Book Count (since 1 January 2012)

Book Count (since 1 January 2014): 30

Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

I very much enjoyed this novel but I have to admit it is one for the ladies.  It is about a young, troubled girl brought up in America by a number of different foster homes.  She is taken in by a single lady who runs a vinery growing grapes for wine and learns the Victorian language of flowers.  I found this interesting, uplifting and well written. 

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

An interesting novel about Penang, Malaysia during the Second World War. A half English half Chinese boy is taught martial arts by a Japanese neighbour. The two form a close
bond which tests their loyalties as the war hits Malaysia. There are a lot of religious references in this novel which give it a strong spiritual theme. I did find the narrative a bit difficult to follow at times - the paragraphs often jump from one time and place to another without any preparation which interrupts the flow, but overall it is a very well written novel.

Enjoyable but probably a bit too long.

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

An easy to read mystery novel about an unexplained death of a first world war veteran. It's fairly exciting and fast moving and the main characters are realistic. An enjoyable novel if a little forgettable.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I found this book disappointing and, if I'm honest, pretty boring. It is about Madeleine Hanna, an American graduate who (against the advice of a friend who is secretly in love with her) marries a fellow student who suffers from bipolar. I don't think any of the characters had strong enough voices - particularly the two main characters who were indistinct and difficult to believe in. I found the narrative pompous and patronising and the dialogue stilted and unnatural. Personally, I wouldn't recommend it. Although the Amazon reviewers disagree with me, and they are very discerning - one 5 star Amazon reviewer ends his review with "Best of all, it's set in the 80s". I can't disagree with that.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Enjoyable, if a bit girly. This novel is about Mary Anning, an English fossil hunter in Lyme Regis. The historical context very interesting and although the fictitious additions are a bit thin this is a fun, interesting book which is worth a read.

1Q84: books 1 and 2 by Haruki Murakami

Long. And weird. But better than I expected.

There are of course a lot of impenetrable metaphors, allegories and similes but there is still a surprisingly readable plot (although it gets a bit too existential towards the end) and two well drawn characters which makes this easier to read than other Murakami novels. I did enjoy this a lot more than I was anticipating but it still felt a bit like plowing through an English A level reading list.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Excellently written and with an exciting, unusual plot. As the title suggests this book is about a circus which only opens at night. The atmosphere created by this book is very compelling and the characters are likeable and well drawn. There is a strong magical, ethereal theme to this book so you do need to be willing to embrace the supernatural, but the narrative makes this easy. An imaginative and easy to read novel - read this if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or The End of Mr Y.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

One cannot criticise a novel unless one has read it. I have now read it and so shall begin.

It's boring, at least 100 (if not 417) pages too long and the writing is predictable and repetitive. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural making the characters indistinct and uninteresting. It doesn't help that there are too many incidental characters, mentioned in passing every now and then, which confuses the narrative. To be fair, it is not the author's fault that the whole of the Royal family are called Edward or Richard but the lack of character depth made it difficult to distinguish who was who, and impossible to summon the energy to try.

I cannot explain why at least one of the series appears in almost every "top 10". In my view, this is a historical book unhappily trapped between a text book and a novel.

The Blackhouse by Peter May

A crime novel set on an island in the Outer Hebrides. This novel follows a group of classmates from primary school through to adulthood, flicking between events in the past and a present day murder investigation.

The dialogue is not particularly natural (I have never heard a not-especially-well-educated labourer chatting about ideas being "crystallised") which makes the characters seem unrealistic and a little two-dimensional. However, the plot is fairly pacy which holds your interest and there are some well observed descriptions of adolescent behaviour.

I did enjoy this whilst reading it but it is not especially memorable and in my view there are better contemporary thrillers (such as Sister).

Monday, 14 November 2011

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Amazing.  A fascinating (non-fiction) read about an Olympic runner turned WWII airman.  This book is incredibly well written and very engrossing.  
There is a pro-American bias which slightly taints the narrative occasionally but other than that this book really is wonderful.  Definitely recommended (and an excellent Christmas present idea for hard-to-buy-for men).

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

I found this novel surprisingly emotive.  It follows a family of three children and their mother who move to an island in the Outer Hebrides after the death of their father.  All four of the main characters deal with their grief in different ways.   Two of the three children are particularly strong characters, with very well drawn and realistic personalities and dialogue.  Although the mother and the older sister are both quieter voices, they still add colour to this novel. 
The bear is introduced as one of the narrators fairly early on in the book and is initially hard to integrate into the thread of the plot.  However, as the book progresses, the bear's contribution becomes more and more poignant.  It is of course, all a little bit silly, but the way this novel is written makes a near-human bear not only believable but also surprisingly touching and that in itself is a pretty remarkable feat.
I enjoyed this book and recommend it is a well written summer read.

