I am merely bored, not a defiant brat

The Chocolate Money
by Ashley Prentice Norton

Does a compelling story outweigh all the other elements of a book being less than compelling? For me, no, but for a lot of other people I suspect it would. So I recommend you keep that in mind while reading my not-so-glowing opinions below.

I was sent this book unsolicited but the premise was vague enough and the straplines on the cover intriguing enough that I gave it a chance. After this I am definitely going back to books I have bought for myself for a while.

The story is that of Bettina, raised by her single-parent chocolate heiress mother Babs. Babs is a slightly brattish partier who loves her daughter but isn’t going to change her life for her. We follow Bettina from the age of 10 to 16 (plus a brief flash forward at the end), dipping into her life at times that I think were supposed to have been picked out for their significance (there is a slightly heavy handed mention of Bettina’s class assignments for an English teacher including her writing about many of the events from the start of the book). The problem is that, while they might be significant (but not out of the ordinary) for the average kid, from a story about a millionaire I sort-of expect more. Or at least different.

Let’s take those cover straplines that I find completely misleading. First, “When you have everything, trust no-one”. That implies a thriller, or at least lots of betrayal and distrust. As far as I can tell the one doing most of the betraying in this book is Bettina. She doesn’t make friends. Though she wants to, she picks the wrong role models and then blames it all on her mother when it goes wrong. And that is the sort of book this is, it’s about a tween/teen’s privileged but oh-so-traumatic life. Not my cup of tea.

And the other strapline? “An adorable child. A phenomenal fortune. A mother like no other.” I did not find Bettina adorable. As far as I can tell none of the other characters did so why should I? The fortune bit is true but Bettina seems strangely clueless about spending it. For instance, when she arrives at boarding school with one small duffel of clothes and sees that all the other girls brought bedding and other home comforts why doesn’t she call some expensive shop in Boston or New York and get a bunch of stuff delivered? It makes no sense.

As for her mother, I felt a lot of the time that I was supposed to be disapproving of Babs and yes, she’s not the ideal mother figure but she’s not that bad either. She isn’t absent, she includes Bettina in her life despite her having a full-time nanny. There is one occasion when she slaps Bettina across the cheek that Bettina is still obsessing about years later, suggesting it was a one-off. And there is one scene when Bettina gets drunk when she’s only 12, which I think was supposed to be shocking, but she does it at a big party at her house so help is immediately at hand and we later learn that afterward her mother teaches her about drinking alcohol. How many millionaire kids have far far worse stories to tell?

Babs does talk coarsely, that is true. I am all in favour of talking to children about sex and relationships but minus the personal element that Babs favours. Also, her refusal to tell Bettina who her father is doesn’t strike me as unreasonable and felt a lot like a contrivance to generate a guessing game for the reader.

Plot holes aside (and there’s a few – she hero worships her mother so why does she want to “escape” her? who does she stay with in Paris every summer?), I did find the story drew me in. Certainly, the middle section, where Bettina is at boarding school, kept me reading late at night and first thing in the morning. It’s an easy writing style and I have always liked school-based/coming-of-age plots. Plus this section had a decent range of characters with different agendas.

I guess my problem is that the writing had nothing going for it other than ease of absorption. It didn’t feel like an authentic child’s voice at all but it wasn’t a knowledgeable “future me looking back” angle either. It does that thing that annoys me of detailing clothes and make-up minutely, but it doesn’t do this consistently, in fact mostly only for Babs. It’s a first-person narration, so shouldn’t Bettina notice everyone in the same way? At least to compare them with her mother?

I struggled to pick out any stand-out quotes so I will just give you the opening line, which is a reasonable example of the whole flavour of the book:

“The day I cut my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.”

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity

A Handful of Dust
by Evelyn Waugh

After my recent discovery of Waugh’s genius, I was glad that this title was picked by my book group. I must say it didn’t bowl me over the way Vile Bodies did, and if it hadn’t been for the book group discussion I would have been left very confused by it.

By which I don’t mean that the style or storyline was confusing. I mean that it has an odd tone, one that I didn’t entirely like. It’s, as you might expect, a comedy, but always at people’s expense – the comedy is never about the circumstances or event, so it’s a painful comedy.

