Category Archives: Picador Books

Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay

One of the joys of working in a library is that when a whim to read a specific book suddenly overtakes you the chances are it may well be in the building. This was the case with Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road, which I actually thought I had read but realised I hadn’t? Small aside, does anyone else do this? If so please let me know. Anyway, one of the challenges for the #PrideMonthReads challenge, which George Lester and I started this month, was to find or recommend and own voices book. With adoption being on my mind rather a lot at the moment, the tale of Jackie’s adoption and search for her birth parents had been one I had been contemplating reading. With that and her being an out member of the LGBTQ community Red Dust Road seemed like the perfect read for me RIGHT NOW, fortunately there was one on the shelves. So I started it that very day on my lunch break, I wasn’t expecting a book that would chime with me in the many ways that it did.

Picador Books, paperback, 2017, fiction, 320 pages, borrowed from the library

As Red Dust Road opens, Jackie is about to meet her biological father for the very first time in Nigeria. This is quite a different setting from the hotel foyer in Milton Keynes where she met her mother for the first time some years before, we learn. From this point the book then weaves backwards and forwards through time as she embarks on the potential relationship with her father, who happens to be a born again Christian and sees her as living proof of the sins of his past, deal with the maintaining of the relationship with her birth mother and look back her childhood with her adoptive parents before and after the moment she realised that she was not theirs biologically.

I am seven years old. My mum, my brother and I have just watched a cowboy and Indian film. I’m sad because the Indians have lost again, and I wanted them to win. It suddenly occurs to me that the Indians are the same colour as me and my mum is not the same colour as me. I say to my mum, Mummy why aren’t you the same colour as me? My mum says, Because you’re adopted. I say, What does adopted mean, my brother scoffs; Don’t you know what adoption means. He’s eating a giant-size bowl of cornflakes. He eats cornflakes for nearly every meal. No, I don’t know. I’m nearly in tears. I’ve heard the word before but I don’t really understand it. My mum says, It means I’m not really your mummy. What do you mean, you’re not really my mummy? I say. I am crying for real now because I love my mum so much and I want her to be my real mummy and I’m worried she means she is not real and that something is going to happen to her, that she is going to disappear or dissolve. She says, Your real mother couldn’t keep you so she gave you to me so that I could be your mummy. Yes, that means you’re not really my sister, my brother laughs. Ha ha. Do you get it? Are you making this up? I ask my mummy. Is this one of your stories? She’s so good, my mummy, at telling stories. No, it isn’t, she says. She’s in tears herself too.

One thing I particularly loved about Red Dust Road is the open honesty with which Jackie Kay tells her story. There are no hero’s or villains in this piece, though I have to say I think Jackie’s mother and father John and Helen and their love for their daughter and support in her finding her birth parents is utterly wonderful. Everyone has their quirks and their flaws, because that is what all humans do. Make no mistake this is not a misery memoir, Jackie is perfectly happy, she just wants to know more especially when she is pregnant herself with her son. She isn’t expecting a perfect ending; sometimes it can be about a happy imperfect ending after a journey of discovering more. Even when things take a wobble there is still vibrancy to Jackie’s writing which I also love, with parents like John and Helen though whatever the outcome you feel Jackie knows she has already got a winning combination and security in them, which always gave any scenario this positive undertone which I really loved.

Now I don’t want to make this all about me because it is very much Jackie’s book and her story… However sometimes a book will get you on a personal level and with this being my personal blog, admittedly more with a bookish twist than on my personal life, it would seem remiss of me not to share the two levels with which this book had a deep resonance with me and made me rather emotional on several occasions.

The first of these was the fact that starting the adoption process myself, thanks to Jackie’s honesty (as I mention above) this is the first time I have really read such a frank and intimate set of thoughts about what it is like to be adopted. The role of the adoptive parent seems to be much more documented and whilst I have lots of friends who have been adopted it has never really been something I have brought up with a lot of them, I assumed that it might be prying a little too much into their lives. Interestingly I have pried into many of the lives of my friends who have adopted.  I do wonder if it because the process has happened while I have known them as adults adopting, whereas I didn’t know my friends as children when they were adopted. Anyway, this was the first time I had encountered such a frank depiction. The love Jackie felt for her adoptive parents, who she considers her parents end of, made me cry as did the way they unwaveringly supported her in finding her parents as an adult, highly emotive indeed.

The other big element was that in some of the pages, passages of Jackie’s story felt like they could be my own. You see whilst I am not an adopted child myself, I didn’t meet my father until I was sixteen years old. And so when Jackie is writing about both imagining what her biological parents might be like and also the strange feeling of having some of your identity missing – which is no fault of the loving parents you have – and needing to discover more were very much like the questions I had in my head. Though my father was from Derbyshire like my mother not from another country, I still had this huge gap if not culturally then just in a sense of myself. I haven’t experienced having those thoughts shared by someone else before. Frankly at some point I might have to hunt Jackie Kay down for a cup of tea, a cake and a good old natter about it in more detail.

‘Maybe your father was an African chief,’ my mother used to say, and, ‘Maybe you are an African princess.’ I liked that. In my imaginary princess picture, I am wearing a traditional African dress, purples and oranges and yellows. ‘Maybe you will own land,’ my mother said. I liked that too. I pictured the plots of my land in the African landscape of my imagination. It was flat land, not like the Highlands of Scotland. The earth was dark and rich. There was a red-dust road. I couldn’t really get much further than that.

So a huge thank you to Jackie for writing such an honest and open account of several parts and elements of her life. Thank you for sharing in the laughter, tears, joy and fears of the journey of discovery that she has gone through. If you a looking for writing on adoption or just a memoir with a difference then I would recommend red Dust Road very much indeed. I was also thinking it would make a very interesting companion read to Kit De Waal’s My Name is Leon, which I also really loved when I read that a year or so ago. A gem from the library shelves, hurray for libraries, they are brilliant aren’t they?

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Filed under Jackie Kay, Picador Books, Review

What Belongs To You – Garth Greenwell

Since visiting America twice in as many years (I am feeling American trips might have to become an annual thing) I have been intrigued by the books that they have over there that we don’t, yet, in Britain. I have recently got quite the habit for ordering these from overseas. One such book I was incredibly tempted by was What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell after seeing it discussed a lot over the water, particularly by Hanya Yanagihara, in January – it seems Camilla at Picador must be psychic for the UK proof arrived at just about that time and so I devoured it, in a single sitting, as I was completely spellbound by it…

9781447280514

Picador Books, 2016, hardback, fiction, 204 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with completely.

I am a huge fan of characters who remain enigmas whilst telling their stories and with What Belongs To You Garth Greenwell has brought us not one but two characters who both remain mysterious yet compelling throughout his debut novel, which is in many ways ode to obsession. As the novel opens we follow our unnamed narrator, a middle aged American teacher now living in Bulgaria, as he goes cruising for sex in the toilets underneath the National Palace of Culture. It is here that he meets Mitko, a young rent boy who very quickly, through an act of temptation and then rejection, becomes like a drug for our protagonist. We then follow the two characters as their relationship, which twists, turns and redefines itself, develops and watch how it affects both men.

There is so much that is brilliant about this unflinching novel of lust, loneliness and desperation. Greenwell gives What Belongs To You a compelling thriller like feel as plays both with us and our perceptions making us constantly question if this is love, obsession, lust or something more sinister. What becomes all the more intriguing is  that as we read on, without giving away any spoilers, Greenwell flips the notion of who is the predator and who is the prey, is it the older man or the younger and why?

If this study of obsession and lust wasn’t enough there is also much more going on in the background behind what is in many ways a two man show, affair seemed too pun filled a term. There are also the stories of these two men and why they ended up in that restroom. The novel is set into three sections the first spiralling from that first meeting with Mitko and how sexual obsession and power begins. The second section then takes a very different turn as our protagonist gets a letter from home that takes him back to his youth and the relationship he has had with his family particularly with his father.

My father spoke in a different tone now, almost with a different voice, the voice of his own childhood, I thought, thick with the dirt he usually tried to conceal. So you like little boys, that voice said, the voice almost of instinct, the voice of the look he had given me once and of what had once fouled the air. As young as I was, I knew what he said was absurd, I was myself a little boy, what could he be accusing me of, though now I think it was his only understanding of what I could be, the person I was was lost in it. But it didn’t matter that it was absurd, I was already crying, I was a mess of tears, and when my mother started to come toward me I motioned her away, turning my back on her. I was ashamed of my tears, I would hardly breathe, and it was all I could do to say to him But I’m your son, which was my only appeal and the last thing I would say.

This section of the book proves incredibly emotive, it is also a fascinating portrayal and indeed insight into some of the thoughts, experiences and horrors that gay men often (not always, but often) go through at some point in their life. It is a time of judgement, rejection, fear, lack of hope and being seen as something other, something dangerous to be feared. No one likes to be different, or maybe I should say no one likes the repercussions of being different, yet when you are you have no choice but to go through whatever that difference throws at you. To steal from the title you have to own ‘what belongs to you’ though it isn’t always easy and it shapes you, as we see it does through our unnamed narrators eyes. You wonder if this is the reason he has left his life in America behind and start to look at how it forms his relationships in his present.

The same can be said for Mitko who returns, literally with a knock on the door on a random night, several years later, our narrator still under some kind of sexual spell and vice versa, though in this section we see it isn’t just the sexual power and side Mitko wants, there is more, both good and bad. For fear of spoilers, again, I will say no more other than that here is where Bulgaria’s history comes into play as we look at how it is not just a home but also class, chance, looks and money all have a bearing on what can make a god and what can also destroy one.

