0

Literary Obsession: Alys, Always

Alys, AlwaysAlys, Always by Harriet Lane

After loving Harriet Lane’s disturbing second book, Her, I decided to add Alys, Always to my reading list.

Frances is a thirty-something lowly sub-editor, but her routine, colourless existence is disrupted one winter evening when she happens upon the aftermath of a car crash and hears the last words of the driver, Alys Kyte. When Alys’s family makes contact in an attempt to find closure, Frances is given a tantalising glimpse of a very different world: one of privilege and possibility. Frances dares to wonder whether she might now become a player in her own right…

First Impressions: Very readable! The opening pages get right into the accident and Frances’ involvement.

Highlights: Harriet Lane builds a very understated sense of anticipation. What is Frances going to do next? How far can she push it? All the characters were believable and Frances’s actions never seemed far fetched. I also enjoyed reading about her family as well as the media industry she worked in. Frances’s stay at the Kyte’s summer home was also a highlight. The final paragraphs were simple yet perfect.

If I was an editor: I would hope for a bit more hijinks on Frances’s part to comfortabley label this a thriller. While it is an intriguing read, it needed more twists in Frances’s character to be a true thriller.

Overall: Not a thriller, but a very good read.

Alys, Always: 4 Stars

5

German for Homemaker: Hausfrau

HausfrauHausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her. But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs…

First Impressions: I didn’t really enjoy the first two chapters of this novel. I found the story and main character to be too cold and clinical. However, Marina Sofia wrote a wonderful review of this novel. She approached it from the perspective of the expat detail. I gave the novel a second go, looking at it through this lense, and I am really glad I did!

Highlights: This is in a completely different league to Gone Girl. I was really invested in this story by the end. Anna’s agony felt so real my heart was almost breaking too. I could feel her pain and tried not to dwell on things too much otherwise I would have shed a tear, I am sure! I thought the expat observations were accurate, particularly the awkwardness of putting out an olive branch and starting new friendships with someone who superficially you have little in common. As for Anna’s affairs, I didn’t necessarily think the impetus behind her actions was strong enough but the passivity of her character was believable and not as annoying as I would have assumed. I would have liked to learn more about her formative years in America. I think I like the ending and it does seem fitting to the circularity of the story.

If I was an editor: I’d have a good think about whether the fragments from the psychologist sessions that intersperse the story are really necessary. For me, I don’t think they added much to the story but I did like the fragments from the German classes. I found some of the plot devices a bit predictable but there’s only so much scope in a story like this I guess. Anna’s relationship with Bruno seems so distant it’s a wonder they even orbit the same family life. However, they were obviously drawn to each other for various reasons and each to their own! Perhaps Bruno’s story would be good for a sequel, Werktatige.

Overall: What’s German for torment?

Hausfrau: 4 stars

Here is a link to The Expat Experience, a review post I wrote in 2013.

Thank you to Sam Eades at Pan Macmillan for a copy of the title to review.

2

Abandoned Part 2: Decided

For different reasons I was just not enjoying these three novels. It will probably take a good convincing argument for me to retrieve them from the icloud.

Perfidia by James Ellroy

America stands at the brink of World War II. Last hopes for peace are shattered when Japanese squadrons bomb Pearl Harbor. Los Angeles has been a heaven for loyal Japanese-Americans – but now, war fever and race hate grip the city. The Japanese internment begins and a Japanese family have been brutally murdered.

I love the setting and story of this novel. It is the first Ellroy I have read and I really wanted to enjoy it. However, I have become confused with the names of all the police characters. Who was that? Was he the one who…? Which one’s the boss? Who’s in charge? Where’d this guy come from? Maybe I hit a tough chapter while a bit sleepy but I haven’t felt compelled to try again since.
Thank you to Random House (Cornerstone) for a copy of the title to review.

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The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo. They work at home as freelance writers. They no longer have very much to say to one another. One day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. She is a beautiful creature. She leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again.

I thought this short novel would be perfect for the Japanese Literature Challenge. I imagined it would be perfect to finish in one sitting on a relaxing afternoon: a novel of insightful observations with a deeper comment on the childless nature of so many Japanese families. While I knew it would be a novel of musings rather than plot driven, I just couldn’t get into it. Unfortunately it just didn’t pique my interest and I didn’t really care about the relationship the couple developed with the cat. I read a thoughtful review of The Guest Cat from Rare Bird who sums it up by saying it is most likely a flat translation. I agree.
Thank you to Pan Macmillan for a copy of the title to review.

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The Extraordinary Journery of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puertolas

Armed only with a counterfeit 100-Euro note, Ajatashatru the fakir, renowned conjurer and trickster, lands in Paris. His mission? To acquire a splendid new bed of nails. His destination? IKEA. And there he decides to stay, finding an obliging wardrobe in which to lay his head.

I loved The Hundred Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson and have seen a proliferation of similar quirky novels since its publication and success. I have avoided all of them but decided to give The Fakir a try. It is a light hearted comedy and I suspect I may have enjoyed it in a different context. The Fakir was a little bit too much of a caricature and for some reason AllTheRunOnWordsThatShowTheFakir’sCompetanceInEnglish annoyed me. Perhaps the book is just too lighthearted for my liking. Maybe I would have stuck with it if it was under 200 pages. The Hundred Year Old Man still remains my benchmark.
Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the title to review.

