Thursday, 31 July 2014

Quietly Insidious - Her by Harriet Lane

Her, Harriet Lane's second book is, like her debut Alys, Always, a literary psychological thriller. If you're wondering what that means, it means the thrills and the tension are ratcheted so tight as to be invisible and the horror cloaked in the everyday language of the mundane.

It also means I happen to like it. Very much so.

Emma is your everyday middle-class London mum - she has a young son, is pregnant with her second child, and she's struggling with the standard problems of that demographic.

Nina is an artist with a late-teenaged daughter; she remembers Emma, and what Emma did.

Alternating between the two characters, the reader is given Emma's story, that of domestic worries and mislaid items, of a new friend whose confidence and sophistication Emma wishes she could emulate; and Nina's story, that of long-held anger and opportunities engineered.

Her is a tremendously quiet book and it's there its power lies. The way Nina sidles her way into Emma's life, and the almost-desperation with which she is greeted, is harrowing in its simplicity. The domestic scene provides a set-up rich with potential. The most terrifying things are those we believe can happen: it's why I've never been scared by Stephen King but still think of The Handmaid's Tale with dread. Lane exploits the everyday and in Nina writes a character whose terror lies in the ease with which she manipulates Emma, and the utter relentless normality.

Which leads me to my complaint - I'm honestly not sure if I think the grand reveal is brilliant or hopeless. On the one hand it's chilling, deftly giving us the measure of Nina to set up the final scenes (oh! the details! those tiny, tiny details!); on the other, it's mundane and pointless (but that is *why* it works).

Pushed, I come down on the side of brilliant, but those expecting a psychological thriller with a dramatic endgame or similar will likely find this is not the book for them. In a world which appears to be swimming with domestic psych thrillers, Lane is an easy author to pass over for the more obvious terrors of The Silent Wife, or Into The Darkest Corner, but anybody who found those rather too packed with melodrama, Her should be your next book. 4 stars.

Her on Amazon UK

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Doesn't Quite Do Enough - Call The Vet by Anna Birch

[Thanks must first and foremost go to the kind people at Random House/Ebury for providing me with an ARC - it cost me no monies, but I'm going to complain anyway.]

When I was 9, we took The Cat of the time to see our local vet, Mr Gilbert. Unlike these modern times full of trendy young things with whom I am on first name bases, Mr Gilbert could only ever be known as Mister Gilbert. I don't know how old he was exactly, but it was probably at least 192 because after he'd finished sticking pointy things into The Cat, he suggested I - who had been stroking her head and reassuring her in the manner of a 9-year-old who recognises this creature is the closest she's going to get to a pony - would make an excellent veterinary nurse. Hopefully he died soon afterwards and was spared the influx of wimmins into his profession, wimmins who were actual vets with actual qualifications and the actual ability to get really intimate with a cow.

Interestingly, a few years earlier than that, Anna Birch was told by her school that she wouldn't be be study the sciences because, as an all girl school, they didn't offer them. Happily, some years later, encouraged by her then boyfriend, Birch attended vet school as a mature student, qualified, and landed her first job in a small town in Dorset near the coastal town of Bridport. Bridport is where Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hangs out. I've never been, but I'm convinced they eat cous cous there.

Initially, I didn't think much of Call The Vet. I was inevitably going to make comparisons with the master, James Herriot - indeed, the book does itself - and the first chapter felt tremendously derivative. I'm not a vet and have no first hand experience of the correct response to a cow with a prolapsed uterus (although I can tell you what mine would be) but it all feels very familiar: large organ to be fed through a small hole, doubt, fear, even the trick with the wine bottle *crosses legs*.

From there, I did find myself warming to it. It's less focused on the animal stories than James Herriot is, sometimes to its detriment. I'm not the greatest carer-about of romance anyway and Call The Vet spends too much time for my taste chronicling Birch's relationship - yay for her and everything, but I didn't find it terribly interesting. I'm here for the anal glands.

Overall, it's not quite there. It doesn't do any of the things I'd hoped for with enough aplomb. It's not funny enough - although there's material, it's only written with an adequate comic hand. It's not interesting enough - while I did learn something, my impression is of more time spent on Birch's dog and her own feelings of inadequacy. It lack cohesion - the introductory language to Birch's colleagues is used two chapters in a row; the "it wasn't like this for James Herriot" sentiment is used more than once. Frustratingly, there are the glimmers of something more - following a disastrous/cringingly funny moment with an under-anaesthetised dog (which is criminally underwritten), Birch is told by the office colleague she roped in as assistant "I was scared and you were stupid", but this never extends into self-awareness. The "characters" left little impression on me.

