Sunday, 14 December 2014

Book #47 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I think it's fair to say that I have read far less books this year then I would have normally by this time of year. But, it's also pretty fair to say that on the whole I've read very few books I didn't enjoy which is an improvement upon previous years.

'We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves' follows this years pattern. Shortlisted for this years Booker Prize, for my part I was completely seduced by the attention grabbing title, it was always pretty much a certainty I was going to give it a try. And I thought it was great.

Told from the point of view of Rosemary Cooke who begins her story in the middle before concluding it around present day, she once had two siblings : Fern and Lowell. Fern disappeared when she was 5, to be barely spoken of again. Lowell ran away in his teens, and she hasn't seen him since either.

There is so so much I'd like to say about this book, a lot of things I'd like to debate, mostly in reference to their parents and the nearly criminal level of  psychological damage their choices inflicted on their children. Unfortunately, I'm loathe to do so. A twist comes roughly a third of the way in, which makes it near impossible to review without absolutely wrecking the beginning.

This is exactly what happened to me - An Amazon review gave this away, and so I already knew. The thing was, too, that as I read it I knew that far from guessing the twist I would have made (possibly from what life experiences I bring to the book as a reader) entirely different assumptions.

Because I can't really talk about the plot, what I will say is that I found Rosemary as a character incredibly believable, even with the uniqueness of her life and the circumstances, I felt like if I'd had her life I'd be like her too. If anything there is not enough of either Lowell, or the parents, possibly because it's being narrated from Rosemary's viewpoint. If the narrator had been omniscient or if each character had taken a turn this might have been better, but this would have really changed the feel of the book and consequentially made it a different book. It's just there's a lot more I wanted to know, and hoped the mothers' journal would reveal but it didn't.

I think I expected it to be a funny book, indeed it's described as comic, but I thought it was incredibly sad. There were parts of brilliantly observed and astute points about life and family, and being a human in general. In fact, I enjoyed the writing so much, I will certainly seek out her other novels. Though the chronology of the storytelling occasionally feels fractured it wasn't really to its detriment.

Also, in the general scheme of things, the originality in terms of plot here is inarguable and it is genuinely good as a reader to have a book that you can't even slightly accuse of being a tale you might have read something like before. 

9/10
      

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Book #46 Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Foxglove Summer

Reviewing this book is making me super unhappy, because I liked it and really like The Folly series and The Folly concept, but I have to sum up the book and be clear about the flaws I felt as I read.

This is the 5th book thus far of the "PC Grant adventure series" (trainee magician policeman investigates crimes that have supernatural elements) it is a good episode that I ultimately feel like enjoyed, but I enjoyed it with reservation, with qualms and criticism.

Two girls have gone missing from a small country town, Peter Grant realises it's not a human kidnap, but what has taken them and why??

Firstly Aaronovitch references Soham quite early on. Openly acknowledging the similarity in the initial disappearance here does not make it any the more tasteful. That it begins with such a strikingly similar circumstance and is a fanciful story involving fairies, unicorns, and changelings just compounds the issue.

So, that's one problem, it's in poor taste.

Moving on, the second novel in this series, Moon Over Soho introduced us to the "Ethically Challenged Magician" who has barely been seen since, Book 4, Broken Homes, introduced a second mysterious bad guy "Faceless Man" who does not feature in Book 5.

In an ongoing TV series, if it was an Episode Of The Week kind of thing, this might work because the overall arc would play itself out quite quickly. In a novel series, it doesn't really work, and feels like plot threads, and by extension readers,  are just left hanging in mid-air without resolution. Foxglove Summer is like an Episode Of The Week in novel form, which doesn't much acknowledge or have any continuity from what has gone before.

Peter receives a message to say he has about a year before "it all kicks off" which, given the way the current timeline of Folly books works means about 12 more stories before we get to grips with who these bad guys are.

Dare I say it but is Ben Aaronovitch, a screenwriter beginning to write these novels with an overt eye to adaptation because the way these last 4 books have been written would work if these stories were being televised and continued on a weekly and not an annual basis, I can't quite detail why that is without spoiling both this novel and the series previous installments. 

