Sweet sixteen?

The Fever by Megan Abbott

FeverWhen I read Megan Abbott’s previous novel Dare me (reviewed here) last year, I knew she was an author to watch, moving into psychological thriller territory with her tale of High School cheer-leaders, having previously concentrated on 1950s noir.  She seemed to get into the brain of these sporty girls perfectly and the novel although lacking a bit of pace in the thriller department was full of fascinating insights into the cheer-leading world that we don’t really have in the UK.

The Fever is again set in a High School, but couldn’t be more different in terms of drama. The story is told from the viewpoints of the Nash family. Father Tom is a popular teacher at the High School. Divorced, he’s bringing up two teenagers: the older one is Eli – an ice-hockey star and object of many girls’ affections; Deenie is sixteen, sweet and good at school.

At sixteen, all a lot of the girls want to do is talk about boys and brag about how far they’ve gone and with whom. It’s hard to keep a secret of this sort in school, but Deenie has one she’s desperate to tell her best friend Lise about. Before she can do that though, Lise has a kind of seizure in class in front of everyone. They’re all shocked and when Lise has another seizure at home hitting her head badly she ends up in hospital. Over the next days several more girls will go ill too with a variety of symptoms including Gabby, Deenie’s other best friend.

It’s not long before worried parents are blaming it on the vaccine – the girls all had their HPV shots shortly before it happened. This rang alarm bells with me (I’m strongly pro-vaccination!). The medics aren’t finding anything though. The girls have another secret apart from their initial forays into sex – four of them, Deenie, Gabby, Lise and Skye went swimming in the lake – the fenced-off lake that’s full of toxic algae. What if something else is causing the illness amongst the girls?  Is the school hiding something?  Gossip, panic and rumour-spreading quickly escalate the situation in this small town, especially when some of the affected girls post videos on social media.

The relationships between the girls are also complicated. Deenie in particular is perplexed by Gabby’s deepening friendship with Skye, who’d previously been a hanger-on to their threesome, she can’t help seeing Skye as taking her friend away from her.

Once again, Abbott proves she can get into teenagers’ brains to chart all their insecurities as they are on the cusp of becoming young women. This time though more than that, she also captures Eli’s confusion as he begins to understand the power that he has as an objection of attraction  and in Tom we see a father watching his children growing up and away from him, proud of them yet sad at the same time.

The drama and tension build up nicely all the way through The Fever and there are plenty of red herrings along the way to distract us from the real cause of what has happened. I read the book is one long sitting which is the perfect way to devour a psychological drama. I will enjoy seeing where Abbott goes next as she ventures towards Gone Girl territory. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Feverby Megan Abbott. Pub Picador, July 2014, hardback, 256 pages.

 

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Now you see it …

P1020151 (800x600) P1020153 (800x600) P1020154 (800x600) P1020155 (800x600)

My daughter and I got up at 2.15am for the scheduled demolition of the three cooling towers of Didcot A power station sometime between 3 and 5am this morning.

We, along with hundreds of others parked in Milton village nearby and had a vantage point across the fields from about 1km away as the crow flies. We were stationed from 2.45am – and in the end it was just about light when the towers went at 5am. We couldn’t hear the klaxon from that distance, but Radio Oxford had the details…

But there are still the other group of 3 towers plus the chimney left – so we’ll still know we’re nearly home whenever we see them on the horizon.

Going back to bed now!

“We gotta get out of this place…”

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how-to-build-a-girlI’ll start up front by saying that this book is one of the sweariest, wankiest, shaggiest stories I’ve ever read, and it’s narrated by a teenager who is just fourteen at its outset. The first lines set the tone…

I am lying in bed, next to my brother, Lupin.
He is six years old. He is asleep.
I am fourteen. I am not asleep. I am masturbating.

To be fair, it’s a biggish bed, and she does put a ‘little, friendly Berlin Wall’ of a pillow between them – but still! So, if you can’t bear swearing, wanking and shagging in a novel, this might not be the book for you.

