Book Review 15 – The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I may, in the course of the past 14 weeks, have mentioned, once or twice, that I am a tad obsessed with Harry Potter. I’m not just obsessed, I am Obsessed (capital ‘O’ you see.) I don’t care if it’s unseemly for a woman in her late 30’s to take such delight in children’s fiction. A world without Harry Potter would be a much worse place as far as I’m concerned!

So considering my fandom. It may come as a surprise that I have as yet never read any of J.K Rowling’s adult fiction. The reason for this is that I am aware it is the world of Harry Potter I am particularly in love with. The peripheral books and films, whilst interesting, don’t speak to me in the way that Hogwarts and The Burrow do. So I have always worried that Rowling’s adult fiction wouldn’t hit the spot for me either. I’ve been in fear of toppling Rowling from the dizzying pedestal that I have put her on.

But this week I decided to take the plunge nevertheless. When better than during the 52 week challenge? What I found when I opened the book was unmistakeably Rowling. Short, punchy chapters and strong characterisations. Her voice came through very clearly. It was familiar and comforting. What I also found after a few pages was that I had watched the TV dramatisation of the book a couple of years ago and forgotten all about it. Till now. As the storyline started to shape up I began to remember. Annoying! I hated the fact that I knew how some of it ended. Luckily I couldn’t remember it all and the detail of the book seemed to be slightly different to the programme, so I whole heartedly enjoyed reading it even with the big spoiler swirling through my mind.

There are also some that say whilst ol’ J.K. is a master page turner her writing style lacks something. To those people I say this:

I shall illustrate my point by giving you an example of the antithesis of Rowling’s apparent flaw. My favourite book of all time is ‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. Roy’s writing is sheer genius. No-one can hold a candle to it. I am getting déjà vu so I think I’ll keep this brief in case I have mentioned it before, but after twenty years of waiting for her to write another novel I finally got my hands on ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ a few months ago and there she was, Roy in all her glory. Sentences so delicately hewn and crafted that you were scared to breathe too heavily lest you pollute them with your presence. Prose so mind numbingly good that it made you want to weep. The only problem was she forgot about the flipping storyline! She got right up on her activist stage and clean forgot that she was writing a novel. If you’re going to be an activist then, by all means, be an activist, but don’t come here telling me you’ve written a story when you’ve done nothing of the sort. In short (or actually, I’ve now gone on about it for rather a long time) she failed to grasp my attention. That is not what I am looking for in a book. Rowling however knows how to tell a story. She knows how to create strong characters, to engineer plotlines that keep you hooked, she knows how to draw her reader in. I’m afraid that when it comes to the tug of war between prose and plot, I would go with the latter… I’d rather have both of course, but if I had to make a choice then Rowling gets my vote every time.

Back to the book then. ‘The Casual Vacancy’ revolves around the fictional village of Pagford and the events that unfold after the sitting councillor dies mid-term. Elections are called and rival factions get behind their candidates, but the focus of the story is not political. It is the carefully crafted characters that steal the show. The prickly neglected child, the self-aggrandising old man, the brute of a father, the jaded wife, the non-committal boyfriend, the vulnerable teenage girl, the village gossip; and more besides. They are all here. All brought to life with Rowling’s crystal clear precision.

This book doesn’t shy away from gritty realities. So if you are looking for happy-ever-afters then I would suggest you look elsewhere. I recently mentioned to a colleague that I was reading The Casual Vacancy. ‘I had that book,’ he replied. ‘But I watched it on TV and it was so sad that it put me off reading it.’ I totally get this. Sometimes you think, I could just do without that enormous injection of melancholy into my life thank you very much. And honestly if you thought the TV version was sad, it left out further horrors that you do actually have to wade through in the book. The toughest part was there weren’t really happy endings for most people. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It provided a sense of realism and the feeling that the end of the book wasn’t the end for these characters. I’m kind of wondering what they’re all up to these days, continuing their fictitious lives in Pagford. A few years have passed, some will have moved, some will have changed jobs, the kids will have grown… Some things will be better, others will be worse. That’s life. And that’s how J.K Rowling turned from a children’s author to an adults one and stayed right up on the pedestal that I rightly put her on.

Next Monday I’m going to be reviewing a book by debut author Chloe Mayer. ‘The Boy Made of Snow’. Come back next week and check out out more of my literary ramblings then!