I was shocked by the difference between their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me; not only was his tooth unbroken, but also his head was unshaved, his hair full and light brown, conventionally cut. There was nothing rough or threatening about him at all; he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in a class at the prestigious school where I teach. It was hardly possible that they could be the same person, this preposterous teenager and the man beside me, or that so short a time could have made such a difference, and I found myself looking repeatedly at the screen and then at Mitko, wondering which face was the truer face, and how it had been lost or gained.

The set up of the book and its parts, which feel like acts on a stage, as well as Mitko’s story that made me wonder if Greenwell meant for this to me a modern Greek tragedy, only set in Bulgaria. Whatever the case it shows how Greenwell brings in so many brilliant tropes of literature; for there is a thriller like quality alongside a poetic sensibility too, all entwining to create something that feels unlike anything that you have read before. I also loved how Greenwell plays with expectations; making the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ugly, making sex completely unsexy and then making moments you wouldn’t expect seemingly drip with desire. You wouldn’t think you could describe an opening scene set in an underground toilet as evocative and sensual but with Garth’s prose it is just that. Add to this the compelling lead characters and their stories, underlying tensions and atmospheres and you have a heady concoction.

As you might have guessed I could rave to you all about Garth Greenwell’s debut novel for quite some time. What Belongs To You is concentrated brilliance, a short novel that packs an emotive and thought provoking punch. I urge you all to read it, I think it will prove to be one of many readers stand out books of the year, it will certainly be one of mine.

If you would like to hear more about the novel from the author, as well as discussion on unreliable narrators, queer literature and much, much more do hear over to the latest episode of You Wrote The Book where Garth kindly joins me in conversation, it’ll make you want to read the book if you haven’t or love it all the more if you have, even if I do say so myself. Who else has read What Belongs to You and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Books of 2016, Garth Greenwell, Picador Books, Review

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

Grief is still something that we modern human folk are pretty rubbish at. It is something that we don’t like to talk about along with its frequent bedfellow death. I have often felt that in The West and particularly in Britain we are told to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with it. In reality this doesn’t help. If we are going through it we bottle it inside, isolate ourselves and tend to make it look like we are fine. When people are grieving we tend to find ourselves unsure what to do and either go one of two ways by being over helpful (and accidentally overbearing in some cases) or by distancing ourselves from people thinking they probably don’t want our help or need us in their faces – or maybe that is just me. Yet until we talk about it more, in all its forms, we won’t deal with it better individually or as a society, so thank goodness for people like Cathy Rentzenbrink who have the bravery, for it is a very brave act, to share their real life experiences with grief in a book like The Last Act of Love.

9781447286370

Picador Books, 2015, hardback, memoir, 246 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I was drifting off to sleep when I heard someone shouting outside in the car park. Nothing unusual about that. Customers often pitched up in the middle of the night looking for their wallets or keys or wives. I opened my window to see what was going on. The man below didn’t look mad or drunk. He was standing next to his car. The headlights were on and I could see a woman in the passenger seat.
‘Is this where Matthew Mintern lives?
‘Yes, I’m his sister.’
‘You’d better come then, he’s in trouble.’
Trouble. It was a worrying word but a small one.

Trouble does not cover what follows as Cathy Rentzenbrink describes how after a night out with her younger brother Matthew, where she left earlier and he stayed on, he is hit by a car. Cathy arrives not long after to be by his side as the ambulance staff arrive and take him to the hospital, all she can think of is to pray that he survives, pray that he will get better, pray that he will live. Yet in the days, weeks, months and years after his accident pass Matthew, or Matty, shows very little sign of mental (and therefore physical) recovery from the accident and remains in a persistent vegetative state (which is a term I really, really hate and think should be changed for the record) the idea of life becomes less of a blessing and more of a curse. The Last Act of Love follows Cathy and her family as they come to terms with this and the life they all lead alongside Matty afterwards and question what ‘a life’ actually means.

There is so much that I admired about The Last Act of Love it is almost impossible not to fawn over it because I think it is such a beautiful, honest and important book. It is utterly heartbreaking, yet strangely hopeful and uplifting too. Cathy manages to build a full picture of relationships and situations in a few paragraphs which give her memoir an extra intensity. For example whilst the accident happens early on Cathy swiftly builds up the wonderful relationship that she had with her brother, who was also clearly her best friend and who she loved without end. Not long after the book opens we are taken with them as they discuss love together while Matty fixes an old motorbike, it is just a few paragraphs yet instantly we see the dynamic and depth of their love, which of course makes what follows all the more heartbreaking and Cathy’s despair and emotions all the more engulfing in the aftermath.

Everything apart from being with Matty seemed irrelevant. I’d always kept diaries and notebooks, but now I wrote nothing. My words had gone AWOL. I couldn’t bear to read the pointless, silly rubbish the old me had written so I tied all my diaries up in two carrier bags and chucked them into the skip at the back of the pub.
Reading was still my friend, though. I read constantly and compulsively, drowning out the sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep – I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into.

One of the things that I admired most of all throughout was Cathy’s honesty and directness, both in the good times and the bad. I mention the good times because, as we all know, even in the darkest times there are some very funny (often inappropriately so) moments amongst the sadness. Yet where I think The Last Act of Love excels and is at its most potent and poignant is in the darker moments. The moments where you have to update people on a horrific situation, how you tell people who don’t know (which during Cathy’s reflection on college she gives a list of the options and the likely responses to telling new friends about her brother), the guilt you feel, the spectrum of emotions, the way you think physical pain might take away mental pain, how you cope at points when you feel you simply cannot endure  any more and how you do or don’t deal with all these things.

It would be very easy for anyone writing something like this to leave out the bad bits, or as in some things I have read simply move all the bad bits around loss, grief and emotional turmoil and project them onto someone else making yourself look the martyr. Cathy doesn’t do that, in fact she often does the opposite. She openly talks about the intense anger and rage you feel, how uncontrollably sorry for yourself you can feel, how hard it can be to support someone who is seriously or terminally ill and indeed be the person who brings up the difficult question of whether someone really should ‘live’ through all of this – which is what makes up the second section of the book. All this before the guilt and grief that follow after someone’s death which she discusses just as honestly.

There was no pleasing me. I was angry with people who wanted to ask me about Matty, but also angry when they stopped asking and didn’t want to see him. A tragic accident and a coma are exciting, but the prospect of permanent severe brain damage much less so. People didn’t want to see him. They had loved him – not quite like one of their own, but they had loved him – and it was distressing for them to see him so transformed. They gradually drifted away.

Not to make this all about me, though as it is my blog and my reaction to books is always an emotive one as a reader it’s hard not to, but I think all of these aspects of the book were what really chimed with me and also made me think it was ok to have had those dark thoughts and moments before myself. As many of you will know I  often looked after Granny Savidge during her terminal illness and had many of these moments. I can remember having blazing rows with her and everyone else in the family because emotions were so high yet loving them all so much. I remember wanting to ignore the phone the third time in the night she wanted help on the commode because I was so, so tired. I can also remember laughing endlessly when she thought a Crunchie bar wrapper was She-Ra’s bustier or when she told me to ‘shove it in your pipe and smoke it’ after I offered her a strawberry. I remember the moments in her last weeks when I felt guilty that I wanted her to die and then the  fear when I would say to her ‘you can go now Gran, it’s ok, we don’t mind, we love you’ worrying that she might and it would be all my fault. It was reading Cathy’s story that made me realise that that was all ok, it was grief, it was normal, it was human and it was how I coped even when it wasn’t pleasant under an emotionally crushing time. I hope I haven’t over shared there too much.

Speaking of which, before I wrap up, one of the other things that I loved about Cathy’s writing was the fact that while she lets you into some very intimate and personal parts of her life not once does it feel like it is over sharing or exploitative. It is simply a book that is emotionally open and honest and in telling both her story and the story of Matty The Last Act of Love is a book that once read will help or sooth the pain or guilt that anyone who has cared for or lost a loved one feels. Oh the power of reading.

If you hadn’t guessed already I would highly recommend people read The Last Act of Love. It is a warm, engaging, emotional yet hopeful book that I think truly is the last act of love from a sister to her little brother. And an act that will provide solace to many, many readers.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Non Fiction, Picador Books, Review

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Back in May I spent a bank holiday weekend in tears. That is because I spent the three day break (which I still don’t understand why we have several times a year, yet obviously embrace) reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Though saying that you read a book like A Little Life I actually think does it a disservice as it is one of those all encompassing books that you live through. It is rare that a book as it ends leaves you feeling a somewhat changed person to the one who started it, that is what happened to me and is probably why this will be one of my all time reads.

Picador Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 736 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Little Life is one of those books that slightly fool you from the start. As it opens it seems to be the tale of four men who become friends in college, we watch as they struggle (well three of them do) to make successful lives in New York; Willem as an actor, JB as a photographer, Malcolm as an architect and Jude as a lawyer.  Initially the novel traces how the four men meet, how their friendship develops and then how their lives and careers in the big smoke unfold. If you are thinking ‘oh right, it is another of those New York novels about successful men’ whilst rolling your eyes, you would be wrong as Yanagihara weaves in various question marks about all of these men and the darker parts of their personalities and pasts, particularly into the unknown and almost mysterious psyche of Jude who never gives anything away, not even snippets, of his youth.