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

A novel about two friends growing up in suburban America and the strain on family relationships when one of them goes missing.  I didn't particularly like this book because it was very difficult to engage with the narrator, one of the girls, or indeed any of the other family members.  The dialogue reads in a very artificial way so the characters come across as very two dimensional.  Although the plot sounds exciting and it is dramatically told, it is not as compelling as I was expecting which makes the thinness of the writing style more noticeable.    A very average novel about friendship and family relationships.

The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood

An American novel about overcoming traumas, illnesses and grief by knitting.  It is very girly and not amazingly deep but surprisingly inspiring and uplifting.  The writing is gentle and the characters fun, if slightly unrealistic, which all makes for a very enjoyable read.   It is very easy to succumb to the charm of this novel and since reading it I have located my nearest wool shop and learnt to purl.  This has not solved my not-really-that-numerous problems and, outwardly at least, I have probably become more mental - sitting in a corner whispering knit-knit-purl-knit-purl-shit is not as endearing as the novel suggests - but it shows how addictive the ambience created by this book really is.  It's not many novels that can inspire a new hobby and I would definitely recommend this one (the novel - not necessarily the knitting which is actually a bit frustrating).

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

A novel about four different generations of an aristocratic literary family. The plot is actually a lot more interesting than I was anticipating, as it covers a number of different eras in a surprisingly sympathetic way.
There is, however, something very draining about the writing - the energy it takes to read this is disproportionate to the value you get out of it - like eating a stick of celery. The style of writing is definitely the kind critics describe as "hauntingly beautiful", which means you can skip pages at a time without missing anything of interest. Whilst this is useful if you want to daydream without  accidentally finding yourself staring at a terrifyingly tattooed woman in inconceivably tight white  leggings on the Bethnal Green bound tube, it leaves one feeling very dissatisfied.
So although this, sadly, is a must read for those who have set themselves a personal challenge to read the entire Booker longlist, there is little other incentive to plough through the whole 500-odd pages. 

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

If you know Patrick McGuinness personally and are agonising over his Christmas present, steer clear of a Roget's Thesaurus. This is a man who knows a lot of words. But surprisingly, the intellectual vocabulary doesn't grate in this novel - it is unusually natural. 

It was the plot, rather than the writing, which I found more difficult. It is very slow moving and lacking in energy. Every now and then there's a suggestion of mystery and intrigue but it never takes off, and my interest petered out fairly quickly. This may of course be because I completely failed to understand what was going on. At one point, after a seemingly inexplicable dialogue, Mr Words McGuinness comments: "If that was a code, it was easy enough to break.". Ha. Maybe if you're in the habit of completing The Times crossword in 3.9 minutes without the aid of a pen.

Basically, this book is excellently written but severely lacking in both plot and compelling characters.

Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson

This starts out as 50 First Dates in novel form and then becomes a lot darker.  The plot is exciting and moves fairly quickly (although there are a few slower moving sections) but it does require some serious stretching of the imagination.
The writing is easy to read if not particularly poetic.  I did find it difficult to relate to or connect with the main character, mainly because her personality is necessarily very temporary and I did find this a bit of a barrier.  Overall, a better than average holiday thriller.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I could not connect to this book at all. It is about a group of black jazz musicians in Europe during the Second World War and follows their struggle to survive as a group and as individuals. I found the characters unrealistic and hard to engage with and the plot surprisingly boring given the subject matter. The writing is good and the dialogue (which is written in an American patois) consistent and natural but I felt a real distance from the story. Theoretically, this is a good book but for me this didn't work in practice.

Cocktail Time by PG Wodehouse

Wonderful, like all PG Wodehouse. A recent study suggests that if you haven't read any Wodehouse your cognitive functions only operate at 46% of capacity. Read some. Immediately.

Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis

A classic coming of age novel. Very dark but surprisingly enjoyable. The writing takes a while to get used to as it is almost a stream of consciousness and is also quite staccato. But once you get used to the style, it really adds to the novel and is actually enjoyable to read. A little depressing, but worth a read.

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I very much enjoyed this book, which is set in America and is about a dysfunctional Jewish family sitting Shiva after their father's death. The writing is excellent and although it is not particularly deep, the story is both funny and poignant. I would definitely recommend this as a fun, different holiday read.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Bed by David Whitehouse

A novel about an obese man who takes to his bed and the impact this has on all his family. An enjoyable and thought provoking book with excellent writing. The plot is a little slow but in my view the writing makes up for this. I can see how others may find this book a bit frustrating as the characters are a little indistinct and it is a bit of an unusual story. I liked the slightly quirky-ness of this novel so I think it is worth a read. Probably a 'Marmite' novel.

