So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman

★★★ (3 stars)

(Very long) synopsis from Goodreads (that will probably end up being longer than my review): When she disappeared from her rural hometown, Wendy White was a sweet, family-oriented girl, a late bloomer who’d recently moved out on her own, with her first real boyfriend and a job waiting tables at the local tavern. It happens all the time—a woman goes missing, a family mourns, and the case remains unsolved. Stacy Flynn is a reporter looking for her big break. She moved east from Cleveland, a city known for its violent crime, but that’s the last thing she expected to cover in Haeden. This small, upstate New York town counts a dairy farm as its main employer and is home to families who’ve set down roots and never left—people who don’t take kindly to outsiders. Flynn is researching the environmental impact of the dairy, and the way money flows outward like the chemical runoff, eventually poisoning those who live at the edges of its reach. Five months after she disappeared, Wendy’s body is found in a ditch just off one of Haeden’s main roads. Suddenly, Flynn has a big story, but no one wants to talk to her. No one seems to think that Wendy’s killer could still be among them. A drifter, they say. Someone “not from here.” Fifteen-year-old Alice Piper is an imaginative student with a genius IQ and strong ideals. The precocious, confident girl has stood out in Haeden since the day her eccentric hippie parents moved there from New York City, seeking a better life for their only child. When Alice reads Flynn’s passionate article in the Haeden Free Press about violence against women—about the staggering number of women who are killed each day by people they know—she begins to connect the dots of Wendy’s disappearance and death, leading her to make a choice: join the rest in turning a blind eye, or risk getting involved. As Flynn and Alice separately observe the locals’ failure to acknowledge a murderer in their midst, Alice’s fate is forever entwined with Wendy’s when a second crime rocks the town to its core.

So Much Pretty has very mixed reviews on Goodreads – of my two friends who had read it one (who can often be critical) gave it four stars, the other (typically quite generous in star-giving) a measly one – and the rest of the reviews on the website were similarly split. I should warn you though, looking at the Goodreads’ page for this book provides a massive spoiler in the form of a list the book has been placed in, which ruined the plot for me and is probably partly why I feel little more than “meh, it was alright” about the book. It had a similar feel and themes to Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects – set in small-town rural America, precocious teenage girl characters, an insular community, an examination of violence against women/girls and a female reporter at the story’s helm – but was nowhere near as gripping and lacked the same level of creepiness. So Much Pretty has many different narrators and jumps about in time and location as well as between their various voices (which were just-about believably distinct from one another), which I quite enjoyed but can see for others may become tedious, though the story wouldn’t have worked as a linear narrative. What So Much Pretty does well is to comment on the roles of women, small-town life and the perils of idealism so if those are interests of yours you may find this worth reading. As a crime story alone however it was not quite original enough for me.

Going Out by Scarlett Thomas

whr going out ★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Luke is twenty-five and allergic to the sun. He is stuck in his bedroom, where the world comes to him through TV, the internet and Julie’s visits. Julie, meanwhile, is brilliant, kind and could be changing the world. Unfortunately she is too terrified of aeroplane crashes, road accidents and potentially life-threatening bacteria to leave her home town. When someone contacts Luke and claims that he can cure him, Luke and Julie have to deal with their fears and face the world outside. With four friends, wellies and a homemade space suit, they set off in a VW Camper van along Britain’s B-roads. It is a journey that might just change their lives.

Why did I read this book?
Since reading (and loving) PopCo last year I’ve been working my way through Scarlett Thomas’ back catalogue in no particular order.

Favourite thing about the book:
It’s intelligently written (very Scarlett Thomas, if you’re familar with her work then you’ll know what I mean). It has a wry sense of humour and more than a healthy dose of cynicism.

