Tuesday 16 June 2015

Book #13 Her by Harriet Lane


What I like very much about both Harriet Lane's novels, this and its predecessor Alys Always is that they are psychological thrillers with women at the centre. This isn't the fare of a man stalking a woman, or of a spy on the run; but stories very much set in real world terms, in ordinary lives, about the havoc one woman can wreak if she sets her mind to it.

The story splits its narrative between Nina, a successful artist and Emma who had a great career in the media before leaving it to look after her children. Nina encounters Emma and knows at once it's HER, but Emma doesn't recall Nina at all.

The beauty part of Her, is that both Nina and Emma are tremendously relatable to female readers.

At some point everyone in their life has been Nina, a girl dissatisfied with her own life who becomes angered by another girl whose life seems perfect, who seems to have everything you yourself wish you had but who even more gratingly, neither recognises or appreciates their luck.

The world is also full of Emmas, women who sacrificed a career to be a stay at home Mum, and feel themselves slowly disappearing into the monotony of meal prep, and tantrums and Mums and Tots.

Nina inveigles herself into the world of Emma in much the same fashion as Frances Thorpe (Alys, Always) does before her, and as she digs her way through possessions and photo albums whilst babysitting, in many ways this feels like an excess in nosiness rather than anything very sinister.

Emma becomes very quickly dependent on the glamorous Nina, and this too is understandable. Nina genuinely does see the Emma she used to be, and Emma climbs aboard that life raft like the drowning woman she feels she is. But Nina doesn't want to save Emma, Nina wants to destroy her.

The descriptions of daily life, and the human condition in general are very much spot on, at times razor sharp in their accuracy, so much so that as someone who writes myself, I found myself thinking 'but that description is just perfect' and started to envy Harriet Lane's prose skills.

The real jaw to the floor moment is when you discover exactly what Emma did to make Nina hate her so much, to be consumed by a psychopathic need for revenge; and this discovery, just turns the book from a toxic friendship story into something very frightening indeed.

Reminiscent of Notes From A Scandal by Zoe Heller, this book will make excellent beach or plane reading this summer, I suggest getting a copy to stash in your carry-on bag.


Book #12 The Versions Of Us by Laura Barnett

The Versions Of Us

My thanks to the publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson for the complimentary copy of this book

Eva and Jim are students at Cambridge in the 1950's - a minor bicycle mishap causes them to collide one afternoon, and from there romance ensues, OR DOES IT? 

In essence The Versions Of Us is a love story with a Quantum element - the reader is shown all different possibilities occurring at once, in one Version, they meet and marry, in another meet and split up shortly after and in the third option they never meet at all. But which story has the best outcome for the couple? Which version is best, which version do you the Reader love the most?

I loved this book I really did. I loved both lead characters so much. Jim, the would-be creative stifled by family pressure to study Law and have a proper occupation, struck a chord and literally made my heart ache and continuously so; both in the versions he succeeds and in the ones were he makes a mess of his life. The observations around Jim's character in all possible outcomes are perfectly drawn. And in Eva's too. In one life the successful writer, in another, the barely visible wife of a Hollywood star, forced to devote herself to domesticity.

The versions themselves are distinct enough to genuinely BE different. For example, in every Version Jim and Eva have different children. I inhabited all three worlds with the same level of intensity. I was deeply wrapped up in it, and devoted to the idea, that sometimes some people are just made for one another come what may, and the stars which drove them apart will eventually pull them back together.

I have seen this novel compared to 'One Day' a book I didn't much care for, and so I feel like it's almost an insult! This book knocks spots off One Day, it's so much better, so much cleverer, so much more thoughtful and so much more real and believable. Eva and Jim won a place in my heart and the book is definitely one which I will re-read and buy as a gift for others. I want to read it again and read all versions individually just so that I can experience each as a solo story.

I recommend this particularly if you enjoy a love story that is above chick lit fare, or appreciate a love story done in a new way. I also think that those who loved Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life' will love this.

A stunning debut by Laura Barnett, I can't wait to see what she does next 10/10       

Dear Readers

The blog has been on hiatus recently because I suffered a minor burn injury and spent 3 months in hospital, as a consequence I haven't been able to keep up my usual reading pace, I have read roughly 8 books in the last 3/4 months and will be blogging them in the coming days.

