Friday, 20 September 2013

Review: Diary of a Nobody, George & Weedon Grossmith

Diary of a Nobody

George Grossmith and Weedon Grossmith

Kindle edition; first published 1892

'Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see -- because I do not happen to be "Somebody" -- why my diary should not be interesting.' 

Diary of a Nobody is exactly that - the private musings of Charles Pooter, an ordinary man recording the minutiae of his daily life. Luckily for the reader, Pooter is often unintentionally funny - his self-importance, constant anxiety, and frustration at everyone around him makes this a very funny book. If only I had been more aware of that fact before reading it on the train to work... As it stands, I was the one trying to suppress a laugh every time one of Pooter's visitors tripped over the door frame. (Must get scraper fixed.)

The events in the diary do not build to a big conclusion - instead, the book is taken up with parties and gatherings, social embarrassments, some disastrous moments with a tin of enamel paint, the return of the Pooters' difficult son Lupin (formerly known as Willie), a less-than-thrilling holiday to Broadstairs, and a round of seances that Pooter first dismisses, then later decides might have some credibility after all. This episode neatly sums up Pooter's contrariness, his desire to fit in that rubs up against his disdain for new-fangled ideas.

Pooter is unintentionally hilarious - the book itself is a comic delight, and destined to make you laugh out loud on crowded public transport.

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Free on Kindle.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Review: The Hive, Gill Hornby

The Hive

Gill Hornby

Little, Brown, 2013

Welcome to St Ambrose Primary School. A world of friendships, fights and feuding. And that's just the mothers.

It's the start of another school year at St Ambrose. But while the children are in the classroom colouring in, their mothers are learning sharper lessons on the other side of the school gates. Lessons in friendship. Lessons in betrayal. Lessons in the laws of community, the transience of power... and how to get invited to lunch.

The Hive centres on the school gates of a primary school, where a group of women spend a year negotiating old friendships and forging new ones, dealing with domestic grief and domestic bliss, worrying about their children, and fundraising their arses off. Bea, the 'Queen Bee', rules the group, delegating all the work and taking all the credit, and making everyone feel like crap while she's doing it (unless you're one of the chosen ones, of course). Rachel, the main character, exists on the periphery of the group, alongside Heather (desperately eager to please) and Georgie (couldn’t give a shit) and a host of other mums, including posh newbie Bubba and mysterious, unflappable Melissa.

The Hive sounded interesting – the ups and downs of female friendship, and what seemed like great potential for a bit of black humour. There are some sharp, well-observed parts early on that had me hoping for something a bit dark and wicked underneath this middle-class-suburban-yummy-mummies scenario.

Instead, I got an annoying hive metaphor (I GET IT) and a lot of “meh”. The well-observed seemed to descend into stereotype a few too many times for my liking. There were too many instances of women saying “lolz” out loud (and really, one instance would have been too many), and a really weird scene where all the women apparently stood on a table to compare body fat. Er.

The Hive had promise, but for the most part failed to deliver. I felt like I was “about halfway through” for days on end. The book takes the reader through a school year, focusing for the most part on different fundraising occasions, that highlight the in/out cliquey nature of the group and the changing dynamics of the relationships. There were some good bits – Heather’s health scare, and Bea’s engineering of it so it was all about her, stood out and seemed sharp. But somewhere around the midway point, the romance element pops up, and the book started pulling in two different directions. (And the ending was just aggravating – neat and sugary and a little bit deflating.)

The Hive is okay, and not a bad debut – it just lacked the punch that I felt it could have had. An interesting observation of friendship and its complicated dynamics, but in the end it was inconsequential at best.

Overall rating: 5/10

Book source: Received as a gift.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin

The Stepford Wives

Ira Levin

Kindle edition; first published 1972

For Joanna, her husband, Walter, and their children, the move to beautiful Stepford seems almost too good to be true. It is. For behind the town's idyllic facade lies a terrible secret--a secret so shattering that no one who encounters it will ever be the same.

At once a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a savage commentary on a media-driven society that values the pursuit of youth and beauty at all costs, 'The Stepford Wives' is a novel so frightening in its final implications that the title itself has earned a place in the American lexicon.

This was a re-read for me, and one that I think was actually better the second time around. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their family have moved to the idyllic town of Stepford, leaving behind a city that Joanna in particular loves: New York. A professional photographer and active member of the women's movement, Joanna is keen to meet like-minded neighbours, only to find that Stepford is not exactly a bastion of progression. While Walter ingratiates himself at the local Men's Association, Joanna is left dealing with women who'd rather buff their floors to within an inch of their lives than venture beyond their own doorsteps.

