Saturday, 18 May 2013

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: Book review

To drink with this:

Chocolate Bourbon milkshake

This is a book individual enough to deserve its own custom-made cocktail.
I’m thinking frothy creamy milkshake combined with malted chocolate and slightly salty bourbon. A moreish guilty pleasure which nevertheless you’ll relish every second of.

What’s what

I heart YA 4ever; but there are some books which just work better at certain points in your life. I wish Rowell’s Eleanor and Park had existed when I was sixteen. I was entranced by it now and would have inhaled it as a teenager. Quirky misfit girl with wild red curls meets cute with the only Asian boy in small US town, who has a rabid enthusiasm for 80s pop culture. This was my life at sixteen! In my head maybe but still.

She couldn’t repay him. She couldn’t even appropriately thank him. How can you thank someone for The Cure? Or the X-Men? Sometimes it felt like she’d always be in his debt. And then she realized that Park didn’t know about the Beatles. Pg 101

Ok, this book isn’t going to change your life. But it will fill you with that inner glow you get only from a good story well told. And if there is one thing Rowell does well, it is bring the swoon! This is the most romantic book I’ve ever read, its steamy teenage glances surpassing Gone with Wind and The Time Traveler’s Wife. Do you like The Notebook? Ok, so if you think that piece of ridiculousness is romance you don’t even know what love is girl! Please give in and let this book teach you.

You saved my life, she tried to tell him. Not forever, not for good. Probably just temporarily. But you saved my life, and now I’m yours. The me that’s me right now is yours. Always. Pg 312

Told in alternating point of view chapters from the perspectives of Eleanor and Park in turn, this book takes them from hostile strangers to teenagers who are crazy about each other but subject to the pressures of the world around them. These are completely believable and adorable characters - their love story is set to comic books and the Smiths and it is just precious. All that and this book contains what most surely be the sexiest hand-holding scene in all of literature.

Park touched her hands like they were something rare and precious, like her fingers were intimately connected to the rest of her body. Which, of course, they were. It was hard to explain. He made her feel like more than the sum of her 76

There is a domestic violence angle to the book which I wasn’t as sold on; but what do I know? Maybe my own small-town teenage years were just ridiculously privileged by comparison. Either way, I finished this book and immediately wanted to start reading again. This has God-among-YA-readers John Green’s seal of approval, and it definitely has mine too.


Oh-so-lovable. I am glad this book exists in the world.

On the big screen

Wouldn’t work. Too many nuances and too much depending on internal narration.


This is romance for teens done right and so much better written than most of what’s out there.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Don Juan by Lord George Gordon Noel Byron: Book review

Drink with this:


Has Spanish flair but somehow doesn’t really feel that European at all. Sherry has acquired a reputation as grannyish and stuffy but has an impressive pedigree. According to wikipedia it is now being heralded as ‘a neglected treasure’.

What's what

I want a hero: an uncommon want, When every year and month sends forth a new one, Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, The age discovers he is not the true one; Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,pg 78

Don Juan is as much about Byron as it is about its eponymous hero. I couldn’t help picturing Russel Brand reciting verse to me as I was reading but I managed not to let that ruin the experience.

Perfect she was, but as perfection is Insipid in this naughty world of ours… pg 3

Can we finally claim Byron for Scotland by the way? I know he’s half English but he makes it pretty clear in his epic poem that he has a much stronger sense of Scottish identity: I 'scotch'd not kill'd' the Scotchman in my blood, And love the land of 'mountain and of flood.' Pg 237 Don Juan is witty and self-aware and pretty awesome; I’m happy for it to be considered part of the Scottish literary canon!

It’s not hard to see how Byron got his reputation as a libertine. For its day Don Juan was awfully bawdy! Byron says a lot through hints and partial omissions; nevertheless I think Victorian literature has left me ill-prepared for the works of the 18th century and their rampant sexuality. What’s interesting is how little Don Juan deserves his reputation as a womaniser; if anything he is portrayed as a blameless innocent seduced by a series of a conniving and sluttish women. (which, Byron would say, is ALL OF THEM.)
Wedded she was some years, and to a man Of fifty, and such husbands are in plenty; And yet, I think, instead of such a ONE 'T were better to have TWO of five-and-twenty, Especially in countries near the sun: And now I think on 't, 'mi vien in mente,' Ladies even of the most uneasy virtue Prefer a spouse whose age is short of thirty. 'T is a sad thing, I cannot choose but say, And all the fault of that indecent sun, Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay, But will keep baking, broiling, burning on, That howsoever people fast and pray, The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone: What men call gallantry, and gods adultery, Is much more common where the climate 's sultry. Happy the nations of the moral North! Where all is virtue, and the winter season Sends sin, without a rag on, shivering forth pg 11

The sexist humour is rife, but depressingly it’s no worse than what one hears now on a daily basis. The national stereotypes Byron employs are also all too familiar - I’m not sure if they were already examples of trite and lazy characterisation when he was writing but they certainly seem that way to a modern reader.

