Saturday, 31 December 2011

The 2011 Challenge Concludes - Let 2012 begin

So, you're looking at my blog and you're thinking she challenged herself to read 100 books in a year, and look, there's Genus it's book number 100 - she did it. Good for her. Not so,  I'm a fraud. Scroll back, back and back again, back to number 8 on this list The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I didn't finish The Corrections, never returned to finish it as I said I would and with 6 hours left of New Years Eve and somewhere else to be, I'm not going to. So I have failed my challenge, and I have failed my challenge by ONE book alone. It's such a kick in the teeth. I'm probably going to hate Jonathan Franzen for the rest of my life for this, him and his appalling sex writing about warm rabbits etc.

But, I suppose I also failed the challenge on technicalities, I said that I would finish every book I started and I didn't, books I began and have yet to complete are

Dune by Frank Herbert
The Book Of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric
Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving

Though I will probably at some stage read these books I can guarantee you I will not complete:

Critical Mass by Philip Ball a science book so breathtakingly awful that it has winged its way to a charity shop already.

I acknowledged to the blog none of these failures! So I guess I have failed on technicalities!
It's my own fault I failed, had I read one more book in either August, October or November which were quiet months in reading output terms I wouldnt be in this position.

For me my books of the year this year were :

1. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
2. A Song Of Ice And Fire (First 5 novels) by George RR Martin
3. The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
4. The Vintners Luck by Elizabeth Knox
5. Genus by Jonathan Trigell
6. A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes
7. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
8. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
9. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
10. Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence

These are the books that I will recommend beyond this year  an interesting mash up of both halves of the year, with Fingersmith the outright winner and with the wooden spoon landing squarely upon There But For The by Ali Smith.

With the 100 books of the year challenged failed on New Years Eve with 99 books, alls I can say is challenge remains unmet, on with the challenge. If at first you don't succeed try again, bring on the class of 2012 : HAPPY NEW YEAR and THANKS FOR READING!!!!!!!

Book #100 Genus by Jonathan Trigell


As Genus stands proudly as Book #100 of the 100 books in a year challenge, I am glad of it, and glad I was able to finish on a high note. Genus by Jonathan Trigell, the acclaimed writer of Boy A is a great book, so good that halfway through it I messaged my one of my best friends on Facebook to tell her to get it whilst it remains 99p for the Kindle on Amazon.

Genus takes as its concept, a dystopian future London. A scientist who renamed himself Prometheus has taken the concept of the designer baby to its zenith. "Improving" ones genetics, buying add-ons and building ones child from the ground up, but, this kind of technology comes at a price, and has created an alarming new social scale, the rich, are now also the most beautiful, the healthiest and the most talented, what is left is the "scum" the disabled, the defective, and the working poor,  coralled into small areas of Britain, unprovided for.

The novel focuses on London's Kings Cross, now The Kross and  a variety of characters from this underworld: Dwarf artist Holman, policeman Gunt, drug runner Valentine, blind war veteran Crick, gang member Quigley and assorted other people from the social bottom rung, and a select few from  the top.

This novel was published at the end of July this year and would have been written and complete to go to press some months before that. Therefore Trigell himself must have been chilled to the bone when a section of the novel which now seems more like premonition than future prediction  came true on the streets of London in August. In an eerie replica of the summer riots, shops are looted and buildings burned out, this isn't a vision of things to come, the future is now. I think it was this section of the novel which tipped it over into "something special" land for me, I mean it's so on the pulse it's living. In addition, the characters are likeable, particularly Gunt and Holman, so as to hold your attention upon the novel. I was already imagining the movie version with Peter Dinklage that would be brilliant.

The eradication of genetic defect seems like a marvellous thing the future could grant us, but Trigell truly succeeds in making clear the very dark end game involved in meddling with nature, belief in God or otherwise with a cracking warning shot from our own history at its close.

I am so glad that Genus was my final book of 2011 so I could end on a high. Read Genus Please. 10/10

Book #99 Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey 

Those who know that I'm a Jane Austen fan are probably very surprised to discover that in spite of reading certain of her books more than once, I have not, and still have not read her entire output, of her completed novels I still have Mansfield Park remaining.

Like Miss Austen's other works, Northanger Abbey is a tale of a young woman with no particular fortune to speak of debuting in society and getting caught up in romantic intrigues so far, so Austen. Catherine Morland travels to Bath as a particular companion to neighbour Mrs Allen and establishes friendships with two families also sojourning in Bath, the Thorpe's and the Tilney's. After her stay in Bath, Catherine is granted the opportunity of a stay at the Tilney seat, the impressive Northanger Abbey.

The novel has two main successes : you care passionately enough about the characters to have the strong desire to reach into the book, physically shove John Thorpe and tell him to "Do One" or "Get Lost" in less Scouse terms. Henry Tilney is also a delightful hero, who makes you feel a bit warm and squishy inside, which is what you want from an Austen novel, essentially. 

There are two main drawbacks : The novel is clearly a parody upon Mrs Radcliffe's The Mystery Of Udolpho indeed it makes the point plain. I once tried to read said novel and did not succeed, primarily because the typeface on my edition was blindingly tiny. This parody at points proves slightly irritating. Austen also clearly has a bee in her bonnet and a personal point to make about the social opinions of the time regarding novels, particularly women's novels, and is using this novel as a vehicle to convey her opinions, when she should rather have written an Op-Ed for The Times or something.

The other drawback is a compliment - there just isn't enough Mr Tilney time, and Mr Tilney is awesome. I suppose the conclusion of the novel is rather inevitable, but I feel it's all done rather awkwardly, I mean, personally I wouldn't be able to see my father in law without feeling anger and mortification for the rest of his life, instead of humble gratitude, but I suppose that is how society has evolved for the better.

All in all enjoyable and sweet, and I should enjoy enormously an adaptation involving Benedict Cumberbatch as Tilney.  8/10

Monday, 26 December 2011

Book #98 The Prince Of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Prince Of Mist

Carlos Ruiz Zafon who is probably best known in the UK for his popular novel The Shadow Of The Wind was a popular young adult author in Spain prior to that books international success and The Prince Of Mist is one such young adult novel, and was in fact his debut. Originally published in Spain in 1993 it was not published in the UK until 2010. As a 30 year old reader I felt it had plenty of crossover appeal.

Max and his family move rather unwillingly at their father's behest to a beach house to avoid the ramifications of the Second World War. Once there Max and elder sister Alicia become caught up in the mystery of the Prince of Mist, a dark and devious figure who casts a shadow upon their new life.

The wonderful thing about The Prince Of Mist is that it doesn't patronise children, Dr Cain is genuinely sinister and the underestimating earnest need to always give children a neat, clean, positive ending is not present here. The narrative is very lyrical and you are fully engaged in the tale. As an adult there is no sense that you are reading a book which isn't really aimed at or meant for you, it is enjoyable despite the setting and the age of the protagonists. There is a physical feeling of this Faustian cloaked menace approaching from a thick mist that leaps from the page as if you stood before him yourself. If you have children around the 12 mark who enjoy reading I would recommend purchasing this and then snaffling it afterwards for yourself.


Book #97 Dark, As Light Fails by P. A Britton

Dark As Light Fails

As I went to provide the link for Dark As Light Fails I realised why this book was perhaps more flawed than it should have been, not published by a publisher it is part of the growing army of free or low priced self published novels for Kindle, therefore it has not gone through many of the normal editing processes novels go through. I normally entirely avoid these books believing if a publisher or several have refused it, theres a reason for that. Simply put, I had no idea when I paid for it, the cover art looks professional so congratulations to whoever created that. This is not to say it is entirely without merit, I will however start at the very beginning and highlight the better aspects later.

Elliot is married with two children, he reminisces about lost love Immy and is quietly unhappy with his life. When he wakes up, his wife is dead and so are their two girls, somehow Elliot instantly knows that a killer virus has wiped people out, he makes this conclusion rather quickly and upon visiting a surviving friend has a weird emotionless casual conversation about the death of his kids as if he's discussing his fantasy football picks or something.

The very beginning of this book (published 2010) mirrors to almost a tee the very first episode of the recent Survivors (2008) series. Person wakes up next to dead spouse, can't find help, empty streets, steals car, guy alone on the road meets other survivors, helps out others, frantic visit to hospital only to discover a single frantic doctor left......later aspects also remind you of Walking Dead or Shaun Of The Dead because there are the dead, the survivors, and the half way in between who are crazed and attack the living......if there was a way of conveying an eyeroll in this blog entry I would do so.

Where the book differs (or perhaps doesn't if you think about it) from the TV series is that in the series main character Abby Grant's mission is to search for her son and hopefully discover him living. In Dark, As Light Fails Frank's mission is to find long lost love Immy (who has also miraculously survived) in what is probably the most laughably implausible story in the whole novel, with a denouement  purchased straight from Cloverfield.

I want to be kind to P A Britton though, and say whilst his novel is entirely derivative, borderline plagerism and his dialogue is as wooden as a pine table and chairs he shows genuine promise  in his descriptive prose and action sequences, and I would tell him to keep trying to make it as a writer. It wasn't dire and it was certainly highly readable despite its many faults.