Book Review 14 – The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The first thing that jumps out at you about this book is the extra-long title. At 58 characters ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson, is the longest title that I have come across. It got me wondering what the longest title ever was. So I turned to my old friend Google. However the outcome wasn’t entirely clear. There were some indications that it could be a whopping 4805 characters and others saying it was as many as 5820 characters for a badly edited book about Daniel Radcliff. Needless to say, and for reasons of pure untweetability, I will forgo reviewing that particular book.

For those of you who haven’t guessed, this week’s book is about a hundred year old man who climbs out of a window and disappears. (I know, my skills of perception are unparralleled.) This particular centenarian is called Allan Karlsson and our story begins by him escaping from the retirement home that he lives in, where the rest of the gathered chumps are about to celebrate his hundredth birthday, or so they think. Allan has no intention of hanging around for another day in that dreary place and makes his escape even while the mayor and local press are arriving for his party. Then follows a man hunt involving the police, some gangsters and the press. Every scenario that unfolds is more unlikely than the last and yet the chase keeps going.

Whilst we don’t meet Allan till he is one hundred, the story oscillates between the scrapes he now gets into and his colourful past. Allan’s life has been jam packed with adventure. The irony of the book was that whilst Allan himself was as apolitical as a goldfish, his lifeline took us on a political romp through history. Allan met national leaders the way you or I meet acquaintances. In passing, nonchalantly and without the slightest sense of awe.

Allan had a laissez-faire approach to life which I sincerely wish I could emulate. No matter how grave the situation he just thought “Oh well there’s nothing to be gained by worrying about it. What will be will be.” Not that he ever needed to worry. His luck was so remarkable that he always managed to work his way out of a difficult situation in the end. More than once had he been in the jaws of death to find himself delivered by luck or his own keen wits. This repeated good luck lasted him a hundred years.

The Hundred Year Old man who blah, blah… is at its heart a comedy. By this I don’t mean daft chuckle-brothers-esque to me, to you, type of slap stick. But a more subtle, almost Shakespearean sense of comedy. Nothing is too morose. No-one is too desolate though some of the situations are pretty dire. There are of course bad things that happen. It couldn’t be possible to live for a hundred years (particularly with a life as varied as Allan’s) and not have anything bad happen, but if anyone can deal with bad stuff it is Allan.

This is fiction at its best. Fantastical, fun and with a sense of being on a roaring rollercoaster where you wonder whether every abrupt turn is going to send you crashing. It never does of course. You’re picked up again and thrust in a new direction and you hold on for dear life, marvelling at the force making this happen. Never, ever wanting it to end.

But end it did of course as all good things do. Mind you that’s not so bad because it means I get to move on to something that has been on my TBR (to be read) list for a ridiculously long time. Next Monday’s review will be on ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by a little known author called J.K. Rowling. In the words of Tinie Tempah please do go ahead and tell J.K I’m still rolling… Till next Monday anyway!

 

Book Review 13 – The Daily Struggles of Archie Adams (Aged 2 1/4) by Katie Kirby

Are you human? Then you’ll like this book. No further comment needed. End of review.

Oh OK, you want me to sell it to you. Well to do that I need to start with a story. There is a point to this so bear with me… Once upon a time, back when the movie The Hangover came out a friend of ours told me and hubby that it was the funniest film she had seen in her entire life. She had been rolling on the floor laughing, she had tears of mirth drenching her face. Her cheeks ached from laughing, her sides ached from laughing, she very nearly hyperventilated and died from laughing. The stage was set. The expectations were insanely high. We watched The Hangover. We giggled at parts and then we declared that *whispers* ‘it wasn’t that funny.’

It was so funny I literally died!

So what happened? Did our friend get it wrong? Did she just have some quirky sense of humour that we didn’t share? No. We genuinely enjoyed it. It was just that the bar had been set too high. When someone tells you that you are in for the most rip rollicking  time of your life then you expect dancing flamingos to leap out of the screen. You expect maltesers to rain down on you while you watch. You expect £50 notes to start growing out of your carpet. You expect, quite frankly, too much. No-one and nothing can meet those kinds of expectations.  Not The Hangover and not ‘The Daily Struggles of Archie Adams Aged 2 1/4’. Since then hubby and I refer to anything where the expectations are set too high as “being Hangovered” and I am wary of “Hangovering” you because I loved this book so much. I just loved it.

