A(nother) Review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon #ThreeThings

I once had a conversation with someone who was absolutely furious when – in their view – someone on Twitter had spoiled a book for them, by revealing there was a twist. They hadn’t said what the twist was, just that a twist existed.

 

I’ve struggled with this concept ever since – I often expect there to be twists in most books I read – and finding out that one I was reading had one wouldn’t make me feel the book was spoilt. More of a teaser really.

 

Twists and turns are surely the components that drive the plot forward, something unexpected happening to keep the reader interested.

 

If I opened a book and it was utterly predictable, I knew exactly what was going to happen, would I enjoy it still? Maybe – after all, I do enjoy re-reading some books…

 

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The reason I started talking about twists in the first place was because as something of a self-appointed expert of books, I can often see the twists coming.

 

The last time I was truly surprised by a twist was in I See You by Claire Mackintosh – I was so surprised, I had to put the book down for half an hour.

 

My difficulty is that I’m now not sure what is supposed to be a twist and what isn’t – and it is with all this preamble, that I finally come to this week’s book Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – author of the massive The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.

 

Florence Claybourne has a flat in the grounds of the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly, and it is in this flat and this Home that the story is set. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend and as the title suggests, there are three things you need to know about her.

 

We don’t learn all three things at once, but we learn them as we go through the book, as Florence becomes spooked by the arrival of a new resident, a man who should be dead. A man who died over fifty years previously.

 

In Florence’s corner are Elsie and another resident, Jack, but working against Elsie is – seemingly – the man himself, and Florence’s own muddled memories.

 

I worked out the third thing about Elsie pretty early on. So early on, in fact, that I couldn’t work out if it was meant to be an obvious ‘twist’ or not. It made me constantly question myself as this ‘third thing’ became a bigger and bigger unspoken thing among all the characters. Perhaps I was wrong? Perhaps the twist was that this obvious thing was actually not as it seemed?

 

I decided to stop second guessing myself. And I’m so glad I did.

 

In this novel, Cannon deftly weaves together multiple strands and multiple layers of story to reach a climax that will leave even the most experienced reader surprised, even if only a little it. Even if you do predict the big twist about Elsie – if in fact there actually is one – there are so many more connections both subtle and obvious that you won’t see coming, that will keep you guessing right to the end.

 

Three Things About Elsie is a charming novel, exploring not just aging and dementia, but also the way our lives and our actions impact on others.

 

The obvious comparison is to Elizabeth is Missing, but Three Things About Elsie goes further than that. You feel you know Florence’s whole life, not just the diminished later stages of it. And ultimately, it becomes a story not amount dementia, but about the way we treat others around us. The aged, the bereaved and those passing acquaintances.

 

Events that are important to us, secrets we keep that become huge burdens, they’re nothing to other people. But some of our smallest interactions with someone can have a lasting effect that we may never truly understand.

 

So while I may not see it is important if I know about a twist in a book or not, there are clearly people out there who do care. So I’m not going to tell you any of the three things about Elsie, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.

 

And you’ll be glad you did. In January 2018, when it’s published by Borough Press.

Advertisements

A(nother) Book Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

In between getting to read books that are coming out next year and trying to keep up with the incredible books that suddenly just appear on the shelves with no prior warning, sometimes I can miss a few hidden gems.

 

If I’m lucky, some of them will find their way back to me.

 

Occasionally, it’s just a passing conversation, but when someone goes to the effort of placing a copy on your desk – and another person tells you how good said book is – it feels like the great librarian in the sky is telling you to read it.

 

This is what happened with Shotgun Lovesongs.

 

First published in 2013, it shows us the lives of four men who grew up together in a small town in Wisconsin. We are first introduced to Hank – sometimes Henry – who introduces the reader to Lee, his childhood best friend who is now rock superstar Corvus.

 

Over the course of three weddings – Kip’s, Lee’s and Ronny’s – we learn how the four lives interact with each other over the various years.

 

There are obvious parallels for me to draw at this point between Shotgun Lovesongs and A Little Life.

 

They both concern themselves with the relationships between four male friends over a long period of their lives, but the trauma that we live through in A Little Life is a million miles away from the lives we observe in Shotgun Lovesongs.

 

Aside from four male leads, and the overall theme of love between male friends, the two are quite different.