Friday, 23 December 2011

Book #96 In The Shadow Of The Cypress by Thomas Steinbeck

In The Shadow Of The Cypress 

Written by Thomas "son of John" Steinbeck, In The Shadow Of The Cypress is perhaps existing proof that the ability to write is non-hereditary. It is a peculiarly vexing novel and proved a struggle for me from the very outset. The first character we are introduced to is academic Charles Gilbert who is working at a Stanford associated laboratory. He has an Irish friend, Billy O'Flynn who has very close associations to the local Chinese fishing community, and one night he discovers two artifacts under a cypress tree that appear to be of some significance. He shows Gilbert, who tries but does not get very far in his attempts to investigate matters. Gilbert contacts a Chinese academic named Lao Hong whose attempts at interacting with the local Chinese elders also seem rather fruitless.

Both these sections belonging to Gilbert and Hong were for me often incomprehensible, impenetrable and more importantly boring, yet there are interesting shades of post colonial "Orientalism" as defined by Edward Said in his 1978 book throughout the novel, but particularly in its earlier sections. On the UK Amazon, there is but one customer review giving this novel five stars but, look at its companion page on the US site and there is a flurry of one and two star reviews, saying they hated the book found it impossible to read and that many of them gave up early on.

I too found the early sections very difficult, and perhaps if not for the challenge would have given up but, the novel switches at the mid way point and moves its narratives to the present day.  Prodigious Stanford academic Luke rediscovers Gilbert's old papers regarding the Chinese artifacts and their significance in terms of historical import, teaming up with Chinese colleague Robert Wu he endeavours to uncover an ancient mystery. It is this latter section which makes the events of the former make sense, but, it's whether you have the patience to sit through page after page of confusing, dull, narrative to get to this point, my guess is many won't.

I actually enjoyed the Luke/Wu partnership, the developments and the sense of majesty in the behaviour of Mr Wu Snr. However as their research ends, Steinbeck Jnr gives us a summation of Wu and Luke's lives post their dramatic discovery, what they went on to do, who they married etc. It's very sudden, horribly done and feels terribly amateur like a school kid concluding their first short story. It has a rather nice epilogue, however.

In conclusion this is half a good book and an interesting theory apparently first espoused by Steinbeck Snr, but I would question whether the payoff in the second half was worth what felt like an unending trudge through the first.


Book #95 Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces

Fugitive Pieces, a novel by the poet Anne Michaels is a book of two narrators. In the first part our narrator is Jakob, who is rescued as a child by a Greek man, Athos who smuggles him into Greece, and thereby saves his life, having rescued him from the Holocaust. Jakob grows up with geologist and academic Athos as a father figure but is haunted by the memories of his dead family in particular his sister, Bella.

Our second narrator is Ben, something of a fan of the work of both Athos and later Jakob, in what is the reverse of Jakob's situation, Ben's parents survived the Holocaust and escaped to Canada where Ben grew up. But, in doing so inflicted damage upon Ben's childhood, different to that of Jakob but from the same root.

As a novel I had a mixed response to it, it is often written in non sequiturs  (pieces from a fugitive) which could often be annoying or confusing. Indeed, when the novel switched narrators from Jakob to Ben it took me ages to realise this had happened, and, this apparent change in Jakob's circumstance completely threw me off.  In addition, the Jakob sections are more enjoyable and better written, though I occasionally found the novel as a whole verbose and disengaging.

Without wishing to seem offensive or lacking in compassion, I do believe that World War 2 and the Holocaust have been over ploughed as a literary location. We should never, ever, forget, but it should not become a source of cliched entertainment either. So many wonderful novels and memoirs exist on this topic, I think particularly of the beautiful and heartwrenching Night by Elie Wiesel, cannot our authors find new tales to tell in other uncovered parts of human history? Perhaps this remark is controversial but it was not meant in an offensive sense.

Despite my misgivings this novel has some very poetic prose which I enjoyed :
Her mind is a palace. She moves through history with the fluency of a spirit, mourns the burning of the library at Alexandria as if it happened yesterday.
And I really enjoyed a moral lesson posed by a rabbi midway through the novel that is perhaps too long to quote. Yes, ultimately I found the book mixed and I doubt I would either recommend it or re-read it 6.5/10

Book #94 Tipping The Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping The Velvet

Tipping The Velvet has become the third Sarah Waters novel I have read this year following the unforgettable Fingersmith (2003) and the decidedly less than stellar The Night Watch. (2006) Like Fingersmith, Tipping The Velvet which came before it in 1999, is set in the Victorian age and has lesbian women for its main characters. Alongside Affinity (2000) these books make up an unconnected trilogy of Victorian era novels by Waters.

Nancy Astley visits a theatre with her sister and becomes transfixed and later infatuated with Kitty Butler a male impersonator variety act. Kitty seems to return Nancy's feeling and persuades her to abandon her family in Whitstable and join Kitty as her dresser as her act moves from theatre to theatre in London. For Nancy, a complicated journey through some very different worlds is about to begin.

Waters builds a portrait of the various different worlds in which lesbianism was not so much accepted as socially tolerated or permitted from the activist working class, through theatreland and the aristocracy. I don't know but perhaps Waters elected to have the Victorian era as her setting as Queen Victoria famously refused to sign a document making lesbianism illegal by refusing to believe it existed: "Women do not do such things", by setting it at the same time, Waters apparently sets out to show that the Queen whilst not wrong in not signing her decree, was very firmly incorrect.

The novel can often be melodramatic and a bit silly, particularly the behaviour of rich "benefactor" Diana, and often of Nancy herself. There is a tendency toward the over coincidental, with encounters between Nancy and other lesbians occurring in a very "just so happened" way. Personally I really enjoyed the first two thirds which sped along for me with its cast of unusual and eccentric characters in London's Theatreland and among the wealthy ladies of St Johns Wood. For me, the last third plodded rather with its dull and worthy focus on St Florence of Bethnal Green, part of the socialist workers community. The final denouement, a socialist rally is also rather silly, as all our main characters from throughout the novel extremely implausibly all find themselves in the same place at the same time.

I would finish the review by saying that for those of you who are a bit prudish or averse to any smut for whatever personal reason, that there is a section of this novel around page 250 which is even in my very unshockable opinion quite obscenely filthy. Last night I said so to someone and they read a section of it out in the kitchen and we all giggled and tittered extremely immaturely. This is by no means damaging to my opinion of the book, the section was fitting within the overall context. But, it is my understanding that there are a lot of people who would prefer not to read highly sexual content and so the warning is included in this review.

Overall this book was much better than The Night Watch but not nearly as good as Fingersmith. 8/10

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Book #93 Surfacing by Margaret Atwood


I have read many but by no means all of Margaret Atwood's novels over the years starting with The Handmaid's Tale (1985) which I studied at A Level in 1999 and followed by Alias Grace ( published in 1996) The Blind Assassin (2000) Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Penelopiad (2005). Of these The Handmaid's Tale probably remains my favourite with Oryx and Crake a close second.

I found Surfacing, written in 1972, a bit of a difficult experience. Set in Canada, a nameless protagonist travels back to her home town with her boyfriend Joe and friends Annie and David to locate her estranged father, who has purportedly gone missing. The group go out into the Canadian wilderness in order to search with some hiking, fishing and discussions along the way.

There is a clear feminist agenda in this novel, which, for 1972 is current and appropriate but reminded me somewhat of the problems I had with Doris Lessing's Shikasta. The novels protagonist is a divorcee who has also deserted her child whom she refers to as "it", we never know the gender. For 1972 this is shocking, outrageous behaviour possibly making her despised by those who read her story. Of course, nowadays being divorced is much less of a social offence, though a woman leaving her child is still considered rather unnatural.   

Far more clever to me was the character of David, whose appearance of being "right on" is a veneer beneath which lies an old school misogynist, only supportive of women's liberation when it suits his desires.

The novel has many nature, wilderness descriptive prose sections which in the end reminded me of David Vann's Legend Of A Suicide. The allusions to spiritual experience versus temporary insanity left me cold which is bizarre as I normally like that sort of thing. Atwood's second novel, you can see signs of what she will become in the next decade, but unfortunately for me I found it dated, unsubtle and occasionally boring.


Book #92 Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi


Wiseguy is the book upon which the Martin Scorcese 1990 movie Goodfellas is based. At the time journalist/biographer Pileggi, believed himself the foremost authority on the members of the mob, and when asked to interview Henry Hill could find only a small index card with a brief listing, but Henry Hill was a much bigger fish than Pileggi's records showed

The film Goodfellas, Henry Hill's biography gives us the line "As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be  a gangster" Wiseguy also begins with Hill's early years when as a schoolboy he began working for the Vario family who were part of the larger Lucchese crime family. He began parking cars, making pizza, and fetching sandwiches, before progressing on to arson, protection rackets, heists and eventually murder and drugs. He did it all, and knew everybody, and so when things began to sour became the ultimate liability.

So often books get lost in translation to the big screen but Goodfellas which I watched before I read the book is possibly one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen with the script often quoting the book verbatim. Pileggi must have been proud of that, and he himself was involved in the script. What this meant for me as a reader however was that it occasionally felt like a re-tread of what I'd seen on screen. I would advise those who have not seen Goodfellas, to the read the book if they are so inclined, first.