The story is told in diary format through the eyes of the precocious toddler himself. Archie is your typical put-upon child. His parents expect him to do unreasonable things such as not wake up at an hour which begins with a 4 or a 5 and eat vegetables. Archie has to go to all sorts of lengths everyday to assert his authority over them. Then these awful parents go and throw him a curveball and tell him he is going to have to share them with some weird alien thing growing in Mummy’s tummy. All hell is about to break loose, so prepare yourselves!

Katie Kirby illustrates the entries with cute stick man pictures depicting things such as Archie’s rage when the baby dares to look in the general direction of “his” television. As I started off this post saying, if you are human you will enjoy this book. If you are fortunate enough to have well behaved children you will chuckle smugly at Archie’s tantrums. If your children behave like Archie then you may find some light relief within these pages. If you have no children at all, you may be sorely tempted to keep it that way after reading this. And if your children are long since over these phases then you will laugh manically at the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude. It’s a real thing.

Kirby has a genuine talent for injecting humour to the situations that bring people to the end of their tether. This book is jam packed with moments of hilarity. Get a copy for yourself and then dole them out to everyone you know for Christmas. They’ll love them! While you’re at it check out Kirby’s blog at www.hurrahforgin.com She has expanded her repertoire to include humorous greeting cards that include her stick man pictures.

Oh, there is one warning that I might put on this book. Archie is a teeny-weeny bit sweary. Well, actually his mouth was fouler than a sumo-wrestler’s armpit, so if you are sensitive to that kind of thing then this may not be the book for you. For the rest of you, read it, laugh, then come back and thank me later!

But come back next Monday anyway. Now that I have whetted your appetite with some new books, I’m going to start moving into a mixture of new and older fiction. Some of them may be books that I have been meaning to read for years, others, like next week’s book, things that I stumbled across at the library. Next Monday I will review ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson. Thank goodness they increased the number of characters in a tweet, otherwise I would never be able to tell people that I was reviewing this…

Book Review 12 – Genuine Fraud by E.Lockhart

Some authors use their initials instead of their first names A.A. Milne, J.K. Rowling and H.G. Wells are some examples that spring to mind. It makes you wonder if H.G. Wells’ mum used to shout, ‘H.G. dinner’s ready!’ Did A.A Milne’s friends drop by and ask him, ‘A.A. fancy coming out for a pint? If the car breaks down on the way, you can fix it… oh my bad, wrong AA.’

The author of ‘Genuine Fraud’, E. Lockhart has joined the rankings of the initialled authors. Is Lockhart male or female? Are they actually in possession of a first name? Nobody knows. It’s classified information. I honestly have no idea. Oh alright then, she is called Emily and it turns out her real surname is Jenkins, but I am really letting out all the secrets now!

Lockhart is primarily a childrens and young adult writer. If like me, you are less young and more adult then you may not have heard of her, but she has also forayed into adult fiction. ‘Genuine Fraud’ however falls firmly within the young adult category. Despite which I genuinely enjoyed it. Who said grown ups can’t read childrens fiction anyway? The biggest Harry Potter fans I know (yours truly included) are all over 30.

Sometimes I surprise even myself with the lengths that I go to for ‘book art’…

‘Genuine Fraud’ deals with the enigmatic friendship between the central character Jule, and her uber-rich pal Imogen. Jule is not your average 18 year old. There are dark sides to her personality fuelled by a childhood filled with neglect and abandonment. You can’t help but empathise with Jule, even when she behaves in ways that we would not expect from our protagonist.

The quirk of the book is that the story is told entirely backwards. Entirely not well….oops I mean, well not entirely! Because of course that wouldn’t make any sense, but we gradually move further and further back through Jule’s timeline. And as we do this we uncover all sorts of shenanigans. I have mentioned in previous posts that I have a habit of trying to second-guess fantastical plot twists. Well I have to admit that I was still at it with this book, but it almost didn’t matter because it was that kind of book. You know, the kind where even the most trusting reader will expect the unexpected.

