Saturday, 24 January 2015

Book #7 Holy Cow by David Duchovny

Holy Cow

Holy Cow will be released on 3rd February 2015. My thanks to Headline Publishing Group for the complimentary copy.

Elsie Bovary is a cow. She leads a pleasant life in the fields and she can't complain, until one day her world is rocked by "the Box God" watched by the humans. It suddenly reveals to her the cycle of farming and food production. Her mother did not leave her - she was killed for food.
With a similarity to Aardman Animation's "Chicken Run" - Elsie must escape the farm or die, and in this endeavour she is joined by a pig and a turkey, who are also seeking pastures new.

You have to suspend all disbelief to enjoy Holy Cow and just join in with a fantastical world where a cow, a turkey and a pig can adventure off together without attracting attention. And it is funny, especially when they board the plane and Jerry the Pig's ill conceived notion of conversion to Judaism. To its detriment, it is often decidedly preachy.

On some occasions Holy Cow proves unsubtle and soapbox-esque. There is almost an acknowledgement of this by the author, as when his forthright opinions become very clear, a parentheses will appear saying, "the editor told me to leave this out." 

The Arab/Israeli conflict is over-simplified for comic effect but somehow feels uncomfortable not amusing.  There is a clear agenda at work here and it often loses the ability to show not tell.
Where Holy Cow would fare best I think in terms of audience impact is within the 12-15 age bracket as a think piece and debate starter about ethics, animal rights and vegetarianism. Also, it provides scope for thought and discussion about why certain cultures and religions discern between animals they won't eat because they are sacred, or because they are unclean. Why not one for all and all for one?

It will certainly sell widely, both to Duchovny fans and like-minded souls. Short chapters, with a quirky talent for the surreal and a lighthearted tone, make this a vivacious, pleasant, read, but one not without its flaws. 7/10     

2015 Challenge : A funny book

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Book #6 Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


Hausfrau will be released on 26th March 2015, my thanks to Mantle for the complimentary copy

I read Hausfrau, the debut novel from Jill Alexander Essbaum, in one night last night and I'm still thinking about it today. It's the story of Anna Benz who, after getting pregnant, married the father of her child and emigrated to Switzerland. Several years later more children have followed, but Anna has never assimilated into Swiss society and stands on the outside looking in. I was struck by the duality of my response to Anna as a character. On the one hand, I felt like I didn't understand her at all, on the other I felt as though I understood her completely.

It flummoxed me that after nine years in the country she had never made a true effort at learning the language, a thing bound to isolate. So too, that she had not learned to drive, and does not have a bank account. Is this her own failure or unwillingness to fully commit to a life chosen by accident, or something else more sinister, engendered by her husband? The question hangs in the air, neither one or the other, perhaps both.

Anna, depressed, somehow got caught in a vicious circle, a psychological rut that she does not know how to escape. Alone becomes her default, no longer just her condition, but her coping mechanism, finding Swiss society insular, she goes through a private insulation of the self, rejecting as she feels rejected and her sense of self splinters.

My favourite quote was :

It is possible to lead several lives at once. In fact, it is impossible not to. Sometimes these lives overlap and interact. It is busy work living them and it requires stamina a singular life doesn’t need. Sometimes these lives live peaceably in the house of the body. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they grouse and bicker and storm upstairs and shout from windows and don’t take out the rubbish. Some other times, these lives, these several lives, each indulge several lives of their own. And those lives, like rabbits or rodents, multiply, make children of themselves. And those child lives birth others. This is when a woman stops leading her own life. This is when the lives start leading her. 

Unsurprisingly, the stifling, controlled, isolation of her life has led to the need for an outlet. And in Anna's case the outlet becomes sex, but both this outlet and her inability to establish human connection will have dire consequences.      

I found the way that it was written really interesting, and admired it, it was reminscent of Marilynne Robinson's recent novel Lila. Anna will, for example, be at a party, in one sentence and in the very next suddenly be in bed with her lover, or at her therapy session, ( with the worlds most cold, judgemental, therapist) before being recalled back to her present. The natural habit of suddenly getting lost in a thought, an echo, a memory, and no longer feeling present in the moment or the place. By writing it in this way, it feels like we the reader are inside her head, it also further reinforces Anna's disconnect, she can never fully function because she is never in the moment.