The other problem I had with the book is that the crimes themselves are somewhat repetitious, which gets a little boring at times. What remains flabbergasting though is how cavalier these people were about their crimes, their behaviour, to them, was completely normal, and normal hardworking guys were in their minds idiots. When Hill was arrested only two pieces of paper existed to say that he ever existed, his birth certificate and his police arrest sheet.

I enjoyed reading Wiseguy because I really, really loved Goodfellas, but, there was not enough new content for me 7/10

*Thanks to Chris for lending me this book*

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Book #91 On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's Side

On Canaan's Side, which was longlisted but not shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, tells the story of Lily Bere, an elderly Irish American and her "First Day Without Bill" through to her "Seventeenth Day Without Bill". Bill, her grandson, has before the beginning of this novel committed suicide after returning home from the original Gulf War.

On Canaan's Side acts as a memoir for Lily, as she flits between the visits of her friends in her hour of need, and her history beginning with her childhood in Dublin. Though it takes a death as its main plot focus around which the story unfolds it is very much your average "old lady looks back upon her life" novel. It is nicely written and involving and includes much of the history that Lily would have lived through, the Civil Rights movement, political assassinations and Vietnam, right back to the First World War and the changing times of Ireland in the 1920's and how world events can directly impact  individual lives.

It was a nice book, and I enjoyed reading it, but, it won't be one which will linger in my mind for a long while to come, or perhaps one which I will particularly remember reading without the aid of the blog. It's also slightly depressing as Lily lives a long, tragedy filled life, were she is often ill used and alone. Apparently Lily's family, the Dunnes are also characters in two other Sebastian Barry novels Annie Dunne and A Long, Long, Way and one day I may read some of those to complete the picture, but, so many little time..........


Friday, 25 November 2011

Book #90 O, Pioneers! by Willa Cather

O, Pioneers!

O, Pioneers! was the first novel, published in 1913 of Willa Cather's Prairie Trilogy alongside My Antonia (1918) which is book number 35 in this challenge and Song Of The Lark (1915) which I have yet to read. Like My Antonia, O Pioneers! concerns the European immigrant communities of America's frontiers in this case a family from Sweden and like My Antonia charts their struggles working on the land and trying to live the American dream.

Though setting and theme are very similar to My Antonia, the overall stories though they bear comparison are ultimately different. Alexandra Bergson inherits the responsibility of her fathers farm following his death as he places more faith in her abilities than those of her brothers. Over the course of a relatively short novel we trace Alexandra's life from her teens to her forties with chapters often jumping large spaces of time.

Alexandra's relationship with childhood neighbour Carl bore some similarity to that of Antonia Shimerda and Jim Burden, but reminded me more of Corelli and Pelagia in Captain Corellis Mandolin. Although we get the resolution I expected in My Antonia in O Pioneers, i really felt more moved by Antonia and Jim than Alexandra and Carl.

The other main strand of the novel, the growth and relationships of Alexandra's brother Emil is the main thing which makes this story different from My Antonia. It shows how mistakes and frustrations of life as we know it, though they can be easily rectified in modern society, choices were permanent in those days, and to not adhere to choice was to bring shame.

Simplistically written, but none the lesser for that, O Pioneers is a sweet little book which is evocative of the era in which it is set. I would recommend My Antonia for it's tender nostalgic qualities, over this book though 7/10     

Friday, 11 November 2011

Poem #8 Dulce Et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen

We will remember them - Remembrance Day 2011

Dulce Et Decorum Est

 Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Poem #7 The Poison Tree by William Blake

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears
Night & morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretchd beneath the tree.

An interesting poem about love, rivalry, friendship and deception all of which were themes in Erin Kelly's The Poison Tree

Book #89 The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

The Poison Tree

The Poison Tree, sharing its title with a a William Blake poem which I will also shortly post, is a novel which has finally broken what has been a lengthy reading hiatus for me. I have attempted unsuccessfully to read Frank Herbert's Dune in this period and have struggled, aiming to return and complete it before the end of the year.

The Poison Tree is a novel which has some shortcomings and flaws yet even with that is strangely addictive. Our protaganist is Karen Clarke, a girl from a humble background who goes to university and is settling in to what promises to be a very ordinary very boring very middle class future alongside similar girls when her life collides with that of Biba, a "Bohemian" carefree spirit in whose world she not only becomes entangled in, but willingly and deliberately becomes an essential part of, so in love is she with what she sees as an extraordinary world.

The story flashes between Karen in the present day, a single mother struggling to readjust to her partners return from prison, and in Karen in the past when she first met Biba and subsequently Biba's brother Rex. I felt like I'd read a tale of "enigmatic, slightly strange, brother/sister who enthrall people whilst living in a state of shambolic decadence" before, but I am still unable to pin down which novel it was in my head, suggestions welcome

I identified with the situation of meeting someone whom you so admire and want to emulate that you are blind to their faults and failings in not a sexual sense but in an inspired sense, almost as if you had been hypnotized by them, because part of you sees the person you would like to be in them. Like being in love, yet not quite. So, I understood Karen, yet to the reader as bystander Biba is an utterly obnoxious egotist, for whom people cease to exist when no longer physically present or no longer useful or interesting. I understood this too, and so ultimately does Karen. I liked this, I thought there was very strong characterisation throughout the novel I could clearly picture Biba and Karen both.

The problem with the book is that the writing isn't perfect, I've read so many much better written novels, it is only slightly above average in the actual quality of prose department yet the plot is very enjoyable, and there were parts I didn't see coming, although perhaps I should have. The final and the largest flaw really is the way in which the initial prologue of the phonecall in the middle of the night hangs together with the end, though it is what feels like a fitting outcome, it is unbelievably quickly done, too quickly, in a sense that makes you doubt the ultimate likelihood of it happening. It is satisfying though.

This, a book about intensity in friendship, loyalty, rivalry and deception would not automatically spring to mind if asked for a recommendation, yet with that, it has stayed with me in a sense, after I finished it. It is enjoyable and not at all heavy. It is easy to see why it was on so many summer reads lists. I wouldn't say, run and get this book or your life will be incomplete, but if you are humming and haa-ing in a bookshop, you could do much worse than pick this, and ultimately I don't think you'd be sorry  7.5/10

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Book #88 The Hunger Games : Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games : Mockingjay

WARNING : This review may contain spoilers of the previous two Hunger Games novels

Following her unexpected exit from the Allstars Hunger Games arena, Katniss Everdeen finds herself a resident of District 13, a district widely believed to have been destroyed many years before. She comes under intense pressure to become "the Mockingjay" the public face of the rapidly gathering rebellion, but after agreeing, discovers deceptions, ulterior motives and dangers from unexpected sources.

Mockingjay is very different from the previous novels and was less compelling for me in it's opening third. District 13 has to be established as a new society in addition to the continuing rebellion, its a bit slow, and then later, a lot of warfare segments which I'm not a great fan of anyway. What is clever about the depiction of the District 13 rebellion is its emphasis on propaganda, war is less about action and more about persuasion, hearts and minds. I thought this was a really interesting and important message to give young readers to think about. When watching media coverage think about agenda, think about manipulation, think that those purporting to be "right" may not always be what they seem. I liked it.

Where I am more critical however is with some slightly dodgy plotting on a number of occasions in order to get Katniss into the necessary position for the next event. Its weak, its like some of the highly unconvincing plotting that occurs in those awful Disney TV series, Katniss wants something, it looks impossible, she's told its impossible, but somehow it all turns out exactly as she wanted. Sigh.

The Gale/Peeta dilemma interests me as a writer because I actually think that Collins herself couldn't decide what to do with this decision, she doesn't choose the easy way of eliminating the choice, but it is done in a quite lame, anti-climax way. I decided that she really regretted the strength of the origins of one of them and didn't know what to do with him, and even the end resolution for the couple who do become the item, though the right choice, feels unromantic and halfhearted.  

Although, the "fault on both sides" take on war was well done. President Snow still fails to be at all threatening or scary. The pinnacle of Katniss's  desires is to be the one to assassinate Snow and yet, he's only really in two scenes. He just doesn't cut as a bad guy, even with Finnick's testimony to add weight to his crimes.

Still.....very readable, if rather flawed and the trilogy as a whole is massively enjoyable 7/10 

Friday, 14 October 2011

Book #87 The Hunger Games : Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games : Catching Fire

This review contains spoilers of The Hunger Games :

This sequel to The Hunger Games picks up more or less exactly where it left off. Following the choices she made at the end of the last novel Katniss Everdeen has unwittingly become a symbol, not of loves young dream, but of rebellion. Even though it wasn't so much a deliberate rebellion as an awareness she could outsmart the system, she has inspired an uprising and led her family and friends into danger.

Attempting to punish Katniss, the President makes the uprising worse when he forces her to compete in a second Hunger Games tournament, a battle pitting previous victors against one another in a series which reminded me of an "All Star" Amazing Race or Survivor.

