Category Archives: Current Affairs

How It All Began – Penelope Lively – 8/10

“But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally, chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on, and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course.”

How it all began

When Charlotte is mugged in the street one day and breaks her hip, a chain of events is set off for a much wider group of people. Her daughter Rose has to cancel a day’s work. Rose’s boss Henry goes to Manchester to give a lecture without his notes. Henry’s niece Marion cancels a date and thus reveals the affair to her lover’s wife. All because a delinquent wanted Charlotte’s cash.

Lively writes a good book. I loved Moon Tiger, quite enjoyed Heatwave (which I don’t seem to have reviewed); were I to sit down and consume her entire oeuvre, I’m confident I would enjoy it. She strikes the balance between clever writing, interesting characters, and just enough plot progression to keep things going. The plot only really exists to make the characters do things, and in fact the plot movements are only really as the result of a passage of time rather than the result of actions or events.

The cast of characters is appropriately limited so that we feel we know each of them well, without getting them mixed up with each other. It is clever to have multiple perspectives but linked characters so that the transitions from one narrator to another are not as jarring or frustrating as such transitions often are.

It’s not a demanding book to read – and this is a huge part of why I like authors like Mitchell, Patchett, Lively; you notice the quality of the writing only when there is a showy sentence. Apart from the odd “look at me, I’m good with words” sentence (like the one below), the text is not too dense, but concise and clever. It’s only 230 pages long, and I would happily have read another 100 pages, but on the other hand, it felt complete without being overcooked.

“That evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could share it anyway.”

Something I noticed in How It All Began and hadn’t noticed in her other works was the occasional breaking of the fourth wall – every now and again (and pleasingly infrequently) the narrative moves from the consciousness of one of the characters out to an omniscient third party style narrator who is very conscious of the reader. The quote I selected above is just one such example. I couldn’t decide whether these added to or detracted from the book; they broke up the flow in a slightly irritating way, but the writing is so good and these little bits are sufficiently valuable to the book, that I didn’t really mind.

If you’ve enjoyed anything else by Lively, you’ll like this.

Additional info
Copy bought at Strand Bookstore in New York on a recent visit. 
Publisher: Penguin, 229 pages (paperback)
Order How It All Beganfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 9/10

Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie

for reducing it.

americanah (1)

I nearly gave up on this one. I’m glad I had nothing else to read on the Tube one Monday, this fails the hundred page test but passes the two hundred page test with flying colours. So if you’re reading it and unconvinced, keep going (preferably on a train where you have no choice but to keep going), because you’ll get sucked in at some point and it’s completely worth the perseverance.

Starting in the now, then continually moving back, gives it the weak start. I wasn’t altogether happy with the ending either (though that’s thanks to my rather black and white moral compass), but that doesn’t detract from a well-plotted arching story.

The strength of this book is the huge themes. Race is an incredibly strong theme for the US setting, with Ifemelu running a race-related blog and being really very outspoken (although obviously well within her rights to be outspoken)! The portion set in the UK is much less about racism (a comment on UK attitudes compared to US?) and more about undocumented life, the constant threat of deportment, life as a shadow person. Very relevant right now given the anti-immigration platforms being traded on by the UK political parties.

The third huge theme is the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze – separated by fate and then Ifemelu’s self-perceived betrayal, her refusal to answer his letters and phone calls. When she finally does then come back from the US, there are yet more hurdles between them… but the teenage love story between them is really strong and credible while still being a “they were each other’s one in a million” type of thing.

Ifemelu is a really strong character, sort of everywoman, who doesn’t make odd or unpalatable choices (Obinze is harder to understand – quieter, and somehow the thoughts of his which are set on paper are less developed that Ifem’s?). We understand her ambition, her shame, her determination to put the world to rights. The secondary characters were much weaker in my eyes – Obinze’s wife, Ifem’s long-term boyfriends, both of their parents and uni friends all seemed more like caricatures. But this is worth reading just for Ifem and Obinze.

I don’t have the historical or cultural awareness to really get the Nigerian setting, but it’s written in an approachable style for a Western audience. Certainly the sections in the US and UK are well-researched and as a London resident I found the portion when Obinze was working as an illegal immigrant in London really interesting – it’s so totally different to my understanding of “documented” life in London.

All I can really say about this one is – read it, and get through the 100 pages. It’s worth it on the other side.