His feelings for Jude were complicated. He loved him – that part was simple – and feared for him, and sometimes felt as much his older brother and protector as his friend. He knew that Jude would be and had been fine without him, but he sometimes saw things in Jude that disturbed him and made him feel both helpless and, paradoxically, more determined to help him (although Jude rarely asked for help of any kind.) They all loved Jude, and admired him, but he often felt that Jude had let him see a little more of him – just a little – than he had shown the others, and he was unsure what he was supposed to do with that knowledge.

It is Jude who fairly soon becomes the focus as the novel and it is here that A Little Life starts to take its, now infamous, darker turns. Without giving too much away, and I think it has been discussed quite a lot all over the shop, we look into his background, the horrendous abuse that he endured and the physical and mental scars it has left and which he is still dealing with now. How does someone cope with having been abandoned and then physically and sexually abused? How does someone make a success of their lives after that? How do they survive? These are some of the many questions that Yanagihara asks and some of the answers are not comfortable ones. For example in order to escape the almost constant pain, Jude often (to the horror of those who know about it; Willem, Jude’s physician Andy and his mentor Harold) uses the release of self harm. Yes it makes for disturbing reading, yet I have never understood the psychology behind it before as I have reading this.

Jude shrugged, and Willem felt his annoyance quicken into anger. Here Jude sat after what was, he could now admit, a terrifying night, acting as if nothing had happened, even as his bandage-wrapped hand lay uselessly on the table. He was about to speak when Jude put down the water glass he’d been using as a pastry cutter and looked at him. “I’m really sorry, Willem,” he said, so softly that Willem almost couldn’t hear him. He saw Willem looking at his hand and pulled it into his lap. “I should never -” He paused. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.”

Yet this is one of the things that Yanagihara seems to want to look at. Her writing, whilst admittedly (and she has said intentionally) making everything a little extreme, has an honesty about the things we like to talk about and also the things that we don’t which I found impressive and often heartbreaking because we have all felt or thought these things. “I’m lonely,” he says aloud, and the silence of the apartment absorbs the words like blood soaking into cotton. And there is so much Yanagihara looks at; pleasure vs. pain, success vs. failure, love vs. hate. She also looks at how society has expectations for us from birth; we should all be able to endure anything, we should all want success and riches, we should all have the best relationships possible of all kinds, we should all love sex, we should be grateful to be alive, we should all be survivors. But what if we don’t, are we failures, and are we not truly ‘human’ if we are not conventional in all ways? I could talk about the thoughts and questions A Little Life gave me for days and days.

If you are thinking that this sounds like the most miserable, upsetting, confronting and disturbing novel you are going to read, you would be wrong. Yes there are a lot of moments where it will leave you bereft and broken; however it is also a novel of incredible hope, especially in the testament of friendship and the power of love. I cried as many times through happiness as I did sadness, I laughed as much as I gasped or winced in horror. In some ways there is a fairy tale like quality to A Little Life both in its sense of timelessness, the way it has it’s goodies (Willem is now my idea of a contemporary Prince Charming if ever there was one) and baddies (Caleb and Brother Luke will make your skin crawl) and also in its believe in the goodness of many over the wickedness of some and the power/magic there is in love in all its forms.

“All I want,” he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, “is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.”

Someone asked me the other day, after I had recommended that they read it, why on earth it had to be so long? Good question, why couldn’t Yanagihara have made it 500 or even 350 pages long instead of over 700? My answer is simply that you have to get completely immersed into these lives in order for the book to have the incredible emotive, happy and sad, effects that it does. By the end of the novel you will feel you have made friends and lost them, you will have felt like you have endured their happiness and their pain, you will feel you have lived a little of other people’s lives and been subconsciously made to reflect on your own.

I am going to urge everyone I know to read A Little Life. It is a novel that looks at love, friendship, loss, pleasure, pain, hope, survival, failure and success. It is a book about class, disability, sexuality and race. Overall it is a book about what it means to be a human. It’s amazing, it is also brutal. Like I said back at the beginning of this post, A Little Life is not just a book you read through, it is a book that you experience and live through. Without a doubt this will be my book of the year, if not my book of the decade, something about it (and Jude and Willem) will stay with me for many, many years to come. I am changed a little, something only the rarest and most moving and thought provoking books can do. Get it, read it, then talk to me about it.

If you would like to hear more about A Little Life from Hanya Yanagihara, you can hear her in conversation with me on the latest You Wrote The Book. If you have read A Little Life I would love to know and hear your thoughts on it and the affects it had on you, whatever they were. I think it’s clear this is a book I could talk about all day, this review took fifteen edits, I kid you not! I would also love to know if any of you have read Hanya’s debut The People in the Tree’s which I have and want to read right now and yet want to save, as it may be a while before we get the next Yanagihara novel.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Hanya Yanagihara, Picador Books, Review

All Involved – Ryan Gattis

I do love it when a book takes me by surprise, even more so when one takes me out of my comfort zone. What makes this all the better is when this comes at the least expected time. This happened with All Involved by Ryan Gattis which when I was first emailed about, being told it was the tale of the 1992 LA Riots from a spectrum of seventeen witnesses and participants, I instantly thought ‘that isn’t my cup of tea’. Thank goodness then for several people raving about it and saying I must read it (or else, in some cases – Nina) because one I started I couldn’t stop reading, even when I sometimes wanted to.

9781447283164

Picador, hardback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

All Involved is based around the true events in April 1992. After one of the most notorious, racially charged trials in American history, the city of L.A. exploded in violence and with Gattis at the help this reads like the book equivalent of a rollercoaster. For six days, Los Angeles is a city ablaze. For six days, seventeen people are caught in the chaos. For six days, Los Angeles shows the world what happens when laws are no longer enforceable. Once you start the book and become witness to the horrific death of Ernesto Vera on his walk home, you are instantly embroiled in the life of one part of LA where, with no justice on the streets, anything is possible and anyone could be the victim of other people’s pasts, other people’s debts and other people’s ability to do just what the hell they like.

“Don’t do this.” I hear myself say the words. It surprises me how calm they are, considering my heart is going a million beats per minute. “Please. I didn’t do anything to you. I have money. Whatever you want.”
They respond, these three, but not with words. Rough hands jerk me up on my feet, out of the Boardwalk and into the back alley with garages on both sides. But they’re just setting me up.
Quick weak punches hit me in my kidneys, my stomach, my ribs too. I get it from all angles. They don’t feel hard but they steal my breath away. At first, I don’t understand, but then I see the blood, and I stare at it on my shirt, and as I am wondering why I didn’t feel the stabs, a bat hits me.

In a novel where not one, not two, not three but seventeen narrators take us through the streets during those six days, Gattis does some very clever things. Firstly, the way in which we meet these narrators is done incredibly skilfully. We have Ernesto, who through some wizardry Gattis makes us like, know is a good guy and feel utterly bereft by the death of. We also know Ernesto is an innocent and that this is an act of revenge and settling scored, also increasing the horror of it. When we then meet Ernesto’s sister Payasa, we learn why the act of revenge yet we also stay on the side of ‘good’ (if you can call it that, which we will come to later) as nor is involved in the gang culture of the streets. Until she decides that she wants revenge herself.

But then it dawns on me like a math problem my stupid ass finally figured out. There are no rules now. None. Not with people rioting. I shiver when I realise every single cop in the city is somewhere else and that means its officially hunting season for on every fucking fool who ever got away with anything and damn, does this neighbourhood have a long memory. I snort and take a second to appreciate the evil weight of it.

Within just 56 pages we have gone from being complete outsiders to the gang culture of the time, to heading straight towards the heart of it. We have also gone from being people who witness an act of revenge and are horrified by it to, if we are really honest and after the first two chapters you feel it believe me, understanding why someone would then want to go and participate in an act of violence for revenge. It is expertly done and incredible how quickly our morals shift, even if ever so slightly, when we are put into another person’s shoes and given an insight into their life and all that is involved around it.

Imagine then what happens as we start to go further into the lives of the neighbourhoods, the different gangs, the police, the nurses and doctors, the firemen. Gattis takes us into all these worlds within a district and makes us experience their way of life and I challenge you to think things are as simple as gangs ‘bad’ and cops ‘good’ by the end of All Involved, there are too many layers we discover as we go, all the grey areas and the thoughts provoked. There are some other major moral questions thrown in when we see cops arresting people instead of helping putting out fires, or putting out fires when they should be arresting people – when their resources are limited and they can’t look at the full facts, what can they do.

What I found all the more compelling was that while part of you can try and say ‘oh this is a fictional account’ you know that Gattis has based this around how people who he has spoken to felt at the time as well as all the research that he has done into the events that happened. We get both the feelings inside the heads of all involved, wherever they are in the area, and we also get the facts. My jaw hit the floor as characters were dispatched (some you hope get their comeuppance, most you don’t) and then all the more when I learnt some of the facts.

For example there were over 102,000 gang members estimated in LA in 1991 a year, who whatever their motive were part of 771 murders. When you then learn that in the first two days of the riots 3000 guns were looted and many people had axes to grind and grudges bearing fruit, whatever the moral behind them, you see you’re only getting a sample of what was going on. It makes it all the more disconcerting when you realise people aren’t learning, whatever ‘side’ they are on as the cycle of riots has been roughly every twenty years along with peaks in racial issues, and look what is happening in the news right now. It is scary, but we need books like this.

There’s a truth in that somewhere and maybe it’s this – there’s a hidden America inside the one we portray to the world, and only a small group of people ever actually see it. Some of us are locked into it by birth or geography, but the rest of us just work here. Doctors, nurses, firemen, cops – we know it. We see it. We negotiate with death where we work because that’s just part of the job.  We see its layers, its unfairness, its unavoidability. Still, we fight that losing battle. We try to maneuver around it, occasionally even steal from it. And when you come across somebody else who seems to know it like you do, well, you can’t help but stop and wonder what it’d be like to be with someone who can empathise.  