No sooner was it bolted, than—Oh shame! O sin! Oh sorrow! and oh womankind! How can you do such things and keep your fame, Unless this world, and t' other too, be blind? Pg 29

That said, Don Juan is incredibly quotable - when I came to write this blog post I had over ten thousand words of quotes. That’s a dissertation worth of Byron right there! The sentiments Byron expresses still ring true and feel insightful. I had previously read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and not rated it much, but Don Juan had humour and verve.

Few things surpass old wine; and they may preach Who please,—the more because they preach in vain,— Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda-water the day after. Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; The best of life is but intoxication: Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk The hopes of all men, and of every nation; Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion: But to return,—Get very drunk; and when You wake with headache, you shall see what then. Pg 72

The first few books are exhilarating and almost heady. It is easy to get swept along in Byron’s obvious mirth and relish for his topic. Towards the end the poem does tail off a bit when Juan reaches the UK - Byron’s satirical descriptions of his hero’s travels here seem like failed social commentary.
'T is pity though, in this sublime world, that Pleasure 's a sin, and sometimes sin 's a pleasure; Few mortals know what end they would be at, But whether glory, power, or love, or treasure, The path is through perplexing ways, and when The goal is gain'd, we die, you know—and then— What then?—I do not know, no more do you— And so good night.—Return we to our story: pg 24

Byron has a healthy scepticism about God, religion and the point of it all. Amidst the epic verse this is a very cynical work, which Byron fully acknowledges. He has a hatred of critics and is very self-conscious about his project - this is meta-fiction before it existed.

What is the end of Fame? 't is but to fill A certain portion of uncertain paper: Some liken it to climbing up a hill, Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour; For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill, And bards burn what they call their 'midnight taper,' To have, when the original is dust, A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust. Pg 39

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Don Juan is still under twenty when the poem ends. Byron exalts youth and beauty throughout, and there is a sense of panic at encroaching old age, and the urge for posterity, to live on in some way.

Too old for youth,—too young, at thirty-five, To herd with boys, or hoard with good threescore,— I wonder people should be left alive; But since they are, that epoch is a bore: Love lingers still, although 't were late to wive; And as for other love, the illusion 's o'er; And money, that most pure imagination, Gleams only through the dawn of its creation. Pg 267

The ending may be abrupt and come almost in the middle of a scene, in the middle of Juan’s English escapades; but it is also beautiful, with a melancholy and humorous last line:

Whether his virtue triumphed, or at length His vice—for he was of a kindling nation— Is more than I shall venture to describe, Unless some beauty with a kiss should bribe. I leave the thing a problem, like all things. The morning came, and breakfast, tea and toast, Of which most men partake, but no one sings. Pg 365


Hilarious, both intentionally and otherwise. Definitely still worth a read.

On the big screen

There is a 1926 film with no spoken dialogue, but the most kisses in film history apparently. (191 for your information.)How could anyone compete with that?


In its day it was considered racy but now we get to read about hand-kissing all we want and still call it classic literature!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella: Book review

Drink with this:


Served in pitchers at even the scuzziest of bars, *cough, Wetherspoons, cough*, it’s the cocktail for girls who want to get drunk quickly on something pink and sweet. Vodka, peach schnapps and cranberry juice, diluted by watering ice cubes and a lonely shrunken slice of lemon. Sugary and inoffensive, it will get you giddy but you’ll feel a bit sick after a few.

What's what

Loyal readers, I sense this may be a schism-causing review. I am willing to bet good money (NOT REALLY, I HAVE MINUS POUNDS TO MY NAME) that nobody reading this review within a week of its original publication has ever read a Sophie Kinsella book.

So why, you ask, am I writing about her latest novel, the suggestively titled Wedding Night? The reasons are several my friends: I must acquaint you with a world you know not of, in which women eagerly anticipate the publication of each instalment of Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, in which these women read no books from year to year which cannot be purchased at Asda.

I am too pretentious and have too many highfalutin aspirations to every truly be one of those women, but I do like to slum it from time to time in the pink shelves at Foyles, and I am not ashamed to say that I have read every book Sophie Kinsella has written. I have in fact enjoyed several so much that I pre-ordered Wedding Night so it would zoom straight to my Kindle the very day it was released.

