It’s a break-up novel…

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

10798418Daniel Handler, best-known as the author of the Lemony Snicket series of books for children has also written several novels for adults; I reviewed one of them – Adverbs here. Like Lemony Snicket, Adverbs was quirky and full of off-beat humour. Why We Broke Up is a little different in style. It’s still quirky, but its humour is more ironic and very bittersweet – it is, after all, a break-up story.

It sits firmly in crossover territory – being published in the UK under Egmont’s YA imprint, Electric Monkey, but is actually a sophisticated tale that teens and adults can enjoy alike. Each chapter is prefixed by a colour illustration by Maira Kalman and these are equally quirky and fit the novel’s style perfectly. One last bonus is that on the inside cover – instead of publicity puffs from other authors and celebs, there are short paragraph teenaged break-up stories from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, David Levithan and Holly Black – some of the cream of current YA writers – a neat touch. This is backed up by a Tumblr blog where readers can share their own break-up stories.

Why We Broke Up is the story of the short-lived relationship between Min Green and Ed Slaterton, as told by Min. It starts:

Dear Ed,
In a sec you’ll hear a thunk. At your front door, the one nobody uses. […]
The thunk is the box, Ed. This is what I am leaving you. […] Every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and the debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb. I’m dumping the whole box back into your life, Ed, every item of you and me. I’m dumping this box on your porch, Ed, but it is you, Ed, who is getting dumped.

She’s not bitter at all then?!  They meet at a party, not the usual type of one Ed goes to. He’s a jock, one of the stars of the basketball team – he only goes to non-jock parties when they lose.

– and then you asked me my name. I told you it was Min, short for Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, because my dad was getting his master’s when I was born, and that, don’t even ask, no you couldn’t, only my grandmother could call me Minnie because, she told me and I imitated her voice, she loved me the best of anyone.

You said your name was Ed. Like I might not know that. I asked you how you lost.

“Don’t,” you said. “If I have to tell you how we lost, it will hurt all of my feelings.”

I liked that, all of my feelings. “Every last one?” I asked. “Really?”

“Well,” you said, and took a sip, “I might have one or two left. I might still have a feeling.”

I had a feeling too. Of course you told me anyway, Ed, because you’re a boy, how you lost the game.

We then go on to work our way through the box with Min explaining each item’s significance chronologically. The first item is a movie ticket from their first date. Min is an arts student and an aficionado of old movies. She and Ed go to see Greta in the Wild, which stars the beautiful, young Lottie Carson. As first dates go it’s a success and Ed is amazed by this quirky ‘different’ girl who persuades him that an old black and white film is the business! He indulges Min who is convinced that an old lady who goes to see all these vintage films is Lottie Carson herself – and this becomes a bit of an obsession for Min which escalates throughout the novel.

Romance blossoms for Min and Ed, despite Min’s BF Al and Ed’s older sister Joan knowing it’ll never work. Geeks and Jocks just aren’t really made for each other – they’re too ‘different’. Min has a go at watching basketball practice along with all the other jock’s girlfriends who seem happy to be bored out of their brains on the benches – it’s so obviously not her and naturally, Al feels ignored missing their after-school chats.

It works for a while though…

I loved this novel. Its monologue style reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower (review here). They may share a High School setting, but Why We Broke Up is a good old-fashioned romance, it’s not issue-led like TPOBAW, although that is one of my favourite novels of this type. The added mystery over Lottie Carson gives Why We Broke Up all the side-plot it needs although that was rather over-extended. It was, however, a relief to read compared with all the dark Issue lit on the YA shelves these days. It’ll make a great movie …

Sophisticated, tender, bittersweet, quirky, funny – this is a YA/Crossover novel to savour and enjoy. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (2012), illus Maira Kalman. Paperback (Jun 2015) Electric Monkey, 368 pages.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, paperback.

A Dance to the Music of Time 4: At Lady Molly’s

Dancing Powell

At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell

Dance 4 Lady MollysWe reach Summer with volume four of Powell’s sequence following the life of Nick Jenkins and his contemporaries.The initial three Spring novels were about growing up and establishing oneself in the world and in The Acceptance World took a rather serious turn. That done, there’s time for a breather. Summer is going to be about consolidation and much more fun; for Jenkins et al that will mean thoughts of marriage!