I was completely gripped by All Involved. I have not devoured a novel in such a way, both in terms of the speed in which I read it and in the way it consumed my thoughts and some of my dreams, in years. It completely encompassed my brain while I was reading it and for weeks (and now months) after having read it I am still thinking about it, the characters and also what I would do in a situation like that if I was any of those people. I came away shocked and horrified but I also came away with a greater understanding into the lives of people who I never imagined I could empathise with. That is what the best of fiction does though isn’t it? Gattis has written a visceral, challenging, scary yet hopeful and questioning novel which I urge you all to read if you haven’t already. Easily one of my books of 2015, I need to get my hands on all his others when I am in the USA next month.

If you would like to hear Ryan talking about All Involved in more detail then do check out the latest episode of You Wrote The Book where we have a fascinating (if I do say so myself) conversation about the book. I would also, of course, love to hear your thoughts and reactions to All Involved if you have read it already. If you haven’t then why are you still reading this? Get thee to a library or bookshop right now, it’s essential reading.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Picador Books, Review, Ryan Gattis

Mobile Library – David Whitehouse

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last two weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week. This week it is David Whitehouse’s utterly brilliant Mobile Library which is one of those books that charms you so much and whose characters you become so attached to you hug it to you afterwards, like you were ten again.

9781447274728

Picador Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered (I am tempted to have this cover made into some kind of tattoo design!)

Bobby Nusku is a twelve year old unhappy in the world that he is living. His mother has disappeared, he has tried to catalogue as much of her life as he can in a box of artefacts he keeps hidden, his father has met a new woman and both of them either spend the time ignoring Bobby, telling him off or being drunk. If that wasn’t bad enough his best friend, and protector from school bullies, Sunny has had to move away after a failed attempt to turn himself into the first human-cyborg. After witnessing an act of bullying on someone else, Rosa, he tries to pay for his cowardice by befriending her and in doing so comes to meet her mother Vera, and before long they all decide to escape their lives, quite literally, in a mobile library.

In case you are thinking ‘oh Simon, you rotten spoil sport, you have given everything away’ I actually haven’t. Once on the road and off on the adventures of their lives so far, for good and bad reasons, much happens and they meet many people and get into various scrapes along the way. Also, Mobile Library actually begins somewhere towards its end and so we back pedal and then head towards a literal cliff-hanger we know is coming. Though we don’t know what happens after it, ooh that David Whitehouse is a teaser.

‘Are we in trouble?’ Bobby asked?
‘No,’ Val said, ‘not anymore.’
The white cliffs of southern England spread out beyond them, disappearing where the blues, sea and sky, coalesce. High up in the cab of the mobile library, they could not see the land below them, just the oceans ceaseless loop, as if they were driving an island through the sea to a faraway place. Hemmed by a crescent of police cars to the cliff edge, bulbs flashed, helicopters chopped up the air. When the sirens fell mute, he saw her, exquisite in the dim dashboard light.

I will say no more on the plot bar the fact that it involves camping in woods, creepy old mansions, an escaped convict and an abandoned zoo. The reason I mention all these things is because they were all things I loved in books as ‘a youth’ and of course still do, so there was a lovely nostalgic feeling as I was reading. There is no doubt that this is Whitehouse’s intention as actually the book takes on many tropes of the fairytales (for me the Ladybird Classics) that I would say 90% of us read or had read to us when we were small. Bobby himself, though admittedly without the ugly stepsisters or his parents giving a monkey’s how dirty the house is, is rather a Cinderella figure in some ways, Val his fairy godmother and the Mobile Library his pumpkin… though the story doesn’t follow the path of Cinderella you can see other nods to fairytale as you go, especially towards the very end.

One thing the book doesn’t have is magic, well at least not of the wands, spells, eye of newt or enchanted spinning wheel (or steering wheel, see what I did there – sorry!) kind. There are two other kinds of magic in it, love and friendship. Now any of you who think I have been kidnapped by some hippy commune bear with me. Love is something we cannot explain, there is no science behind it, there is no logic and the same applies to friendship, these invisible bonds tie us together for some unknown rhyme or reason. That is a magic of sorts and we take it far too much for granted which was something I felt strongly after finishing the book.

The theme of friendship also links onto the other major theme of the book which is what makes a family. The stereotypical family of 2.4 children and indeed the ‘nuclear’ family (whatever that meant, it sounds horrid) can no longer be defined so easily. I know this all too well with two half brothers, two half sisters and two step sisters – I know think of the Christmases’! Not only that though more and more people are creating family through friendships, I am Uncle (Sugabear in some cases) to a lot of my friends children because there are certain friends who you feel are more your family than your own family. Whitehouse looks at this through a group of people who couldn’t be more different and yet somehow – no spoilers – become a family of sorts. People who either have difficult or awkward family relationships or feel they have no real family at all.

These days she looked forward to visiting the doctor. As cold as his hands were, small talk was a welcome respite from the otherwise lengthy nothingness. Sometimes she considered faking symptoms, just to feel that rough chill against her body and talk about the changing weather.

Having read Whitehouse’s previous novel Bed, which shamefully I loved but haven’t reviewed, it is interesting to see that his theme of outsiders in society is still there. Interestingly I think Mobile Library is like a polar opposite look at these ‘underdogs’ because whereas in Bed the act of someone going to bed forever is about dropping out of society due to a lack of hope, here we have people desperate for love and belonging. Even when ‘Sometimes,’ she said to nobody in particular, ‘I worry that life is just the journey between toilets.’ there is a glimmer of hope and potential which may be fulfilled at some point. Isn’t that the essence of every great fairytale?

Yes, I am back to fairy tales again. Speaking of which, if you hadn’t guessed yet, Mobile Library is also a book about the power and wonder of books. I need say no more, brilliant…

‘In every book is a clue about life,’ Val said. ‘That’s how stories are connected. You bring them to life when you read them, so the things that happen in them will happen to you.’
‘I don’t think the things that happen in books will happen in my life,’ he said.
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘You just don’t recognise them yet.’  

I loved, and hugged, Mobile Library which is frankly some of the highest praise that I can give it. It is a book that reminds you of the magic of books, friendship, family and love without any magic having actually occurred. It is also an adventure story, possibly the most quintessentially British road trip novel you could encounter. It is also a book that despite being marketed for adults, I think many a ‘youth’ should read as I think it will remind them of the brilliance of reading and the fun it can be, as much as it reminds we adults of all ages, of just the same thing. I’m a massive fan of books, Mobile Library reminded me why whilst making me even more of a fan.

If you would like to hear  David talking about Mobile Library in more detail you can hear him chatting with me on Fiction Uncovered FM and he will also be on You Wrote The Book next week, again with me but quite a different chat. Who else has read Mobile Library and what did you think of it? Which other books about books and grown up fairy tales have you loved? I always want more recommendations of those.

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Filed under Books of 2015, David Whitehouse, Fiction Uncovered, Picador Books, Review

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

I first heard about Station Eleven when I was in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina. My lovely roomie, Michael Kindness of Books on the Nightstand, was reading it while we were at Booktopia. He was really enjoying it and it was fair to say that when he was seen with it in his company, or when it was heard he had it, there was almost a fever of anticipation and a buzz going through the many Booktopia attendees. I asked what it was about, as naturally Michael and I spent the entirety of our room sharing talking books, and was told it is about the start of the end of civilization and then the aftermath twenty years later. I think you could hear my eyes rolling around the whole of the U.S and I may have made some snarky comment along the lines of ‘oh, that’s not something that has been written about before is it?’ I came back to the UK and Station Eleven  was soon being talked about everywhere, before swiftly becoming many people’s (lots of whom I trust immensely) favourite books of 2014. After someone, who will remain nameless, but who bloody loved this book sooooo much dared me to read it on the promise of £50 if I didn’t like it I decided it was time. Well, I never got the £50 because I loved it and was of course furious I hadn’t stolen Michael’s proof off him when I had the chance.

Picador Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Station Eleven opens, aptly, at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto where well-known (more famous in his youth) actor Arthur is taking on the lead role in Shakespeare’s King Lear, that is until midway through the show he collapses and dies from what initially appears to be a heart attack. Yet within hours not only is Toronto feeling the beginnings of what seems to be a pandemic flu, the whole world is following suit. Through the eyes of a seemingly unlinked group of people we watch as flu turns out to be a deadly virus and the end of the world is coming.

Yet Station Eleven is not simply an end of the world novel, in fact bar the initial millions of deaths (99.9% of humans have died, he says casually) in the first few days we are soon sent to the year Twenty when those who somehow survived, or were immune, to the virus are carrying on in a new strange world. Here Mandel focuses in more particularly with Kirsten, part of The Symphony, travelling around North America performing Shakespeare as they head through the wilderness we see both a future that is much simpler (no phones, no television, no electrics) yet where humans living at their most base start to want powers of other kinds. All I will say is ‘cults’ and we know how fascinating, if utterly bizarre, some of those can be.

There was much to love and admire in Station Eleven. Firstly I found the fact that Mandel chooses to write about the very beginnings and then skip to twenty years after the end of civilisation, really interesting. Many authors would have gone full throttle with the horror of what could happen as the humanity falls and then deals with everything’s slowly breaking down and running out. Mandel however, bar a few of the tiniest flashbacks, leaves that all to our imagination which of course can be much worse. I wondered if she felt, like I did when I rolled my eyes back in Asheville like a wally, that maybe this is ground that has almost been covered too much, isn’t how and if people survive after that all the more interesting? It turns out it is.