Tell No One by Harlan Coben

An exciting, holiday thriller with lots of punching in the solar plexus and descriptions of glocks. Hugely unrealistic but good fun. It is about a couple who are attacked one evening at a remote lakeside cabin - 8 years later, what really happened starts to unravel.... This book teaches us that one's relationship is as nothing unless you have a set of code words for use in an e mail sent after your death to warn your partner about a violent gangster conspiracy. My husband and I have now agreed on a code sentence - I won't tell you what it is but it includes the word "obvious".

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

I didn't enjoy this book. It follows three sisters whose father is a Shakespearean academic in Ohio. The writing is very jarring and doesn't flow well. The three sisters are unrealistically drawn - a kooky one, a bimbo one and a staid one - so it is very difficult to get excited about any of their stories. The Shakespeare quotes are shoehorned in, in an attempt to give this book some weight but it fails miserably. I found this boring and more than slightly irritating.

Far to Go by Alison Pick

Set in World War Two, this novel follows a Jewish family and their Aryan nanny. It is excellently written and the characters are realistic and likeable. The book is unusually balanced in it's portrayal of Nazi members. The plot is very good, although fairly gentle, but it is the narrative writing that really lifts this novel. One of my favourites on the long list so far.

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

I didn't really enjoy this - a fairly average beach read. It's about a brother and sister who live in a large house in Highgate and their various, varied housemates. It is darker than your usual chick lit but it is still very thin and so not especially memorable. There is nothing offensive about this novel but nothing particular to recommend it.

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

A great holiday read. This is a novel about a family who grow up in London and relocate to the countryside. The plot is pacy, exciting and well written. There is something a bit false about the characters and the plot is a bit too 'perfect' to be realistic but it's still worth packing in your suitcase. Probably not enough here for anything more than a light read though.

No and Me by Delphine de Vigan

A French novel about a young girl who writes a school paper about homelessness and becomes friends with a teenage runaway in the process. Thought provoking and with a good, if predictable, plot this is a good read. I did find some if the writing a little stilted at times but the characters, especially the narrator, are well drawn and realistic. Worth a read.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka

A fun, uplifting novel. It is hard to describe what this novel is about. In brief, the main character is a middle aged woman whose relationship falls apart as she befriends an eccentric elderly neighbour. But it is a much better, deeper book than this description makes it sound. I found this funny in lots of places but also enjoyed the realism and the main character is very likeable. I expect this is a novel which will appeal more to women (sexist, I know) and I would recommend it as a slightly more substantial holiday read.

Into The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

This is a novel about domestic violence so it makes for very difficult reading. The writing is good, the characters well defined and it tackles the subject matter very sensitively but it is still hard going and so difficult to review. It is definitely a good read but be mentally prepared and maybe watch a nice film with Julia Roberts in afterwards (not Pelican Brief - her later work).

Friday, 9 September 2011

Derby Day by D J Taylor

This novel is good, but too long and it does get a bit boring.  It is set in Victorian London and follows a number of characters, all of whom have an interest in a horse due to run in the Derby.  One of the characters, Mrs Rebecca Happerton, is disappointingly unrealistic - I suspect the author has never met a woman - but the male characters are much more believable.  The writing is good and easy to read although the plot is a bit too light for a 400 page novel.

Snowdrops by AD Miller

I really enjoyed this book - it is a thriller with an exciting plot and some good, well drawn characters - especially the main character, who is also very likeable.  The story is not as dark or gory as a lot of thrillers and although it is slightly predictable it still keeps your interest.  There's an underlying philosophical question about morality if that floats your boat (easy to ignore if not).  I liked the writing which is humorous at times, and I thought the dialogue was particularly good as it was very realistic.  The descriptions of Moscow are excellent and I enjoyed the atmosphere this novel created.  A short novel and definitely worth a read.

Monday, 29 August 2011

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

Interesting and funny. Although I disagreed with some of the opinions in this book it is worth a read for some perspective on feminism and a woman's role in society. Split into chapters on different aspects of being a modern woman, there is a lot of very insightful commentary and it is all written in a very light, funny style so easy to read.

Having said that, there are a lot of self depreciating stories about Caitlin Moran's failures at being a woman, which are a little self satisfied and made this book a little more grating (on occasions even irritating) than it might otherwise have been. "Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is indirect boast". Agreed.

Overall, an enjoyable read that you can take as seriously or as lightly as you wish.