… But you would miss the point, for underneath all its bravado is a story about a girl’s coming of age. A teenager in a large working-class family that lives on benefits in a part of the world where most people are in the same boat, told in Moran’s typical earthy style.

… However, although Moran insists that her heroine is not her, despite coming from a similar background, if you’ve read her part rant, part memoir How to be a Woman, you’ll be familiar with her own lifestory and you will find this novel repetitive. Luckily, although I love her journalism, I’m one of the few who hasn’t read that book, so this novel was sort of new for me.

It’s 1990, and Johanna Morrigan (Johanna with an ‘h’ as in Dylan’s song – never acknowledged, but surely chosen specifically), wants to escape the poverty she’s stuck in, she wants to be someone – in London not Wolverhampton. Her ageing hippy dad wants to be famous too, he’s never let his vision of being a rock star vanish – he’ll force his audition tape onto anyone, but no-one listens. Her older brother Krissi is at that shutting himself away stage of adolescence, her mum is worn out with looking after the twins and is clearly suffering from post-natal depression. They live on the breadline, buoyed by her dad’s disability benefit.  Johanna dreams of a future…

… I don’t want to be noble and committed like most women in history were – which invariably seems to involve being burned at the stake, dying of sadness or being bricked up in a tower by an earl. I don’t want to sacrifice myself for something. I don’t want to die for something I don’t even want to walk in the rain up a hill in a skirt that’s sticking to my thighs for something. I want to live for something, instead – as men do. I want to have fun. The most fun ever. I want to start parting like it’s 1999 – nine years early. I want a rapturous quest. I want to sacrifice myself to glee. I want to make the world better, in some way.

To cut a long story short, she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, a Goth-inspired ‘lady sex-adventurer’. As soon as she can, she leaves school, starts writing record reviews for a London rock newspaper and sets out to conquer the world through the media of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll. She undoubtedly has a good time – but does she like what she’s become?

You do want to like Johanna, however precocious she is. You may be a little envious of some of the things she gets up to as a teenager – just some! (Getting on the guest list as an 18 yr-old at the Marquee Club when my boyfriend agreed to do a roadie stint for a (Christian) prog-rock band back in 1978 is my claim to fame in the rock’n’roll department only – none of the other!).

The book, although a bit meandering, was easy to read but very rude of course. I particularly enjoyed the parts featuring Johanna and Welsh rocker and pissante John Kite, with whom she strikes up a true friendship. The problem is that Moran’s own story is always in the back of your mind, and I think I’d have preferred to read that. They say write about what you know, but we already know that in Moran’s case, so let’s hope her next fictional outing is less transparent – I’ll happily read it.  (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, Jul 2014, Ebury, Hardback 345 pages.
How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, paperback.

P.S. Lyric quote from ‘We gotta get out of this place’ by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, performed by The Animals in 1965.

 

“…good to get out of the rain.”

You all know how I love to use a good quote from a song lyric to introduce a review. There are just so many songs about rain though… but I have two oft-used favourites that always seem to yield an appropriate phrase for me – one is Hotel California by the Eagles; the other, as used here, is Horse with No Name by America.  Add in the blues chord glide from The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin (A-flat9 into G9) and we’re ready to go…

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The Rain by Virginia Bergin

rain

When a colleague at school told me that a friend of hers had written a YA novel and would be glad to get a review, I ummed and aahed a bit, said sure I’d take a look at it and gave her my email. When I discovered that it wasn’t self-published and that Virginia had been signed up to Macmillan for two books, also that it had a post-apocalyptic setting – of course I was going to read it.

Set in the near future, the Earth has been saved from an asteroid collision. They nuked it – problem solved and life goes on. It’s a summer evening, the air is thick with the smell of barbecues and Ruby Morris is at Zak’s house: ‘sitting in a hot tub in my underwear snogging Caspar McCloud.’