My apologies to all the publicists who sent me advance copies of books, I will have the promised books read and reviews up as soon as I can.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Book #11 The Tongues Of Men Or Angels by Jonathan Trigell

The Tongues Of Men Or Angels

The Tongues Of Men Or Angels will be released on February 19th 2015, my thanks to the publisher Corsair for the complimentary copy.

The Tongues Of Men And Angels is Jonathan Trigell’s fourth novel, following Boy A, Cham, and Genus and I’ve spent 2 years waiting for it. In what is something of a departure for him we have moved from contemporary analysis of society from within the parameters of fiction to an analysis of an historical one. Specifically, the moment the line on the calendar of time blurs between BC and AD, the birth not of a man, but of a religion, how a man became a legend.

I would imagine that this book is really many different books depending on the position of belief in the reader, to come to this book having been raised in the faith, and particularly with a good working knowledge of the Bible would I imagine be an entirely different experience from somebody who had been brought up in a secular way, either with definitive lack of belief, or of a plain position of being undecided on the matter, the wisest of course knowing they don’t know.
I was brought up in the Christian faith but beyond childhood have always practiced discernment, critical thinking and an open mind. I do not have either a blind faith or an unquestioning one and sometimes struggle to define what it is I truly believe. I studied theology and as a consequence made certain departures from the faith of a child, but I suppose I’d come to a conclusion that if Christianity were a cake then the bits that were clearly untrue, myth or embellishment could be brushed off like unwanted hundreds and thousands and the legit part of the cake was still pretty tasty.    

It is impossible to really know what went on in those bygone days and that I suppose is the reason this book is marketed as a fiction, because Trigell’s guess is as good as anyone’s at the end of the day, but I read that sentence and it sounds dismissive and this is a book which is nigh on impossible to dismiss, mostly because sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re reading fiction at all but rather facts written in a creative way. It’s a bit like this book predates the New Testament and the New Testament as we know it today is its blockbuster movie adaptation “inspired by a true story”.

Prior to this novel I’d read Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, and Colm Toibin’s The Testament Of Mary both of which irked me for an identical reason. The purpose of both those books appeared to be the author jumping out from behind a couch and shouting “SURPRISE! The Bible’s version of events and people probably isn’t what actually went down” only you aren’t remotely surprised and it's not news and the point is just beyond basic.

As a theologian at heart I was kind of yearning for someone to say something more intelligent and now someone has.

In the Tongues Of Men And Angels the version Jonathan Trigell posits here is a full scale assault, a veritable disembowelment of the Christian faith as we know it, if the true part of Christianity were a cake that cake would be burning in an oven in a house that had fallen down in an earthquake - GOOD LUCK FINDING YOUR CAKE. That is, not in terms of what is or isn't really true, but that which we can know for certain. It seriously impacted my religious beliefs for sure, and on that level could prove uncomfortable for some.

What he has done is a forensic examination of what is known of that era in terms of Judaism, local cultural customs, the way of life and contemporary history and takes the Bible stories contextualises them and goes not from all is true or some is true, or none is true, but “given what we do know amalgamated with what is said to be true what is MOST LIKELY to be true?

Be warned this is not a book which will have universal appeal if you like your Christianity to be fundamentalist, bigoted and unchallenged.

The format of the novel shifts in time; before the crucifixion, after the crucifixion and onto the birth of a church. At times these shifts were hard to rearrange into a linear chronology, but not in a way that really effected the ongoing plot.

Yeshua the Jew, son of Joseph, claims the line of David, he has some support, and he espouses a certain way of living, for his faith is an eschatological one. After his death his followers continue to live in the ways he taught, and it is essentially a small sect within Judaism known as The Way.

Enter Saul of Tarsus better known as Paul. Paul converts to The Way of The Nazerenes after a “vision”. There’s a problem. Paul is an arrogant man who wants to achieve greatness and Paul is a zealot. Paul never knew Yeshua, but believes he is special, more special indeed than the living men who knew him and loved him, who remember his words and his beliefs.

The Early Church stands in two camps, followers of a lifestyle, and a man who would turn flesh and bone into a deity, a man who will morph and manipulate The Way to “sell” it for ends that justify means, who won’t be told what to do or follow the rules and in spreading the cause to Europe will turn his back on Judaism for good.