I’m always intrigued by the feeling I have when I’ve finished a book. Sometimes I am exhilarated, sometimes I’m gutted it’s over. I finished ‘Genuine Fraud’ with an unexpected sense of sadness. I’m not sure if that was Lockhart’s intention or not, but Jule seemed so wholly unanchored, so bereft. It felt melancholy to leave her to her lot, but I am no longer privy to Jule’s life so I’ll just have to deal with it! Genuine Fraud, is tense, dark and cleverly constructed. If you are a fan of non-linear fiction then this is a definite go-to.

Next Monday I’m reviewing ‘The Daily Struggles of Archie Adams (Aged 2 and 1/4) by Katie Kirby. Come prepared for some laughs!

Book Review 11 – First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First and foremost I’d like to thank Jodie, my one and only voter in last week’s referendum. But one vote is all I needed. Well actually, no votes would have done but at least one vote is a positive reinforcement. The results are in and it’s official: audio books do count towards the 52 week challenge. So I’m still on track with my reading. Hooray!

This week I finished off ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley. I was already a few chapters in from last week’s false start and the book is slim as it is so I had it all wrapped up within a few days. ‘First Love’ was shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize for women in 2017 and lost out to ‘The Power’ which was the first book I took up on this 52 book challenge. So it was with great excitement that I returned to the Bailey’s prize to see what else it had to offer.

‘First Love’ is about Neve, her husband Edwyn, and their rocky relationship. The back of the book states, ‘For now [Neve and Edwyn] are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars.’ I wholeheartedly disagree with this summary. The simmering cauldron of toxicity that was Neve and Edwyn’s marriage did not strike me as a place of peace. Edwyn was despicable. The way he spoke to Neve pretty much constituted emotional abuse and yet she apparently loved him. I have no idea why. Sure there were moments of tenderness, but these were so scant that they might as well have not been there at all. How could Neve allow these moments to make up for the horrific names she was called? How could anyone love such viciousness?! As you can see Edwyn engendered some pretty strong feelings in me. I’m just glad he’s fictional! But believe it or not, I couldn’t decide who to detest more, him or Neve’s father who was a selfish, manipulative piece of work. Luckily he wasn’t in a lot of the book so Edwyn had to bear the brunt of my ire.

In amongst the blood-bath of character assassinations that I’m carrying out here, I would like to make the salient point about the true to life form of Riley’s characters. This is my eleventh book of the challenge and, whilst I have come up against some stunning writing, this is the book more than any other where the characters have practically jumped off the page and into my living room. I almost offered them a cup of tea (or reached for a frying pan to assault them with).

I’m struggling to pin-point what it is about Riley’s writing that has made these characters so real that I wanted to repeatedly punch them in the noggin. I think it was her focus on the almost imperceptible interactions between people that often go unobserved. Or those feelings that are too cringe-worthy to articulate that she painfully spells out. I think it was this that helped to really define her characters in my mind. They became towering inferno’s of people for the few short days in which I read the book.

Whilst I was evidently antagonised by Edwyn, I was well aware of the power that Neve held as the narrator of the book and I did wonder how much of her own behaviour she chose to withhold. We tend not to see our own faults I suppose. Edwyn may have been heavy handed with berating her and putting her down and she did allude to her shortcomings on occasion, her neediness and inability to acknowledge his feelings, but I had a strong suspicion that she was hiding things. That the less palatable aspects of her personality were glossed over. She basically made it sound as though simply breathing was enough to set Edwyn off into one of his tantrums. And the one concession that I will make for Edwyn is that it cannot have been all him. Some of the friction must have come from Neve. She can’t have been the picture of placidity that she was painting. But that is my only concession. Edwyn was vile and if Neve were ever to stick her head out of the book and read my review I would just give her one piece of advice: leave him!

Now, playing agony aunt to fictional characters is all good and well, but I am reviewing a book here and I have to finish off by saying this is an absolute must read. To be transported so thoroughly into someone else’s life is ultimately the point of reading. I have been so wrapped up in this book and its characters that for whole chunks of time the real world has ceased to exist and I am just there on the sofa sat between Neve and Edwyn feeling the pernicious undercurrent of their relationship around me. Riley is simply an incomparable genius and I for one will be going on the hunt for other works by her.

Come back next Monday my lovelies. I shall be reviewing ‘Genuine Fraud’ by E. Lockhart. I bought it after reading a massive endorsement from a Twitter contact, so I’m optimistic about this one!

