Category Archives: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The Grownup – Gillian Flynn

Those of you who have been following the blog for sometime will know that I was one of the many, many people who were completely gripped and somewhat infatuated with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I liked its spikiness, I liked its darkness and I loved the extremely unlikeable and manipulative hearts of its characters. I like to read a nasty book occasionally, one that exorcises all those thoughts we don’t like to admit to in the safety of our own brains/homes. So naturally I was very excited to learn that a new novella from Gillian, The Grownup, was out – whilst also being rather shocked at how long ago I read Gone Girl and how long I have left Dark Places and Sharp Objects – and so the other night I sat and gobbled it up in a single sitting. Be warned, this post contains adult themes, very ‘grownup’ ones if you will.

9781474603041

Orion Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 79 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.

So starts the tale of our nameless narrator in Gillian Flynn’s novella The Grownup, which started life as the short story What Do You Do? in an anthology for George R. R. Martin. Many of us have often had to make a career change, be it for better prospects, getting away from an awful boss who you hated and wished the ground would swallow up or because your circumstances or skill sets have changed. For our protagonist she has recently had to change jobs for health reasons, so good and skilled is she at giving men hand jobs she has only gone and got carpal tunnel syndrome.

However, whilst her employers don’t have a good occupational health assessment or system, they do have a have a facade out front that hides the secret deeds out front as the shop frontage is that of a fortune teller and psychic. So rather than be penniless she turns her hand (as it were) to reading peoples body languages in a different way and telling them their futures, or in some cases simply what they want to hear. One day Susan Burke turns up, a woman new to the city who has moved into a house with her husband, step son and son, yet the house it seems doesn’t want them there and is seemingly channelling its energy through one of the members of the family. Initially our heroine (of sorts) doesn’t believe her, until she goes to the house itself.

It lurked. It was the only remaining Victorian house in a long row of boxy new construction, and maybe that’s why it seemed alive, calculating…

I really, really enjoyed The Grownup. From the off I was initially dragged in by the fact that it is a bit saucy and rude which we all like from time to time. As it goes on though the depths and layers of the story grab you all the more. Within the matter of a few pages, as with Gone Girl, you are instantly drawn into the world of someone you aren’t sure if you really like or really don’t. What you do very quickly know is that either way you want to know how this person’s story will unfold and enjoy guessing (often wrongly) as to what the outcome will be along the way. I think Flynn’s ability to get into these complex and multi-faceted characters, good or bad, was superb in Gone Girl. I think the fact she does it in mere pages here is marvellous and she should be given a huge amount of credit for that and not just her twisting plots, especially as this is all done in less than 80 pages from start to finish.

The other thing I really like about Gillian Flynn’s writing is her sense of humour and her snarkiness. I am quite a fan of snark, if it is handled correctly and people know you’re being snarky and not just a bit of an arsehole, for there is a thin line. I think Flynn has a way of giving that wry dark humour and wit that treads the path very finely and made me giggle, sometimes inappropriately, as I read on. I also loved the fact that The Grownup is also a story about stories and some of those brilliant stories that walk the line between supernatural thriller and suspenseful mystery.

The only thing I really knew about Mike was he loved books. He recommended books with the fervour I’ve always craved as an aspiring nerd: with urgency and camaraderie. You have to read this! Pretty soon we have our own private (occasionally sticky) book club. He was big into “Classic Stories of the Supernatural” and he wanted me to be too (“You are a psychic after all,” he said with a smile). So that way we discussed the themes of loneliness and need in The Haunting of Hill House, he came, I sani-wiped myself and grabbed his loaner for next time: The Woman in White. (“You have to read this! It’s one of the all-time best.”)

What makes The Grownup so wonderfully twisty, as I was hoping it would be, is not just the brilliant and rather warped plot but also the fact that this story often sits in that no man’s land between supernatural thriller and amateur sleuthing. In parts you are wondering if this is a ghost story, at other moments you feel like this could be the tale of a murderous blood bath waiting to happen. What you get might end up being neither, it could be something much trickier and darker. I don’t want to give anything away so I will stop right there thank you very much.

