Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Book #13 Her by Harriet Lane


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book #12 The Versions Of Us by Laura Barnett

The Versions Of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Readers

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

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

Sunday, 1 February 2015

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

The Tongues Of Men Or Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict 9/10

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

Book #10 We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict : 6/10

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

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Book #9 Last Night On Earth by Kevin Maher

Last Night On Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict 10/10

2015 Challenge : a book set in your hometown

Book #8 The Girl In The Photograph by Kate Riordan

The Girl In The Photograph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2015 Challenge : Book by a female author.  

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Book #7 Holy Cow by David Duchovny

Holy Cow

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Challenge : A funny book

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Book #6 Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum


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

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

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

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

My favourite quote was :

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

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

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

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

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


2015 Challenge : A book that takes place in another country

Monday, 19 January 2015

Book #5 Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything 

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

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

Among the chapters are :

Why are the Ku Klux Klan like Real Estate Agents?

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

Why are Public School Teachers like Sumo Wrestlers?

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

Why do drug dealers live with their Mums?

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

A Roshanda By Any Other Name?

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

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


2015 Challenge : A non-fiction book

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Book #4 Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston

Remember Me Like This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict : 7/10

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

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Book #3 The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Book #2 Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Book #1 Longbourne by Jo Baker


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The 2015 Roz Reading Challenge

For this years challenge, though I am hoping to read more than 50 books, I am taking on a challenge circulating online which was sent to me by Cathy, one of my regular readers.

The instructions are as follows

  1. A book with more than 500 pages
  2. A classic romance
  3. A book that became a movie
  4. A book published this year
  5. A book with a number in the title
  6. A book written by someone under 30
  7. A book with non-human characters
  8. A funny book
  9. A book by a female author
  10. A mystery or thriller
  11. A book with a one word title
  12. A book of short stories
  13. A book set in a different country
  14. A nonfiction book
  15. A popular author’s first book
  16. A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet
  17. A book a friend recommended
  18. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book
  19. A book based on a true story
  20. A book at the bottom of your to-read list
  21. A book your Mum loves
  22. A book that scares you
  23. A book more than 100 years old
  24. A book based entirely on its cover
  25. A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t
  26. A memoir
  27. A book you can finish in a day
  28. A book with antonyms in the title
  29. A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
  30. A book that came out the year you were born
  31. A book with bad reviews
  32. A trilogy
  33. A book from your childhood
  34. A book with a love triangle
  35. A book set in the future
  36. A book set in high school
  37. A book with a colour in the title
  38. A book that made you cry
  39. A book with magic
  40. A graphic novel
  41. A book by an author you’ve never read before
  42. A book you own but have never read
  43. A book that takes place in your hometown
  44. A book that was originally written in a different language
  45. A book set during Christmas
  46. A book written by an author with your same initials
  47. A play
  48. A banned book
  49. A book based on or turned into a TV show
  50. A book you started but never finished 
 I actually think some of these might be quite hard to do, like, how do you know a book will make you cry before you read it? What if you've read a lot of books your Mum likes? How will you know if there's a love triangle in it without finding too much out about the plot?  How do you know if you'll find it funny?

Nonetheless I intend to try it, maybe you should too!

Best Of 2014 : In Pictures

The 10/10 club : this year I decided to choose 12 instead of 10 books as my top reads of the year because I gave all these books 10/10

The Non Fiction : The Mitfords Letters between Six Sisters ed. Charlotte Mosley

The wonderful collection of letters between Six Society Sisters who were the stars of a bygone era the last of whom died in 2014 and whose like we will probably never see again. Makes you mourn for the lost art of letter writing.

The Autobiography : Hons And Rebels by Jessica Mitford

A more in depth look at the sisters childhood, which often reads more like a novel. How fictitious or factual it was became a sensitive topic amongst the sisters.

The Popcorn Book : A Discovery Of Witches by Deborah Harkness

The utterly stupid and ridiculous beginning to an utterly stupid and ridiculous trilogy about a vampire who falls in love with a witch and a lost manuscript in Oxford is somehow amazingly compelling and unputdownable whilst being inherently rubbish.

The Booker Nominee : We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

"All happy families are alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" done with great originality 

The Quirky Book : Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

What happens when a town which prides eloquence in vocabulary, turns upon the very foundations that built it.

The Next Installment : Lila by Marilynne Robinson

A prequel to existing novels Gilead and Home, Lila fills in the backstory of the young wife of the Rev. John Ames 

The Family Saga : Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

A novel examining the relationships between four siblings and their parents following the death of their absent father.

The Young Adult : Looking For Alaska by John Green/Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Ah, to be young, and in love.

The History Novel : The Invention Of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The story of Sarah Grimke, one of the first female abolitionists in America

The Romance : The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer/Annie Barrows  

The story of the inhabitants of Guernsey during the Second World War and the journalist who writes about them in the post war years.

My Favourite One : The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North

The eponymous hero who tries over several reincarnations to prevent the end of the world