The story is that an apparently happy marriage – that of Tony and Brenda Last – very suddenly falls apart thanks to an unappealing interloper. But can it really have been as happy as it first appeared if it is able to fall apart so suddenly and apparently easily? There are clues that boredom may be setting in:

“Although they were both in good health and of unexceptional figure, Tony and Brenda were on a diet. It gave an interest to their meals…Under their present system they denied themselves the combination of protein and starch at the same meal…
‘I’m sure it does me a great deal of good.’
‘Yes, darling, and when we get tired of it we might try an alphabetical diet, having things beginning with a different letter every day.'”

This is a book absolutely loaded with irony (in a possibly very bitter, personal way) and crammed full of vicious attacks on high society and the people therein. It simultaneously deplores and is guilty of snobbery. And yet, if you cut through the irony, what you are left with is really a sad, painfully real story of a marriage falling apart.

“…opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. [She} was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. For them her circumstances shed peculiar glamour; for five years she had been a legendary, almost ghostly name, the imprisoned princess of fairy story, and now that she had emerged there was more enchantment in the occurrence, than in the mere change of habit of any other circumspect wife. Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy…the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity…”

If you asked most people when they were halfway through this book I imagine they would say they didn’t like and didn’t care about any of the characters. And yet when bad stuff happened to them, or threatened to, I found that I did care. (And according to my book group I was not alone in this.) I think Waugh’s real genius is in observing people so well, so minutely, that even his least appealing characters are genuinely believably real.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some element of send-up going on. Considering Waugh’s cleverness it can’t be accidental that the couple at the centre of it all are Mr and Mrs Last. But the last of what? At first, you might conclude that they are the last couple about who married for love rather than money/convenience. But actually there are other love matches in the background and Brenda’s love for Tony disappears so quickly you have to wonder whether it was ever really there.

Perhaps Tony is the last of his generation to care about his big country house; he is completely devoted to it where other families are all selling off their estates. But he’s not very good at being a country gentleman, so maybe that’s not it either.

Perhaps Tony is the last faithful man in high society. There are some painful sequences where various friends (including Brenda) try to throw women at Tony to make the break-up easier on him. And even when he tries to have an affair he just can’t do it. Which should be admirable but somehow makes him look pathetic. (I believe there are elements of Waugh’s own marriage break-up in this novel so it could be that his self-pity and self-hatred became part of Tony’s character. This might also explain the sudden switches in sympathy, sometimes abandoning a character mid-scene.)

There is a long section at the end set in South America that is markedly different from the rest. It was originally a short story, which explains some of the tonal difference, but it actually works well as a new way of looking at British society. It’s pretty racist, which is partly a product of its time but also, I suspect, a comment on the characters who are there for all the wrong reasons, as it’s through their eyes that the racism occurs.

Someone at book group pointed out that Waugh heavily references T S Eliot, and in particular The Waste Land in this novel, which I must admit I missed despite having studied (and enjoyed) The Waste Land at uni and a verse of the poem being the epigraph for it all (and indeed the origin of the novel’s title). Ah well; what was that conversation The Readers were having about not being literary enough…?

First published 1934 by Chapman & Hall.

Sunday Salon: Too busy to get anything done

The Sunday Salon

It has been a week and a half since I last posted anything, which I think is my longest break from the blog. Even when we were on holiday for two and a half weeks I scheduled posts in advance. I have been rubbish. Not that I expect anyone is desperately waiting for my next update, but it’s still a bit rubbish. I could blame it on tiredness and illness, and there has been a bit of that, but mostly I’ve been crazy busy (and no, I agree, tired and ill and busy is not a good combo).

We’ve been having some building work done on our house. Actually, quite a lot of building work. Which leads to a fair bit of DIY, decorating and of course cleaning for us to do. LOTS of cleaning. I haven’t done any real exercise since we went on holiday at the end of August but I feel I’ve made up for it with all the scrubbing and hoovering and whatnot.

We’re nowhere near ready to show after photos yet but for an idea of the chaos that is our house right now, here is how much we dust-sheeted before the work began (plus sealing up all the doors we could)…


Forbidden books

Playroom lost

…and it was totally necessary. Black sooty dust everywhere. We don’t have photos of that because it was too dusty to get cameras out. Yeah. Nice. But on the plus side DIY with my Dad and the dogs is fun.