I will simply end by saying that if you like a book with a gothic sensibility, a hint of the supernatural, a murderous intent and a questionable narrator at its heart then you need to grab a copy of this. The Grownup is a perfect short burst of escapism pitch perfect for the darker nights as they draw in. I really, really enjoyed it.

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Filed under Gillian Flynn, Orion Publishing, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Shame – Melanie Finn

Whilst people are off reading the Man Booker longlist, I have decided to be slightly different and give both the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist and Not The Booker shortlist a whirl as the variety that they both provide really interests me. Shame is up for the latter, where it could win the author’s Holy Grail that is The Guardian Mug, and if it is a sign of all the reading ahead then I am in for some unusual and thought provoking treats over the next month or so.

Orion Publishing, 2015, hardback, fiction, 308 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Pilgrim Jones is having a pretty horrendous time of it. The first of the awful things to happen to her, we learn, is that her husband has left her for a younger woman they met on a social weekend all together with mutual friends. She is, as the book opens, now in Tanzania after picking the first flight she could to leave the broken home they had created in the Swiss village of Arnau before ditching her fellow safari goers half way through a trip in Magulu. However, it soon becomes clear that this is no holiday of respite; Pilgrim is running away from something far worse, an accident that left three children dead. Yet as Pilgrim seeks escape the past and try to deal with it, it seems her past is coming looking for her.

But they are without shame. Like animals. Do you see? You maybe feel shame for them, but they do not feel shame for themselves.

For the first third of the book Shame reads like a compelling thriller. We move forward with Pilgrim as she gets to know the people of Magulu, such as Dr Dorothea and PC Kessy as well as the mysterious and pretty skin crawling inducing Martin Martins. We also begin to learn of the people of Africa’s superstitions which come to the fore when a box of albino body parts, deemed to be a curse, are left in the village not long after Pilgrim and Martin’s arrivals. Whilst all this is going on we are also going backwards to Switzerland and learning of the ripples immediately after Pilgrim’s divorce and the accident that labels her kindermörderin, child killer and the detective who investigates it, Strebel. Then about 100 pages in Pilgrim suddenly decides to leave, on a whim, and head elsewhere. Fate seemingly intervenes and suddenly she is in Tanga where she meets fellow ex-Americans Gloria and Harry and things take a surreal turn before just after half way Finn turns the book completely on its head, and I mean completely.

It is a huge gamble that Finn takes here as, without giving anything away, she shifts the book completely out of Pilgrim’s perspective and narrative and then takes it into some of the characters that she has met along the way. We are dropped by one character and then suddenly scooped up by another. It also gives the book a huge plot twist/reveal that I did not see coming from any direction. Readers will be completely intrigued; completely enraged by it or like me somewhere in the middle, as it both baffled me and completely thrilled me. I just couldn’t not read on.

I think, again without any spoilers, that the reason Finn does this is to highlight the two biggest themes of the book and no I am not talking about shame. I am talking about redemption vs. revenge and the stories we tell others vs. the stories we tell ourselves. Whilst shame is a huge theme in the book, as the title would suggest and as pretty much every single character feels shame (for what they have done, didn’t do, can’t do or won’t do) in some way I actually think it is the other topics that have their roots the deepest in this novel. Each character has an image they put forward that is very different to the one underneath their skin whatever their colour or whatever their background. They have secrets or problems they are shamed by in some way which they tell little lies and stories to cover up. Can they redeem themselves? Can they live with themselves? Can they even scores? All these things are looked at in Shame.

I do have to admit I had a few wobbles with Shame on and off which I think are worth highlighting before I recommend you all to read it, which I do. Occasionally there seems to be a lot of sudden reaction without motivation. For example Pilgrim’s sudden decision to leave Magulu and how she suddenly ends up in Tanga, which whilst I got it at the end seemed very confusing and broke the pace for the novel with me for a while before I was hooked again. I also felt that this happened with the sudden arrival of the albino body parts. Whilst I found the African magical elements/beliefs really interesting and occasionally grimly fascinating sometimes I felt it both strengthened and weakened the plot. Instead of adding darkness or a threatening presence, which I think was the intention, it added occasional confusion or diverted your eye away from its intent. These were by no means fatal flaws and I should add. Africa is described wonderfully in this book, with its mystery, oppressive heat, cultural ways and brooding landscape it becomes a character and presence all of its own.