After she’d gone out, we would intone the phrase to each other like some kind of religion. I thought it was a general toast like ‘Down the hatch’ and shocked a schoolfriend many years later, at a family lunch, by raising my glass and saying, ‘Well, drown the pain, everyone.’ Pg 36

Unfortunately this novel was far from Kinsella at her best. It had all the hallmarks of her usual work - witty interior monologues, feisty female characters, hijinks abroad and plenty of hunky men. (I know the word hunky is totally 90’s, but sometimes it just fits.) However the character development was thin at best, and the already flimsy plot - girl has sudden break-up, gets back together with old flame and decides to get married straight away, sister is horrified and tries to prevent them consummating the marriage by any means possible - becomes increasingly ridiculous and even boring in its implausibility towards the end of the book.
‘Don’t come back,’ he’s saying, waving his roll-up in the air. ‘I tell all you young people. Don’t revisit. Youth is still where you left it and that’s where it should stay. What are you returning for? Anything that was worth taking on life’s journey, you’ll already have taken with you.’ Pg 356

The book alternates between the point of view of main character Lottie, and her sister Fliss. Annoyingly though, their voices barely differed and although we were meant to believe their personalities were completely different, this never really came across through the writing style. I was happy that the main guy, who seemed a bit of a jerk, actually turned out to be a complete jerk. Successful characterisation! There were also some genuinely funny moments, and I did enjoy the theme of being unable to revisit the past; but sadly it just made me reflect that maybe my days as a Kinsella fan are no more.


Could almost have been written with an eye to the beach reads shelf in W.H. Smith.

On the big screen

Wouldn’t be surprised if a film adaptation was already in the works. It could be decent with a Hollywood budget. If of course by ‘decent’ we mean something any self-respecting human being would refuse to part with money to see.


It’s a cut above Jane Costello and most of the other chick lit out there but it’s not reinventing the wheel, or even the fluffy romance novel for that matter.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg: Book review

Drink with this:


Sweetened dairy based cocktail, with whipped eggs and the liquor of your choice. It can be sophisticated - I had one with a massive bourbon kick in a retro milk bottle at this place, my absolute favourite restaurant in London:

It can also be over saccharine, and so creamy it will make you gag, with associations of holiday season over-indulgence. The picture below somehow feels typically American to me and something I can imagine Edie Middlestein consuming.

What’s what

Oh you books trying to be The Great American Novel, why can’t I quit you? Is it your pessimism and creeping malaise that keeps me coming back for more? Your elegiac portraits of a country I barely know being colonised by strip malls and soulless corporations? Or maybe your embittered and dysfunctional characters? Damn you and your addictive ways!

The Middlesteins has been described as the Jewish Corrections but you’ll be disappointed if you go into this expecting writing as piercingly good as Franzen’s. The novel opens in media res, with the Middlestein family members discovering that Richard Middlestein has left his ailing wife Edie after more than twenty-five years of marriage. Edie is obese and is dying from diabetes and its various complications.

Edie Middlestein, patron saint of Chinese joints everywhere. Well, thought Robin, if my mother lives in this alternate universe in this strip mall, at least it’s nice that they think she’s so amazing. “He’s got quite a story,” said Edie, and she nodded approvingly at the value of such a thing. A story! pg 139

The focus of this book is intensely narrow. There is a sense at times that it is reaching, purporting to say more about America, and about the nature of obesity and need, and yet it focuses exclusively on the interior lives of a few of its central characters. And even this access is incomplete - we only get one chapter from Edie’s daughter Robyn’s point of view and little resolution to her story. At times though the omniscient narrator drops in a choice phrase skipping us forward years or decades in the characters’ lives - these moments are highly effective, giving the impression of an epic stretch of time and lives laid out for our examination, with the highlights brought to our attention.

And then there he was, in a suit (it was his only suit, but she didn’t know that yet), and he was smiling (his happiest days were behind him the minute he met her, but he didn’t know that yet)pg 60

Attenberg’s characters, much like those of Franzen or Updike, are not particularly likable. Is this just the nature of this type of writing? Are we all so damaged and confused that contemporary state of the nation novels need to be populated with these horrible miserable people? Everyone in The Middlesteins is flawed and unpleasant and there are misunderstandings and communication failures galore.

