Category Archives: Current Affairs

Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell – 9/10

I am writing this review 10 months after reading the book, so bear with me if some of it is a big vague!
“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
E&P
Eleanor knows what it’s like to be the outsider. Big red hair is just the first of her problems. When Park shows her a moment of kindness on the school bus, she finds a soulmate. This is the story of two misfits just trying to get by in the world.
It’s no secret that I loved Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, and I also read Fangirl this year. Part of what I love about Rowell’s writing is the effortless humour – it’s real, unaffected. I found the main characters a little unrelateable to be honest – they were such misfits that it was quite tricky to identify with them. That said, they are very sympathetic and pleasant characters to spend time with, and certainly vivid creations of Rowell’s. The relationship between them is built up very gently and slowly, which really suited them – they are both a bit quiet and not wanting to upset any kind of status quo.
The side characters are in a sense more one-dimensional which is all they needed to be – Eleanor’s mother is a victim, her stepfather is abusive, Park’s father is a bit distant and doesn’t really understand his son… all of them provide the necessary conflict for our main characters. I found Eleanor’s mother quite frustrating in her inability to perceive the abuse going on around her, but perhaps (my knowledge of domestic abuse is thankfully non-existent!) this is actually an accurate portrayal of a typical abuse victim.
Rowell manages to touch on a lot of topics in her books – this one includes not only the travails of being a teenager, and a misfit one at that, but also domestic abuse, gender identification, poverty, family conflict, comics and music (particularly of the 80s). This was actually pretty dark (or certainly darker than I was expecting) and doesn’t have the fairytale ending you sort of expect of YA books these days. I think it was really interesting that Rowell chose to set the story before the internet and mobile phones. Whether that enables her to draw on her teenage years more easily, or whether it facilitates a certain set of conditions she wants to explore, I’m not sure.
The setting is unremarkable – it’s not crucial to the story, it’s just a town in the middle of somewhere. All school buses and classrooms are equally cruel.
Personally I thought Attachments was better in some ways, and definitely more approachable for an office-resident adult, but this is a bigger, wider-ranging, more serious work – and I’ve failed to convey just how good it is in this review!
Other reviews: Semicolon, Book’d Out
Additional information
Copy borrowed from Mini-Me, who read it the same week. 
Publisher: Orion Books, 336 pages (paperback)
Order Eleanor & Park from Amazon*,Waterstones or Foyles
* 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

Mini-reviews: Audacity of Hope and Life After Life

audacity of hope

The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama – 7/10

I listened to this back at the start of 2013. From what I can remember:

a good quote

– a decent primer on American politics and how it works

– a reading voice (the author) I would happily listen to for hours

– a distinctly non-pompous, “everyman” tone

– surprising honesty about personality types (introversion/extraversion) and the difficulties of sharing childcare responsibilities

I’d definitely recommend it. I’m now reading Dreams from my Father.

life after life

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson – 7/10

Ursula is stillborn. Ursula is born again and dies falling from a high window. Ursula is born again and finds her way into an abusive relationship. Every time, Ursula dies and is reborn, given a slightly different chance in life.

This is one of those books I would rather have read in print rather than as an ebook. I didn’t have a sense of the progression of the story because I didn’t have a sense of the physical progression through the book.

I loved When Will There Be Good News, the only other Kate Atkinson I’ve read. Life After Life is very well written, though some of the storylines were distinctly less enthralling than others (could have done with a stronger edit). Some of them were very interesting and unexpected. Good characters, interesting to see the progression through time of fashions and places… Go read it.

Old mini-reviews

Some of my reviews have been outstanding since 2012, to the point where I can’t remember very much about the books any more. So it’s time to jot down some thoughts and move on.

Also – 3 of these were NetGalley copies i.e. on the Kindle – which is how they got forgotten about for so long (and the other one I had in paperback but lent it to a friend and haven’t got it back… though I don’t really want it back). So the moral of the story is here, my friends, out of sight, out of the review chain.

little night

Little Night - Luanne Rice – 5/10

I don’t remember very much about this one at all except that it centred on domestic violence. Now that I’ve read the internet a bit to remind myself, it was more complex than that. It’s a web of family dysfunction – very pronounced characters struggling to play nicely together. It’s very New York, but apart from that nothing really stands out. Next.

last apache girl

The Last Apache Girl – Jim Fergus – 5/10

An amateur photographer signs onto the “Great Apache Expedition”, one of dozens of men hoping to free the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher kidnapped by a violent band of Apaches. A wild Apache girl is being held as counter-argument, and Ned slowly builds a relationship with her, but their relationship is doomed from the start.