Purge by Sofi Oksanen

I found this book incredibly boring. It jumps around between the two main characters (an older woman and her estranged young niece) over a number of years. As a result there is no narrative thread and you do not feel any affinity with or interest in either of them. The book is set in Russia, Estonia and Finland during the 1950s and 1990s so there is some interesting historical context but the plot is not at all gripping. There is also no discernible ending - the book just runs out of pages like someone's torn out the rest. In fact, if there hadn't been an "Acknowledgments" I would have suspected my husband had run out of toilet paper. I wouldn't bother.

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

A young Irish couple travel to America to flee a threat of political violence and try to set up their lives there. The novel follows their lives and careers until death and spans a number of generations. This book is undoubtedly well written but not particularly memorable perhaps because there is something distancing about the style of writing which prevents the reader getting too involved in the (fairly slow moving) plot or the characters. I would hesitate to recommend this unless you enjoy good writing for its own sake as I do not think there is much to distinguish this from other novels with more powerful subjects.

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Very poignant and well written - I enjoyed this very much. It is an interesting perspective on World War II and identifies in a very innocent way the absurdities of the Nazi ideology. A short novel with a very emotional (but terrifyingly plausible) ending it is both easy to read and thought provoking. If there is anybody out there who hasn't already read this I would recommend it.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

A little bit to sci-fi for me but still a well written and thought provoking book which I did enjoy. It is written as a testament by a young girl who records her reaction to a deadly disease which is affecting the whole human race. The descriptive writing and social insights are excellent but I felt the thinness of the characters and stilted nature of the dialogue let the novel down slightly. I thought the girl's ultimate actions hugely unrealistic which did detract from the impact of this book. The novel is still worth a read and definitely a memorable subject.

The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht

This book is quite unusual but enjoyable. It is set in Yugoslavia and follows a young medical student whose investigating her grandfather's death. There is a lot of folk lore in this book which you need to be willing to embrace or this book descends into the ridiculous. Personally, I found it easy to accept some of the more supernatural parts of the plot because this book is written in a way which indicates the writer is also skeptical and therefore you are similarly more willing to examine your own doubt. Even leaving aside the less realistic parts of the novel, the characters are excellently drawn and the plot is pacey and gripping. I would recommend this for a more intellectual holiday read.

Friday, 19 August 2011

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

I really liked this book. It is about a young woman whose mother was murdered by her step father when she was a teenager. It sounds very depressing, and it is quite difficult to read in places but overall it is actually quite uplifting. The book switches regularly between the present day and the woman's teenage years, and this can be a bit confusing but, as it means the plot is revealled fairly slowly, it does make the book very gripping. The writing is excellent and unobtrusive, so it is easy to read this novel. An enjoyable book with well drawn characters and excellent writing although quite dark in places.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Storm At The Door by Stefan Merrill Block

Although fictional, this novel is heavily based on the author's family history. Perhaps because of this, this book is not a page turner as the plot is fairly light. The book incorporates both sides of the author's family but its central focus is on his maternal grandfather who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is confined to a psychiatric hospital. The writing is excellent, particularly the dialogue between the patients at the hospital, and he deals with the subject very sensitively. I did feel some of the characters were a bit one dimensional, especially the doctors and most of the nurses who were a bit too over-the-top baddie. I did enjoy this but I don't think it would have universal appeal. Once it's finished, you do get that feeling of having just looked through someone's family album - a fairly pleasant use of time but ultimately your role is merely to confirm their suspicion that they have a wonderfully interesting family.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I enjoyed this book very much. It is about four school friends who grow up and start to realise how much they misunderstood about each other when they were young. Not much happens and although this usually irritates me, the writing is excellent and so absorbing it makes up for the lack of a substantial plot (particularly as this is a very short novel). The main narrator, a man in his 60s is believable and easy to connect with. Definitely worth a read.

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

Bizarre. Describing a long August weekend in the countryside, this book examines old friendships and new relationships. The narrator, a primary school teacher, harbours some old jealousies which culminate in two fairly dramatic events - neither of which he seems to acknowledge. As there is only one "voice" in this book, it is only as you finish it that you realise how dark it is. I did enjoy this book but, strangely, it is only afterwards that its impact is really felt and it is quite discomforting. A good read but a bit unsettling.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

An enjoyable, if fanciful, novel about a boy and his time at sea. The writing is excellent and the characters are colourful (although a bit too numerous to get too attached to). It's an adventure story with a lull in the middle. The lull is actually very clever because it gives the narrator space to comment on the faster paced plot beforehand and therefore elevates this novel beyond a forgettable page turner. An unusual book which I enjoyed.

