Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Oh I just thought this was wonderful - I didn't want it to end. It's one of those books that you just want to be part of, you want to live in their world and live how they live. I guess in this instance it's because all the characters are very free spirited and they all enjoy their lives. I don't want to make out it's a happy book, because it isn't really. A mother has gone missing, feared drowned, so her husband and children have spent 11 years not knowing whether she'll come back into their lives or not. The book has 3 intertwined storylines - the present where it's 2004, the children are grown up and carrying on with their lives, and the father, Gil, has an out-of-control habit of collecting second hand books that have old letters or notes or doodles from past owners in them. The second storyline is from the mother, Ingrid, in 1992 where she is writing letters to an absent Gil, telling him what she and their daughters are doing with their lives, and hiding the letters inside books. The third storyline is also set within the letters - Ingrid is retelling the story from when she and Gil first met in 1976, upto the present. It is mostly through these letters that we learn all the characters, especially that of Gil, and what may have caused Ingrid to disappear.

I loved all the characters, but all in a different way. I thought they were very realistic. I just wanted it to go on and on. I'm definitely going to have to read her first novel 'Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

I love a good murder mystery, especially if it's based on a true story. For example, Mr Briggs' Hat, and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Emma Flint got the idea for 'Little Deaths' from a case she read about when a teenager. Read a good interview article with her here.

The story is set in Queens in 1964, and follows Ruth Malone, single mother to 2 children, Frankie (aged 6) and Cindy (aged 4). Ruth is a  heavy smoker and a heavy drinker. She works as a waitress at the local bar, and regularly comes home with a different man. She's currently going through a court custody case with her ex-husband Frank, who says she's a bad mother and shouldn't be looking after the kids. One evening she puts the kids to bed and locks their bedroom door (her son regularly wanders around at night). After a troubled night's sleep where she dreams she can hear a child crying, she wakes the next morning to an eerie silence. She unlocks the children's bedroom door to find them missing. It's not long before their bodies are found in a nearby neighbourhood.

The rest of the book then focuses on her side of the story with her innermost thoughts, the story she tells the police, statements from neighbours and friends and her ex-husband, police reports, and reports from the main journalist covering the case. Everybody seems to have their own opinion of what happened that night and whether Ruth carried out the murders herself. The police are convinced she's guilty, but the reporter wants to prove otherwise.

Even though I quite enjoyed the book, I found the story overlong and couldn't quite feel anything for any of the characters. I was upset about the children, but that's as far as my feelings stretched. I just wanted to get to the end to find out whether Ruth was guilty or not. If it had been edited a bit more and had a bit more of an atmosphere, I would have liked it more.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout has recently won the Man Booker Prize 2016, so I wanted to read it to see what I thought. I must admit, while I was reading the first chapter I was thinking, 'What is going on here, I'm not going to like this'. But you must stick with it, because you will end up enjoying it.

It's hard to sum up in a sentence what the book is about. I tried to explain to a colleague and they just looked at me slightly puzzled as I garbled a disjointed account of the story. They also looked slightly alarmed when I used the words 'funny' and 'racism' in the same sentence. But it's true!

The opening chapter is set in the Supreme Court in America. The case is 'Me v. the United States of America'. The Me in question is Mr Me - originally Mee but over the generations the final letter was dropped. That case title itself is ironic as Mr Me (who is black, and whose first name is never known) is accused of owning a slave, and almost the whole black population of America is mad at him for turning the civil rights clock back so many years.

Now if you are sensitive to racial language or indeed any language at all, you may want to avoid this book, but do bear in mind that the whole book is a satire, full of wit and sarcasm. Mr Me believes in segregation, and to find out why, we are taken through his life starting with him being home-schooled by his father, who would put Me through test scenarios (including electric shock treatments) to test fear, prejudice, servility and obedience. We learn about the small town he grew up in , how it was taken off the map and why he tries to get it back on there. We find out how he gets to 'own' a 'slave', about his girlfriend Marpessa, about the Dum Dum Donut Shop where they hold racism and black inequality talks, and about why an old friend of his father's tries to kill him.

It's a marvellous book like no other - it pushes boundaries and raises eyebrows. It's brilliant.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

This is not a new title - the book was first published in 2008, and many of the chapters were originally published as short stories in various magazines from as early as 1992. I'm not quite sure why it was re-released, but it made an appearance as a Waterstones book of the month about 2 months ago, and has become a bit of a bestseller. In 2014 it was turned into a mini-series on HBO with Frances McDormand (of 'Fargo' fame) in the title role.

It took me a while to settle into the standalone chapters style. When I'm introduced to characters in a first chapter, I make sure I remember their names, their characteristics, I decide whether I love them or hate them, so it comes as a bit of 'slap' when suddenly they're not mentioned in the next chapter, nor the one after, and I'm introduced to a bunch of new characters and it's like starting a new book all over again. I've never been a fan of short stories, but luckily this book can't really be classed as that. The book is called 'Olive Kitteridge' because she is the main character who makes an appearance in most chapters, whether as an acquaintance, a child's teacher, a wife, a friend, a saviour, a neighbour. Many of the chapters are very moving and emotional - there was many a moment when there was a tear in my eye. They're so full of feeling and so well written that they made me take out pen and paper and write half a page of an emotional moment in my life - I guess you could call that therapy.

This is a book that you would easily want to read again, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

While holidaying with her parents in a small riverside village not far from Manchester, a 13-year-old girl, Becky, goes missing. She was last seen by her parents while they were all out walking together. Being a teenager, she was sulkily keeping half a dozen steps behind them, and as they picked up speed, so she slowed down slightly so that when they next turned around to call to her to catch up, she had completely disappeared. She was never seen again.

