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

A(nother) Review: Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah

When I’m considering whether I enjoyed a book or not, one of the factors I think about is the ending, did it all get resolved satisfactorily?

 

Endings are key because of the amount of time we’ve asked the reader to invest in order to get to them. It doesn’t mean they always need to be happy, but they do need to be believable.

 

I’ve not often considered beginnings, often because if they’re not good then I don’t tend to read them, but if I were to stop and consider them for a moment, they’re not quite the opposite of endings.

 

There is no rule to beginnings, again, they can be happy or sad or thrilling – and they don’t always need to inform the ending. You don’t have to have a sad beginning to have a happy ending, and just because you’re having a sad ending, it doesn’t mean everyone should be laughing gaily at the beginning of the book.

 

A beginning is a promise to the reader.

 

This mystery I’m presenting to you will be resolved by the end of the book

This man grieving for his wife will have found some form of peace

This murder will be solved.

 

But as well as making promises about the content, it also makes a promise with regards to the quality of the book.

 

A strong beginning must deliver a strong ending, if it doesn’t the promise is broken and an unpleasant after taste can be left by even the best of books.

 

Which brings me to the newest one from Sophie Hannah – Did You See Melody?

 

I’ve not read any Sophie Hannah books before, but when this proof passed my desk, I thought I’d give it a go.

 

It does, indeed have a strong beginning. Cara Burrows has fled to a luxury resort, needing a break from her family, her home. Her problem, unknown to us, is big enough to warrant ransacking her savings account and just leaving in the middle of the night.

 

When she arrives at the spa, tired and needing sleep, a mistake by the receptionist sends her to the wrong room. A room, that she later learns, contains a girl who looks very much like Melody Chapa. Melody Chapa, whose parents are serving life sentences for her murder seven years previously.

 

Cara becomes obsessed with the case and with the help of another guest at the resort she begins to learn more and more about the mystery of Melody Chapa.

 

It’s a great mystery, one that certainly keeps the reader interested, but about a third of the way through, Cara starts to behave oddly. And not in a necessarily believable way.

 

It’s almost like she becomes a plot device, a viewpoint through which the reader can see the mystery. She uses full names of minor witnesses in the Melody case in casual conversations with other characters, and she later behaves in a way that doesn’t fit the character we were introduced to at the beginning.

 

And that’s before we find out the reason why she walked out on her family. A reason to which emptying the savings account and flying across the world, abandoning your family seems a little bit of an overreaction.

 

The book becomes more about the Melody Chapa case (which to be fair, is what is promised by the title) and less about Cara.

 

Speaking of… the resolution to the Melody case is deliciously twist-y and one that you won’t see coming, but you won’t be able to pick any holes in it either.

 

The problem with this book is that the beginning promises a book about Cara Burrows, and somewhere in the middle it shifts almost exclusively onto Melody.

 

Sophie Hannah delivers a strong ending and a strong beginning, but the middle kind of meanders a bit and means that the ending doesn’t seem to belong to the beginning, which is a shame because the central mystery itself is so well plotted.

A(nother) Review: How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb

 

After last week declaring that I didn’t read much Non Fiction, I went straight into reading another Non Fiction title. It’s not something I would have normally done, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back into a Fiction book, however, the subject of the book was irresistible, particularly after reading Sara Pascoe’s Animal.

 

Animal was part-memoir part text book about the female body and mind and society’s attitudes towards it.

 

How Not to Be A Boy to me felt like it might be the same from a male point of view, so jumping straight into it from Animal felt like the perfect thing to do.

 

Initially, I was a little disappointed, but that disappointment comes from my own expectations, promises that were made by neither the author or the publisher.

 

It is much more of a traditional memoir, an exploration of how Webb grew up feeling different to his father and brothers, and how he felt that meant he wouldn’t fall into the same traps as them.

 

Men don’t talk about their feelings. One of the many possible chapter headings that Webb could have used is the over-arching feeling to this book, and while this is not fictional, it’s been structured and written to make the reader realise that at a young age Webb realises all of these so-called rules are bullshit, but he ends up believing and attempting to adhere to them anyway.

 

The chapters are both funny and sad, often at both at the same time, and in fiction Webb would be an unreliable narrator – just when you’re starting to think he’s being a giant cock to everyone, he reveals something else that has been going on in the background that explains it all.

 

I was a little frustrated as we got towards the last chapter, Webb has talked about his relationships with women and his wife and daughters, but had barely touched upon his bisexuality, apart from a small fumble with a friend back in school.

