Sunday, 28 August 2016

Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy

This is one of the titles on The Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist (shortlist announced 15th October, winner announced 24th October). I try to read at least one of the titles each year. Last year I read A Little Life - I thought it was going to win, it was shockingly (literally) brilliant. Alas (for me), the winner was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Unfortunately for me, the one book I chose to read from the longlist I did not enjoy at all. There were too many things that annoyed me which spoiled it for me. It didn't help that I really didn't like one of the main characters, Jon. But let me tell you a brief outline of the story.

It's set in London over a 24-hour period. It is Friday 10th April. Jon Sigurdsson is 59, divorced, works for the government as some sort of spindoctor for one of the ministers (I think), and he is a very anxious, worrisome person. He was not shown love by his mother when he was young - he was sent off to boarding school, then Cambridge - then he was made a fool of by his wife, Valerie (she was an adulteress). This lack of love has affected him throughout his life, he doesn't feel worthy of anyone's love, thinks he'll mess it up, so he's afraid of entering into another relationship. He discovers a way of showing love to a person without having to actually meet them. He advertises his services as a letter writer to women who need to feel loved and wanted. He collects responses from a PO Box address in Mayfair. He has a very low opinion of himself, and work colleagues seem to hold the same view of him also. He is losing faith with the meaning of his work - so much so that he pays regular visits to the Natural History Museum and leaves secret notes with state secrets to a journalist.

Meg Williams is 45 years old, lives on Telegraph Hill, works at an animal shelter in the admin office. She is a recovering alcoholic, is paranoid, and she suffers bouts of depression - so much so, she was disappointed if she were to wake up in the morning. She attends support groups. She is foul-tempered and foul-mouthed. But we get a sense that she is trying to get her life back together. She goes to the cinema, regularly watches the sunrise on the Hill, and has answered an ad for receiving letters. She decides to reply to one of the letters, saying in the letter "I have what you write in my head all the time. It's sweet. It's serious and sweet."

So the story is set up with Jon and Meg, each only just coping with living their own lives, and suddenly finding themselves thrown together. Will their relationship survive? 

A lot more goes on in the 24 hours than just their relationship - in fact their actual being together is a very short part of the book. Which is a shame really, as that was the part I was enjoying the most. Seeing how these two troubled minds acted when together. The rest of the story is about their state of minds, their parents, Jon's daughter, and a great deal of Jon's work, which I found rather boring. Also, when Jon talks about his feelings, he stammers, mumbles, stumbles, and never finishes his sentences. I was getting furious with that! When he was talking about his job, he spoke eloquently without a stumble. I guess this was showing how vulnerable he was when it came to close relationships and his feelings. He just can't cope. I was pleased at one point when even Meg, who's had a dreadful and tumultuous past herself, tells him in her own sweet way to get a grip!

It doesn't surprise me that this title is on the longlist. It is the sort of literary fiction that book prizes just adore. But not me. Too rambling, with an annoying character with a boring job. It'll probably win.  

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors of adult fiction. His last, The Children Act, was just brilliant. Needless to say, when I heard he had another book out, I was rushing to NetGalley to request it. His diversity of subject matter and characters is just incredible. In this book, the narrator is an unborn baby. Very original.

Trudy and John Cairncross are separated. Trudy is living in a large old house left to John by his grandparents. It's in dire need of refurbishment - it is squalid, rotting, dilapidated and full of decay. Much like Trudy and John's marriage. Trudy is having an affair with John's brother, Claude, who lives in the house with her. She is 9 months pregnant with John's baby, the aforementioned narrator of the story. We learn nothing of baby from any conversation between the adults of the story, they do not mention him at all. None of them appear to want him to exist. The only way we know baby is a boy is because he finds it out for himself in the womb.

Through baby's running commentary, we find out much about Trudy, Claude and John, the most important fact being that the large house is worth 6 million pounds, and the only way Trudy and Claude can get their greedy hands on that money, is by getting rid of John. A plan is hatched and we follow baby's emotional journey while he is torn between love and hate for his mother, hatred and admiration for his uncle Claude, and love and pity for his father the poet John.

Do not assume that baby speaks only in baby talk. He is a highly intellectual being - he knows all the news and politics of the day by listening to all the radio channels and factual programmes that his mother listens to. He is also a connoisseur of wine - he becomes drunk with Trudy and suffers hangovers too. He is not yet born but he has the same worries as an adult in modern day - "In my confinement, I had other concerns: my drink problem, family worries, an uncertain future....."

Ian McEwan, while delivering an excellent essay on modern day life, is a great thriller writer. I was hooked throughout, staying up till the small hours to find out what would happen next.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Jason lives with his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie in Chicago. They're a happy family. They might have regrets at some life choices they made, just like any other couple, but they've lived with their choices and happy with the outcome. One evening Jason makes the choice to go for a drink with his friend Ryan, promising his wife and son to buy ice cream on the way home. He never makes it home, and he may never see his wife and son again. He is kidnapped and drugged, and when he comes around, he is lying on the floor of a hangar with a man who seemingly knows him, but who Jason has never met in his life. So begins a horrifying journey for Jason who slowly realises he is living in a nightmare world which he recognises, but which he doesn't belong in. As he learns the truth about where he is and how he's got here, he has the almost impossible task of trying to get back to his real life with his wife and son.

This is a thrilling and suspenseful story about choices in life, a muli-dimensional existence, the paths we take, and the decisions we make. This is not the first time I have read this subject matter in a book, but Blake Crouch pulls you in, and carries you through to the end on a terrifying but thought provoking ride.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Kook by Chris Vick

Living in Cornwall, I'm surrounded by beautiful beaches and crazy surfers, and I love a story that features that adrenalin-fuelled sport. I've already read and loved Blue by Lisa Glass, a story about surfing set in Newquay, so I was looking forward to reading Kook, also set in Cornwall.