As things stand the lack of plot continuity from installment to installment is a massive frustration as a reader. However, I will be continuing with this series because as I've said previously, I like the concept and the characters. But it's not a fantasy novel series, it's exactly as if someone took Doctor Who and made each 40 minute episode a novel, there's a semblance of an ongoing thread like "What's Bad Wolf?" or "Who's that Missy then?" but not every episode moves the overall arc onwards.

And it's annoying. The lack of Nightingale was annoying too.

7/10 
          


Saturday, 29 November 2014

Book #45 The Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford

The Pursuit Of Love

In The Pursuit Of Love, a girl named Fanny visits her Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie at their home Alconleigh becoming caught up in the whirl of her cousins (mainly Linda) as they enter society.

The difficulty with reviewing this one is that I actually read it months ago and forgot to review it so part of me is now thinking : What where the highlights here again?

There is another difficulty. I've read so much about the Mitfords now that going through this "fiction novel" of Nancy's is to be acutely aware that hardly any of it is fiction and that it is not only semi autobiographical of her own life but that she has cannibalised the lives of her sisters inserting the most amusing anecdotes about their childhoods into the character that most represents her.
In some ways I've ended up reading the books the wrong way round.

Here we can find The Hons Cupboard, Child Hunts, Farve's thoughts on Romeo and Juliet and his preparation for the coming of the Germans. We can recognise that "Lord Merlin" is Lord Berners,  and that the "sewer" that Farve took a shine to and the "sewer" he threw out are Mark Ogilvie Grant and James Lees-Milne respectively etc etc

This said, it is enjoyable, funny and undemanding. A good Sunday in the garden read, or holiday read.
 
It was said of Nancy that she gave up writing fiction because she couldn't think up any plots but truthfully she couldn't think up characters either, borrowing extensively and sometimes in a way that caused offence the character traits of her sisters and her friends and family and setting versions of them on the page. Other novels featured/mocked Unity and Diana, Debo and her daughter Sophie, her nephew Alexander and Lady Diana Cooper.

Nancy privately sneered at the release of Jessica's autobiography Hons and Rebels but actually it's much better than the Pursuit Of Love which is quite lightweight, it has this pink cover that looks like candy floss and it's a bit like reading candy floss really.     

Despite this will it deter me from reading her entire back catalogue? Inevitably not.

7/10

Book #44 The Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans

In The Humans, an alien falls to Earth in order to inhabit the body of mathematician Andrew Martin who is on the verge of making a massive discovery which must be prevented at all costs. It strikes a whimisical, comedic tone as the alien tries to adjust to human life and understand its customs.

The problem here is I guess that I like Matt Haig, as a person. He posts often amusing writing tips on Twitter, interacts with followers in a positive way which is occasionally promotional but certainly not exclusively, and seems like a bloody nice bloke actually. He knows what depression is truly like and I'm massively looking forward to his forthcoming non-fiction Reasons To Stay Alive.

The Humans is massively popular on Amazon so it has its fans and people who really love it, but I'm sorry to say I'm not among them. I feel like this story has been done in many variations before with different types of outsider and so isn't that original, and is on occasion annoying, the whimsy becoming cloying. It literally loses the plot several times and once you understand that this novel is really about someone who operates on logic, learning about emotions and the brilliant things the human world has to offer like music, you can pretty much discern what will happen for yourself. 

Which is not at all to say that there was nothing I enjoyed. Like many, I really enjoyed his comments about mental health :

“Humans, as a rule, don't like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead. But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So, we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode."

I mean, this is brilliant, the accuracy of this statement is so razor sharp it made me take an in breath.
There are other examples too of really excellent writing :

"Civilised life, you know is based on a huge number of illusions in which we all collaborate willingly. The trouble is we forget after a while that they are illusions and are shocked when reality is torn down around us"

His Advice To Humans section is rather hit and miss, some of it much better than others. The other problem is that it interrupts the narrative with 97 bullet points, but that said, may be one of the bits I most enjoyed, preferring it to the narrative as a whole. And I really liked the use of Emily Dickinson.

So, it wasn't wholly a lost cause, it's just that the overall tone is generally not my "sort of thing" which is no disgrace to it, and besides, I appear to be massively in the minority here. I would compare it to authors like John O'Farrell or maybe even Jonas Jonasson these are also hugely successful writers but they just aren't particularly the sort of writers/writing that I get hugely, madly, excited over.

It's a shame because I really wanted to love it as much as everyone else appears to.