Before we head to that I do want to mention how brilliantly she does write about the pandemic as it sweeps across continents. It is utterly bloody terrifying as it could all happen so easily, especially if we think what happened with Ebola recently, all it takes is the virus to get on a few plans with a few people and off it spreads. I don’t suggest reading this book on a plane next to anyone with a cold. I thought this also had a real emotive weight on several occasions, with particular reference for those who die not long after including one leading-ish character far from their loved ones and indeed surrounded by strangers (who I won’t name, but I wept) as well as those people who we only see the merest glances of through survivor’s eyes.

“You told me to call you if there was ever a real epidemic?”
“I remember.”
“We’ve admitted over two hundred flu patients since this morning,” Hua said. “A hundred and sixty in the past three hours. Fifteen of them have died. The ER’s full of new cases. We’ve got beds parked in hallways. Health Canada’s about to make an announcement.” It wasn’t only exhaustion, Jeevan realised, Hua was afraid.
Jeevan pulled the bell cord and made his way to the rear door. He found himself glancing at the other passengers. The young woman with groceries, the man in the business suit playing a game on his cell phone, the elderly couple conversing quietly in Hindi. Had any of them come from the airport?  He was aware of all of them breathing around him.

In the year Twenty things are no less emotive or terrifying, just in a very different way. People who have survived the pandemic might die simply treading on a rusty nail as there is no treatment. People are also suffering as with no police/official control/government some lesser individuals see this as a way to form their own controls be it husbands and their behaviour to wives, criminals and murderers lingering just out of eye sight ready and waiting, or self appointed rulers ready to spread wisdom from the past they use old documents and twist the words of or simply make them up themselves. We watch the way someone’s nature, be it good or bad, can come to the fore.

It is interesting to read how the ripples of the past end up affecting the future in ways unseen. Throughout Station Eleven Mandel seems to use it to talk about many things. There is fame and why people become so obsessed with it, we have the fame (or the fading of it) for Arthur in the past, and the seeming need for infamy of ‘The Prophet’ in the future. We look at what truly lasts after the world is ravaged, yes there are aeroplanes and cars and all those sorts of things yet without power they become useless, what really become valuable are documents, words, trinkets, memories and history, even pop culture is celebrated for some of the positive attributes is has in a desolate future.

We stand it because we were younger than you were when everything ended, Kirsten thought, but not young enough to remember nothing at all. Because there isn’t much time left, because all the roofs are collapsing now and soon none of the old buildings will be safe. Because we are always looking for the former world, before all the traces of the former world are gone.

I really like books with layers and Station Eleven has those in bounds. On one level it is just a fast paced and fascinating look at the end of one civilisation and potential beginning of another. There is plague, there is murder, there are cults, there are loves lost and found. There’s also a lot going on under that; we are reminded how vapid celebrity culture can be and yet how obsessed we can become with the famous on our many devices, rather than getting to know a neighbour; the importance of words and culture; how important kindness is. I could go on, the power of all of these and more subtly resonates through the book. The most powerful thing of all though is hope, especially in other people and their choices to be good. That was the message I was left with as I left a world that seemed like the future yet reminded me to look away from all my screens and remember a simpler past – where books ruled.

If you would like to hear Emily St John Mandel talk more about Station Eleven then you can hear her chatting to me (I know, how lucky was I) here on this episode of You Wrote The Book. I would love to hear your thoughts on Station Eleven, a spectrum of which you can see here on Adventures with Words, Tomcat in the Redroom, Mookse and the Gripes and Lonesome Reader. I would also love to know which of Emily’s previous three books you have read (as I now have them all) and what you made of those?

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Filed under Emily St John Mandel, Picador Books, Review

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

Sometimes I am a fool. Not reading Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist until the start of this year (I said I was behind with reviews) is a prime example, especially when I was sent it the Christmas before last with a note saying ‘Simon, you will really, really love this book’. This has only made me seem even more of a fool when in the last year or so half the world and his wife seem to have bought it and loved it. What there is no fooling about is the fact that I have now read The Miniaturist and what was one of many people’s favourite books last year will be one of my favourite books this year.

9781447250937

Picador Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent to me by the publisher

One day in the autumn of 1686 Petronella, Nella, Oortman knocks on a large door of a strange house in an affluent part of Amsterdam. The door she is knocking on is that of her recent husbands, wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, yet he is not with her and has not been since the day that they wed and in fact she barely knows him. And so she arrives alone (bar her pet parakeet Peebo) in a strange city and a strange house where once inside the welcome party is more like a party at a wake. The staff; the young and flighty Cornelia and former slave Otto, seem to have been warned off speaking to her, let alone befriending her. Her new sister-in-law, Marin, is ice itself (think of the greeting the new Mrs De Winter gets from Mrs Danvers in Rebecca) and makes it clear that Nella must keep herself to herself and not be a nuisance to her new husband or most importantly Marin, the lady of the house.

Things change, though you wouldn’t exactly say for the better, when Johannes buys her the gift of a large dolls house, a replica of their own. It seems that though he has yet to have spoken to her much, or indeed (fans self) visited her bed chamber, he is aware his new wife needs something of comfort and happiness in her life. Soon parcels of furniture and dolls arrive from a mysterious miniaturist, who not only replicates what is in the house they cannot have possibly seen but who also starts to mirror Nella’s present predicament. Things get stranger and stranger when these dolls and furnishings begin to not only predict the future but also reveal secrets that the Brandt household would rather keep hidden and locked away as well as the dangers that lie ahead.

‘Is it – this house?’ Nella says.
‘It’s your house,’ Johannes corrects her, pleased.
‘It’s a lot easier to manage,’ says Cornelia, craning to see into the upper rooms.
The accuracy of the cabinet is eerie, as if the real house has been shrunk, it’s body sliced in two and its organs revealed.

This is a book of facades. To the passer by the Brandt house would seem like a perfect specimen of the well to do part of Amsterdam, yet within its walls it holds secrets and people inside who all have a facade of their own. What lies behind Johannes aloof business like nature? What lies behind the sharp and hard nature of Marin? Even the new dolls house which should be something of pleasure and fun becomes a more and more ominous presence in the household, an item with its own sense of secrets and forboding. As we read on the more we realise that absolutely nothing is quite what it seems, oh the twists ahead.  This theme even continues in Johannes warehouse where it seems he is storing a fortune (not just of his) of sugar – food plays a big part in this book, even defining characters – however it may look white, pure and tempting but mould and rot have started to set in around the edges.

As well as being a book about secrets (I am being enigmatic about what these are as wonderfully there are plenty of twists throughout, some early on, which I don’t want to spoil as I didn’t see them coming) and mysteries The Miniaturist is very much a book about repression be itself imposed or forced on others by a single person or society and its rules. This is also where the historical element really comes into play as the social mores, one particular shocking practice I had never heard of, and the repercussions if you break them linger in the streets of Amsterdam around the Brandt house getting closer and closer as the novel goes on.

I know it is rather lazy to compare a book to another but I am going to do so anyway because it illustrates why I was such a stonking fan of this book. Lots of The Miniaturist reminded me of Rebecca, which as many of you will know is one of my favourite books of all time, so high praise. Not because it tries to imitate it but because it has some of the key ingredients that I love in any gothic romp of a novel. It has the house that domineers and brims with mystery, it has the innocent woman, the mysterious husband, the gossiping staff and the scary housekeeper/sister in law. It brims with tension, atmosphere and whispers of darker things going on just out of your line of sight. It is basically delicious.

Jessie Burton makes this all look effortless and also incredibly entertaining. There are the characters; Nella who is naive and the reader’s eyes as she goes from an innocent girl to the beginning of womanhood, Cordelia is a delight with just the right amounts of empathy and gossip. Once we know more about Johannes we understand and feel for him. And then there is Marin, oh Marin, my favourite character in the book who pretty much steals every scenes and has, without giving any spoilers away, one of the most complex persona’s and stories within the book. Burton’s writing is pitch perfect for the gothic. I found the prose to be wonderfully rich in description. She knows how to give small things away yet keep little things back or drop hints that something dark might be coming, leaving you in suspense of what’s to come. Amsterdam’s streets and society appeared in my head fully formed. Burton also has the power to create genuine tension and hairs on the back of your neck can rise from nowhere in a paragraph.

The maid’s name dies in Nella’s throat. Several feet away from the miniaturist’s door, a woman is watching her. No, not watching – staring. She stands still amidst the milling crowd, her eyes fixated on Nella’s face. Nella experiences the unprecedented sensation of being impaled – the woman’s scrutiny is like a beam of cold light dissecting her, filing her with an awareness of her own body. The woman does not smile, her brown eyes nearly orange in the midday light, her uncovered hair like pale gold thread.
A chill, a sharp clarity, enters Nella’s bones. She draws her shawl tight, and still the woman keeps staring.

From the moment Nella arrived at the Brandt household I was completely smitten with The Miniaturist. It is a big fat gorgeous gothic romp of a story with vivid characters, dark brooding moments and plenty of twists and unexpected turns as you follow Nella through her mixture of wonderment, puzzlement and bafflement in her dolls house, her own house and the streets of Amsterdam. I also utterly broke me at the end, there was much weeping. It’s basically marvellous, if you haven’t read it yet don’t be a fool like me and leave it any longer – read it now!