 

A Little Life pulls you into the characters lives but the setting and even the time period of the story is unimportant, neglected even. That works for that book, though, because you are there with the characters. You are the fifth friend in the friendship group.

 

With Shotgun Lovesongs you are very aware of both the time and the place. It’s a neat trick for a writer to pull off when they can make you feel the temperature of a location in just a few sentences.

 

Nickolas Butler performs this trick with ease and it’s this sense of atmosphere that pulls you into the world of this small town America. The characters themselves are less well-drawn than those in Yanagihara’s opus, but the novel still works well.

 

Like A Little Life the main narrative is dominated by one particular relationship, however the conflict between the Lee and Henry is never fully resolved to this reader’s satisfaction.

 

Comparisons to A Little Life are difficult not to make – despite Shotgun Lovesongs being published first and any book would suffer for it, however this stands up admirably.

 

I just sort of wish I’d read it first – I think I would have enjoyed it even more than I did.

A(nother) Review: The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

It’s lunchtime on a Sunday as I write this. That is where this blog post begins.

 

Except for you, it’s at least 2pm on Thursday, likely later than that, so maybe that’s where this blog post begins?

 

Or perhaps it started when a colleague – let’s call her Ginger Spice (again) – handed me a copy of The Fact of a Body by Alexandra Marzano-Lesnevich. Or when she first told me how great it was…

 

I could go on. And that’s the point.

 

The Fact of a Body is the true story of Marzano-Lesnevich’s mission to understand why Ricky Langley’s case struck a chord with her to the point that she couldn’t not investigate it.

 

Langley has been tried and convicted of killing six year old Jeremy Guillory and Marzano-Lesnevich first comes across him, when interning for a legal firm specializing in death-row appeals, she sees a video of Langley’s confession.

 

For her, that is where her story begins, but as she says herself, it also started elsewhere, some many years ago. Something that Marzano-Lesnevichrefers to herself in the introduction to the book, when she talks about an American legal case – Palsgraf v Long Island Railroad Co. The Palsgraf case is used to illustrate proximate cause.

 

Proximate cause refers to the start of a chain of events – which as we begin to discover, can sometimes be traced further and further back. The question becomes… when do you start that chain of events.

 

At first, I was expecting a legal investigation into Langley’s case, something along the lines of the podcast Serial, so I was slightly surprised when Marzano-Lesnevich started talking about her own childhood.

 

As we move through the book though, it becomes clear, this isn’t your typical straightforward exploration of a legal case. It’s a personal journey for the author, exploring what happened to her, at the same time, exploring why Langley did what he did.

 

I’m not sure what I think of this book. It’s page-turning, fascinating and structured in a way that more information is revealed as you go along – it’s never boring.

 

The Langley case is heartbreaking, and so thought provoking. The author does a good job of balancing both sides carefully. What Langley did to Jeremy is monstrous, but we learn more about Langley’s family history which in itself is inherently sad.

 

Where this doesn’t quite work for me is the author’s personal story. Horrible things occurred to her, but barring one or two times, I failed to connect to her emotionally.

 

The story was almost split three ways – Langley and his crime, young Alexandria and the crime that happened to her, and the older version of her who dominated much of the book. For me, it took too long for the relevance of all three parts to truly connect.

 

Having said that, I would definitely recommend this book – though it probably ought to come with a trigger warning.

 

This is the end of my review (Or is it?)

 

 

A(nother) Review: Sal by Mick Kitson

It’s that glorious time of the year for people in the business that is books… no, not my birthday, or the re-stocking of titles that are going onto the school reading lists for the next term.

 

No, better than that, publishers are starting to send out the first proofs of new books coming in 2018. Happy August!

 

Of course, I’ve already had a couple, notably Fear and White Bodies – and though I enjoyed both, this latest is probably my favourite. So far.

 

Sal has run away with her sister Peppa to live in the woods. She had planned her escape to get away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend for nearly a year, and we slowly learn how and more importantly why she planned this escape.

 

Sal is not a long novel, at just over two hundred pages long, however that is no bad thing. Our eponymous heroine drags us straight into the narrative with incredibly engaging descriptions of how she and her sister even begin to survive.

 

We’ve all listened to Desert Island Discs – A current obsession of mine, I’m not the only one who’s listening to everything in the archive am I? – and one of the questions original host Roy Plomley asked each guest was whether they would be able to survive on a desert island.

