784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

It’s very likely that had our bookgroup not picked this novel, that The Goldfinch would have stayed on my shelves, unread, (beside Wolf Hall and The Luminaries), for much longer.

I had to read it (well, I could have cribbed notes but didn’t), but I’m so glad I took the time to read its 784 pages in hardback, the weight of which is almost enough to give you a wrist injury propping up the book. (Shame about how they plastered the paperback cover with plaudits by the way.) So much has been written about the book that I won’t dwell on the plot, just jot some thoughts down…

Tartt is a descriptive writer – she tells you everything about a scene – she wants you to see her vision, not to have your own about what you’re reading. This leads to some very long sections – for instance: the bit where Theo is back in New York and bumps into Platt Barbour who tells him all about his father’s death; this took acres of print – much like some of the scenes in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (which is even longer at 900+ pages) where one poker game in the latrines took over twenty pages of small type.

While Tartt’s descriptive writing is lovely and you could, if you wanted to, relish every word, it is at the expense of pace and the novel always takes a long time to get anywhere. I know a lot of you did love her long-windedness but I longed for an editor to help produce the five hundred page literary thriller that lurks underneath all those extra words. It almost feels like heresy to say it, but I felt the same way about The Secret History when I read it twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I did I really enjoy reading The Goldfinch, but the middle does sag a bit plotwise and could have been tauter.

There were, however, two things about The Goldfinch that I adored – the first is Hobie.

He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.

I won’t begrudge Tartt her description of Hobie for first impressions do matter! (Note she uses ‘gray’ rather than grey – very poetic.) I immediately identified Hobie as a gentle giant Ron Perlman type but with some of the growl of Tom Waits – and an ideal surrogate father for Theo. Hobie was a real gent and I loved him.

The second is Boris – an out and out scoundrel, but his heart is in the right place when he befriends Theo. They met at school in Las Vegas:

The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper into his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change – same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.

Although nothing in this novel is ordinary, these two characters lift the narrative immensely. Theo is very much a blank canvas and these two paint his life and help him to unchain himself from the goldfinch’s perch he would otherwise end up on. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist that last sentence.)

No-one in our book group hated the novel although some, like me, wished it could have been shorter. We had extensive discussions – somewhat unusual in a book that everyone liked, but not surprising for a novel of this quality, there was universal agreement that Hobie and Boris were utterly brilliant characters.

In answer to my question at the top – was it worth taking the time to read? Emphatically, Yes! (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, pub Oct 2013 by Little Brown. Abacus paperback 880 pages.

When your best friends don’t get on …

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

gossip UK trade paperback cover

When the UK edition of Beth Gutcheon’s 2012 novel came out last year, I couldn’t resist the cover and oversized paperback format. However, that gorgeous cover is no more than a single snapshot in the lives of the three women it follows …

We start in 1960, when Loviah French is fifteen and enrolling at Miss Pratt’s – a boarding high school for girls in New York. Lovie’s family are from Maine, and she’s a country girl having a hard time at settling into this exclusive school that her folks can’t really afford.

Thank heavens for Dinah.  They met on their first day at school and will remain best of friends for life through thick and thin. Dinah’s father is a teacher at the school in an exclusive gated community in New England, so Dinah is outside that set, but a keen observer of how it all works, and she takes Lovie under her wing.

Lovie’s other real friend is Avis – the shy only daughter of a socialite couple. They also meet at Miss Pratt’s when Avis, three years older, is assigned to be a mentor to Lovie in the classes in etiquette and conversation leading up to coming out as debutantes. Although Avis and Dinah know of each other, at this stage they are individually friends with Lovie.

Lovie narrates their story and tells how they all came by their careers – Lovie being apprenticed to a dress designer, and eventually setting up an exclusive boutique of her own; Dinah becoming a journalist and having a successful gossip column; and Avis indulging her love of art being an expert at an auction house.