 

Nor has he offered any potential solutions to this problem of fragile masculinity that he’s explored throughout the book.

 

But then in the last chapter, he talks about how he finally told his dad that he liked boys as well. He mentions boyfriends – that we as readers didn’t meet – and his brother already knows, we don’t find out how. For Webb, obviously, the most important factor of his bisexuality is his father’s reaction – and it’s an interesting one, not one that we would expect.

 

As for how we change these unspoken rules, Webb presents the solution in his parenting of his two young daughters. Change yourself, and instill different  attitudes in your children.

 

His family openly talks about ‘The Trick’ this idea that men have to be a certain way, and how both men and women are fooled into believing it. Feminism, he writes, is not about men vs women, it’s about men and women vs the trick.

 

It’s a brilliant ending to the book, one that neatly ties up the various hanging questions he has left dangling in previous chapters.

 

I went into the book expecting part-memoir, part lecture on masculinity, and was initially disappointed that it was more of a memoir than I was expecting. I leave it wanting more memoir.

 

The funny, and surprisingly touching How Not To be A Boy is published on 29th August 2017 by Canongate

A(nother) Review: Animal by Sara Pascoe

I don’t read non fiction very much, but when I’m travelling on a train, I’ve discovered it’s the best kind of read  – you can dip in and out of it at a moment’s notice and quickly pick up from where you left off as you jump on the tube.

 

The only trouble is I don’t travel alone on a train very often.

 

For the past four months I’ve been reading Animal by Sara Pascoe – which may seem like an odd choice for a gay man, seeing as it is, as subtitled An Autobiography of a Female Body.

 

Pascoe, however, has always made me laugh, so I thought I’d give this a go, and I wasn’t disappointed.

 

The book is a semi-autobiographical exploration of what it means to be a woman in the twenty first century. It’s told through the guise of explaining how the female body works, but in reality, it is a story of how it got to where it is today, and how it works in a modern context.

 

It’s split into three sections: Love; Body; Consent

 

Love is perhaps the most interesting, exploring the concept of why women – and to a lesser extent men – fall in love with the people they do. It explores the evolutionary advantages of falling in love, and has a stab at explaining why we do it and other animals don’t.

 

Body, as you might guess deals with the parts of the body that are female specific, and the processes that occur in them. There’s a lot of talk of vaginas in it, which is an area I have very little experience with – nor do I want much experience with.

 

I don’t like thinking about other people’s bodies but Pascoe’s humour dealt with it in the right way, letting me learn about the whole topic without making me too uncomfortable. However, I think the only way I got through the page with the sketch of a vagina on it was the clear discomfort of the businessman who happened to be sitting next to me.

 

Consent was perhaps the most powerful and thought provoking section of the book. It investigates the laws around rape and considers the concept of consent, as well as the age of consent.

 

For instance, consider the following questions:

 

  • In the UK, a person who is fifteen years old and eleven months cannot consent to sex. A person who is two months older can. What happens in that two-month period to educate them? If there is no difference between them – at what point is a person physically and mentally able to consent to sex?

 

  • Person X wakes up next to Person Y who is still sleeping and proceeds to wake Person Y by initiating sex. Person Y is literally – as Pascoe says – shagged awake. At that point, Person Y joins in, passionate and enthusiastic. But Person X did not gain consent until the point at which Person Y was awake. Prior to that, was the act sexual assault? Can consent be given retrospectively? And does this precedence give Person X permission to try the same thing again the next morning?

 

This is all quite heavy stuff, but Sara Pascoe presents it all with a humour that makes it readable in a way that makes you not quite realise that it might be changing the way you think – not necessarily just about consent, but about all manner of things.

 

It would make a fascinating read for any person, I’m sure, but for men this provides an incredible insight into worlds we know nothing about.

 

Plus it’s funny.

A(nother) Review: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Back in February I read the latest Frank Cottrell-Boyce and I said he was one of those authors that I ought to have read before.

 

This latest one is of a similar ilk. I really ought to have read Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman long before now.

 

It’s taken the announcement of The Book of Dust – which is neither sequel or prequel, rather an equal – to make me finally get around to it.

 

For those of you that don’t know, Northern Lights is about a young girl named Lyra who lives in an alternate version of Oxford, where ever human has a constant companion, a dæmon. In adulthood the dæmon’s form is permanent, but in childhood the dæmon switches through various animal guises.

 

The dæmons – Lyra’s is named Pan – are seen as a physical manifestation of the soul of a person.

 

As an orphan, looked after by the scholars of Jordan College, Lyra’s bond with Pan is more precious than most.