0

Abandoned Part 1: Still Marginally Undecieded

I hate abandoning books, particularly when I have invested the time to read more than just a few pages. After a fair amount of deliberation I have decided to abandon these three novels. They aren’t bad novels and I feel guilty for not giving them just one more go… Who knows, they may be retrieved from my icloud if I have a moment of weakness…

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face-to-face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah, a paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times. Jeremiah’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the FBI, putting Pete at the centre of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

This is actually a really well written novel and I feel guilty for not sticking with it and doing the author justice. It is a difficult story with a gritty and depressing setting yet I found it very readable. I always prefer to read something weighty but I after a while I found this novel just too upsetting. I think this is because since having my son I have become more sensitive to some stories about children. The plot itself is also rather plodding and atmospheric, beautifully written but sort of prolonging the misery.
Thank you to Random House (Cornerstone) for a copy of the title to review.

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The Liar’s Chair by Rebecca Whitney

Rachel Teller and her husband David appear happy, prosperous and fulfilled. The big house, the successful business …They have everything. However, control, not love, fuels their relationship and David has no idea his wife indulges in drunken indiscretions. When Rachel kills a man in a hit and run, the meticulously maintained veneer over their life begins to crack.

This should be a super quick and easy psychological thriller to read. I like the story and do want to find out what happens in the end but…something about the story keeps jarring and interrupting the flow which means there have been long reading breaks between chapters. Perhaps it is Rachel’s cool assessment of her loveless marriage that begins to bore me; she likes to describe their soulless of her home and explain her justifications for staying in the marriage. Or maybe I just find her annoyingly passive for an intelligent character.
Thank you to Sam Eades at Pan Macmillan for a copy of the title to review.

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 Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again. Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse.

Station Eleven is one of the most popular books out there at the moment and I was surprised (but not shocked) to see it on the Bailey’s Prize Longlist. I started reading it last year and just couldn’t get into it. Not only did I find the opening scenes set in the present rather stilted, I wasn’t interested in all the different characters, nor did I particularly like all the references to Shakespeare’s plays. I relegated it to easy reading on public transport but that didn’t end up working out. I only got to the part where the preacher is introduced so maybe it gets better? In my mind I kept comparing this novel to Eden Lepucki’s California (my review), which probably didn’t help. It is with reluctance I give up on this novel as I worry I am missing out on something…
Thank you to Pan Macmillan (Picador) for a copy of the title to review.

 

4

In a class of its own: How to be both

9780141025209How to be both by Ali Smith

Two stories in one: Del Cossa, a forgotten renaissance artist of the 1460s and George (Georgia), a modern teenage girl mourning the death of her mother. Two stories of love and injustice in a circular tale that will leave you wondering.

First Impressions: The version I read had the renaissance story first. I listened to the audiobook of Hotel World when it was published and it was clear to me that Ali Smith writes to be read out loud. Reading Del Cossa’s story was fine but I imagined how brilliant it would sound, particularly the first and last few pages.

Highlights: This is one of those novels that you appreciate even more the day after you finish it. Del Cossa’s story by itself was interesting but not compelling yet pair it with George’s story (the emotional weight of the novel) and it is all sheer brilliance. Stick with it! As other reviews state, your reading experience is unique based on which story you read first, and it is so true! The first character you meet is always the central character in your mind. You can’t unread the story and try from the other perspective. Having two stories vaguely linked like this and published in a random order sounds both predictable, exhausting and pretentious (think Cloud Atlas, perhaps)  but instead it is memorable and affecting. Much to my delight, George’s link to Del Cossa’s art is believable and understated rather than awkward and obvious.

If I was an editor: I would question the use of a few of Del Cossa’s turn of phrase, particularly ‘just saying‘ which is also a twitter hashtag. Surely someone should have weeded this out?

UNLESS…

Del Cossa’s character and story is actually all imagined by George and her modern slang and obsession with grammar and punctuation ( : ) seep through to the renaissance story…

Yet another reference to being both.

Overall: Well worth the overdue library fee.

How to be both: 5 stars

7

Slow and Meditative: The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New ThingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Peter Leigh is a missionary about to leave his wife Bea here on earth and travel to Oasis, a distant planet to minister the native population. The Oasans are a devout group of recently converted Christians who want to learn about the Bible, The Book of Strange New Things. The journey will challenge Peter’s beliefs and character but is there a higher purpose for him being sent to Oasis?

First Impressions: Slow. Very slow.

Highlights: I liked reading about the Oasans and wanted Peter to integrate further into the society and develop his relationship further with Jesus Lover 5, just as I wanted to learn more about his predecessor. I found the company who sent Peter to Oasis intriguing with their purpose and selection of staff. I really wanted to read more of this too.

