A bit of festive cheer

Comfort and Joy
by India Knight

Some people might classify this as chicklit, not my usual genre, but as Dervla would say this time of year, this is no ordinary chicklit; this is chicklit that absolutely completely struck a chord with me. Plus, it’s Christmassy.

Clara is 40 and is scrambling around Oxford Street on 23 December to complete the perfect Christmas she has planned for her 16 guests, including her three children, husband and ex-husband. The book follows her through the ensuing mayhem of family, friends and Christmas.

Knight mercilessly mocks the middle-class boreishness. I mean, these people are London middle class, which is a whole separate sub-class of its own. They obsess over the provenance of their food (in fact, food in general) and PTA meetings and how to give their children everything without spoiling them. Clara herself is painfully aware that these are not issues most of the world has the luxury of worrying about and besides, she finds it boring. What happened to those youthful days of discussing politics?

There are some painfully real moments and Clara can be a little vicious in her own mind, but she loves the people around her and this shines through. Her sisters are particularly wonderful characters and their shared history and language are joyous to be part of.

I laughed out loud many a time but I also appreciated the main “lesson” that Clara learns – that your true family is the one that’s there for you, the people who “taught me to swim, and everything that that’s shorthand for” as she puts it. Broken marriages and jumbled extended families may be nothing new but I suspect there’s still a lot of people out there trying to negotiate the tricky waters of which parents, step-parents, half-brothers and ex-step-granddads they keep in touch with. It’s always nice to know that someone else is struggling with the same issue.

Knight has got right into the Christmas tradition by writing about Christmas past, present and future. I loved that touch, though the future Christmas was rather less bleak than Dickens’. If you’re not one for making a fuss about Christmas, this may not be the book for you. But I loved it. I stayed up far too late into the night to finish it and then felt a little sad that it was over so soon.

Merry Christmas and happy holiday reading!

Published 2010 by Penguin.

Boys will be boys

Slam
by Nick Hornby

I’ve read Nick Hornby books before and I’m reasonably certain that I liked them. So I was a bit disappointed to find that I was so, well, disappointed with this one.

The story is narrated by Sam, a teenage boy, which was the first thing that grated. Not that it was done badly. In fact it was probably the realism of the narrative voiced that made it so irritating. This is not a smart or interesting kid. It’s a slightly dumb, largely boring, typical teenage boy. I don’t usually mind disliking a main character but I think I still need to be interested in them. This kid skateboards, talks to his Tony Hawk poster, is a little clueless about girls but still somehow pulls the first pretty girl he tells us about, rarely sees the couple of friends he names and doesn’t have a lot to say about school, except that he likes art and is apparently good enough to stand a chance of going to art college. So he’s either dull or not very well fleshed out. I suspect it’s mostly the former but a little bit of the latter too.

I know that sounds harsh. And maybe if you’re a young guy you’ll totally relate to Sam. But even if I don’t relate to a character I usually feel that I have learned something by being in their shoes for the length of a book. I didn’t learn anything here. I mean, who couldn’t figure out for themselves that teen pregnancy is hard?

Yup, that’s the subject matter. It’s hinted at for a while before it’s said outright but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say it here. And I suspect this is a realistic portrayal in many respects, but it doesn’t get into many of the issues surrounding the subject, really. Mostly it’s a boy whining about how shit it is that he got his girlfriend pregnant even though they used a condom. And if it had been written differently I might have sympathised, but I really didn’t. The writing was easygoing enough that I read on but the entire book was predictable and the end was irritatingly nicey nice.

But the worst bit was the time travel. Yes, you read that right. Possibly in a bid to make the book actually interesting, Hornby has his main character travel into the future randomly, without warning. The first time it happens, you can maybe write it off as a dream, or rather a nightmare of the “oh my god I have an exam and I haven’t revised at all and I may have forgotten how to write my name” variety. But no, we’re supposed to accept that this actually happens, with no explanation or scientificness of any nature. It’s just weird and out of place and made me dislike a book I was already dubious about.

First published 2007 by Penguin.

Fun with guns

Out of Sight
by Elmore Leonard

I’m reasonably certain I saw the film of this shortly after it came out and I remember absolutely nothing about it, which isn’t generally a sign of quality. I can’t be sure until some time has passed but I think the book was better.