While there are certainly worse ways to spend an afternoon than lying in a postdrome stupor reading this book while Wren licks your feet, I'm not really seeing anything here to recommend it particularly. If you want a "my first year as a vet" book, this is just about "fine".

2.5 stars.

Call the Vet: Farmers, Dramas and Disasters - My First Year as a Country Vet on Amazon UK

If You're Going to make a comparison to Downton, actually *watch* it first - Habits of the House by Fay Weldon

You know when you get a book and because it's by somebody whose work you like, or somebody who's written many, many books, you trust it's going to get better?

Meet Habits of The House. It's not entirely its fault; it's been given a stupid cover (
I'm not sure who that girlie is supposed to be), and it's being pitched to Downton fans despite the fact it's a comedy of manners.

However, everything else is its fault.

Especially the ending.

The storyline is to do with the son of the family trying to marry an American heiress because the family have significant money troubles.

In the end (highlight to read the spoilers):

The Earl wins a cumulative bet on the races which solves all the money problems, *and* the son marries the heiress, *and* the wife of the Jewish financier gets to meet the Prince of Wales.

"Hey Garth, let's do the super happy ending!"

doo doo do doo, doo doo do doo, doo doo do doo ...

I suspect it's supposed to be a punchline, but it just left me wondering what the point of reading the sodding book was.

I like Fay Weldon's style of writing, so I'm giving it 2 stars, but everybody else should probably give it a miss.

Habits of the House (Love & Inheritance 1) on Amazon UK

Friday, 25 July 2014

Thought I'd like this, did - Shadowplay by Laura Lam

NB Shadowplay is the sequel to Pantomime, so this review contains spoilers for that book; I'll put a page break on this review to keep you safe. You can find my review of Pantomime here. It is possible to read Shadowplay without having read Pantomime as the key information about events is reviewed as it is touched upon, but - even though this is better - I would recommend reading Pantomime first.

Also, this book was provided to me for no monies by the kind peoples at Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry, facilitated in this act of goodness/marketing by the mighty NetGalley. 

The short non-spoilery version of this review: Yeah. It was pretty good. If your tastes run to YA (which mine don't), make this 4 stars.

I'm pretty sure "Lady Sex Adventurer" wasn't an option on my careers advice form - How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran

[My copy of this book was an uncorrected proof, provided to me gratis by the publisher, HarperColins, facilitated in this act of goodness by Edelweiss. I think this makes me a pawn of Murdoch now.]

From the outside, Caitlin Moran can look a bit like a one-trick pony. Although she's been a journalist and Times columnist for many years, she had massive success a couple of years ago with her memoir/feminist treatise How To Be A Woman which contained many amusing tales about her poor Wolverhampton childhood. She, with her sister, has written a sitcom, Raised By Wolves, about a teenager growing up in poor Wolverhampton. Now there's this.

Despite the authorial introduction in which we are assured How To Build A Girl is not based on truth, one could be forgiven for fearing, as I did, a thinly fictionalised re-tread of the stuff which made Moran a household name. It isn't. Far from it. Although there are clear parallels - and some commercially cynical titling and structure going on - it all read new to me.

Opening in 1990, 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives in Wolverhampton. She wonders when she's going to get to finally have sex. She spends much time wanking. The book is hilariously instructional on this point if initially a little ... uncomfortable. The opening scene is of Johanna doing what she enjoys while her 6-year-old brother is asleep next to her. That it manages to get away with this is entirely due to Moran's cheerfully honest narrator, and later, to the other characters.

The book follows Johanna from awkward 14-year-old to 16-year-old music reviewer "Dolly Wilde" to vaguely "built" girl of 18. It is that rare thing, a female narrative untempered by usual sub-plots which so often tacitly reinforce the idea that to be female is not enough on its own. The prose even points it out: there is very little female narrative of what it's like to fuck and be fucked. This is a coming-of-age story. It is about Johanna figuring out who she is. It's not about the mistakes she makes while she does it, and it's not about them *being* mistakes, and it doesn't shame her for anything she does. It just ... is.

Johanna is going to make or break this novel for the reader: she's frank and honest, she doesn't know what she's doing and she's not what she wants to be but she's going to try. She is all feigned confidence and internal doubt, but ultimately just a person who is doing what people do, in a top hat. I loved her utterly and not just for the word "swashfuckler".