Other positives:
+ The book was written and set in the early 00s and evokes that time brilliantly (to the point where reading it now felt a little dated, but give it another 10+ years and it’ll be perfect for some nostalgia).
+ I liked that Julie didn’t follow the path everyone expected her to, and although fear was partly behind her decision to stay in her hometown and work in an easy job rather than going to university and pursuing a career there is a certain logic behind her decision and I loved that she followed her own path.
“I’ve never bought into that corporate bullshit of going to university so you can get a good job and move to London and spend all your money on rent and lunch and tights just so you can feel important”.
+ I found the conclusion satisfying (much more so than that of the last Scarlett Thomas book I read, Bright Young Things, which frustrated me enormously).
+ Going Out‘s scenes and settings felt real, especially the cottage near the end and the Travelodge. This was probably partly because they (suburban bedrooms, industrial estates, multi storey car parks and B-roads) are bland, familiar and easy to imagine but even so.
+ Relating to this, Going Out felt like a very British book. Often these cynical-young-people type of novels are written from an American perspective and set in the USA, so this made a refreshing change.
+ I liked the ambiguity surrounding Charlotte and Julie’s relationship/feelings for each other.

Least favourite thing about the book:
Its clear at times that characters are mouthpieces for the author’s opinions (which I’m sure is the case for many books, but here, as in the other Scarlett Thomas books I’ve read, it felt at times too obvious).

Other negatives:
– The plot trajectory felt off-centre as very little happened for the first two-thirds of the book and the action that did then take place felt a bit rushed.
Going Out is very similar to Bright Young Things in that most of it is about a bunch of 20 somethings (though maybe in this case David is older?) getting to know each other and sitting around shooting the breeze, which is fair enough but some of them felt very stereotyped (Chantel as the rags-to-riches noble-poor girl, Leanne as the shallow Barbie type – at least until she discovers witchcraft – and Charlotte as the young traveller who’s into yoga). Maybe these stereotypes exist(ed in 2001) because they are true on some level but I couldn’t help wishing a little more had been done with the characters.

Favourite character:
Julie, Charlotte and Chantel

Least favourite:
Luke, I thought he came across as a tad spoilt and ungrateful, though I can’t imagine what he was going through so probably shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Also Jean – I would have liked more exploration of her and the question of whether she kept Luke trapped for her own benefit.

I recommend this book to:
~ People who want to relieve the early 00s
~ People who like road trip stories and friendship stories and stories about people sitting around talking!
Going Out isn’t as accomplished as Scarlett Thomas’ later novels* but I felt it was worth the read regardless.
* Of which I’ve been saving The End Of Mr Y. I was planning to read it soon but yesterday read reviews saying that last third is pretty hardcore fantasy without much relation to the real world which is rather discouraging.

Looking for Alaska by John Green

lookingforalaskaUK.indd ★★ (2 stars)

Synposis from Goodreads: Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter’s whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the “Great Perhaps” (François Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. After. Nothing is ever the same.

Why did I read this book?
Good question. I was certainly pleased to reach the end of it! But seriously, after reading The Fault In Our Stars I decided to read all of John Green’s other books. It’s lucky I read that one first as had this been my initial taste I’d have stayed well away, but as it is I’m just hoping this is his sole turkey. It was his debut novel after all, maybe after that he got into his stride? (Though I can see from its score of 4.19 on Goodreads that not many people agree with me on the turkey-ness of this book. Maybe I’ll get trolled by a bunch of teenagers for “not getting it”).

Favourite thing about the book:
Hmm. Um. I guess the boarding school setting, I always like those.

Other positives:
+ The writing style wasn’t bad. I didn’t like the plot or most of the characters, but the prose itself was engaging enough that I battled on regardless.
+ Chip/’The Colonel’.

Least favourite thing about the book:
How boring it was. I was very close to giving up on this because it was Just. So. Dull. I’ve read/seen the falling-in-love-with-a-manic-pixie-dream-girl trope in the first half of the novel so many times before (especially in films, but Alaska isn’t the only one to appear in books as this list – on which she is #2 – illustrates); and without edging into spoiler territory I can say that I’m familiar with the second half’s content too (and yes, I realise that it’s supposed to shatter the MPDG illusion and show Alaska as a whole person, but I didn’t think it worked convincingly enough). Maybe this is an unfair criticism as Looking For Alaska came out in 2005 when the tropes weren’t quite so well-worn, but nonetheless I found it tedious.

