Recent reads in brief

I seem to have been reading so quickly for a few weeks there that I am way behind on reviews again, so here are a few quickies.

lifeboatThe Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan

This is the story of Grace, survivor of a 1914 ocean liner disaster. We learn at the start that she survived for three weeks in a lifeboat and is now facing trial for her life. She narrates the story of the shipwreck and Lifeboat 14, gradually revealing the crime she now stands accused of.

Most of the boat’s occupants are upper class women, and as such practical matters quickly fall to a small number of characters. Grace is young, recently married to a rich man, but her background is murky, as are her actions. Throughout a fairly suspenseful, exciting story she muses on matters of guilt and innocence, on character traits and social status. She watches alliances being formed, gossip spreading, moments of human strength and weakness. But ultimately Grace is a frustrating narrator. She rarely places herself in the story, and when she does her position is often unclear. Is she as weak and on the fence as she seems or is it an act? The whole narrative is being written as a piece of evidence for her lawyers, so she has a clear motive to paint her actions whiter than they perhaps were. I like ambiguity and unreliable narrators, but I found the hints at Grace’s unreliability were a little too hidden. And for a lot of the start of the novel I found the uselessness of the majority of the women incredibly annoying.

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Poverty is romanticised only by fools

very good livesVery Good Lives
by J K Rowling

I was commissioned to write some short comments about this book for For Books’ Sake, but I found that I had more to say than I could squeeze into 150 words, so here is my longer review.

This is Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, published for the first time in book form. Taking as her subjects “the fringe benefits of failure” and “the importance of imagination”, Rowling shares the wisdom of her own experience with the new graduates. Some of her comments and advice are profound, some less so. Some of it is old and familiar, some new and original.

As you might expect of a speech that took maybe 20 minutes to give, this isn’t a big book, even though to bulk it out the publisher has added illustrations to every page by Joel Holland, in bold black and red. His style is so-so but the overall effect still makes the book feel special and beautiful.

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Under the skin

Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin

This is the book that turned Murakami from successful author to superstar and sent him running into hiding in the US. It’s certainly a more “straightforward”, accessible narrative than he is generally known for, but it is still undeniably, brilliantly him.

Toru tells us the story of his student days in Tokyo, from 1968 to 1970, and the friends and lovers who mattered to him and even changed him in those formative years. Against a backdrop of free love, student protests and Beatles songs, we learn how Toru’s best friend Kizuki killed himself when they were 17. A year later, completely by chance, Toru bumps into Naoko who had been Kizuki’s girlfriend since they were small children. Unsure of what to say to each other but united by their grief that holds them apart from the rest of the world, they start spending time together. Toru falls headlong in love with Naoko even while he knows she can never love him.

While Naoko’s difficulty in dealing with life gets worse and worse, Toru meets another woman, one who could not be more different. Where Naoko is delicate, feminine and non-communicative, Midori is a blaze of talkative modernity, with short hair and a tendency to get way-too-open about sex. She also has a boyfriend, albeit one Toru never meets, just as she never meets Naoko.

A large chunk of the start of this novel was a short story in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which I read quite recently, and this threw me at first. The language is beautiful, the characters so very detailed and real, the setting vividly alive but as Naoko and Toru held themselves apart, so I found myself at arm’s length from the story – observing rather than drawn in. It was really only with the introduction of Midori that this book came to life for me. I really loved her character. She is no more “ordinary” or run-of-the-mill than Toru or Naoko, but she has a joy and spirit that uplifted the story, even when terrible things were happening.

While there’s no surrealism or magical story twists here, what there is plenty of is Murakami’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of people and everyday life. Even when nothing much is happening, I was thoroughly enjoying every word. A simple description of daily life in a student dorm could have me laughing out loud, a casual conversation over a noodle lunch have me grinning in recognition. But there is also a lot of pain – the ordinary pain of growing up and facing adulthood plus the added pain of death, loss, unrequited love, psychological trauma. It’s a beautiful and moving story.

First published as Noruwei no mori in 1987 by Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo.
This translation published 2000 by the Harvill Press.

Fingers on the buzzers

Starter for Ten
by David Nicholls

I am deliberately not looking at my review of One Day just yet, but I suspect I have similar things to say. This book is funny, nostalgic and cringeingly true to life. Not as moving or romantic as One Day but definitely close in style.

Now, I made the mistake of watching the film before reading the book. I try not to do that if I can and this is a classic example of why. Even though it’s a few years since I watched the film, through at least the first half of the book I unfailingly pictured and heard James McAvoy in the lead role rather than conjuring up my own version. And the other distraction for me was also partly the film’s fault. The book is set in an unnamed English university city but the film was definitely Bristol, so I kept searching the text for clues as to whether it was a specific, unnamed (even slightly disguised) city or a genuine made-up mishmash. I’m still not sure (though if it is Bristol then there are definitely some errant details).

But enough of that. The book follows Brian’s first year at university, in 1985. He’s working class mixing with the middle classes and very very aware of it. He’s also a bit of a tosser (and he knows that and he means well, so he’s likeable most of the time). He’s read a lot and absorbed a lot of facts, and hasn’t yet grasped that this doesn’t necessarily make him clever or wise or discerning. He’s grappling with typical 18/19-year-old issues such as acne and relationships and making new friends and how (or if) you keep old friends when your life has changed and theirs haven’t; all while figuring out that university is supposed to be about getting an education. So he goes and complicates it all from the start by applying to be on the University Challenge team.

These days I can’t imagine a fresher getting a look-in at “The Challenge” but perhaps it was less popular in the 1980s? Or maybe this university advertised really poorly? Either way, both Brian and super attractive (and aware of it) first-year Alice get accepted and so begins a series of – mostly excruciatingly embarrassing – attempts by Brian to seduce Alice. Which he does while simultaneously ignoring the very lovely and far more suited to him Rebecca.

Brian has sentimental reasons for applying to be on University Challenge – most of his remaining memories of his dead father are of the two of them watching it on telly together. His grief is dealt with very well, I thought. Brian doesn’t dwell on it and has reached the stage where he tells people before they say something they might later regret, but he does occasionally cry still. He is very conflicted about how other people react and I think this was one of things that made me feel warmest toward him.

I enjoyed this book, and laughed out loud at times, but I have reservations. The main one being that, never having been a teenage boy myself, I found it very hard to read about Brian’s more disgusting/selfish side (does the boy ever wash?) and not be completely put off. I also must admit that it doesn’t feel particularly original. It relies heavily on the nostalgia factor and to some extent that did work for me (who ever thought we’d be waxing nostalgic over Woolworths?) but…I’m not sure it’s enough.

First published 2003 by Hodder & Staughton