Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Book #50 Empire Of The Sun by JG Ballard

Empire Of The Sun

Empire Of The Sun is the story of a little British boy named Jamie who is forced to grow up and become Jim, when he is interred in a prison camp in China by the Japanese during World War Two.
In the camp he runs wild, whilst those around him try and help him as best they can.

The prose is excellent and the imagery evocative of pre-War China and a certain social class at a certain time, and it engaged me from the beginning, but there were other ways in which I was left puzzled by it. 

I was surprised when at the back an interview with J. G Ballard revealed that he was not in fact separated from his parents but interred alongside them and that he chose to write this semi-autobiographical novel as if he was not with them because he felt completely estranged from them from their internment onwards. They could no longer take care of him, and were in a position were they held no authority, and so his entire relationship with them crumbled.

Heartbreaking as this is; this then made some sense of what is by far the silliest and most implausible section of the book, when separated from his parents, Jim meanders around Shanghai alone, riding his bike around and living in other people's houses before hooking up with two American seamen. To hear that this part was a fictional element came as no surprise.

The books strength lies in his journey to the camp, and his experiences there and at various stops along the way which, stark and bleak, feel like truth.

The other interesting element here is Jim's apparent disconnect from events, as atrocity unfolds around him Jim seems to become anaesthetised having adjusted to this war and this life that he leads now, were stealing from the starving and from the dead is not just necessary but normal.

In some ways this makes him an unsympathetic character and in others this emphasises the true price of war.

As a whole it was a thought provoking novel, I read it as it was the favourite of an old friend, but I somehow didn't become completely absorbed in it or become wowed by it, in the same way for example that I was wowed by fellow war memoir The Things They Carried.

It is however, a book destined to be, as the series it comes from suggests, a perennial classic. 


Saturday, 27 December 2014

Book #49 Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven

Station Eleven begins with the death, onstage, of the actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear. He died of a heart attack, but pretty soon almost everyone who attended that performance is dead too. There has been an outbreak of "Georgia Flu" which has caused a catastrophic loss of life on a global scale.

The novel flashes forward to Year Twenty (post flu) and Kirsten, who was on stage in King Lear that night, and is now part of The Traveling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel from one settlement to another entertaining survivors.

Station Eleven has seen a lot of high praise, of the 80+ reviews on Amazon UK, 50+ have given it 5 stars, and really, you can consider me baffled about this, really you can.

Potentially my apathy towards this book has something to do with the sheer number of books of this sort out there, I've read quite a lot of this type in the last few years, which if they don't have a flu virus at the centre, have zombies instead. There wasn't really a yawning gap in this market, at all.

It is reminiscent of both The Stand with its sinister religious aspect and Warm Bodies seeing as one large settlement lives in an airport. One of the most cringeworthy moments comes when a character directly references Justin Cronin's novel The Passage, which did the apocalypse so well, I thought. So, my point is it's derivative, and unoriginal. Yet a lot of the reviews say the opposite and rave about this "bleak new world" she paints.

But most of what I disliked about this book came down to the choices she made regarding her characters, and their generally implausibility both as people and in their story journeys.

A very large section of the novel focuses in on Arthur Leander, an egotistical, obnoxious smugster and the tale of how famed changed him so much he alienated his friends as he ran through various wives and so on.

But Arthur dies at the start of the book and so has no connection to what came after. This is to show the total shift from the old world to the new, I think, but it doesn't work and is forced  and so we get these swathes of information about his affair and his dinner party and his ugly divorces.
Yes, there could be a comparison between Arthur and King Lear, but it's a different story - the two don't gel, it's a separate novel melded into another.   

An extremely forced connection between the past narrative of Arthur and Year Twenty narrative of Kirsten is forged through her possession of the comic Station Eleven which was the brainchild of his first wife. Then several other characters from all areas of the globe, with some connection to Arthur who happen to all be alive for a start,  have all ended up in North America meeting each other along the way.  This feels like a failed attempt to give the book some level of emotional depth, but there's zero subtlety, all it provoked in me was a feeling of both annoyance and disbelief. You couldn't forget it was a story.

Arthur is the main problem here, I found that I thought that had the entire narrative belonged to Kirsten with a shaky recollection of some man who once gave her the treasured comic, it would have worked,  but such an emphasis upon the dead mans narrative made no sense. It also might have worked better if Arthur had lived - for a famous actor to have been forced to survive in a world where fame has lost all meaning.

The cherry on top of the ice cream that's already melted here is a character called Jayveen, who is the first character we meet. I say "character" but his entire existence is an exposition device and nothing else.

At one point he's a paramedic, another a paparazzi, then he's graduated to an entertainment journalist all at extremely convenient times for the current stage of the plot.        