Update

It turns out I actually had three voters in the referendum – the other two were on my scantily used Facebook account. One voted ‘yes’ and the other ‘no’. So the outcome is still the same! Thanks to those who took part!

Book Review 10 – How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

I need you all to decide a very important question for me: Do audio books count as reading? I have used them on several occasions before this 52 week challenge and found them great for commuting because you don’t need spare hands that can otherwise be used for holding a rail on the train or drinking your tea. You also don’t need to put it away on the walk from the station to the office. What’s not to love?!

What happened was I had started reading ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley in preparation for this blog post, when I found myself stuck on the M25 on a journey that eventually took four hours rather than two. About an hour in, I realised how bad the tailbacks were and decided to make good use of the time by downloading an audio book on my app from the library. It still gives me a little thrill when I borrow e-books from the library. Instant service that’s totally free. I keep on looking for the catch, but there isn’t one! So anyway, whilst I made good use of my time stuck in traffic it was via an audio book.  My hubby laughed when I told him and asked whether watching the movie also counted or maybe reading reviews that other people have written. My husband is big on sarcasm, but he did have a point. Because now that I have committed to “reading” a book a week it felt like… well it felt like I was cheating. So I’ll take a poll on this. I know you lot are a bit shy and don’t like leaving comments, but if I get more comments saying that I have cheated than have said that I haven’t then I will read an extra book to make up for it. If no one comments then I’ll assume you are happy with my audio book!

So on to this weeks review. ‘How to Stop Time’ is about the very long life that the central character Tom has led. Tom has a condition which only exposes itself after the age of 13. He ages extremely slowly. For every decade or so he only ages one year and consequently at over 400 years old he only looks around 40. Over the years Tom has met other people with the same condition. They have to keep moving, never getting too close to people, otherwise others will suspect that something is not quite right. In the past Tom’s condition led to persecution when locals thought his mother was a witch or that he practised Devil worship to stay young. In modern times he and others like him are trying instead to keep one step ahead of the researchers and scientists who they consider would hold them captive and destroy their lives.

The concept is a clever one and Matt Haig has clearly thought long and hard about what a life that spanned hundreds of years might look like. These long living individuals are plagued by headaches caused by the amount of information their brains have to hold. This reminded me of Catherine Tate becoming The Doctor Donna. Perhaps Haig is also a Doctor Who fan! He also made some poignant observations about the character traits of a person who has lived this long. He observes that great age doesn’t necessarily bring great wisdom and that ultimately you have to live your life ‘within the confines of your personality,’ which I thought was beautifully put.

I don’t know if it was because this was an audio book, but I did find the book somewhat slow and meandering. I think what Haig is trying to do is give us a good feel of what has happened in Tom’s life over the period of 400 years, but I felt as though it could do with taking a chunk out. I also found Tom’s life to have been slightly too remarkable. He had known Shakespeare, met F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer of The Great Gatsby, and sailed on maiden voyages to the Cook Islands. I wondered whether 320 additional years of life on the rest of us would really increase the probability of these things happening so much.

Haig has created a thought provoking story. His characters are believable and whilst the book is long, I did find myself consistently coming back to it to find out what was going to happen, which ultimately is what we all want from a book.

So this week I’ll be finishing off ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley and I’ll be back with a review on Monday. I’ll await your verdict on how many books I have to read next week…

Book Review 9 – The Little Voice by Joss Sheldon

I have to confess that this weeks’ book comes from an author for whom I have a bit of a soft spot. Why? Well you may remember from my early warblings in previous posts that I was new to Twitter up until a couple of months ago. There I was, all alone on the Twittersphere until one day my phone pinged. I had a notification: Joss Sheldon followed you. My heart soared. My first follower – my very first, own actual follower! Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t suffer from any disillusions that the two of us would become bosom buddies, sharing tweets as we sipped at foamy caramel macchiato’s in different cafe’s across the country (even less so, on the caramel macchiato front, since reading his book.) I realised that I was being followed as part of a marketing drive and that Sheldon (I so badly want to call him Joss on account of our “followship” of each other) saw my interest in all things literary and thought I may be interested in his book. But still, he was my first follower and in my book that counts for something. That earns him a special place in my Twittering heart.