As well as the clear contrast to Anna Karenina, Hausfrau is very much in the same tradition as Doris Lessings 'The Grass Is Singing' and Ibsen's 'A Dolls House' as a reflection on the loss of identity through marriage.

A bleak tale, certainly, yet somehow, a compelling one.


2015 Challenge : A book that takes place in another country

Monday, 19 January 2015

Book #5 Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything 

The point of Freakonomics is as follows: applying the principles of economics to real world scenarios. The cover calls it a phenomenon, and a sensation, a controversy which has shocked the world. In reading it I find myself nonplussed.

It's very slight for a start, six chapters with a bunch of shorter articles and blogposts at the back.

Among the chapters are :

Why are the Ku Klux Klan like Real Estate Agents?

Answer : They aren't really, unless you massively force them to be analogous to one another

Why are Public School Teachers like Sumo Wrestlers?

Answer : They aren't really, unless you focus all your energy on how teachers cheat because they want to keep their jobs (the obvious reason of not wanting to be unemployed) and ignore the myriad of extenuating social and indeed economic pressures which leave them unable to teach effectively in certain communities (see The Wire : Season 4) which bear no comparison to the way sumo wrestling is organised in Japan other than they too cheat for fear of unemployment. Reductive.

Why do drug dealers live with their Mums?

Of all the chapters this is the only one with a genuine relevant comparison to economics, in terms of the fact that drug dealing empires operate on the same model as any other business, with the street dealers themselves being the equivalent of a McDonalds worker,  but another researcher who is neither of the authors did all the leg work here. If you've watched The Wire : Season 1, again the answer is quite obvious. 

A Roshanda By Any Other Name?

The chapter about names reinforces views recently espoused in the UK media by Katie Hopkins, which some find incredibly prejudiced and others see an inherent truth to. Though the chapter seems to support Katie's views to say that if you give your child a certain type of name they will suffer as a result there seems to be no direct academic evidence to back that up, just a rudimentary speculative awareness of societal prejudice and instead the chapter comes off as very mean spirited and slightly racist. Also much of this chapter is just lists of most popular names.

A lot of what is in this book seems like a statement of the obvious, unless you are very young and have very few analytical skills. An Amazon review calls this book intelligence insulting and I would tend to agree. I was massively disappointed in it. Indeed it seems like an attempt to build a book around a single successful article (Drug Dealers) and stretch the idea out, by drawing artificial juxtapositions between unlinked things, and in actuality is really a thin exercise in areas of sociology, with little to do with real world economics. A case of money for old rope.


2015 Challenge : A non-fiction book

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Book #4 Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston

Remember Me Like This

In Bret Anthony Johnston's novel Remember Me Like This,  Justin Campbell has been missing for four years, his family have buckled under the strain and are fractured, but are by turns attempting to carry on with their lives. His Mom volunteers in deliberate anonymity at a sea-life centre, his brother hangs out at a skate park and is on his way to getting his first girlfriend, his father is having an affair. As his father departs from his regular rendezvous with his mistress, his phone rings, the police believe they have found Justin.
Back in the day, I used to watch a fair bit of Oprah, and as a result came across the story of Shawn Hornbeck, a boy who went missing in 2002. UK readers may not be familiar with the case. He had not been as many thought, murdered, but had been abducted and held captive by a paedophile who police only caught 4 years later when he struck again. 

Justin Campbell's backstory is pretty much that of Hornbeck. In fact, it does not so much echo the case as replicate it. Like Hornbeck, Campbell was living within an easy distance of his family and had seen missing posters and appeals for his whereabouts, though allowed certain freedoms, he remained in the psychological thrall of his captor and was afraid to leave.