It starts with Jenkins remembering an episode from his childhood when he encountered Mildred Blaides at the home of General and her much older sister Mrs Conyers. in 1916 Blaides, working as an indifferent volunteer nurse is emancipated and an independent spirit, smokes ‘gaspers’, wears ‘glad rags’ and ‘beetles’ about.  This start made a change from the previous three novels which all started with Jenkins reflecting on a work of art – but I needn’t have worried for on page 10 back in 1934, Jenkins recalls Constable’s painting of Dogdene, the home of the Sleafords, which became an officers hospital during WWI.

In 1934, Jenkins has moved on from the art publishing firm and is now a scriptwriter at film studios to the west of London. It is his colleague Chips Lovell who takes him to his Aunt Molly’s (an Ardglass and sister to Lady Warminster who is stepmother to the Tolland girls, she married into the Sleafords, and is now married to Captain Teddy Jeavons – got that?). They have an open house in the evenings, (but it is a much higher class affair than the wilder nights at Mrs Andriadis’ in the second book). It is here that he finds out who the potential second husband of Mildred is:

I myself was curious to see what Mildred Blaides – or rather Mildred Haycock – might look like after all these years, half expecting her to be wearing her V.A.D. outfit and smoking a cigarette. But when my eyes fell on the two of them, it was the man, not the woman, who held my attention. Life is full of internal dramas, instantaneous and sensational, played to an audience of one. This was just such a performance. The fiancé was Widmerpool. Scarlet in the face, grinning agitatedly through the thick lenses of his spectacles, he advanced into the room, his hand on Mrs. Haycock’s arm. … There was something a little frightening about him. That could not be denied. …

‘Well, he is no beauty,’ said Mrs. Conyers.

Oh dear!  It’s obvious that this relationship will be doomed from the outset, yet you have to credit Widmerpool for being so dogged in his pursuit of social standing – but to choose an older woman who is so used to getting her own way seems ridiculous. The vision of Mildred the cougar and Widmerpool the toy boy is hilarious. Mildred is a demanding fiancée and ere long Widmerpool is struck down by jaundice, leaving her to carry on regardless. Nick finds himself questioned on all sides about Widmerpool’s parentage, and then by Widmerpool himself for some advice in the bedroom department!

Inbetween, all the usual intrigue and wife-swapping goes on between Nick’s friends and acquaintances. It’s hard to keep up with them all and the families seem to be so inter-related just beyond the level that would be incest! Eventually, Nick meets Isobel Tolland and he instantly knows that she is the one.

This volume is a real comedy of manners. Widmerpool, as usual, is the target or cause of most of the happenings, but as always, he soldiers on. All the jolliness has to be played against the rise of Hitler and Fascism which is always in the background now. It will be interesting to see how WWII affects this set in subsequent volumes.  However, back to the comedy: one new character is introduced in this book who is hilarious – Smith, the butler. He buttles for Lord Warminster (brother-in-law of Lady Molly’s sister), known as Erridge or Erry. He is rude, lazy and working his way through the wine cellar – but Lady Molly borrows him from time to time. Uncle Giles only gets a mention this time, but Nick has ready-made Giles substitutes in Teddy Jeavons and General Conyers.

I really enjoyed At Lady Molly’s and am thoroughly immersed in my monthly doses of Jenkins’ world – Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant next… (9/10)

My reviews of the previous volumes:
1 – A Question of Upbringing
2 – A Buyer’s Market
3 – The Acceptance World

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
At Lady Molly’s (Dance to the Music of Time) by Anthony Powell (1957) Arrow pbk, 256 pages.

A Dance to the Music of Time 3: The Acceptance World

Dancing Powell

The Acceptance World

Dance 3 Acceptance World
We come to the third volume in Anthony Powell’s series – the last of the ‘Spring’ books. (If you’d like to catch up with volumes one and two, click accordingly.)

The Acceptance World begins with Nick Jenkins meeting his Uncle Giles at a hotel for tea. There he is introduced to Mrs Erdleigh who tells their fortunes, saying to Nick that she’ll meet him again in a year – strange company for his Uncle Giles!