With this novel Jonathan Trigell has attempted and, I would say successfully, to insert some intellectual honesty into the jumble sale Magic Jesus that we have today. There were some great moments in the prose reflective of what it is to be human, as Jesus was, essentially.

Prior to the book there were stories/aspects of the faith such as Christmas celebrations that I knew were completely groundless not merely standing on a shaky one but from a personal educational perspective there were moments that were simultaneously revelatory, and annoying, annoying solely in the sense that my mind was both blown and yet I felt an imbecile for never spotting it myself. 

There are minor imperfections, the use of Anglo-Saxon swearing is jarring, it somehow doesn’t flow, even though the book is (obviously) written in Modern English. Use of distinctly Northern colloquial words like ‘daft’ and ‘gubbins’ seem to feel out of place too, though I’ve since dated ‘daft’ back to the 14th Century. 

Occasionally, we slip into either repetitious prose, or the belabouring of a point.  The Irish joke ‘to get there you wouldn’t start from here‘ is used many times over the course of a few pages, and there is an exhaustive listing not once but twice of Yahweh’s Old Testament victories, which within its context feels like an excellent point, excessively made. There are other examples of this too.

To single these out in this way, feels slightly like nitpicking when placed within my opinion of the book overall which was, as has become customary with Jonathan Trigell’s work, very high. I have always held things which are clever in high esteem and there were times I felt it bordered on genius.     

For a book that decimates a belief system it ends on a very hopeful note, that perhaps if Jesus was never worthy of our worship, he remains worthy of our respect, righteous in all his ways.

In truth I feel like I’ve been waiting for someone to write this book for a lot longer than two years, and I’m pleased to say I feel like it was worth the wait. The Guardian gave this a bad review, ignore it.

Verdict 9/10

2015 Challenge : Given that this book got a scathing review in the Guardian this week, in terms of the challenge I'll call this my "book with bad reviews"

Book #10 We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves

My thanks to the publisher, Fourth Estate, for the complimentary copy

Eileen Tumilty is the child of proud Irish immigrants, a first generation Irish American, both parents struggle with alcoholism and she becomes a carer at a young age. Later, she marries Ed, but suddenly his behaviour becomes inexplicably erratic, leading them to a devastating diagnosis. 

This was a tough read for me. I felt an utter sense of detachment the vast majority of the time from any of the characters, I couldn't emotionally invest in anybody. Somehow the early years of Eileen Tumilty feel like a description of a person rather than a story with a character in it. I never really felt like I knew her. Even before Ed becomes ill, they don't have the greatest marriage, they did not seem particularly well suited and I didn't take to him as a character. Nor did I feel that I understood either of their behaviour in terms of their relationship with their son Connell.

At the books most dramatic moments, I failed to feel very moved at all, even though the story was sad, whereas normally, given the subject matter, and the events, I would have expected to cry.
Secondary characters didn't really come off the page either. I felt like characters such as Ruth, and Frank, and even cousin Pat, were not particularly fleshed out, and felt rather empty.

What is odd then, is that in spite of the fact that it's quite dry and certainly long, I did keep reading it, right through to the end, so something kept me reading. Because I never understood what made Eileen tick, I couldn't understand her decisions. Like choosing to pretty much force her declining husband out of the neighbourhood he knew for apparently racist reasons.

A puzzling experience, not a bad novel, certainly, but somehow a completely disengaging one.

Verdict : 6/10

2015 Challenge : A book set somewhere you want to visit (New York)

Thursday 29 January 2015

Book #9 Last Night On Earth by Kevin Maher

Last Night On Earth

Last Night On Earth will be released be on the 2nd April 2015. My thanks to Little, Brown Group for the complimentary copy.