I've considered before in reviews how I feel when fiction stories borrow heavily from true life events. In this particular instance it feels a bit grotesque - despite the frankly unmistakeable similarity, no acknowledgement is made towards the Hornbeck case in the Authors Note. Given that the boy spent his adolescence being exploited, this feels like further exploitation by somebody he's probably never met for creative gain and profit. I would definitely like to know if Johnson sat down with Hornbeck or his parents at any stage.    

But then, fiction and the real life inspiration diverge as it is doubtless all fiction bar the backstory itself. Johnson at least has the decency not to focus on what happened to Justin during those years, instead focusing on the period of adjustment his family go through upon his return. Justin's own perspective is silent, leaving him an enigma. The authorial point of view switches between parents, brother and grandfather, and this is a really interesting and worthwhile story.

You last see your son when he is 11, and he returns a 15 year old, you live in the shadow of the perpetrator filled with hatred and devastation - your child is not forthcoming about what happened and you really don't want to ask. He is both the son and brother you remember, and yet a stranger with unfathomable behaviour and secrets.  

In that respect by focusing on the psychology of the family both how they coped with his disappearance and again with his reappearance, it was a really interesting story to read.

It did have a tendency towards a soap opera effect - and whilst the epilogue is there to keep you guessing the prologue is somehow superfluous, containing a frustrating spoiler element about an aspect of plot that didn't need spoiling.  The prose has that "American tone" that I so often dislike, and there were sections that I found quite dry.

Though it has an interesting and unique angle to pose as a novel, can it really be called original? And more than this is it not somehow an insult to give a speculative public narrative to a very real and intense private pain?

Verdict : 7/10

2015 Challenge : Despite the lack of acknowledgement, I'm calling this my book based on a true story. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Book #3 The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve

I've had The Twelve on my Kindle for about 3 years without reading it. It's the follow up to dystopia The Passage, a trilogy which is due to conclude this year with City Of Mirrors. I've had several abortive attempts at reading The Twelve, in part because I wasn't grabbed by the opening, and because I was struggling to remember where The Passage left off.

I don't quite know how I missed the section at the start of the book, written in biblical style, summarising events up to this point, but I did. Finding it this time made the book easier to get going with, using Wikipedia really helped too. I guess that's what happens when you leave a three year gap between installments.  

Following the end of The Passage our main group of heroes have gone their separate ways, some are missing presumed dead, some are actually dead, and Alicia, for one, has become a creature unto herself neither human nor viral.

After what they learned pursuing Babcock in The Passage, Amy, Peter and co now know that to solve the viral crisis, they must kill The Twelve originators of the plague thereby killing all the virals they individually sired.

Whilst The Passage was an unnerving and bleak novel with a lot of prologue involved, The Twelve is more dramatic set piece after dramatic set piece, action sequences with a clear view to the film adaptation which has been optioned by Ridley Scott.  The cage fighting sequence, the convoy ambush, the stadium, the school bus etc. As such it loses much of its reflection upon the changes in the world.

The flashback to just after the virus broke as we meet Bernard Kittridge 'The Last Stand In Denver' is all really great stuff which ends somewhat prematurely. Other things entirely miss the mark. Lila is a terrible character and the hunt for the Twelve becomes ridiculously over simplified were previously it had much potential for a variety of target take down scenarios.

Given that the entire nation has become literally overrun with these things, at one point they are said to number in their millions; it seems odd then, both that human colonies seem to survive in such large numbers or indeed that 100 years later any are left at all.

There were two things I really actually detested about The Twelve. A lengthy segment ensues in which one of the main characters is trapped in The Homeland - an established colony run by a panto villain named Guilder. Instead of inventing conditions in this oppressive colony Cronin merely borrows from the Holocaust. Inmates have barracks and are starving, they have numbers burned into their arms, they have their heads shaved. Instead of feeling like a subtle allegory, the comparison is like a sledgehammer. To do this felt grotesque to the point of offensive to me.

It also has multiple allusions to rape and rape sequences, which I think many readers would find disturbing.

However, I did manage to read this book, in the end, in two large gulps, it does sort of gallop along with haste in a way that makes it occupy your attention, and ultimately these books are quite long over 500 pages each, so having devoted over 1,000 pages of my attention to this saga, it just wouldn't make sense not to read its conclusion.