They stopped and stared at each other, and there were a million things of a confrontational nature that still hovered between them, but Benny wondered if they were worth the battle, and then decided they were not, or that his father wasn’t worth it anyway, and he would deal with how sad that made him feel some other time. pg 158

Nobody in this book understands anybody else around them, and the reader is not permitted understanding of Edie. The plot and the other characters pivot around her, and yet we never get to inhabit her present day point of view. This is a clever strategy on Attenberg’s part, as the reader like the other characters can only wonder why Edie is killing herself with food; but it is also risky. I felt very emotionally detached from this novel until 80% of the way through, when it gathered me in to its pudgy, uncomfortable embrace.

There was a person there to connect with, a jawline, a smile, a clarity in the eyes. No flesh hung from her cheeks and chin as it did now. She was in focus, we could see her, we could see who she was—or who we thought she was anyway. Where had that Edie gone? pg 236

There are many sad and brilliantly acerbic lines throughout yet frustratingly we are never really given any insights into why Edie is so overweight. Attenberg suggests the obvious - that food is a way to subsume her feelings of need and longing, universal feelings which those around her drown out through drugs and sex and alcohol and control.

Middlestein and Beverly, two lonely people, successes, failures, a widow, a husband, caught up in something resembling love. pg 224

By the end I was a convert to this novel but I’m still not convinced it gets to the heart of any great American truth. If nothing else though, it has one near perfect chapter - the bnai mitzvah, with its witty and observant details, its collision of Jewish tradition and teenage trends, of the best and worst of family.


Compulsively readable throughout, despite the moments of disgust and dislike, which eventually turn to a profound sympathy and identification with all those messed-up Middlesteins.

On the big screen

Little happens here in terms of plot - the narrative is all internal, and there are few visual set pieces. I don’t see this working as a movie.


So it has Franzen’s seal of approval but I think it’s pretty low-rent when held up against The Corrections or Freedom.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale: Book review

Drink with this:


Delectable combination of beer mixed with ginger beer. Slight alcoholic buzz but can still be classed as a drink fit for a child if diluted enough. Fizzy bubbly excitement from the ginger beer suitable for ups and downs of this fairly sedate thriller. Pleasant and drinkable and evocative of afternoons in the beer garden.

What’s what

Sometimes I feel that the sum result of four years of an English degree, encompassing countless classic works of literature and literary criticism dating back to the 13th Century, has boiled down to a fondness for the Victorians, and the melodramatic, convoluted literature they wrote, which I just can’t shake. The thought that I’m never going to be able to read Vanity Fair, Middlemarch or Bleak House again for the first time ever pains me in the way I imagine normal people feel about memories of their first kiss or first taste of a perfectly balanced mojito.

Montmorency - Thief, Liar, Gentleman? is Victorian Lit Lite. I didn’t realise it was a young adult novel until I’d already started reading, and then just succumbed to the undemanding and enjoyable story. Montmorency is a thief who suffered devastating injuries while in the midst of his last job. Recovering in the prison hospital, he formulates a cunning plan to use the newly constructed London sewer system as a conduit for burglaries of London’s great, good, and loaded.

Of necessity he creates a dual identity - Scarper does the dirty work and poses as his manservant while he is Montmorency, the gentleman who lives a life of luxury made possible by ill-gotten gains. These distinct personalities are one of the most interesting parts of the book, especially as the story goes on and our protagonist identifies ever more with his Montmorency side and feels growing distaste for Scarper. Sure, it is just Jekyll and Hyde but lacking any psychological depth whatsoever; but there is a still a voyeuristic pleasure to be had in reading the about the conflicts between these contrasting halves of the same life.

In the pub, Scarper had briefly toyed with the notion of putting a permanent end to the risk by killing Mr. Rigby, but back in the Marimion, Montmorency knew that such behavior was out of the question, and he despised Scarper for even entertaining the idea.

Updale’s writing is amusing and witty and her plot bounds along at a brisk pace. There are some moments which stretch the bounds of credibility, but nothing which disrupts the pleasure of the story. Montmorency is a rather gentle and endearing character, who develops convincingly as the book progresses. If anything I’d have liked a bit more backstory for him and a bit more grit to his amoral edges but then it’s a sad truth that young adult novels tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to their anti-heroes’ bad boy ways.

Scarper didn’t ask questions. He didn’t want them asking questions of him. But he fancied having a look at what went on when glitter briefly overlaid the filth.

Perhaps the hardest part of the story to believe was Montmorency’s fairly speedy transformation into a gentleman and his relatively easy entree into the world of aristocratic London. Anyone familiar with the trials and tribulations of Becky Sharp knows that ascent to the top of the ton depended on more than a charming smile and the right evening clothes. It would have been fun to see the fictionalised world of the upper classes depicted in a bit more detail but there are plenty of other young adult historical novels I can go to for that, although those are sadly lacking in sewers.