 

I am probably not alone in thinking that I would be able to give it a good go. I’m not deluded enough to think I’ll be the next Robinson Crusoe, however I’d lay money on lasting longer than the average.

 

And then I read Sal.

 

Thirteen year old Sal has been planning this for a year, and she’s very good, but, gosh is it complicated. She knows things that I wouldn’t have a clue about.

 

Turns out, living on my own in the wild, I would have likely died of some kind of infection fairly soon. However, I’m now confident I might last a day longer than I would have done previously.

 

This isn’t about me, though, it’s about how Sal and Peppa survive – and how long they survive.

 

Despite some of the subject matter, this is a very easy read, one that pulls you into the story, turning each page until you suddenly realise you’ve ready fifty pages more than you were intending to.

 

It’s all slightly implausible, but at the same time utterly believable – with the drama surrounding the two missing girls happening on the periphery of our attention.  This isn’t a book about the plot, though, it’s about the characters, how they grow when left in the wilds of Scotland away from all civilisation.

 

Sal and Peppa are two great characters, managing to swerve the trap of becoming annoying know-it-alls as characters of their age (thirteen and ten) are wont to be – however it is the elder character Ingrid, who comes complete with her own fascinating backstory that really grabs the attention.

 

While it might be possible to suspend disbelief that Sal and Peppa have managed to survive a day or two in the wild, Ingrid has been there years – and through learning her story, I’m more than willing to bet she probably has. Heck, she’s probably still out there somewhere.

 

Sal probably won’t end up being my favourite book of 2018, but I suspect it will make a few people’s top tens quite easily – and I will certainly be packing it as my book to take to that desert island, if only to help me survive an extra day or two.

Sal will be published by Canongate in early 2018

A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
(Me)
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.

A(nother) Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks (yes, THAT Tom Hanks)

This is going to be a short review.

 

With the new collection of short stories from Tom Hanks, I have learned that short can sometimes be sweet.

 

Uncommon Type features a range of stories set all across America and a span of times. They are all connected by – of all things – typewriters.

 

Hanks is famous for collecting different types of typewriters. Well, that’s a lie – he’s famous for many, many films, but he is known by some to be a collector of different typewriters, and it’s through these machines that we view the different strands of Hanks’ collection.

 

This isn’t a book about typewriters though, it is – as I suspect most short story collections are – about the human condition. Perhaps most books are about that, but I think it’s more prevalent, more obvious in short stories.

 

There are some that are clear – like the one that is about a woman moving to a new neighbourhood and learning to look past her pre-conceptions – while there are others that take a little more thought, where their meaning is more subjective.

 

Some are thought-provoking, some are funny, but all of them are nice, distracting little vignettes.

 

When I wrote about Tin Man – I cited it as a short book, a mere two hundred pages – but the stories in here average about twenty pages, just a tenth of the size.

 

Short stories are not something you’re going to lose yourself in, it would be hard to lose yourself in their worlds for an extended period of time, but for those of us who don’t have much time, or want to fall in love with reading again this might be the place to start.

 

Uncommon Type is a beautiful collection of tales from a surprising – yet unsurprising – source. After all, is anyone truly astonished to discover that Hanks can write as well as everything else he can do?

 

Uncommon Type is published on 17th October by William Heinemann

A(nother) Review: This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

This Is Going to Hurt is an unexpectedly politically charged memoir from Dr Adam Kay. It starts with Kay being struck off the medical register – this is the story as to why he’s being struck off.[1]

 

Kay tells his story in diary form, all entries from his diaries at the time – although I suspect some entries have been omitted – with footnotes[2] added for context. [3]

 

Each section of the book takes us through Kay’s career in obs and gynae[4] job by job and brings us stories that are touching, bizzare and sometimes downright hilarious.

 

Some of the entries are only a few lines long, but often hysterical, others are longer but all of them are illuminating peeks into medical life that the likes of Holby City and Casualty[5] can’t quite deliver.