At work, Jenkins is publishing a book on a noted painter of political portraits and businessmen and has approached St.John Clarke (apparently based upon John Galsworthy) to write the introduction. One of his old college contemporaries had been Clarke’s secretary, but Jenkins finds he has been replaced by on Quiggin – who has, it appears, steered Clarke in a different political direction.  Jenkins discusses Clarke’s situation being under the thumb of his new secretary with his friend Barnby:

‘I don’t think St.John Clark is interested in either sex,’ said Barnby. ‘He fell in love with himself at first sight and it is a passion to which he has always remained faithful.’

Some time later, Jenkins meets his old school-friend Peter Templer again and is invited to join them for a weekend.

That we had ceased to meet fairly regularly was due no doubt to some extent to Templer’s chronic inability – as our housemaster Le Bas would have said – to ‘keep up’ a friendship. He moved entirely within the orbit of events of the moment, looking neither forward nor backward. If we happened to run across each other, we arranged to do something together; not otherwise.

The particular excitement of this reuniting for Jenkins is that he finds out that Jean, Peter’s sister, appears to be separated from her husband DuPort. Jenkins had had a youthful passion for Jean, and this is reignited and they rekindle their affair.  In between all this there is a lot of complicated discussion about who’s seeing whom, who’s divorced whom and such shenanigans!

Jenkins is reunited with his old schoolfriends at his old housemaster’s dinner for old boys at the Ritz. Stringham is drunk and Widmerpool makes a very long and involved and very boring speech – during which Le Bas has a stroke! I shouldn’t cheer at other people’s misfortunes, but it was a great penultimate scene to bring Widmerpool back into play. He had been mentioned earlier, but hadn’t appeared until then.  It is Widmerpool who is moving from industry into the city and joining the ‘Acceptance World’.  I can hear you asking what that is – here is how Templer describes it to Nick:

‘If you have goods you want to sell to a firm in Bolivia, you probably do not touch your money in the ordinary way until the stuff arrives there. Certain houses, therefore, are prepared to ‘accept’ the debt. They will advance you the money on the strength of your reputation. It is all right when the going is good, but sooner or later you are tempted to plunge. Then there is an alteration in the value of the Bolivian exchange, or a revolution, or perhaps the firm just goes bust – and you find yourself stung. That is, if you guess wrong.’

Any clearer?  I assume they refer to the futures and/or bond markets…

There are other forms of acceptance at work in this novel too. Nick, who does have to work for a living, is becoming accepted in all the walks of society in which he moves. He seems more mature than most of his friends, and while not immune to love affairs, is not the type to swap partners that way most of the others seem to do with monotonous regularity.  For his capricious upper class  friends, marriage and divorce don’t seem to mean a lot.  Nick, as Widmerpool has too, has resisted marriage – how long can they last as bachelors?  What will happen to Peter and Jean?

Widmerpool’s appearance aside, volume three was a lot more serious than the first two, and I missed the comedy he brings with him. I know I have a Widmerpool-fest to come in the next novel – the first of the ‘Summer’ books.  I’m looking forward to April’s Powell episode. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own Copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Acceptance World: Vol 3 (Dance to the Music of Time 03) by Anthony Powell (1955), approx 224 pages.

“I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me”

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

A novel of fragile youth and Sylvia Plath…

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

belzharuk

Meg Wolitzer is best known for her quirky feminist novels about gender politics. I admit I’ve not read any of them, although the comedy aspects of her novel The Position appeal, in which a couple’s children discover that their parents are the creators of a sex manual featuring themselves, this event having ramifications that last through the ensuing decades.

This autumn she has published her first novel for a teenaged audience and it has the potential to have some crossover appeal. More on that below, although my title of this post does give it away.

Belzhar is narrated by a teenager known as Jam, who is having mental health problems. It begins…

I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on the staff or faculty, they’ll insist I was sent here because of “the lingering effects of trauma.” Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers.

Jam knew Reeve for precisely forty-one days. He was a tenth-grade exchange student from London, spending a term at Jam’s school in New Jersey. He was very different to all the American boys, Jam describes him as looking “like a member of one of those British punk bands from the eighties that my dad still loves…” Jam fell for him hard and it seems he really liked her too, but we don’t find out until much later in the novel what happened between them and how he died.