A Week In December by Sebastian Faulks

I have mixed feelings about this book. Some days I enjoyed it, some days I hated it which makes it very difficult to review. It follows a number of characters over a week in December, and particularly focuses on the banking crisis. There's also a lot of social commentary on middle class etiquette. On the days I didn't like it, it was because the analysis of the economic collapse was incredibly smug and over simplified and the characters very stereotypical. On the days I did like it, it was because there was one character who had a more interesting story (the tube driver). Definitely not as good as Birdsong and difficult for me to recommend.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

A very enjoyable, funny and insightful novel about life in the English countryside. The main character, Major Pettigrew, is an old fashioned but liberal gentleman who becomes friends with Mrs Ali, the local shopkeeper. The story follows the Major and his dawning realisation of the easy prejudice of his friends and relatives. Although the plot is not exactly unpredictable, there are some interesting and exciting twists which keeps the novel moving in a gentle yet compelling way. Whilst this book does verge on "chick lit", it is funnier and more substantial than a lot of contemporary romances. The writing is very good and the characters are realistic (if slightly exaggerated) and likeable. A lighthearted novel with a bit of bite - this is an excellent holiday read.

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

This novel is about a middle aged couple living in Bombay who take in their nephew when his parents move out of the city. The plot is very basic and although this book is well written it suffers from a lack of character development. At no point do you really feel a relationship with any members of the family which, in a book this slow paced, results in a rather dull read. The book offers a quite interesting insight into life in Bombay and family relationships but is not particularly powerful or memorable. There is nothing to dislike about this book but also nothing to fall in love with. Likely to be enjoyed the most by those who have an interest in or experience of Bombay or Indian culture.

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

A very exciting, fast paced, easy to read novel. It is about a young woman who goes missing and her sister's quest to discover what happened to her. The characters and plot are both entirely unrealistic (some of the characters staggeringly so) but it's a good story nonetheless. It is less gruesome and more intelligent than a lot of murder mysteries. If you like thrillers, this is a good holiday read.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Nella Last's War (edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming)

I kept having to remind myself that this diary was REAL LIFE. It is very interesting and humbling to read. There are a lot of domesticity with example menus and household economies - which makes me realise that if there was another war my husband and I would starve almost immediately as my idea of a creative meal is to add a sprinkle of grated cheese to a warmed up can of baked beans. There are some really poignant insights into relationships and every day life which are really powerful to read. As this is a diary, it doesn't read as smoothly as a novel but it is still fairly easy reading and definitely worth it as a fascinating part of history.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt

Despite reservations I really enjoyed this book. It is a western about Eli and Charlie Sisters who work as hired killers for the mysterious Commodore. I wouldn't usually read a western but it was recommended to me by a very kind, generous, intelligent colleague so I kept an open mind and I am glad I did. This is an exciting story, which is a lot less brutal than I was expecting, and the characters are suprisingly likeable. It is also quite funny in places (in a pretty dark way) so that lightens some of the more gruesome bits. Definitely an enjoyable read.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This is a lovely book and would be a fantastic beach read. It is about a white girl who runs away from her neglectful father to live with a black family who keep bees. It does not examine racism or social prejudice in as powerful a way as The Help but it is still very poignant. The characters are very likeable and the girl in particular is very realistic. I enjoyed the style of writing, which is very natural and easy to read. Definitely recommended for a high quality summer novel.

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan

A painter and decorator based in Glasgow finds Buddishm. The whole book is written phonetically in Scottish dialect which I found irritating and unnecessary because it makes it a harder read than the plot really deserves. It's like when you spend ages peeling and getting all the white stuff off an orange only to find it's slightly bitter. And it is only slightly bitter so you persevere but feel a bit short changed. The point being, that this book is quite good - the plot is fairly pacy and the characters are interesting (if staggeringly unrealistic) but the way it is written makes it a bad choice for a beach read which is really the category it belongs in. Disappointing.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

A novel about an event which takes place in a residential street during a summer's afternoon and its impact on the lives of those who witness it. And yes it is about as interesting as that summary makes it sound - i.e. the "event" bit is fairly interesting but the "impact" bit is not.

Although the plot is not that exciting, I did enjoy this book as the writing is very good. It is not wonderfully gripping nor, despite what Waterstones say, did it change my life but I personally quite like the way that the plot is very gentle and built up to the (somewhat predictable) event very slowly.

I can see how this book would be irritating if you like a fast paced novel but there is something quite "comfortable" about it - very easy to read and none of the dramatic over-the-top tragedy you get in a lot of modern books. Worth a read.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

I enjoyed this novel (although not as much as We Need To Talk About Kevin). It is about two American families and the effect of the US health system on their lives, relationships and jobs. It's quite political and definitely worth a read for those who moan about the NHS in the UK (and for all men - regardless of nationality - considering penis enlargements). The writing is very good although it does tend to chop and change between different character's view points without much explanation which is a little confusing. The characters themselves were well drawn and I particularly thought Glynis was very realistic and refreshing. This is an enjoyable novel, easy to read and although it is probably about 100 pages too long, it is definitely worth persevering.