Like its predecessor Catching Fire is compulsive and I read it over a matter of hours, it reads like adrenalin feels and you really do want to turn the page. Though it is called The Hunger Games it is less about the new tournament and more about the consequences of the previous one, and that was difficult for two reasons. 1) The Hunger Games game show is the best bit but 2) There is/would have been a danger of simply recycling the same story elements over again like a bad Hollywood sequel. Catching Fire doesn't do this, which is to its credit, but, personally I enjoy The Hunger Games scenario and found the competition angle a bit truncated, though I liked the creativity of the setting of the new arena. It's a tough balance to get right, on the one hand creative credit to Collins for not repeating herself on the other I wanted more....

In this novel, President Snow is presented as the antagonist both for this novel and the final novel Mockingjay, but, he himself, isn't really asserted as a proper villain, an evil man to be feared like for example, Mayor Prentiss from the Chaos Walking Trilogy. He's comparatively weak despite his threats and his intimations that he knows things and is watching. I didn't feel scared by him and didn't feel Katniss was either. He doesn't make a convincing 'big bad'. Even the Peacekeepers don't feel all that threatening. Though the Capitol has been playing The Hunger Games for decades it is hard to believe in it as a genuine sinister enemy when its citizens are so frivolous and weak and hard to see how it has maintained its hitherto lengthy hold on these Districts. I feel like this could have done with further exposition in the previous book as well as this one.

In addition the difficulty Collins has given herself with her Bella/Jacob/Edward esque love triangle (Twilight) with Katniss/Peeta/Gale is that Gale is given less time than even before to develop into a more rounded 3D character. It is Peeta who the reader has come to know and love despite the angle that Gale is meant to be Katniss's true love and best friend. Like the way in which Bella/Jacob doesn't quite work after establishing a romance with Edward, Katniss's love for Gale though he came first, has been outshone by Peeta's devotion in the original novel and continued self sacrifice in Catching Fire.

All in all an enjoyable 8/10 despite its inability to truly establish the feeling of "an enemy".


Thursday, 29 September 2011

Book #86 Snowdrops by AD Miller


Snowdrops is the final novel on the Booker shortlist that I had left to read, although I have I believe around four of the longlist contenders yet to go. The story is told as a flashback Nick Platt is telling his girlfriend, possibly fiancee about the time he spent abroad working in Russia. The narrative reveals that this is something he has refused to open up about hitherto in their relationship, something bad happened to Nick Platt, but what?

Snowdrops is a portrait of modern post Cold War Russia, and it paints a Moscow rife with crime, of both the organized and small time variety. The new face of corrupt Russia we have begun to see in the West, where anything you want can be got at a price.

It is a relatively short novel, Nick collides with two sisters Masha and Katya after someone attempts to mug them on the underground. They are two vulnerable girls from a poor background trying to make it in the city, and Nick enters their world despite warnings from colleagues that it won't end well. There are MANY reviews on Amazon, saying that this book is not a thriller and shouldn't be on the Booker shortlist. For my part I didn't know it was meant to be a thriller so that's a none issue because I took it for what it was; somebody relating a life experience they had once had, competently done, interesting, enjoyable and attention holding.

I have no issue with its place on the shortlist, it takes as its time and place a modern feeling setting which hasn't been mined by many writers yet, unlike say, the Second World War about which many novels are written  and so there is a freshness to it. If it were meant to be a thriller however, it should have told some events from Katya and Masha's perspective to achieve this. Instead it's again, like A Sense Of An Ending and Half Blood Blues the story of a man who got caught up in a situation and made a mistake. How odd that there are so many of them on the Booker list this year. It's a good novel of this year and if you spot it in a bookshop, I see no reason not to pick it up. In terms of the Booker however, it has nothing on Jamrach's Menagerie or A Sense Of An Ending, and if neither of those aforementioned novels win the prize, I shan't be very impressed. 8/10

Book #85 The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games

To give a brief synopsis The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future in what I understood to be the Appalachian regions of America. At some point in the past twelve Districts started a rebellion against the Capital, and as punishment they now participate in a yearly "reaping" in which two adolescents from each district are randomly selected to participate in The Hunger Games, a Big Brother type reality TV series which it is compulsory to watch. It's not a popularity contest though, the object of the games is to kill all other opponents and emerge the victor.When her little sister is selected against the odds, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place.

I'll start with what's right about The Hunger Games, it is an utterly compelling, riveting novel. I started the thing at 6PM last night, I finished it at 22.41 exactly. I couldn't tear myself away from it, I'm pretty certain I didn't even go to the toilet. Katniss Everdeen makes a great hero and other characters like Rue, Peeta and even Foxface are intriguing in their own right. It is easy to see why Jennifer Lawrence was picked to play Katniss in the forthcoming film. In the early portion of the novel the life of Katniss echoes that of Ree Dolly in Winters Bone, a part which Lawrence played so successfully. One advantage of reading the novel with Lawrence in mind means that when the film is released this March, the character of Katniss won't look "wrong" as opposed to the picture in my minds eye. Once she leaves District 12 however, Lawrence as Katniss has an opportunity to play a new and interesting part.

The Reality TV aspect of things is really interesting. In the Capitol this show isn't about poverty stricken children murdering one another to win food for their area. It's entertainment. With some of the things that get put on television in 2011, I did wonder how many years we have to go before something like this happens.  I really enjoyed this novel which was suspenseful and thrilling throughout, it will make an excellent film, if they do it "right". The teaser trailer for The Hunger Games is here

But, The Hunger Games has a problem, and that problem is the 1999 Japanese novel Battle Royale  by Koushun Takami which was later made into an extremely successful film in 2000 by Kinji Fukasaku. Battle Royale takes place in a totalitarian dystopian Japan, in which high school children are sent into a forest with one objective, kill each other and be the last one standing. I've seen the film but I've not read the book. The essential difference between the two is that The Hunger Games is a reality TV show and Battle Royale is a military research program and is not televised but the purpose is the same it is "a means of terrorizing the population, of creating such paranoia as to make organized insurgency impossible".

Though the run up to the start of the Games, and the section at the end of the novel differ entirely from Battle Royale; the competition, which takes place in the forest, is extremely similar with only very minor differences. It is so similar as to make me wonder whether Takami should sue Collins. It is entirely possible of course that neither Collins nor her publisher had seen or heard of Battle Royale, and the entire thing is a massive coincidence. Which would be a damn shame for Collins because a) It would be terrible to find out that you thought you had this great original idea but someone beat you to it and b) You could never plausibly prove that you hadn't seen Battle Royale prior to your book being published.

On my Twitter feed last night I put something like Hunger Games. GENIUS. But I didn't really mean that it terms of originality, I meant it as a reading experience. It just sucks you in so completely, it is a page turner in the truest sense of the expression. I described it to someone as "like reading Battle Royale as a book" before I was even aware Battle Royale was based upon a book, so this is another reason why Takami should potentially sue. It makes me wonder whether he is aware of The Hunger Games, but if he isn't he very soon will be. Some people have said The Hunger Games is "Battle Royale for kids" but I'm 30 and found it actually equally violent in parts, this is an example of a "teen novel" that actually crosses over into "universal appeal" if you can forgive its one big problem that is. My guess is that most Battle Royale fans won't.

For originality 5/10
For actual reading enjoyment 9.5/10

Monday, 26 September 2011

Book #84 Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues

The second to last of the Booker shortlist I had yet to read; Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues is a story of of a group of jazz musicians and their associates in the 1990's and during their heyday in wartime Europe.

In Paris, 1941 Sidney Griffiths goes to buy cigarettes and have a glass of milk with fellow musician Hieronymus Falk, who is considered to be a musical genius. Problem is, Falk is black and when Sidney steps out to the toilet Falk is arrested by Nazi soldiers, he is deported and never seen again.

Flashforward some 50 years and Sidney Griffiths and childhood friend and fellow musician Chip Jones are old and enjoy something of a 'Buena Vista Social Club' style status. Jones persuades Sid, who lives quietly in Baltimore to attend a conference in Berlin celebrating Falk. Once there, he publicly accuses Sid of being to blame for what happened to Falk. But is he right?

I think my main problem with Half Blood Blues is that I struggled to engage with the characters, any of them, and whilst I saw merit in it, it wasn't really my cup of tea. The ending is also a bit quick, and a bit weak. The writing there could have used a strong flourish, an important closing statement, but it falls flat.

This is a short review because I can't think of many aspects I want to delve in and discuss. This book has strong reviews on Amazon but I'm afraid it just wasn't my scene. It may be to other peoples taste however

Oddly though, it is another story about making a selfish choice or mistake that then had  massive repercussions for all those involved which has proved to be something of a theme for the Booker this year, alongside A Sense Of An Ending and A Cupboard Full Of Coats. This book has nothing on The Stranger's Child really, and I would have preferred to have seen that on the shortlist and not this. 6/10

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Book #83 World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z

What's that you say?? A Zombie Apocalypse novel you say?? A Zombie Apocalypse novel currently being turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt indeed?? Why, Waterstones, I really don't mind if I do.......

I think those people who know me well and who know the stuff I read in both this year and in other years are probably amused and possibly bemused by my guilty pleasure and attraction to this sort of "trashy novel" but one can't read Booker winners all the time. In any case World War Z isn't trashy,  far from it. It takes its subject matter very seriously in fact it does not acknowledge its classification as a fiction. This is a historical document, a retrospective, an eyewitness account from those who survived!

