Monday, 29 September 2014

Good, but there's nothing new here - Us by David Nicholls

[This book was provided to me free of charge by the American publisher, Harper, via the always-confusing-to-navigate Edelweiss]

Although I've read (and quite liked) a couple of David Nicholls' other books - Starter For Ten and the ubiquitous One Day - I wasn't terribly interested in this new one until it cropped up on the Man Booker Longlist. Nicholls is a perfectly decent writer who has seen tremendous commercial success while largely avoiding the prose-critical backlash writers like Stephanie Meyer have endured. That said, for him to place on the Booker Longlist, particularly in its first year of international competition - well, I freely express surprise he would be even be entered.

One night, 56-year-old Douglas Petersen is woken by his wife, Connie, to be told she's leaving him. Or rather, she will be, once Albie, their 17-year-old son is safely ensconced at University. Before that, the family have a trip planned - a Grand Tour of Europe - during which Douglas intends to win back the affection of his wife and the respect of his son via the mediums of having a strict timetable and regurgitating the Wikipedia entry of everywhere they go.

Although not a deliberate comedy, Us should find a natural fan base amongst readers of The Rosie Project, itself widely compared to One Day. By the time this review is posted, I will be about to compare The Rosie Effect to Us triggering a comparative title vortex and trapping us all in a literary feedback-loop of inept middle-aged white guys. Superficially, Nicholls' Douglas feels a touch derivative of Graeme Simsion's hero Don - he is a scientist, he has a free-spirited love interest, having things organised is important to him - but unlike Simsion, Nicholls does not attempt to place his protagonist on the autistic spectrum, even though at times it feels as though he was thinking about it.

Where One Day was an interesting idea adequately executed, Us is a uniteresting idea near perfectly executed. It's a good read, but the shelves are heaving with this type of thing, often done in a more interesting and engaging way. This is closer to Tony Parsons than Nick Hornby and its inclusion on on the Booker longlist is perhaps more indicative of what we're traditionally told "literature" is (straight, white and male) than any literary quality Us possesses.

Although I liked it overall, I found the characters problematic. Us is the story of this broken marriage and of Douglas' attempts to unbreak it; of how it began and how it came to crack. I struggled slightly - as I did in One Day - to see why these characters cared about each other in the first place. The elements are there but the follow-through isn't. Douglas almost fetishises Connie's artistic bent (which is a pet hate for me anyway), but there's also a degree of contempt for it in the way he doesn't want Albie to pursue a career in the arts, and in the absent head-patting encouragement for her to paint - he doesn't engage with her feelings on the matter of what it is to paint, only the fact he likes her drawings. The internal conflict of this is absent, as a missed opportunity rather than an active gap.

I did not like Connie. She is cruel, yet she is subject to the female-worship other SWMs like Parsons are so guilty of, her actions merely evidence of her free-spirit. Douglas loves her, but it is not a good thing.

The third element, Albie, is a brat who desperately needs to check his privilege. The kind of teen who tells his father he hates him before demanding the necessary cash to extricate himself from his father's company. The kind of brat who insists on having his guitar on a train journey of Europe, and who has the kind of father who brings it.

I did enjoy this. The second half is better than the first benefiting from a move away from the slightly dull realism of the beginning into the kind of book-acceptable plot Nicholls worked so well in Starter For Ten. Even so, I couldn't engage with it. For any justifiable superlative you want to offer, there are dozens of books already out there doing exactly this. Storytelling in all its forms is already dominated by male narratives and this one, while perfectly good, does nothing new.

I'm going to settle on 3.5 stars, of the kind which gets rounded up rather than down. As I keep saying, it's a good book - although I do wonder if those who loved One Day because they identified with Emma will find this as appealing - despite its wider unoriginality. What it does it does perfectly well and there's no reason not to give it a whirl.

Us on AmazonUK

Monday, 22 September 2014

Well, at least I learned something - The Universe Inside You by Brian Clegg

I bought this book in the hope I'd learn something about about biology and the human body; instead I got a book which uses the human body as a jumping off point to talk about other things: atoms and quantum physics and what happens to a helium balloon in a braking car (it heads towards the rear of the car because deceleration is acceleration in the opposite direction, and acceleration is the same as gravity, and the helium is lighter than air so heads away from gravity (or something), hence anybody in the back seat gets smacked in the face with a balloon, which I consider a tremendously useful tip).