His ONLY FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD is an ER doctor who luckily promised to call him if ever one of these virus scares TURNED OUT TO BE THE REAL THING.  And then....then he vanishes into a mist, reappearing to reveal he ended up setting out alone after  wasting a whole load of his time answering the question What Will Happen To Wheelchair Users In The Event Of An Apocalypse? Answer : They'll realise that they are a burden to the rest of society and politely do everyone a favour by committing suicide. We'll eventually meet him again briefly when he's completely settled somewhere with barely any connective journey in between.  

This book simply is not very good, where has all the praise come from? What on earth am I missing here? If you've read this and disagree, feel free to argue. But seriously, read The Stand, read Warm Bodies, read World War Z, read The Passage, watch Series 1 of Survivors. Don't read this.



Book #48 Lila by Marilynne Robinson


Lila by Marilynne Robinson is a continuation of the lives of the characters introduced in previous novels Gilead and Home.

Gilead was told from the point of view of John Ames an elderly preacher with a young wife and son, who is writing a letter to his son, who won't remember him; when their peace is interrupted by the return of Ames' wayward godson, Jack.  

Home ran concurrently in the story timeline to Gilead. As Ames writes his letter, Glory Boughton, Jack's sister, moves home to take care of her ailing father, but also as a last resort, having failed to spread her wings.

Home made me cry several times but Lila is on another level altogether and is simply one of the saddest books I've ever read in my life, from the very outset.

Lila  the events of which occur several years prior to Gilead illuminates the backstory of John Ames young wife, how she came to marry him, and where she came from originally.

It is a tragic story of poverty and identity and loneliness, cleverly told, because it reads as a kind of internal cognitive dissonance brought to prose, and there's a naturalness to it. Lila is in the present, she is living in Gilead, and getting to know John, but her mind is continuously slipping into thoughts of Doll, the closest thing she had to a mother, the woman who saved her, the woman who abandoned her. The two lives could not have been more different, the homeless waif and the preachers wife leading Lila to a split sense of self.

The story becomes more heartbreaking still when post her marriage to Ames, the two repeatedly fail to connect, he is desperate to know her and understand her, and she is desperate to conceal her awful truths lest he never look at her the same way again. At the same time, it made me worry terribly for what became of Lila in the future without the steadying presence of Ames. 

Lila is not a long book but it is a beautiful if melancholic one, and that is really something I've come to expect from Marilynne Robinson.  I don't think that it is necessary to have read the two previous books as such but I think it would significantly enhance the reading experience if you did.

One to remember.


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. 


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.


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 were 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Book #40 The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

In Robert Galbraith's debut novel, supermodel Lula Landry falls from a balcony, her death is ruled a suicide and the world moves on, but not everyone agrees that this is what happened that fateful night.

Robert Galbraith got away with his Super Secret Pseudonym for all of 5 seconds before being exposed as the publishing sensation JK Rowling who was apparently gutted by it. Far better for this to be judged as a crime debut than as the ninth novel of an established author, because if it is to be judged by critics as a first novel, and it is a first foray into a specific genre, it usually gets a far kinder reception in the reviews.

I'm not really one for detective fiction, I find the patterns too predictable for one thing, so initially I was quite pleased to see that up front it is established that the young female sidekick to the old curmudgeonly private eye has just got engaged and it was the greatest moment of her life.

A-ha! I thought she's steering clear of the unresolved sexual tension, of the "possibility of more" she's trying to write something without the obvious cliches, alas it didn't last with Cormoran Strike and the literal Robin to his Batman each noticing hitherto unrecognised qualities in each other, which one presumes, will continue throughout the series.

I would really find it refreshing to have a series in which colleagues of the opposite sex didn't have to have this and instead could have the kind of purely intellectual 'romance' and deep personal esteem often gifted to two male characters but never it seems to women without their sexuality becoming involved.

Can we just talk about his name for a moment "Cormoran Strike" ? It sounds like the name of a police Operation against game poaching or a US military attack that went wrong and hit a peasant village in Fallujah. It's like she generated it with an app.

The celebrity angle is cliched from the gay black designer to the caricature of Pete Doherty, so too is Strike's link to that world. It feels slightly satirical, mocking and inauthentic.

The most cringeworthy aspect is when characters who are "lower class" or "common" enter the scene and are written phonetically or in slang to highlight how common they are. It's patronising and almost prejudiced. Oh, a black person with mental health issues, they speak like THIS.

The climax/big reveal of the culprit is done in that ranting "didn't you?....DIDN'T YOU?" style that has graced TV drama throughout the decades but the reveal creates a behaviour paradox the size of a black hole that isn't resolved and makes no sense.

I fear saying this because I think there is no way of saying it without sounding like the worst of snobs; but this novel just feels really mainstream, pitched at Mr and Mrs Average Reader, Middle England.
I mean, it's an OK book it's not amazing, it's not awful, it just feels like it belongs on the Richard And Judy List.  If you want books about a private detective Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series is far superior.