I’ve been meaning to read some Elmore Leonard for years. He’s often called the king of crime fiction and has won numerous awards. I would have liked to start with something from earlier in his career but this was what the library had. He’s been writing novels and screenplays since 1953 and is still going strong. That’s one long career. This is one of his more famous titles and even spawned a short-lived TV series so it probably wasn’t a bad start point.

The story arch is basically a love story, that of serial bankrobber Jack Foley, just escaped from his third spell in prison, and beautiful, hard-nut federal marshal Karen Cisco, who managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Foley was making his escape. In their brief time together an odd bond is established that neither can shake, even though next time they meet they may have to accept that they’re on opposite sides.

It’s not the best writing in the world. And the copy editing was atrocious. There were often words missing, making sentences nonsensical. Leonard’s much-lauded dialogue was very Pulp Fiction, which no doubt I should be saying the other way round, with discussions between characters jumping from how to avoid the cops to a funny news story they just read, or obsessing about clothes. It makes a big difference to the readability of what could otherwise be a very gritty story. There’s some serious crimes going down here, with some not very nice people involved, but Foley and his sidekick – the appropriately named Buddy – are classic loveable rogues and it’s hard, reading this, not to wish that there were some way that Foley and Cisco could believably end up together.

This was an enjoyable, quick read. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next, I felt that was fairly predictable (though maybe I did have a vague memory of the film after all) but I definitely did care about the characters. At some point I will definitely come back to Leonard’s rather large back catalogue.

First published in the US in 1996 by Dell Publishing.

Not as sweet as it sounds

The Heart of a Dog
by Mikhail Bulgakov
translated from Russian by Michael Glenny

This book was selected for our local book group, partly because most of us had never read any of “the Russians”. Including me, unless Nabokov counts (I’ve only read Lolita, which he wrote in English, and he left Russia when he was 18 so it’s a bit tenuous).

I’ve always wanted to explore this group of authors but didn’t know where to start. The Heart of a Dog was probably a good choice in that it’s short and easy to read, but it’s crammed full of analogies to history and politics that I suspect I’m not familiar enough with to get the most out of it. I did study the Russian Revolution as part of A-level history but that was a few years ago now and I had rubbish teachers.

The story is a combination of the real setting of Moscow in 1924–25 and the surreal. Rich, successful Professor Preobrazhensky appears to be protected from the ravages of the Party by his specialism – STDs and “sexual rejuvenation” – and when he first picks up a scarred, mistreated stray dog and takes him back to a plush apartment it seems like a sweet friendship is developing. But the professor has more sinister reasons for adding to his household and the Party sees an opportunity to hold the rich man to account for continuing to have more rooms and more money than anyone else in the building.

A lot of the book is narrated by the dog, which sounds bizarre but is actually very well done. Bulgakov uses humour and empathy to create a novel viewpoint of the poorest of the poor. I liked the logic given for the dog being able to understand most of what is said around him and the way he loyally repeated his master’s political views without understanding them. When the surreal part of the story takes over and switches to a conventional third-person narrative, I found it harder to connect with the characters I had previously liked immensely. I began questioning my previous judgement and was uncertain I liked where the plot was going. But although the undercurrent is one of fear, this book doesn’t get too dark or scary.

I liked how, as the book went on, the descriptions of the professor’s assistant, Dr Bormenthal, get increasingly canine, referring to him as loyal and faithful and having been rescued from poverty by the professor, just like the dog. I also found the book genuinely funny, much of it mocking the Party, so I was not surprised to learn that the manuscript was confiscated from Bulgakov and not published until after his death.

For such a short book, this book was able to generate a reasonable amount of discussion in our group. We talked about whether you can enjoy this as a story without worrying about analogies and historical context, what that professor character was really up to, where Bulgakov’s sympathies lay, the development of the dog character and particular moments and phrases that stood out for us. It was postulated that the distancing of the narration was a deliberate ploy to make the reader look more analytically at the characters. That made a lot of sense to me.

I’m not sure I would ever had read this book without the book club so thanks Bedminster Bugbear for choosing it!

First published (in this translation) in Great Britain in 1968 by The Harvill Press.