Kessy smiles. ‘Imagine someone hates you this much? What have you done to him? Perhaps in your heart you know you are guilty. And this magic speaks to your heart.’
A sensation comes over me, as if something is moving underneath my skin, one of those terrible worms that beds down in your flesh.

Shame is a compulsive, fascinating, perplexing and disorientating one which keeps you in its thrall. It is a book that plays with storytelling, genre and expectations. It also looks at the way we perceive ourselves and others as well as how they perceive us, which changes from person to person, emotion to emotion. It is brilliantly written, quirky and plays with the reader as it goes along. Most interestingly it is a book that is about revenge vs. redemption, right up until the very last line. You’ll be left pondering what should be the most fitting outcome for all the characters, potentially feeling some shame yourself as to what fate you decide to leave them too.

Who else has read Shame and what did you make of it? It is one of those books I am desperate to talk about now I have finished it, so do let me know if you have. I am going to have to hunt down her debut novel Away From You at some point which is another novel about Africa too and was longlisted for both the Orange and IMPAC prizes. I am certainly looking forward to what she writes next. Next up from the Not The Booker shortlist I will be reading The Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon, which keeps making me think of my new (belated, last to the party – I know, I know) favourite show Parks and Recreation.

Note – I have just gone off to read some other reviews of Shame, as I do only after I review, and it seems that myself and the lovely Naomi of The Writes of Woman have blog snap as she has written about Shame today too.

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Filed under Melanie Finn, Not The Booker Prize, Orion Publishing, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

One thing I really love and admire from a writer is when they give us a familiar scenario and manage to completely turn it on its head or take it apart analyse it and rework it into something quite unfamiliar. Deborah Levy’s ‘Swimming Home’ did this for me early in the year with an initially formulaic idea of a middle class holiday and the arrival of a stranger, now Gillian Flynn has done it with a brilliantly written thriller based on a missing spouse with ‘Gone Girl’. No surprise then that both of these books will easily be sitting high up on my list of books of the year without a shadow of a doubt.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback, 2012, fiction, 416 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Gone Girl’ opens with Nick Dunne telling us how on their fifth wedding anniversary, after a call from the neighbours, goes home to find the door wide open, the lounge smashed up and his wife Amy missing. Soon the police become involved and, as Amy was made infamous in her youth through her parents’ novels featuring the ‘Amazing Amy’, there is a county and soon nationwide interest and search into her disappearance. This is all quite familiar but the first, of many, clever tricks which Gillian Flynn throws into this book is the fact that as we get the story in the present from Nick, we alternately start to read the diary entries from Amy at the start of their relationship.

These diary entries initially start with all the joy and romance of her initial meeting with Nick, her dismay when he vanishes for a while and elation when he comes back. As their relationship goes on it really is all perfect, that is until his parents separately fall ill, Nick and Amy both get made redundant, spend most of her trust fund and wind up living in Nick’s hometown of Carthage, Missouri. This is not a place Amy wants to be and as she writes she tells of her feelings of alienation and that Nick might be buckling under the pressure, and a darker side of her husband is revealed.

The stories start to converge as Nick continues to narrate his version of events in the present and as the police and the public start to cast a suspicious eye on him. Yet as the stories start to meet nothing one spouse is saying about the other quite matches and what really happened is full of twist after twist after twist after twist.

I won’t say anymore about the plot for fear of spoiling anything, and you do want to go into ‘Gone Girl’ knowing as little as possible to be honest. I will say that I think this is one of the best books that I have read all year. I have certainly been completely bowled over by Gillian Flynn’s writing, and not just for incredible and complex plotting, which she makes seem effortless as we read, also for the way in which the world that Nick and Amy inhabit is so vivid and how real they become. I felt I followed their story from young loves dream to rather disillusioned marriage as if I was one of their acquaintances, even when the stories didn’t match which is all the more clever.

I also liked the little intricate bits of them and their marriage was wonderfully done. I thought the back story of ‘Amazing Amy’ was brilliant and how that would affect someone. The issue of cancer and Alzheimer’s which Nick’s parents raise as well as redundancy and the death of the city and the small town were both current and completely believable. The whole world of this novel worked, which is why I couldn’t just label this book as simply a thriller, it is so much more than that.