Monday, 27 October 2014

Book #39 Love From Nancy : The Letters Of Nancy Mitford ed. Charlotte Mosley

Love From Nancy

Nancy Mitford began planning her memoirs around the time she became ill, and subsequently died without writing them and instead her friend Harold Acton wrote a biography. Later, her sister Diana's daughter in law Charlotte edited a collection of her letters. She is also the editor behind all the Mitfords letters to each other and of Debo's correspondence with Paddy Leigh Fermor.

I guess the reason for this was that if anyone was going to make money out of the intense interest in the sisters well it may as well be the family themselves, and there's something fair about that I think; though an early footnote implies that this new development considerably annoyed Acton who withheld his letters and may not have had the same level of access as Charlotte.

Her foreword tells us that she removed sections from six letters on the basis that they could be considered libelous and that Debo, who was the executor of Nancy's estate, asked her to remove sections from a further six because they were excessively spiteful about persons still living and could cause embarrassment. Having read that it struck me that the 12 most interesting letters she ever wrote aren't really in it! 

Nancy is a terrific snob and a bit of a bitch, reacting like the Dowager Countess of Grantham might when a LOWER CLASS man sits next to her in a restaurant. Her most interesting letters are to or about Evelyn Waugh who comes across as a very eccentric character with a great capacity to offend or become offended. Randolph Churchill and Duff Cooper also come across as great characters I would like to know more about. Randolph particularly seems thoroughly awful.

I've read two Waugh novels 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'A Handful Of Dust' and took to neither but this has persuaded me to keep trying.

In some ways Nancy's life was tragic. Her first engagement and then her marriage were both disasters, she was infertile, and she was in love with a philandering Colonel, Gaston Palewski who never fully committed to their relationship. In her letters to him, her unguarded desperation for him to love her the way she loved him comes across profusely. In that I empathised.

It was heartbreaking too, that whilst Diana and Debo lived quite long lives, both living into their 90s, Nancy died in her 60s but oddly lived to experience most of her best friends & contemporaries "going first" dropping like flies around her over a three year period, the death of Evelyn Waugh shaking her particularly. As they passed she crossed each out in her address book writing the date of their death next to the entry. 

I enjoyed reading this but I think I would have enjoyed reading the responses she got mixed in among her letters more. I also found it strange that certain of the letters in this collection which she wrote to her sisters were missing from that bumper collection (Letters Between Six Sisters) in a way that I noticed; for example a letter to Nancy from Diana about Unity, and a query about a childhood memory from Decca are in that collection, but there's no response from Nancy. The response appears here, which seems like an odd thing to do.

Probably the most telling sequence of letters comes on the publication of Decca's autobiography, Nancy writes to tell her it is wonderful, if ' a cold wind to the heart' but writes to others including Mark Ogilvie Grant and Evelyn Waugh to slag it off, which I felt gave the clearest indication of her as a character. Witty, yet not to be trusted and highly insincere. Something her own sisters and friends all thought of her.   

A good read 8/10

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Books #36-38 Cat Trilogy by Tom Cox

Under The Paw, Talk To The Tail and The Good The Bad And The Furry

The above 3 books work as one collective memoir by the writer Tom Cox about cats he has owned, part owned, and been acquainted with throughout the years. They include Roscoe, Shipley, Brewer, George, Bootsy, Pablo, and famous in their own right : The Bear who is better known as @MYSADCAT, a misanthrope who despairs of the modern world and his frenemy Ralph @MYSMUGCAT who is better than you and knows it, though he can't quite live down the fact that he was once known as Prudence.

I have always wanted and never had a cat, and as complicated yet adorable as Tom Cox's cats appear to be, one of the episodes he recounts of cat ownership includes dealing with a large pool of catpiss on his duvet as well as catpiss on books and catpiss on records. I just couldn't deal with catpiss on my duvet, so I'm guessing cat ownership is not for me.

Despite this the books are endearing and warm though Talk The Tail wanders off topic frequently with stories that are not about the cats and therefore not quite what you came for. These books are 'nice' and are funnier than many books marketed as comic in the way that Cox presents his relationship with them and their relationships with each other.

I think the key word here is undemanding, they are good books to relax with, good for Sunday afternoons, travelling, and perfect presents for the cat lovers in your life.


Book #35 Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go Bernadette?

Where'd You Go Bernadette? is an irritating, garish novel existing entirely of exaggerated caricatures instead of characters and implausible, extreme, plot sequences which though they attempt to satirise the over-achieving private school yet liberal Tiger Parent set, end up grating upon the reader substantially. There is no touchstone here no means of identifying with any of it, unless you too are a competitive Mom who gave your child a silly name, is over involved with the school and either works in tech or has a spouse who does. For a comic novel, it's not particularly funny either, just annoying.