Flabby round the edges

Arthur & George
by Julian Barnes

The only other Barnes book I’ve read was Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about 100 pages long, so this great heavy thing is a bit of a change and yet in many ways the same. It’s based on actual historical events, drawn heavily from police records, diaries, letters, newspapers etc, relating to some very famous people at the turn of the twentieth century. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker prize and for a while it seemed to be everywhere and yet I somehow picked this up without having a clue what it was about, which I’m glad of.

My reaction to this book fluctuated a lot while reading. I borrowed it from the library (my first library loan since leaving university, and I only went there to try out the cafe, which turned out to be closed) and at several points I found myself wishing I’d bought it because I was enjoying it so much, only to change my mind a chapter or two later and be relieved that I’d not spent any money on it.

Why the variation? It’s a well written book, with some brilliant turns of phrase and some of the best characterisation I’ve encountered in a while but the same excruciatingly slow build-up that results in those thoroughly fleshed out, believable characters also means that the storyline drags. A lot. Although there are events that are the intended focal point of the story, they get a little lost among everything else that is detailed, often minutely. And that could be deliberate. The George of the title is a very detail-oriented person, for one thing. But this is also, to some extent, a detective story and every detail could turn out to be vital. Or to be a red herring.

The story follows the two title characters in turn, with occasional joint chapters when their paths cross, which is an effective way of pointing out the similarities and differences between their lives, but the timeline was not entirely linear and it became clear that it was carefully constructed so that information was revealed in a specific order, deliberately leading the reader to react one way and then another.

Partly because I came to this book so free from spoilers, partly because I believe it’s written in a way that suggests certain details are intended as clever twists that shouldn’t be given away by reviewers, I can’t mention some of the things that I most want to talk about without a big fat ** spoiler alert **, so here it is: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you haven’t read this book and think you might want to. Okay?

So, this may in fact be widely known by everyone except me (me about two weeks ago, that is) but the Arthur of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle and this book is a sort-of novelised biography of him, from birth to death, concentrating in particular on a criminal case that he got involved in when he decided that there had been a miscarriage of justice. It was big news at the time, with headlines screaming “Sherlock Holmes investigates” and led to the creation of the Court of Appeal. It’s quite amazing that the story isn’t better known, really. Anyway, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan and fascinated by anything related, so I was saddened to discover that I didn’t like the depiction of Doyle presented here. I liked the story of his childhood, told concurrently with that of George, despite it later being revealed that George was actually almost 20 years his junior, and I empathised with some of the events in Arthur’s life, but he comes across as a self-absorbed, brash person with some rather backward misogynist ideas, even for the time.

George is a cold, and yet curiously sympathetic character. He of course suffers from a great miscarriage of justice, so there’s that in his favour, but I felt that for much of the book the possibility that he might in fact be guilty was kept alive and there were a few occasions when I wondered if that was why these events have been forgotten. The fact that George’s surname is Edalji, inherited from his Indian-born father, is saved until a long way into the book. By this point George has spent his childhood and early adulthood suffering from various forms of bullying and with hindsight it seems likely that the colour of his skin was at least a factor, but by not being aware of that fact at the time the reader is led to be curious about why George is continually picked on and called “not quite right”. Maybe Barnes chose this route because George himself states later on that he doesn’t think race was a factor, or at least not the main factor, in his victimisation, and he considers himself as much an Englishman as any other man born in England. Is he being generous to his torturers with this statement or is he in fact more astute than others who jump to the “it’s racism” conclusion just because he’s not white?

In all, this was certainly absorbing, as the tagline on the cover promised, but it did suffer a little from including too much beyond the end of the Edalji case. There’s a long section at the end set after Arthur’s death that I felt was entirely extraneous. I lost the sense of pleasure I had built up and closed the book for the last time feeling mostly bored. It’s a real shame because for long sections of this book I loved it.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.

Future possible?

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

I generally trust the SF Masterworks series to be of a high enough standard that I can pick any of its titles and I greatly enjoy scouring the shelves in Forbidden Planet in search of a new read. This was one of my random picks and, as usual, proved to be excellent despite my never having heard of it before.