Other negatives:
– How annoying Alaska was. We’re supposed to think she’s so special and such a tragic figure and so attractive and whatnot, but I just found her fake and attention-seeking; and I didn’t feel that what had happened to her in the past was justification for the way that she treated people in the present (and I realise I sound awful saying that given what happens in the second half, but it’s true).
– How annoying Miles/’Pudge’ (the main character) was. He managed to be even more self-centered than Alaska and was a totally unsympathetic figure in all regards. I tried to balance this out by coming up with a redeeming feature for him but couldn’t think of a single one.
– The supporting characters were not well-developed at all. Especially Miles’ girlfriend, whose name I can’t even remember.

Favourite character:
Chip/’The Colonel’. He was wise beyond his years, and the only main character who ever thought of anyone but himself. I also liked that he came from a working-class background and loved his mum. Without Chip the book would have been unbearable.

Least favourite:
Miles, because I had to put up with him for longer, but Alaska comes a close second.

I recommend this book to:
I don’t.

How Do You Decide What To Read Next?

So many books, such little time! So how do you decide what to read next?

My system goes like this:
Any book I have a vague interest in reading gets added to my To-Read Shelf on Goodreads. Books usually make their way there when I read an interesting review of them, a friend/family member recommends them or I read something else by the author and like it. Every few weeks or so I go through it and pick out around 7 books that I feel like reading soon, then search the (painfully slow) Angus Libraries Catalogue to see if the library has them in stock, reserving them if so. Any that the library don’t have I stick onto my amazon wishlist where I buy them second-hand once they become cheap enough (I tend to limit myself to only spending £10 a month on books as I’m on a tight budget which usually means somewhere between 2 and 4 secondhand copies. I love seeing a book is available for £0.01!). I visit the library (with my little boy, who also loves it) at least once a week and collect the reservations that have come in for me (the librarians know me by name and sight and will get my books lined up on the counter when they see me – now that’s good service!). I then make my way through them, one at a time, in whatever order I feel inspired to, before moving onto my recent secondhand purchases (I always feel like I should read library books first, so that I can return them and let someone else have a turn). Once my “to-read-immediately” pile gets down to 2 or 3 books I start the whole process again.

There are exceptions to this: sometimes I will hear about a book and HAVE TO HAVE IT NOW, in which case I will reserve/buy it even if I’ve just done a bulk reserve/buy-session (it’s worth noting I always get books from the library if I can, with the exception of graphic novels which I prefer to own, though I will sometimes borrow them from friends/family). I am also lucky enough to receive books as gifts, whether for my birthday/Christmas or just randomly when people pass them onto me* and these I tend to either read immediately or at some random point in time when I feel inspired to pick them up. I also occasionally read books for review on this blog, in which case I read them as soon as possible (though to be honest I decline 90%+ of the requests I get to review books as if they’re not something I’d want to read of my own accord – I won’t read them just to get a free book, especially when I don’t keep my books anyway!).
* I pass on almost all the books I buy once I have read them. I don’t have time to sell them on again (it doesn’t seem worth the hassle for the tiny return when I’ve bought them for a penny!) so I move them along to friends, family or the charity shop. I used to want to own all my books, but nowadays unless they are true favourites or graphic novels I’m not bothered – we don’t have much space (especially space that can’t be reached by toddlers!) and I enjoy not feeling tied down by “stuff” generally.

What about you? Do you have a “system”, or just read books you are inspired to at that given moment? Do you usually know what your next few reads will be, or choose spontaneously once you have finished your previous book? 

(Photo by me.)