Also, the premise of the book is about the fact that Bernadette has gone missing and that her daughter Bee has set out to piece together what happened. Bernadette actually goes nowhere for 3/4 of the novel and Bee finds her relatively quickly and easily.

Bernadette's husband is a foul character and yet all his misdeeds are as forgotten at the end of the book as though they didn't happen, and alls well that ends well.

Over sold, over hyped, and over the top. Avoid. 2/10  

Book #34 Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park was the last Jane Austen I had left to read, and possibly the Austen novel I have liked least all in all, as such, a short review follows.

Fanny Price is her latest 'lady without a fortune' who is brought up by well meant but unkind relatives who don't wish her to 'rise above her station'. I read something suggestive of the idea that Austen wrote this with the purpose of deploring 'the lack of good moral conduct in the YOUTH OF TODAY' and used Fanny and her cousin Edmund as role models of behaviour. Whilst both the Misses Bertrams are pretty vile, Aunt Norris a horror and Henry Crawford a cad, I saw nothing particularly amiss with Mary Crawford's accurate assertion that 'going to church is pretty boring actually'.

Fanny and Edmund despite being the heroes are both ghastly prigs, and with the whole purpose of the book being to moralise at people, it does not as a consequence have the life or wit of her other novels.

Read to 'complete the set' it's not really worth it for the sheer length of the thing, unless like me you've read all the other ones and this is the last one you've got left.

Meh 6/10

Books #31-33 The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

The All Souls Trilogy

Oh, the All Souls Trilogy, how ridiculously stupid and outright naff you are, and yet how much I loved you and read you at breakneck speed.

The first of the books is A Discovery Of Witches, Diana Bishop is a witch from a strong bloodline. Yet she prefers to live in the real world, not use powers, and refuses to join a coven. A historian of science she is on sabbatical at Oxford University when she requests a manuscript 'Ashmole 782' from the Bodleian Library which has more to it than meets the eye and sets off a chain of events with dramatic consequences.

Matthew Clairmont is a vampire, and is a thousand years old, he's been watching Diana and after she finds the manuscript supernatural creatures descend upon Oxford, and he must protect her, because the manuscript is the book they've all been looking for.

With definite shades of Twilight and the Twilight inspired 50 Shades Of Grey, Matthew and Diana fall in love, and he whisks her off to his Tudor mansion and his French Chateau, remarkably they have very little sex, they don't even properly shag til halfway through Book 2 and instead seem to drink lots of wine, like a "grown ups version of Twilight" I would have said. He does however want to ravage her but is scared he will kill in her in the throes, and shows the same pathological abusive relationship warning signs exhibited by his literary forebears Edward Cullen and Christian Grey.

Book Two : Shadows Of Night, takes us to Elizabethan England with two goals in mind, find the book, and let Diana learn more about her powers. But frankly, it is more of a historical romp novel in which we can all marvel at the characters of the day like Raleigh and Marlowe; that in the end actually advances the story of mysterious manuscript Ashmole 782 precisely NO FURTHER. The paradox their adventures create and the resolution of this problem is also a complete nonsense, but enjoyable nonsense indeed.

The third book 'The Book Of Life' is a total mess, with new characters popping up all over the place, so that you barely know who anyone is anymore "It's Leonard!" says one character "Remember Leonard?!" (NOPE!)  In fact I'm firmly convinced Leonard had never been in it before, and nor was he essential to the plot. What was the point of you Leonard?
And in the end the actually quite intriguing mystery of Ashmole 782 just gets lost in lots of silliness and romance so cheesy you could put it on toast.  

And therein I guess is my problem, it is ludicrous and I know that I should have laughed it out of town, but I just devoured all three of them. Like a sugar high, or when you can't stop eating Pringles or something. Don't say you weren't warned....


Book #30 The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art Of Fielding

In The Art Of Fielding, promising young baseball player Henry Skrimshander is spotted by sporty college kid Mike Schwartz. Somewhat improbably for a person apparently in their second year at university, Mike has the power and influence to make sure Henry gets a scholarship to a minor New England college with a tenuous association to the novel Moby Dick. From there a novel about sports in college ensues.

In terms of the prose it flows well, and feels well written, it's not necessary to know anything much about baseball to know what is going on. The characters are in general likeable and Henry's journey from invincible to tormented can be compared to any number of successful sportsman. Alas, the problem is not prose nor characterization, but plot.

On the one hand you've got Henry's story, and all in all that side of it works well, but the blurb reads something like "when a throw goes wrong, 5 lives are changed" and the idea that they were changed simply by that ball and not by the disastrous choices made by the individuals themselves which aren't particularly related to the foul ball, is silly at best.