This book centres around a small group of characters who are outsiders in various ways, a glimpse of the future of humanity, the next development beyond Homo sapiens. The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and there are a couple of big jumps in time that have to be filled in by recall. This is something the author repeats – you are just getting to know a character well and then suddenly the story switches in time and perspective so that you’re lost again and need to piece together how this fits with the previous section.

It’s a valid reflection of the main characters’ experience. Because they are different, but take a while to understand their differences, they spend time struggling to fit in to the rest of society before discovering their place.

Their place seems to be together. As a group they can function as one sort-of superhuman, which is a very interesting idea and one that could have been explored over a lot more pages. But this book is a nice length and manages to fit in background, self-discovery, group functioning, romance, disagreements, relationships with “normal” humans and a lot more besides. I was a little discomfited by the ending, which seemed to go a bit religious experience-y.

The first character we get to know well is Lone, an adult with learning and possibly social difficulties. He is not named for a long time and his section, of drifting through the world being misunderstood/hated for no reason until he seems to find his place was very powerful. Sturgeon has done an impressive job of fully fleshing out a character who speaks only a handful of words and never truly understands what he is a part of.

I hugely enjoyed this book. SF Masterworks has yet to let me down!

First published in 1953.

Under their skin

The Black Album
by Hanif Kureishi

Despite having been written 15 years ago, this book is very relevant to the world of today, giving a frighteningly believable insight into the world of British Asians. I say “frightening” because the story’s main theme is Muslim fundamentalism and it definitely gets scary.

Shahid was raised in well-to-do south-east England and moves to London to study at college and get away from the family business. He is tired of being looked down on for his bookishness and wants to experience “real life”. Quiet and studious, he finds himself a little lonely and excluded, so when a group of British-Asian neighbours led by the charismatic Riaz reach out to befriend him, he is eager to please them. Although it is clear from the start that the relationship is all about what they can get from him (his clothes, his typing skills, his links to some college professors, his good looks) Shahid doesn’t seem to notice the bizarre nature of their interaction and agrees to everything he is asked, even when it places him in danger.

At about the same time, Shahid’s favourite college professor Deedee prompts the start of a relationship that is almost the opposite in nature – it is loving, giving, free-spirited, frenzied, with a cacophony of drugs and wild parties interlaced with their bedroom adventures. It is against college rules, which concerns Shahid, but it is also against Allah, which concerns his new friends and his life turns into a tug of war between the two.

Set in 1989, one of the main storylines is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Though he and the book in question are not named directly, his previous works are and the themes of the book are discussed a lot. The fundamentalist group are keen to get behind the fatwa and have the book banned in their district, despite not having read it. This is the point when Shahid tries his hardest to stand up to them, touching as it does directly on something that he loves dearly. The other time that he argues hard in favour of something is when he is asked to give up his music collection, including his dearly beloved Black Album by Prince.

The central themes of religious groups trying to change the world to fit their views and book banning/censorship are interesting ones but frustratingly, as is too often the case in life, they are not really debated here. Too few of the characters are willing to openly debate matters so attempts at discussion quickly flounder.

What this book does not include – and I would have to guess that this is deliberate – is any more moderately religious characters. There are fundamentalists and there are non-believers. At one point Shahid’s sister-in-law berates him for going to the mosque to pray, saying that she thought he was raised better than that. The viewpoint is very much that religion is for the uneducated, the great unwashed, and is essential to teach them basic morality and keep them in line. But once a person has money and education it becomes useless, or worse, dangerous.

In fact there are few if any moderate characters. Deedee’s life is outrageously liberal, a sea of raves, sex and drugs. Shahid’s brother Chili also seems to be caught up in this world of drugs and is spiralling downward from what was once a comfortable married life. I suppose this is to make Shahid’s choice more even, because he is so level-headed and rational that it would be hard to believe he’d stay involved with the fundamentalists if he had a more straightforward alternative. But that might also be a more interesting story, if the author had had to dig down into what would keep Shahid with the “brothers” if the alternative wasn’t a level of drink and drugs that’s beyond the average student life, so far as I’m aware. Maybe the author is trying to be equally stereotypical on both sides of the coin. There are no greatly sympathetic characters.

The threats and violence escalate, making this work better as a thriller than as a social study. There is a prescient storyline about a bomb in a London tube station and Shahid walking miles across the city in the aftermath. It’s never clear whether the bomb is related to fundamentalism or race tensions, but that’s certainly the implication.