Doggy aid

Now it’s back to the grindstone. Happy Sunday!

Holiday reads in brief

Trains Are Mint

I read quite a few books on holiday and it now feels like an age ago so I’m going to play catch-up with some shorter reviews of slightly unusual books I have read lately.

Trains are Mint
by Oliver East

This is a sweet but odd piece of graphic-novel-style journalism/travel writing. East took his notebook and pen on walks along railway lines from Manchester to Blackpool, drawing and taking notes on whatever grabbed his interest. Which sounds like a fascinating project. And both its niche appeal and its failure to grab me stem from exactly what it is that East finds interesting: rubbish, graffiti, kids hanging out, small railway stations and tumbleweed.

Published 2008 by Blank Slate.

by Rainer Maria Rilke
Miscellaneous poems 1912–1926
Selected and translated by Michael Hamburger

I love Rilke. I don’t really understand a lot of it but I find it beautiful. In a different mood this might make me feel stupid or at least self-conscious but thankfully I read this book in the stately, studious surroundings of Cambridge and I just enjoyed floating on the words. And using the helpfully supplied German original texts opposite the English translations to remember how I once knew some German but have basically forgotten it all. It may take another read or three to get a little more from it. As Rilke says:

“Do not, do not, do not books for ever
hammer at people like perpetual bells?”

First published as An Unofficial Rilke in 1981. This edition published 2003 by Anvil Press Poetry.

The Hungry Ghost Festival
by Jen Campbell

This is a slim volume, which I have already read most of twice (see above for how this is a good thing with poetry), and I think it’s safe to say that these poems are right up my street. Campbell writes about growing up in north-east England, about being a teenager, the seaside, friendship, gossip, sex and illness. The poems tend to concentrate on the random details that give memories their surreal quality. They are both magical and grittily real.

Published 2012 by The Rialto.

The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in Paris, 1957–1963
by Barry Miles

I started reading this book as part of my research for my dissertation at uni. I got halfway through it and then had to concentrate on finishing the dissertation so I put the book down and inevitably I had had enough of Bob Dylan and the Beat poets so I didn’t pick it up again…for eight years. I had forgotten how interesting a read it is. Miles uses lots of primary sources, plus his own interviews with many of the people involved, but slips them seamlessly into the narrative. He has a good grasp of what makes an interesting anecdote. If you have even a passing interest in the Beats I definitely recommend it and defy you to come away not wanting to go straight to Paris!

Published 2001 by Atlantic Books (UK) / Grove Press (US).

A fragility to the space between them

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
by Sue Townsend

There may be a certain symmetry in me reading this book in one day, a day when I was off work sick in bed. I certainly found myself sympathising with main character Eva more than I might have another day.

The day that Eva’s twins leave home for university she takes to her bed and declares that she will not be leaving it again for a year. She asks her husband to use another bedroom from now on. So begins Townsend’s latest comical exploration of modern life. Compared with her other books, this is slightly less about Britain and slightly more about people and coping. But it’s as ever an insightful study of society and humanity.

“Alexander said, ‘I would hate to be you, man. Your heart must look like them ugly pickled walnuts they sell at Christmas. Naasty tings!’
‘I’m one of the most compassionate men I know,’ said Brian…’And if you think that by affecting a West Indian patois I will be intimidated by you, you’re wrong. I’ve got a pal called Azizi – he’s African, but he’s a good chap.’
Alexander queried, ‘But he’s a good chap?'”

Eva is surprisingly sympathetic considering how incredibly self-indulgent her actions are. Even as she is demanding that her sick, elderly mother and mother-in-law take their turns bringing her food and drink, she is so astutely examining herself, asking “the big questions” and paying attention to the rest of the world (ironically, as she has now separated herself from it) that she is difficult to dislike.

Townsend combines the comic and the serious to great effect:

“Ruby said, ‘Look, I’m not getting into another argument about God. All I know is that he looks after me…’
Eva said gently, ‘But he didn’t save you from losing your purse, tickets and passport when you were at East Midlands Airport last year, did he?’
Ruby said, ‘He can’t be everywhere, and he’s bound to be busy at peak holiday time…Do you know, Eva, sometimes I can’t wait to get to heaven. I’m tired of living down here since everything went complicated.'”

