you to come to it as I did: oblivious.

Oblivious to its depth; to its craft; to it's well tuned tone but, most importantly oblivious to its plot; especially to the predicament of the narrator who we gradually get to know inside and out.

Gradually. And that's the point.
  • I don't want to tell you the plot of this book right here, right now before you've even had a chance to crack its spine for yourself.
  • I don't want to tell you about what is happening to the narrator throughout the novel.
  • I don't want to tell you because, trust me, it's quite the experience when it just unfolds before you. Line by line. Page by page, in an organic unfurling of detail, of location, of situation. 
Because if you don't know any solid plot 'facts' from the start, if you don't know any better, you can sustain yourself by speculating on what's happening, or what might happen, and even on what part of you knows probably can't happen ... but you still hope that it can.

So how did I come to be so in the dark about it? How did I come to it blind? Why I didn't intuit the true nature of The A-Z of You and Me at the start? Well ... it all started in the library ...

I picked it up from the shelf not knowing anything about it, turned it over in my hands, and read this blurb:
And what did I pick out?
  • 'wonderfully quirky', 
  • 'contemporary', 
  • 'love story', 
  • 'funny and sweet'. 
Couple that with the pretty, swirly, blackboard-chic, cover design and I stood there thinking "Mmm ... OK, looks like some light summer reading, I can do with something a bit breezy." [I'd just finished reading about the persecution of Jews in Edmund DeWaal's exquisite The Hare with Amber Eyes].

And so I popped it on my pile of books to borrow.

Reading light fiction is more of an exception rather than a rule for me and the library is the ideal, commitment-free, place for me to indulge in it. And I don't mind admitting that I can be a bit of a literary snob, often preferring something I can really get my linguistic teeth around, tending to treat lighter fiction like I do custard slices: wonderful to drop my face into for a top up of something sweet, but, equally, no way to feed my brain on a regularly basis.

But if, like me, you pick up The A-Z of You and Me thinking you'll be getting a custard slice then, be warned, you're not. That element, picked out in those quotes is much more of a side-serving to what is essentially a meal of beautifully rich writing, and bittersweet storytelling with a garnish of salty tears.

It's certainly not as light and casual as some of those review phrases and jacket design would suggest and whether later/alternative editions [it came out in paperback this week] come closer to presenting the real marrow of the book, I can't say, I haven't seen those copies.

For me though, this disconnect turned out to be a positive experience. I was pleasantly surprised that I found myself reading something far more stylish, literary and deep than I was expecting ... and maybe it's the exceeding of my expectations that's been a part of the reason the book has endured in my mind after reading.

But I'm getting ahead of myself talking about having finished the book ... here's a glimpse at the opening lines, so you get a feel for the prose yourself:

It's Hannah's debut novel and, like so many first novels this feels like a beloved collection of ideas, thoughts, phrases, distilled into a rich and satisfying end result.  Distilled, not condensed.  This isn't a novel over-crammed with plot twists or research or high concepts - it's a novel of clarity, focus, and immediacy which while you might not want it to, puts you right there on that bed, in that room with it's narrator.

And that's where you stay from start to finish. Inside his life, his room, his head; meanwhile you learn about his wider life, his past, his story beyond the room through the conceit of him listing body-parts, A-Z, attaching a story to each one. For example:
And that's probably the first time I've seen the word 'chesticles' written down! [A recommendation in itself, surely?]
And with that ... that's all I'm going to say to whet your whistle, to stir your curiosity, to tempt you to add The A-Z of You and Me to your 'To Read' list because, remember, I don't want to tell you about this book.

What I will tell you is that it made me cry.

And I feel I can tell you this because I say that so often here, about so many things,that perhaps you'll write it off as nothing noteworthy. I'm quite literally the girl who cried wolf. [And then cried because no one believed her that there was a wolf in the first place, and then again worrying if the wolf was OK out there on its own and what would happen if they did believe her and then go and kill the wolf ...]

So yes, I'm easily moved, but the emotional reactions it stirred in me were not cheap, easy ones. The tears were drawn from my eyes not jerked

Some were to be expected, others came in waves, [the scenes with the girl with the yarn-bombing for example] and they kept coming, gently, until the final page.

So, make of this review what you will because that's it, I'm not going to tell you anything more about it ... in fact I've probably already told you too much, and I didn't want to tell you about it in the first place ...
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But if you do want to know more then:
  • find a copy of the book and push your nose firmly into it! Or ... 
  • there's currently an official blog tour happening which you can follow by heading to the #AtoZofYouandMe hashtag on Twitter. Within those tweets you'll be able to find plenty of other reviews which give more of the game away. [I'm not part of the blog tour, I'm just gate-crashing! It just happened to coincide with my just having finished the book].
  • And for further details you can find the author - James Hannah - on Twitter here 
  • or on his website. 
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Your turn ...
  • Have you read The A-Z of You and Me? How would you tell someone about it without telling them too much?
  • Or are there other books that you'd love other people to read ... but you don't want to spoil the plot before they begin? 
Do share your thoughts and experiences. 

Julie 
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