The Stepford Wives is fantastic and disturbing and, above all, chilling. Levin doesn't need monsters and things that go bump in the night: he just needs to create a situation that is both ludicrous and not ludicrous enough to dismiss. As Joanna starts to piece things together and gets closer to unravelling the mystery of Stepford, he conclusions seem both ridiculous and... possible. It is that hint of the possible that makes The Stepford Wives work, and makes it so effective in the process.

On a second reading, I was able to spot the seeds that Levin plants from the very beginning, all of which come together later in the plot to great effect. The Stepford Wives deals in the limits of a society's views on women and their 'place', in the value we place on beauty and youth and silence, and (as Chuck Palahniuk points out in the introduction) is still as relevant today as when it was written.

And that final chapter is still like being punched in the stomach.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Purchased from

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Review: The Inspector and Silence, Hakan Nesser

The Inspector and Silence (Inspector Van Veeteren #5)

Håkan Nesser

Pan, 2011 (1997)

In the heart of summer, the country swelters in a fug of heat. In the beautiful forested lake-town of Sorbinowo, Sergeant Merwin Kluuge's tranquil existence is shattered when he receives a phone-call from an anonymous woman. She tells him that a girl has gone missing from the summer camp of the mysterious The Pure Life, a religious sect buried deep in the woods. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is recruited to help solve the mystery. But Van Veeteren's investigations at The Pure Life go nowhere fast. The strange priest-like figure who leads the sect -Oscar Yellineck- refuses even to admit anyone is missing. 

Things soon take a sinister turn, however, when a young girl's body is discovered in the woods, raped and strangled; and Yellineck himself disappears. Yet even in the face of these new horrors, the remaining members of the sect refuse to co-operate with Van Veeteren, remaining largely silent. As the body count rises, a media frenzy descends upon the town and the pressure to find the monster behind the murders weighs heavily on the investigative team. Finally Van Veeteren realises that to solve this disturbing case, faced with silence and with few clues to follow, he has only his intuition to rely on...

Inspector Van Veeteren is thinking about retirement, but before he can tender his resignation and take up work in an antique bookshop, he has an investigation to head up. Van Veeteren is two weeks from a Greek island holiday, and he's desperately hoping the case will be solved by then. Unfortunately, nothing about this case seems particularly straightforward. A religious sect in the forest, a dead teenage girl, a so-called prophet who seems to have an unhealthy interest in the young girls in his case, and a wall of silence that thwarts the police at every turn.

This was my second Van Veeteren book, and my feelings were similar: pretty good, but nothing astounding. Van Veeteren comments on more than one occasion that it would be great if something exciting happened, or a breakthrough occurred out of nowhere, but that would be too much like the movies. Nesser's point is one of realism: a real police investigation is less than glamorous, often plodding, and in this case rests on the mundane details and careful thinking of VV, who is often torn between trusting his instincts and trying to figure out what his instincts are based on. VV is a good cop character, but the book was a little slow in places and chugged along at quite a sedate pace for most of it. I wanted to know what had happened, but the journey wasn't always that thrilling.

The religious sect aspect was quite interesting, although we only really got to see it through the eyes of VV, who tried to balance rumours with the sparse amounts of information he could get out of its remaining members. There were also a LOT of secondary characters, most of them police officers, and all the names started to merge together - I haven't read the whole series, but it didn't seem like there was enough room for any of them to develop a character.

A reasonable mystery, but after two Nesser books I'm left thinking there are better Scandinavian crime novelists out there - time to go back to Mankell, maybe.

Overall rating: 5.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This counts towards my 2013 Translation Challenge.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Review: Dark Places, Gillian Flynn

Dark Places

Gillian Flynn

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009

I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived—and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details—proof they hope may free Ben—Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club...and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members—including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer.

I was drawn to Dark Places for two reasons. Firstly, it was the only remaining Flynn book I hadn't read, and after the brilliance of Gone Girl and the solid debut that was Sharp Objects, I felt like I had to give this a try too. Secondly, the main characters are a brother/sister duo, and as I've said before, I like seeing how authors construct that relationship.

I think it sits well between Sharp Objects (good, but not great) and Gone Girl (fantastic) in terms of the plot, the characters, and what it sets out to achieve. Half of the story is told from Libby Day's point of view - an adult woman who, as a child, survived the massacre of her family on their Kansas farm, and subsequently sent her older brother Ben to jail on her testimony. Libby's chapters alternate with flashback chapters told from the perspective of Ben and their mother Patty.

Libby is, understandably, a bit of a pain in the arse and not a particularly pleasant person to be around. She's not the sympathetic, brave victim the newspapers would love; instead, she lives in near-squalor, bitter and reclusive, and is only spurred into action by the realisation that the Libby Day Fund is running out fast. Badgered into re-treading the murders by a group who believe Ben is innocent, Libby starts to attempt to unravel the mystery of her family's death, and what role her brother really played in it.