It’s 1983 and Dinah and Avis are/have been married/divorced and had children, Lovie is still single, but does have a devoted lover – shame he can’t leave his wife. Anyway, Lovie sets up a lunch for the three of them…

‘Doesn’t it seem a century ago that we were all locked up at Miss Pratt’s? To me it seemed like something out of Jane Eyre.’
‘Oh,’ said Avis gratefully, ‘that’s just what I thought! I was so homesick I wanted to weep, most of the time. …

… Avis and I were warming to our topic. She said, ‘I was used to having the city as my backyard. I missed the Met, I missed the symphony, I missed the art house cinema on weekends.’
‘I thought the whole thing was kind of a hoot,’ said Dinah.
I knew perfectly well she had hated every minute of it. Avis, caught up short, didn’t seem to know what to do.
‘You did not,’ I said.
‘I did. I decided to see if I could break every rule in their pompous little book without getting kicked out, and except for never having a boy in my roo, I think I did it.’
Avis look bewildered. …

… ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the world has changed so much, it all seems quaint now. Think of life before the Pill, or Our Bodies, Ourselves, or Ms. magazine. Before women could be doctors or lawyers-‘
Avis broke in, ‘Isn’t it true? And it’s not just women in professions … in our parents’ world, the professions themselves weren’t really acceptable, were they? Somehow gentlemen lawyers were all right, but when you were growing up, did your parents know doctors or schoolteachers socially?’
My heart had sunk into my shoes. I was saying to myself, Dinah, don’t say it, please don’t say it, when Dinah said, ‘My father is a schoolteacher.’

So Avis and Dinah could never be friends, and Lovie sees them separately through the decades. It is not until Avis’ daughter Grace meets Dinah’s son Nicky and marriage beckons, that they are forced to develop an arms-length relationship. There is a lot of drama along the way as families change over the decades, and it takes us up through 9/11 to a shocking climax that will shock all three to the core. Lovie tells it all.

gossip-pb-300As a result, this novel does rather meander through the years, but the author’s development of the three main characters is such that we do want to follow their lives. Avis may be rich, but she does have difficulties at home; Dinah comes unstuck as a gossip columnist when she uncovers unethical goings on; and Loviah is there throught thick and thin – their loyal supporter. Poor Lovie, she gets used by everyone including her best friends. You can sense that although she loves her gentleman friend, she misses having a family of her own, so makes sure that she is the best Godmother her friends’ children could have.

Beth Gutcheon’s narrator, Lovie, is a wonderful character. She has an eye for detail, setting the scene as the years go by through the fashions and styles of the day.  Dinah is the loud and confident friend that all quieter girls need to bring them out of their shells – but she is rather apt to shoot her mouth off. It was shy and sad Avis I felt for – despite being rich, she proves that money isn’t everything.

The blurb suggests that this novel is ‘in the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s classic The Group, however I (still) haven’t read that yet.  The Group is set much earlier, during the 1930s, but I could compare this book with other New York stories – Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Gossip holds up well to the former, but I did like the Towles more.

Once we got past the schooldays, I really enjoyed reading this novel, absorbing myself in the lives of these three women.  Lovie dispenses her secrets gradually and the slowburn was worth staying with making this a satisfying read. (7.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. Atlantic Books 2013, Trade paperback, 288 pages. Std paperback now available too.
Valley Of The Dolls (VMC) by Jacqueline Susann
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The Group (VMC) by Mary McCarthy

The loneliness of genteel old age…

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey

This is only the second novel by Elizabeth Taylor that I have read, the first was In a Summer Season (reviewed here), but thanks to her popularity amongst many of my blogging friends I feel as if I know her works better than I do in reality.

The edition of Mrs Palfrey I read was the film tie-in one with the same introduction, given to me by a secret Santa a couple of years ago; I have only now got around to reading it! Last month Virago Modern Classics gave it a new livery adding it to their hardback collection (below).

For those unfamiliar with the story, a few lines of introduction:

Laura Palfrey is recently widowed, and as the book opens she is moving into the Claremont Hotel on the Brompton Road in Kensington. She will be a long-term resident of this affordable establishment, but doesn’t plan to stay there forever. One day out for a walk, she takes a tumble and is rescued by a young man who ekes out an existence while he writes his magnum opus. Mrs Palfrey and Ludovic strike up a friendship. He appears genuinely interested in old people, and when Mrs Palfrey is shamed by her grandson Desmond not coming to visit her at the hotel, she persuades Ludo to be a stand-in, and indeed she becomes a bit of a surrogate granny to him. Eventually the real Desmond will turn up to complicate matters.

Mrs P VMC Hdbk

The novel also follows the other older inhabitants of the Claremont, a collection of old ladies and one gent who have nothing better to do than gossip about each other until it’s gin o’clock, when they repair to dinner, each at their own table.