Additional info
Purchased in Manly on a recent trip to Sydney when I’d read my way through the books that Mini-Me had brought with her.
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 400 paperback pages
Order Americanahfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

How to be a Woman – Caitlyn Moran – 4/10 (DNF)

“But, bafflingly, we totally accept the uselessness of heels. We accept it limply, shruggingly. We are indifferent to the thousands of pounds, over a lifetime, we spend on shoes we only wear once, and in great pain. Indeed, we’re oddly proud of it. Women buy shoes and gigglingly say, ‘Of course, they’re agony – I’m just going to have to sit on a barstool all night, and be helped to the toilet by friends, or passers-by,’ despite it sounding as OUTRIGHT INSANE as going, ‘I’ve just bought a house – it doesn’t have a roof, of course, so I’m just going to sit in the front room with an umbrella up.’”

htbaw

“Part memoir, part rant” by Caitlyn Moran (star columnist at The Times, among many other illustrious places) about life as a woman. Rather more specifically, her life as a woman, because there was really not an awful lot in here that I recognised. See the rant above about high heels? It’s against all my principles to buy shoes that are uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, Moran is a highly comedic, perceptive, intelligent writer. There were parts of every chapter that I really enjoyed. There is a glorious chapter about 80 pages in called “I am a Feminist!” which includes some really smart writing.

But there were parts that I outright disagreed with – or worse, didn’t understand at all. Which made me feel pretty confused – how can I not understand this? I left it in the bathroom for weeks, reading a bit at a time, sometimes getting sucked in for 20-30 pages, sometimes finding it unbelievably frustrating and resolving to throw it out. And I couldn’t get hugely excited about chapters about body parts… we have them, deal with it.

Maybe if you have a stronger stomach and are more stridently inclined, you’d love this. I think if you tipped over the edge into slightly liking this, you’d really like it; I just got too … ranted out.

Copy from Bookmooch. Abandoned on a Tube train on a Saturday night.

The Cleaner of Chartres – Salley Vickers – 6/10

“What could be worse – she half-thought – than to have loved and been given no chance to make it known?”

cleaner of chartres

(From the inner cover): There is something very special about Agnes Morel. Twenty years ago, she appeared in the cloisters of the ancient cathedral of Notre-Dame, in the medieval town of Chartres, France. To the townspeople, it seems she has always been there – a harmless presence, touching their lives in subtle ways. But no one knows anything of her past.

(Agnes actually has a grave over the e but it’s too hard to type in this blogging site so can you please take it as read?)

This is a slow, contemplative story of everyday life in Chartres of distinctly non-everyday people. Vickers’ way of telling the story, back and forth between Agnes’ adult life and her childhood with the nuns, is somewhat disjointed and irritating – I would actually have preferred a smoother chronological telling. It’s been a long time since I read Miss Garnet’s Angel (which I do remember enjoying otherwise I wouldn’t have accepted this review copy), but I don’t remember it being so slow. Actually, that’s unfair: I was impatient yesterday reading this but actually now I think I’ve been too harsh – the slow pace of writing suits the book very well.

Agnes is a very complicated character – you want to support her because she is such a mistreated innocent, no parents, child taken from her. But she doesn’t make liking her very easy, either to readers or to other characters in the book. She only really opens up to the Abbe Paul and to the restorer Alain, another exile from society. The Abbe Paul is lovely and sympathetic, not totally but close to flawless character. Dr Deman is an odd fish – you feel like he really does want to help Agnes but then his actions have been harmful to her for a long time. Everyone needs a slightly rebellious nun ally, and Sister Laurence is perfect for Agnes. While there is no doubt that Agnes is the main character here, Vickers devotes considerable time to the secondary characters and the readers are well-rewarded for it.

Plot is quite light in this novel – it’s really a character study, but there’s just enough to keep us ticking along. The build-up of tension and climax through the spreading of ugly stories from Agnes’ past about the town by Madame Beck, the embittered old woman with the ability to see bad in everyone. Agnes seems to be beset by terrible events and rumours on all sides. Nonetheless it’s deftly done and I’ve no plot-related complaints.

This is one of those reviews that I’ve come to write and it’s full of niggles which is unfair on a peaceful, sedate, enjoyable novel.

Copy kindly provided by the publisher, quite a while ago, in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Viking, 298 pages (hardback)
Order The Cleaner of Chartres from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden – Jonas Jonassen – 8/10

“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

girl who saved

Nombeko, born into Soweto’s slums, uses her prodigious mathematical ability to rise out of the latrine sanitation management position she has achieved by age 14, and has the misfortune to be run over by a very drunk nuclear engineer the minute she leaves Soweto. South Africa of the 1970s being what it is, she finds herself alternately helping the engineer with his calculations, and scrubbing his floor. Escape comes in the form of a ticket to Sweden…

Much like The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared, the plot for this novel is more than slightly absurd. But that’s fine with me when it’s written as captivatingly as this. The various concepts of a person not existing, accidental creation of a 7th atomic bomb, Sweden’s deeply cautious politics – all feel like Jonassen is making little digs at the world, without taking himself too seriously. Full of incredible (seriously, unbelievable) coincidences and unfortunate events, it’s a captivating read.