I love the fact that the blurb of the novel backs this stance up with the following description of the author :

Max Brooks lives in New York City but is prepared to move to a more remote and defensible location at a moment's notice  

It really adds something to the book, the seriousness, this book isn't tongue in cheek or playing for laughs. It takes as its premise that in the recent past humans actually fought for global survival against zombies, and that World War Z isn't quite over yet.

It is constructed entirely through interviews "conducted by Max Brooks" in various parts of the globe chronicling the build up to and commencement of the war. Naturally Brooks begins in China, because this is where the first breakout was recorded, with a doctor who has been called to a remote village and does not know what to make of what he finds there. A boy who was swimming in deep water has been infected with something, he has bitten several other villagers who now show signs of this infection. Though the government tries to hush it up, the contagion spreads. The problem becomes global when as refugees stream out of China trying to escape several take the infection with them, believing that the West will have a solution. As soon as the human becomes zombie they are then an immediate threat to all surrounding humans, and the only way to kill them is a bullet or an axe to the head, so as their population grows, the human population shrinks. As opposed to focusing on a small band of humans who we get to know by name and are all in the same location, Brooks jumps from location to location and interviewee to interviewee, one moment he's in China, the next India or Russia although the USA gets a lot of attention. By doing this he succeeds in creating the portrait of a global problem and of building haunting images of nightmarish scenarios from the families trapped in traffic jams as Zombies attack them, to the celebrities who find that celebrity is meaningless now, to the Indian man who swims for his life to a boat, and watches other boats become floating vessels of the undead. Terrifying, new underpants terrifying.

One of my favourite aspects of this novel was the way in which set in a post Zombie future the global political and sociological landscape has changed. Palestine is now a nation state. Cuba, which largely survived unscathed, a wealthy envied nation. Although a Zombie Apocalypse is unlikely, the Chinese outbreak in the novel is compared to the recent SARS and Avian flu, without involving zombies a pandemic of this kind COULD cause a global panic on this scale. Its not entirely implausible, and when at one moment I found myself reading it as if it were non fiction, part of me had to laugh at myself and part of me considered the possibilities. 

Were I liked the book less was in the amount of military strategy and soldier stories when war has broken out, I much preferred the stories of ordinary people trying to survive. But I think the average player of Call Of Duty or Dead Island style video games would enjoy this aspect.

I feel, however that this novel based on its interview form, is virtually unfilmable in terms of "doing it justice". Though Brad Pitt and Mirelle Enos have been charging round Cornwall and Glasgow, this isn't a character novel, its a jigsaw novel with no focus on any person or country. My fear is that World War Z the movie will unlike this clever novel, become your average Hollywood shoot em up, without originality and with leads who are paint-by-numbers characters you find in any action film. Brad Pitt, for the most part shows more savvy than that when choosing scripts, so I hope not, but it could be that he was just looking for some straightforward Zombie slaying action. Well, who wouldn't given the chance? I know I'd be up for it. 8/10 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Poem #6 I started early, took my dog by Emily Dickinson

September's Poem of the month given its link to the Atkinson novel 

I started Early—Took my Dog—
And visited the Sea—
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me—

And Frigates—in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands—
Presuming Me to be a Mouse—
Aground—upon the Sands—

But no Man moved Me—till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe—
And past my Apron—and my Belt
And past my Bodice—too—

And made as He would eat me up—
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve—
And then—I started—too—

And He—He followed—close behind—
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle—Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl—

Until We met the Solid Town—
No One He seemed to know—
And bowing—with a Mighty look—
At me—The Sea withdrew—

Book #82 Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog

And so finally, I reach the fourth most recent Jackson Brodie novel 'Started Early, Took My Dog' a novel I wanted to read based on its title anyway, before I realised that it was the fourth in a series. It takes its title from a Dickinson poem.

Original novel Case Histories took place in Cambridge, and subsequent novels One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? in Edinburgh. The fourth novel moves us to Leeds, and this was rather fun for me as I lived in Leeds for three years and could picture many of the places exactly, I was particularly chuffed when he visited the abbeys of Jervaulx, Rievaulx, Fountains and Kirkstall given their connection to my life in Leeds.

Jackson has now formally returned to his life as a private eye, and as ever is involved in cases of "lost girls".

His client is New Zealand based Hope McMaster, who was adopted in Yorkshire in the 1970's and is looking to trace her birth family having grown up as an ex-pat.

Linked to Hope's history is former police officer Tracy Waterhouse a woman who whilst working a dull security post in the Merrion Centre, spots Kelly Cross, a figure notorious from Tracy's police days being abusive toward a small child. Upon impulse she offers Kelly money for the child and suddenly finds herself a criminal on the run.

The narrative flashes between Jackson's present day investigation and the 1970's around the time Hope would have been adopted, unfortunately the 1970's segment feels like an episode of BBC's Life On Mars without the time travel aspect and therefore very derivative, the young Tracy screams Annie Cartwright, whilst many of her superiors seem to be a poor mans Gene Hunt. This is the novels main weakness.

Tracy Waterhouse and her storyline is very identifiable and strong, how many people have ever seen a kid with terrible parents in public and wanted to intervene? It is also nice to see the easy friendly relationship which has developed between Jackson and Julia Land as he visits his son Nathan, now four.

Some later sections are messy, such as when Jackson drives about seemingly purposelessly with Tracy and Courtney. I was extremely bemused by the inclusion of character Tilly who has but a tenuous connection to Tracy and Julia Land, whose story has nought to do with the main sequence of events and seems to exist solely to take a thinly veiled pop at Helen Mirren. Or perhaps Judi Dench but personally I reckon Mirren. Bizarre. The Tilly sections are annoying and they take away from the story and Atkinson shouldn't have bothered including them.  

The unbelievable polarity of Amazon comments on this book are quite amusing. I think many didn't realise it was part of a series and there is one in particular who seemed to think the book would be about dogs. As a Brodie novel it is stronger than One Good Turn but perhaps not the other two. I enjoyed it despite its messy middle and personally, given the closing sentence I really, really hope there is a fifth Brodie novel, though I had heard that this was to be her last. I'm attached to this character partly through the novels and partly through the series and hope that this is not the case. Again a 7/10

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Book #81 When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

When Will There Be Good News?

Wanting to take a break from the often heavy tones of Booker nominees I returned to Kate Atkinson's sequence of novels about Jackson Brodie the former soldier, cop and private detective in search of something none too difficult to read.

In this the third novel, Jackson has given up living off his inheritance in France and somewhat vaguely works as a private security consultant. He haplessly boards a Edinburgh train rather than a London one and finds himself in a serious train crash and reunited with Louise Monroe the detective and love interest he encountered in One Good Turn.

Like other Jackson Brodie novels the theme is "lost girls" or women generally in peril. We have :

Joanna Hunter, a kind motherly doctor with an unspeakable past, and an entrepreneurial husband, who is mixed up with dubious associates.

Her "mothers help" Reggie Chase, a sixteen year old wise beyond her years, struggling to escape from the tough hand she has been dealt.

and Alison Needler, a victim of a violent crime whose nerves are in ribbons and whose husband and attacker is still on the loose.

The heart of this novel is Reggie Chase, and as with previous Jackson Brodie novels I liked the blend between contemporary literary and crime. The crimes are occurring but the focus is these characters and their lives. Reggie Chase is a great little character and was portrayed brilliantly by Gwyneth Keyworth in the recent BBC adaptation. She embodies all the girls you feel could stand a chance at "becoming something" if it weren't for their terrible backgrounds and lack of support.

Unlike in One Good Turn when Jackson's presence at every crime seems ridiculous, in this case he is a victim, who then tries to help the person who saves him (Reggie). This then gives him an excuse to reconnect with Louise Monroe and the two regret the fact that the changes in their lives mean it is again impossible to take things further.

There is a small subplot involving Julia Land, Jackson's ex client and ex girlfriend, she now has a child Nathan which she swears isn't Jackson's but Jackson isn't so sure. Strangely, this plot goes absolutely nowhere, so why include it?   

Likewise the Alison Needler case, a story of a woman whose husband went beserk at a children's party is a really interesting storyline but is barely explored, the story of Reggie and Joanna is front and centre. It seems wasted, like if it had been done in more detail in a separate book it would have been better and Marcus features so little as to make his storyline a bit "So what?" 

As with other novels that I have discussed previously Emma Donoghue's Room and Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, there is an issue with art mirroring life. With this book I was extremely uncomfortable with the way in which the old crime described at the start of the novel mirrored the "Josie Russell case" from some years ago, in which she survived but her mother and sister died. Show some imagination, write your own crime, don't just exploit what someone else went through.

The Reggie/Jackson dynamic and the Reggie/Joanna dynamic are really lovely though and make the book an enjoyable undemanding read. I would really have appreciated more Louise and Jackson time though. The conclusion of the book, almost presses the reset button on the way Jackson's life has changed since Case Histories, and so it will be interesting to see where Started Early, Took My Dog and other subsequent novels take him. I still really like him as a character

A good if flawed novel with characters you care about   : 7/10

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book #80 The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child of course was the shock omission from the Booker Shortlist. It is difficult to see why it was omitted, it is a good book, it practically screams Booker friendly novel. But yet, the book seems to have an expectant face, the assurance of a boy who is good at football who knows he'll be picked first for a team.  This, is perhaps why it was omitted, to shake up the type of novels and authors we have come to expect from The Prize, to prevent the air of inevitability to the proceedings.