Mrs Palfrey’s urge to ask Ludo to pretend to be her grandson gives her a frisson of excitement. He comes to dinner at the Claremont, and Ludo is eyeing up the other residents as they in turn are watching him…

Ludo leaned back easily, but his eyes were darting to and fro, noting everything, noting Mrs Arbuthnot noting him, and Mrs Post, in her sad pot-pourri colours, fussing over her knitting.
‘Over there is Mrs Arbuthnot,’ Mrs Palfrey said, in a low voice to Ludo. ‘With the sticks.’
‘I thought so. I shouldn’t be afraid of her, you know. Although you seem very much the new girl around here.’
‘Of course. Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’
‘It has entered her soul.’
‘But we aren’t allowed to die here.’
He threw back his head and laughed.
‘But isn’t that sad?’ she asked doubtfully.
‘I don’t see anything sad about you,’ he said. He thought, I mayn’t write it down; but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. By Ludovic Myers.

The residents at the Claremont don’t get much excitement – so a new face is subjected to much speculation and scrutiny, and each piece of information extracted over sherry before dinner, is devoured and saved up for use another day. They don’t seem to really make friends with each other though – all being rather set in their ways.

Of course, eventually, they reach a state of such decrepitude that they must leave one way or another, something Mrs Arbuthnot is having to consider …

The time was coming, she knew, when she would no longer be able to manage for herself, with her locked and swollen joints, and so much pain. The Claremont was the last freedom she had left, and she wanted it for as long as she could have it. She knew the sequence, had foreseen it. Her total incapacity: a nursing-home then, at more expense than the Claremont, and being kept in bed all the time for the convenience of the nursing staff. Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her. Or – in the end – the geriatric ward of some hospital.
Can’t die here, she thought, in the middle of this night. And there might be years and years until that. Arthritis did not kill. One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices. For her, the Claremont was only just achieved. Down the ladder she obviously would have to go.

The other residents are also well-drawn, but it wasn’t until I read Dovegreyreader’s post here that I got the joke about one of them – Mrs Burton, who likes a tipple – and turns out to be a little parody of the author’s more famous namesake, and is growing old slightly disgracefully. I loved reading about the residents of the Claremont.

Now to Ludo, being young and easily distracted, he on one hand is less interesting, but he is also unusual in his concern for Mrs Palfrey. Of course she becomes a bit of a project for him, but his motives don’t (on a first reading at least) appear mercenary – indeed it is touching that he works as a waiter to replay a loan which Mrs P gives him to help out his mother. It was such a shame that Mrs P’s own family didn’t show any of Ludo’s concern.

Despite the central theme of the sadness of growing old on one’s own, Taylor adds so many humorous touches, she seems to combine the two extremes perfectly to make a whole that is a joy to read. This novel isn’t as grim as Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (reviewed here), another 1970s novel of old folk, but Taylor’s keen eye sees all – and I will look forward to re-reading this book in due course to spot other nuances that I’ve missed on my first reading. (9.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Elizabeth Taylor, new Hdbk edition from VMC – other formats available, 208 pages.

“The extraordinary happens every day”

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

Having wept like a baby during reading Ness’s last crossover novel, A Monster Calls (my review here) – a story about a young boy coming to terms with love, death and grief, and incorporating magical elements and fables, The Crane Wife – his first full adult novel seems a natural progression.

crane wifeThe Crane Wife is the story of George, a good man who inspires loyalty in those around him, but needs direction in his mid-life. One night he wakes to find an injured white crane in his garden. He breaks the arrow through its wing, rescuing it, and it flies away.

Amanda, George’s daughter is also struggling with life at the moment – she’s angry with everything and everyone, especially her boss Rachel – the only exceptions are her father and her young son JP.

George runs a print shop, assisted by Mehmet an out of work actor who is pretty useless but a good friend. George tends to leave the front of the shop to Mehmet so he can hide away in the back room where he makes pictures with cuttings from old books.

To take his blade and cut into the pages of a book felt like such a taboo, such a transgression against everything he held dea, George still half-expected them to bleed every time he did it.
He loved physical books with the same avidity other people loved horses or wine or prog rock. He’d never really warmed to e-books because they seemed to reduce a book to a computer file, and computer fies were disposable things, things you never really owned. He had no emails from ten years ago but still owned every book he bought that year. Besides, what was more perfect an object than a book?