If you would like to know more about The Miniaturist from Jessie herself you can hear her in conversation with me on You Wrote The Book here. So who else (there are probably loads of you) has read The Miniaturist and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Jessie Burton, Picador Books, Review

The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide

Now you know all know that I love cats don’t you? To the point where if I could I would probably buy a new kitten every few weeks, though I don’t think Oscar and Millie would be too pleased as they barely tolerate each other unless it is very cold. Despite this love of cats I can’t say I am one of those people, not that I am judging them mind, who would rush out to by The Adventures of Tibbles the Cat Who Saved My Life When I Was Stuck in a Pothole in 1993, yes I made that up – it could sell though! They just aren’t my bag. And yes, I made that title up. Therefore I wasn’t sure The Guest Cat would be my cup of tea but last Sunday morning I fancied something short and so picked it up after I had been sent it from the publishers (possibly because of my outward seemingly cat lady tendencies) and what I found was possibly my perfect version of ‘a cat book’.

Picador Books, paperback, 2014, novella, 144 pages, translated by Eric Selland, kindly sent by the publisher

The story of The Guest Cat is really a very simple one. A couple, both who are writers, find the dream rental spot hidden away, down a lightening like street, from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. This small house, in the grounds of a bigger house owned by an elderly couple, is the perfect retreat to work in solitude yet soon they have a visitor in the form of the neighbour’s cat, who they soon learn is named Chibi. Initially flighty and aloof (well always aloof like the best of cats) Chibi starts to visit more and more regularly and little by little becomes a small companion to the couple and in the smallest of ways has a more and more positive effect on their lives.

In essence that is the book. Only it isn’t.

You see this novella is also so much more when you read between the lines and look a little further, or even if you don’t and it goes in subconsciously. In a rather silent and stealthy manner, creeping up on you (this is the only cat analogy I will make, promise) The Guest Cat actually features a plethora of themes and insights into the world of Tokyo in the 1980’s. The first, and possibly the least interesting yet still insightful, is the housing market in Tokyo when the city was almost out pricing itself (the slightly boring bit) but also losing all of its green spaces and heritage/traditional housing in favour of building big new modern  condominiums or swanky business pads (I found this side of it really interesting).

The second thing it looks at, which I found actually as moving as the story of how this couple befriends Chibi, is how it is to grow old which we see through the landlords in the bigger house. How do you cope as you age and become frailer? How do you look after a loved one they age and you age too? How do you cope with their death and then prepare for the inevitability of your own? I found a real poignancy in that.

The Guest Cat also treads that thin line between autobiography and fiction. As this is a story by an author about two authors (and indeed Takashi Hirade’s wife is a writer so hence the autobiographical link) and the life of the writer and of course the writing process. I always like this element when I come across it in a book as I find the process of writing really interesting, be it what hinders it or what inspires it. So again more layers, not just a book about a pretty cute if elusive cat.

Oh and without giving anything away get ready for an ending which leaves you with a big question, and a mystery, that might have you heading back to the beginning again.

The Guest Cat is one of those books which one the one hand is a very simple tale but can also be read in a multitude of ways and probably needs to be read a few times, especially with the ending I have alluded to above. You can of course, like every book, just read it for the story which is touching and beguilingly simplistic. In essence, like Chibi when she visits her adopted-when-the-needs-arise owners, it is a book that makes us look at life and try and appreciate the intricate and subtle nuances that sometimes we over look, take for granted or simply forget. It is a little gem*.

*I am not going to start reading lots of cat books though, just sharing that with you before they all start arriving.

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Filed under Books in Translation, Picador Books, Review, Takashi Hiraide

Mrs. Hemingway – Naomi Wood

I am rather fascinated by authors, I can’t pretend I am not – more dead and classic authors than living ones, though with certain podcasts and events I do you know I am partial to a good chat with a fun living one. I digress. Interestingly I know that not every reader feels like this about authors, they find the books more fascinating, I however am firmly in the ‘let me know all about authors that you can’ camp. This even includes some authors who I haven’t read and one such author I have heard much about and yet not read a word of is Ernest Hemingway (sorry Gran, I know you loved him) so when I discovered lovely living author (who I have had virtual fig roll fights with on this very blog) Naomi Wood’s second novel was going to be about his wives I knew I would have to read it.

Picador Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

Mrs. Hemingway is a fascinating fictional account of the lives of all four of Ernest Hemingway’s wives; Hadley, Fife (or Pauline), Martha and Mary told from their perspectives at various points of their marriage to Hemingway. From the poor and humble beginnings to the darker depressive days of his last years Naomi Wood gives us a novel where the wives become as fascinating, if not more so, than the man whom they all married. A man it seems who wanted to feel like he was truly loved, which in some ways as his fame grew, became all too easy as women threw themselves at him, even if they weren’t his wives or wives to be.

What a pull he has! What a magnetism! Women jump off balconies and follow him into wars. Women turn their eyes from an affair, because a marriage of three is better than a woman alone.

At the start of Mrs. Hemingway it is a marriage of almost three which we enter. Hadley and Ernest have been joined on their holiday by Hadley’s friend Pauline, or Fife as we come to know her, who we soon learn (from her sister no less, the shock and horror) has become Ernest’s mistress only it seems that the feelings run far more deeply than a mere infatuation or soon to be over indiscretion. We watch, feeling wholly for Hadley, as Hemingway’s first wife inadvertently draws her husband and his lover together whilst her intention is to do quite the opposite. What is marvellously done is what remains unsaid between all three, but particularity what remains unsaid between the two ‘friends’ as things continue. I was heartbroken with Hadley and thought Fife was an utter piece of work, yet strange how as I read on my opinions would change on each wife, and indeed each mistress.

Hadley eats alone at the round table where their books sit on the shelf above. Ernest’s first book of short stories, In Our Time, sits along Scott’s new novel, The Great Gatsby. She remembers one of Ernest’s stories. The images are still so cool and fresh they resurface as vividly as if they were her own memories – how the fish broke the surface of the lake and the sound of them landing was described as gunpowder hitting the water. Hadley could picture everything in that story: the boat out in the bay, the boyfriend and girlfriend trolling for trout, the old sawmill that was now a ruin. But then it came, the moment when the boyfriend tells the girlfriend how it isn’t fun anymore – none of it is fun he tells her, desperate; none of it is going to work. She wonders how much it was about them. The story is called “The End of Something” after all.

Mrs. Hemingway is fascinating for many reasons. Firstly because as I hinted above it is a book which will have you completely on the side of whichever wife you are reading, thinking you will hate the next one and quite possibly coming away from the book feeling admiration and heartbreak for them all for many different reasons. What is wonderful in Wood’s prose is that each wife is very different and also celebrates what was wonderful and unusual about them that made Ernest fall for them and want to marry them all (marriage being something he was vehement about). Each woman has flaws, each woman has certain feelings about Hemingway’s writing, in short each woman is equally fascinating and when you come to the end of one’s narrative you really hope they crop up in the next one.

It is also a fascinating book, not only because it is about all sorts of woman and all sorts of marriages which seems slightly obvious to highlight but is true, because it is a book that really looks at the different emotions that we all go through in our lives. Love, jealousy, rage, hate, happiness, sadness. It also looks at the different shades of love we feel for someone. You can be infatuated. You can be unsure but wooed. You can fall under someone’s spell. You can fall in so fast and out so fast. You can love to hate someone. All these emotions and feelings we have all been through are laid bare in one of the women at some point, or even a few of them at various points, and gives the book a real heightened emotive edge.

He’d be thinking, no doubt, about his life here in the twenties, when he was poorer and happier, a man only once married. His Paris life is a memory Ernest loves to slide over and over until the place is smooth and cool with his affections. Today he would surely be longing for the sawmill apartment and his lost Saint Hadley: a woman all the more exquisite for her generous retirement of the title Mrs. Hemingway.
A title Martha has come to hate.

What I found very admirable, and in its way deeply affecting, about Mrs. Hemingway was that Naomi Wood never seems to favour one wife over another. Nothing they do is judged unless by the wife who happens to be narrating her part of the tale. For example, when we first meet Fife we think ‘what a nasty bitch’, yet when we get to hear her side of the story we start to soften towards her and I could occasionally feel myself starting to bristle against the next wife who was waiting in the wings seemingly to usurp the prior, only for Wood’s account of their actions and motives somehow wins you over again.

Then of course there is the man himself, and in this case as clichéd as it sounds he is the ‘man of mystery’, and indeed the mystery and enigma, at the centre of this book. To each wife he is a different person. A man who seemingly felt he had so much he had to prove that even his successes were never quite good enough. A man who seemed to feel addicted to being loved and needed and admired. A man who didn’t seem to really know himself, or was trying to work himself and the world out through his writing. A fascinating, flawed and incredibly charismatic, dark and talented man.

I say that like I know the man, as I mentioned earlier I haven’t even read any of his fictional writing, I didn’t even know about his ‘infamous death’ (which isn’t really a spoiler as we all know he is dead) before I read Mrs. Hemingway so I came to it, to him and his wives from a very uninformed angle. Well, thanks to Naomi’s wonderful writing (which never shows the amount of research she must have done, my favourite kind of writing) I feel that I have lived through it with them now and I am also desperate to read some of his work.

Mrs. Hemingway is a beautiful novel which initially seems to be about a man of many wives and many times, yet that would sell it short. It is actually about four fascinating women and a man who happened to be lucky enough to have them in his life, no matter how little or how long it was. I highly recommend it whether you be a fan of Hemingway or not, it’s marvellous.

