Thursday, 30 April 2020

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

"What with his hooting and the banana he held, he reminded her of a chimpanzee."

Goodness me, I've forgotten to finish another review. I was particularly looking forward to this one because its by an acclaimed author that I've enjoyed before and its a re-telling of my favourite dead playwright, Mr Shakespeare. This is part of a series that has proved to be a little bit of mixed bag for me. I have a number in my to be read pile and the re-telling of Macbeth is an absolute tome - makes a great podium for the laptop in zoom meetings - that kind of thing.
This particular novel in the Hogarth series is The Taming of the Shrew retold in a modern setting. Not one of my favourite Shakespearean tales, calling a woman who dances to the beat of her own drum a "shrew" isn't fantastic in my opinion. That is perhaps why I so disliked this book.
I found it tiresome that this girl who works tirelessly for her father is shamed into marriage in modern times. Here marry this bloke for a green card because no-one thinks anyone will have you. That's just frightful.
Her sister is so revolting, that she made my skin crawl. The would be husband seems really off and disturbing - a stalker, control freak.

No I did not like this book.

1 out of 5 - Not a premise I could work with.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

"Penelope's parents were dull and dispassionate automatons crawling toward their deaths"

Where do I begin with this prize winning novel? It is something new and interesting and will definitely keep you engaged. When Bernadine Evaristo tied with Margaret Atwood for the Booker Prize, I had to seek out a copy of both books and I am immensely glad that I did. While both are stylistically poles apart, they share interesting takes on female narration and highlight the richness that the literary canon can deliver with a mix of voices from both sexes.

Centuries ago, authors had to change their names to something that sounded masculine to be taken seriously and until recently, particularly in relation to 'serious literature' many female authors met with depressingly similar conditions. Is this changing? I hope so and if this novel is anything to go by, we are all in for a treat.

The scope is expansive, the prose is unusual, almost poetic in form. This is a rather unique work. Its like a time machine where you move in and out of different lives at a cracking pace and yet still experience intense emotions at each fleeting story.

Ok so its really obvious I like this one and yet I kept on delaying finishing it. I had to savour each snippet and as I read, it was like a massive cast of characters would rush on stage, deliver their deepest secrets and then rush off, passing the baton in a kind of frenetic fictional relay.

I know I've not told you anything about the story and I feel that's best to be honest. Then you too can dive in and immerse yourself in what promises to be a fantastic read for you.

5 out of 5 women, we're all the same, but we're all different.

Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera

"Ah, she thought, whatever I am today, if a bit of my youth lives on in this man's memory, I haven't lived in vain."

This short story is so well executed. Each sentence carries such import and feeling. I just loved it. This Faber Stories series consists of extremely thin little publications that include one short story from a famous author. I happen to enjoy the sensual depictions of Kundera and this so beautifully encapsulates the memory of a perfect fling from days gone by. The will is still there to relight the flame and yet the impact of age is a massive deterrent.

A man in his mid thirties revisits the older woman with whom he once shared a dalliance. He regrets his youthful timidity and has searched in vain to replace the memory of their encounter. The woman, now in her fifties and a widow has little clue as to the depth of feeling of her former lover and recalls fondly their tryst as a distant memory of when she was at her prime.

What is particularly well evoked is the way memories are so skewed. Years later one person may dwell on the minutiae of a romantic encounter, while another may think on it with a vague sense of contentment at their conquest.

Honestly, if I write any more about this story, this review might be longer than it and perhaps that is its strength. So much observation and feeling is packed neatly in such a slim package. It speaks to ageing and the often rose coloured view of the past that can sometimes break through into the present. Sometimes I think past loves retain their glow because in your memory they will always be the age they were when with you and that version will never degrade.

5 out of 5 - sometimes the past is perfection and best left there or sometimes its a lifeline for today. Community service announcement though - best not to call any toxic exes during a pandemic.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Nothing to See Here By Kevin Wilson

"I met Madison at a fancy girls' school hidden on a mountain in the middle of nowhere."

Ever so often you open the pages of a book, dive in and feel completely engrossed, this was one of those occasions.This great read has launched me head first into a reading renaissance and I'm 100% on board.
A girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Lillian, receives a scholarship to a prestigious girls' school, where she makes friends with the very well to do Madison. A favour sets their lives on different paths until they are reunited years later.
Madison has a baby boy and is about to take care of her senator husband's twin children from his first marriage. These are not ordinary children and Lillian might just be the answer to Madison's unusual problems.

The premise of this novel is so unlikely, a cross between Firestarter and The Nanny, and yet it works so well. The cover and the blurb had me a little incredulous, however, the recommendation from Chat10Looks3 was enough for me to grab a copy and I am ecstatic that I did.

In the words of Molly Meldrum " Do yourself a favour" and check this one out, it is surprisingly moving.

 5 out of 5 - the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

“I had left Park Bar at three thirty a.m. right when the cooks were getting another round of J├Ągermeister shots. I had taken one and thought I might throw up on the floor. Instead I threw myself into a cab and threw up in my own toilet like an adult. I was proud of myself.”