Yes, there’s a lot of he said, she said, but there are also phrases that are beautifully formed:

“There was a fragility to the space between them, as though their breath had frozen and could easily shatter if the wrong word were said.”

Sadly, I must admit that Eva is the only character who isn’t a little bit of a caricature. When her astrophysicist husband is introduced he seems quiet and loving and I was hopeful that this would also be an acute examination of marriage/love but it is not. He turns out to be a bit of a joke figure and there is little love between them. Similarly the hyper-intelligent twin children are slightly cliched. But there are a lot of characters in this book who all have a role to play in Eva’s search for answers so perhaps it’s best that they are not all as complex and real as she is.

In some ways this books reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – both books take an ordinary person who becomes a temporary celebrity for an odd reason, who becomes the unlikely focus of admirers and newspaper stories and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and is disconcerted by this. I suppose it’s a comment on modern life and celebrity and society, but I found it a little hard to believe that people would really get caught up by the story of a woman who decided to take to her bed (though there is a little more to it than that).

Of course, what this book does have in spades is humour. I laughed out loud time and again. It was a real tonic for a bad day and an interesting, perhaps not complete change but certainly slight deviation in focus for Townsend.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Penguin.

Musical interlude: The Bookshop Band

I have heard The Bookshop Band on the radio a couple of times now and I think they’re great. They’re actually local to me, brilliantly, so I will try to check them out live. But for now, here’s a video they made.

“A shop with books in” – a song inspired by bookshops, written for Independent Booksellers’ Week 2012 by The Bookshop Band from The Bookshop Band on Vimeo.

The defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest

by Zadie Smith

A couple of days after finishing this book I am still uncertain of my reaction to it. I don’t mean whether it was good or bad, exactly – I definitely enjoyed the read – but trying to dig deeper than that I am full of uncertainty.

The narrative slips between stream of consciousness, first and third person, and what I suppose you might call soundscape. This sounds like it would be hard to follow and it occasionally is, but for the most part the story is clear. Inasmuch as there is a single story, that is. I am still wrestling with that.

The novel follows three characters in turn, two of whom are much more closely linked than the third. All live in north-west London, in the NW postcode area, hence the title. This is an area I know a little, having friends there, so it was interesting to read a “native” (Smith is herself from NW) description of places such as Kilburn that I know as a frequent visitor.

NW seems preoccupied by wealth, class and the attitudes of people toward each other, both within and outside their social groups. It examines aspiration, ambition and the lack of those things. But it also looks at identity, how we see ourselves and how others see us and how those things rarely match up, even between partners or best friends.

“To Leah it was sitting room, to Natalie living room, to Marcia lounge…Shadows had been passing over the walls of this house since 1888 sitting, living, lounging. On a good day Natalie prided herself on small differences, between past residents, present neighbours and herself…At other times…she had the defeating sense that her own shadow was identical to all the rest, and to the house next door, and the house next door to that.”

These are some big ideas and it’s to Smith’s credit that it reads like a beautifully written story of modern life, not a philosophical treatise. Smith somehow even gets away with writing in dialect, which I usually hate. It’s sharply observed and occasionally very funny.

“Outside he tried to calm himself and realign with the exuberant mood in the street. The sun was an incitement, collapsing day into night. Young bluds had stripped to their bare chests as if in a nightclub already.”

The characters are wonderfully real, complex bundles of contradiction, with interesting flaws and believable back stories, most of which lead back to the same Willesden council estate. Certainly, for a novel preoccupied by ideas of class and self-improvement, there are few scenes of wealth, with the bulk of the story following those who struggle for money (and by that I mean the lower middle class style of money struggles as well as true hand-to-mouth difficulties). In fact, there were a couple of dinner party scenes that seemed so anti-middle-class that I actually cringed.

So the novel is not without fault. The stream of consciousness is perhaps too occasional, the book is divided into very short sections, speech is indicated in different ways in different places (quote marks, no quote marks, dashes, transcript) and there are a couple of complete breaks such as a chapter typeset in the shape of a tree, which between them smacked a little of trying to be literary. It’s also perhaps a little disconnected. I felt there needed to be a more even degree of overlap between the stories.