If I was an editor: I would lament how I just kept waiting for something to happen, some kind of revelation to turn the story on its head… but what you see is what you get for all 592 pages. The bulk of the story comprises long missives between Peter and his wife Bea discussing their love which is entwined in religious beliefs and this just wasn’t for me. I can certainly see the tenderness and great love story that mirrors Faber’s heartbreaking farewell to his wife but as fiction I just don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Also, I didn’t think the catastrophes on Earth that Bea writes about are necessarily as convincing as they could be, particularly when compared to other recently published dystopian stories such as The Ark.

Overall: Kept coming close to the verge of genuine intrigue…

The Book of Strange New Things: 3 stars

0

An Attractive Man Monday: John Patterner in Alex Miller’s Lovesong

Monday 17 November 2014

John Patterner in Alex Miller’s Lovesong, page 64.

Lovesong

‘Australia,’ he said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

 ‘Whereabouts in Australia? My husband sailed there many times when he was in the merchant navy.’

‘New South Wales originally, but Melbourne these days,’ John Patterner said.

‘Dom visited the Dandenong mountains. Do you know them?’

John Patterner laughed. ‘Of course! The Dandenongs, for sure. They’re just hills, really.They’re not mountains.’

‘So you know them?’

‘Of course, yes. Everyone in Melbourne knows the Dandenongs.’

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An Attractive Man Monday: Felix Moore in Peter Carey’s Amnesia

Monday 10th November 2014

Felix Moore in Peter Carey’s Amnesia, loc. 145

Amnesia

I spent the day at Martin Place, at the post office, searching the Sydney phone books and getting change at the counter.

‘Do I know, you? You were on TV last night?’

‘That’s me, mate.’

The clerk was a pale red-headed fellow with no bum and his sleeves rolled up to show his biceps. He slowly counted out my phone money.

‘Felix,’ he said.

‘Yes, mate.’

‘You’re a wanker, mate’.

******

Apologies for the belated post this week!

7

Power Plays: The Red Queen

Red QueenThe Red Queen by Honey Brown

I recently read Honey Brown’s After the Darkness and was disappointed to discover that none of her other novels are available to readers in the UK. Luckily, I had a relative visiting from Australia and ordered from Readings (free and very quick postage within Aus – worth a plug) a couple of Honey Brown’s books, including this one.

Deep in the Australian bush, Shannon Scott is holed up in a cabin with his brother Rohan waiting out the catastrophic event of worldwide disease and a breakdown of global economies. One night a mysterious woman slips under their late night watch and past their loaded guns.

Denny Cassidy is beautiful and a survivor.Her inclusion in the cabin brings about the need for a new set of rules but is she laying a trap? Could she be a cold tactician with a deadly agenda?

First Impressions: I was plunged straight into the lives of the two brothers. Their lifestyle and the dystopian situation were convincing, almost too believable. Furthermore, the events surrounding the woman’s arrival (it happens early) are realistic. Nothing about the introductory chapters felt stilted or contrived.

Highlights: The whole scenario of the plague was incredibly well done. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ approach adopted by the two brothers, and their necessary fear of outsiders, permeated the whole story. I supported any of their ruthless decisions because their situation was so precarious. The changing relationship between the woman and the two brothers was both bleak and atypical yet entirely possible in such exceptional circumstances. Finally, I loved the way that references to the Red Queen were scattered throughout the novel.

If I was an editor: I would be blown away by such a dark story about chaos and human nature! The whole premise is so plausible it’s best not to think about it. The ending was fitting and not necessarily happy; the glimmer of hope still felt depressing! I did like the ending but perhaps would have liked more fallout…

Overall: Genunie dystopian fiction for adults.

The Red Queen: 5 Stars

 

7

Back on Form: The Paying Guests

The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I was thrilled to win a lovely signed hardback copy of Sarah Waters’ latest novel on Audible’s Twitter account. I have adored Waters’ earlier novels but her last two have left me a little underwhelmed. How would The Paying Guests fare in my opinion?

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned and the out-of-work. In South London life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are obliged to take in lodgers. With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber passions mount and frustration gathers. No one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

First Impressions: From the first page I felt a huge sense of relief as I could tell that The Paying Guests would be a Sarah Waters’ books that I enjoy. With the writing style it was very easy to find myself lost in the story.

Highlights: I loved the way Waters described the tension and chemistry between people. She turns it into a tangible electricity that can almost be seen like those electrostatic generators (?) in high school science lessons! The plight of the ex-servicemen is also interesting and brought to mind some other 1920s novels I have recently read such as The Burial by Courtney Collins and Bereft by Chris Womersley. More generally, the writing style itself is a highlight in this novel. For instance, when summarising the plot in the first section it is hard to say much more about what  happens other than ‘relationships are formed’. I found it all rather addictive and just kept turning those pages…

If I was an editor: I would be a little disappointed with the final section. The court case is well written about and even feels a bit more circa 1850s than 1920s yet it did feel a bit Wilkie Collins without the sensation. It was a good continuation of the story but I felt Waters’ usual elements of intrigue, revelations and maybe even a comeuppance or two were sadly lacking. Perhaps I have been spoiled in the past.

Overall: Will be enjoyed by many but particularly by Waters connoisseurs.

The Paying Guests: 5 Stars