The other side of the plot-coin is the Dean, Guert, his fractured relationship with daughter Pella, and his dangerous obsession with one of his students. On the one hand it reminded me in tone of John Williams' Stoner. On the other hand this novel is two different college stories, in which a poor effort has been made to shoehorn them into one and establish tenuous links between Guert and Pella and Henry and Mike. They just don't connect. Even the plot twist that brings this side of the story to crisis point doesn't hold much water and feels quite forced. The denouement, after a character passes away, belongs in a much lesser, much more melodramatic novel

That said, did I enjoy it as I read it? Yes. It was only after I closed the book, and thought about writing a review that it just seemed faulty somehow. And it didn't 'stay with me' as other recommendations assured me it would. I am behind with the blog and read this in August and I had to look up what some of the characters names were because I just didn't remember.


Book #29 Wait For Me! by Deborah Devonshire

Wait For Me!

Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire was the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters and the last to pass away, just recently, at the age of 94. I only got to really know the Mitford sisters story this year and Debo was by far my favourite, which made her passing all the sadder for me.

There is a slight problem with the portions of the book that cover her childhood and her sisters in that nothing new that isn't already known about them is imparted and feels slightly like a retread. Other stories are familiar too. How many times does one need to read about the 'hilarious' occasion when Woman failed to recognise Lord Mountbatten?

At this point, having read so much about them I was more keen to hear about Debo post her marriage to Andrew Cavendish, when having unexpectedly inherited the dukedom, the couple became determined to turn around the fortunes of Chatsworth House.

Ownership of Lismore Castle also reverted to the Devonshires after the death of Adele Astaire and talk of both these buildings made me want to visit them.

All the Mitfords 'moved in society' but perhaps Debo more than any of them having been related to two Prime Ministers and a US president. Whilst Diana, exiled, socialised with fellow exiles the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Debo was close to Prince Charles and spent time with the Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.

Her friend the apparently legendary Sybil Chomondley as mentioned in letters to Paddy Leigh Fermor, gets three pages, personally I'd have liked a biography.

Debo also speaks with perhaps unexpected candour about her difficulties carrying children to term, and her husbands struggle with alcoholism.

Easy to read and with a warmth sometimes lacking in the other sisters, Wait For Me is perhaps nonetheless one for the Mitford fans only. 7/10

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Book #28 Looking For Alaska by John Green

Looking For Alaska

Miles isn't a popular kid, and when the opportunity arises elects to go to his father's old boarding school Culver Creek 'to seek a Great Perhaps'. Once there he quickly makes friends with the cooler crowd by virtue of his new room-mate, and falls in love with a girl, the beautiful, unobtainable, Alaska  

Looking For Alaska is a genuinely lovely, well written, reflective novel about life, love, loss and the search for meaning.  What it feels like to be a teenage boy trying to become a man and find your place in the world.

In it's own right, for its own sake, I really enjoyed it. What struck me most though was how much it resembles Paper Towns,  which I happened to read first, published in 2008, 3 years after this, his debut.

Two very similar boys in Miles & Quentin, two very similar girls in Alaska & Margot, are the leads in each, and it somehow feels like Paper Towns IS Looking For Alaska rewritten with a different high school setting and a different ending.

This, though it diminishes Paper Towns as a book and makes it somewhat superfluous it should not diminish Looking For Alaska seeing as it came first, but I have to say, a) I wish I'd read these the opposite way around and b) if I had not also read The Fault In Our Stars I might conclude that John Green only had one novel in him, recycled.

That criticism aside, I have to say that though I liked Paper Towns I really, really, thought Looking For Alaska was fab, and moving and so very worth reading that I have started recommending it about the place already.

Though the similarities were overt, I did love it, and really admired it as a piece of writing.


Book #27 The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger

This book was one of my longest standing Kindle items in that I bought it in 2011, and read it this week, 3 years later. I had previously read Fingersmith, The Night Watch and Tipping The Velvet and enjoyed each to a different degree. I was utterly blown away by Fingersmith and stayed up all night reading it, but try as I might I kept false starting with The Little Stranger, not getting past the first 3 or 4 pages until my breakthrough the other day.

It concerns the Ayres family, once landed gentry, struggling to survive in the high taxation post World War Two landscape. Roderick, the son and heir is doing his best to hold back the tide, but Hundreds Hall becomes shabbier by the day. Dr Faraday is called in by chance to treat their one remaining live-in servant Betty, and thus becomes attached to their family, a frequent visitor to tea, and observer of events.

But something strange is happening at Hundreds Hall, things that go bump in the night, markings appear on walls and bells ring without anyone to ring them - does all this have a rational explanation as Faraday believes it must? Or is something more sinister at work?

