When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman

4 Stars, 2 paws, bedtime reading for lounging in winter… which it nearly is, again. Sigh.

It’s been a while, both since I read this book and since I have blogged a proper book review. I’m determined to write reviews faster/shorter, and so clear my slightly epic backlog of books I’ve read in almost the past year. I think I read this one around about last Christmas.

Anyway, I liked it, it was a little bit like a Grimm’s fairytale for adults, where bad things happen (really bad things like abuse, illness and death), but the goodies stick together and things are kind of ok in the end. Make no mistake, the language and material are grown up, but the storytelling, especially the first part, which looks back on events during the narrator’s childhood and adolescence, has, at times, a dreamy quality, albeit tempered by an adult understanding of past events. It’s not a happy book, but well-written, and it’s not a happy story, but leaves you with a bit of hope.

 

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Backlog – the update

Hmm. I seem to have fallen off the blog-waggon completely. Here are some more books I’ve read recently and piled next to the desk for review, just to show that I haven’t forgotten this blog:

  • The Virginia Monologues (in its German translation) by Virginia Ironside (***)
  • Whatever It Takes by Adele Parks (*+*/2)
  • Ferney by James Long (***)
  • tschick by Wolfgang Herrndorf (yup, in the language of the Vaterland) (****+)
  • Reckless by Cornelia Funke (despite the title, this one is also in German) (***)
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (****)
  • Skios by Michael Frayn (**+)
  • The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler (****)
  • Vivien’s Heavenly Ice Cream Shop by Abby Clements (***)

Brief star ratings given, which I will justify in reviews in due course, summer should be more quiet…

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson (image from goodreads.com)

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson (image from goodreads.com)

4-5 Stars, 2 paws, chapters slightly long but still fine as a bedtime read, perfect for travel.

Do you have elderly relatives who are not beyond a little fib? I think grandfathers are most likely to fall into that category, but my late great-grandmother could hold her own as well when it came to tall tales and colourful embellishments of the mundane. The sad twist in the tale, at least in my family, is that it becomes difficult to decide where the fun ended and the dementia began, but I’m pretty sure that the stories were told long before the forgetting and confusion set in.

This book sounds a bit like those stories. It begins, and ends, with Allan Karlsson doing a bunk from the Old Folk’s home on his 100th birthday. The rest of the novel fills in both Allan’s lifestory and what happens next, and weaves an intriguing net taking in several key historical figures of the 20th century (Nixon, Mao, Stalin, to mention a few), as well as bombs, cases of murder/manslaughter, an escaped elephant and a motley crew of interesting people. I don’t want to give anything away by going into detail! It does so with a light and satirical touch and manages to stay entertaining by never taking itself too seriously, regardless of the darkness that lies underneath many of the events Allan somehow got himself muddled up in.

If you are willing to suspend your disbelief, secure in your 20th century history, and willing to come along for the ride, this is an enjoyable way to while away a few hours. It is also a reminder of many rich and long lives, even those that can no longer tell their own stories.

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My Backlog…

Things have been busy. Very busy. Not in any way due to troubling things, but just work and sleep and food and living taking up all my time. So I haven’t managed to blog. When I’ve promised to write up research papers and need to do about 100 different things on top of that, blogging simply falls off the end of the list.

I have managed to read – keeping the light on at night to read is, after all, slightly less annoying to partners than sitting up tapping away on a computer. Or so I tell myself when I’m too busy to sleep. I have even planned an essay-ish blog post about how reviewing books changes you as a reader. I just haven’t written any of these things yet. And will, in all honesty, not get around to clearing my backlog for a while. But the first step is admitting that it’s there, so here is what I have been reading, some of it started in October, along with a “flash” review (you are showing your age if you just heard the Flash Gordon theme tune…):