When the mysterious Kumiko, an artist, appears at his print shop dressed in white, they start dating. She appears to be the answer to all that is missing in his life. What’s more, his paper cutting complements her intricate collages made from feathers. Put together onto one tile, their art attracts attention – and buyers.

George has never been happier, yet the arrival of Kumiko on the scene does complicate life for all around him.  She is an enigma, George knows nothing about her, he just accepts her for what she is…

Interwoven into the contemporary story is that of an old Japanese folk tale re-told by Ness, about an unlikely love story between a crane and a volcano. This parallel narrative worked well, Ness having found an entirely natural way to work it into the main story through Kumiko’s art; she is recreating the story in her tiles, now with added cuttings from George worked into them.

 ‘… A story needs to be told. A story must be told. How else can we live in this world that makes no sense?’
‘How else can we live with the extraordinary?’ George murmured.
‘Yes,’ Kumiko said, seriously. ‘Exactly that. The extraordinary happens all the time. So much, we can’t take it. Life and happiness and heartache and love. If we couldn’t put it into a story – ‘
‘And explain it-‘
‘No!’ she said, suddenly sharp. ‘Not explain. Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flowers. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.’ She sagged a little, as if exhausted by this speech. ‘As it surely, surely would.’

I love stories in which authors make magic a natural extension of life. I thought that Ness achieved this here with ease, weaving in the Japanese folk tale with the extraordinary real events.

He also made George and Amanda easy to love. Amanda in particular, is one those characters you can easily empathise with – we’ve all been there at different times in our lives. Her pent-up anger at her lot, keeps spilling over and alienating those around her – her husband left her, she has few if any friends, and a very sparky relationship with her work colleagues, it’s a good thing she has George and JP. George meanwhile is so good, he needs his edges rubbing off.  Kumiko is harder to fathom, but she is the cypher through whom the others will work out their problems.

Once again, Ness tugged at my heart-strings and although there are some light-hearted moments, I read large parts of the novel with a tear in my eye, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous.  (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, pub April 2013, Canongate hardback or trade paperback, 305 pages.

Gone Girl meets The Secret History – not quite, but a good try

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

Amelia

When a novel sets itself up on the front cover to be compared to Gone Girl (my review here), and in other places I’ve seen it compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, it raises the bar rather high…

Kate is a hard-working lawyer and single mum to teenage daughter Amelia, who appears to have been doing alright at her posh Brooklyn high school, despite her workaholic mum’s absences, and not knowing who her father is. When she is at home, Kate tries really hard and she and Amelia have a good relationship but, as she will find out, she has no idea at all of what’s going on in her daughter’s life, until one tragic day.

On that day, Kate is about to start one of the biggest presentations of her career, when she gets a call from her daughter’s school.  Amelia, the hard-studying, academic, over-achieving student has been suspended for plagiarising an essay about Virginia Woolf, and Kate is required to collect her pronto.  By the time Kate arrives, having got delayed in the subway, Amelia is dead.  They say she jumped off the school roof.

It’s not until a couple of months later that Kate is together enough to question things, and when she receives an anonymous text that matches her own instincts – Amelia didn’t jump, she persuades the police to reopen the investigation. Gradually Kate, and Detective Lew Thompson will piece together what happened, as layer upon layer of secrets and lies are exposed. No-one, it seems, is squeaky clean – teachers, parents, pupils, friends, or colleagues, and the school is awash with teenagers exploring their sexuality, secret clubs and bullying.

The story mainly alternates between Kate and Amelia’s voices through flashbacks. Kate’s chapters are mostly in the present as she investigates her daughter’s life. Her past sections are from 1997, when she as a promising young lawyer got pregnant. Amelia’s chapters are all from the months preceding her death, and they include her text messages and Facebook statuses. The only times we don’t hear from Kate or Amelia are blog posts from the school’s anonymously authored scandal sheet.

I predicted the key ending early on, but other developments were less telegraphed, and there were some genuine surprises.  Although Kate was being put through the wringer with everything that happened, and for a mother losing a child is such a tragedy, I found Kate’s need for validation that she wasn’t really a bad mother a little tiring.  I was more interested in Amelia’s story and finding out the identities of secret texters and bloggers.