It's not that it's bad, it's just not what I was looking for from this book because I've already read a couple of other books which cover some of the same subjects and more (like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything). I also found this a bit of a trog in places, but as it's split into short sections it's very easy to read a couple of pages, go away and come back.

When it's interesting, it is very interesting, the tone is light and the explanations clear. I certainly learned something, but at other times I would have liked it to be a bit more comprehensive. There are also numerous mentions of experiments etc you can do on the associated website. Although that's a good thing if you're interested, for me I'd rather have a book which isn't constantly telling you to go to a website. If I'm reading a book, I'm reading a book. As I am already familiar with most of the experiments referred to, I didn't have any problems reading the text about them. Even if you weren't familiar with the experiments, I think you'd be okay.

I read this on Kindle and had no problems doing so - there are a few diagrams but they were all clear to me.

So, not really what I was looking for but decent for what it is. If I hadn't already known a good quarter of what was in this book, it may well have been four stars. I'd certainly consider other books by the author.

The Universe Inside You on Amazon UK

Friday, 19 September 2014

One thing after another - Broken Places by Wendy Perriam

The blurb of this book claims some people will love its central character, Eric, but also warns that some people will want to shake him for his passivity. Having read the thing, I suspect most people will chose option three: put the book down and never return to it because it lacks a compelling story.

So, Eric. An idealogical Librarian. Some things happen - he goes on a date, he sets up a prison book club, he expects his daughter to visit from the US.

Some other things happen - he eats soup, he rides a bike, he recounts his childhood.

Then some other things happen.

Then some other things than that happen.

Although well written if rather old fashioned in Eric's language - jarring because of his age - it never manages to recover from its own lack of direction. The final chapters in particular are poor, the dialogue stilted - it could have worked beautifully as a punchline, but it's played straight and is, for my taste, unbearably naff.

1.5 stars because it's well written and some of the chapters are good.

Broken Places on Amazon UK

Monday, 15 September 2014

Longest. Title. Ever. - The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones

There is a lot to like about this book: it's charming and the opening scene is very engaging. My criticisms of it stem largely from what it *doesn't* do, rather than for things it does wrong.

It feels ungrounded in its setting - we're in 1924 but you'd barely know it, and the Wales we're given could be England. It lacks tension in places: Wilfred and Grace don't speak. When a conversation would solve a character's problems (or move the plot forward) there needs to be a good reason why it doesn't happen - or more of an impact of it not happening.

I felt it left one of the story lines dangling. I'm not a reader who demands everything be tied up neatly, quite the opposite, but this felt rather *too* unresolved maybe because the major confrontation happens offstage.

The first half was better than the second and I read the whole thing quickly, so it's three stars, but only just.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals on Amazon UK

Friday, 12 September 2014

Dated but Decent - Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married by Marian Keyes

As I believe I've mentioned, I have an ARC of Marian Keyes' new book, The Woman Who Stole My Life, but because it's not out until Novemeber, other ARCs are getting read first. In preparation, I decided to reaquaint myself with whatever the Library had of Keyes' older novels: Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married is Keyes' second book, first published in 1995.

Lucy Sullivan is what would later become the typical Chick Lit heroine - 20 something, office job, boyfriend woes; likes drinking, fashion and shoes; her friends (and frenemies) play a large part in the book. It's worth remembering this was published the year before Bridget Jones' Diary and three years before Sex And The City first broadcast.

When Lucy and her colleagues visit a fortune teller, Mrs Nolan, Lucy is told she'll be married within the year. After the others' fortunes appear to come true - Meredia coming into the princely sum of £7.50, and Meghan suffering a massive split ... to her lip - Lucy is ready to believe it, especially when she meets charming, handsome, unreliable Gus.

Everything which came later in the genre would have you believe this is your typical cheesy romance, that Lucy muddles her way through trying to find Mr Right until she finally finds him in an unexpected place, but this is Marian Keyes, and Marian Keyes - like myself - always has one eye on the realm of mental illness and its associated issues. When Lucy sees Mrs Nolan, Mrs Nolan sees somebody with a great darkness in them, and this is a large part of why Lucy - sufferer of Depression since her teens - is convinced Mrs Nolan is the real deal.

Initially, the book is slow. Lucy spends an inordinate amount of time cringing, feeling embarrassed, apologising, feeling worthless, and generally being fairly annoying. She is, in many respects, a doormat. She's also immature: her relationship with her Mammy (which I initially disliked, I will freely admit, because it reminded me so much of Strider's relationship with our Mammy) left me wanting to tell her to grow up and stop being so petulant.