The Wooden Barn is set deep in Vermont. It’s a really supportive community, a small school full of teenagers that need help to get their lives back to normal; no cell phones, no social media, the students are given time and space to heal.  Jam is assigned to share a room with DJ, who has eating issues and squirrels away food to binge on when stressed. The two girls seem to get on together, but DJ is a bit jealous that Jam, a newbie, has been picked to take the ‘Special Topics in English’ course.

In fact, it will be last time that Mrs. Quenell teaches this course, for she is retiring. Each term she selects just five students, from across the years. The course focuses on a single writer – a different one each time – and this final time, she has picked Sylvia Plath. She hands out copies of The Bell Jar, and despite feeling stunned, the five are almost itching to read it and to see how Plath’s autobiographical novel resounds with their own experiences.

The other thing Mrs Q. does is to give each student a journal – red leather-bound, old, well-made writing books:

“Once the spirit moves you,” says Mrs. Quenell, “you will write in the journal twice a week. And you will all hand your journals back to me at the end of the semester. I won’t read them, I never do, but I will collect them, and keep them. Like the writing itself, this is a requirement.” (p33)

The five will find that writing in their journals will transport them to a world they will call Belzhar, where they don’t have to be sad any more.

Jam, Sierra, Marc, Griffin and Casey, will become very close friends over the next weeks.  All will get the chance to tell their own stories of how they ended up at The Wooden Barn. It won’t be easy, there will be obstacles to overcome but, as you can imagine, it will make them stronger and able to accept themselves again.

Belzhar is aimed primarily at a YA audience, particularly those who enjoy John Green’s novels (another YA author I haven’t read yet), and Megan Abbott’s later novels for older teens.  However, the inclusion of The Bell Jar as a catalyst and the obvious comparisons between Mrs Q. and John Keating (Robin Williams, R.I.P.) in Dead Poet’s Society may interest other readers.

The Wooden Barn seems too good to be true. Of course, we only read about it through Jam’s eyes, so we get no real idea about the rest of the school or any real therapies to help its ‘fragile, highly intelligent’ pupils. Do such schools really exist? Mrs Q is well aware of the effects that her class and the journal writing have; she would have been fired long ago had the secrecy not been maintained. A certain amount of disbelief has to be suspended.

The book also tried rather too hard to be inclusive, one diversionary sub-plot felt rather shoe-horned in. There is no sex, bar a little teenage groping and occasional swearing – even though Jam is only fifteen it felt too safe at times.

I rattled through this novel, just about finishing it on a return train journey to and from London. My first reaction to it though was to pull The Bell Jar off my shelves the minute I got home to finally read this modern classic – which I did, and I’ve just started, (I’ve ordered a DVD of Dead Poet’s Society too). Both of these are good things and should be encouraged – whether you need to read Belzhar too is up for debate… (6/10)

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Source: Publisher. Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, pub 9th October by Simon & Schuster, UK paperback original, 272 pages.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Dead Poets Society [DVD] [1989]

Rule Britannia …

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

I’ve long been a fan of Jonathan Coe, enjoying all of the books of his that I’ve read so far, from the broad comedy of What a carve up, to the heartbreak of The Rain Before it Falls, via the 1970s revisited in The Rotter’s Club. I was lucky enough to hear him read extracts of his latest novel at the Penguin Bloggers Night earlier this year, and he was kind enough to sign my review copy.

expo 58I may have been predisposed to enjoy Expo 58 as a result, but frankly, what’s not to like? Coe has given us a glorious and light-hearted novel filled with romance, intrigue and 1950s optimism, but tinged with enough melancholy to make it a really enjoyable book to read. His lightness of touch and impeccable research bring the era and its characters vividly to life. Let me tell you a little about it…

Thomas Foley is a mild-mannered civil servant working in the backrooms at the Central Office of Information (COI) producing leaflets promoting Britain abroad. Thomas is at first irritated when he is picked to be the COI’s eyes and ears at the Britannia Pub, at the heart of the British pavillion at Expo ’58 – the world fair to be held in Brussels.  The suits are still debating what should go into the British exhibit.  Sykes is proposing a history of the British water closet, and Gardner, the architect is supporting him…