Susan Hill who features on the judging panel has apparently been vocal in her belief that previous prize winners should no longer be eligible for the prize. Hollinghurst of course won in 2004 with The Line Of Beauty, so perhaps Hill's opinion held sway with the rest of the panel. Certainly, I had  previously had a personal niggle that I believed that twice winner Peter Carey's rather mediocre 'Parrot and Olivier in America', nominated last year had received a ingratiating 'courtesy nod' not because of merit, but as a foregone conclusion, "we mustn't slight Carey" .

So what happens when, as in this case, a former winner has written one of the best books on the list? If the prize is to judge the best book of year, surely whether the author has won or been nominated previously is irrelevant? The book stands alone to be judged for its quality, which this has in spades. The rest is just so much pettiness and politics.  

So, whats the book about? Well, somewhat like Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit From The Goon Squad' the novel is about time and change. It is also too, in a way about how we know about our authors or our poets, how we define both their lives, and what literary critics think they "were trying to say", what the pivotal points of their lives were and how this can often be widely off the mark. Further to that, the odd reality of how celebrated people in time cease to exist as real people but as curiousities with a value to collectors. Thirdly, it is a reflection upon how social change over the last century has affected the lives of gay men from keeping relationships a "terrible secret" under wraps through to public flirting and acceptance.

We begin with Daphne Sawle who is in a sense the centre around which the novel turns. She is young, not yet 18 and is awaiting the much anticipated arrival of Cecil, her brothers close friend from university. It's pre World War One and things are carefree for these privileged young people. Cecil is the sort of arrogant young man who attracts admirers but isn't half as clever as he thinks he is. Beneath his polite veneer and his celebratory poem Two Acres, Daphne's home is nothing compared to the Valance residence at Corley. He condescends to the family, and flirts with Daphne concealing his true relationship with George.

Part Two flashes us forward, George is married and Daphne mistress of Corley, but the Sawles and Valances both suffered loss in the Great War. They live with the legacy of a minor celebrated war poet, a source of great pride for some and an albatross for others.

A flashforward again and here we meet Paul a poetry fan who works in a bank, who suddenly comes across Daphne a feisty septuagenarian, but researching his planned biography, can he discover the truth about her past?       

Initially, it reminded of both Brideshead Revisited which I didn't get on with, and Atonement which I gave up on entirely, so, I was a bit worried at the start that I'd repeat those experiences. However, I genuinely enjoyed this book which throughout seemed to have a summer garden party feel to it. I liked the jumps in time, though I felt that there was so much to Daphne's story as a young divorcee which would have made a great contribution to the novel. Having read some Tennyson I felt that the emphasis on the Victorian poet was meant to highlight the comparison between the George and Cecil relationship to Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, which is interesting as an inspiration though I don't know if Hollinghurst has stated for the record that there was inspiration here. It is implied of course, given that "the stranger's child" is part of a line of 'In Memoriam'.

I've seen query that there is perhaps an unfeasible amount of gay men in The Stranger's Child, I'm not sure I agree with that, perhaps unfeasibly too many within one extended family but to be honest I don't think it matters. It should be the story that matters and the idea and both of these are well executed.
The final short section of the book featuring Rob the book collector is somewhat surplus to requirements and is a bit of an empty conclusion. The book should really, in my opinion have ended where it began with Daphne. Ultimately though is it a good book? Yes it is. Should it have made the Booker shortlist? Yes, it bloody should have! 8/10

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Book #79 The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters Brothers

Yesterday, The Sisters Brothers became one of the six books to make it off the Booker longlist and onto the shortlist alongside Half Blood Blues, Jamrach's Menagerie, A Sense Of An Ending, Pigeon English and Snowdrops.

The book tells the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, a pair of infamous brothers from Oregon who are dispatched by their boss the Commodore on a mission. The mission? To kill Hermann Kermit Warm.
From the very opening you realise that the Sisters Brothers are not ordinary guys. Eli narrates the novel, and at its opening calmly recounts how his last horse burnt to death screaming. Both men historically and during the time period the novel takes place over have a very cavalier attitude towards death, either in being the bringer of death, as they so often are or in its occurrence in their world.

Charlie Sisters very much relishes the notoriety he shares with his brother, yet Eli whose course has largely been set as a consequence of loyalty to his brother dreams of running a general store with a woman who is kind to him. There is a resounding pathos in the novel for Eli and his situation.

The novel has the kind of qualities that would make it suitable for film adaptation but I do not think that this will happen in the immediate future. My main struggle with the novel was with the proximity in which I read it to Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses. There are far too many similarities between the novels. Two men set out on horses on a journey for work and are beset by obstacles of both the practical and criminal kind, at one point a young boy attempts to tag along with them but is left behind. I could not find the originality of which it has been hailed anywhere in the plot, though I'll make allowances for Eli as a character.

The nod towards the beginnings of the Gold Rush is a nice touch, but I simply hated the end which was a cutesy resolution not in keeping with the dark tone or characters. I would not read it a second time and had it been a paper copy and not an e book I would be donating it to charity. Overall, I do not think DeWitt deserves to win the Booker Prize to be announced next month because of the novels overt similarity to the work of McCarthy. 7/10

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Book #78 Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English

Another nominee on this years list (I'm probably going to blog all of them from now til I finish) is Stephen Kelman's story of 11 year old Ghanian immigrant Harrison Opoku. The novel begins with the stabbing of a boy to whom Harri was vaguely acquainted and follows him, his sister and their friends from that point in March until the break up of school in July.
Like previous nominee Room by Emma Donoghue and Mark Haddon's Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, the novel is narrated by a child and Kelman manages to conjure a voice that feels genuine and authentic with his protagonist. Some of the lines that Harri and co come out with did make me laugh, such as when he refuses to let sister Lydia's friend Miquita inside their house unless she promises NOT to suck him off, his description of classmate Altaf   :

"Altaf is very quiet. Nobody really knows him. You're not supposed to talk to Somalis because they're pirates" 
 and the paranoid verdict of elderly congregation member Mr Frimpong upon the Catholic Church :

"Bleddy Catholics. They want to give us all AIDS so they can steal our lands back again. It's true."

and there are some great lines and anecdotes about the kind of banter and tall tales that go on between adolescent boys:

If a dog attacks you the best way to stop it is to put your finger up its bumhole. There's a secret switch up the dog's bumhole that when you touch it their mouth opens automatically and they let go of whatever they were biting. Connor Green told us. After he told us, everybody called Connor Green a pervert because he goes around putting his finger up dogs bumholes.
Kyle Barnes : Pervert!
Brayden Campbell : "Dogf---er!
I also liked it when "Advise Yourself!" was used as a retort to a stupid statement, I think I'll be using that in future! However the use of Asweh, Ghanian slang for 'I swear' became so repetitious throughout Harri's narrative as to become profoundly irritating.

Essentially the strength of the book is its believability, that its characters could be real rather than a fabrication created by an author and the way in which Kelman succeeds in maintaining this voice. It is also a voice of a type of character and community very seldomly represented in literature, the African immigrant community of a London housing estate. However, within that believability comes a problem, listen to young boys too long and they become annoying, prattling inanely about Diadora trainers and Samsung Galaxy phones and Haribo sweets and Youtube and things that matter to boys of that age but are acutely irrelevant and tedious to adults. It occasionally feels like machine gun fire. As with The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, I feel that this book is better suited to the Young Adult market despite its declaration at the back of the book that it is an "adult novel". I think young adults would love this novel and take more away from it.

The investigations by Harri and his friend Dean into the death of the boy at the start of the novel seem silly and fall rather flat. Whereas the efforts of young people trying not to get sucked in to gang culture hold more realism. Although again, it seems more the realm of young adult fiction that our characters set an example rather than sink into the inevitability of a "crew".

I felt critically towards Emma Donoghue's Room on the basis that I felt it was exploitative of the Fritzl case and the Natascha Kampusch case, at the end of this novel the website of the Damilola Taylor Trust is mentioned but yet I did not find that the novel "traded" on any similarities, which is a good thing.

Aside from this there is the problem of the "psychic pigeon" whose inner voice we occasionally hear. The psychic pigeon is redundant and almost a bit embarrassing for a novel whose beauty lies in realism : seeing big social problems from a young childs perspective. Clearly its a play on the concept of "pidgeon english" but its ridiculousness cheapens the novel slightly or so I felt.

Despite its shortcomings the novel has an almighty end, a wallop of a conclusion. Which is tragic yet perfect within the context. I feel it is the ending that has earned it its Booker nomination. That and the choice of protagonist and style, although adult novels written in a child's voice are becoming less and less original and more and more a cliched idea of "clever". In my opinion anyway.

I think this book earned its nod of recognition, but, I wouldn't want to see it win over either Jamrach's Menagerie or A Sense Of An Ending. 7/10

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Book #77 A Cupboard Full Of Coats by Yvette Edwards

A Cupboard Full Of Coats

Also longlisted for this years Booker, A Cupboard Full Of Coats brings us another character haunted by the guilt of a small past action which turned out to have massive consequences. Jinx opens the door to find Lemon on her doorstep, the friend of her mothers partner Berris, neither of whom she has seen since she was sixteen. Lemon has come to inform her that he has seen Berris who is now "out" having served 14 years for the murder of Jinx's mother, something that Jinx holds herself accountable for.