Nombeko is a wonderful character, somewhat everygirlish but with occasional violent tendencies which amused me. She has the same improbably frequent ideas for getting out of scrapes (but the book wouldn’t be any fun if she wasn’t in scrapes and then didn’t get out of them). Holger One and Two couldn’t be more different, and Celestine and her potato-farming countess grandmother are a fabulous double act.

I would very definitely recommend this, particularly if you are stuck in Heathrow for four hours and then on a plane going to the wrong airport.

Additional information:

Copy a gift from The Book Accumulator (well, I pressed this and another book into his hand and pointed him towards the tills) when we were killing time in Waterstones Piccadilly. 
Publisher: Fourth Estate, 432 paperback pages
Order The Girl Who Saved the King of Swedenfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

 

Once upon a Timepiece – Starr Wood – 5/10 (DNF)

“May your brief candle shine brightly.”

Print

 

This collection of short stories follows an antique Breitling watch around England as it passes from unlucky owner to unlucky owner through mistaken gifts, payments in lieu and antique shops.

It really reminded me of Roald Dahl’s short stories; all of the stories end with something bad for the Everyman who behaves badly in a specific way. Financial loss for the greedy man, a ruined present for the jealous man. It’s extremely clever and well-constructed, the endings for each story are completely appropriate for the bad behaviour within, I just couldn’t take the dread any more! It was like watching a car crash in slow motion, every 25 pages.

What is very well done is the character development – Wood only has about 20 pages with each character to set them up for their fall. I noticed that most of the characters were pretty similar – all men around the 40-year-old mark. I wonder if that was an intentional study of the age (like The Sense of an Ending), or whether the author found that an easy age group to write a generic person with one specific tragic flaw.

The writing is clear and clever without being obtrusive. Everything is in third person non-omniscient (my technical term for when the reader only knows what the character knows, and there is lots of internal monologue) which takes a certain level of commitment. The settings were generally irrelevant although primarily London-based, and perfectly fine – the short story format permits lots of travelling around without any need to develop one place very much.

I’m not at all suggesting this is badly written or not worth reading – a reader less prone to worrying than myself would almost definitely enjoy it.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review. Publisher: Bo Tree Books, 176 paperback pages
Order Once Upon a Timepiecefrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The People in the Photo – Hélène Gestern – 9/10

“Our families’ silence is a poison that infects everything it touches: our dreams, our fears, our entire adult lives. And it leaves us with nothing but questions to fall back on, thirty or forty years down the line.”

people in the photo

From the blurb, because it’s very accurate: Parisian archivist Hélène takes out a newspaper advert seeking information about her mother, who died when she was three, and the two men pictured with her in a photograph taken at a tennis tournament at Interlaken in 1971. Stéphane, a Swiss biologist living in Kent, responds: his father is one of the people in the photo. More letters and more photos pass between them as they embark on a journey to uncover the truth their parents kept from them. But will the images and documents from the past fill the silences left by the players?

The author has given the protagonist her own first name – when that happens, I do have to wonder if it is partly autobiographical (although Hélène is a very pretty name!). Hélène is well captured – gentle, curious, reflective, desperate to unearth her truth but loath to upset others. Obviously a sad childhood. I struggled a little more with Stéphane and actually preferred him when he cracked a bit every now and again. The epistolary style, in a sense, permits very limited development of any other characters, but then the whole book is about piecing together people from several decades ago and Nataliya is revealed little by little. Jean Pamiat, the side-lined friend, is actually my favourite character in the whole book, I think. He’s deliciously omnipresent, and thankfully still alive in the modern time for our detectives to at least visit.

I’ve said it before – I love the epistolary novel. It permits gentle development of the story (and the sub-story – just the right way to deliver that) without being slow. Had it been told another way I might well have thrown the book aside in frustration with the romance and the clunky delivery of the decades-old mystery – but this method was natural and elegant.

For me, the aspect I walk away with is the incredible sadness of the ending. The climax is correctly paced and the puzzle is appropriately concluded, including various characters’ odd behaviour, but this tale of love lost, found and lost again is really very sad in the end. Our characters put a brave face on it but… I would not be so sanguine.

It made me want to learn Russian! And mourn the lost art of the letter. I greatly enjoyed the adventures of Bourbaki the cat as told by Hélène – and the sub-story, which I cannot reveal for spoiler-avoidance reasons, is sweetly developed in the letters.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Gallic Books, 265 paperback pages
Order The People in the Photofrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 690 other followers