…’Sykes has put his finger on it. We all do them Sir John. Even you! We all do number twos. We may not like to talk about them, we may not even like to think about them, but years ago, somebody did think about them, he thought about them long and hard – if you’ll pardon the expression – and the result was that we can now all do our number twos cleanly, and without embarrassment, and the whole nation – the whole world! – is a better place as a consequence. So why shouldn’t we celebrate that fact? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that, besides conquering half of the globe, Britons have also fought a historic battle against their number twos, and emerged victorious?’
He sat down again. Sir John stared across the table at him coolly.
‘Have you quite finished, Gardner?’ Taking his silence as consent, he added: ‘Might I remind you that at the entrance to this pavilion, which you propose to deface with this obscene display, visitors will find a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen?’
Gardner leaned forward. ‘And might I remind you, Sir John, that even her Majesty 0 even her Majesty…’

This assignment will mean six months away for Thomas, away from his wife Sylvia and young baby Gill, and understandably he’s a little scared of telling her. He’s also not sure for himself either, but decides to wait until after a first visit to the site.

expo 58 star logo

From the moment he is met at the airport by one of the Expo hostesses, Anneke in her smart uniform, his mind begins to change. By the time he’s seen the Atomium, the gleaming construction representing the crystal structure of iron, at the Park’s entrance, let alone the Britannia Pub itself, which has been designed to emulate a yacht club rather than an olde worlde pub, he is won over.

The British pavilion will also highlight the country’s eminence in nuclear physics with a replica exhibit of the ZETA machine, which, it is hoped, will provide all of Britain’s future energy needs by harnessing nuclear fusion.  Due to the sensitive nature of this, the spooks pay Thomas a visit to get him to keep his eyes and ears open for them too.

Thomas finds himself torn between duty at home, and excitement in Belgium, and it’ll take the rest of the novel to all these things out.  The nearest parallel I can draw to this novel is Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (my review here), which also has an innocent abroad, needing that new experience to ultimately show the truth in his relationships back home.

Expo 58 provides a wonderful backdrop to Thomas’s self-exploration. The research that Coe has done made it seem totally real – for Expo 58 really happened, the Atomium exists, as did the ZETA machine… and the Britannia Pub.

Britannia Pub

I would have loved to have shown you the Atomium – which inspired Coe to write this novel, but I never took a photo when I passed through Brussels on business in the 1990s, and they’re rather funny about copyright of its image apparently.  It is a magnificent structure though, now restored – see the website here.

Although the Cold War was well under way, like the Festival of Britain before it, Expo 58 seems suffused with a spirit of optimism – although not everything turns out well. In Coe’s novel it is fun to see all the different nationalities having fun together in the name of international friendship, masking all the information gathering about each other and spying going on in the background – that also felt very true.

Thomas is such a gentleman. Stifled in his marriage at home, you hope that he will manage to let go a bit. Will he, won’t he be tempted by the sweet Anneke, who is a total opposite to his wife? This is one of the central more serious themes of the novel, and you can’t help but feel for him.  Thomas and Anneke are surrounded by more comic characters, from the two MI6 chaps who reminded me of Thompson and Thompson from Tintin, the larger than life Russian Chersky, and not forgetting the drunken bar manager Rossiter, who used to have a pub in Abingdon (where I live, Rossiter’s pub is fictional though).

This book was a blast to read, perfect in its evocation of the age and sense of place, chucklesome through and through yet able to bring you back down to earth when needed.  I loved it – a lot.  (9/10)

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Source: ARC from the publisher. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe, pub Sept 5th by Viking, Hardback 288 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)

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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)

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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

“Let all the children boogie”

Tony Gardner as Brian in My Parents Are AliensOne of my daughter’s favourite programmes from the noughties was My Parents are Aliens which ran on Children’s ITV from 1999-2006. In it a pair of marooned Valuxians morph into humans and adopt three orphaned children in an attempt to fit in, and experience many funny things as they learn what it is to be human. It was surreal, a bit subversive, yet sentimental when needed, and there was always a moral human punchline. It was great children’s TV, and I found it fun too (until endless repeats dulled things for me). The versatile actor Tony Gardner was superb as Brian, and I couldn’t help thinking of him as I read Matt Haig’s new novel…

The Humans by Matt Haig

the-humans-lst111127 Professor Andrew Martin is a famous mathematician at Cambridge, and one night he solves the Riemann hypothesis – the greatest remaining riddle of prime numbers, and promptly disappears. He is found wandering naked and confused – and different. Everyone puts this down to a mental breakdown after working too hard. His amnesia means he doesn’t recognise his wife Imogen, his son Gulliver, or Newton their dog.