The flashback chapters really add to the pacing of the novel - while Libby is picking apart clues in the present, the reader is reliving the day of the murders, a day that gradually spirals out of control as the book progresses. The Days are at the mercy of some pretty grim circumstances, and the despair radiates off the page. I kind of wanted them all to run somewhere, but there aren't a lot of places to run.

The ending is satisfying - I'm not sure it's a twist, as such, but it was largely unexpected and I was hooked throughout. Not a cheerful book, by any means - there are plenty of dark places that this book goes - but another solid, gripping thriller from Flynn.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Review: Girl Reading, Katie Ward

Girl Reading

Katie Ward

Virago, 2011

Seven portraits. Seven artists. Seven girls and women reading. A young orphan poses nervously for a Renaissance maestro in medieval Siena, and an artist's servant girl in 17th-century Amsterdam snatches a moment away from her work to lose herself in tales of knights and battles. A young woman reading in a Shoreditch bar catches the eye of a young man who takes her picture, and a Victorian medium holds a book that she barely acknowledges while she waits for the exposure. Each chapter of this richly textured debut takes us into a perfectly imagined tale of how each portrait came to be, and as the connections accumulate, the narrative leads us into the present and beyond - an inspired celebration of women reading and the artists who have caught them in the act.

Rating this book made me conscious of how I'm not entirely sure rating books is always useful. At times, when I was reading it, this book felt like a 5 star read. Other times, I wanted to throw it out the window and move onto one of numerous other books sitting there, imploring me, "Cut your losses. Come join us."

The blurb sums the book up neatly - seven stories, all focusing on a girl (or woman) reading. These stories are interspersed throughout history, crossing time and place to bring different - unlinked - characters into focus. The final story is the connecting point, but for me that didn't really alter my view of the book. It's an interesting way of drawing things together, and it made me conscious of myself as the reader of these stories (and essentially, I suppose, as another 'girl reading'), but it's not a twist, and it doesn't change what has come before. The final story was actually my least favourite - I didn't feel like I needed things to be drawn together, and it was the least compelling part for me.

Most of the stories I really enjoyed. Ward is a great writer - not showy, but evocative and considered, and the stories are well-crafted. My favourite story was Jeannine's (Shoreditch, 2008), perhaps because of it's contemporary setting, and I enjoyed the stories featuring the psychic sisters (Victorian England), and the Dutch servant. The opening story, set in 14th century Siena, didn't grab me so much, so perhaps the book and I didn't get off to the greatest of starts.

The problem was that I felt like I should be enjoying it more than I was. It's worth mentioning that the speech isn't in speechmarks at any point, and although I can see how it might be effective (in an immersive sort of way), it's actually quite irritating, and I kept having to stop to work out who was speaking. It's a very good book, but not one that grabbed me and held on. I felt lukewarm towards it throughout (probably with the exception of Jeannine's story), and knowing that the characters would only be around for a certain amount of pages meant there was never much investment in them. It felt like a book you should be able to immerse yourself in, and yet there wasn't enough appeal for me to give myself up to it - instead, I found myself willing the end to come so I could read something else.

I don't want to end on a totally negative note, because this is a well-written collection of stories, capturing various points in time and exploring the emotion and actions that lie beneath. As a woman who reads (and reads and reads), it was nice to see a kaleidoscope of other women doing exactly the same thing, and what might be going on behind the scenes.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library (on my mum's recommendation).

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Showcase Sunday #32

Last week, I found out I won a book - Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham - via a competition on Vicky's blog, and it arrived from the publishers at Orion this week!

It has a cool double cover going on...
Looking forward to reading this one, it's been a while since I've read a crime novel that really grabbed me and I'm hoping this one will be good.

I also bought Mendelssohn is on the Roof by the Czech author Jiří Weil - this caught my eye a while ago in the Kindle sale but I resisted at the time. When I looked again, I noticed it has a foreword by my favourite author, Philip Roth, so I decided to treat myself. :)

It's also been a week of adventures - term starts soon and I'll be teaching 3 days a week, and researching the other two days, so I've been trying to cram in as much as possible before then. I spent the week in Brighton with the boy, and we biked to Peacehaven and back (about 12 miles round trip), along the coast path.

This weekend one of my best friends came to stay and we drove to Wales - the border isn't too far from Birmingham, and despite having lived halfway around the world I've never actually set foot in Wales before! The scenery was pretty amazing, and we got to see the Knighton Carnival in action...

Recent reviews:
All The Summer Girls by Meg Donohue (7/10)
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld (9.5/10)

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.