I haven’t let myself peek yet, but I hear this novel has had some controversial reviews in the press, so I’m now off to check what the Observer had to say… Any of you read this already? Managed to bag yourself an advance copy or rushed out on publication day to buy it? Did it meet your expectations?

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published September 2012 by Penguin.

Some had a whole epic, others just a verse

Song-of-AchillesSong of Achilles
by Madeline Miller

I must admit, when I started hearing about this book everywhere, it intimidated me. I mean, it’s based on The Iliad, which I know I should have read but haven’t because it’s always struck me as likely to be hardgoing. But then everyone was just so enthusiastic that I thought, well I might give it a go. And then Simon of Savidge Reads kindly arranged with the publishers to give some copies to his readers and I was one of the lucky winners. And oh man am I glad. Best book of this year so far, no question.

What Miller has done is to take a relatively minor character – Patroclus – and follow his life through his voice. From a quick scan of Wikipedia I think she has changed some details but broadly followed the original story, just filling in the gaps with her amazing imagination.

Miller completely brings it all to life. There is no question that you are in Ancient Greece, that life is tough and war is brewing, and let’s not forget that I am no fan of war stories, but the narrative that Miller weaves had me entranced from start to finish.

The story is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which begins as friendship between boys, with Patroclus learning what it means to get to know a demi-god:

“He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”

Miller’s innovation is to concentrate on the love story rather than the war and gods and adventuring, although that is all there as well. Apparently Plato considered the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus to be the ideal of romantic love, though it wasn’t made explicit in The Iliad and the exact nature of their relationship has been debated for centuries. Well, Miller makes no bones about it. This book makes it 100% clear and explicit that they are gay lovers. And in the most beautiful, heartbreaking, “life depends on this love” type of way. It is achingly romantic but never mushy. Because these are manly men. I mean, Achilles is a half-god-half-man warrior of legendary fury and skill.

Which brings me to another aspect of the story I was apprehensive of: this is a world where life includes gods and fantasy creatures and prophecies and magic. Miller handles this brilliantly. The historical setting allows people to be uncertain of the truth about stories they have heard about gods etc but superstitious enough to just accept magic when it appears. This is a very human story but somehow magical as well. In every respect of that word:

“‘She says that there is strangeness among the gods, that they are fighting with each other, taking sides in the war. She fears that the gods have promised me fame, but not how much.’
“This was a new worry I had not considered. But of course: our stories had many characters. Great Perseus, or modest Peleus. Heracles or almost-forgotten Hylas. Some had a whole epic, others just a verse.”

I’m not sure I am successfully communicating the beauty of this book, so you will just have to read it for yourself:

“This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head.”

Handily, The Readers is running a new book club and this is the first book on the reading list, podcast due imminently. And if you’re interested in the review that sparked my interest, you can check it out on Savidge Reads, here.

First published 2011 by Bloomsbury. Paperback edition published 2012.
Winner of the Orange Prize 2012.

Sunday Salon: Celebrating 10 years

The Sunday Salon

Not 10 years of the blog; I’m not that with it! No, this week Tim and I celebrated 10 years together with a holiday in Cambridge. I’d not been before, though I felt like I knew it well from books, films and TV, but it was a real treat to go and soak up the centuries of learning. So much great architecture, culture, science and art. Far too much for a week in fact! At least, it is when you take frequent breaks for pleasant walks, reading books and eating delicious food.

The classic view of the River Cam, complete with punts and bridges, and I think that’s the back of King’s College.
The classic view

Plenty of narrow cobbled streets and a little less plenty of sunshine.
A glimpse of blue sky

Some seriously impressive architecture and interior décor at these colleges, for instance this hall at Queens’ College.
Restored to magnificence

Plus lots of bookshops, lots of green spaces and bikes everywhere (though not that many actually being ridden while we were there; not sure if that’s because it’s outside of term time or because my expectations were skewed by living in the Cycling City that is Bristol). I took approximately a bajillion photos, a lot of which were on film, so my Flickr photo set will grow, if you’re interested.