Suddenly, Zak’s parents arrive home early, the party’s over and all the drunk teenagers get dragged inside, out of the imminent rain and warned NOT to go outside. There’s something in the rain – there are warnings on the radio, they need to sober up – fast.  But Caspar wants his MP3, left out in the rain. He makes a dash for it and slips back in. No-one notices until he groans…

He looked at his fingertips, at the blood and bits of torn-up skin that coated them. There was blood running down; not tons of it, but trickles and smears . . . from his scalp, from his face . . . where there were sores, red marks, like burns, but bleeding . . . He looked like one of those gory Jesus pictures, minus the crown of thorns. Wherever the rain had touched him, wherever it had seeped through the towel, there was blood . . . even his shoulders, even his chest. Soaking through the kaftan. His naked feet looked like he’d walked a mile on broken glass.
Saskia flounced back into the room and screamed.
Sarah rushed over to Caspar – ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ said Barnaby – and she hesitated. […] ‘It might be contagious.’

The asteroid dust coming through the atmosphere had not only caused brilliant sunsets, but released a dormant, deadly bacterium that reanimated in the water vapour in the air.

So we are now firmly thrust into survival territory. People will find out the hard way what water is safe to drink and what isn’t – and thirst will become the major issue for everyone. We know that Ruby lives at least until the end of this book (yes, there will be a sequel), as she is our narrator, but will any of her friends? What of her family? Will they find enough clean water to survive? Will someone find a way to kill the bacterium? How contagious is it? Is it the end of the world? Has Ruby survived by luck or clear-thinking?

The story continues to follow the usual post-disaster tropes of fighting for survival, finding unusual comrades, searching for loved ones, trying to find a safe haven, and so on, but what makes The Rain different from other YA post-apocalypse novels is its narrator. Ruby is a delight. She is down-to-earth, yet quirky, fun – but sometimes very irritating. She’s also a bit naïve in the ways of the world – Caspar would have been her first real love, yet she is sassy and garrulous and finds it so hard to be separated from her phone. Touchingly, although the situation she’s in makes her need to swear about it, she can’t bring herself to do it in front of us as her mum wouldn’t have liked it – so the text has the occasional butterfly inserted instead of bad words, which is a novel way of getting around something that is often a problem for YA books.

As the publisher’s blurb suggests, The Rain is very much ‘Georgia Nicholson meets the Apocalypse’. (For anyone who doesn’t know – Georgia Nicholson is the narrator of Louise Rennison’s fab teen diary series which begins with Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging – made into a film a couple of years ago.)

The mixture of a likeable heroine and a credible disaster leavened with lots of humour, a bit of gore but also inevitable sadness is a great combination. I devoured The Rain, enjoying it very much and I hope it does well for Virginia. Roll on volume two – The Storm! (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Rain by Virginia Bergin. Published 17th July by Macmillan Children’s Books. Paperback 400 pages.
Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging by Louise Rennison

We followed our men to Los Alamos …

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

wives of los alamosThis is not a novel about the development of the atom bomb, but rather the development of the community surrounding the laboratory which produced the bomb. Most of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos were seconded to the military from all over the country in 1943 for the Manhattan Project under its director Robert Oppenheimer, who had chosen the location for the new top secret facility.

Many of these scientists were family men and TaraShea Nesbit’s novel tells the story through the eyes of their wives. The need for secrecy was such that the scientists’ families followed them to Santa Fe, and on to Los Alamos on the mesa – much easier to keep a lid on things with them all there. Their wives, and children if they already had them, were installed in a fenced compound of pre-fabs outside the ‘technical area’, and she tells how they established new lives for themselves during the later years of WWII.

Nesbit’s style is experimental. Each paragraph is a little vignette set within a collection of paragraphs on a theme. Each paragraph is written using ‘we’, the first person plural – but makes it clear that within the collective ‘we’ are the many different individuals that made up the community – they all have a voice, so both sides of the story are usually expressed within each paragraph…

We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people’s political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics – we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or maybe only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were  good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.