As you can probably tell I could enthuse about ‘Gone Girl’, and indeed Gillian Flynn’s writing of it, endlessly. I don’t think I have read a book that has taken me to such dark places, it’s not a graphically disturbing novel though get ready to have your mind played with and warped, and have so many twists and turns. I also don’t think I have read a book that so cleverly asks the question ‘how well do you really know your partner’ and answers it in such a shocking, brutal yet also worryingly plausible way. ‘Gone Girl’ is easily one of the best novels I have read this year, I cannot recommend it enough… well, unless you are about to get married, have just got married or have just had a bit of a row with your other half as it might give you second thoughts, or sudden ideas, good and bad.

Who else has read ‘Gone Girl’ and (without spoilers) what did you think? Have you read any of Gillian Flynn’s other novels and if so which ones should I be reading next? I have to admit though the urge to go and get them both now is very, very strong.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Gillian Flynn, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht

You could be forgiven for thinking that as it won the Orange Prize on Wednesday I have banged out a review of ‘The Tigers Wife’ by Téa Obreht quick sharp. You would also be half right. I’ve speeded up finally publishing my thoughts about it, which have been rewritten, edited and rewritten and then edited again and again on and off since I finished it. You see myself and this book felt like we had unfinished business and thoughts, not necessarily bad ones, just puzzling ones. But in the name of it winning said prize I thought I should write about it sooner rather than later.

I probably would have wanted to read Téa Obreht’s debut novel at some point regardless of its inclusion on the Orange Prize long and short lists and then winning it because, regardless of the hype of her being claimed a young writer to watch, I like books that are rather magical and ‘fairytale for grown ups’ was one of the things I kept hearing in regard to ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ when it was mentioned. It is also a novel about the country formerly known as Yugoslavia and its break up, a subject which fascinates me. I actually holidayed there as a child and was fascinated by the news as this country was torn apart. So its interesting that while aspects of it were brilliance, overall I was left a tiny bit let down. Let me explain…

For me one of the greatest charms of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ was the story of the relationship between grandfather and grandchild.  Our narrator, Natalia a doctor, tells us the tale of her grandfather’s life from the memories she has of him and the tales that he told her of his former life after she learns from her grandmother that he has died in mysterious circumstances and after he disappeared telling everyone he was going to see Natalia. It’s the mystery, the fact some of his possessions are missing and the need to understand him that sets Natalia on a mental, rather than physical, journey to work out just who her grandfather was.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”

The thing I loved about the novel also became the thing that I didn’t love so much about it. As the story goes on we are introduced to the myths and fables of her grandfather’s life. Whilst I love these sort of ‘fairytales for adults’, sometimes I was just confused by them. I would read them, like the tale of the deathless man, really enjoy them and yet be left wondering as to their relevance as a whole. In being rather surreal I felt that Téa Obreht lost me in places no matter how enjoyable, funny and magical the mini story which creates the overall story (anyone else getting a bit confused?) was I couldn’t get it to work overall.

“I would be insane to stay here,” he says to me in an exasperated voice. “Any minute now your Hungarian is going to go outside and call the others, and then there will be business with garlic and stakes and things. And even though I cannot die, I have to tell you that I do not enjoy having a tent peg put in my ribs. I’ve had it before, and I do not want it again.”

The same applied to the title character/fable of ‘The Tiger’s Wife’, it was all wonderfully written and inventive but… but… but… something wasn’t quite working for me. It seemed in some ways to be a book made up of many things, yes I know most books are but these things didn’t quite connect. It seemed to want to be a book of myth and of storytelling, a book of war and a book of love – both of the family and a love story in some ways. I thought the way Obreht discussed how the country was fracturing and yet no one initially sensed danger until loved ones went missing was superb. It was only a part of the book though. In some ways there were two books in one. In fact the best way to summarise this novel would be to say that I think the sum of its parts are fantastic, and would have made a great short story collection yet as a body of work it didn’t quite gel in the way I was hoping or maybe even expecting, that could be me more than the book or the author.