  • The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. Tall tales that resemble those my grandfather used to tell before the dementia locked him into the late 60’s, at least most of the time. Oddly good fun.
  • When God was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman. Quite dark material, but with a fairy-tale quality to it, and ultimately a story of family and survival.
  • Then Came You, by Jennifer Weiner. Some of the themes touched on in other novels (partner dying while surrogate is carrying baby, women having to grow up) explored in greater detail. Not as good as some of her other books, but still heads and shoulders above much of the other fare out there.
  • The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O’Farrell. A book about motherhood and families, not always happy, and most definitely dysfunctional. Rather cancels out that everything turns out ok with Jennifer Weiner’s novels. But also a haunting and rather good story.
  • Eating the Sun, by Oliver Morton. This is very well written, but took me about 4 months to get through, with lots of other books read in between. The author himself calls it “a long, odd book” in his acknowledgements, and it covers enough ground for 2-3 books.
  • Italian Neighbours, by Tim Parks. An arrival book about getting to know and falling in love with a new country. I can relate to that.
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Norah Ephron. She wanted you to think she is shallow and neurotic, but she isn’t. And when the mask falls, it will put a lump in your throat.
  • The Silver Linings Play Book, by Matthew Quick. I bought this before the movie came out, and I haven’t seen the flick. It has a flawed narrator with selective memory loss, which is a very effective plot device. Nearly made me stomp my foot with impatience when you glimpse an idea of the truth, but the first person narrator doesn’t want to know and veers off to something banal.
  • Ada’s Rules by Alice Randall. A novel-cum-diet book with a big message about looking after yourself. While primarily targeting black women in the US, if you are too busy to eat properly at least some of the time, you might just feel inspired to figure out what works for you, both in life and in nutrition.

So there we go. Plenty of reviews to come…

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The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend

Ratings: 2 stars, no paws, bedtime reading

Hmmmm. I have always enjoyed the dark and slightly desperate side of Adrian Mole, even in the later incarnations of his diaries and when there was a growing New Labour critical edge in them. And TWWWTBFAY seemed to do quite well in the bestseller charts and thus made for a satisfying supermarket bargain. I even kind of enjoyed reading it, but mostly because I was looking for the POINT, the crucial moment where it all becomes clear. And there was a flashback to a lost pregnancy and unresolved grief which might have been said point, but for me that was too little, too late.

It just seemed a rather self-indulgent thing of Eva, TWWWTBFAY, to take to her bed after her horrible teenage twins leave home to start at university. Her husband is a rather useless and hopeless human being, who also has carried on an affairs for years, her mother and mother-in-law are your average amount of self-obsessed, the twins are somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and she just doesn’t want to/can’t deal with it in any more. So she abdicates all responsibility and retires to her en-suite bedroom. Her builder/white van man basically supports her through a lot of this, even though he has more reason to take to his bed than she does, perhaps being able to sympathise. So do many of the people who come to see her, as she develops into a bit of a cult figure. It’s probably meant to be a satire of the cult of minor celebrity, as well as a damning indictment of the dysfunctionality of families, but to run with this interpretation you have to warm to the main characters, and I didn’t, with the exception of a lukewarm appreciation for Alexander, who seemed nice enough. Everybody else could have done with a serious talking to, administered at frequent and regular intervals.

But when the author biography and interview at the end of the book are more interesting than the book itself, I think we can safely conclude that I just didn’t particularly take to this book. Ah well. Moving swiftly onwards…

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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (image from Amazon.co.uk)

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (image from Amazon.co.uk)

3-4 stars, -3 paws, fine as bedtime or travel reading

I bought this on a weekend away to Dublin, and because I can never resist small, independent bookshops. Let’s face it, after looking around for more than 2 minutes, you pretty much have to buy things to support them, and we walked away with 3 books (not a wise move if you still have most of a day of sightseeing ahead of you). The bookshop is called “The Gutter Bookshop” and is near the Cathedral end of Temple Bar on Cow’s Lane. Having spent significant amounts of time in there, mostly reading the bookseller reviews of specially picked novels on a dedicated shelf, I can personally confirm that the guy behind the till was fantastic, giving advice and offering to order in books for various customers. Well worth a visit, and we did in fact go back on our last day there, although I can’t remember whether we bought more.

I had seen The Imperfectionists before, likely when it first came out in the UK, and toyed with the idea of buying it, but then picked up something else instead. So when I saw it again, with a glowing review, in Dublin, I thought I should give it a go. I was, and technically still am, reading “Eating the Sun” by Oliver Morton on this trip, which is an extremely well-written and enjoyable popular science book about photosynthesis. It is just too long and when I reached a page somewhere in the early two hundreds (which is only about halfway through), I decided that I needed a hiatus. So I’ve been catching up on my newspaper and magazine backlog since sometime in November, and this was one of the novels I picked up for “light” relief.

The book is divided into chapters of manageable size, each concerned with the story of one main character. Short sections on the newspaper, with which all of them are connected, appear between these and help to tie everything together. As suggested in the review blurb in the front, each chapter could pretty much work as a free-standing short story, and as you might expect for this format, there is usually a twist in it somewhere, and often it appears to be a cruel twist of fate here. This is extremely well-crafted and I could not help but admire the plotting and connections made between the different stories, as well as detecting traces of a very dark sense of humour. You find out about the whole history and eventual demise of the paper, and you get to see snapshots of defining moments in the lives of key characters as well. I also appreciated that in this novel people had jobs, and that these jobs play a considerable role in their lives, although most of the stories are filling in about what happens away from work.