 

When children start going missing, Lyra embarks on a journey to find her absent friend Roger.

 

It becomes quite the adventure with Lyra not quite aware of how high the stakes have risen.

 

Lyra is a good character, but she is the only constant one – apart from Pan, who doesn’t seem to be used as much as he should be – and with any book, a large revolving cast of secondary characters becomes confusing at times.

 

The plot – the missing children, and the mystery of dust – is intriguing and keeps the pages turning, but Lyra is such a hard and matter of fact character that the emotional impacts of the twists and betrayals don’t resonate. This is despite the fact that the character witnesses some quite gruesome events… she barely cares.

 

The ending is… odd, a definite set up for the next book, but no sense of conclusion or resolution to many of the events that occur.

 

Will I read the next two in the series? I’m not in any rush to. I’ll probably watch the television adaptation later this year, and the idea of a Pullman enriching his world via new companion novel does intrigue me, so it’s not a straight out never.

 

But this might be why I’ve never read Pullman before – there are many other, better things to read first.

A(nother) Rambling: Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit #GrippedByFear

Never judge a book by it’s cover.

 

I’ve probably started a blog post with that phrase before. Over the last couple of years, I feel I’ve covered every last literary cliché in the book (that there might have been the last one), but bear with me. After all, like books, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.

 

Having said that, in my job you do have to judge a book by it’s cover, sometimes that’s all there’s time for. I personally get around 200 books pass across my desk a year that pique my interest. At the rate of one a week, I can only actually read a quarter of those.

 

I have to use something to tell them apart. Often, it is the recommendation of someone I trust, someone who knows my reading style.

 

Sometimes, it’s the cover.

 

In the case of Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit, it was a little of both.

 

Posted by a colleague (who reads this blog and will get a kick out of seeing her name, therefore I won’t mention it… let’s just call her “Ginger Spice”), the back cover which simply promises ‘Become an accessory to murder’ – pulled me in, coupled with, what is a striking, unique cover.

 

Ginger Spice usually has the same taste in books as me, so I went with it and managed to get hold of a copy.

 

Sitting down to read it, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I was expecting a pacy thriller, maybe a psychological thriller that became commonplace after Girl on the Train was released.

 

At the very beginning we know that our ‘hero’ has assisted in the murder of his neighbour. His father shot him. We even know the motive.

 

This is something Ginger Spice pointed out to me – there seems to be no mystery, no reason to read on, and yet… we do. This book is compelling. The hashtag the publicists are using is #GrippedByFear

 

I agree with the first part, gripped. As we explore Randolph’s history with his father, his family… with Dieter, their downstairs neighbour. There’s something here pulling us on. Just what was it that finally pushed Randolph over the edge to contract his father to kill.

 

I’m not sure ‘Fear’ is the right word, though. The book is translated from German, and I can’t help but wonder if it was originally one of those German words that doesn’t have a direct English translation.

 

Sure, there is an element of fear that Randolph experiences, both as a young boy in the presence of his father, and for his young family. But it’s not something the reader experiences.

 

The bad guy is dead at the beginning of the book, there’s no fear that he will win, because we know that he doesn’t. Whatever he does do, it doesn’t lead to the total destruction of Randolph’s life.

 

So, what is the feeling the reader is left with?

 

That famous German word for which there’s no direct translation – Schadenfreude – the feeling of pleasure when some misfortune befalls someone else, it’s not that. But maybe it’s something similar?

 

Some kind of pre-schadenfreude. The anticipation of something bad happening to someone else? The idea that Dieter is going to earn his comeuppance that we’ve been promised in the opening pages.

 

As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover – or it’s title, or even it’s hashtag – sometimes it delivers more than it promises. Having said that Fear is a better title than Pre-schadenfreude.

 

Fear will be published by Orion in January 2018 (Sorry – perk of the job… look out for it then, it will make a wonderful January read!)

A(nother) Review: The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

 

What even is a guilty pleasure? If we enjoy something… why should we feel guilty about it?

 

It was the phrase guilty pleasure that came to me when I started reading The Four Legendary Kingdoms by Matthew Reilly.

 

It is the fourth in a series of books that started with Seven Ancient Wonders back in 2005. They follow the adventures of Captain Jack West who dashes around the world solving riddles and uncovering the earth’s greatest secrets.

 

It was followed by The Six Sacred Stones in 2007 and The Five Greatest Warriors in 2009. Seven years later, and we’re finally halfway through the series.