“Smokes,” as Montmorency guessed, turned out to be the smoking room. Later, he was to discover the dining rooms: “Big Eats” (referred to by the more boyish members as “Eats Major”) and “Little Eats” (“Eats Minor”). There were also bars: “Big Drinks” and “Little Drinks” (each with its Latin tag: “Drinks Major,” “Drinks Minor”); “Private Drinks” (also known as “Plotters”); a library (“Swotters”); and a terrace (“The Parade”) leading to a small garden (“Outers”). The washrooms and lavatories were “Wetties” and “Ploppers,” respectively.

That’s probably why Victorian lit lite hasn’t really caught on as a genre. Novels of the Victorian age revelled in details and pompous descriptive writing. Updale sacrifices this for a lighter story and quicker pacing suitable for her younger audience.


Delightful romp through the sewers of Victorian London.

On the big screen

This is calling out to be made into a British children’s film. Stephen Fry as Lord Fox-Selwyn! I am seriously considering contacting Eleanor Updale with regards to this possibility. All interested parties get in touch!


A dumbed-down Oliver Twist; a more intellectual take on Alex Rider.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: Book review

To drink with this


The manliest of cocktails. Picture Don Draper sipping alone in a darkened office, drowning his angst and alienation. The first documented definition of the word ‘cocktail’ listed the constituent ingredients of the old-fashioned, making it the quintessential American cocktail. Harsh whiskey and bitters, alleviated by sugar and a zesty citrus twist. Drink a few and drown the pain.

What’s what

Sherwood Anderson, according to wikipedia, was influential in the success of both Faulkner and Hemingway. Despite his unlikely name, he seems to have since faded from popular awareness. (Or so I assume - maybe this is a signifier of my benighted cultural awareness and you are sitting clucking at your laptop in disbelief, while caressing your much-loved tattered paperback version of Winesburg, Ohio.)

Reviews I have read of the book have described it as a volume of short stories, albeit interconnected by their setting in the small town of Winesburg. I don’t feel that this accurately sums up the novel though - each chapter may focus on a different character and encompass one particular event, yet characters from earlier stories pop up again and not just the town they share but the overarching themes are consistent across all the stories.

Look, if you insist on uplifting or feel-good reading material you won’t appreciate this. Personally I didn’t find this a particularly depressing book, but then I often think that early exposure to Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and the Gormenghast trilogy has now inured me against literary sadness. Not to mention His Dark Materials - what in life or in books can compare to the separation of Will and Lyra? Worlds apart forever, people - what is an unhappy marriage when compared to that?! Sherwood, write something that makes me cry non-stop for three days and then we’ll talk about what’s depressing.

The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth. Pg 18

Anderson is simply a beautiful writer, and Winesburg was ridiculously quotable. These vignettes of small town life were quite racy when published in 1919 and still feel quite unusual in that there is little plot aside from the day to day events in the lives or ordinary people.

In the presence of George Williard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. Pg 4

The banal is juxtaposed with massive and overwhelming emotions. Anderson details the longing for expression, connection and understanding within all his characters. Each of his characters feel profoundly isolated and alienated from the town they live in and those around them. They all long to be understood and struggle with desires which they cannot even fully articulate to themselves, let alone work out how to achieve.

It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others. She became obsessed with the thought that it wanted but a courageous act on her part to make all of her association with people something quite different, and that it was possible by such an act to pass into a new life as one opens a door and goes into a room. Pg 40

The narrator addresses the reader directly throughout, and despite the flat and laconic tone adopted the overall effect is of gentle melancholy.

Most boys have seasons of wishing they could die gloriously instead of just being grocery clerks and going on with their humdrum lives. But this is not the story of Windpeter Winters nor yet of his son Hal who worked on the Wills farm with Ray Pearson. It is Ray’s story. It will, however, be necessary to talk a little of young Hal so that you will get into the spirit of it. Pg 104

This philosophical and finely drawn sense of sadness pervades every chapter of the novel and somehow makes the detailed and often absurd character portraits even more poignant. Anderson is quoted in the introduction saying that he modelled his characters on people from his hometown, and the people of his novel all feel vivid and realistic. Anderson describes their inner tragedies dispassionately yet the reader can’t help but identify with his ordinary characters consumed by extraordinary feelings.

The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. Pg 121


Deserves to be rescued from obscurity and lauded for its searing and beautifully written portrait of early twentieth century small town USA.

“I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in 56

On the big screen

These guys have done it already:

I think I would go for a different approach. A series of hour long episodes for TV, each featuring one of the novel’s stories would in my opinion represent this sprawling and considered text better than a film could.