The author, Chris Vick, works for a whale and dolphin conservation charity and is a keen surfer, and that truly comes through in his first novel. The word 'kook' is surfer slang for a learner or a wannabe. In the book, 16 year old Sam is exactly that. He's just moved back to Cornwall with his mum and little sister - they used to live there when he was younger, but his father drowned and his mother couldn't bear to live there with the memories. Now they're back to be near Sam's grandma - she has cancer and may not have long to live. Next door to Sam lives Jade, with her dad. They both go to the same school, so slowly Sam gets to know Jade and her friends - all super keen surfers. Not wanting to be left out, Sam teaches himself to surf, all the while doing research on a giant wave that no-one has yet ridden, called the Devil Horns - a wave that could prove disaster for anyone who attempts it.

I quite enjoyed the book, but unfortunately there were a couple of things which spoiled it for me - the profanity, and the drug use. There was a huge amount of both in this book, and it came across that there was nothing wrong with it. I know teenagers these days use bad language fairly often, but you don't want to have to read it on every page of a book. And as for taking drugs, the characters again did it on such a regular basis, it was made to seem that it was ok to do it.

As a bookseller, I have to be very careful when recommending books to certain ages. Because of the content of Kook, I will have to make sure I don't recommend it to anyone under the age of 15, which surely cuts out a huge audience for the author. I always think it's such a shame that a certain aged-audience may be denied a book purely because of bad language or other bad content. It's not necessary in a story, people don't like hearing it or reading it, so why write it?

The last few chapters were very emotional - weirdly, the chapters I enjoyed the most. If Jade was a bit nicer, and there was less bad content in the book, I may have enjoyed it more.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Alice Oseman is a truly remarkable young author. At age 18 she had her first book published by Harper Collins, 'Solitaire'. As you can see from my review of that book, I loved it and thought Alice just wonderful (she's also lovely in person - she came along to Waterstones Truro for a signing of Solitaire, and she spoke to our Teen reading group, who were inspired by her).

As you can imagine, I couldn't wait to read her second book 'Radio Silence'. I was just blown away. It's incredible. She pulls you right into the story, makes the characters real. This is because she writes about real situations that everyone can relate to. Alice herself is now 21 and is at university studying English. She was an excellent student at school. Guess what Frances, one of the main characters is about to do? She's an A-grade student at school and is expected/wants to go to Cambridge to study English. Alice is currently hating her course at University (just read her twitter messages). Guess what Aled, the other main character in the book, is going through? Alice is a keen user of Tumblr. A Tumblr story is a key thread in this book. I keep reading advice from other authors about writing about things you know. It's absolutely true - Alice is proof of this. Keep it real and your stories are addictive.

The one character I couldn't believe in was Aled and Carys's mother, Carol. I truly hope that Alice wasn't basing her on anybody she knows, because that is one evil character. Can a mother do such horrific things to her children to disturb them so much mentally? 

This is a fantastic book about discovering your true identity, believing in yourself, following your dreams and not feeling you have to do what is expected of you. It's also about realising that not conforming is ok - just because you're different doesn't mean you're weird. You're still a human being, with feelings. And lastly it's about the strength of friendships - never give up on your friends, true friends stay together forever.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I had read a few things about this book and all were positive, there was much praise about it. I don't often read non-fiction, but I was drawn to this one, even though the subject matter is the devil itself - cancer. We have all been affected by cancer in one way or another - I've heard the most scary statistic, that one in two of us will be stricken down by it. The worst thing in the cases that I have personally been aware of, and I'm sure millions have been through this, is that you fight it, you beat it, but it's not to be kept down. It stands back up again and overcomes you. A cure for all cancers cannot come quick enough.

This book follows the journey of 37 year old Paul Kalanithi, neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, and cancer sufferer. He was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 36, and he found himself going from doctor to patient. This book is not a diary, it's a journey of a young man who is on the verge of becoming a highly revered and very successful neurosurgeon, when he suddenly has the devastating news that he is facing death much earlier than he wanted to. His chapters on his time as a junior doctor through to his being at the top of his department are absolutely fascinating. What is hard to digest is that he is writing this while battling cancer, while going through chemotherapy, while looking into a future that may not exist further than the next 6 months.

He questions everything - mortality, the meaning of life, being a doctor, being a patient. He and his wife Lucy have many things to discuss before he dies, the main one being - should we have a child, even though they know that Lucy will be bringing it up on her own, and the child may not be old enough to remember her father when he passes away.

You know it's going to be an emotional ride when you start, and boy does it have you in tears at the end, but it's written by a very brave, and very strong, individual.

The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth by Katherine Woodfine

Katherine's first book in this series - The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow - was a huge success and an all round bestseller. Would this second in the series be able to live up to its fame? Well the short answer is - yes. Definitely. Katherine is such a great writer - she manages to keep the pace of the story going, along with the excitement and interest in the characters. The only thing I wasn't too sure about was Mei's character and story. I loved Sophie and her friends so much in the first one, that I almost felt like a schoolgirl having to accept a new girl in the class - not too sure and slightly awkward. I must admit that I would look forward to the chapters that Sophie and her gang were in.

Storywise, Sophie is still working at Sinclair's the department store, and her fame following the first case she was involved in (the clockwork sparrow) has led to her being taken on to locate the whereabouts of a stolen brooch - the jewelled moth. Sophie and her friends find themselves entering the glittering world of high society and debutantes. But Sophie also finds herself coming face to face with an old adversary - the Baron. Will she be able to escape unscathed, and will they all be able to track down the stolen jewel?

A joy to read. I can't wait for the next in the series!