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 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 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…

Book Review 5 – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Do you want the good news or the bad news? What’s that you say? The bad news first? OK well here it is. This is going to be my last blog post on this website. I know what you’re thinking – she’s had enough. Five weeks of reading have done her in. She’s thrown in the towel. Would I do that to you? Never! Let’s give you the good news. Next week’s blog post will be coming to you from my very own website 52goodbooks.com The enthusiastic ones amongst you will find that if you click on this link before Monday 9th October you get nothing, nada, zip. The website is currently under construction whilst my web developer (oh yes, I have one!) makes it all nice for you – ain’t he sweet? The reason for this sudden move is down to a few teething problems with the blogspot account, but fear not you’ll still be getting the same weekly dose of my literary ravings at the new address.

Fess up – who nicked my copy of White Teeth?!

So, on to this week’s read. Is it a surprise that the brilliant Zadie Smith was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Absolutely not. I scanned my bookshelves and found her name came up a few times. Turns out Smith is a household favourite, we appear to have two copies of ‘Autograph Man’ – one for each hand… though I can’t lay either of my hands on my copy of ‘White Teeth’ at all… I know it’s around here somewhere. Grr!

Smith’s latest book, ‘Swing Time’ is the story of a young woman who is born and brought up on a London housing estate and ends up travelling the world with her overbearing celebrity employer. You get the sense that Smith knows people, she really understands what makes them tick and it is this more than anything that makes her books so compelling. Her character dissection is a thing of beauty. Sometimes she hits the nail so squarely on its naily head that it makes you want to weep:

“Maybe luxury is the easiest matrix to pass through. Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money,”

she says, whilst describing a poverty stricken man’s enrapturement with the affluent world he is thrust into. I never want to forget this statement. That’s why I picked it out and wrote it down here as evidence (as if Smith’s books aren’t enough – who am I kidding!) of Zadie Smith’s sublime understanding of the human condition.

And yet, I can see why ‘Swing Time’ has not made it to the Booker’s shortlist. There were things about this book that I’m sorry to say, irked me. About a quarter of the way through (or perhaps less) I noticed something peculiar about the protagonist and her parents; none of them had names. I wasn’t going to mention this, because it seemed somehow spoiler-y, but honestly having this prior knowledge changes nothing for a reader. In fact it probably would have helped me had I known this, because once I had noticed this incognito narrator it totally threw my expectation of the kind of book this was going to be. I kept thinking that there must be a reason that she was nameless. I was primed for something crazy to happen, maybe her mother was going to turn out to actually be her, maybe she and her best friend were the same person, maybe something even more bonkers than I could possibly cook up in my limited imagination was going to happen. Of course, it didn’t. And then I felt underwhelmed. You get to the end and it’s like, she just had no name. Get over it.

I wonder if the name shortage was some kind of commentary on the lack of pizzazz, the absence of mojo, the complete want of chutzpah the protagonist portrays. I can’t say I particularly warmed to her. I understood her – Smith’s talent is such that you always understand the motives of her characters, but the permanent presence of characters that dominated her began to jar after a while. Her mother, her childhood best friend, her boss. I felt like grabbing her by the nameless shoulders and shaking her. Life just appeared to be a spectator sport to her. She sat there and watched to see what would come her way. Her apathy irritated the bejesus out of me. All in all, I’m glad I read the book, if only to get back in touch with Zadie Smith’s stunning excavation of the human mind, but I’m afraid this one won’t be going on my favourites list.

My portrait of Swing Time’s protagonist

So, week five and the ‘to be read’ list continues to swell. It seems the more I read, the more I go to websites and social media on book related topics and become aware of what other bloggers and reviewers are recommending, the more I notice posters when returning books at the library; and the longer the list of what I want to read becomes. Then in amongst all this; these posters and websites and well-established reviewers is my own little blog. It’s nice to be a part of this mechanism and, for what it’s worth, recommend some books myself. It has been really heartening to hear several people tell me that the blog has inspired them to get out a book and read for themselves. So let’s end with that thought in mind. I’ve done this weeks reading and am onto the next, but what about you guys? What have you been reading? Why not share a comment and let the rest of us know? As a mummy friend of mine often says, ‘Sharing is caring!’ So, care to share anyone?!
Don’t forget, see you next week on 52goodbooks.com for my review of another Smith (they get everywhere)! Autumn by Ali Smith has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and you’ll get the lowdown on my blog next Monday.