Monday, 14 July 2014

Book #23 Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park

I find my relationship with young adult fiction has its ups and downs, but every time I start to think : "I'm really too old for this sort of thing now" - a book does come along which proves that no matter how old you are or which target market the publisher is aiming at, if a book is something special then it doesn't matter what section of the book shop they sell it in, it will still resonate.

Eleanor is a new girl, overweight and badly dressed, with wild ginger hair, no-one wants to let her sit with them on the bus. Park isn't so popular either, but people respect him and he's always flown under the radar of the bullies - and when Eleanor is left standing in the aisle Park takes pity on her, and from there - a genuinely lovely and touching romance emerges.

Though the novel is a dual narrative which tells its tale from both their perspectives, I found that for me this book was just all about Eleanor. Her story consistently has this darkness to it as her love for Park is overshadowed by the her sinister stepfather, the failings of her biological parents and the tragic poverty she lives in. It really does often feel like Park is her only light in an otherwise dark world.        

I found that towards the end when I had about 80 pages left to go that I was in this constant state of anxiety over Eleanor utterly convinced that something terrible was going to happen to her and feeling powerless to stop it.

And then I reminded myself that I was feeling intense anxiety for A FICTIONAL CHARACTER.

That is how good this book is. How it effects you inside.

It ends on something of a cliffhanger and I was vexed, and I genuinely tweeted the author with BUT WHAT HAPPENED AFTER??? angst - she didn't reply, she's probably used to this sort of thing by now, though probably not from women approaching 33.

It's an unlikely choice from me but I think Eleanor and Park is my favourite book so far this year. It made me feel. I felt like its characters were real and I didn't want it to end.

It was nice to see a novel were the romantic female lead did not fit traditional stereotypes about image. Also, I need a sequel to this book and I needed it pretty much the second I finished it, I surely can't be alone in this.

Lovely : 10/10

Monday, 23 June 2014

Book #22 Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Hons and Rebels

As my growing obsession with The Mitfords continues my next stop was Jessica Mitford's autobiography Hons and Rebels which runs from her childhood through to her husbands departure to fight in World War Two, a conflict he died in.

I read Hons and Rebels in one sitting and it doesn't read at all like a standard autobiography more like a quirky novel about posh people, and as such is eminently easy to read. Autobiographies can prove difficult, particularly celebrity ones and the Mitfords were that in their day, as the author can often be disingenuous particularly if fellow subjects are still living.

In Charlotte Mosley's collection of the Mitford sisters letters, Debo and Diana are both scathing of Decca's portrayal of their parents which they see as hostile. For my part I couldn't really see that, both Muv and Farve come off as eccentric but no more so than anyone else of their era with their suspicion of doctors, anyone who wasn't Upper Class and the lack of merit in educating women. Muv herself was said to have enjoyed it, so I can't really see what the problem was.

Inevitably the first two thirds of the book are the best those parts which cover the girls childhood and then Decca's elopement.

She reveals a closeted, isolated existence as the Mitfords, careful who their aristocratic daughters could associate with, largely only allowed them each others company and the company of cousins. Inevitably this led to all the girls developing the eccentricities which they became famous for, Decca recalls being kept in the schoolroom or the nursery as loud battles raged on over something that Diana or Nancy had done, and being clueless as to what was happening.
Bored and frustrated she was desperate to run away, Unity was desperate to meet Hitler,  and Debo was desperate to marry a duke, all of which, bizarrely came to fruition. Particular highlights include how all three girls ran off a succession of governesses, until one came that was a useless teacher but whose one significant contribution to their education was to teach them to shoplift, so they made her life easy so that she would stay; all of their efforts to embarrass their mother when she takes them on a cruise and Unity's habit as a teen of giving the Nazi Salute and shouting Heil Hitler to everyone including those who served her in the post office.   

To be honest if anyone comes off badly in this autobiography it would be Decca's first husband, her cousin Esmond. This doesn't seem to have been intentional on Decca's part either. She becomes infatuated with Esmond before ever even meeting him via reports of his Communist exploits and subversive underground newspaper for Public Schoolboys.

When she does finally does meet Esmond from the start he comes across as financially motivated and largely self-interested. My low opinion of him increased once they emigrated to the States whereupon the narrative gets a little dull. Decca's account of their elopement is quite brilliant though, particularly how a British Captain was sent on a destroyer to bring her home and tried and failed to lure her aboard with a Roast Chicken!

Many people enjoy reading autobiography above fiction and if you are one of these people I heartily recommend this one, if you do have a preference for fiction anyway this autobiography is written and reads like a good novel anyway.

Marvellous 10/10   

Book #21 The First Phonecall From Heaven by Mitch Albom

The First Phonecall From Heaven

In summary of the plot, The First Phonecall From Heaven by popular American writer Mitch Albom is about a group of people from a fictionalized Clearwater, Michigan who begin to receive phonecalls from loved ones who are deceased and the ensuing consternation, scepticism and media coverage.