I really liked this book, and read it finally, in two sittings, I think the end sentence is supposed to be ambiguous, an open ending, but I think if you've followed the clues well enough the answer will meet you. The book has an old fashioned ghost story and a riddle at its heart, but is more the sort of book to make you think and anaylse and make your flesh creep than to give you nightmares. Think The Woman In Black yet vastly better written. A lot of other readers have compared it to Turn Of The Screw but I have not read it and so don't know if its an accurate comparison.

As with Fingersmith I enjoyed the way psychiatric care was painted in a very sinister and ultimately abusive light.

There is also the real sense that we are bearing witness to the of the end of an era, not just of Hundreds Hall but of the torch passing from the likes of the Ayres, onwards into the modern age.

This is a really good book, though perhaps dry in parts


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Book #26 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch was read for my book club, but I had already bought it and would have read it anyway.
The third of Donna Tartt's novels, she appears to only bring one out every ten years. My prior experience with her novels was that her debut The Secret History remains in my opinion one of the best novels I've ever read and her second The Little Friend one of my most loathed novels as a reading experience in terms of hours spent versus satisfaction gained.

What then of her third? If The Secret History was love and The Little Friend hate, I would have to class The Goldfinch as indifference. I neither loved it nor hated it and found it somewhat 'meh' to coin a slang phrase.

The reason for this is simple. The book can clearly be split into four distinct zones, each of which feels like it's part of a different novel. New York Part 1, Vegas, New York Part 2, and Amsterdam.

New York Part 1, where the novel starts is great. An explosion at an art gallery kills Theo's Mum, during the aftermath he befriends a dying old man and steals a priceless artwork, before being sent to stay with the rich family of his best friend from school. Though he knows he should return 'The Goldfinch' it becomes a symbol of his last link to his Mum, and he worries about being punished. He contacts the loved ones of the dying man he met and becomes part of their world too. This whole section was such a good setup, all the characters introduced here are interesting and intriguing and you feel that this is the beginning a really beguiling novel. The family Theo stays with are a family of secrets and you wonder what you will find. But from here the novel takes a turn.

The plot moves us away to Vegas, a colourless landscape, with Theo wasting his potential with a Russian stereotype of a character named Boris with whom he bunks off school and takes drugs. It's all a bit been here read that.

Section three finds Theo back in New York and my overwhelming feeling about this Section was that no-one besides Hobie was particularly likeable. Theo continues on a drug abuse spiral and commits a large scale fraud. He's in love but not with his fiance, and it's all a bit depressing, that angle of things. His best friends family due to events, have become incredibly altered from the people we met in Part One so much so in the case of his friends mother, a stoic if ever there was one, as to be unrecognisable as the same character. Again this seems like a different book.

The return of Stereotype Boris leads us to yet another section which feels disconnected to the rest of the book : a crime thriller in Amsterdam of which I was unenamoured.

The closing epilogue is a trite and somehow patronising treatise on The Lessons Theo Learned About Life From This Experience, a section which goes on for pages and doesn't really need to exist at the length that it does. It seems to exist purely to tell the reader what they should have inferred from the novel and what conclusions they should draw. Tiresome.

All of that said, it is well written and enjoyable to read as you go along, but the overwhelming thing we felt at Book Club was "what was the point of it all?" it doesn't seem to have a point, and is not dare I say it, a book literature as a whole would be lost without.


Book #25 A Life Of Contrasts by Diana Mosley

A Life Of Contrasts

When Diana Mosley's autobiography was published, a friend of hers wrote a review of it in which he accused her of "lacking a dimension" and they subsequently fell out. I only discovered this as I read the additional chapters tacked on to the end of the book, which she added at a later date and I thought it summed up perfectly what was wrong with it.

The 3rd oldest of the Mitford sisters - I was initially reluctant to read Diana's book being so personally at odds with her choice of politics, but I was encouraged to by someone I tweet with and was quite glad I did in the end.

There is a tone to Diana's writing which as her contemporary critics noted lacks something, a je ne sais quoi. if I was to characterise this lack I would call it a sense of normalcy, a sense of awareness of the real world, and definitely a lack of self awareness.

But these absences in her writing lead to a unique book, which is repeatedly unintentionally hilarious, as she laments the lack of a seaside "of their own" (you know as opposed to the norm where people have their own seaside) so they went with their Nanny to visit her sister and the thrill was that "one might pass a Negro on the stairs"  OK....then.

A lot of the childhood reminiscences are familiar to those who've read other Mitford books, Farve's opinion on Romeo and Juliet and the nurse who said she was too beautiful to live etc.

I was more interested in later Diana and what I found was a seemingly endless round of houses and interior design and trips abroad on yachts with Daisy Fellowes and pals and that everyone from her cousins to Evelyn Waugh was in love with her.  Occasionally there is an astounding indolent vapidity to it in the later years. Her experience at Holloway prison where she was imprisoned without trial for nearly 4 years is the one event of real note and it does come across like the grim event it likely was. My favourite Diana anecdote remains that she bought a fur coat to wear in her cell from the money she got from suing a newspaper accusing her of living in luxury.