 

They are thrillers in every sense of the word, they follow the traditional short chapters and lack of exposition and description. But Four Legendary Kingdoms deals with all that by only giving is what is necessary for the plot.

 

The plot is king. There is little time for feeling or for the characters to naval gaze. They are the complete opposite to the books I normally enjoy which focus more on character than plot, which I guess is why I describe them as a guilty pleasure.

 

But despite them being everything I normally don’t enjoy… I love these books. They are actually incredibly creative, taking myths and legends and historical facts that already exist and building a what-if world around them.

 

It takes a lot of skill to do that, and while they might be easy reads, they can’t be easy to write.

 

It’s hard to tell you what The Four Legendary Kingdoms is actually about without revealing too much, but West wakes to find himself, kidnapped, cut off of from his friends, in a cell, facing a minotaur. He escapes only to find himself in an arena with fifteen other men, all of them competing in deadly challenges.

 

The series of books are best described as Dan Brown-esque. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code along with the rest of the world, but I found I enjoyed Matthew Reilly’s work more.

 

I called The Four Legendary Kingdoms a guilty pleasure but now I feel guilty for saying that. They are wonderful books that I thoroughly enjoy. They are fun romps that make you completely engage with all the characters, even with the limited exploration of their inner selves.

 

I can’t wait for the next book, but with eight years between the last two, I might have to wait a while.

 

At this rate, GRR Martin will have finished his Song of Ice and Fire series before we get to the last in the Jack West series (presumably entitled …And A Partridge in a Pear Tree).

A(nother) Review: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Just how do you follow up a phenomenal bestseller like Girl on the Train? Any author would find it difficult, but when said phenomenon was your first stab at writing a thriller, the prospect of a second one can probably be a bit daunting.

 

How does Paula Hawkins do it? By doing something completely different.

 

The most obvious difference is that Girl on the Train was a first-person narrative, told from the point of view of three different women, while Hawkins’ second thriller Into The Water uses multiple viewpoints (I lost count at ten) and switches between first and third person.

 

There are some downsides to this approach. Most obviously, it’s a little confusing. The short chapters associated with thrillers of this type, and the switching of viewpoints, means that within the first seventy pages or so, we’ve been introduced to a LOT of people.

 

Each chapter is helpfully headed up with the name of the character we’re inhabiting at that point, but after their first introduction they are subsequently only introduced with their first name. I’d have found last names helpful for a little longer, just so I could keep track or just who was related to who.

 

However, there are some plus sides too. We quickly explore the community of Beckford and it helps push the plot forward at a good speed and adds to the paranoia and intrigue of the overriding mystery.

 

Speaking of the plot… what is it?

 

Local woman Nel Abbott is found dead in a nearby river – the river itself has a long, sad history of women dying in it, a history that Nel was investigating for a book. A few weeks prior to Nel’s death a local girl Katie was also found dead in the same stretch of water.

 

Are their deaths connected? Were they both suicides? Is something more sinister going on? Something… supernatural?

 

The structure of the book means the mysteries come thick and fast, and so, subsequently, do the the revelations at the end of the book – some of them expected, some of them not.

 

Here’s the big question… Did I enjoy it?

 

It’s certainly a compelling, page-turning novel and I think better than Girl on the Train. Like it’s predecessor it will make a good adaptation from page to screen, although in the case of Into The Water, a television mini-series would probably work better.

 

The other big question, will it reach the same sales peak? Probably not. Although a better book, Girl on the Train had a cracking title and caught a wave of popularity that is almost impossible to recapture when it’s not a continuing series.

 

There’s a line in the book “When you hear hooves, you look for horses, but you can’t discount zebras.”

 

It’s a well-phrased line that made me think. Expect the unexpected. I was expecting not to enjoy Into The Water as much as I did. I was wrong.

A(nother) Review: How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

The American President is a motherfucker.

 

Just one of the lines from Matt Haig’s new novel, How To Stop Time, which forces you to stop time, stop reading, and laugh out loud.

 

The story is a relatively simple one, but one that I’ve been eager to read since I first heard about it last year. Tom Hazard is old. He’s very old. Four hundred and thirty-nine to be precise.

 

He has a are condition that causes him to age at about a fifteenth of the rate of everyone else, which sounds rather excellent at first, because we’re all a little bit scared of death, and this man will get to live – probably – for a thousand years.

 

Except… everyone else isn’t aging at the same rate. His parents, his friends, those he love. They all die, will die, eventually, while he’ll live on.