There are moments of humour. The book begins with one of the “brothers” persuading Shahid that he has lost all of Riaz’s clothes, so Shahid will have to give him all the clothes he wants. Later on a local Muslim claims to find a message from God in an aubergine and the vegetable becomes a minor attraction, with attempts to get in installed in the town hall. But each of these is bound up with threats and violence, so that the ridiculous becomes something more frightening than if it were rational.

It’s a well written book, full of passion and anger, but it’s not an easy read. I found it hard to sympathise with Shahid for getting into trouble by failing to say no at key points. He is too meek and obedient a hero for my taste, though that’s probably supposed to be a product of his upbringing.

Published 1995 by Faber and Faber.

Fluffy as fluff should be

The Learning Curve
by Melissa Nathan

You may notice that this is not my usual fare. There’s a lot of pink on the cover and big curly letters, with testimonial quotes from B magazine and Jilly Cooper. You got me – it’s chick-lit. And not well written, wittily observed, you-could-almost-call-this-literary-fiction chick-lit either. But I needed a day of mindless entertainment and, much like a Friends boxset, this provided it.

I haven’t read anything approaching this genre since I was a teenager so I’m not entirely sure how this compares with others of its kind, but I’m sure chick-lit authors don’t expect to be compared to Milan Kundera or Bret Easton Ellis and that’s fine. I don’t deny that a lot of the books I read require a bit of work to get my head round, or just to get into, and I definitely see the attraction of sinking straight into a story from page one.

This isn’t good literature. There were no phrases or descriptions that made me smile at the choice of language. I didn’t find myself transported to a place I’ve never been or start thinking deep thoughts about life, the universe and everything. It was enjoyable, in a guilty kind of way (again, much like Friends). The characters were both familiar and realistic enough to be interested in and the storyline kept me hooked. Perhaps more importantly, on a day when I was pretty much exhausted, a state in which I normally struggle to read, I was happily devouring this without getting a headache.

The storyline is simple. Nicky Hobbs is a primary school teacher who always wanted kids but hasn’t got her man yet. Now she’s turned 30 she’s discovered she also has ambition in the workplace and she worries that she’ll have to choose between career and motherhood. If a man comes along to make the latter an option, that is. As it happens, two men start showing an interest. Rob is a fellow teacher at her school and her ex. They’ve been friends for years since the break-up but the flirtation seems to have subtly changed lately. Then there’s Mark, father to Nicky’s favourite pupil and a workaholic absent father, and single parent. Cue lots of agonising over life-changing decisions and also more minor ones like wardrobe choices, pouring out of hearts to close girl friends and misunderstandings that take months to be cleared up.

The twists and turns of the story are obvious from a mile off and this occasionally grated. The phrasing seemed to suggest that I should be surprised at this, that or the other when I was just thinking ‘About bloody time.’ The debate about career versus motherhood is an interesting one and the differences between parenting styles is also something I’m interested in. They weren’t explored in great depth but they gave a little bit of background colour. There was a decent extended cast of characters who were all fully fleshed out and the dialogue was realistic and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. The school is the setting for a lot of the book and at times it felt like I was reading a novelisation of Teachers, which is a series I loved so that’s probably a compliment. The bitchiness and cliquiness of the staff room, the sudden changes of allegiance when a relationship is formed or breaks up or a promotion opportunity is announced, the division between those who genuinely love teaching and those who don’t – all felt familiar and provided much of the humour. Nicky herself is a fairly typical white middle-class British woman who worries about whether she looks good and what people think of her but is also determined to have a career on equal terms to any man. Not exactly a feminist but a reasonable approximation of how a lot of women I know think.

I probably won’t seek out other books by this author – which there aren’t many of because Melissa Nathan sadly died of breast cancer shortly after completing this novel, aged just 37 – but if I find myself in that same state of exhaustion without a TV again and another of her books happens to be handy for borrowing, I’ll accept the offer.

Published 2006 by Arrow Books.

Warmth behind the sadness

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

I have been putting off reading this book for years because I expected a very dark, heavygoing affair. In fact, though it’s hardly light reading, it was much more readable and warm than anticipated. And, of course, the language is exquisite.