But, at 2/3rds in things take a change and every annoying, petulant utterance Lucy has made in the preceding pages slots neatly into place. She's no longer somebody you wish would grow a backbone and stop putting up with so much crap from so many different quarters - well, she *is* - but somebody who has behaved the way that particular person would behave. Marian Keyes knows her stuff. There may be jokes, and ridiculous characters, but there are still punches and more fidelity than the fluffy pink cover would have you expect.

Although the bones of the story stand up pretty well for its age, the are some major aspects which don't. Lucy's situation, for instance - her flat on her job is a pipe dream these days, as is the ability to sit doing nothing all day without being fired. It suffers what I shall christen 70's Sitcom Syndrome: there are some lines which make for uncomfortable reading in this modern and enlightened age - a male character calls a woman a dyke because she hasn't succumbed to his charms, for instance. Some of the banter between the characters, male and female, is viscous rather than amusing - Lucy's relationship with her flatmates is a great example. Lucy and Gus's interactions - again, Lucy is a doormat and the reason for it is there, but I think the current generation of 20-somethings will have less in common with this character than her contemporaries did, and perhaps have a more difficult time grasping the (unmentioned) fact that Mental Health was talked about even less in those days.

The most damning matter for me was Gus. He is a knobhead. From the second Lucy meets him, he is a knobhead, and because Lucy is such a doormat I would forgive anybody who flung this across the room in irritation and went and found a book about somebody with an ounce of self-respect.

In the end, I did like it, but for a fairly large portion of the book I didn't. The payoff was worth it to me, but if you're under 30 and you don't have an interest in books which deal with Depression and its associated Jazz, there's not a great deal here. Even if you do fulfil those requirements, it remains something of a curio best left for Keyes' fans. Three star books do what I expected them too which this didn't, but in the end did.

Monday, 8 September 2014

A four star read undermined by my knowledge of facts - The Stolen Girl by Renita D'Silva

[This book was provided to me gratis by the publisher, the lovely Bookouture, facilitated in this act of goodness by NetGalley. Thanks guys!]

Renita D'Silva is a name I know although not one which has been attached to the front of any of the books I've read. Her previous two novels, Monsoon Memories and The Forgotten Daughter, have both appeared on my Amazon recommended lists and if I had slightly less to read I would likely have tried one or the other by now. Instead, I was pleasingly approved for the ARC of her new novel, The Stolen Girl, which you will be able to part with your money for from the 12th September.

Despite the cover, The Stolen Girl of the story is 13-year-old Diya who one day has an argument with her mum, strops out, goes back for her coat and finds her mum being taken away by The Rozzers. According to the police, Diya isn't Diya, she's Rupa; and Vani isn't her mother, Vani is the woman who stole her as a baby. Diya's real mother, Aarti, is at a hotel nearby, waiting to take her daughter back to India.

The book follows these three characters, Diya, struggling to adjust to this new truth, Vani, writing letters to her daughter from prison, and Aarti, desperate to finally meet the child she's been searching for all its life. It also attends to Vani and Aarti's pasts, to their childhoods and to the truth about Vani's actions.

The trouble is, despite an introduction in which the author thanks various people for aiding her with research and which I'm confident she has done, it doesn't read like it. Although I'm a pedant, I don't mind minor changes to fact, especially when they improve the flow of the book - things like (as mentioned in the introduction as being incorrect) the number of visitors a prisoner can receive in a day: absolutely fine. However, The Stolen Girl is dependent on things happening in a way other than they would and that's a problem. A big one.

As this is an ARC I don't want to go anywhere near possible spoilers (although I'm happy to provide both mild spoiler and total spoiler explanations via PM/comments) so ...

You know that song by Natasha Beddingfield, These Words? You know the way you can't quite believe that nobody, at any point between the initial rehearsal right the way through to signing off the finished track said, 'Actually Natasha, it's pronounced Hy-per-bo-lee"?


That is the level of error here - the kind of basic thing you'd imagine somebody, at some point between the author writing it and the file being sent to the printer, would have picked up on. Consider the incident in Ireland last October where the Garda removed two children from their Roma families because - thanks to some racial profiling - they believed they'd been abducted; or the case in Greece also at that time which had a different outcome.

Because of this, even when things are correct, I was painfully aware that there is "technically correct" and there is "realistically likely to happen". The Stolen Girl came down far too heavily on the side of the former without reference to the things I'm thinking of.

I also have some minor complaints about the book's own continuity - tiny details like Diya commenting she's already lost weight and her clothes are looser on her after only a few days, maybe a week.

