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

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.