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

An easy read about a banker who's risk taking career takes a nose-dive, an eccentric teacher who talks to her dogs and a confused teenager. It is set in an American town and is quite an interesting take on the banking crisis. This is not a particularly memorable novel and there are some bits which are a bit odd (the relationship between the teenager and the banker is incongruous and unrealistic) but overall a fairly inoffensive easy read. The manly equivalent of chicklit (although there's no guns or fighting).

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

C by Tom McCarthy

Scene at the publishers

Dave: Where's the synopsis for the back cover?
Jo: I thought you were doing it?
Dave: Nope
Jo: Shit. OK let's write one together now. Right - what happens?
Dave: I can't remember.
Jo: Didn't you literally just finish it?
Dave: Yes - 10 minutes ago - but I can't remember a single thing about it. It's like a black hole. Oh my God - I've had a stroke or something.
Jo: No. I finished it yesterday and I can't remember anything about it either.
Dave: Are you sure? I'm not brain damaged?
Jo: No, seriously, I am not sure anything about it registered in my brain in the first place.
Dave: Maybe we could say something like "The mastery of Tom McCarthy is that he can produce an effect remarkably similar to rohypnol through the medium of the written word."
Jo: We don't want to open that can of worms. We must be able to remember something?
Dave: I think there may have been a bit about a war.
Jo: Which war?
Dave: First? Maybe.
Jo: And I am pretty sure the main character is male.
Dave: Hmm... That's probably not enough.
Jo: Well I'm not reading it again. It might enduce a coma the second time round.
Dave: Fuck it, we'll just tell him the book is written with such an intense, global force that's too powerful to be summarised and that readers shouldn't be patronised by a trite 'Readers Digest' synopsis.
Jo: That actually sounds quite good.
Dave: Well, it's pretentious and condescending. I expect he'll love it.
Jo: Definitely. And everyone will think it's really, really clever so all the critics will be too scared to say it's impenetrable bollocks in case someone thinks they don't understand it. It'll probably win a prize!
Dave: Just fill the back cover with white squiggles - and for Gods sake keep our logo small.

This concludes my review.

The Stars In The Bright Sky by Alan Warner

This book is excellent and I very much enjoyed it. It is about a group of young Scottish girls, who have known each other since school days, going on a summer holiday with an English girl who knows one of them from university. It is excellently written, funny and frighteningly accurate. The characters are very realistic and well drawn and the plot is perfectly timed. It is a real shame that this didn't make it onto the short list as it is definitely one of my favourites from the long list. I would recommend it to anybody as this is one of those books which contains some really meaningful messages but which you can read for entertainment. I was slightly disappointed to finish this book and leave these girls' world behind. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

A good holiday read. This book follows two young women - one in the early 1950s and one in the present day - who are ultimately connected. The connection is not particularly surprising and the plot is more gentle than shocking but it still grips your interest. I enjoyed the writing, which is subtly good in a very unassuming way. The characters are a little one dimensional but enjoyably so. This book is great for an engaging, not too depressing beach read but is not very challenging, so not for those who like their novels with a lot of intellectual weight.

Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson

I didn't enjoy this very much. It is about a girl (Grace) who is born with a deformity which prevents her communicating with the outside world and who is sent to a hospital by her family when she is about 11. The book is written from Grace's point of view about her experiences whilst at home, in the hospital and then in sheltered housing once the hospital closes. Not only is it very depressing, it is also very flat. The language, the characters and the plot do not have any colour so I did not find this at all inspiring or particularly powerful. The best character is Daniel, Grace's best friend, who is much more believable and interesting than Grace (who has surprisingly intellectual and lucid thoughts for someone who has such a young mental age). Overall, a distinctly average book which I wouldn't particularly recommend.

Monday, 30 May 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A good fun read. This book doesn't have a plot as such. There is a lot of chopping and changing over time periods and between different characters, all of whom have a connection - tenuous or otherwise. For this reason, the book is very slightly disjointed but the writing style is very good which makes the novel flow a lot smoother than it might otherwise have done. Overall, I do think the patchwork style prevents the book from having a particularly strong impact on the reader because there's no real 'message' but this is still an enjoyable read.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Shipping News by Annie Proux

I enjoyed this book. It is a good story and I liked her characters.

I didn't particularly enjoy the style of writing. Lots of sentences. Very short ones. No pronouns. Bit like how I speak when very pissed off. I understand that this was intentional as it replicates the journalistic style, but it I thought it created a barrier between the reader and the characters as it is very impersonal and difficult to read.