Series Review: Paper Aeroplanes & Goose by Dawn O’Porter

★★★★ (4 stars – 3 for Paper Aeroplanes and 4 for Goose, but I’m feeling generous.)

Synopsis from Goodreads:
(Paper AeroplanesIt’s the mid-1990s, and fifteen year-old Guernsey schoolgirls, Renée and Flo, are not really meant to be friends. Thoughtful, introspective and studious Flo couldn’t be more different to ambitious, extroverted and sexually curious Renée. But Renée and Flo are united by loneliness and their dysfunctional families, and an intense bond is formed. Although there are obstacles to their friendship (namely Flo’s jealous ex-best friend and Renée’s growing infatuation with Flo’s brother), fifteen is an age where anything can happen, where life stretches out before you, and when every betrayal feels like the end of the world. For Renée and Flo it is the time of their lives.
(Goose) It’s a year and a half on from Paper Aeroplanes, and Renée is now living with her Aunty Jo. They even have geese, and Renée likes to sit and watch them, wondering if she’ll ever find ‘the One’ – someone who will love her no matter what, and be there for her no matter how bad things get. She and Flo are in their final year at school, and they’ve got some tough choices to make – like will they go to university? And if so where – and will they go together? Renée’s usual ambivalence on the matter shocks Flo, who had assumed they’d continue as they were, the best and closest of friends, forever. She feels as though she needs Renée’s support more than ever, so when a handsome young boy enters Flo’s life, she finds herself powerfully drawn to his kindness, and his faith. Renée and Flo’s friendship will soon be tested in a way neither of them could have expected – and if Paper Aeroplanes was a book about finding friendship, Goose is the novel that explores whether it’s possible to keep hold of it.

I have to admit I’m unsure if I’d have read this series was it not written by Dawn O’Porter (I’m not familiar with most of her recent, more fashion-focused, TV work, but enjoyed the documentaries she made in her mid/late 20s): although I enjoy YA fiction I’m not so into it that I have to read everything in the genre and reading the synopses of the novels they do sound pretty average. That said, their Guernsey setting intrigued me, as well as the fact they, like my own teenage years, are set in the mid/late 90s (not that the decade plays a huge role in either book: there are some pop culture references especially in the chapter titles, and of course no mobiles or internet but otherwise it didn’t feel too different to today).

Both novels are told in the first person with the narration alternately switching between Renée and Flo. I enjoyed both their voices (and my teenage self could relate to a fair few aspects of Renée’s personality, especially when it came to messing about at school) though, particularly in the first novel, they didn’t feel as distinctive from each other as they perhaps could or should have. That said, both novels were easy to read and quite gripping – with the alternating sections being only a few pages long each it was all too easy to keep promising myself I’d stop after “just one more”.

The series is filled with classic YA tropes: lessons and homework, fake friends, real friends, drinking too much, boy troubles, the quest to lose one’s virginity and family issues. It was set apart however by the uniqueness of both characters’ family situations (Renée’s mum passed away from cancer at a young age, her dad has gone abroad and she lives with other family members; and Flo is stuck with a mum who seems to hate her whilst using her as a babysitter for her much younger sister) and the way the “boy troubles” were handled, particularly in Goose which deals with rejection and the double-standard relating to how many different people men and women “should” sleep with. Both Flo and Renée develop infatuations which to an outsider seem ill-placed and illogical (as infatuations tend to do) but which to me reflected their wishes to belong and to be loved (feelings that they didn’t get from their families). In Goose, Flo joins a church which presented issues that aren’t very prevalent amongst mainstream YA novels: Flo’s Christianity, Renée’s atheism, the reasons both ways of thinking made sense to the person concerned and whether they could still be friends whilst holding such different beliefs .