There is a section near the end about cynicism, about what it does, and it brought me to tears (and I am not generally a weeper) because it's so utterly true and it made me swear to be a better person for the rest of my days. In an earlier draft of this review, I went on to say the feeling wore off after an hour or two, thank god, but I've read the bit I'm talking about several times and it made me weep again. I'm weeping now. I went away, ate muesli, came back and started up again within seconds.

[...] it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.

I don't have it in me to stand with balloons. Sometimes I try; invariably nothing happens but it's that nothing which destroys me. I once killed every conversation on a table of 12 people by being enthusiastic about Marina Lewycka's A Short History Of Tractors In The Ukraine, so I went back to what I learned to do at school: not show enthusiasm about things. I play down my love of everything, or I turn it into joke: the crazy cat lady, the foreigner, the girl who waits for somebody else to do maths. I play down the things I am good at because it's easy to deal with that nothing if nothing is what I've given. But I want balloons. I want to have balloons and be proud of them and when that nothing happens, I want it to not matter because balloons.

And this is why I love this book and why you need to read it. Moran's finger is so on the money in so many respects. I don't think there's a person alive who doesn't feel like a fraud at some point, and How To Build A Girl is about a character who is pushing against that as she tries to ... build who she is. Good books are about tension and this one considers the place where enthusiasm and ego meet. It is brilliant, and hilarious, and at times like reading something you knew but have forgotten; we've all been there.

It misses out on 5 stars very narrowly - it lacks an overall cohesion. With something like Catcher In The Rye, there is a reason for the particular section of story we are told - HTBAG, while thoroughly entertaining lacks that and, as a consequence, sputters to an ending rather than giving that satisfying over-ness. There are some other minor nitpicks, a couple of things which - again - lack that wholeness and which dangle annoyingly. My uncorrected proof had some modern slang terms in it which I hope were removed.

It's also worth briefly touching upon the Twitterstorm of #CaitlinMoranShouldRead. That was a nonsense; this is not YA. This is coming-of-age. It's looking back from the vantage point of adulthood. It has far more in common with Moran's invoked Jilly Cooper than any YA I've ever read (but I'm not a big YA reader). By all means give it to your 14-year-old, but the prime audience are more likely to be me: 30-somethings who know who The Smashing Pumpkins are.

How To Build a Girl is a first-rate read which I thoroughly recommend - it's sweary and graphic and surprisingly educational. Even before the bits which had me weeping over my Kindle it was pretty fabulous, and those bits by no means made the book for me. If we're going to complain about Moran's equine fidelity, we can make sure to note she perfecting it with every offering: 4.5 stars.

How to Build a Girl on Amazon UK

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Lost me at about 75% - The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

[This book was provided to me in all its white, shining POD glory by the publisher, Headline, in return for nothing more than the warm fuzzy feeling that act of generosity gave them. They were able to do this thanks to Bookbridgr, not because they've been stalking me. That I know of.]

I've been keen to read The String Diaries ever since I read about the publishing deal being struck. A book about family relentlessly pursued down the generations by a man who can change his appearance at will? With their only tool for survival the knowledge of the family members gone before, written in a pile of tattered diaries held together with string? Ooooh, yes please!

From the off, TSD has itself set to the highest gear possible, alternating chapters between the present, in which Hannah Wilde is trying to find her way to a safe-house in Snowdonia before her husband bleeds to death in the passenger seat, and late 70's Oxford where Professor Charles Meredith meets a mysterious French scholar who nicks his seat in the library. It's dramatic if you're British. She's also deathly afraid of some bloke who's been pursuing her all her life, and her mother before that, but that's really no excuse.

Such divisions naturally mean it takes a few chapters to get into it, especially as there's also a third timeline, but despite the rather - in my view - over dramatic cliffhanger chapter endings, it works very well, skilfully passing the necessary exposition to the quieter chapters to allow Hannah's timeline to maintain its pace. I was drawn in fairly quickly and interested in all three stories.

I also *loved* the idea behind this, and its mythology - I have no idea if the Hosszu Eletek are a real folk story, Google only brings back this book - there's such potential but its squandered, weakened by two-dimensional characters and a by-the-numbers plot for the set-up. In a fair or unfair point depending on if you, as I, are attracted by that particular aspect of the blurb - the string diaries of the title have little to do beyond existing, and that was a great disappointment.