When I bought this book, I had heard it was to be made into a tv series. Naturally I wanted to read it first. Even more usually, for me, its been sitting in that big ole pile of books for me to read for so long that the show has already aired. Thankfully for streaming I can compare the two works later. COVID-19 times have got me back into the reading fold and what better time for a novel about restaurants and wine, glorious wine, than these iso-days. Pause, insert hiccup here for effect.

Having read Kitchen Confidential, last year, they almost seem like companion pieces with different gender perspectives. The cracking pace and other worldly timing of working in a restaurant — where sleep is for the weak — makes for compelling drama. Throw in sex, drugs, alcohol and sensation seekers, well of course its going to be interesting.

Young Tess moves to NYC after working in a coffee shop as a ‘barista’ with an English degree (lady how I relate, getting your first job with an English degree is dire), and lands a job at a famous Union Square restaurant. This book reminded me of a night out in New York where we my friends and I met the chef from another famous Union Square restaurant at about 3am, along with some other entertaining characters — does everyone just miss bar hopping now?? Back to the book though, our protagonist is innocent to restaurant life and life in general. Tastes, sensations and tribulations abound, and I was swept up in the chaos. The change in her life is palpable.

You can almost taste the wine and smell the food here. Similarly, you can feel the grime, lack of sleep and tendency for poor decision making (yes, I recall my twenties… vaguely). Danler’s style is impressive, and the characters are all fascinating drawn. This book will have you reminiscing of your wild youth (if you had one) or vicariously thrilling in someone else’s (if you didn’t). 

5 out of 5 – ending this was bitter sweet, definitely one to ‘pick up’.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase

"One of the important facts of life that Paula had learned the hard way was not to keep any man waiting."

This novel does nothing for feminism. Women are whores or helpless beauties to be rescued. It is a typical pulp noir, a violent, seedy city’s underbelly where everyone is on the make. When attempting to steal her diamond necklace a criminal gang kidnap the titular Miss Blandish in an attempt to increase their profit.
Her stunning looks prove too much for a rival and much more violent gang and all of a sudden, Miss Blandish becomes the captive of the unhinged son of gang leader, Ma Grisson. He’d shoot you, just as soon as look at you and has never before displayed an interest in women.  That’s changed and now he drugs and tortures his prisoner, while her millionaire father believes her to be dead.
Hiring Dave Fenner, ex journalist and now private eye, to find out what happened to his darling daughter, seems like a last-ditch attempt by her father Mr Blandish. Violence ensues. Lots of violence, lots of implied sex. The book was met with huge success and deemed rather scandalous for its time. The novel was adapted as a film in Britain in 1938 and Variety reviewed itas “A lurid bestseller has been converted into a deplorable picture”. In 1971 it was revisited again as The Grissom Gang by Robert Aldrich, about which Roger Ebert said “Everyone screams, shouts, flashes knives at each other and sweats a lot”, which to my mind rather reflects the source novel.
The characters are formulaic, rather than well developed. Slim is characterised by his violence. The reader’s sense of him is a creepy guy who seems developmentally challenged, yet deadly. His mother is the leader of the pack but a barely-there sketch of a dangerous old lady. They seem like carbon copies from another, better written novel. Chase is no Chandler… he’s Chandler lite with added blood and guts.
That’s not to say its not thrilling. You’ll read on, eager to see whether Miss Blanchard will escape or not, even if you’re lukewarm about the other characters.

3 out of 5, avoid the idiot son.

The Girls by Emma Cline

“So much of desire, at that age, was a wilful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love.”

I’ve been hearing about this novel for ages, a clear sign is the “worldwide bestseller” sticker on it. I dare say if you liked Once upon a time in Hollywood, then you’ll definitely be drawn to its pages. What is perhaps most striking about the story is how fantastically Cline captures the voice of an insecure teenager. I think the unsure girl in all of us can relate, even if our rebellions might have come later or been less dangerous.
The titular girls are clearly based on the women that followed Charlie Manson, they rubbish dive for food, sleep with their leader (his name is Russell in this case) and represent this aspirational sense of community and freedom that proves irresistible to fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd.
At the beginning of the novel, Evie has a falling out with her best friend and her loneliness is palpable. Crossing paths with the intriguing Suzanne, she is swept up into a strange world of drugs, sex and idol worship. Her sexual awakening is so fraught, at one point she is pimped out to a much older man and it is a pretty harrowing scene.
Potential spoilers follow…. You have been warned.

Evie’s escape from the murderous activities of the cult represents another break. She is no longer part of the all-encompassing group and is cast out into the lonely world once more. It is rare to feel so emotionally invested in such a troubled protagonist and yet, therein lies the crux of the novel. We are all Evie, one step away from making a poor decision that could change everything as we greedily seek out our tribe and often settle for something less than we should.
I’m just going to add to the chorus on this one and agree it is brilliant. I decided to finally jump on the bandwagon because I’d seen it recommended on two top ten lists on The Guardian, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Top Ten Cliques in Fiction and also Clare McGlasson’s Top Ten Books about Cults.