If you would like to hear Naomi talking more about the book, strangely with little old me, then have a listen to the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. Who else has read the book and what did you think? If you are a Hemingway fan, where should I head? Which fictional accounts of an author or their lives have you read and would recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Naomi Wood, Picador Books, Review

Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

So as it is, or probably with the time difference and the fact I have ended up working six hours from home today (on a Sunday and everything), Australia Day today I thought it would be nice to get a review of some Australian literature up on Savidge Reads. I am often telling myself I must read more Australian fiction as I like it whenever I do and so it seems an appropriate nudge. After much mulling and debate I settled on Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany, which won the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013 and which I have had waiting on the shelves for too long. Far too long as it turned out as I was left rather astounded by this book.

9780330544467

Picador Books, 2013, paperback, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.

Dairy pastures are difficult to establish in gullies where there is seepage and drainage. They drift like continents; their hides are maps of uncharted countries. Keep the herd on dry ground through the winter. Sunlight shines ginger through their ears. Plants shelterbelts to reduce wind speed. Elastic ropes of snot hang from their nostrils; their hocks are stuck with shit.

There is much to love in Mateship with Birds but what stood out for me was the depiction of two people who are intensely lonely. No matter how many cows Harry has to milk, inseminate and calf or how much interest he takes in the birdlife he is a man who has been left by his wife and left with a huge chasm he doesn’t know what to do with. Betty may have her day job caring in nursing home and two school children/early teenagers to look after yet her life is spent pretty much in an internal monologue, and one that is filled with disappointment and heartache, she knows people talk about her in the town and avoids it, and mirrors, all she can.

Betty tries not to look at her reflection in the co-op window. She glances. There’s nobody about. She stands in front of the glass, pulls her stomach in and smiles. The puffy flesh of her cheeks rises up around her eyes and she is brought up sharp by the sight of herself so doughy, so exposed, like when her hair has just been cut and set and there is too much of herself on display. This is how she feels most of the time now; always blowsy, always overstuffed.

Harry and Betty have befriended each other out of mutual loneliness and mutual interest, there is an underlying tension between them which they never talk about. Both headed for middle age they have no one else and so Harry regularly visits for Sunday dinner or to help out and has indeed taken Michael under his wing on the farm and in the ways of being a man, which leads to Harry writing to Michael about how life was for him as a teenager and pass on all his, in unflinching detail, experience with women and sex. Let’s say we soon learn he might not be the best man to pass advice onto.

Writing is actually a big theme in the book, which makes sense when you have so many characters with little to do and so much going on in their heads. Harry writes the letters to Michael, he also keeps a note of the lives of the kookaburra family that nest nearby, written in the most gorgeous verse it is pure poetry. Keeping with nature, another major theme of the book, Little Hazel keeps her nature diary, and her mother a diary of the children’s illnesses year by year. Each of these forms of writing gives another insight into all the characters and often adds a real sense of humour to what could have possibly become a depressing book though never does.

1951/52
Michael: Concussion from bicycle accident, infected toe from spider bite (?), kicked by cow, v. bad cough, pecked by gander, eye infection, warts on feet, skewered with fork, burnt foot, constipation, infected splinter, nits.
Little Hazel: Tummy upset, headaches, chilblains, pecked by gander, warts, cough, scratched by cat, diarrhoea, nits.

I mentioned the theme of sex previously and indeed it is one of the main themes of the book. Okay, let us be frank there is A LOT of sex in Mateship with Birds, though really any surprise about that should be left at the door when ‘mateship’ is in the title yet it may surprise some as every few pages or so one of the characters either masturbates, inseminates or ejaculates at some point – or thinks about doing it. This will not be for all readers, as it is rather graphic, and I know some readers went completely off the book for it. Yet Mateship with Birds is a very animalistic and quite grubby (in a muddy sense initially) book anyway so I personally thought it worked really well and made sense often working as a metaphor for what else was going on in the book or a way of unleashing internal mental frustrations as well as the physical ones. Plus you also have a group of characters who have very little else going on, throw in that and the heat and it’s all going to get a bit heightened.

When the air is dry and thin
(early February)
you can hear the river birds to the north.
I thought at first
they were an echo,
but when you get your ear in
it’s clear
that each family sings its own song.

I do hope the sex factor doesn’t put people off this books though as really what Mateship with Birds is all about is loneliness, wanting to belong and looking at the question of what family is. I think Carrie Tiffany excels as she manages to create a novel that reminds us we aren’t so different from the birds and animals around us we like to think, we are all beasts and we function the way nature intended us to.

I do love an ‘earthy’ book and a grubby countryside setting – as I think there can be much darker things going on behind those countryside curtains, I also love a book with fully formed and rather dysfunctional characters whose lives you get thrown into. All of these loves are ticked in Mateship with Birds and more. It is wonderfully written and I highly recommend you give it a whirl; sex, warts and all!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Carrie Tiffany, Picador Books, Review

Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson

Why is it that families can be so fascinating to us in fiction? Is it because we all think our families are absolutely mental? Is it because we can’t choose them yet (I find sometimes rather annoyingly) we have this strange bond with them? Is it because in this modern forward thinking age the idea of a ‘normal family’ (with divorces, step parents, deaths, adoption, disowning) of two point four children simply doesn’t exist and the evolvement of it is strangely fascinating? I could go on, but I won’t – just in case my family are reading this. Family saga’s, though I don’t really like the word saga, especially the dysfunctional kind can make for great reading, such is the case with Charlotte Mendelson’s latest novel ‘Almost English’.

Mantle Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 392 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marina is sixteen. She has decided to leave the comforts of her comprehensive and her family home in favour of boarding school, a place she believes will be brimming with adventure, midnight feasts, independence, boys and dare she admit it sex. What more could she need. It also means escaping her mother, Laura, and her crazy Hungarian great aunts and Grandmother, Rozsi. However boarding school is not what she expected it to be, she isn’t popular, she isn’t cool and she isn’t on the young men’s radars at all. In fact she is a bit of a loner and a seen as a bit of a geek. She is miserable.

Admittedly I am not known as a fan of the ‘coming of age story’ yet ‘Almost English’ is in many ways such a tale. Though it is just as a coming of age tale of a young girl, it is also a coming of age story for a mother in her mid forties, as Laura is also miserable too sleeping on her in laws couch, her husband having left one day, in a dead end job and having a very unfulfilling and unexciting affair. Laura is also miserable. It was the duality of this in ‘Almost English’ that I found really interesting and indeed one of the things that I liked the most about it, though truth be told there is lots and lots to like here.

As the book goes on we see how as a teenager Marina is struggling to work out just who she is and what she is made of. Also, after meeting the Viney family, Marina is looking at what she might be aspiring to be. She sees adulthood as being the most thrilling time ever, yet we see through Laura (and of course adding our own life experience into the mix) that adult life is just as hard, in fact sometimes all the harder. There is also, as an adult reader, a strange sense of nostalgia and hindsight which makes you feel all the more empathy with Marina as she bumbles, rather awkwardly, through her sixteenth year and the romanticism in her life wanes slightly.

She is shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared of cats, and the dark, and the future. She is going to be a doctor but knows she isn’t up to it, and if she doesn’t get into Cambridge her life will be over. And, unbeknownst to anyone at Combe, she lives with old people in a little bit of darkest Hungary, like a maiden in a fairy story. Or a troll.

In case I am making the book sound like it is depressing, it honestly isn’t. One of the things I really liked about the book was Charlotte Mendelson’s sense of humour throughout. Marina’s clumsiness and general teenage angst will make us laugh in hindsight, we have all been there. Importantly Mendelson knows just when to put a laugh in, when the book gets a little dark we get a titter, never a guffaw, to lighten the tension. This also works the other way will ‘the crazy Hungarian oldsters’, as Charlotte calls them, often provide a laugh yet as we read on their background story is a rather tragic one. Throughout the balance is just right, you will laugh out loud but it doesn’t descend in farce, the bleakness and black humour complement each other, laughter sometimes making a dark turn all the darker.

To the casual Englishman, were one present, she might appear as other grandmothers: reading glasses on a chain, worn wedding ring. Do not be deceived. Rozsi is unusually clever and fearless by her compatriots’ standards. Her younger son Peter, Laura’s former husband, used to call her Attila, with reason. Laura, whose references are more prosaic, thinks of her as Boudicca dressed as Miss Marple. This is not a woman one ignores. She has a white bun and black eye-brows, her cheeks are soft and age-spotted, but consider the cheekbones underneath; you think she forgives easily? Think again.

‘Almost English’ is also a book brimming with issues (depression, cancer, desertion, class, race) without ever becoming an ‘issue based book’, again this is a hard thing to pull off but Mendelson deftly combines these elements as she does the humour, nothing feels forced and even when another dramatic twist ensues it’s not melodramatic. I am wondering if Charlotte Mendelson should take up tightrope walking as her sense of balance is spot on.

Most importantly for me though was the writing. Not just the story telling (we all love a good story) and the characters, or indeed the late 1980’s atmosphere, but the prose. In almost every paragraph there was a turn of phrase, a characteristic, moment or just a sentence that loved, be it snigger inducing or thought provoking. It is one of those books.

What does madness feel like? Can you develop it quite discreetly on the bus home from Oxford Street, carrying mothballs? Can it be normal to cry in a department store toilet, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine? Somebody must know.