 

We join him at the beginning of a new life. Tom periodically, along with others of his kind, starts again, as people become suspicious of his never-changing youthful appearance. As he navigates the new relationships, trying to avoid becoming too attached, we learn about his history, about his wife long-since dead, his past encounters with famous writers and poets… and his daughter who MAY still be alive.

 

Any novel that plays with time is expected to be a little convoluted, hard to follow, but this is such an easy read – because while time is long, there is no time travel in it, the pieces we read of Tom’s past are like the flashbacks we see in any contemporary novel – they’re just to a much earlier time.

 

I found the principle of the story intriguing, just how can someone cope with that much loss in their life, what propels him to keep going when year after year the people around him are dying, the history of the world is repeating itself over and over again.

 

The answer, we learn, is hope.

 

Hope that his daughter may still be alive, hope for a better life, where one day he can be open about who he is.

 

If you follow Matt Haig on Twitter, you’ll appreciate this book on another level. There are references to the trolls he encounters on a daily basis who attack him for being a snowflake, and there is an underlying political point that Haig is making in this novel – but if you miss those, then that’s ok – it’s still a wonderful book.

 

It is a testament to the writing that a book like this can work. Much of what we have is exposition, historical narrative explaining who Tom is, with the plot only really going up a gear towards the end. But a skilled writer like Haig can just sweep you along in the writing – and it takes a certain special something to make a reader instantly remember the name of an obscure character mentioned briefly at the beginning of the book when they later pop up again.

 

If I had one criticism… I wanted more. I could have stayed learning about Tom’s history for pages and pages more. We skip over years and years – because as implied there were great periods of nothing happening.

 

Perhaps a sequel?

 

How To Stop Time is published on 6th July by Canongate

A(nother) Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Do you have a book case? Most people do in some form or another.

 

And I’m assuming because you are reading a blog about a book, then you do too. (Unless I’ve tricked you into coming to this website by adding in some random tags like ‘Beyonce’ or ‘Zoella’) Whether you have one book or a hundred, or twenty thousand (Jacqueline Wilson claimed this last week), you’ll have somewhere in your home that is the home for books.

 

But how many of you us ever re-read a book? I’ve got around 200 books on my bookshelf. All of them there for different reasons, they’re either signed books, or someone special gave them to me, or they remind me of a friend.

 

Or they’re just a very special book.

 

The truth is, apart from the Harry Potters last year, I don’t re-read any of them –  which kind of makes you ask… why do we keep them?

 

Maybe it’s the memories the bring back when we look at them on the shelf. Maybe it’s to show off to our friends… or maybe we know one day we’ll need them again.

 

I was recently in the mood for a book I could trust. I’d just finished Little Deaths which… I didn’t love. I found it hard going. It took me two weeks, when most books take me on average around five days.

 

In the middle, I read Tinman by Sarah Winman which I loved. So, I was left in a position where I was going to find it hard to find a book to match up to the one I’d just read and loved, but I needed to find that I knew I would enjoy more than the other one I’d just read.

 

So I turned to my book shelf for a book I could trust. And that’s where I found The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, a book that I hadn’t read in over twelve years.

 

For those hat don’t know, the plot concerns Henry DeTamble who first meet his wife, Clare, when he is 29 in the library he works in. She first meets him when he travels back in time and lands in the field outside her family home.

 

Henry is a time traveler, not through choice, but through a random genetic defect. He can’t control it, nor does he know the cause. Largely, he travels back to places along his own timeline.

 

This is the story of the Doctor and River Song long before Steven Moffatt came along, and told in a much simpler way. The trick, is not to follow the time traveler, but to follow time itself.

 

Niffenegger tells us the story of Henry and Clare in a largely chronological way, often this means that the Henry we see is both older and younger than the previous and subsequent versions of Henry that we’ll see.

 

At it’s heart, this is a love story, an exploration of fate versus free will. Like all good books, it explores that one emotion that binds us all. The one that defines all of our lives. Love.

 

And it’s just so effortlessly perfect, and simple, and sad and happy, and everything all at once. There are sometimes, just one too many peripheral characters to keep up with, but this is an inevitability when you’re exploring the whole lives of two people.

 

Re-reading The Time Traveler’s Wife was like a warm hug, like seeing an old friend. It sounds cheesy, but these are clichés because they happen.

 

If you’ve never read The Time Traveler’s Wife then it would always have been at the top of my recommendation list, so go read it now.

 

If you have read it before, maybe it’s a trip back in time (geddit?) and read it again? Alternatively, give your bookcase purpose again, visit it and pick up another book that you love, one that you trust, but haven’t read in years and rediscover the reason why you decided to keep it hanging around in the first place.