That said I did like this novel a lot. I particularly enjoyed the mini-stories, and would happily read a collection of fables should Téa Obreht write one, in fact I am hoping she does. As for the hype around Téa Obreht being one of the finest young authors around, I would agree to an extent. I found the writing in ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ was impressive, funny, dark, honest, and quite compelling in many respects. I just didn’t quite connect with it personally (where emotion is occasionally lacking imagination is certainly in abundance) yet I certainly enjoyed getting lost, and occasionally confused by it. I will definitely read her next novel or collection. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

Do I think that ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ should have won the Orange prize? I wouldn’t want to take anything away from Téa Obreht who must be the happiest 25 year old (seriously, though it is a little sickening how young she is, ha) at the moment, plus I wasn’t asked to judge the prize. It’s great to see a young, clearly talented, author celebrated like this too. What do you think? Has anyone else read ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ and what did you make of it? If you haven’t, will you be in the near future, or does the whole hype put you off?

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Filed under Orange Prize, Orion Publishing, Review, Téa Obreht, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Lyrics Alley – Leila Aboulela

I don’t like to start of my thoughts on a book too negatively, in fact I don’t even like doing negative reviews (not that this might be one), but I do like to talk honestly about how I come to read a book and what makes me rush to a particular title and what doesn’t. I don’t think if it hadn’t been for its Orange long-listing, and subsequent arrival through my letter box, I would have picked ‘Lyrics Alley’ by Leila Aboulela up, especially based on the cover alone. Its not that it looks cheap, thought the title font is a little basic, its just it looks a bit obvious maybe a bit blandly so. That being my initial thoughts I decided it would be the next Orange long listed title that I would attempt, my thoughts have been hitting the ones I am initially the least excited about or look the hardest work first. Is ‘Lyrics Alley’ a book that should have judged from the cover or not?

What intrigued me about ‘Lyrics Alley’ before I started reading it was the time and place of its setting. I don’t know very much about the 1950’s and I certainly know nothing about Sudan. However this is the scene we find ourselves in as we are thrown into the lives of the Abuzeid family, a rather renowned and sprawling dynasty in their time yet a family also slightly at odds with one another. In some ways an incredibly close family, in fact brothers Mahmoud and Idris marry their offspring off to each other they are also at war with power struggles occasionally between brothers and fathers and sons.

Yet it’s the story of the men of the household Mahmoud, his sons Nassir and Nur and Mahmoud’s brother Idris that left me feeling somewhat cold. As their family business develops and the world they find themselves changes with the sun setting on British rule and self government on the horizon I should have been gripped by their changing circumstance and all it brought, yet I wasn’t really. I mean I read it happily enough, I liked how the story spread through Sudan, Egypt and England, I just wasn’t hooked.

The opposite was the case with the women though. In particular the story of Idris’s daughter Soraya, who is the first female in the family to get a full education despite her forthcoming enforced betrothal to her cousin Nur, and her storyline thereafter called out to me. As did the stories and relationships of Mahmoud’s first forced wife Waheeba and his second self chosen bride Nabilah. The latter being from Cairo and of a new age which frowns upon the idea of female circumcision and the ways of old, which is the complete polar opposite of Waheeba. This for me was where the story really lay and indeed it felt like it was where the author’s heart lay, it read truer, it had more passion.

‘Lyrics Alley’ is a true family saga. It has a huge scope and Aboulela manages to pull a rather complicated family together and make you interested in them. I did think that there was a forewarning you might as a reader be confused by the family tree in the front, and indeed I did occasionally need it. She also captures a very interesting period in the history of Sudan, its just that the atmosphere and true impact of it all only seemed to come alive when the women were in charge, and if they had been I think ‘Lyrics Alley’ would have gone from being a rather good book to an incredible one. 7.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I have wondered if it is the story of the female situations in this book that got it on the Orange long list, and I don’t mean that to sound like Leila Aboulela can’t write as she clearly can, it’s just a point to ponder. Has anyone else given this a whirl? I only wonder as I hadn’t heard about it at all until last week. Are you reading any of the Orange long listed titles? If so which ones and how are you getting on? Has anyone read any of Leila Aboulela’s other novels?

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Filed under Leila Aboulela, Orange Prize, Orion Publishing, Review, Weidenfeld & Nicolson