As I started reading Kevin Maher's Last Night On Earth two unexpected things happened. I grew up in England, but my family hails from a tiny Irish town in the West that no-one has ever heard of. Last Night On Earth is partially set in this town, something that I was delighted by from the off. This never happens, I've never even seen its name in a novel. Secondly, I myself had a difficult and oxygen deprived birth, as does the child of the man from this town. Eerie. Frankly, at this point, Last Night on Earth could have been "a pile of shite altogether and I would still have thought it was deadly. It wasn't a pile of shite though, it was mighty"

I write that using the Irish vernacular because that was the thing that made me love this book deeply. The lead character Jay has this incredibly authentic voice that has the cadence and vocabulary of home and just sounds so right. Particularly at the beginning, I was just dying laughing at every page and it just filled me so full of happy nostalgia.

A young Jay has fled Ireland for undisclosed reasons and like many diaspora taken a job in the building trade in London. He ends up being selected for work on a program about films and joins the media, were he simultaneously stands out for his background yet is patronised because of it.

Throughout it all, he writes letters home to his dear old Mammy from her Right Hand Man. And they are so funny, and often, inappropriate. I would be thinking "ah sure now, why wouldja say that to yer poor Mammy? would he not have killt the poor old girl stone dead with the carry on outta him?" - the answer becomes clear down the line.

I liked less the sections which focused on Jay's wife Shauna's therapy sessions with Guert, because it's Jay's voice which makes this book what it is. The sections near the end about the docusoap and the Millenium Dome felt a little dated stylistically and perhaps something of a cliche. Perhaps I've read too many books in the last decade about people who live in London and work in television....Jay is a great character, and doesn't need this backdrop to succeed as a character.

I've read a lot of books that are billed as "comic" and are nothing of the sort and don't even raise a smile. I stayed up for hours giggling at this and kept texting bits of it to my mother. One for the Irish, definitely, but also those who love Irish humour. Jay's friend "The Clappers" should get her own spin off as well.
Despite the slight criticism I've made, my entire family is going to be told to buy this book, aunts, uncles, the lot, and I'm really looking forward to getting a hold of and reading The Fields, Kevin Maher's first book, he's now writing a third, and he's pretty much got a reader for life in me now. As long as he keeps writing, I'll keep reading, and I would recommend you did too!  

Verdict 10/10

2015 Challenge : a book set in your hometown

Book #8 The Girl In The Photograph by Kate Riordan

The Girl In The Photograph

My thanks to Penguin Books UK, for the complimentary copy of this book

In The Girl In The Photograph, set in the 1930s, Alice Eveleigh finds herself facing the kind of trouble that was a nightmare for unmarried girls of that era. Pregnant and to a married man, she is shipped off to stay with a childhood friend of her mothers, Mrs Jelphs, who is the long standing housekeeper to a well to do family at Fiercombe Manor.

The novel shifts between the present perspective of Alice, and Lady Elizabeth Stanton, former mistress of the estate, whose belongings and notes are to be found in unexpected places.

The description of Stanton House made me think of Wentworth Woodhouse, the home of the Fitzwilliam family notorious for its almost grotesque dimensions, so I found it really easy and really atmospheric to imagine this imposing structure built to impress but also to subdue. It was as though the full force of Edward's artifice was contained within its form.  Clever.

There is a beautiful sense of landscape, but a ghostly sense too, it is as if you can feel the wind. I felt it made great use of pathetic fallacy.

The thing I most loved about 'The Girl In The Photograph'  is that it joins a number of recent books critical of the psychiatric system and in particular its historic abuse of women; were once reasons for admission to an asylum included "novel reading" and "grief". Though some might say the system has improved for the better, in some ways poor treatment with sinister overtones remains the experience of many. As a topic, it is one that deserves to be better remembered and more openly discussed, behaviour coercion and punishment, masquerading as "medicine".

There is a lot of comparison between Alice and Elizabeth, though Alice lives in a supposedly more enlightened age than that of Elizabeth, social conventions of 80 years ago, still meant that she had to run away or live in disgrace. As women I think we do need to be reminded of just how much womens rights and lives improved in the 20th Century, lest we forget what previous generations had to suffer through to get us to this point.
I also loved the ongoing motif of the Girl In The Photograph, more than one girl and more than one photograph encompassing several lives.

A spooky, gothic tale, I feel this is a great recommendation for people who have previously enjoyed Sarah Waters' novels, particularly The Little Stranger and Fingersmith.  I find that after a week I can still visualise moments in this novel very clearly and feel that the story will stay with me for a long time.


2015 Challenge : Book by a female author.