 

When I say hysterical, I cannot express how much I laughed at this – from the mildly amusing game of spotting the minor Harry Potter characters[6] to the exploration – literally! – of the different objects that people insist on inserting into themselves.[7]

 

There is only one problem I have with this book.[8] But I can see the reason why, I can begrudgingly accept their use here.[9]

 

Sadly, there is a reason why – other than sheer exhaustion – that Kay decided to leave the profession and the book gets less and less funny as we start to move through the years. I won’t spoil anything, but the book ends with an open letter addressed directly to Jeremy Hunt.

 

As a layman, this book seriously brings into focus the challenges our medics face, and how much we as a society take for advantage.

 

I was going to say that next time they go on strike, they would get my full support[10] but actually they shouldn’t have to go on strike. They shouldn’t be working 90+ hours. We should be spending more money on our NHS to help support these people. These heroes.

 

Sorry[11] for getting all political on there, but you should count yourselves lucky, the first version of this blog was mostly a political rant.

 

This Is Going to Hurt is published by Picador on 7th September 2017[12]

[1] The truth is, he resigned back in 2011, he hasn’t practiced for six years and his qualifications have lapsed. All of that is revealed in the opening paragraphs, so no spoilers, I was just trying to create a sense of intrigue.

[2] That’s these things at the bottom of the page

[3] Something I’m experimenting with on this blog post – and for this blog post only. Don’t worry.

[4] Vagina doctor

[5] Don’t get me wrong, I love the ‘Holby Cinematic Universe’ – a phrase that Marvel uses, and that I have borrowed – but they don’t quite always ring true. There can’t be THAT many gay doctors. Can there?

[6] A trick Kay uses to avoid mentioning real names, thereby avoiding lawsuits

[7] My favourite the person who put a condom on a remote control.

[8] The footnotes. I hate them. In most books. I mean they’re seriously distracting, I tend to lose track of what I’m reading each time I turn the page and see there are footnotes – because I’m then skimming ahead to see where the footnotes appear.

[9] The only use of footnotes, I actually liked were in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde – a series set in an alternate version of Swindon (really) in the 1980’s, where literature is alive. Thursday Next ends up using a device called a footnote-phone to have conversations. In this instance, the footnotes actually progress the story.

[10] Not that they didn’t last time, but I’ll mean it more this time.

[11] Not sorry.

[12] Buy it.

A(nother) Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I’m not sure whether to be offended or not.

 

I was recommended this book by someone (I shan’t mention her name, because she reads the blog, and it’ll annoy her that she doesn’t get a direct name-check) – on the basis that the main character reminded them of me.

 

In fairness, before I even read it, they clarified it was due to her strong opinions on sausage rolls and little else, still…

 

Eleanor Oliphant is, contrary to the title, NOT completely fine.

 

She is, truth be told, a little odd when we first meet her. She stays odd throughout, by the way, but we grow to love her.

 

We see the world through her eyes, and because the socially awkward things she does makes perfect sense to her, they make perfect sense to us.

 

We meet her just after she’s been to a concert, something that has happened to her completely by accident, but there she falls in love with the lead singer of the support act.

 

She decides, despite not having met him, that they are destined to be together, and it’s this that kick-starts her into exploring the modern world and learning how to live in it.

 

It’s through this exploration that we begin to learn more about Eleanor, but Eleanor also becomes more exposed to how the world works.

 

It seems like a really simple story, quite basic, but it’s the character of Eleanor that makes this an un-put downable, page-turning novel. It’s not about whether she meets Johnny and makes him fall in love with her, it’s about Eleanor falling in love with herself.

 

There are a huge number of laugh out loud moments, but there are some equally sad moments too, which is what sets this apart from other novels.

 

It’s the type of novel that I could recommend to anyone, there is no set genre, but the one novel I’m reminded most of is Elizabeth Is Missing not, I think, because of the content, but because of the feeling I was left with at the end.

 

Definitely one of the better reads of 2017

A(nother) Review: Yesterday by Felicia Yap

“…all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay…”

 

The problem with naming anything after such a famous song is that you’re always going to associate it with that song.

 

It took me a while to read Yesterday simply because I kept bursting into song every time I picked it up.

 

But when I did pick it up I found a really intriguing set-up. Let’s see if I can explain in a few short sentences…

 

We are in an alternative universe, where everything is identical, except for one key difference: nobody can remember anything that happened more than two days ago. Around two thirds of the population can only remember the past twenty-four hours, while a special third can remember forty-eight – it’s a bit like the old adage ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind, the one eyed-man is King’.