The best way I can describe ‘Almost English’ is that it is a human book. It looks at people and how crazy, selfish, funny, heartbreaking we can all be. It is also a novel that will take you back to those awkward school days and emotions and hopefully make you smile with a certain nostalgic affection whilst also inwardly squirming. It is also a novel where you will leave and breathe alongside the characters and their highs and lows. I thoroughly recommend giving this a whirl. I shall soon be off to head to Mendelson’s earliest works for more.

You can hear me talking about ‘Almost English’ in more detail with Charlotte on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. It might be one of my favourite author interviews yet.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Charlotte Mendelson, Man Booker, Mantle Books, Picador Books, Review

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

I have been dragging my heels about writing a review of Hannah Kent’s debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for quite some time. Not because this is a bad book or one of those books that you read and promptly forget, quite the contrary, it is a book that I enjoyed (read loved) so much and found so powerful that anything I write about it will barely do it justice and so I will have to go and sit in a corner and sulk for the rest of the day. As I am quite good at sulking when the need arises, I will give it a whirl – though I am doubly cross with myself for losing the notes and page quotes I had on the book, all thanks to an iPhone resetting. But let’s discuss the book shall we rather than my insecurities or technological faux pas.

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Picador, 2013, hardback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It is the late 1820’s in Iceland and the lives of District Officer Jon Jonsson, his wife Margret and daughters Lauga and Steina, are changed on their farm of Kornsá when the news that they will be housing a criminal in the lead up to her execution, for we are in times when prisons do not exist. The criminal in question is Agnes Magnusdottir who, many believe, killed ‘healer’ Natan Ketilsson and his neighbour along with Sigridur and Fredrik who are to be housed elsewhere for fear they will concoct some tale or escape. This is not only a time of no prisons but a time when the law simply states that you are guilty unless proven otherwise and with just three people’s word the likelihood, once the King across the sea grants it, is that you will be killed. It is from the time that Agnes is housed in Kornsa while she waits the final verdict and judgement that makes up the story of ‘Burial Rites’.

As many of you may or may not know the actual case of Agnes Magnusdottir is a true one, indeed she was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, yet despite knowing that from the beginning as the novel winds on the more you hope that the outcome will not be the one it is (this happened to me again very recently with Meike Ziervogel’s ‘Magda’ which I can’t wait to tell you about soon) especially as Kent weaves her fictionalised version of events as to what Agnes’ life was like from childhood leading to her first meeting with Natan and what followed, which of course I will not spoil for you because the story of ‘Burial Rites’ to my mind is the story of the person behind the true story and Kent tells it beautifully.

A good story is lost without great characters and atmosphere and Kent has these both in abundance. We spend the beginning of the novel away from Agnes yet hearing much about her through the mouths and tales of others. So when we meet her we already have a vision in our heads of some calculating witch. It is this same image that Margret and her daughters also have and so the very idea of having this woman sleeping in the same house as them is beyond terrifying and Margret is a hard woman at the best of times. Yet as the novel moves forward and they, and we, meet Agnes they start to question themselves and the assumptions they have made about her, especially as Agnes starts to tell her story to the visiting Reverend ‘Toti’ who has been sent on a mission to save her soul before she dies.

The other aspect of the book I loved was Iceland itself, the atmosphere of the place is brought fully to life by Kent, who chose to go there after never having seen snow in her native Australia and there learnt of Agnes’ tale. Cleverly she never needs to describe the ‘other worldly’ sense of Iceland in great detail, she structures the scenery in short sharp sketches and it constantly broods behind every scene. Having been to Iceland myself (and shamefully having not shared that trip with you on the blog last year, why ever not I do not know) I could probably have pictured some of the setting but I stayed in Reykjavik with two little trips out into the sparse wilderness, nothing quite as sparse as Kornsá though yet I felt by the end of the book I had been there living out a winter with them all. The book also packs an emotional punch. As I mentioned earlier we know the outcome of the events from the start, as the countdown increases and the pages of ‘Burial Rites’ lessen in our hands the sense of dread increases and I have to say I found the end of the book incredibly moving.

The lovely Sandra was indeed right...

The lovely Sandra was indeed right…

There is no question that Hannah Kent has crafted an incredibly beautiful novel with ‘Burial Rites’. It is a book which has a sense of isolation and brooding menace throughout and a book where the prose is as sparse (you feel not a word has been wasted) as the Icelandic landscape it is evoking. It is one of my books of the year without question and one lots of people can expect in their season stockings in a few months time. I strongly suggest you read it.

Who else has read ‘Burial Rites’ and what did you make of it? You can hear Hannah and myself talking about it (without spoilers) here. Which other books have you read set in Iceland, as I am a bit obsessed with the place – I have already cottoned onto Yrsa Sigurdardottir – and would love to read more novels and non-fiction alike set there, especially now the darker nights are here as its very Autumnal now in the Wirral.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Hannah Kent, Picador Books, Review

The Silver Linings Playbook – Matthew Quick

I came to finally reading Matthew Quick’s ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’ a rather unusual way. When the book came out a few years ago and was placed on the (now defunct I believe) TV Book Club choices it just wasn’t a book I fancied reading. The title seemed a little bit saccharine and I just had the feeling it might be a real schmaltz fest that I simply wouldn’t get. However at the cinema a few weeks ago (to see Breaking Dawn Part 2, a film that was really only good for 20 minutes which turned out to be a ‘vision’ and hadn’t actually happened) I saw the trailer for new Hollywood adaptation of ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’ and took a shine to it. I thought it looked like it would have you laughing and crying the whole way through and so I decided to ignore my previous thoughts on the book and give it a whirl before I saw the movie.

Picador Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 289 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (so sorry!)

Picador Books, paperback, 2010, fiction, 289 pages, kindly sent by the publisher (so sorry!)

Patrick Peoples, our narrator and protagonist, has just been released from a psychiatric hospital as ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’ opens. Many, including some of the doctors there, don’t feel that he is ready to go out into the world yet his mother, and her lawyers, have persuaded people otherwise. Patrick, or Pat, is determined to get his life back on track. He understands that he wasn’t the best husband, initially you think this is because he feels he put on weight during his marriage and is obsessed with losing it, to his wife Nikki and wants to make amends no matter how many times people clearly state to him that this will never happen. As he starts life again his friends introduce him to Tiffany, a widow who has become something of a nymphomaniac, who it seems is just as much of an emotional wreck as he is. Can this unlikely duo and their friendship help each other sort themselves out?

At first I was really quite charmed with the story that Matthew Quick was unfolding, I liked Pat’s rather direct and sometimes blunt outlook on life quite funny and found the story of his initial steps after leaving the clinic and moving home interesting. Sadly however slowly but surely the book started to fall apart for me, and I found myself picking it to pieces, before wishing it would all be over. Here is why…

First of all whilst I liked Pat he remains throughout a rather two dimensional character, I never felt (despite all we go through with him) that emotionally connected to his story. I did want to know the mystery of what happened between him and Nikki and why his father didn’t really speak to him but I never fully cared. This sounds awfully harsh I know, I think the problem was that in having the HUGE ‘what happened?’ over the whole of the book and the mystery behind it you couldn’t know him and while I was interested it was only in the mystery, not about him and what happened to him.

I actually thought that Tiffany and her story, which we get at the very end not long before one of the most saccharine and clichéd of final chapters I have read in a long time, was much more interesting and yet she wasn’t really in the book that much and when she was you might as well have had plot device tattooed on her forehead. I don’t want to give any spoilers away but as the book goes on it appears Tiffany could be a link to Pat meeting Nikki again, let’s just say it was preposterous and the twist that Quick uses was easy to spot a mile off, though maybe that was the idea? Either way it completely jarred with me and the world was broken, but to be fair to Quick I did carry on to find out what happened, I just didn’t believe in any of it.

I did overall like Quick’s writing, well its style, I found some of the set pieces quite funny but as I mentioned before I never quite had an emotional attachment. I also thought the book tried to pack too much in and didn’t know who it was aimed at, something an editor should have sorted out. One minute it had that ‘love story’ quality and the ‘man who went mad and made good’ aspect, oh and the dancing competition (I am rolling my eyes) all which seemed to state this was a book for women. Then there was the never ending (well it seemed never ending) football stuff, American football I should add – the Eagles of Philadelphia to be precise, a storyline which I think was to try and make Pat bond with his brother and father again who have completely ignored him for the years he was away. When his new therapist was also a fan and they met at the game my eyes almost rolled so much that I thought they might never stop like an arcade machine that needs fixing – and no not in a ‘jackpot’ sense. Oh, and don’t get me started on how the book  has ruined, with all its spoilers as Pat reads them, most of the American classics that I have yet to read.

It looks like I really disliked ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’ doesn’t it? I think it’s fairer to say I was just very disappointed in it, I had high hopes because the premise looked so could it just didn’t deliver for me personally. I won’t give the book the ‘debut author’ excuse that some might as a) it is patronising to the author and b) I read Emma Henderson’s ‘Grace Williams Says It Out Loud’ last year which does all of this so, so much better and is a debut too. It simply isn’t a ‘me’ book and that is really no one’s fault but mine. I should have stuck to my initial feelings and left the book alone, damn you trailer! Speaking of which I am now unsure I want to see the movie. That said though sometimes, no matter how much it pains me to say so, the films can actually be better than the books which brings us full circle to me mentioning Breaking Dawn Part 2 again ironically.

I am sure I am a part of a very small minority here though and that many people love or will love ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’? Maybe the cold weather has frozen my heart and feelings? Have you read it and if so what did you think? Have any of you seen the movie yet, thoughts?

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Filed under Books To Film, Matthew Quick, Picador Books, Review