I’ve held back from giving the series five stars as I just didn’t love it, and Paper Aeroplanes in particular didn’t feel like it was bringing anything new to the YA genre (I also disliked the Sally storyline in that book – although I liked the idea to include a “frenemy” within the novel she was just too much enemy and not enough friend to be believable – though the way the story was developed in Goose was unexpected and with a greater, in both senses of the word, level of depth). Had I read these books in my early/mid teens I’m sure I would have loved them though, and even at the ripe old age of 30 I intend to read the rest of the series (apparently another two books are planned for it).

Orange Is The New Black by Piper Kerman

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: With her career, live-in boyfriend and loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the rebellious young woman who got mixed up with drug runners and delivered a suitcase of drug money to Europe over a decade ago. But when she least expects it, her reckless past catches up with her; convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at an infamous women’s prison in Connecticut, Piper becomes inmate #11187-424. From her first strip search to her final release, she learns to navigate this strange world with its arbitrary rules and codes, its unpredictable, even dangerous relationships. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with tokens of generosity, hard truths and simple acts of acceptance.

Like many people, I came to this book via the TV show of the same name (which I find enjoyable due to its mixture of humour and pathos. It’s also refreshing to watch a show that focuses on women rather than men for a change). I’ve long had a fascination with prisons (and institutional life) in general too, so it’s a wonder I’d not read this before. So, let’s get the book/TV show comparisons out of the way first. Many of the TV show characters are not present within the book, or are amalgams of people who Piper met in prison. Others share the same name as TV characters but not their characteristics – e.g. Pennsatucky is friendly; and in general Piper portrays her fellow prisoners much more positively here than they come across in the TV show (which makes sense, as the TV team want/need to create tension). The racial and age makeup of the book is slightly different to that of the TV show too – although the TV show represents women of colour and women over the age of 40 far more than pretty much every show going, there are more women falling into one or both of these categories in the book. Larry does exist, and is a far more likeable person in the book than on the show (where frankly I can’t stand him!). Piper predominately had relationships with women before meeting him, as opposed to the TV version where she had been with men until meeting Alex – the fact this was changed for the show saddens me as it indicates they didn’t think viewers would warm to a “mostly gay” character as much as a “mostly straight” one. Finally, Alex is called Nora in the book, and is older than Piper and described as being less attractive than TV show Alex. They don’t go to the same prison either (or rather they do, but only for a very short time – I won’t say more than that) and there is definitely no romance between them (if you were hoping for some: sorry!). These changes mean that there is a lot to learn from and enjoy in the book even if you’ve watched the TV show, and I don’t think it would matter too much which way around you experienced them as it’s clear the book was largely only an inspiration for the show (much like Rae Earl’s My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary).

I learned a lot about the US justice system and how it treats people, especially women, working class people and people of colour (Piper, despite only ticking one of these “boxes”, appears aware of the way these issues intersect each other and of her own privileges). Many comments are made on the “War On Drugs” and how it has resulted in a huge amount of imprisonment (the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world), including the imprisonment of women, most of whom are mothers, who have often not directly supplied drugs to others but rather carried drug money (like Piper herself did), allowed their homes to be used for the transfer of drugs or taken messages relating to their sale. (This isn’t to underestimate the amount of harm drugs like crack do to individuals/families/communities, but rather to highlight the futility of locking people up for it, when it doesn’t appear to affect the supply or demand.) Furthermore, imprisonment damages people’s life chances (particularly in terms of finding employment in the “mainstream economy”/outside the black market) and that of their children who miss out on time with their mothers and sometimes have to go into foster care. Particularly heartbreaking for me as a mother (and currently pregnant) were Piper’s accounts of women being taken away at the last minute to give birth (in some cases in shackles the entire time) and then returned to the prison without their babies. I know people are put in prison for a reason, but Orange Is The New Black will make you question whether the punishment is appropriate for their crime.