 

Here’s the thing, though… while they might not be able to remember, they can learn. Each night they write down the events of their day and they are able to retain certain facts. Think of a photo of yourself as a baby, on a day out at the beach. You don’t remember being there, but the fact that you were is something you know.

 

It’s a tricky concept to get your head round, but in two paragraphs, I hope I have been to explain it.

 

In the book, it took seven chapters before it clicked into place for me. The writer doesn’t try to explain this world to the reader, it is simply presented as ‘this is the way it is’ and it’s very confusing.

 

For instance, the main character is a novelist. A successful novelist.

 

How on that earth could a novelist be successful. There are very few of us that can read a novel in two days – especially if we were to spend the evening writing an update in our diaries.

 

Once the concept is explained, perhaps a little too late for the casual reader, we are left with a novel – at heart, that now classic domestic noir genre – with a strong central mystery.

 

It rumbles along at a decent pace and where this novel is unique is that the characters are as oblivious, or nearly as oblivious to the true events as we are.

 

At a deeper level, it raises some intriguing questions about the nature of memory, about whether we truly are better off not knowing, or if full photographic memory is a better way to live our lives.

 

What it doesn’t do is explore the notion of how our memories make us. The characters all have distinct personalities, which suggests their behaviours are learned, routine, but it doesn’t investigate this at all.

 

Can a person still be a moral person if they do not remember their morals? Are they still funny if they have no memory of ever being that person? Can you and should you be held responsible for something you don’t remember?

 

What the book does do, is collapse under it’s own weight. It’s a tricky concept, and combining it with a convoluted, almost Sunset Beach style revenge plot means that there are many things not clear.

 

The writer herself seems to realise this, by including a chapter at the end of the novel wherein the antagonist gives a blow by blow account of what they did and how they did it.

 

It ties the novel up neatly and leaves no questions, but a good book shouldn’t have that much exposition. It’s a bit like when a comedian has to tell you why a joke is funny.

 

Yesterday has a shaky start, a strong middle, but a dodgy ending that leaves a bad taste. It is an ambitious novel with a smart concept, it’s just perhaps a little too ambitious.

 

Yesterday is published by Wildfire on 10th August 2017

A(nother) Review: White Bodies by Jane Robins

This is a funny time of year. Something seems to happen at around May/June every year where I get book fatigue. Of reading them, of writing about them. I wonder if it’s weather related, or if it’s just burn out.

 

It could be because I tend to read books four or five months in advance of when they come out, and the autumn is a quieter time for Fiction. It tends to focus on the big blockbusters, which is fab for them, but they’re not the sort of books I read. (Although, I am looking forward to the new Stephen King: Sleeping Beauties)

 

I like discovering new writers, and there are only a few brand authors who I follow. So, much to my delight, a debut novel, set for publication in late December crossed my desk – White Bodies by Jane Robins

 

This is a book about Callie a bookseller who begins to worry about her vibrant actress sister, when she falls in love Felix and begins to retreat inside her self.

 

Worried that Felix is abusing her sister, Callie begins to investigate.

 

The book actually begins at Felix’s funeral, Callie herself worried her role in his death is going to get found out. His death is not the focal point of this story, it’s the relationship between her Callie and her sister Tilda.

 

What Callie doesn’t seem to realise is that as Tilda falls under the spell of Felix, Callie herself is freed from being in Tilda’s thrall.

 

What follows is a twisting, unexpected rollercoaster ride of a novel, which just as you think you know where it’s going sends you lurching off into another direction.

 

It’s a little tricky to keep up with at times, and the ending does have you flicking back through to understand how it all ties together.

 

At the end you are left feeling you do know what is going on, but there is some room for doubt. As a result, it is a little but unsatisfying, but it does keep you guessing all the way through.

 

Sometimes, it’s only as I write these reviews, that I can reconcile how I feel about these books, and ultimately, as I struggle to find something to say about this book, I realise that White Bodies has left me wanting.

 

It’s by no means a bad book – I’ve read much, much worse – but this is fairly average fare. A convoluted and confusing plot coupled with an odd lead character (she eats her sister’s hair) means there’s not a lot the reader can engage with.

 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the one to help me conquer my book fatigue.

 

White Bodies is published by HQ on 28th December 2017