The main story is Hannah's, the dramatic escape, but I found her to be a deeply boring character who did little more than scream, weep, worry, and think to herself that she must protect her daughter and husband. There is a fine line between legitimate emotion and having a heroine who succumbs to inertia - consider The Hunger Games: the fear and PTSD was one of the bits it got really right, but Katniss still went out and got things done. Here, Hannah's actual actions - what there are of them - happen before the book has started; throughout, things are done by the (male - which I felt mattered in the context of the story) characters around her. When she does finally act, it is not in the way of somebody who has had the chance to spend their life preparing for the possibility she'll have to.

Then there is Gabriel, a character straight out of any romantic comedy starring an Irishman: over friendly? Check. Turns rebuffs into jokes and ignores them? Check. Uses a small child to trap the object of his affection into spending time with him? Check. We'll grant some bonus points for Hannah's epically stupid reactions to him: What's that? You are on the run from a man who can change his appearance at will, there's a mysterious Irishman who is determined to be your friend, he makes your spidey sense tingle with mistrust, your husband almost died the day before and is lying prone on the sofa vulnerable to the aforementioned man who's hunting you and you ARE going to go for a ride with the mysterious and hunky stranger?

The final nail in the coffin is Jakab himself - the man who's spent over a century tracking down Hannah's family. In the beginning he's done excellently, but his obsession is ludicrous, its explanation overly simplistic, and as he doesn't appear to exist off-screen let alone develop as a character over his lifetume. We have a faceless Big Bad who deserves his endlessly screaming target. It's even more annoying because what he *does* is so utterly horrific but the book is not; Jakab's victims only emotionally respond to the fear of violence but Jones has - possibly inadvertently - created a creature whose MO taps into a very female fear. I would be less annoyed with this book if that aspect had been borne in mind more throughout.

Books like this are a dancing centipede - if I hadn't looked down three-quarters of the way through this would probably have been 3.5 stars. However, I did, and if I hadn't then I really ought to have done. It has a strong start, but progress is unoriginal, checking in with Things Which Will Be Important Later, passing Things Which We're Told Can't Happen Manage To For *Reasons* and giving a jaunty wave to Holding Out For A Sequel on the way past. Mentally comparing this to my other scores, I'm going to settle on 2.5 stars: until it all fell apart it was very good, but once it did it was a brainless Hollywood summer blockbuster and I'd really, really hoped for more.

The String Diaries on Amazon UK

Monday, 21 July 2014

I wasn't expecting to like this, but I did - Pantomime by Laura Lam

I'm not entirely sure why I'm now pretending I write reviews because I don't write reviews; I prefer to just complain at length about the bits which disappointed me. However, me giving out about Pantomime would be like taking Jonathan Franzen to to task for the epic lack of velociraptors in Freedom. At least, I assume there aren't any velociraptors in Freedom; I only got to page 8 or so before I realised I wasn't going to get through another 604 pages. That's probably a little unkind, but as Mr Franzen is famous for regarding the internet as a blight upon humanity (that and writing books which don't have any velociraptors in them), I think I'll get away with it. If I don't, congratulations Jon! You were right about this place or all along. You're welcome. And don't worry about it, I may not even have been reading Freedom, I may have been reading The Corrections. Whichever one *doesn't* have the velociraptors in it, that's what I read 8 pages of. Try and hook me earlier next time.


I'm not Pantomime's audience. I'm in my thirties. That's so old, the closest things we had to YA as teenagers were Sweet Valley High and the Point Horror books. So, I expected to read a book which was slightly annoying because all YA is to some degree. If it wasn't annoying, it wouldn't be about an authentic 16-18 year-old. Yes, this is my backhanded compliment, YA fans. I wanted to read Pantomime though because Laura is a vague internet friend via AbsoluteWrite (and if she's reading this and wondering which one I am over there: naff off Lam, reviews are not for authors), but also because the main character is intersex.

Raised as a girl, Iphigenia Laurus joins the circus as the male Micah Gray. The narrative is split between Summer (as Micah at the circus) and Spring (as Iphigenia, struggling with being a noble's daughter). Not a great deal happens, but the tension in Iphigenia's sections as she prepares for her D├ębutante ball is well done, and Micah's parts are studded with the colour of the circus. I'd have criticisms of the language and the lightness (and convenience) with which some of the more logistical aspects are dealt with, but I feel they are down to the genre rather than the writing. I really liked how Micah's gender impacts the obligatory YA love triangle. My biggest criticism is for the plot which I felt lacked any real direction or urgency until the last 20% or so when the pace really picked up.