Despite this slight hurdle from my point of view, I did like the book a lot as the plot is fun and there is some great descriptive writing. Definitely enjoyable and worth reading, if you can get past the staccato style

Trespass by Rose Tremain

I didn't really enjoy this book. It is very easy to read and the plot is quite good but it is a bit 'between genres'. It tries to be very deep and literary but it doesn't quite make it, and the plot is a bit too ponderous to make for a great mainstream/holiday novel. In my opinion, there are too many narrators, so the reader's viewpoint keeps switching which makes it difficult to really engage with any of the characters. Whilst the book is fairly enjoyable, there is definitely something missing which prevents this from being excellent.

Tiger Hills by Sarita Mansanna

This is a really enjoyable book. The plot is very pacy and exciting, with realistic and well written characters. It is about a rural Indian family pre-first world war. It is not particularly political but focuses very much on the characters with an exciting plot. This is one of those books which very much captures your interest, although I have to say that it doesn't necessarily stay with you one it's finished. Easy to read, well written and with a good plot, this is a fantastic holiday read.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

A slow burner. The first hundred or so pages were a bit of a struggle as the main character starts off pretty uninspiring and insipid. But, once this gets going, the plot is really quite gripping and the characters do become more interesting (and less cowardly). The writing is good and it is worth getting through the beginning for a more entertaining middle and end. I thought this was better than Cloud Atlas but personally I not in love with David Mitchell's style so whilst I did enjoy this novel, it is not my favourite on the long list.

In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

This book is about a South African man and follows three separate journeys he makes in three different countries. It's one of those novels in which nothing significant happens, which is really terribly clever. There is ample opportunity for critics to discuss syntax and language and metaphor etcetera. Whatevs. If you are a recreational reader, the last journey is best because it involves someone other than the irritating South African and there is an actual event. Overall, a great book if you are a proper critic who wears black all the time and smokes thin French cigarettes. Not so good if you enjoy a plot.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I probably would have enjoyed this book more if I were a late middle aged man who drank claret at dinner parties and watched late night TV programmes about The Arts. As it was, I enjoyed it but, I'll be honest, not as much as I enjoy fiction (I hear your distain my late middle aged friend).
The book is about an inherited collection of 'netsuke' - Japanese carvings traditionally hung from obis - and their historical provenance. It is interesting, I learnt a lot about European history and my vocabulary expanded by about 12.3%. There are so may facts in this book that there is no way I will ever again be the person in a pub quiz who can only answer the questions about celebrity couples. The style is very easy and accessible. The netsuke collection passes through a number of members of a family, all of whom are presented very well and have led very interesting lives. A more than usually entertaining mind improving book but it's still not what you'd call exciting, although the second half is definitely more interesting than the first.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

I really wanted to like this book and I very nearly did. But I just couldn't connect with it. I thought the boy narrator's voice came across much too young for an 11 year old and I just did not understand the pigeon thing. As a result, it all felt a bit unreal and distant so not as powerful or immediate as it could have been. However, the writing is very good and there are some very poignant dialogues between the children. The differences between life in an African village and a London estate are dealt with very cleverly - in a way which is both unobtrusive and striking. There are some very enjoyable parts to the book and it is worth reading, but I couldn't really engage with it.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Crying Tree by Naseem Rahka

I enjoyed this book, despite it's awful front cover. It is set in Southern America and follows a family who are dealing with the murder of their son. It is excellently written and very gripping. All the characters are realistic and the dialogue is very natural. There are some powerful emotions dealt with but it is done very sympathetically so the book is not too heavy or depressing. I enjoyed this very much and would recommend it as a well written, but not too dark, holiday read.

February by Lisa Moore

A novel about a Canadian family of four who are raised by their mother following their father's death on an oil rig. The plot keeps you interested, if not gripped, but the characters are not very well developed. You sort of feel you are skimming the surface rather than really getting to know any of the main narrators. I enjoyed this book but a strange choice for the long list as it is not very provocative or even particularly well written (although there is some lovely phrasing).

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

I must have misunderstood this book because I didn't really like it, unlike everyone else in the entire world. It is about an old school teacher and his two pupils, who have remained in touch as the pupils have grown up. It's really about Judaism. The author is very clever and knows a lot about anti-semitism and Jewish life. But it just doesn't make for a very interesting read. The main character is an irritating, insecure non-Jew and his old school friend is an unrealistically self obsessed non practicing Jew. The novel goes on and on and on about their different attitudes towards their religious beliefs. In summary - dull and slightly pretentious but thankfully short. Did not deserve the prize over Room or Skippy Dies.