Somewhat like Dances with Wolves. I don’t remember struggling to get through it, but if you’re going to read something like this, I’d stick with Dances with Wolves.

house of serenades

The House of Serenades – Lina Simoni – 6/10

Historical romance/social study set in 1910 Genoa. Romeo & Juliet after a fashion – rich girl meets poor boy, falls in love, daddy says no. Has some interesting things to say about treatment of women in that age – particularly women who we would expect to be financially independent. Don’t remember a lot about it but I did zoom through it pretty quickly – that’s always a good sign.

world without you

The World Without You – Joshua Henkin – 8/10

I actually remember really enjoying this one – it’s sentimental and tear-jerking, but in a good way. It’s the story of the family left behind when a US journalist dies in Middle Eastern conflict; how his wife struggles to interact appropriately with his grieving parents – she wants to be part of this family and give them access to their grandson, but also wants to move on. The parents are struggling in marriage and in grief. The three siblings are each fighting their own demons – including one who has embraced Orthodox Judaism and feels excluded from her family as a result. Would definitely recommend (but keep the Kleenex handy).

The Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett – 8/10

“There was a weight to missing. It was as heavy as a child.”

Patron Saint

Rose never stays anywhere for long. First she marries suddenly, then she spends days and weeks driving around California, then she runs away to Kentucky. She settles and brings up her child in the strange surrounds of nuns and pregnant girls at a home for unwed mothers.

Rose is a surprisingly unsympathetic character with a lack of motive for being so – it’s never really explained. Nevertheless, her reluctance to invest emotionally in other people makes for an interesting counterpoint to the warmth of the characters around her, especially Son, who is so caring and gentle. She constantly pushes everybody else away, and Cecilia is the only one we see really examine that.

I guess there’s a recurring theme here of religion and vocation – Rose marries her first husband feeling that it’s her vocation, then that she must have been wrong. She stays at St Elizabeth’s for years, cooking three meals a day for twenty years – clearly she feels some kind of vocation to be there. The assorted religious attitudes of the nuns at the home, of the girls in their varying states of faith… it wasn’t until I finished the book that it hit me that this was a theme. It didn’t really seem to go anywhere though – just a thread through every character.

There’s no denying Patchett writes beautifully. I read this 400 page novel in a day with no trouble at all. While I never felt totally sucked into the plot, the writing is smooth enough that you just keep turning the pages without noticing. I liked the way this book moved from one narrative point to the next about every hundred pages – from an initial third person narrator in Habit, to Rose to Son to Cecilia. It dealt with the passage of time neatly and gave us the chance to move through different characters without having that irritating back-and-forth that plagues the modern crime novel.

The setting (and I’ll ignore anything that’s not Habit, Kentucky, because that’s where 90% of the book is set) is evocatively enough written without ever becoming a character of its own. The huge hotel could easily have become a character of its own (as the house does in The Thirteenth Tale), and we feel Cecilia’s frustration through the long, hot summers, the pitchers of iced tea, the swimming hole, without ever really having a strong sense of place.

This lost 2 points out of 10 from me – one for the fact that it was good but didn’t reach out of the page and grab you by the throat (the way that Bel Canto did) and one for the ending. I won’t say much for fear of spoilers, but a deeply difficult and uncomfortable situation is engineered, without any kind of resolution. After 380 pages of stunning writing, this was so dissatisfying I didn’t know whether to think the book was 20 pages too long (i.e. it should have ended before the twist) or 40 pages too short (the twist was unresolved – particularly with Cecilia having stumbled onto a big clue shortly before the end).

One other thing – I’ve never heard of Mariner Books, the publisher, before… just looked them up and it seems to be an imprint of Houghton Miffler Harcourt. But worth a mention, because this was a really beautiful edition, considering it was just a standard paperback; there was something about the softness of the cover, the type of paper used for the pages… I don’t know what it was. It was nice not to have to break the spine to lay it flat on the table while I ate my slow cooker beef stroganoff (yum).