What is probably most staggering is her genuine attempt to blame the Holocaust on the Jews - who really should have seen the way the wind was blowing and left Germany. In almost the same breath she incongruously blames those Jews who did leave Germany for making things worse by drawing international attention to it.

She points to other atrocities and leaders and defends Hitler as no worse than Mao or Stalin, and whilst she may have a point, it shows an utter lack of compassion and the same loss of perspective of which she accuses others of in the "two wrongs don't make a right" sense.

Being tarred with the Hitler brush she admits did ruin her life and her sister Unity's life and her husbands political career and yet she stands by her good opinion of him and the fact that in 1935 "there was nothing exceptionally wrong in wanting to have tea with Hitler". There is something almost disarmingly honest in that.

In letters between her other sisters it is said that she stood by her fascist beliefs not because she truly still held them but that to publicly abandon them would be an admission that she and more to the point Mosley had wasted their time, most of their lives and certainly most of their money,  pursuing political suicide.  If there is one certain thing about Diana it is that she loved Oswald Mosley beyond reason. To leave ones husband in the 1930s to become the mistress of a married man shows a kind of  bravery and/or foolishness rare for a woman of that era 

Which brings me to a further mystery, Diana and Mosley's finances. How they were able to move from fabulous house in England, to fabulous house in Ireland to fabulous house in France despite his losing most of their fortune in various follies baffled me. It's very hard to see what either one of them DID for a living after leaving Holloway, particularly Diana. When Nancy dies, Debo describes her life as sad, she only had her books, yet Diana doesn't seem to have anything except Mosley whom she propped up as he went from failure to failure. Whilst Nancy wrote, Pamela farmed and ran a stables, Decca had a series of normal jobs, and Debo was busy running Chatsworth as well as commitments associated to being a Duchess, Diana seems to have done little even her children and grandchildren were on the whole looked after by nannies. 

A life of contrasts indeed, and a book of contrasts, on the one hand the carefree lifestyle of the rich against the status of pariah in ones own nation state. The writing, joyous and carefree, often funny, and then by turns completely offensive and deluded; do make this book and Diana Mosley as a character unique.   She was almost certainly the only woman in history to be well acquainted privately with both Winston Churchill and Hitler which is remarkable of itself.

An interesting and intriguing addition to the Mitford canon well worth reading. 8/10

Book #24 The Mitford Girls by Mary S Lovell

The Mitford Girls

I read The Mitford Girls a biography by Mary S Lovell on the back of their collection of letters between each other just because I wanted "more" and I found myself disapproving of it from the off.
To understand why requires a prior knowledge of the sisters for context which a reader has if they've read their letters first but not if they read this first.

Most important of these is when this book was conceived and written because at the time four of the six sisters (Unity, Nancy, Pam and Decca) were dead leaving only Diana and Debo alive. Both agreed to cooperate with the book although letters indicate they found the interest in their family tedious. Reading this made me wholeheartedly believe that they cooperated with it in "exchange" for certain things and that the author of the book agreed to their terms.

Though Debo remained in contact with Decca following her elopement and emigration, Diana did not as their polar opposite politics drove them apart. Debo remained angry with Decca over issues she had with her autobiography, namely that some anecdotes were outright lies and the portrayal of their mother was excessively negative. Diana shared this view and had written to newspapers to object to Decca's memoir, in later life a flurry of letters critical of Decca was exchanged.

What I felt most about this book is that it was The Mitford Girls according to Diana and Debo as opposed to an objective all seeing eye of the author.  Their mother Sydney is championed as a wonderful mother whose views on education (she did not allow her daughters to go to school) were not as backward as they had seemed. The governesses she employed were of a first rate kind espousing the highly thought of at the time PNEU system. The book is gushing about her both at the beginning and the end.

Contrast this view to Diana's own autobiography in which she more or less confirms Decca's assessment; Sydney is described as "disinterested" and that she learned more in 6 months at her French finishing school then she learned at home in six years and it doesn't add up well.

Decca it is repeatedly implied was a liar, a fantasist, a thief, and a bad mother. Yet, when it becomes clear that Diana herself spent very little time with her older sons, Jonathan and Desmond leaving them home alone with a Nanny whilst she jaunted off all over Europe, this is dismissed as typical for women of that class in that era, and that she "simply adored her sons".

Given that Evelyn Waugh was in love with Diana - I did end up wondering if he took some inspiration from her divorce from Bryan Guinness for A Handful Of Dust. Diana cheated on him, but Bryan had to 'commit an indiscretion' in order that Diana could be the one to file for divorce so as not to ruin her own reputation. Pretty much exactly what happens to the characters in Waugh's novel.