It's an interesting book, but it reads more like a prequel than the first of a series, especially as it's not as standalone as something like The Hunger Games is. Book 2 - Shadowplay - was out in January.

I am also incredibly frustrated with that blurb. It has virtually nothing to do with the plot and has very little to do with the book. Imagine the back cover of Harry Potter failing to mention [SPOILER ALERT] Harry is a wizard. That's how annoying this book's blurb is. Add to the fact it's a pretty unique topic and I do start wondering if somebody somewhere thought it would be off-putting. Maybe it will be for some because it's new and different, but I identified a heck of a lot more with Gene than I do with most female characters. I may be possessed of 100% ladybits, but I often feel I am failing at being a girl.

I'm giving this one three stars (with a mental 3.5 stars for that last 20%). It says a lot about that last 20% that I would have gone to check out the sequel straight away if it was already out. There aren't any velociraptors though, dammit.

Pantomime on Amazon UK

Friday, 18 July 2014

Well ... it tried - Night Film by Marisha Pessl

At any given time I have 86 bajillion things to do, which means much of what I'm trying to do gets shunted to one side while I deal with those things actively on fire.

I meant to write a review of Night Film when I read it but time and Chrismas have conspired to push it onto my "No, I'll definitely do it *this* week" list - that is, the tasks which are penciled in for April. So it is this review has ended up not being written until now, when I'm merely supposed to be making doctors appointments and cleaning the oven as opposed to anything of vital importance.

Because of this, it's going to be slightly vague and I can't double check things because the book has gone back to the library, but I do have things to say, hence the review.

Those things are, basically, that Night Film wants to be a spooky, psychological thriller, but spooky psychological thrillers only work if the reader is carried with them. Night Film trips itself up, badly, and beneath the effort and the "scan these things with your phone and you can watch a video on the interwebs!" is a book which doesn't manage to be much more than "fine".

I have complaints, in particular that at times it feels the author hasn't thought the details through properly. It's a pet hate of mine anyway but it's also a big deal in a book which is trying to make you guess what is and isn't real. In this instance, a character is remembered as taking pictures with a Leica which is fine, except the character in question lacks a thumb, index and middle finger (which on an SLR you need to support the lens and adjust the focus). Yes, I'm really that anal.

I found the characters weakly done. Nora, who helps Scott investigate due to totally legitimate reasons which would absolutely happen in real life, is particularly desperate. Ashley, whose suicide protagonist Scott is trying to investigate, is irritating despite spending all but the prologue being dead. Every single sodding person the investigation leads them to (and there are quite a number) goes on and ON about how amazing she was, and how she had this way of LOOKING at you. It almost got away with it, prompting sarcastic asides rather than a fully blown book fling, but set in the context of the resolved story it's an especially low point.

Initially I thought Night Film was going to be like the readable bits in House of Leaves (I'm dyslexic. Me and the footnote have a tortured history), and I would have settled for something reasonably intelligent, but it's neither of those things.

There are some good parts - a sequence towards the end of the book is particularly good and exactly the kind of thing I wanted to see from the rest of it - but they are rather derivative if you know your directors.

It's readable enough and because I like that it's trying to do something even though it fails, I'm going to give it three stars.

Night Film on Amazon UK

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Self-indulgent - How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti

I've never seen Girls, that TV show everybody seems terribly keen on, but from time to time I read articles criticising it for being about Privileged White Girls. How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti made me think of every criticism I've ever read levelled at that TV show which I haven't seen.

I didn't like it. I didn't find it funny. It wasn't just that it had nothing to say to me - which it didn't, but that hasn't always mattered in the past with other books - but what it did say seemed so self-involved. Self-involvement is not an inherently bad thing, but this one just didn't do it for me at all. It's not even a case of disliking the "main character", it's more that I'm busy and I don't have much time for this "Will I matter?", "I want to be important!" navel-gazing, particularly when it's pretty much non-fiction.

Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe this just doesn't translate well to a Brit. Maybe, as a creator of art, I have limited patience for people worrying about creating art (because you do it or you don't do it and believe me that you are the only person who cares either way). Maybe it's because people who want to be artists (rather than people who want to make art) make me gripe.

Or maybe, as somebody who considers it a life well lived if you make it to the end with most of the limbs you started out with, I was never going to care about a book wholly concerned with creating problems for oneself.

One star.