The police were called, a search was set up, the villagers all volunteered their services to help in the search, a re-enactment of her last days was put together and aired, reporters swamped the village, pleas for information were televised daily. What happened to Becky? Was she murdered? Did she fall? Did she run away? Was she kidnapped?

So begins a tale of how a village and its inhabitants, and the family of the missing girl, all cope as the days, weeks, months, years go by. Life goes on, seasons change, babies are born and grow up, new families move into the area, but still the missing girl is in the back of everyone's minds, and the wonder of whether the truth of what happened to her will ever surface.

I thought this was a remarkable book. The author goes into such detail of daily life, much of which is repeated many times as that is how life is, but the story never becomes boring. You don't mind hearing about the badgers and the foxes and the plants and the changing weather, and the river and the reservoirs - you're hoping that in amongst all this information is a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing girl. I found myself continually on tenterhooks with the expectation of a revelation of what happened. I found myself suspicious of all the villagers - everyone seemed to have something they wanted to hide, some little secret.

Jon McGregor is probably most well known for his award winning novel 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things'. I hope this will be enjoyed just as much.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline

Emma Cline the author always had the idea of writing a book about a commune, and then she started researching Charles Manson. He was an American criminal who led what became known as the Manson Family, a quasi-commune that arose in California in the late 1960s. In the summer of 1969, Manson's murderous “family” of 3 young women went on a rampage in Los Angeles that left nine people dead, one of them being Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of Roman Polanski. He ordered the killings, but was not present during them. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He is still alive in prison today, aged 82.

In 'The Girls' we are introduced to Evie Boyd, a middle-aged lady, recently unemployed, living in a friend's holiday home. One evening her friend's son comes to the house with his girlfriend, and recognises Evie's name as being part of a cult which carried out violent murders in the '60s. By alternating between the past and the present, we start to find out from Evie what happened.

Aged 14, she is living with her mother - her parents have divorced, her father having left her mother to live with his personal assistant. After an argument with her mother, Evie goes out on her bike, but the bike breaks. As she's struggling to repair it, a black bus pulls up and a girl gets out to offer help. Evie has met one of the girls on the bus before, and they invite her to a solstice party at the ranch where they're staying. Thus begins Evie's inclusion in the commune, which is headed up by Russell, who seems to have a hypnotic effect on all his followers. He preaches about all-encompassing free love, the lack of a need of money and material things. Evie is taken in by life on the ranch and especially Suzanne who she becomes close to. She spends most of her summer there, lying to her mother that she is staying at her friend Connie's house. It is only on her return to the ranch after a 2-week stay at home, that she notices a difference in the mood amongst the commune. She is soon to get herself included in part of a grisly history which she will always have nightmares about.

This was very readable, I quite liked the flashbacks from past to present, it didn't interrupt the storyline at all. Most of the story is about Evie, her close friendship with Suzanne, her crumbling relationship with her mother, her realisation of how she is attractive to men. But this is also the most disturbing part for me, being myself the mother of a 14-year-old girl. I found some of the storyline uncomfortable as I imagined someone the same age as my daughter going through the things Evie did. Russell is excellently portrayed as a very creepy, sinister character, even though all the girls on the ranch can't see this and would do anything he asked.

Well written, with an atmosphere of impending doom which will keep you hooked.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I haven't read a Zadie Smith novel since 'White Teeth', and that was years ago (1999) - so long in fact that I'd forgotten what it was about. I just looked up a prĂ©cis and was surprised to read similar threads in the storyline to this one. In fact it seems that in a few of her books, Zadie sticks to themes that she knows and is obviously comfortable with - multiculturalism, racism, the state of society, class wars.

These themes abound in 'Swing Time'. The story mainly follows the life of the narrator, whose name is never revealed to us. Her mother is Jamaican, her father an East Ender with a possible criminal past, but who is now past trouble and dotes on his family. They live in a council flat on the Willesden Road. During childhood she becomes friends with Tracey during a dance class, though it quickly becomes clear that Tracey is the more natural dancer out of the two. Tracey has a white British mother, and an absent Jamaican father, who is regularly in and out of prison. The narrator's mother is not overly keen with Tracey as she lives on the opposite council block which contains the type of one-parent families that she'd frown at, and she's also not keen on how Tracey acts and the language that comes out of her mouth. We follow this friendship through the next few years, and we see how their lives take separate paths, how the friendship breaks up, how they both try to follow their dreams - Tracey becoming an actress in musical theatre, the narrator becoming a personal assistant to a famous pop star. But what does the future hold for them both?

The book is very long, and the narrator goes back and forth in time to give us snippets of her moments with Tracey when they were young, then back to the present, then back to when she got the job, then back again...At times, I wished the story was told in a straightforward timeline. There were places where I wasn't sure which job her mother had, where she was living, how old the narrator and Tracey was, etc. There's a huge part of the story that takes place in West Africa. The famous pop star that the narrator works for (imagine an Australian version of Madonna) has decided to use her millions to set up a new girls school there, so there is much travelling back and forth to the area to put things in place, make sure things run smoothly, etc. However, I found this part of the book rather laborious and boring, I kept looking at the page numbers on my e-reader and sighing to see how much I still had left to read. I was yearning to learn more about Tracey - the parts of the book that included her and the narrator were definitely the most exciting and interesting.

What I found interesting while reading this book was that I kept forgetting that the narrator was half Jamaican, so when characters make mention of her brown skin, I'm momentarily surprised. However, with Tracey, that's how I always pictured her - a dark skinned beauty with attitude, defiant, disrespectful, rude but ambitious.

The last part of the book took my interest again, but overall it was far too long and didn't hold my attention all the way through. I'm not sure I'll be reading another Zadie Smith book again.