Eminently readable but with the literary cachet of Faulkner and Hemingway.

There was nothing particularly striking about them except that they were artists of the kind that talk. Everyone knows of the talking artists. Throughout all of the known history of the world they have gathered in rooms and talked. They talk of art and are passionately, almost feverishly, in earnest about it. They think it matters much more than it does. Pg 84

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie: Book review

Drink with this

Supermarket cabernet sauvignon

Red wine feels suitable for a night time tale of murder. This book does not warrant an expensive vintage but a cosy bottle of a cheap brand will be an appropriate accompaniment. Drink fast enough and that vinegary taste will all but disappear.

What’s what

As far as I’m concerned, books under 400 pages are a waste of time. Why bother growing attached to a beautifully developed world and characters you prefer to your actual friends and family when there is an abrupt end fast approaching? My ideal book would be the size of several bricks heaped together, or part of a series with at least three parts already published. I still think longingly of the days I had all 21 Master and Commander books lying in wait in my future.

I can’t remember how I came across Deborah Crombie - I believe that her latest novel had just come out and I discovered it was part of a detective series with a miraculous fifteen parts already published. As somebody who lies awake worrying about the day when I will finish reading all the awesome books published so far throughout history and have to read less awesome books or sit staring at my kindle, waiting for new ones to be published, this was a great boon.

Crombie’s writing has more in common with Agatha Christie murder mysteries than with most contemporary detective stories. The modern mystery-thriller is firmly grounded in the psychology of crime, and tends to focus less on whodunnit than why. Jo Nesbo, Tana French, Gillian Flynn and Sophie Hannah’s fiction all adhere to these tenets - exploring the minds of their criminals as their detectives attempt to decode the crimes. Crombie in this first book in her series seems disinterested in investigating the interior lives of any of her characters overmuch - their actions often are left without plausible explanation, or with lightly sketched motivation.

Her model is classic Christie in many ways - the characters, including Detective Duncan Kincaid, her hero, are all brought together prior to the murder and conveniently stuck together while he investigates at his own, fairly relaxed pace. There are titillating secrets revealed along the way, copious red herrings, attractive women put in danger and creepy ex-army personnel.

The lights glowed softly in the windows of Followdale House, as welcoming as death. Pg 67

This was a comfortable and narratively satisfying read, if rather lacking in depth. There is something quite naive about the story - the motive is rather old-fashioned and main characters Gemma and Duncan have none of the tortured complexity of a Harry Hole. I wonder how much Crombie’s approach has to do with the fact that she is an American writing about British life. In parts this did feel like a performance of some essential idea about the cosy English mystery mystery - Midsomer Murders in novel form.

There are a few predictable twists although I didn’t work out the murderer ahead of the Big Reveal. Perhaps in part because I was happy enough just to let the story wash over me; perhaps because it wasn’t really designed for the reader to work out ahead of time. Crombie’s detectives spend most of the novel quite perplexed and seem to have little thought-process for the reader to follow, or even inscrutable musings in the way of Holmes to indicate some internal deduction at work.

They smiled at each other companionably. “Better luck next time?” Gemma suggested. Kincaid raised his glass. “Cheers.” Pg 260

However, there are hints that things might get a bit more exciting as the series progresses and I will be coming back for more. If nothing else I want to work out Crombie’s schtick - most crime writers seem to have themes or tropes which recur compulsively throughout their work and this first instalment interested me enough to want to know what hers are.


On the cover above, esteemed publication the ‘Houston Chronicle’ damns with faint praise by describing A Share in Death as ‘A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment.’ Far be it from me on disagree.

On the small screen

Not enough meat here yet for a tv series - the blood and sexual tension would need to be upped lest it be relegated to the depths of ITV3.


I don’t think genre fiction should automatically be considered lowbrow; but as detective fiction goes this is not particularly sophisticated.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Casson Family series by Hilary McKay:Book review

To drink with this

Hot chocolate with marshmallows

Comforting, sweet and reminiscent of childhood. Nuff said.

What’s what

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book'.” Martin Amis

I would like to respectfully disagree with Martin Amis. There should be no shame in writing or reading books aimed for children, the best of these being just as thought-provoking and meaningful and enjoyable as anything you will get from Booker prize winning literature. A children’s writer must anyway aim their novel at children of varying ages, of varying levels of comprehension, and the most accomplished design books which have layers of meaning which will be appreciated more by older readers. I probably have my dad to thank for all the amazing books written for children which I have read since entering adulthood. I passed all my library books on to him after I finished them, and he read Alex Rider, Sweet Valley High et al and discussed them with me as seriously as if they were the Dickens novels I moved on to eventually.