6/10

Friday, 28 November 2014

Book #43 Various Pets Alive And Dead by Marina Lewycka

Various Pets Alive And Dead

Various Pets Alive And Dead is the story of Serge and Clara, both former commune kids whose parents were activists in their younger days. Each has grown up to rebel or conform in their own way, Clara has become an ordinary member of society, Serge has gone in the polar opposite direction and become a stock broker. Their younger sister Ulyana who has Downs Syndrome still lives at home; and for reasons none can explain their long cohabiting parents are suddenly desperate to reunite the old gang, and formally marry.

Having already read A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian and found it deeply unfunny despite its marketing as a comic novel, I doubt I would ever have voluntarily read Various Pets Alive And Dead which was a book club choice. This was also marketed as a comic novel, HILARIOUS, claims the front cover. I didn't laugh once.

The entire Serge story is disengaging and beyond annoying, attempting to declare its own relevancy by having Northern Rock and Woolworths collapsing about him. This entire storyline made my eyes glaze over and I really couldn't have cared less. My entire reading group concurred that the novel would have been vastly improved without Serge. At one point he wanders into the lair of a dominatrix, awkwardly encounters a colleague, and wanders back out again. It hangs in mid air with a question mark as to why this scene exists, as do much of the other events. 

Of his sisters Clara's storyline reminded me entirely of A Casual Vacancy (not a compliment) as she inhabits a cliche of a downtrodden and mousy primary school teacher attempting to do good on an estate. All the working class people are of course, a Daily Mail stereotype of grubby underfed chavs who would steal your purse as soon as look at you.

Their sister who has Downs is the most embarrassingly written of the lot, there is nothing to her character whatsoever other than an uninhibited and inappropriately expressed desire for sex, with no other personality to speak of else. Did research into Downs basically amount to a bit of googling here?     

There are two shoutouts for equality here though, for one it's nice to have a character with a disability in a novel, doesn't happen often, and for two a cardboard cutout with no depth she may well be but at least the same can be said of every other character in the novel. She hasn't received any lesser treatment, all are two dimensional at best.

A further problem exists in that there really is no plot to speak of making this a character led piece with rubbish characters. Throughout the book I kept thinking that the real story in this book belonged to the prime of the commune and perhaps particularly to the fire that destroyed it, and that a novel which had laid its focus there would have been a better one. Surely the idea that children reject the values of their parents is an obvious and worn one?
Some people said that perhaps books about communes had been overdone but I couldn't think of any.

For me, there was a total disengagement, I was not at any point involved with this novel. It was literally just words on a page that I turned. I certainly did not enter its world or feel anything except irritation at any point.

In fact, personally, the novel had just two high points, my home town got name-checked and you never see it in literature and also an obscure pub in London that I happen to have been in, the road its on, and the cemetery opposite. When those are your take away highlights from a novel that is nearly 400 pages long, you've got a problem.

The denouement is terrible, one of those summations of what happened to everyone which I happen to loathe, there's a "revelation" in there which has no impact because you don't care, and you realise that the whole pretext of "the plot" came to naught. Outcomes for other characters seem hastily concocted as though a deadline approached. Some further, cliched, distasteful, remarks are made about the sex life of our Downs Syndrome character.

The End. 

Dismal. I've read this, now you don't have to. Avoid.

4/10

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Book #42 Rage Against The Dying by Becky Masterman

Rage Against The Dying

The way I pick books is often planned, I either know an author has something coming out or I hear about it and mentally list it, or it gets directly recommended. Sometimes though I like to roll the dice and do a lucky dip, then the reasons I pick a book become quite random, and instead of judging the book by its cover I tend to give a book a go on the strength of its title, quite often, as in this case, knowing literally nothing about the book.  The last time I did this was for 'In Tearing Haste' which is what led to my obsession with the Mitford family.

In this case the title is taken from the famous Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night recently used in the script of the film Interstellar. I actually eventually chose it based on watching a woman engrossed in it on a step in Trafalgar Square.

Something of an Alas! occurred upon the discovery that it was a crime thriller, which as I mentioned in my review of Cuckoo's Calling is really not my genre, because of general predictability problems. I bought it anyway. In some respects I was grateful for it, as I am coming off an intense novel currently embargoed til February, and so it acted as something of a palette cleanser.