Plath had clearly borrowed heavily from her own life in this tale of New England college girl Esther Greenwood who is winning writing prizes and attracting men and has the world at her feet but somehow feels distant from it all, as though she doesn’t fit in, as if the rest of the life stretching out before her is terrifying and dull. As she recedes into herself her depression worsens and a long series of doctors and potential cures are tried.

So it goes to some dark places, certainly. Esther develops an obsession with methods of suicide, collecting press cuttings and secretly reading the scandal sheets. But her tone throughout is chatty and open, with amusingly catty descriptions of the people around her and a sense of humour even when she’s talking about death or when she’s confused and hallucinating due to drugs or lack of sleep.

I should have thought, considering the real life of the author, that this is a very genuine, realistic account of depression and I find it interesting that, while there are moments of melancholia and sadness, that isn’t the overriding theme or tone of the narrative. It’s more about loneliness, being somehow different, not understanding and being convinced that everyone else does understand and is together and fits in. Though of course the realisation that that isn’t true isn’t a cure for Esther, it is a step forward.

Knowing a little about the author from newspaper articles, excerpts of her journals and the film Sylvia (which I loved) I did find it a little creepy reading the parts that I knew were closely if not directly autobiographical. Chills down the spine may be a good effect for some books to achieve but here it was horror tinged with deep sorrow.

I definitely recommend this to everyone. The language is beautiful and yet straightforward. It’s not a hard read but it does effectively cover a hard subject.

First published 1963 by William Heinemann.

See also: reviews by Novel Insights and Farm Lane Books.

The savage beast who’s innocent

Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre

It’s Booker season again, and in honour of Tuesday’s announcement I thought I would read and review one of the former prizewinners from my TBR. This was the 2003 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

This book kind of smacks you in the face and forces you to keep reading. It’s rough, savage even, with the darkest of dark humour and language that reminded me of Hunter S Thompson or William Burroughs. But with more swearing.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it greatly. It didn’t take me long to read and I frequently laughed out loud. But I still felt a little bit like I’d been assaulted with someone’s secretest dirtiest fantasy. Disturbing. But funny.

The story is told by teenager Vernon Gregory Little whose best friend Jesus took a gun to school and massacred his classmates before killing himself. The only witness is so badly wounded he can’t speak, which means he can’t confirm that Vernon wasn’t there. A series of people and events bewilder Vernon into incriminating himself and soon the whole country is baying for his blood.

Vernon isn’t a sweet likeable misunderstood hero. He’s a foul-mouthed, judgemental, difficult, slimy piece of work who struggles to say anything coherent out loud and I didn’t empathise with him very often (though there was a bit of a reveal at the end that made me like him more). But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the way he describes his life, people and places. Some of the phrasing is actually quite beautiful, yet still distinctly him. There were some very original descriptions that I went back to re-read and even underlined, which I hadn’t done in years. Here’s one:

“A shimmer rises off the hood of Pam’s ole Mercury. Martirio’s tight-assed buildings quiver through it, oil pumpjacks melt and sparkle along the length of Gurie Street…all the money, and folk’s interest in fixing things, parade around the center of town, then spread outwards in a dying wave…Just a broken ole muffler shop on the outskirts; no more sprinklers, no more lawns.”

This kind of language isn’t all that easy to read at first but you soon get into it and it adds an awful lot to the characterisation. As long as you don’t mind lots of swearing.

Sometimes this book got so dark and twisted that I wondered if I was meant to take it as satire, rather than sort-of realistic storyline of bad shit getting worse, and to be honest that never became clear. Certainly the involvement of the media seemed more satirical than anything. It’s definitely humour aimed at the worse aspects of modern American society, including obesity, consumerism and lazy policing.

One thing that did concern me – there are two men in this book who turn out to be guilty of taking advantage of boys in their care and it is suggested that Jesus (a mass murderer) may have been gay. There are no other gay characters. Perhaps the implication was unintentional, but it has a pretty homophobic whiff about it. Of course, that could just be part of the world view of Vernon, who isn’t the most open-minded teenager.

For a book with such a coarse, not particularly bright narrator, this is a clever book with some subtle plot development (no, really) and it definitely deserves the outpouring of praise and prizes it got.

Published 2003 by Faber and Faber.