This is not a book that I would ever have voluntarily chosen but it was selected for Book Club this month. Normally, when I take a dim view of a book before reading I chastise myself for prejudice and book snobbery and hope, sometimes correctly, that I will be proven wrong.

Unfortunately, my prejudices against this novel were entirely borne out. This book is so badly written that I cringed. It is tripe of the highest order, complete and utter bilge. It is easily the worst book I've read in the last 3 years since the blog began in 2011, and would probably rank highly as one of the worst books I have ever read in my whole entire life.


Verdict : 0/10

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Book #20 Tampa by Alissa Nutting


I bought Tampa by accident on a buy one get one half price - I didn't read the back cover and had literally no idea what it was about. I started it on the train and was in minutes mortified both by what I was reading and that anyone I knew should see me reading it!

Tampa is without a doubt one of the most controversial and shocking novels I've ever come across - it is also by far and away the filthiest, and I have read The Fifty Shades Trilogy. If you are easily offended, I do not recommend this book.

For my part I found it genuinely disturbing but it is tremendously well written with that.

I have never read Nabokov's Lolita but I have some idea what happens in it, and Tampa is a similar novel with a woman at the centre. I have never read a book about a paedophile before and certainly have never read much of any kind about the female sex offender. 

What struck me as I read this book is the number of times cases both in this country and in the USA have emerged of teachers having relationships with underage pupils. Are these men and women in love as they profess to be with their young charges or are they simply perverted predators?

Alissa Nutting quickly dispenses with the idea that her protagonist Celeste Price is anything more or less than a paedophile who is only interested specifically in fourteen year old boys, and is not interested in long term relationships with them or any relationship extending beyond them hitting puberty proper.

Written as a first person narrative Celeste Price is clearly delusional and a sociopath with literally no interest in anything beyond sexual gratification and not being caught.

This book was a very intense, often uncomfortable experience but as a piece of original and unique creative writing is also worth reading. In her review for the Times Helen Rumbelow says "by the time I got to the end I was traumatised and in awe" and I can only echo that I think. Dazed and Confused also called it "truly dangerous fiction".

Because it made me uncomfortable as it would I think any normal person I would hesitate to recommend it, however, though I was reminded at some points slightly of Notes On A Scandal, there is no book like this, you will never read a book like this unless you read this one. The other questionable thing about Tampa I suppose is that if this protagonist or this author were male - this book might well have been banned, which leads to an interesting debate.

For that  a 9/10 verdict with a warning that it is utter unrelenting filth, and from the point of view of both parents and teachers pretty scary filth at that.     


Book #19 The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters ed. Charlotte Mosley

The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters

I will start by saying that I was utterly obsessed by and engrossed in this book. After I, for no apparent reason read the letters between Deborah, Duchess Of Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, I had to know more about both Debo and her sisters.

Most people have very ordinary lives : school, job, house, car, marriage, children. The same cannot be said for the Mitfords who each had extraordinary lives.

Their letters are touching as they often write to each other using their childhood pet names 'Dear Boud', 'Dear Hen', 'Dearest Woman', 'Dear Honks' and so on, on some occasions the letters are mind blowing, particularly the pre-war ones written by Unity.  Though later letters have neither the same energy nor the same level of bonkers they are still excellent from a historical perspective.

Why would anyone be interested in reading a book about 6 sisters you may not have heard of? I'll give a short biography on each, which may explain why this book enthralled me so much.

Nancy :

Though Nancy was a successful writer she was quite bitter and jealous of her younger siblings, largely of their romantic successes in comparison to her own. She had a fake engagement to a gay man, a short lived marriage to a man who only cared about her money and status and an ongoing affair with a Colonel she adored to whom she was merely one of many. She informed on her sister Diana to the British Government during the war, something Diana, who cared for her devotedly towards the end of her life never knew. Of her Debo says "When you take away the books, she had a miserable life really"

Pamela :

Known as Woman, Pamela seldom writes but through the letters of her sisters I built an image of a Miss Trunchbull type character who is large, strides about with dogs in tow, hates children and is obsessed with food.
Diana :

Diana married young to the heir of the Guinness fortune, but, feeling stifled, left him following an affair with Oswald Mosley the fascist, whom she later married (in Goebbels house!) Both massive Nazi sympathizers they were interred at Holloway for the duration of the war as threats to the British nation. Following this, they became pariahs and lived in Ireland and France.    

Unity :

Unity and Diana bonded over their mutual affinity for fascism, and their letters to one another are by far the strangest and most alarming to read. Unity had what was tantamount to a schoolgirl crush on Hitler and her letters about him read like a teenager talking about a member of a boyband. "I heard he was in a cafe so I rushed straight there" When war breaks out Unity shoots herself in the head in Berlin, she doesn't die, but has the mental age of child and is prone to rages. The brunt of caring for her falls to her Mother and Debo whose letters reveal how terrible it was. There is a strong sense that no-one in the family besides Diana and their mother, ever took Unity remotely seriously and Debo comments that she hates how Unity is only ever associated to the 'Hitler thing'.