Despite the book being based around a high school, there is too much sex and swearing to recommend this as a YA novel, but it should appeal to slightly older New Adult readers.  I enjoyed it too, but it’s not in the same league as those other two page-turners I mentioned back at the top. (7/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight, Simon & Schuster paperback 2013, 380 pages.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’…

The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson

almost lizardI’m twenty-one years old today, and once I’ve finished this little introduction I’m going to kill myself. …

Not many can spend their final few weeks on this earth writing their autobiography, a to-the-minute summary of all that has occurred within their lifespan. But most of us leave this world not of our own volition. Most of us make the decision to hang on in there as if life is some precious gift that we must savour every moment of. Not me. I’ve run my course and the day I finish writing my life story – today – is the day I have chosen to die.

Yup, we know how this book is meant to end from the first page.  This whole novel is in the form of ‘possibly the longest suicide ever committed to paper.’  The book is not about how it ends for Danny Lizar, but how it got to this point…

As in most memoirs, Daniel starts by telling us about his parents. His mother, Jacqui, was the favoured older half of a pair of identical twins, born either side of midnight August 31st, meaning they were forced into different years at school by an unbending system and never bonded the way most twins do. His father, Malcolm, was brought up in a Blackpool B&B where he learned the trade as a youngster and charmed the guests. They met when Malcolm, who had been dating twin Anne, unwittingly slept with Jacqui, and realised she was the real love of his life, further alienating Anne of course.

So the stage is set-up for family life chez Lizar, (Daniel never explains where his father got his surname from). As a child, Daniel has a fairly normal life, although his father works away during the week as a restaurant manager, and he doesn’t find out about bad Auntie Anne for years.  He does have a best friend though in Alex, and their parents also become best of friends too.

The seeds that will grow up to shape Daniel’s life are sown when he becomes addicted to watching soap operas on the TV with his mum, while his dad is working.  He cautiously tries some of the things he sees on screen  – he changes the story he was meant to read to a younger class to a deliberately nasty and provocative one he composed, and is secretly pleased by the reaction from the kids and their parents.  He seeds rumours to rid himself of friends he doesn’t want – this deals with the Dominic problem, but he upsets Alex to in the process – but not for long.

Daniel starts to get obsessed, and out on his paper-round, he replay scenes in his head, writing himself into the script.  Before long he has developed his own soap concept ‘The Almost Lizard’, and it stars him as ‘Danny’ – and his family and friends, he imagines the storyline, framing and filming it in his head.

But then, Daniel takes it to the next step. He makes his life into the soap, and begins to use anyone who can move the storyline along in real life.  He manipulates  them all – as Danny. He uses rumour, being disruptive in class, cultivating the wrong type of friends, saying things for effect – anything to get the scene in the can.

He saves being normal Daniel for home where he studiously makes sure he keeps up with his homework so his parents and the school aren’t too concerned with his behaviour.

However, Daniel is well aware of the power of the cliffhanger ending to soap episodes, and how they save major ones for Christmas.  The Lizars and Alex’s family, the Proctors always spend Christmas together, and Danny engineers a spectacular climax that took weeks in the planning and that will blow the two families apart.

Being Danny has become an addiction for Daniel. His real and fantasy personalities are becoming integrated into one. He tries to disengage from his soap, but when the sniff of a good new storyline comes along, he knows he shouldn’t do it, but he can’t resist, even if he has to play the victim sometimes – as a lead character, he has to keep his popularity up after all.  There is almost nothing that Daniel/Danny won’t do to get the shot.

It continues right up into college and one eventful holiday with friends to Majorca before something happens and real life catches up with Daniel – making him a character in someone else’s storyline…

Higgerson just about pulls it off with his creation of Daniel, whose voice tells his story with the requisite drama, leavened by humour – it’s not all darkness.  He manages to keep just enough of the normal, likeable teenager that Daniel can be in his narration to make us care about what’s going to happen.  All the time we’re waiting to see whether Daniel is able to snap out of being Danny, to stop being on the road to becoming a fully-fledged sociopath.

Knowing from the start of the book that Daniel intends to die at the end of it, we can read his story as a confession, finally atoning for all the wrong-doings, the manipulation, the hurtful deeds and words, all done to the people he cares for the most. This allows us to have some sympathy with him as he realises the repercussions of all that he has done.

Call me cynical, but you can also read this confession in another way – with Danny, not Daniel as its author. The arch-manipulator, an unreliable narrator making us, his audience – for we should never forget that he needs one, part of his story too. That thought gives me the creeps slightly!