The themed collections of paragraphs built up to present the chronological story from arrival to departure. Many of the families had a hard time settling into the army way of doing things, not forgetting the weather – from snow and mud to blinding, never-ending sunshine. They also had to get used to not seeing as much of their husbands…

Many of us hated the women scientists. And the women scientists hated us, or they had better things to worry about. We tried to be their friends. We invited one of them to lunch but she was busy. We despised what she knew and how she laughed at our questions.

But there must have been something in the water, for soon the community was awash with babies.  The Army General complained. The Director said, ‘I’m not going to interfere in the lives of adults.’ There is a sense of settling down, the women build their friendships and routines; some become friends with the local Tewa women who are hired to be helps. Naturally too, some friendships and marriages will founder and not all will last the course. Not being able to quiz their husbands about their work, the women try to make their often mundane life sound exciting. They just do their best to get on with things as their husbands work towards the big one. You know how that ends – but it’s still shocking to read about it in the novel.

It may be experimental, but the style worked for me. It does require more concentration to absorb all the strands than a straight-forward narrative, and consequently it took longer to read than a conventional novel. What was truly fascinating was the way that the style celebrates the differences in the women, they are all individuals and they each have a story to tell in the book. Having said that the middle section, once the wives were well established in situ, was not as riveting as the beginning or the end, but I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a brave author that debuts with such an unconventional first novel, but Nesbit shows great promise and I shall look out for her name in the future. (8.5/10)

For another review of this book see Susan’s at A Life in Books here.

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit, pub April 2014 by Bloomsbury Circus, Hardback 240 pages.

P.S. Following Col’s comment below: here is a clip of Deacon Blue singing Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now from 2013. Thanks Col!

5-4-3-2-1…

ManfredsThe bulk of this post is just a bit of fun for the start of the silly season – but the theme happens to coincide with the title of one of classic UK R&B band Manfred Mann’s greatest hits.  The Manfreds as they are now known, are still going strong – still with Paul Jones singing, and original members Tom McGuinness and Mike Hugg in the band – augmented by other musicians including my school-colleague Simon Currie (2nd from left) on sax! They’re probably touring near you somewhere soon – details on their  website.

Which brings me back to 5-4-3-2-1… There’s not enough poetry on this blog, and when it does happen, it tends to be short and flippant – that won’t change in this post I assure you! I just wanted to explore different forms of short poems and share some with you:

Five Line Poems – The Limerick

A well-crafted limerick should make you laugh and trip off the tongue in the proper meter (A-A-B-B-A). Some good word-play always helps too. Here are a few clean faves:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.    (Anon)

There was a young lady called Wright
Who could travel much faster than light.
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.    (Anon)

Naturally, that scientific one appeals to me – and apprarently it was Einstein’s favourite too.  Before we leave limericks, we mustn’t forget the ‘anti-limerick’. This one is attributed to W.S.Gilbert and is a parody of Lear.

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp,
When asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t,
I’m so glad that it wasn’t a hornet.

You can find a few more limericks in a post I did ages ago here.

Four Line Poems – The Quatrain

The_Tyger_BM_a_1794There are different rhyming schemes to the quatrain – A-B-A-B or A-A-B-B or even A-A-A-A. Just to turn serious for a mo, the first is eloquently shown by a verse from Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and the second in Blake’s The Tyger:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Many song lyrics also contain quatrains. Take these verses: The first from Hotel California by the Eagles, the second from A New England by Billy Bragg:

Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat.
Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.

I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware
I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care.

Three Line Poems – The Haiku

Once upon a lilypad © Larry Ostby  http://loswildcritters.blogspot.co.uk/

Once upon a lilypad © Larry Ostby http://loswildcritters.blogspot.co.uk/

Basho was one of the masters of this Japanese form. Three lines with 5-7-5 syllables. Usually seasonal or nature based like this famous one of his…

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

I had a go back in autumn 2009 – it was fun …P1000210 - Copy (800x544)

Autumnal sunshine
Lifts the spirits when reading
Books about vampires.