This book is also massively critical of Decca's first husband Esmond, who admittedly does come across as a bit of an idiot in Decca's own autobiography.

A pivotal moment concerns Unity. Esmond writes a letter to his in laws threatening to expose her, and this threat is dismissed by the author of this book in a footnote as "some nonsense invented by Decca" 

Yet when Lovell writes the story of Unity's friendship with Hitler she shillyshallys around the 'did they or didn't they?' question. First Unity is just a starstruck fan, and Hitler in any case wouldn't have slept with her because she wasn't German, then they are clearly more than just good friends with pet names and gifts and spending alone time together, then Unity 'is probably in a relationship with a friend of Tom's' then Hitler is paying her bills, then Diana is saying they were just friends, but if Hitler had asked her she would have said yes....At one point, Lord Redesdale is described as liking Hitler much better than the spouses of his daughters 'the man Mosley, the boy Romilly and the bore Rodd' thereby equating Hitler among them. the hovering around the question suggesting then dismissing, suggesting again then dismissing again, seems to be trying to point the reader at the hints between the lines.  Though it does not concretely state she was his mistress, it implies it to a great degree in my view, perhaps as though Lovell uncovered something in her research yet didn't want to offend the family; though others might not see it the same way.

Stylistically too, the author does something infuriating, and starts to almost think of herself as one of them, adopting the nicknames they gave others in a way that seems presumptuous, Nancy's husband Peter Rodd for example is referred to throughout as Prod, their own name for him. I think what I'm trying to say is that it lacks the professional distance one expects from a biography.

As a result I felt that this biography was a jaundiced one, and really, that readers are much better served by reading the sisters in their own words through their letters and their own autobiographies
There is also not a lot of "new" detail in this book except that both Decca and Diana had abortions something nobody really needed to know.

I still savoured it though, the Mitfords being my new obsession, and I still, thankfully have plenty more to read.


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 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 both JFK and Harold Macmillan, all the Mitfords were also related to the Churchills. 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

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Book #16 Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5

Slaughterhouse 5 has long been pinned in the back of my mind as 'To Read'. It appeared on that bygone BBC list of books that must be read for a start, and that came out when I was still at school. A friend of mine is a massive Vonnegut fan and I ended up buying it for a train journey a while ago.

There the problem started, I read about half of it on that journey, and at roughly 173 pages it shouldn't have been hard to finish at yet somehow it was.

About the serious folly of war and the damage that it inflicts on the individual fighting it, the novel has a lot of merit; even the science fiction element wasn't what grated because I thought it was a clever way of illustrating the nature of PTSD and its feeling of being outside your linear chronology.

I couldn't and in many ways still can't explain why I couldn't engage with this book, why its prose disengaged me so. At one point, with all the restarts I must have read the section where Billy wakes up to find his 'fat, ugly' fiance Valencia, at the bottom of his bed eating chocolate FIVE TIMES.

This book took me with about 4 restarts and one mid book reconvene about 8 weeks to read, twice I went to my monthly book club and told my friend 'still haven't finished  Slaughterhouse 5' and seriously that must be some kind of record for me.

With that, I acknowledge the importance of the book and its message. So why didn't I like it? Why did it get on my nerves so much?  I still don't know. If you've also read Slaughterhouse 5 and didn't like it, I'd love to hear from you.

Verdict : 4/10

Book #15 Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls is the third David Sedaris short story collection I have read following Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Of the 3 I have read it is probably the most consistently enjoyable.

Included are four short stories, though whilst authored by Sedaris are not his usual style - one is from the point of view a selfish teenager and another the POV of an ignorant American mother. These are a bit weird, Sedaris says he has included them as offerings for teenagers who might be doing "Forensics" at school which sounds nothing like its title and is more like the Speaking and Listening portion of GCSE English. None of these work particularly well as short stories and all illustrate an extreme of some kind.

The main body of the work is the sort of stories I've come to expect from Sedaris. What differed this time round is that whereas in Naked, and Me Talk Pretty there were stories that I thought were brilliant and others which I thought terrible or boring, all of the stories in 'Owls' are good. Whilst this means there are no standout boring ones, it is also true that there's no standout amazing one either. They are all of a similar average.

The best Sedaris stories by far are the ones about his Greek immigrant family living in Raleigh, North Carolina and the best in 'Owls' are, customarily, the ones about his Dad. All however are imbued with his customary strong wit. Sedaris recently read in Liverpool and I couldn't go because I had to honour a prior commitment, reading 'Owls' has made me more sorry that I couldn't.

Whilst the reference to Owls in the title is for reasons that become obvious, I can't fathom what diabetes had to do with anything. There isn't a diabetes story, that I noticed. Anyone?

Verdict : 7/10