The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

Set in 1950s Russia this novel follows a paediatric doctor, his wife and her younger brother who all live together in Leningrad. I enjoyed reading about this period in Russian history and the very real struggles which were going on for ordinary people as well as the Stalinist regime. The characters are very likeable although a bit one dimensional. The plot is fairly gentle but that gives the writer the space to explore the daily lives of the doctor and his wife. I enjoyed this novel and it's a good, interesting read but it's not the most powerful book I've ever read.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

I am very late to this book but I don't really regret the delay. It is a very masculine book, and - a bit like Starter for Ten - I felt I was missing most of the humour because I couldn't really relate to the main character. The writing is very good and the plot is very clever. It is frighteningly easy to imagine the prejudices and unfortunate coincidences which conspire to put Vernon into a dangerous position. The style of the writing means you have to concentrate and really focus on the dialogue so it's not really a beach read. I didn't fall in love with this novel but it is an interesting read.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

A Jackson Brodie novel. Easy read, good fun but not particularly substantial and it feels like these novels are losing something as the series progresses. The plot format is getting a bit tired (possibly even formulaic) and not as exciting as the first few novels. I still enjoy reading these but they are definitely in the good holiday read category.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

I very much enjoyed this novel. Excellently written and fantastic characters. It is set in an English private boys school, which takes boarders and day pupils and which was traditionally run by monks. The relationship between the boys, their parents and the teachers is very well described and developed throughout the book. There are some big issues tackled in the novel but they are very delicately dealt without the reader feeling as if he is being driven towards a particular moral standpoint. It is very non-judgemental - more of a commentary of events rather than an analysis of them. The interaction between the main group of boys is excellently written and painfully believable. This book and The Room are my favourite of the 2010 Booker long list so far.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

A much more entertaining read than I was expecting. The novel is split into different chapters - each told by a different character, all of whom were present at a barbeque at which a man slaps another man's a toddler. It is inevitable that some chapters/character's were more enjoyable to read than others and I did find that the connection with the thread of the novel came loose occasionally as a result of all the chopping and changing, particularly towards the end. But the writing is very good and the characters are all consistent if not always true to life (surely there are less drugs at your average suburban barbeque? Or perhaps I am moving in the wrong circles). The only reservation I have about wholeheartedly recommending this is that the whole moral issue of slapping another man's child is a bit overdone. I did not find this irritating but I can see how it could grate, especially if you have very strong views on the subject. In my opinion, an enjoyable novel which tails off slightly at the end.

Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey

This book has the ambiguous critique "I finished it with unabated enjoyment..." emblazoned on its cover. Despite this poor judgement this book is actually rather good. It follows the progress of a servant, Parrot, and his masters, including the rather sickly Olivier. Both characters are likeable and well written. The plot is a bit thin in places but the writing is very good and this carries it through. This novel definitely deserved to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize and I read it with enjoyment. If you're reading this Mr Carey (highly unlikely, I know) - you can have that one for the cover of the next print.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Never Let Me Go, Kazuro Ishiguro

I didn't enjoy this book at all. I didn't like or relate to any of the characters, and thought they were all very hazily and inconsistently drawn. The plot is not properly explained and those parts of it that are, are faintly ridiculous. I will not be watching the film or re-reading this book and I wouldn't recommend it.

The Long Song, Andrea Levy

A novel about slavery in Jamaica. It is readable and the plot is quite compelling but I didn't love this book. There was something about it which I just didn't connect to. The historical references are very interesting, as is the context of racial tensions as slavery ended. Enjoyable but not fantastic. I preferred Small Island.

What Was Lost, Catherine O'Flynn

Another excellent book. It is very funny in places and all the characters are likeable as well as very well defined. It is very easy to read and excellently written. It is about a host of different people in a small town and set over about 20 years. It is part mystery and part social commentary. Another one I would definitely recommend.

Room, Emma Donoghue

This book is brilliant. It is written from the point of view of a little boy, who was born in an enclosed room where his mother is kept prisoner by a rapist. It is very cleverly written because, although dark in places, this is not a depressing book and it could easily have been. It is a very thought provoking book and I very much enjoyed it. I would definitely recommend it.

The Post Office Girl, Stefan Zweig

An average readable, forgettable novel. The main character is a woman and I don't think she was a very realistic, maybe because the author is a man. This book was light relief after Stern but nothing amazing.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Stern

This book took me 3 months to read which is something of a record. It is a bit of a struggle in places but it is an interesting book, if not a page turner. I gave up on the notes half way through because, although they were useful, they made it a much harder read. The book is funny in places, although a lot of the jokes are word plays so they don't really translate into modern language. I am glad that I read it but it doesn't go to the top of my list.