We meet a man assessing an elderly woman as a potential victim, before he is about to rape then kill her.

The opening of this novel almost promises to be a very different book, like the prologue was a flash of inspiration from which the writer wasn't sure where to turn. From here she steers the novel somewhat unfortunately into incredibly familiar territory not just for novels but for cop shows and films in general.

The former FBI agent, the serial killer she never caught, the guilt over the lost protege, the new young upstart challenging the superiors who care about career and image over case, going rogue against everyone else to solve it alone because you alone believe you are right, and <gasp> indeed you are.

There is nothing new to see here, nothing at all, and yet for that it was both engaging, and highly readable, at no point did I feel like tossing it aside incomplete. There were a few sentences that I highlighted because I thought they were pretty great expressions of certain things. An easy and undemanding read which reminded me greatly of the early Kay Scarpetta novels by Patricia Cornwell before they slid down the mediocrity slope and became utterly unappealing.    

It read as if it had been built for a film adaptation too, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it appear on a big screen near you. A sequel lands in the new year, having read the synopsis my reaction was an instant 'no thanks' and yet I'm not sorry I read this one at all.  As a writer you can see in those little sentences I enjoyed that she has a lot of potential, which will be wasted if she goes further down these very well trodden roads.

7/10


Sunday, 2 November 2014

Book #41 The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August

In The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August our eponymous hero is a kalachakra, an ouroboron. (someone who when they die is reborn to the same life over and over) After suffering several lives filled with confusion, false diagnosis of insanity, and becoming prey to those who would know the future, Harry is found by the Cronus Club, a secret society, which protects those who are not "linear" from everyone else. They have one rule, don't intervene, don't change the course of history, it's been tried before and it led to disaster. But a message is being whispered from the future, the world is ending, can the kalachakra stop it?  

I have been reading as long as I can remember and over the years must have read thousands of books.
Since the advent of my blog in 2011, I have read at a rough count 304 books, the majority of which were fiction novels with a few exceptions per year. I would say that split across the reviews the average score per book is about a 7. A few have achieved the ignominy of a Zero, or perhaps worse, a 2, and approximately 10% of the books I've read have received a 10/10.

Among these there is a Super Group, a Clique, the Creme de la Creme, an elite to which many aspire but few are chosen.  If I refine my terms to only books read since 2011, this group contains Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, Genus by Jonathan Trigell and The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness. These are books which kept me awake all night, books I thought were genius, books I envied the writers for having written, books which I felt were somehow written just for me, and particularly in the case of The Crane Wife books which triggered deep personal and emotional reactions.

At roughly 2am this morning, as I cursed my iPad for having found itself on 1% and I still had 100 pages left to go, The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North joined their ranks.
  
I don't quite know how to explain fully just how good this book is, how much I loved it and why. It blew my mind. I thought it was incredible, brilliant, amazing and every other superlative thereof. I highlighted one line sentences, I highlighted full paragraphs, I got involved with the plot to an unreasonable degree, I stayed up with it as long as I could, I was engrossed in it, at times had physical feelings of excitement or anxiety. At first the central premise is not dissimilar to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, but the books could not diverge more in terms of plot and style. They are completely different. But God, this book is great.

Ultimately, I think what I liked best was the secret society angle, that these individuals stand outside of the world as experienced by the "linear", but support one another; the implied criticism of psychiatry, and the blurred lines between theology/philosophy and quantum physics as the kalachakra search for the meaning behind their existence. 

I had a little niggle in that one character has this deep antipathy to the Cronus Club and the reasons for this are never explained. Was he ever a member? What happened? And if not how did he survive without them? It's not a problem that we don't find out, I just really wanted to know. 

I was also curious about the butterfly effect, the kalachakra believe inaction is the right response to complexity so established events, almost as in Doctor Who, must remain fixed. However each of them do different things with each life they are gifted. Medical training in one life, law in another, different wives, different lovers that kind of thing, how do these changes not ultimately change the course of history in infinite and complex ways?

I'd love to ask the author about this, who in fact is an established author called Catherine Webb, also sometimes known as Kate Griffin and not in fact Claire North, which hot on the heels of Robert Galbraith, does make me wonder what the point of such pseudonyms ultimately is!

Verdict : 10/10 - DO buy this book, DO read it, it's the best book I've read this year.