However, the novel seemed heartless to me and the author inflicts several casual cruelties on his creations like an absolute monarch or dictator, which are clearly just there to shock and upset, without fully getting explored and developed. I’m willing to concede that maybe I’m just upset that (***spoiler alert***) both the young girl and the dog die, inflicting maximum damage on those who loved them. It’s why this novel gets a negative paw rating and while, although it has stayed with me since finishing it, I ultimately didn’t like it.

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Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett (image from Amazon.co.uk)

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett (image from Amazon.co.uk)

3 stars, 2 paws, bedtime reading

Having read Sir T’s latest offering (out in paperback, that is) not so long ago, I decided to fill in some of the back-catalogue when I next saw them cheap (Amazon eventually came to the rescue). Not having grown up in the UK, I only started reading the Discworld novels around about Hogfather, so I go through spells of catching up on earlier novels from time to time. This may well be the start of the next bout, but with my backlog of other books, it will be slow and steady.

Moving Pictures imagines the arrival of films on Discworld and is mostly set in Holy Wood (geddit?), but with subplots taking place in Ankh-Morpork, so we get to see some of the wizards of the Unseen University (UU), early members of the City Watch and quite a lot of Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler. The novel is a crazy tangle of ideas and satirical versions of the movie industry and its fans, relating it all to an ancient rift into another world and a golden statue that looks like everybody’s uncle Oswald. There are talking dogs (Gaspode and Laddie), heroes and damsels in distress as well as elephants, trolls and the Patrician, so you get a good chance of seeing some of the stalwart characters in this volume.

If that sounds like there is too much going on, there is, and some of the loose ends remain untied at the end, which is a shame. I guess it was written and published when the franchise was starting to be well-established and the introduction of the silver screen is conceptually great, but it seems overly busy and the characters are underwritten at times. So the craftsmanship in the later novels is better developed, but, with the general outline of this alternate world much more familiar to most readers, the stories are less “out there”. And all the better for it, I think. So I intend to persevere with both the back-catalogue and the later versions, enjoying it all as part of the ride.

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The Tent, The Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy

3 Stars, no paws, best not read if anybody else is in the room.

I’m finally getting around to clearing my backlog – I read this sometime around when (University) teaching started in October and then somehow wound up working more days than I get paid for, as well as evenings, so there was no time left for blogging. But now the teaching term has finished and hopefully things are slowing down a little, so it’s time to catch up.

Summers End

Summers End (photo from flickr.com, by xsphotos.co.uk)

When I started reading this memoir of Emma Kennedy’s family holidays in the 70s, I would have rated it as at least 4 stars; the somewhat unusual recommendation to read this away from company came about because I started on it late one evening and nearly suffocated when trying to muffle my own snorts of laughter so I wouldn’t wake up the rest of the household. The first chapter is extremely funny. If your family has owned a portable toilet (ours leaked, usually on my pillow, when lifted out of the boat) or you were ever made to use a bucket on holiday, you’ll sympathise deeply…

The later chapters remain funny, but I started to get fed up with the pickles the Kennedy clan were getting themselves in to by blithely ignoring their own misgivings and posing as the typical Brits abroad (ignorant of the local language and customs, but carrying on regardless) whenever the opportunity presented itself. Despite the author’s assertions that none of this is made up or embellished, it left me with a sense of incredulity that the weirdest things kept happening, year after year. So a whole book and 10 years’ worth of disastrous camping holidays was perhaps just too much of a good thing in a short space of time and by the end I was feeling a little fed up, hence the erosion of stars.

Still, it’s an excellent conversation starter, because almost everybody has at least one holiday story or anecdote to match, and, let’s face it, most of us have more than one, and we’ll count ourselves lucky if parents behaving badly is the only issue in these! At least I never got my foot stuck in a French toilet…

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Maine by Courtney Sullivan

Maine by Courtney Sullivan (image from amazon.co.uk)

4 Stars, no paws, bedtime reading.

I’m still lagging behind with writing up reviews, but this might actually be a good thing for the present book as I read it quite quickly, some of it while I was away from home for work. It seemed somehow fitting to read another family novel directly after The Weird Sisters, but with hindsight I might have inserted something completely different, like a popular science book or an adventure novel, to avoid comparing them the whole time.