The notification that started it all

Joss Sheldon is the self published author of ‘The Little Voice.’ I have just started to dip my toe into the world of self-published writers and have been astounded at the quality of the writing on offer. Sheldon is a prime example. He has written a few other books, but ‘The Little Voice’ seems to be the one that has got him noticed. The book is a no holds barred run through Sheldon’s life and the experiences that have brought him to his current unusual way of life. A lot of the early part of the book focuses on his formative years. Sheldon’s thesis is that society forces us to behave in certain ways that don’t ultimately lead to our happiness. He talks a lot about Operant Conditioning: the fact that we are punished when we break rules and rewarded when we adhere to them. This, he says, makes us (by and large) rule following automatons that question little to nothing if it comes to us from an authority figure. Sheldon’s experiences have led him to reject Operant Conditioning.

The problem was that half way through the book, I become acutely aware that Operant Conditioning is exactly what I practice on my children. So if I didn’t give them stickers for using the potty and put them on the naughty step for hitting each other, then how would I teach them right from wrong? I can hear the followers of Attachment Parenting methodology screaming at their screens in frustration right now. Let me clarify that I’m not advocating my parenting style over any other. My point is a more general one, wouldn’t a society where there was a lack of punishment for rule breaking result in anarchy or is there some kind of Attachment Governing methology that can be applied? I wondered what Sheldon’s answer would be.

It was at this point, I must reluctantly admit, that I began to suspect him of subterfuge. You see, I came to the conclusion that the whole book was headed in a particular direction. I thought that Sheldon had a pre-determined plan to suck me in and then tell me the only way to get out of this conundrum and lead a more fulfilled life was to do X or Y or to, heaven forbid, Z (please no, not Z, anything but Z)! And herein for me lay an unexpected lesson. What I have started to learn from this 52 week challenge is that I am an extremely cynical reader, prone to jumping to premature conclusions (see my review of ‘Swing Time’) which have the nasty potential of curbing my enjoyment of a book while I am reading it.

So let me just state for the record that there was no hidden agenda. I had totally misinterpreted Sheldon and his motives. The guy isn’t playing preacher. Sheldon freely admits that he himself has not worked out the best way to live his life and also (bravely) that some days he even questions whether he is truly happy with his chosen path. This admission adhered him more to my heart than even our Twitter history. I am not a fan of black and white “answers”. Someone who is real enough to admit that they don’t know it all and are still working it out; well that’s just someone like the rest of us isn’t it?

The Little Voice poses a whole host of questions

Sheldon came to the conclusion that he had spent his life trying to achieve the goals that others had set for him, going to university, searching for a high-flying job, trying to get a promotion. None of these were things he wanted for himself. Just things that those around him expected him to do. Once he rejected this, he began a journey of trying to understand what it was he did want. A journey that continues to this day. Whether you, like Sheldon are a seeker of truths or not, this is a book that makes you stop and reassess why you do the things you do. How did you come to this juncture? What part did society play in getting you here? And where, if you were totally free to choose, would you want to go from here? ‘The Little Voice’ is a thought provoking book that offers a refreshing take on accepted social norms. A must read for anyone interested in what a different world could look like.

Next week I’m taking a long car journey accompanied by the audio-book of ‘How to Stop Time’ by Matt Haig. Come back on Monday to see my review!

Book Review 8 – I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

24 hours.  24 glorious hours. That, is how long it took me to read this book. So if like me you thought memoirs were boring, let this be the moment that you are disabused of that notion.

For my blogging purposes, I read from Friday to Friday so that I have two days to write up my blog post and get it ready to publish on the Monday. Usually I start reading the next book as I do this, so that it will be read by the time Friday comes around again. However last Monday, by the time I was writing up my post on The Underground Railroad, I had already finished I Am, I Am, I Am. In fact by the time you guys got your peepers on last weeks book review, this one had already been drafted by and large – I have been twiddling my thumbs all week!

I thank my lucky stars for the day that I decided to go to the Chiswick Book Festival (if you didn’t make it, do check it out for next year) because it was there that I decided to attend the event where Maggie O’Farrell spoke about her new book. I had of course heard of the book. Mentions in the press, posters on the train and so on, but up until that point I wasn’t actually thinking about reading it. The thing is, you can’t really go to an event like that and then not buy the book afterwards. And you can’t buy the book at an event like that and not get it personally signed by the author afterwards.