 5 out of 5 – life is hard for a girl.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath

"The first I knew of their growing intimacy was the day Charlie fell off the garden wall."

I was pointed to this novel by its inclusion in one of the Top 10 lists from The Guardian.
Namely Alison MacLeod’s Top 10 stories about infidelity. Incidentally a great list of reads, cheating makes for an intense reading experience. The penguin copy of the book I read begins with a short essay by the author entitled Writing Asylum. I would recommend reading this after you read the book as it will increase your appreciation of the book and ensure you don’t’ receive any spoilers.

Told from the perspective of friend and fellow psychiatrist Peter Cleave, this is the story of Stella, the beautiful wife of forensic psychiatrist, Max, her young son Charlie and their life at the hospital for the criminally insane where they live in the Deputy Superintendent’s house. Far removed from the distractions of London life, Stella mopes around the house and chats to the patients who assist in the garden.  She develops a relationship with one particular patient, Edgar Stark.

Edgar has been a model patient and is nearing the end of his stay. He shows no signs of the homicidal rage that led to him decapitating his wife. There’s nothing so exciting as the unbridled passions of a frustrated artist and troubled soul. Stella has no hope and naturally, since unhinged individuals are a bad dating choice, her affair becomes equal parts page turning and tragic. Damn I think I might have dropped spoilers.

Can you catch insanity? Or does involvement with someone truly disturbed warp your perspective of normal behavior? Sexual obsession is a kind of insanity and can have unintended consequences. The author’s exploration of these themes is sure to have you turning the pages at a pace.

5 out of 5 - don't sleep with psychos.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

“But something had woken her. As before, she had the distinct feeling that she’d heard a voice. Trent would definitely be out of the anaesthesia by now. Had he reached out to her?”

498 pages of brilliance have been sitting on my ‘to be read’ pile for way too long and I have no idea why. I read this in a day, well actually, in just a few hours, having forgone tv for some quality reading time. Have you ever wondered what your partner is thinking or feeling? If you had the chance to have some ‘minor’ surgery to open up your neural pathways, would you do it?
Briddey and her boyfriend Trent work at a smartphone company and are taking the big step of having EDD implants. Now their love will be enhanced by just a small operation for a true meeting of the minds, where emotions do not require words for communication. What could possibly go wrong? Isn’t she just replacing her busy-body family with an even closer interloper? Would she get her family off her back if she settled down with a nice Irishman? Isn’t her boyfriend just way too busy with the apple iPhone busting mysterious ‘Hermes Project’?
When Briddey wakes up post-surgery she has seeming got more than she bargained for. Apparently, she can have entire conversations mentally, but not with her beloved. Another man is in her head and things are about to get really complicated. 
Honestly, I can’t think of any man I’ve ever dated that I’d want to know what’s going on exactly in my head. Protestations of love met with uncertainty, words of encouragement on performance masking internal disappointment and the like. It sounds like a horrible idea to me. Mind you, I’ve yet to crack the Prince Charming lotto.
When Briddey’s powers grow the volume gets louder and the author delightfully weaves in some fantastic moments highlighting the magic of a library. The book is funny, easy to read and the characters are just amazingly rendered mostly through dialogue. I can’t wait to lend this to my friend Nicki, as I think this combines modern sci-fi, romance and comedy in a fabulous way and was one thousand times better than a night in front of the television.

5 out of 5 – I’m not a mind-reader okay.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

French Exit by Patrick Dewitt

“She had occasionally in her life found herself loving men not in spite of but for their stupidity. Suavity was never more than playacting, she knew this, and it endeared them to her that they themselves were unaware of their transparency.”
About three quarters of the way through this book I was thinking this could be the perfect antidote to today’s troubled times. The bizarre relationship between Frances and her son that has developed since his father’s death has seemingly infantilised him. He almost floats around rather than has any direction, while his mother brings an air of entitlement and decisiveness. It seems she’s spent all the inheritance and now must leave her Upper East Side Pad for a cruise to Paris and a new life.
She’s being haunted by her ex-husband in the form of a cat called Little Frank and her son’s dalliance with a psychic on board the ship to France is a catalyst for an increasingly weird set of circumstances that will have you laughing, shaking your head and then, unexpectedly left rather low. The writing is delightfully catty — pun not intended — cocktails amid a riot, poverty at the Four Season, in some ways it’s a kind of coming of age story – albeit at age 30 in Malcolm’s case. He resembles the kind of guy that people’s parents thank the stars is not their son, probably the kind of guy I’d usually date — sidebar the lockdown has the fantastic benefit of providing a respite from all the wrong individuals.  You get the extent of their weird relationship via the dialogue which is limited but so telling. For instance, upon hearing that Malcolm has bedded Madeleine the Medium, his mother says, “Did you do a good job?”, consoling herself that he’s probably only good at one thing and that wouldn’t be such a bad thing to excel at.
Back to the novel, though, it is fantastically written. I am not a cat lover but adore the craziness of Little Frank’s sad adventures in Paris. The crazy characters, the heightened surrounds and the family dysfunction that provides a deep dose of dark humour make this a great read. 
5 out of 5 – some mothers do ave em.