It's frustrating because I did really like a lot of this book. I'm not the biggest reader of women's fiction but I really engaged with this one - my mark of a four star read is that I'm eager to get back to reading it to find out what happens and this, despite those errors, did that. Vani and Aarti's story in particular, while veering a little close to soap-opera plotting for my taste - I liked. It's difficult to write characters who act as these do while keeping them believable, but D'Silva does a good job with the emotional side of the story.

I can't personally recommend this one, but I will emphasise that if you don't care about things being realistic, and/or you have no idea happens when you commit a crime, you probably shouldn't let this review put you off. Read the Kindle sample and if you don't spot any problems you'll likely be fine. There is a lot to like.

However, for me, the problems matter. I'm struggling to decide if this book is actively terrible or just not very good. I want to mark this higher because I did enjoy reading it, but I have to show fidelity to my other reviews. With regret, 1.5 stars.

The Stolen Girl on Amazon UK

Friday, 5 September 2014

I'm sure I'm missing something here - Opposed Positions by Gwendoline Riley

I'm having one of those moments where, having read the book, I've returned to the blurb to see if I can make sense of it. I'll settle for being able to remember what this one is about, or what happened, but I'm not having much luck there either.

To begin with, it's pretty good. The writing is immersive, the portrait of Aislinn's bullying father truthful and compelling. Then ... well then's where I fall into a loss. My brain reports something about America and a very long phone call, but the blurb claims "a startlingly frank novel about the human predicament, about love and its substitutes, disgraceful or otherwise," so now I'm wondering if it's me (possible), or if it's not, whether the person who wrote that is available for freelance work.

It picks up again in the final third, but not enough, so I'm going to give it 2.5 stars and say I'd be interested to read other books by this author because I really liked the writing.

Opposed Positions on Amazon UK

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

All the disapointment - Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

This has cropped in my review feed a couple of times recently which reminded me that I've been eager to read it for some time now; I *love* Allie Brosh's blog. Luckily, my local library's magical online catalogue revealed they had a copy so off to town I went. I actually ended up wandering around my library for about fifteen minutes feeling confused because I couldn't find the 800's - they turned out to be on the mysterious third floor up to which I'd never been but will again. There were some people having a croissant party. You don't get things like that on the second floor. The second floor was full of children singing "The Wheels On The Bus".

Brosh is rather like David Sedaris if Sedaris chose to illustrate his books with all the tools MS Paint has to offer. Like Sedaris, her likeability for me turns out to be dependent on the medium through which she is filtered. Unfortunately, its not high with this book.

As others have commented, the transfer from blog post to book does not serve Brosh well. The fact that so much of this is recycled material - I'd forgive a third, just about, but this is closer to half - only highlights the problems: when the images are shrunk down they lose their impact significantly and this is especially noticeable in stories such as Depression - I've read it dozens of times and will probably read it dozens more, but in physical form it's nothing.

It's also disappointing that the strongest stories are the old ones - like The God of Cake and Depression parts one and two etc. I did really like a couple of the new ones, especially Lost In The Woods, but I actually ended up skimming the last few stories.

I got this from the library but had I parted with money I would certainly consider it a waste of. It's fun, but I don't really see the advantage of Hyperbole in book form - there's not enough new stuff and old stuff becomes significantly less entertaining. 2 stars.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened on Amazon UK

Monday, 1 September 2014

*insert bad Proclaimers impression* - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Very often, when I'm enjoying a book, I experience a certain amount of trepidation about where it's going to end up. Many a promising book has fallen apart in the last third, usually because a clever premise lacks the necessary legs, or an equally clever conclusion, or the not-clever conclusion doesn't offer anything else to make it worth the journey (like character, or writing, or setting).

This book did not do that.

This is one of the few books I've read where I had total confidence in the author from the off. I loved it even more by the end than I did at the beginning, and that is a rare, rare thing for me. Sure, I could sit here and make pedantic comments about what would actually happen if you tried walking to Berwick in unsuitable shoes, or complain that there are no great surprises plot-wise, but those things didn't matter because this is wonderfully written and has well-drawn characters who are relentlessly human. It's sad, it's funny, it has buckets of charm which never risks becoming saccharine thanks to the emotionally true (and *raw*) undercurrents. I had to stop reading it in the Post Office queue because I was wearing mascara at the time.

So, yes. I loved it utterly. Normal cynical service will be resumed forthwith.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry on Amazon UK