Early October
screaming girls sing ABBA at
Juliet’s party.

A damp evening,
forty pounds doesn’t go far
at the fair.

Two Line Poems – The Rhyming Couplet

Just a couple of examples for you…

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. – Joyce Kilmer

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind. – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare.

One Line Poems – Is there such a thing?

Looking for some quotes, I kept coming up against the argument that most sentences touted as one-line poems are really aphorisms like Hippocrates’ famous one (orig Greek, but always quoted in Latin) Ars longa, vita brevis.  Art is long, life is short.

Uneducated in poetry as I am, I am of the feeling that if it sounds like poetry – why not let it be poetry. However, I think Ogden Nash got it right with the internal rhyming of:

Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.

If you have any short poems you’d like to share, do leave a comment.
Thank you and good night!

Are there dark days coming? I don’t think so …

Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier

apocalypse_next_tuesday_1A bestseller in Germany, Safier’s novel, translated by Hilary Parnfors, got me interested within a few words of the press release in which it told how Satan, who has come back to Earth as a dead ringer for George Clooney, is recruiting horsemen for the apocalypse next week.

Gorgeous, soon-to-be-married-and-thus-no-longer-available-for-us-me, George? Nooo! But you must admit that’s one hell of a hook for a contemporary comic novel about Armageddon, guaranteed to pique the interest of readers of both sexes.  You know how it’s going to go from the first paragraph, in which we meet Marie…

There’s no way that Jesus can have looked like that, I thought to myself as I sat in the parish office staring at the painting of the Last Supper. He was a Levantine Jew, wasn’t he? So why did he look like a Bee Gee in most of the pictures?

Marie, a single, overweight thirty-something has gone to discuss her forthcoming nuptials to Sven with the Reverend Gabriel. Gabriel is challenging her desire to get married in church because he thinks she doesn’t believe enough. ‘You were already doubting God during confirmation class twenty years ago,’ he quipped.

20140715_132241_resizedMarie definitely believes in the free will approach to the Almighty, unlike her atheist sister, Kata who is a cartoonist and draws a regular strip chronicling their sibling life. Kata’s cute philosophical cartoons crop up throughout the novel, whenever there is a big question to be asked.

When Marie has a crisis of faith and jilts Sven at the altar, she retreats home to her father’s house, where her Dad’s new even-younger-than-Marie, Belarusian bride Svetlana is in place. Everyone else is happy except her, and she hates Svetlana. She moaned: ‘I was now officially a M.O.N.S.T.E.R. (i.e. Majorly Old with No Spouse, Tots, Energy or Resources).’  As if to confirm this, the roof falls in on her, literally.

However, her life will change with the arrival of a thirty-something carpenter come to make the repairs called Joshua. ‘The carpenter’s gentle, dark brown eyes seemed very serious, as if they’d already seen a thing or two.’ Yup, you’ve guessed it. It’s the Messiah, returned to Earth to thwart Satan and reclaim Earth for God. Joshua hand’t reckoned on arriving in a little town in Germany though, let alone meeting a third rather outspoken and tomboyish Mary in his life.

What follows is one of those When Harry Met Sally type of romances, with added Satan doing nasty things in the background.  Joshua has a lot of wising-up to do to exist in the 21st century – being nice isn’t good enough. Marie finds herself falling for this old soul, and their one step forward, two steps back relationship is rather charming.  I’ll refer you to the Book of Revelations for an idea of how it all might end …

I did enjoy this book a lot, but I don’t think it was entirely successful as a comedy. Although I’m a non-believer, I did like the way it didn’t make fun of Jesus or God, just the situations they were in, but there wasn’t enough of Satan. He could have been more like Bulgakov’s devil, whipping up the townspeople more, creating more obstacles for Marie and Joshua to overcome. Instead he was mostly absent in the middle of the book, and just left them to get on with it.