Additional info

Bought at McNally Jackson Books in downtown Manhattan on a recent trip to New York.
Publisher: Mariner Books, 392 pages (paperback)
Order The Patron Saint of Liars from Amazon* or Waterstones
* 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

Reading Elena Ferrante

A couple of short reviews (the first one from me, the latter two from the Book Accumulator) about Elena Ferrante’s novels My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name.

My thoughts:

My Brilliant Friend – 5/10

This has got rave reviews all over everything – in fact it’s the first part of a trilogy, that’s how successful it’s been. Admittedly, I read this more than 2 years ago, on holiday in the south of France, so my memory is probably a little rusty/sun-dappled, but again I kept waiting for this to have its big moment, for Elena to finally step out of Lila’s shadow, and she never did. It just sort of fizzles out. It’s excellently written – beautiful setting, lots of musings on friendship and the vagaries particularly of female teenage friendship – but I had the same problem that I do with much literary fiction. It just ended up nowhere. I had the same problem with Gatsby. Grrr.

The Book Accumulator’s thoughts:

My Brilliant Friend: very readable story of a friendship of two girls growing up in Naples; slow to start but hard to put down. Much more of a memoir than a work of fiction, this book captures the feeling, the customs, the tensions, the class distinctions, the adolescent romances and coming of age in the southern Italian city of the 1960s.

The Story of a New Name: a much less readable story of the friendship, even though the story has very interesting developments as the girls grow from their mid-teens to their early twenties. The author badly needed to edit this, as the book was really tedious and twice as long as it should have been. Despite this, she does depict really well the life and customs and the appalling way relationships between men and women and marriages develop (or don’t) in a particular neighbourhood of Naples in the late 50s and 60s. I will not bother with the last of the trilogy.

Mini-reviews

Some mini reviews because I want to get caught up before the new year.

hector-and-the-search-for-happiness

Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord – 4/10

Read this on the plane to and from Germany on a rare weekend away from the Bedfordshire portacabin. I kept waiting for it to be transcendent… and it never was. I get that we are suppose to learn the simple lessons of happiness that Hector encounters, but it felt childishly written – and not in a good way like The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden. Next.

kitchen god's wife

The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan – 6/10

This was the very first book I read in 2014, and it has taken me until December 2014 to review it. In the meantime I have read a different book by Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and now cannot tell them apart in my mind. I do remember that The Kitchen God’s Wife felt smoother, a better constructed story (though, like TBD, the framing was a little awkward), and that I did read it all the way to the end fairly quickly. Reading some other plot summaries, more of it is coming back to me, but the fact that so little of it, except for the fractious daughter-mother-aunt relationship, seems familiar to me is not a positive sign.

 

The Racketeer – John Grisham – 6/10

“One of the few virtues of prison life is the gradual acquisition of patience. Nothing moves at a reasonable pace, and you learn to ignore clocks.”

racketeer

Malcolm Bannister has served 5 years in prison for a crime he got sucked into, and is due to serve another 5. When a federal judge is brutally murdered, and Malcolm knows who did it, he has to work out a way to use that information to his advantage, while staying safe. And a way to exact a little justice of his own.

For the first half of this, I was completely onboard. So far, so Grisham, but very readable, good plot build-up, some nifty legal dealings, a bit of adventure, bad guys appropriately irritated. Then Grisham seemingly goes off-piste for most of the rest of the book, only revealing in the last 10 pages or so how the second half of the book ties back to the first half. Which drove me crazy. I nearly abandoned the book multiple times and it was only encouragement from The Musician that kept me going.

Bannister is a likeable enough character in the standard Grisham mold, but Grisham does much better protagonists. The agents are rendered well enough but nothing memorable. Quinn and Nate are interesting, as is Vanessa, but it feels like Grisham didn’t really want to bother developing any characters other than Bannister because of the backwards plot.

It’s not up there with The Street Lawyer or The Last Juror.

Additional info

Copy bought at JFK airport recently while trying to use up US dollars.  
Publisher: Dell Books, 382 pages (paperback)
Order The Racketeerfrom 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
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