At first sight, they have a few things in common, both good and bad. On the plus side, there are several female protagonists who belong to the same family and we get the story from different perspectives, they are both set in small-town USA and they are well-plotted and written. And on the minus side, the male characters are cardboard cutouts and underdeveloped, with no direct voice, which I guess makes the target market for this book, whether you want to call it chick lit, family fiction or a novel about women’s lives, abundantly clear. It might be easier and more believable for female writers to steer well clear of the opposite sex, but I can’t help but feel disappointed whenever it happens, as women clearly do not live in isolation. Anyway, I suggest you don’t read these two novels back-to-back and appreciate the skilled plotting of the present one (and the unique voice of Weird Sisters) instead.

Back to Maine… Alice, the matriarch of the Kelleher family owns a desirable waterside plot in Maine containing the family’s old beach house and a newer luxury holiday home her son had built there, ostensibly for her and her late husband. While it sounds like the Kelleher’s weren’t always wealthy, and indeed both Alice and her daughter-in-law Ann Marie are from the “wrong side of the tracks”, they are certainly doing fine, at least financially, in the present. The novel charts the events of one summer holiday, but also flashes back to many past events to explain the context of present events and emotions. Four different characters contribute, Alice, Ann-Marie, Kathleen (Alice’s eldest daughter) and Maggie (Alice’s granddaughter and Kathleen’s daughter), and each chapter focusses on one of them – I mention this technical detail because the plot strands are expertly linked together in this (small) family epic.

The remarkable thing is that all four women are flawed characters, angry, drinking too much, irrational and sometimes very mean to each other. Their behaviour makes sense when you follow their own story and internal monologue, but then you learn about the effect and sometimes hurt this inflicts on others and find yourself agreeing with those, only to be fed another important morsel about somebody else in the next chapter, which upsets the picture yet again. And thus their fairly low-key quarrels, present-day problems and disappointments draw you in. You begin to appreciate the complex net each family creates for itself, both by saying too much and explaining too little, even as the children become adults themselves and could comprehend things they were once too young for.

It’s not a happy book, not much happens and little is resolved by the end, but that seems a much better reflection of a large and messy family than a neat ending could provide. I’m still grumpy that Daniel, Alice’s husband, could only contribute through the memories others have of him, as he sounded lovely and insightful, characteristics difficult to find in some of his family. Nevertheless, several of the reviewers on the back mention that they didn’t want this book to end, and I have to agree with them – I kind of miss them all, perhaps because they are so, well, human.

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The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

4 stars, no paws, bedtime reading.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (image from Amazon.co.uk)

Chicklit novels about dysfunctional families are not exactly rare and it takes a little extra effort to come up with something out of the ordinary in this area. Eleanor Brown certainly has a go at doing exactly that – the novel employs a first person plural (we) narrator in some sections and is littered with quotes from and references to the works of Shakespeare. This is mixed with sections from the point of view of one of the three sisters, Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia (Cordy), who together are the Weird Sisters of the title. The Shakespeare links are explained by the profession of their father, a Shakespeare scholar, who likes to quote from the Bard’s work in ALL situations. And so we learn that the original word used, “wyrd”, means fate and that the fate of these three sisters is intertwined.

Now technically grown up, they are brought back together when their mother is diagnosed with cancer, but as readers we know from the beginning that there is more to Bean’s and Cordy’s return to Barnwell, a small US university town, and that Rose, who has returned a long time ago after her studies, is not just making a sacrifice to look after their ageing parents. All three have become damaged and disillusioned by their experiences, although these are scrapes and bruises, not deep wounds. As the story unfolds, things change, amends are made, the relationships between the sisters and with their parents evolve, and everybody gets better, including their mother.

I liked the ambition of the author in allowing the chorus of sisters to interject and analyse the situation, providing us with both the sisters’ individual points of view and their collective family history. I also liked the portrayal of the challenges faced by the young academics, Rose and her fiancee Jonathan, and of the bond between the sisters. Like most siblings, they are connected through their childhood, even if they happen to not like each other in a(ny) given situation.

There are sections where the Shakespeare references feel like too much of a gimmick, and others which are almost patronising in their effort to educate us readers. The male characters, as is often the case, are two-dimensional and appear as and when needed to support the protagonists. It seems to me that most female authors struggle with inventing/describing men as three-dimensional human beings, relegating them instead to supporting actors. In the present case, the father remains enigmatic with his quotes and inability to engage with the world, and only some of the mother-daughter conversations help to make him seem at least loving.

Nevertheless, this is a warm-hearted story with a happy ending and some interesting craftsmanship in terms of the writing, so it (just) earned 4 stars.

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