At 460 pages, this book is long – although it does have two lives, Daniel and Danny to chronicle. It was in the best soap tradition, thoroughly page-turning and full of big moments and cliff-hangers.  Some actors in soaps end up typecast and mistaken for their characters in real life when their personalities are quite different; we the audience tend to encourage this in our celebrity-obsessed times. Daniel is sort of the reverse of this.

An interesting and thought-provoking debut from a promising young author. (8/10)

P.S. The quotation at the top is from the song ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’ which was written in 1964 for Nina Simone.  I was previously only aware of the hit version by The Animals from 1965.

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Almost Lizardby James Higgerson, Legend Press paperback, March 2013, 460 pages

A book that wants to be a family saga

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman A proof copy of this book has languished on my shelves since its publication in 2011. I generally prefer not to read books that are getting all the hype during the hype, so, during the final days of my TBR pledge for this year, it was finally time to read it, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it a lot.

But, and there is a but …  In common with many debut novels, it felt like the author was just overflowing with ideas and had to cram them all into this book so they were used and didn’t disappear into the ether.

When God Was a Rabbit is the story of Elly and cover her entire life so far from 1968 to recent years. Elly narrates her story:

I decided to enter this world just as my mother got off the bus after an unproductive shopping trip to Ilford. She’d gone to chance a pair of trousers and distracted by my shifting position found it impossible to choose between patched denims or velvet flares, and fearful that my place of birth would be a department store, she made a staggered journey back to the safe confines of her postcode where her waters broke just as the heavens opened. And during the seventy yard walk back down to our house, her amniotic fluid mixed with the December rain and spiralled down the gutter until the cycle of life was momentously and, one might say, poetically mingled.

We are introduced to Elly’s family – her mother and father and brother Joe, who was five years older than her and, of course, her pet rabbit whom she called ‘God’. We meet her neighbours including Mr Golan, about whom a rather unwholesome mystery will linger throughout the story.  We also meet Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend, who will come to play a major part in the older Elly’s life after disappearing  for the middle of the book.

During this period Elly’s family relocate to Cornwall after a win on the football pools. They open a B&B which becomes home to a collection of oddballs – a loveable old chap, Arthur; his friend Ginger – an ageing chanteuse with a good Shirley Bassey impression; and Alfie – an ex-con who becomes their driver.

It’s an idyllic place to come of age, but everyone grows up and goes out into the world.  First Joe, whose heart is broken by his first love Charlie, and then Elly, who finds it hard to settle at anything; life for Elly is full of ups and downs.

I enjoyed Winman’s writing which, section by section, matches Elly’s moods, going from the childlike questioning and naturally funny to practical, restless, melancholy, fretful and just now and then joyful or triumphant.  I particularly enjoyed all the characters of her family friends and her big brother – theirs is such a strong bond.

Winman has managed to fill Elly’s first decades with so much life and love in all its forms, one wonders what this girl did next.  Elly’s story has the feel of book that wants to be a family saga, but falls a little short of being the kind of epic that it would like to be.  However,  I do hope that Winman didn’t exhaust all her ideas in this debut novel, as I’m looking forward to more – this was an easy and enjoyable read.

* * * * *
My review copy came via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman. Headline review paperback, 352 pages.

An unusual friendship

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

universe vs alex woods Alex Woods is an unique young boy. It’s not that he is prime material for bullying because his single mum is a clairvoyant white witch who runs a new-age shop in Glastonbury, he has a much more bizarre claim to fame that has come to dominate his early life.

When Alex was ten, he was hit on the head by a 2.3kg meteor that came through the bathroom roof. He was in a coma for thirteen days, had brain surgery and a plate put in his head. No-one thought he would survive, but he did and was quite the celebrity for a while. It left him with epilepsy, but it didn’t dim his geekiness; and he did get a meteorite out of it. Alex has to learn coping strategies for his epilepsy, helped by his consultant, Dr Enderby…

I watched my breath. I counted to fifty. I named each of the planets and major moons in turn, starting at the sun and working my way out to the Kuiper Belt. I listed every character from The Simpsons I could think of. I remained calm and alert and banished any distractions into a separate corner of my mind and focused my attention like a laser. It was a very strange experience. I told Dr Enderby that it felt like Jedi training. Dr Enderby replied that it was like Jedi training. It was a form of mediation – a way of helping my brain to stay poised and peaceful.