I loved Hilary McKay’s The Exiles series when I was growing up, but the Casson family series was after my time - the first was published in 2001, by which time the Dickens’ years had begun. The series focuses on an eccentric dysfunctional-yet-really-pretty-wonderful sprawling family living in modern-day England. There are four children with strong and distinct personalities, two well-meaning but mostly absent parents, and assorted friends such as Derek-from-the-camp, and Michael the driving instructor.

Indigo explained to him that in England summer was when you carried your coat around instead of wearing it. Only for a few reckless days in August, said Indigo, could it be safely left at home. Indigo's Star, pg 203

The first three books in the series (Whitbread award-winning Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Permanent Rose) are near perfect. The plot is minimal but the characters are wonderfully realised and I gobbled these books up at the rate of one a day during a stressful week at work. Having the Cassons to come home to felt like immersive yet mild and cuddly therapy.

Eve looked at Rose, and she did not laugh. She understood about hearts, even if she did not understand about money. She put an arm round Rose and hugged her tight. Indigo's Star, pg 144

The small details here are the ones which make this such a vivid world to drop into; Eve, the mother, swigs a mixture of instant coffee and coca cola to keep her going while working on her paintings in the shed at the bottom of the garden; nobody ever cooks except Indigo, who dreams up delights like grilled cheese on top of curry; there are several generations of guinea pigs running loose through the house and garden.

McKay’s writing is full of wry, warm humour and flawed but lovable characters. She deals with serious issues without easy resolution or resort to cheap moralising or oversimplification. Dad Bill moves out to live with a girlfriend for a while; Saffy is adopted and struggles with her place in the family; Indigo is bullied at school. None of these events dominate the plot but are all just part of the overall picture of family life.

He had drifted away from them all into another life, with hardly a backward glance. Still, he had come home when she asked him to and he had bought Tom the black guitar. He was good and he was bad. Indigo's Star, pg 254

Caddy Ever After and Forever Rose don’t quite meet the incandescent pitch of the first two books in the series. The point of view shift from third to first person and the increased focus on Rose bring a feel of scattiness and a shortage of detail. These are minor points however, and the series comes to a satisfying end.

There is a nostalgic sense to McKay’s writing which I can’t quite pinpoint. Maybe it’s the non-attention of the parents, so essential in YA literature, or the big messy squabbly family. The series doesn’t feel quite contemporary despite being written within the last few years. This is Enid Blyton meets Jacqueline Wilson, without the fussiness of the first or the brash and often quite bleak take on modern life of the second. Whatever McKay’s magic formula, this series was a lot better than most books by non-brain injured writers I’ve read this year.


If I knew any nine year old girls I would impose this on them straight away, in between their mandatory Buffy viewings.

On the small screen

I’d like to imagine this as a children’s tv show, but I don’t think this type of programme is in vogue. Even when I was a teenager this would have felt old-fashioned.

Rose did not say any more, but she and Indigo stayed out for a long, long time, wishing, and watching the stars, the steady ones and the ones that passed with red and green lights across the sky. Indigo’s Star pg 266


Let’s all choose to ignore Martin Amis. Hilary McKay’s fiction is damn good

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray: Book review

Drink with this


“Whose whiskey? Don’t get some coffin varnish off someone you don’t know and put us both in the morgue.” It was a fact that disreputable bootleggers sometimes mixed the booze with kerosene or gasoline. Pg 74

Has to be swigged from a hip-flask, and has to taste raw and brutally strong. To recreate the effectin modern day UK, I recommend buying Tesco-own brand vodka - the kind without a proper label which costs about £4.95 a litre. Sure, it will burn the skin off the back of your throat and leave you retching in a plant-pot, but anything for authenticity, right? Being well and truly trashed will help you get through Bray’s 600 pages as well. I predict that the most bizarre plot shifts and narrative reversals will all fall into place. Or if not, you’ll be so ill literature will be the last thing on your mind.

What’s what

This is where I prove myself a literary dunce. Libba Bray’s latest young adult novel has won several awards, and is a bestseller which by all accounts lots of sensible people enjoyed very much. I did not.

It wasn’t awful, but it was disappointing. I really really want to rate Bray, but this is the second book of hers (Beauty Queens the first) which I’ve found a letdown. The premise is very exciting; (assuming you get excited by not just reading books but reading about books you may or may not later read) it’s set in 1920s New York, where main character Evie finds herself sent to stay with her Uncle Will. Will is a bit of an expert on the occult, which is convenient as Evie and several other characters in the novel turn out to have emerging supernatural powers. The main thrust of the story features Evie and Will and their hangers-on investigating a series of murders in New York.