The novel is set in a small town in Germany and, like the Asterix books, all the German idioms and references have been translated into the appropriate English ones. Sometimes this jarred a little; Marie would comment for instance, ‘There seemed to be more sex and crime in this book [the bible] than on Channel 5.’  There were many pop music references but I suspect that many, if not most of them, also appear in the German.

I found this novel chucklesome rather than laugh out loud, (unlike the wonderful Rev Diaries) but it would make a diverting summer holiday read. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier, pub May 2014 by Hesperus Press, paperback 272 pages.

Is it raining?

robin page bookI’ve been dipping into my lovely little book of weather lore again (a previous dipping here) to see what Robin Page has to say about St Swithin’s Day – I’m sure you all know the proverb:  One version goes like this…

St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

Page says:  Even now farmers take this date very seriously, for a dry St Swithin’s can mean a less worrrying harvest. On our farm we certainly take notice of the weather on 15 July and view rain on that day with anxiety.  

St Swithun was Bishop of Winchester in the 9th Century. According to legend he asked to be buried where rain would fall on him, and was buried in the churchyard. Later though, his remains were brought into the cathedral, and he was said to be so angry it rained for forty days and they moved him back outside again! (Various versions of this story can be found in/on different sources.)

english yearIn The English Year – another lovely book on my shelves – a sort of almanac of folklore and traditions, it also suggests that St Swithin’s day was crucial to the apple crop.

“You won’t have the jam made till the apples are christened … We never eat or cut apples until St Swithin has christened them.”

However, the Met Office says it’s never been proven – since records began back in 1861 there have never been 40 consecutive dry or wet days starting on St Swithin’s day.  That’s fair enough, for forty days is a long time – however depending on where the jet stream lies apparently, it does tend to be either unsettled and damp or dry and settled so a predominance of rain or sunshine over the forty days is much more probable …

Happy St. Swithin’s (or St Swithun’s) day!  

Books of the year … so far

As we’re just past halfway through the year, I thought I’d take a quick look back at my favourites so far – all books getting 10/10 from me…

tigermanI’ll start at the top – my book of the year, so far, is one I’ve recently reviewed for issue two of Shiny New Books. Tigerman was the first novel I’ve read by the amazing Nick Harkaway. I loved this book, and I became a complete fangirl (if you can say that of a 54-year-old woman – Ed) when I met him at a recent event (see here). Tigerman is an eco-thriller about an post-empire island paradise and features superheroes and romance in a style Graham Greene would have been proud of. And, I’ve got Nick’s first two novels still to read – Yay!

hangover squareBack in January, I experienced the beautiful prose of Patrick Hamilton for the first time when I read Hangover Square. This story of unrequited love in darkest Earls Court just before the war was simply stunning. Very dark though… See my review here.

Life-After-LifeI’d been put off reading Kate Atkinson by not liking her debut when I tried it many years ago. I’m so glad our book group chose Life after Life – for I loved it. It’s sheer cleverness won me over within pages and then I started to appreciate the writing. See my review here.

It’s back to Shiny New Books for two last favourites – well it is a book recommendations site after all:

bedsit disco queenBedsit Disco Queen is Tracey Thorn’s autobiography of her life in the world of pop and it is such fun and so brilliantly written all the way through (unlike a certain other popstar’s memoir!). You don’t need to be a fan of Everything But the Girl, the band which formed the major part of her musical career, but after reading this you’ll want to be one.

into the treesAnd lastly, Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Everything that forests stand for, both good and bad, is used to great effect in this understated contemporary novel about the effects a forest has on a family living in it. It deserves a wider readership – see my review here.

So that’s my top five so far out of over sixty books read. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re still in my books of the year by the end of December.  There’s some big names coming up for autumn – McEwan, Waters, Amis, and John Cleese’s memoir to mention just a few that I’ll be reading…

What has been your best read of the year so far? Do share …

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To explore any of these titles further on Amazon, click on the author name below:
Harkaway, Hamilton, Atinson, Thorn, Williams.

 

What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

accidents-happen-978033054501301

I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.