Jessica :

'Decca' was a Communist but was closest to Unity and never parted ways with Unity the way she did with Diana. There is a sense that this is not only due to what befell Unity but because Diana was the more sincere fascist and therefore the more dangerous. Decca eloped with her cousin and after various relatives were unable to persuade them home, married him. Decca was beset by tragedy, but became a civil rights activist, one photo shows her playing Boggle with Maya Angelou! Her Americanisation caused her to both distance herself and become distanced from her sisters who remained quite traditionally British Upper Class.  Though unable to ever forgive Diana her far right views; and following upset caused over her autobiography, difficulties among all her family relationships, Jessica bonded with Nancy in later life over the shortcomings of their parents and their anger over never receiving a formal education.

Deborah :

Debo had the happiest childhood of all the sisters, but as the youngest was repeatedly impacted by their outlandish deeds, telling Decca in later life that her elopement was one of the worst things that ever happened to her. Their father once commented : "Whenever I hear of a peers daughter in a scandal I already know it's going to be one of you". She married Andrew Cavendish and when his brother died in the war they became Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. She often socialised with the great and the good, and now in her 90s still does. She was also related by marriage to JFK, all the Mitfords were also related to the Churchills and Macmillans. I read an article by Guy Walters regarding her memoir which heavily criticises her for not condemning either Diana or Unity for their politics. Having read two sets of Debo's letters, Debo both couldn't care less about politics and loved her sisters no matter what and is the most unilaterally loyal of all and to all of them. When asked by Princess Margaret why Oswald Mosley is in attendance at a soiree, Debo is alleged to have replied with : "Well, he IS my brother in law" As they all aged and passed away, Diana became Debo's last link to her childhood, hardly surprising she would not condemn her and hardly fair to ask her to.      
Sometime during the Seventies, there is a resurgence of public interest in the sisters and this leads to a massive falling out, chronicled in letters over both a biography of the departed Unity and a missing scrapbook which Pamela has accused Jessica of stealing. From the Thirties onwards Jessica refused to speak to Diana as their politics drove them apart, in later years, due to rifts, Debo, the most well adjusted of the sisters becomes the hub, and it is sad to watch the letters peter out until only Diana and Debo are alive and then just Debo alone.

This is a fascinating chronicle of a group of women, from a historical perspective, a class perspective and a female perspective and if I haven't whetted your appetite here with my descriptions of them then there's something wrong with you.

Verdict : 10/10 - and the blog is likely to feature a host of Mitford related items over the next year, as I have become slightly obsessed with them.  (Though I was dashed to find no mention of Debo's friend Sybil Cholmondeley anywhere)   

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Book #18 This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her

I wasn't planning on reading 'This Is How You Lose Her' because I didn't get on with miserabilist 'The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao' at all. My friend Nana, however is a big Diaz fan and convinced me to give him another try.

A collection of short stories all save one revolve around Yunior, Oscar's sister Lola's boyfriend from the novel. It becomes hard not to see Yunior as an alter ego of Diaz's as he shares so many autobiographical similarities.   I did not like the character of Yunior much in the novel, he got on my nerves, but this collection feels somewhat different.

Every story is in some way about the tragedy of love in its various forms from loveless marriages and couplings to being in love with someone and being unable to make them happy, to continuing to pine over someone five years after the end of the relationship.

As in Oscar Wao, Yunior is incapable of conventional fidelity even as he acknowledges it is destroying all his hopes of happiness. 

Pathos surrounds the work as a whole, and I thought the stories were very sharp and beautifully written, as a result I will probably read more Diaz and I'm rather sorry it wasn't this one I read first.

Verdict : 8/10

Monday, 16 June 2014

Book #17 Orange Is The New Black by Piper Kerman

Orange Is The New Black

Piper Kerman's prison memoir which inspired the Netflix series of the same name is, unsurprisingly not nearly as eventful as the series it gave inspiration to. Kerman's real life experience is a much tamer affair though there are several moments which translated straight to screen.

Notable differences include that Piper was close to 'Pops' who inspired 'Red' and certainly was never 'starved out' by her and 'Pennsatucky' a vulnerable girl who Piper tried to help.

Nevertheless the story of a middle class woman whose intense lesbian affair with a drug dealer in her 20s caused her to commit a minor felony, before she came to her senses and left the relationship; only to find her past actions catch up to her, was absolutely ripe to be made for television.

And an entertaining, mind boggling tale it is, so unusual that really you couldn't make it up. An easy, quick and enjoyable read, I would recommend it especially if you enjoy autobiography, and I definitely recommend the show.

Verdict : 8/10