Bray in this novel is quite obviously trying to write The Great American Novel - for Teenagers. I wish she wasn’t trying quite so hard to please everyone at once - her method seems to be to bundle historical fiction, romance, murder mystery and supernatural horror together and hope it forms an epic, sweeping whole. The effect is reminiscent of Gone with the Wind with an extra zombie subplot thrown in. (Note to self: brilliant idea, begin writing immediately.) There is simply too much going on, and the plots and subplots here could easily have been split up into two or three normal books. Diviners also happens to be book one in a series, and I felt the writer spent too much time setting up future storylines and characters to the detriment of what was actually going on in this novel as a standalone piece of writing. This was not tight or coherent but bloated and in dire need of editing, with entire subplots and characters who I could have quite happily seen swept away by a supernatural typhoon over Manhattan. (This may in fact have been an actual plot point in the novel - too hard to keep track.)

Daisy’s mouth hung open in outrage. “Well, I never!” “Yeah, that’s what you tell all your fellas, but the rest of us aren’t buying it.” Pg 136

I loved the period setting, which was evoked very well through use of vivid details and lots (and lots) of period-appropriate slang. At times this did get a bit wearing, and interrupted the pacing of the novel, but I’ve never read historical fiction aimed at teenagers which felt so realistic. In fact, the only adult historical fiction which I’ve read which inhabited its chosen time period so completely was Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning Wolf Hall. Bray’s dialogue, peppered with ‘pos-it-tutely’s and ‘and how’s may have been a bit over-the-top, but it was snappy and witty and for me that counts for a lot more. (Juno, anyone?)

Will lectured about belief in the supernatural, but the only ghosts that frightened Evie were the very real ghosts inside her. Some mornings, she’d wake and vow, Today, I will get it right. I won’t be such an awful mess of a girl. pg 288

Evie herself was probably what kept me going throughout the hard times I had with this book, when I didn’t think I could take another abstract description of evil in the cornfields. She was a selfish, extroverted bitch who just wanted to be famous and go out and get pissed, and was so much more fun to read for it.

Her relationships with the other characters in the novel rang true and were enjoyable to read. That said, I was not sold on the romance at all, and hated the steampunk plot twist thrown in with it. Considering that steampunk itself is a questionable case of genre fusion, I thought this was a baffling choice in a novel which already had enough going on.

The sun cleared the horizon. The light stung her eyes. “Kiss me,” Evie said. He took her face in his hands and his kiss blotted out the sky. Pg 578

The murder mystery/horror element of the novel worked and was convincingly creepy most of the time, although it felt a bit cliched to me - hasn’t the idea of human sacrifice as part of some perverted religious quest been done a million times in crime fiction? I feel as I’ve spent way too much of my life reading about Biblical quotes being seared into human flesh and bloodstained mystical symbols appearing on walls. Additionally, so much time was spent on this part of the plot and so little on the characters’ supernatural powers. It was intensely frustrating and I would have liked to have seen this explored further. For example, why are all the teenagers Evie knows gifted with extrasensory powers? This is convenient coincidence which made no sense at all.

She was tired of being told how it was by this generation, who’d botched things so badly. They’d sold their children a pack of lies: God and country. Love your parents. All is fair. And then they’d sent those boys, her brother, off to fight a great monster of a war that maimed and killed and destroyed whatever was inside them. Still they lied, expecting her to mouth the words and play along. Well, she wouldn’t. She knew now that the world was a long way from fair. She knew the monsters were real. PG 554

This is a book which is trying to be more than the sum of its parts. It is steeped in mysticism and history, bound together by grandiose prose. These supposedly epic themes and the overwrought writing did not cohere for me. Maybe at the end of her series Bray will have succeeded in her endeavour, but as a book to be evaluated on its own merits, The Diviners does not satisfy.


I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. And that is not the reaction you want to have at the end of 600 pages.

On the small screen

This would definitely work as a TV series. The interesting period setting, the characters who are ever so slightly caricatures, and the shifting narrative point of view are all TV gold. Heroes meets Boardwalk Empire? However I’m not sure if America is ready for the villain of this piece, a devout though dead Christian gone off the rails both morally and metaphysically….


It’s won plenty of awards and for young adult fiction it certainly packs on the weighty themes. This is a book which definitely aspires to be Highbrow. However its ideas are not new and I don’t thin