A Cupboard Full Of Coats is really your average domestic violence story of a single mum and daughter who were doing just fine until Berris came along and ruined everything. Like A Sense Of An Ending the novel is more about the guilt people carry following the unforeseen major repercussions of a small deliberate piece of spite than the actions of Berris himself. Jinx like her name has experienced something of a cursed life since, unable to make relationships last and unable to bond with her son. She does better with dead people and works as an embalmer.

I enjoyed the descriptive prose which evoked the tastes and smells of Afro-Caribbean culture, it was enough to make you hungry. I also liked the originality of how and why a swimming costume caused a divorce. It was humorous. Lemon's character and that of Jinx's school friend Samantha Adebayo, were both well drawn and brought real spark into the novel.

But, I felt like the ending was too neat, Jinx having dispensed of her guilt is now able to begin repairing her relationships, just like that. And, I didn't feel that the story despite its Afro-Caribbean flavour was really original enough to stand apart from many other novels on the same issue. Not a strong contender I'm afraid, not when A Sense Of An Ending which covers the same kind of psychological issues outclasses it on several levels. 7/10    

Book #76 A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

A Sense Of An Ending

Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes has been nominated for the fourth time for A Sense Of An Ending  after having previously been unsuccessful with Flaubert's Parrot in 1984, England, England in 1998 and Arthur and George in 2005. Always the bridesmaid never the bride you've got to feel for the guy. I hadn't read any of his previous work but I really enjoyed this book, and will on the strength of it absolutely seek out some of his other works.

It is essentially a short novel, coming in at just 150 pages, which makes me wonder whether it is in fact a novella or an extended short story. It definitely does have the 'feel' of a short story about it. And it is therefore difficult to review without spoilers, but I'm going to try my best.

Tony Webster is an ordinary middle aged man who has had a fairly unremarkable life, he married, he had a child, he divorced as so many do. But when something occurs out of the blue, the past returns to haunt him and he is forced to re-examine his history in relation to his former schoolfriend Adrian Finn; a charismatic, clever, serious boy from a broken home whose life story became linked to his in a way that Tony had never imagined nor even given consideration to.

This book is in a way about the transgressions of youth, but it also has relevance to anyone of any age. In a temper Tony said some thoughtless and spiteful things, which, in many ways would be the default reaction of most people who are placed in the situation he is placed in, particularly a young man of his age at the time. But, this act of thoughtlessness, an act that he never really dwelt upon in the years that followed had massive repercussions for several lives thereafter.

This book gave me real pause for thought, as it made me think about the impact that our actions have on other people's stories. Even if what we say about the person is true, though in Tony's case it wasn't so much that; a selfish need to "get back" at someone can cause a chain reaction the likes of which we never expected or were never aware. What happens is not Tony's "fault" per-se, he couldn't possibly have anticipated it, but yet it wouldn't have happened without that one action on his part, or....would it? Then, as an older man this is something he is left to consider possibly the rest of his life, and never get the sense of an ending, because it is clear that one person at least places the burden of blame squarely upon his shoulders.

The consequence of this book has caused a certain level of guilt by proxy for me. An examination of points in my life whereby I did or said or wrote something with only thought for my own feeling and not the feelings of the person on the receiving end. Even if you are "in the right" factually, morally, or just in your own mind, you don't know what chain reaction of events you may have unwittingly sparked.
For a book to have an impact of this kind upon you, to make you consider your own life and psychology, it rises above being "just a story" and I hope to see this novel in serious contention for the forthcoming prize. 10/10 for the simple fact it is a book you will continue to think on long after you've closed it. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Book #75 The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

The Testament Of Jessie Lamb

My overwhelming reaction to The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, is surprise, surprise in fact that it has been nominated for this years Booker Prize and is currently on the longlist. Not because it's a bad book, in the way that say There But For The by Ali Smith is, in my opinion, a bad book, but because I was surprised it met the criteria as I would have considered it a young adult book which would only be eligible under rule 3g :
g) Children's books will only be accepted on the condition that they have also been published by an adult imprint within the specified dates.
In the case of this book, it appears to have been marketed as adult contemporary fiction and only has an adult imprint, when technically it should have both, a decision I find a little baffling. As a piece of young adult dystopian fiction it is good, but I've read better, most notably The Giver by Lois Lowry and The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness to which it shares a similarity in an aspect of plot.

It lacks much in originality I felt given its similarity in theme to The Children Of Men by PD James, later adapted for the screen starring Clive Owen. In  the world of Jessie Lamb, there has been an act of bio-terrorism, as a consequence there has been a global fertility crisis. When women get pregnant - they die. (Hang on a minute? Wasn't that what happened to pregnant women on the island in LOST as well?)  In this brave new world, set not far from our present, no more children are being born and the population of women is dropping, as those who do get pregnant never survive.

Jessie Lamb is 16, and when we meet her she is being held captive, and she recounts for us what has been happening to ordinary people since the crisis emerged. At 16, Jessie is idealistic and looking for a cause, and causes find her. The animal rights movement, the womens movement, the Noahs, and YOFI. There is a degree of cynicism in Jane Roger's writing about young people who look for a cause to be involved with. You gain a real sense that in Roger's eyes "causes" target the vulnerable and a "cause" is just "another phase" disenchanted young people go through, before growing up, becoming a champagne socialist, and attending a Tory party conference if it's in their interest to do so.  And she probably has a point. Yet, for some people a cause gives their life meaning. Not for nothing I feel did Rogers give her protagonist the surname Lamb. Though again, this is a "clever" connotation in a young adult book, yet a bit patronising for an adult contemporary. 

In terms of subplots, the novel asks interesting questions related to the morals and ethics of Science, particularly IVF and the idea that scientists have long since passed the point of playing God, Rogers just pushes the boundary one step further. Ultimately though I didn't feel that Jessie's testament or sacrifice would have much impact in either the short or long term given the global scale of the issue. Which meant that the ending didn't pack the huge emotional punch it thinks it does. I also found the secondary surrounding characters very poorly drawn, and not even Jessie particularly easy to care about. Maybe when I was 12 I might have found it really important and exciting but I also think that maybe, just maybe I might have found it weak and characters uninspired and uninspiring - pretty much like I do now. I will be shocked if this book leaves the longlist for the shortlist and even more shocked should it win! 6.5/10

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Book #74 Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie

Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is the first book on the list I've read this year and what a place to start.

In what must be some time in the Victorian era, eight year old Jaffy Brown moves to London from Bermondsey with his mother, too unaware to be afraid he pets a tiger in the street that has escaped from a crate and is taken into its jaws. This chance encounter brings him to the attention of Mr Jamrach owner of a menagerie of exotic animals for whom he then works before being swept up in the excitement promised by an adventure at sea with best friend Tim and their idol, old sea dog Dan Rymer.

The narrative is rich, vivid and colourful, both in the early days of Tim and Jaffy's time in the menagerie and later when they go to sea. I read Moby Dick, well 95% of it, in 2009 and there are shades of Melville in this novel. Where it succeeds over the classic is the difficulty presented in Moby Dick was Melville's tendency to go off plot and character, to spend a few chapters discussing, or rather waffling on (in my opinion) about the anatomy of the whale or the many uses of whale oil and there is no such difficulty here. Birch's writing focuses on plot, character and setting and pulls you up and down with the motion of the boat.

As their adventure with Rymer begins to turn sour, the book becomes ever more compelling. Although you realise what may be about to happen before it does, their harrowing experience becomes all the more riveting to read. The eloquent strong prose impresses as does the originality at work here.

Where I had a minor quibble was that in moving the location from Jamrach's Menagerie to the sea, there was a lost opportunity in the original and interesting setting of a story about a business dealing in the trade of exotic animals, this was really a location from which a very unique story could have been born. Yet, the novel is still unique. It just seems a waste, although there is a link between the two stories, the mission Rymer is tasked with, a mission which to the superstitious seaman becomes a curse. Birch based Jamrach's Menagerie on two real life tales and would not have been able to do the second without including the sea section

At the centre of all things is the touching friendship of Jaffy and Tim,  and the book is worth it for that alone. A worthy contender for the Booker, I hope to see in shortlisted and potentially win  the contest 9.5/10

Monday, 29 August 2011

Book #73 A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From The Goon Squad

Recently published in paperback in June, A Visit From The Goon Squad begged the question of me 'When is a novel, not a novel?" because it is a novel, and it isn't. It reminded me of a game of tag, or a relay race. The novel opens with a chapter focusing on Sasha, jumps from Sasha to her boss Bennie, then from Bennie to Rhea, who knew Lou through Jocelyn, then to Lou's children and then to Jocelyn and then from Jocelyn to Scotty, who also knows Bennie, to Bennie's wife Stephanie, and so on and so forth. Each character only gets a single chapter but through their connection to each other act like pieces in a jigsaw to build up a portrait of music producer Bennie and his assistant Sasha, to whom every character is somehow linked, if not to each other.

