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.

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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.