I have recently said though, that I wish the publishing world would take note of the fact that pandemic dystopias have somewhat reached saturation point now, and act accordingly. I have certainly reached a 'not another one' malais when seeking out new reading materials, and finishing this trilogy will certainly mark my taking a well earned break from them.


2015 Challenge : A book with a number in the title.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Book #2 Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You is the story of Lydia Lee who is already dead when the novel begins, though her family don't know that yet. It initially appears to be heading into the territory occupied by The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but instead becomes a very different kind of story unique unto itself.

I felt that the story was the embodiment of the famous Philip Larkin poem 'This Be The Verse'. The more we learn about the lives of the Lees, the more we see how their entire dysfunction has been created by the emotional baggage both parents have carried through from their own childhoods, which then accidentally dictates their interactions with their own children. Or more specifically, Lydia.

James is Chinese and his wife Marilyn is All American. The children and the couple themselves face the kind of prejudice as a mixed race family one would expect from small town 1970's USA.

Though they have three children, all the hopes of both parents have fallen upon their middle child, Marilyn's by design and James's by accident and they each want for her everything they feel they failed to have. A parenting mistake that is never rectified has led older son Nath to be overshadowed, and unplanned youngest child Hannah is almost deliberately ignored.   

Though it begins as a novel about her, there is some great writing which shows that if anything as the novel progresses Lydia becomes more and more a ghost, less and less knowable and as a result the situation becomes so much more tragic, in many senses as realistically forgotten whilst living as either of her siblings.

It also manages to cleverly subvert a couple of story cliches I think, the dead girl in a small town cliche generally, and 'the Clever Asian Kid' cliche.

It is mournful and it has this pervading sadness without being depressing,  People think of love as a tremendously positive thing, and neither parent is a bad or evil person, but loving in the way they think of as loving.  It is almost an elegy to the harm we can do we with love. And this is what makes it noteworthy and this is what it makes it haunting, as a family filled with silent despair finally implodes.    


2015 Challenge :A book you can finish in a day.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Book #1 Longbourne by Jo Baker


There are many books that have riffed off Pride and Prejudice and many terrible unauthorized sequels like PD James 'Death Comes To Pemberley', because of this I was somewhat wary of Longbourne and came to it quite late.

What makes it different, and the reason I gave it a chance is that it offers something that feels like a fresh take by retelling the story from the perspective of the Bennett families lowly servants on their small estate.

I enjoyed this book but I also found it quite hit and miss. Some of it is very well observed. Would Elizabeth Bennett for example have traipsed about the countryside getting her petticoats three inches deep in mud if she'd had the washing of them? Ditto other household chores of the age like making soap from scratch and having to boil and reuse menstrual napkins.

By sheer coincidence, prior to reading this book I'd had a long conversation on Twitter about the uncertain nature of Mr Bingley's background. Just why was a young man of breeding and fortune on the hunt for a Rent-A-Mansion? Why didn't he have a family seat?

This book posits that the Bingley's made their money from the slave trade and were plantation owners which suddenly casts the affable cheery Mr Bingley in a new unpleasant light. But this got me to thinking that with all of our landed gentry Austen heroes a good source of their wealth must have come from exploitation of those 'beneath them' be it slavery, or through owning mills or collieries or via the feudal system.

It does take a wider perspective of life at the time and that it wasn't all drawing rooms and balls for everyone.

Sarah, a maid and one of the main characters, who begins to fall for the new footman James is likeable as a protagonist, and the much harried Hill, likeable too, and there were a lot of nuances about the James back story that I liked in terms of the way they impacted the original novel.  I liked how each chapter was prefaced with a sentence from a Pride and Prejudice indicating which part of the novel Sarah's story was running concurrently to. I also loved how the below stairs staff were completely on to Mr Wickham from the start.

It does have a tendency to drift though, and the section featuring James's experiences in the army was unnecessary. For reasons I can't be clear on without spoilers the denouement is quite silly and would have worked much better had the roles been reversed.

It's a good book, if not a great one.