Andrew knows differently for he is a Vonnadorian. He has taken over the body of the Professor and his purpose is to make sure that his proof of the Riemann hypothesis never sees daylight, for it will lead to the destruction of the universe. This rather sinister motive adds a real dramatic drive to the novel, which contrasts and indeed will conflict with our erstwhile alien’s experiences at getting to know his family again.

The novel is written / narrated by the Professor as a guide to being a human and is full of insights into the human condition.  In the following extract, he reflects on being hospitalised in the psych wing after finally being aprehended, naked, on the lawns of Corpus Christi college…

Mad People
Humans, as a rule, don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead.  But the definition of mad, on Earth, seems to be very unclear and inconsistent. What is perfectly sane in one era turns out to be insane in another. The earliest humans walked around naked with no problem. Certain humans, in humid rainforests mainly, still do so. So, we must conclude that madness is sometimes a question of time, and sometimes of postcode.
Basically, the key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.

What is charming about the novel is seeing how he starts to build a new relationship with his wife, son and dog. It’s not all plain-sailing though, apart from having to get used to looking at humans, it soon becomes clear that all was not right in the Martin family. Fifteen year old Gulliver is alienated from him, and gets bullied as a result of his father’s new notoriety after the naked incident. Imogen although a good historian and author in her own right, has put her own life in second place for so many years, as the Professor’s single-minded pursuit of mathematics takes precedence.

‘You’re out of bed,’ said Isobel.
‘Yes,’ I said. To be a human is to state the obvious. Repeatedly, over and over, until the end of time.

‘Recovering’ at home, the Professor finds himself listening to music he’d never considered before, and reading poetry – particularly Emily Dickinson. These provoke an emotional response in him that the previous him would never have recognised. He also begins to get a life outside mathematics, to become human.  They go to the theatre and later discuss all the death in Hamlet …

‘Are you scared of death?’
She looked awkward. ‘Of course, I’m scared to death of death. I’m a lapsed Catholic. Death and guilt. That’s all I have.’ Catholicism, I discovered, was a type of Christianity for humans who like gold leaf, Latin and guilt.

This all makes it sounds very light-hearted and indeed there is much to chuckle about in this novel, however, it does have a very dark underside. This bittersweet tragicomedy will also bring a tear to your eye and a fervent desire for a satisfying ending.

As he proved in his novel The Last Family in England, (which I adored just pre-blog) which told of a family’s disintegration from the point of view of their dog, Haig is very good at making you laugh one minute, cry the next.  There is depth to his characters, yet he can make you look at them with wide-eyed innocence.  I’m a big fan, and I now want to go and read some Emily Dickinson too.

I can’t really do this lovely novel justice in a review.  I would urge you to read The Humans and hope that you’ll love it as much as I did. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Humans by Matt Haig, Canongate Hardback, May 2013, 309 pages.

Title quote from Starman by David Bowie

P.S. Note to the publisher: I wish you hadn’t put the roundel with The Radleys TV Book Club winner on the hardback cover – it spoils it.  Also two major typos – p4: Holst not Holtz, and p100: Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, or Bernstein’s recording of…  

Is That All There Is? …

All That Is by James Salter

all-that-is

I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature.  He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF.  I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went!  All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…

Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York.  He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…

Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.  He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.  In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline.  Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared.  Her smile was living, sincere.  We’ll leave soon, it said.  That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.

That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.

Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course.  But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…

Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean.  Phil keeps his apartment in New York though.  This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.

Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance.  Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance.  It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!

But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’  It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him.  The decades flow by.  Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.

Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short.  He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.

I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary.  All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.