Later, Alex is again running from the bullies, he hides in a greenhouse which gets smashed. It belongs to Mr Petersen, a reclusive widower and Vietnam veteran who’d settled in England. Instructed by his mother to help Mr Petersen as penance for getting the greenhouse broken, the gruff old soldier and the  teenager begin to strike up a friendship which is cemented by Mr P introducing Alex to the books of his favourite author – Kurt Vonnegut.

I don’t want to tell you any more of the story, because it’s rather brilliant, and if it sounds like a book you may like, you should discover it for yourselves.

The novel begins as a light-hearted tale of friendship – the young Alex has a slight hint of Adrian Mole about him. No prior knowledge of Kurt Vonnegut is needed, but anyone who does know him will chuckle when Alex reads Breakfast of Champions. (I too read this as a teenager from the library – had to hide it from my parents at the time, as it’s full of doodles of *ahem* ‘wide-open beavers’ amongst other more normal things. Now, decades later, I can’t remember the book – only those illustrations!)

Naturally, Mr Petersen becomes a father figure to Alex, and their relationship deepens, as does the tone of the novel. What started off as funny and quirky, takes on a serious tone as things happen. Throughout it all though, as he grows up, Alex retains his essential Alex-ness which, however heart-breaking things get, (which is very), makes him a loveable and fascinating companion.

If you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, you will probably like Extence’s debut novel, The Universe Vs Alex Woods, as I did. (9/10)

* * * * *
I read an ARC received through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. Pub Jan 31st by Hodder & Stoughton
Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A young woman’s A to Z

Something Beginning With by Sarah Salway

At first glance you might write this book off as chicklit with a gimmick – for it is written in an A to Z format with entries under key words and phrases. The longest entries are no more than a couple of pages, and they’re all cross-referenced with an index at the back too. This may seem to imply that the novel could be read in any order by jumping back and forward following the references, however you would miss the layers of nuance and subtlety building up – and a real sense of anticipation that things are going to happen.

Twentysomething Verity works as a secretary in a magazine publishing company and she really enjoys her job. Her parents are dead, and she modestly lives alone in a flat, although as an heiress she could afford better. She’s known her best friend Sally since school, and she worries about her. Sally has become the mistress of a married millionaire – surely it can’t work. Then as Sally’s relationship deteriorates, Verity too falls for a married man.

These relationships are the meat of this novel, but in between them are Verity’s musings on life, the universe and everything. She is delightfully naive and quietly eccentric. Within the first few alphabetical vignettes you warm to her completely. The following is typical:

Phantom E-mails
The first time I e-mailed myself, it was just a joke. To see what would happen. Dear Verity, I wrote, You are my life. Every time I wake up, I wish you were next to me. Nothing is worth us being apart.
And then one click of a button and it was gone. I forgot all about it, but the next time I checked my e-mails, I felt a rush of joy when I found there was one waiting for me in my in-box.”

This engaging novel can be read in one session. It was Salway’s debut and is totally delightful, it is both frothy and darkly witty, and occasionally sad. It also has many good things to say about friendship, relationships and standing up for oneself. Pure chicklit it most definitely is not – and this is a very good thing.

When friendship is put to the test …

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

Helen’s old friend Nicola is coming to stay with her for three weeks while she undergoes an alternative cancer treatment – everything is ready for her. When Nicola arrives, it’s immediately clear that she’s in a really bad state and that even though she won’t admit it, she hasn’t that long to live. Helen has to cope on two fronts – having to be her friend’s carer, and also she’s full of anger at the useless yet expensive treatment Nicola’s receiving – it doesn’t help at all, and Helen is left to pick up the pieces.

This short novel, written after a friend of the author died from cancer, is the brutally honest story of a friendship that is tested to the limit, and the straws people will cling to in the belief that it’ll do them good. Told from Helen’s point of view, you’ll laugh, cry and get angry with her all the way through, and it gives a real glimpse of what it’s like to be a carer – even if only for a short while.

If you’d like to read more, a short interview with the author and excellent review can be found on dovegreyreader scribbles. This novel was fully expected to make the Booker longlist last year but, inexplicably to many, didn’t appear – maybe its brevity got it held back. There was a lot of discussion about whether On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan was a novel or novella the previous year. On a final note, don’t you think the original hardback cover (top right) says a lot that the new paperback cover (top left) doesn’t? (Book supplied by Librarything Early Reviewers programme)