The subtitle of the book is ‘seventeen brushes with death’ and that is indeed the morbid axis upon which each of O’Farrell’s chapters turns. O’Farrell has led an astonishing life. The things that have happened to her are terrifying. Whether or not they are all times that she nearly died is debateable (some more than others) but the fact that one life has encompassed all these experiences is mind boggling. ‘How has she coped with all this?’ I kept finding myself thinking.

This may sound faintly ridiculous but I actually felt grateful to O’Farrell for writing this book. For allowing me into the most personal and turbulent moments of her life. Most of us have the luxury of keeping our personal lives just that way: personal. It takes some courage to lay the innermost parts of our lives open to scrutiny. Kudos to Maggie O’Farrell for having the gumption to do it. 

Despite the subject matter at hand the book is not morbid. O’Farrell’s zest for life and thirst for adventure really come through. In fact her self confessed restlessness did at times have me sighing and a-shaking of my head. As a mum myself I empathised with the second hand remonstrations of O’Farrell’s mother who regularly called to the heavens for justice to be done and her daughter to understand one day what she had gone through as a mum. O’Farrell concedes that someone appears to have heard her mother’s call.

When you get to the end of the book (sadly, yes it does have to end) you get the sense that here is a woman who has been defined not by her proximity to death but rather by her attitude to life. I came away with her message resounding in my ears. That life is precious, that it should be cherished, that it should be celebrated. So if you too want to celebrate life with a book that you can’t stop reading then I have one and only one suggestion for you. Read this book. You won’t regret it!

Next week I’m going to be all about something slightly different. I’m reading ‘The Little Voice’ by self published author Joss Sheldon. It promises to be a treat! Come back next Monday and see my review.

Book Review 7 – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

There are of course all sorts of books in the world. The flirty, easy reads that are devoured on summer getaways; gritty crime novels that keep commuters turning pages on packed trains; emotive roller coasters where you dive into the mind of the protagonist; literary heavyweights with awe inspiring imagery and language, the list goes on. I would perhaps pick up any of these before selecting a book about slavery. Not because I don’t think it’s important to understand more about this dark time in human history, but more because many years ago I read the unforgettable, Roots by Alex Haley.

It was one of those books that you can’t wrench your eyes from, despite the abject misery that you are confronted with. The fact that human beings are capable of such horrific cruelty sat heavily with me. And whilst I can’t remember the details of the book all these years later, the residue of that feeling (horror, sadness, shame?) is still nestled inside my brain somewhere, to the extent that when the BBC recently put on an adaptation of Roots, I knew two things. The first, that it would be a brilliantly made, unmissable programme; the second, that there was absolutely no way that I could bring myself to watch it.  No way that I could witness the subjugation and degradation of innocent people. Even if it is a fictionalised re-creation. It happened. The fact that it happened here on the soil that we walk on deeply saddens me.

So when I rocked up at the recent Croydon Literature Festival, and found The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead prominently displayed at a stall, I hesitated. A book about a slave who decides to escape from her bondage… was this the kind of book that I could read without it haunting me for the rest of my days? Wasn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable? How could I enjoy reading something so tragic?

There were a couple of things that tempted me. I am a sucker for prize winners and nominees and The Underground Railroad is peppered with them: winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, winner of the National Book Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a Sunday Times top ten best seller – my fingers are getting worn out just typing the list of Whitehead’s accolade’s for this book. On top of this, I was listening to some podcast or other before the Booker’s shortlist was announced and the presenters were so sure that he was going to be shortlisted. As it happens he wasn’t but then you can’t win everything all of the time. The nominations and prize winnings suggested that this was no ordinary book, and difficult subject matter or not, I just had to bite the bullet and read it.

Perhaps it was because I had primed myself for it, or maybe because I’m no longer the naive young grasshopper I once was, but The Underground Railroad didn’t leave me with the same electric sense of shock that Roots had done many years ago. Whitehead doesn’t dilly-dally over the treatment of slaves, but neither does he linger. In one sense this makes it worse. It gives you the impression that the maltreatment of slaves was so commonplace, their misery so ubiquitous that there was scarcely time to draw breath before you were on to the next atrocity.