It is very well done, and I liked it. Not only does it jump from character to character, Egan treats time in a non-linear way, so, often, when it leaps to the next character, it also leaps in time, and is a bit like a bouncing ball. Rhea's chapter for example covers the time period when she and Bennie were teenagers, her best friend Jocelyn is sleeping with a man named Lou.  Then we go on safari with Lou and his children, Jocelyn is in the past and he has a new girlfriend. Then we bounce again and Rhea and Jocelyn are visiting Lou on his deathbed before throwing the ball on to the next person.

Though it is set against the backdrop of the music industry and to a degree media and showbusiness, that wasn't really what interested me, it is, essentially 13 interconnected short stories, I enjoyed the way in which it became character rather than story led. Some stories are better than others, I liked Dolly's and Stephanie's section Rhea's Sasha's and Ted's. But, occasionally I found parts of it flashy and hollow like the world in which it is set. Though the final story brings the novel full circle, I was annoyed by both it and the previous chapter which takes place as a series of Powerpoint slides, which proved to be difficult to read on Kindle for iPad.

Despite the strangeness of form of the chapter however there was a lot expressed in a small amount of writing, a father struggling to connect with his borderline autistic son, a mother haunted by her past and a little girl observing it all. Overall, it is very accomplished as a piece of work, and I was absorbed by the 'Who next? When next?' angle.

I wondered why it was called 'A Visit From The Goon Squad' and I had to look "Goon Squad" up basically it means "gang of thugs"  and in the novel, two characters say "Time's a goon". The feeling Egan has put into words is that moment when the realisation of the passage of time jumps up and smacks you in the face and you wonder how you got to where you are, be it suddenly old or leading a life terribly distant from the one you expected to lead or once led. Stephanie, particularly is a good example of this, a former drug using punk with tattoos and rings suddenly finding herself a professional career woman playing tennis with Republicans in a country club and wondering how the hell she came to be there. It's also about the connections we lose, keep and renew and how sometimes, another person can be the architect of your story. And Egan has put this into words well, and in a way having just turned 30, I can appreciate. The music scene aspect is almost incidental, its all about well life, really, and how sections of time, become your story. I would recommend it, the more I think about it the cleverer it gets, but, it's proven to be a very Marmite book in Amazon reviews so I would tell anyone interested to bear in mind that this book largely dispenses with the traditional style of the novel. If you can get over that and take it as a character led piece about time and change and relationships, you may just enjoy it. 8/10

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Book #72 Legend Of A Suicide by David Vann

Legend Of A Suicide

I'd read a lot of buzz about Legend Of A Suicide prior to reading it, and then fell across it in a second hand bookshop in Camden last weekend. I have a belief in the synchronicity of chance, and, for a book that you intend to read to appear in a second hand shop you happen to visit, makes it seem like its "there for you". Like you're supposed to read it somehow.

There's a lot to be said about 'Legend Of A Suicide'. Not really a novel, more 4 vignettes with a novella in the middle, it is initially difficult to engage with, and is definitely an experiment in form and storytelling, even at the end Roy and his father Jim maintain a kind of impenetrable mystique as characters. The bulk of the story concerns Roy going to live with his father in a remote corner of Alaska, in a kind of survivalist scenario whereby they live self-sufficiently without contact with the outside world.  The beating heart of this story is the crushing weight of responsibility and burden of guilt on Roy, who suddenly finds himself pretty much a caretaker to his increasingly unstable and unpredictable father. The prose has good descriptive passages bleak, stark, conveying well the oppressive solitude of their location and forced togetherness. It reminded me both of Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast and Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, two other novels concerning fathers who drag their children into ill advised and dangerous territory to suit their own ideals and needs. The scene in which Roy's father begins to relate intimate details of his sex life to his child makes you squirm for the terrible predicament Roy has been placed in and wonder why on earth his mother let him go there. 

I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who might read the book after reading this review and so I can only say, that after I had presumed I knew exactly where this novel was taking me in all respects I had my mind officially blown by this novel in the middle third. What really makes this novel an experience is the knowledge that David Vann's father committed suicide in real life, and as you read this fictionalized story you realize you are reading Vann's "dark night of the soul" laid bare. It is incredibly courageous of him to bring this story to paper, was no doubt hugely difficult to write and whilst doubtless cathartic he has allowed every person who reads this to truly see the inner workings of his psychological reaction, not through fact, "this is what happened and this is how I felt" but subtly, through fictionalised prose. It is no Dave Pelzer or similar story of "my terrible childhood" which populate the shelves of every supermarket. You grieve and ache for Vann, because you realise through your own thought process without being instructed why he is telling you this other story, the place that it has come from within him. It's art, really.

Which isn't to say it is flawless, there are ways that I feel it let itself down, it could be dull in parts and its really all about the middle third with the writing either side lacking the same quality or punch, though the end has some nice lines. It is however totally worth reading for the excellent Sukkwan Island section which has so much to say about so many important things, fatherhood, despair, revenge, legacy, psychology and anger and is both an important addition to literature on the topic and through its experimental style to literature as a whole.  9/10

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Book #71 The Woman In Black by Susan Hill

The Woman In Black

One Christmas, the stepchildren of Arthur Kipps begin telling ghost stories for fun, and are shocked when their normally benign stepfather loses his temper and goes out into the night. Arthur, it turns out has his own ghost story, and a true one at that, which he begins to relate in the first person to the reader.

As a young solicitor Arthur was sent to close the estate of a woman who died without family in an isolated house in the marshes. Whilst there he begins seeing visions of a mysterious woman in black and experiences other supernatural occurrences, that leave him altered forever.

Sadly, I had several problems with the book, although period pieces are exactly my thing whether they be written in the past as in Dickens or a modern attempt to write a novel in that style such as Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; this novel felt affected, like an attempt at a period tone rather than believable as an actual period novel. A pastiche. For a ghost story I was not particularly scared and as a result of being a short novel it lacked much in the way of incident ghostly or otherwise.

Though the story of the Woman In Black when explained and played out is very sad, it is hard to see why she would harbour a vendetta against either the town or Arthur. The ending is actually bizarre, in many ways it is the novels big reveal, following the opening but once the final event is described the novel ends immediately, abruptly, badly. Almost as if a schoolchild had done it and hadn't known how to conclude the story once all the events had been told. It ends something like "There you are, thats my story" It's weird.

The novel has recently been adapted for the screen and will feature Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, the trailer coincidentally was released today, in contrast to the book, the film seems genuinely creepy and I think this could be one of the occasions whereby the film may prove more enjoyable than the source material it came from. 6/10 

Book #70 White Oleander by Janet Fitch

White Oleander

Late one night some years ago, I left the TV on and the film adaptation of Janet Fitch's White Oleander starring Michelle Pfeiffer came on. I initially thought 'I'll get up and switch that off in a minute' only to find myself oddly transfixed and absorbed by it. I meant to read the book and then kept remembering and forgetting its existence as is sometimes the way with these things.

I then thought I'd buy it on my Kindle, only to find no Kindle edition, and then by happenstance saw it whilst in the Oxfam bookshop, and felt like it was 'there for me'. I have to say I'm starting to fall in love a bit with getting books from Charity Shops. I've come across loads of bargains lately, and when you consider the price of books now, it is worth digging.

I've been struggling with my reading this month, White Oleander is the first entry for August. It hasn't helped that I opened up a complete box set of The West Wing. I was ahead of myself in the challenge anyway so I'm hoping that a bit of a break won't do me any harm, I was reading at a ferocious pace and kind of burnt out a bit I think. White Oleander, a past choice for Oprah's Book Club, somehow struck just the right tone to get me back 'into it.'

The books protagonist is twelve year old Astrid Magnusson, her mother is Ingrid Magnusson. Ingrid is a self absorbed, imperious, narcissistic poet with an odd set of rules as to what makes any person she comes across 'a person of value'. She simultaneously neglects and controls Astrid, forgetting she exists most of the time and then attempting to mould her at others. Astrid lives in her shadow but also in a bizarre communion with her. Suddenly, the true extent of Ingrid's emotional imbalance is revealed when she kills her ex boyfriend Barry for having the temerity to reject her and is sent to prison.

The bulk of the novel now begins and concerns Astrid's journey through the care system, traipsing through a succession of foster homes and schools. Most of the placements are shockingly unsuitable and Astrid who has never really been allowed her own personality, has to try and be someone else for each new family. Though Ingrid is incarcerated, her ability to psychologically bully Astrid and manipulate her from afar continues. Ingrid is truly a chilling villain, not over-written so as to become pantomime but written in such a way as to make you feel she is truly a sociopath, without regard for others. Even from her prison cell she continues to damage Astrid whilst claiming to care for her, and, to manipulate the world at large into seeing her as the victim. She is a truly intriguing character.

The blurb on the back calls the book hypnotic and I have to lend my voice in agreement to that. It has a really lyrical quality and it engaged me from the outset. It is often grim, and frequently depressing but not in a way that makes you despair of it. You are interested enough in the character outcomes to continue.  There is some excellent dialogue too.  I also liked that the conclusion was open ended, will Astrid finally physically and psychologically break free from Ingrid, or will she again succumb to the machinations of the puppet master? 7/10