Prison is often assumed to have rehabilitation as an aim, but Orange Is The New Black highlighted how poorly this is carried out, at least in the prison Piper spent time in. Information and support given around the time of release was absolutely minimal, as were the support services (education, mental health etc.) within the prison itself. Although there were no guard-prisoner romances within the book (and less between-prisoner relationships than in the TV show) it did highlight the vulnerability of women within prison who were often, Piper included, subjected to verbal abuse from (often male) guards or frisked/body searched in ways that were far more intimate than necessary.

A quick note on the style: whilst it was clear Piper is not a novelist, the book was not badly or cheesily written. It was well-structured and blended stories and information together well.

There was little I disliked about Orange Is The New Black. A similar book about the Scottish prison system would have been more pertinent to my life, but many of the issues cross over. The two things that held me back from giving this five stars were its occasional use of non-inclusive language (despite Piper’s general attitude of inclusiveness and non-judgemental approach to fellow prisoners who were of different races and backgrounds to her) and a slight smugness on behalf of Piper – did she really need to tell us repeatedly how well-liked and popular she was in prison? Or how many people were surprised that a middle class white girl ended up there (again, this last point slightly undermined some of her generally inclusive approach). Still, I would recommend it to anyone interested in prisons, and particularly issues relating to women in prisons.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Why did I read this book?
Mostly to see what all the fuss was about. After all, it’s not often I see this when I log onto Goodreads:

Plus, I like YA fiction now and then (or lately it seems, lot of the time: I’m pregnant and tired and just want to read straightforward, chatty, narratives).

Favourite thing about the book:
As mentioned above: I just want to read straightforward, chatty, narratives, and The Fault In Our Stars delivered this. It is told in the first person by Hazel, and her voice was friendly, honest and often humourous. The storyline moved at a good pace and I read the entire book within two days.

It’s also worth adding that I enjoyed this enough that I have already reserved the rest of John Green’s fiction at the library and intend to watch the movie version ASAP.

Other positives:
+ Minor spoiler: they visit Amsterdam! One of my favourite places in the world.
+ I found the handling of Hazel, Gus and their friend Isaac as “cancer kids” refreshing. So often we are encouraged to see people in their shoes as “other”, people who are there only to feel sympathy for, but in The Fault in Our Stars they were at times angry, bewildered, accepting or just trying to live their lives regardless, which felt much more realistic. (Though I’d love to read a review of this written by a teenager with cancer and hear their take on the matter – I looked but couldn’t find one.)
+ I enjoyed the existential musings (lightweight as they were) within the book, and appreciated that the book gave respect towards religious (well, Christian) views whilst for the most part following a humanist/atheist angle.

Least favourite thing about the book:
I didn’t feel Hazel and Gus were realsitic teenagers (especially after recently reading the much more authentic My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary by Rae Earl!). I get that teenagers with cancer will have different concerns, and will have considered other aspects of life in depth to the majority of teenagers (again, see: My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary) but they both read like people at least a decade older than they were supposed to be.

Other negatives:
– I guess this book was meant to make me cry, but it didn’t. Perhaps primarily because of the reason outlined above: Gus and Hazel just didn’t feel real to me. Also, I knew what was coming, plot-wise – I think we can all guess that there is only one way this story can end – so was mentally prepared for it and thus not that saddened by it (heart of stone, that’s me). I will say though, that the book scared the crap out of me! Cancer terrifies me anyway, so reading about it in depth like this perhaps wasn’t the wisest move (and the book I’m now reading mentions it too. Argh.). I was probably most moved by Hazel’s mum’s experiences (and related to her more than I did Hazel).
– I found the Peter Van Houten/An Imperial Affliction-obsession storyline boring, and it was one of the main plots within the book. Even the final “twist” relating to it failed to move me, and (minor spoiler alert) I wasn’t surprised at all by his behaviour in Amsterdam.

Favourite character:
Hazel’s mum. I also quite liked Isaac.

Least favourite:
Peter Van Whatnot.

I recommend this book to:
Is there any point in me recommending this to anyone? You’ve probably already read it, or at least know what it is about and thus know for yourself whether you’re going to read it or not.