In The Underground Railroad we follow Cora who flees captivity and stumbles from one place of seeming refuge to another. Everything is in flux for Cora and those who seek to assist her. The prospect of a merciless death, should they be caught, lurks around every corner and bares it’s teeth any time Cora or her friends get too comfortable. Every time they think that there is a better life, a chance, a place of opportunity; the violence that they are fleeing rears it’s head to remind them, I’m still here, I’m still hunting you down.

Some other tough reads – what are yours?

For me, whilst the central story-line was great, I felt there was a lot of surplus information about the numerous peripheral characters. Cora would often refer back to a character that had helped in some earlier part of her journey and I found myself struggling to remember which particular act of benevolence they had bestowed. But overall, and despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed the book. It got me thinking, perhaps I have been too hasty in dismissing a book just because it might make me feel uncomfortable. Is there a world of literature that I am missing out on because of it? I’m interested to know your experiences. What has been the hardest book you ever read? And if you could go back in time and make the choice would you put yourself through the experience of reading it again?

I look forward to hearing your tales and I’ll see you here again next week when I’ll be reviewing I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O’Farrell. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you about that one, but it’ll have to keep till next Monday!

Book Review 6 – Autumn by Ali Smith

Hello wonderful readers of my blog and welcome to the first post on my brand new, shiny, very own website 52goodbooks.com. I am beyond excited to be here. It’s like going from renting to buying your first house ? As with any move, there are still boxes to unpack and pictures to put up. Maybe this table goes best against the wall, on the other hand, maybe it is better under the window… Hopefully things will bed in over the next week or so, but I must say this feels like home.

How have you been getting on this week? Enjoying the turn of the weather?

Brisk mornings with clear skies that give way to warm sun kissed afternoons. And those leaves on the trees that morph from green to shades of gold, orange and red. Time to wrap a scarf around you and crunch your way through the October leaves on a walk with your dog / child / great-aunt.

It has felt most apt to be reading a book called ‘Autumn’ at this time. Although, I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of Ali Smith before I read this book. It was only once I turned up at Croydon library and found myself wading through a foot of Ali Smith books in the search for this one, that it hit me – hang on just a cotton picking minute, this Ali Smith is a bit of a heavy-weight author! Mind you, I should have already guessed that. Autumn has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is the first of four books. The next in the series, titled ‘Winter’ is out now, and the other two ‘Spring’ and (you can see where she’s going with this) ‘Summer’ are yet to be published.

In Autumn, we meet Elisabeth who regularly visits an old neighbour in his care home while he sleeps away the final ebb of his life. Elisabeth has a fondness for the old man Daniel, who was a friend and babysitter to her as a child. The story reaches back into her memories of that time as well as touching on Daniel’s own memories from before he met Elisabeth.

Yes – I really did put this library book into a pile of leaves…

Autumn is a clever little book and it turns out that Smith is much more than just a teller of stories. In this one book she does so much. There are current and historical strands running through the books. Facts meld into fiction and fiction back into fact. There are references to Brexit and events from the life of the model Christine Keeler, who was at the centre of a political scandal in 1963 and Pauline Boty, a founder of the British Pop art movement. And on top of this merging of realities, Smith writes fragments of poetry into the book and juxtaposes this with the domesticity of ordinary life. I giggled as I read her account of Elisabeth trying to get her passport picture accepted through the Post Office, check and send service. It was, as you can imagine, a painful experience!

I found Autumn a slow burner though and have fallen more in love with it after I finished reading and doing a bit of research on Keeler and Boty, which then led me back into re-reading sections of the book. When I look back on it as a whole, the reality, the fiction, the poetry, the prose, the ordinary life, the story; I am pretty blown away by what Smith has managed to produce. We’ll have to wait till 17th October to find out if Smith will win the Booker. She’s up against some debut authors, as well as some old timers like Mohsin Hamid, who’s book Exit West I have already reviewed. I can only compare Autumn to Exit West and out of the two my money would be on Autumn and its clever fusion of concepts. Anyone want to take my bet?!

Next week I will be looking at the last of the titles that I have picked from the  Booker. Colson Whitehead’s highly acclaimed, ‘The Underground Railroad’ was longlisted and has come up in many a recommendation as an unput-down-able experience. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one. For now, I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest of your own autumn…