Quick Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

whr we are★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind. Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man. And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

I decided to do a quick review for this one as there isn’t too much I can say about it without spoiling a major plot twist for anyone who hasn’t yet read it (the twist comes around a quarter of the way into the book and I kicked myself for not having picked up on the clues relating to it. Well, I’d formed some ideas, but none of them were quite right). By and large, I enjoyed reading the voice of Rosemary, the narrator, who was quirky and at times dryly funny (though some of her actions, not least her pursuit of her one-sided friendship with Harlow, annoyed me), and the non-linear narrative, but something about the book must not have worked for me as by the time I got to the last third I was struggling to feel motivated to pick it up or to concentrate on it for more than a few chapters at a time. Some of the sentences are beautifully crafted but overall the novel is not on a par with other Booker-prize nominees that I have read.

Review & Giveaway – Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence by Thalma Lobel

whr sensation ★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: From the world’s leading expert on the new psychology of physical intelligence, or ‘embodied cognition’, here is the true story of how the body profoundly affects our thoughts and emotions, decisions and choices about everything from the people we like to the ways we work.

Sensation looks at the unconscious links between the incoming messages from our physical senses and our inner thought processes. Did you know that being exposed to fast food logos for less than a second can make you read faster? Or that holding a warm drink will make you behave more genially towards others? Or that the colour/s we choose to wear can influence how attractive we seem to others? These and many other interesting tidbits are presented engagingly and alongside experimental evidence in Thalma Lobel’s book. This is apparently the first time she has written for a lay-audience rather than a research journal but I wouldn’t have guessed from her accessible tone.

Unfortunately for Sensation and Thalma Lobel, I had already come across many of the ideas presented here in a book I read last year: David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart. That book addresses cognitive bias more than Sensation (which focuses on embodied cognition) and Thalma Lobel’s book undoubtedly goes into far more depth about each point but there are overlaps nevertheless. Thus I was already aware of (for example) experiments proving that sports teams wearing red uniforms are perceived as more aggressive by bystanders and referees. I still learnt new facts from Sensation however, and enjoyed regaling my partner with them over the dinner table (a non-fiction book has succeeded in being interesting if it makes you want to share your new knowledge with others, and Sensation managed that).

Each chapter focuses on a particular sensory-related topic: weight, colours, temperature and so forth and first examines the metaphors we use around it; e.g. talking about people behaving “warmly” to each other, or “guilt weighing heavy on our shoulders”. The reader is then lead through the results of experiments proving that metaphors are (at least sometimes) literally true. At times I found the lists of example metaphors unnecessarily long and a little space-filling, and although as a keen reader I enjoyed the examination of language I would have liked these sections to have gone deeper, particularly around questions such as: do subconscious reactions like feeling inferior to people sitting higher than us influence us to use phrases like “she works one level up from me” or have these phases influenced our subconscious reactions? Do other languages apart from English use the same senses in their metaphors? And if not, could the same results be replicated in experiments with participants who spoke those languages? The chapters were brought to a close with suggestions of how knowledge of sensory input on human psychology could be put to practical use, many of which I found a little obvious – if you’ve just read about experiments proving that people perform better and find chores less onerous when smelling a pleasant odour it doesn’t take a huge leap to suggest to yourself that you might want to ensure a room smells nice before you sit down to write a job application in it.

My favourite chapter was the penultimate – “Turning on Lights Outside the Box: Embodying Metaphors” which was about creativity. Although I don’t think I’ll take up the suggestion that I should display logos of “creative companies” around my home to encourage my mind to generate more ideas next time I’m stuck writing a blog post I may well try imagining myself walking down a meandering path, or turning on the desk lamp to inspire a “light bulb” moment. Thalma Lobel also talks in this section about how “The structured environment of many schools may be limiting children’s capacity for creative thinking by placing a higher value on logic, facts and conformity” (page 203) which is an idea familiar to people like myself who follow an unschooling approach but is starting (thankfully) to gather mainstream attention also.

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All views are my own and I have not received any payment for this post.


Icon Books have kindly put aside five copies of Sensation for lucky readers of What Hannah Read. Here’s what to do if you’d like a chance to win one:

- Leave a comment here with your email address or Twitter username. This gives you one entry.
– If you tweet about the competition with a link to this blog, you will get a bonus entry! (Make sure you comment with your twitter username if you’re doing this.)
– The competition closes at midnight BST on the 16th September 2014.
– Some time shortly after the competition’s close I will pick the winners’ names at random (probably quite literally from a hat). I will then get in touch with the winners via email or Twitter to get your postal addresses which I will pass on to Icon Books so they can send you your copies.

This giveaway is open to everyone, everywhere!

Quick Review: Friendship by Emily Gould

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Bev Tunney and Amy Schein have been best friends for years; now, at thirty, they’re at a crossroads. Bev is a Midwestern striver still mourning a years-old romantic catastrophe. Amy is an East Coast princess whose luck and charm have too long allowed her to cruise through life. Bev is stuck in circumstances that would have barely passed for bohemian in her mid-twenties: temping, living with roommates, drowning in student-loan debt. Amy is still riding the tailwinds of her early success, but her habit of burning bridges is finally catching up to her. And now Bev is pregnant. As Bev and Amy are dragged, kicking and screaming, into real adulthood, they have to face the possibility that growing up might mean growing apart.

Despite giving this book four stars it’s easier to say what I didn’t like about it than what I did. When I first started reading it I thought “first world problems!” because so many of the main characters’ dilemmas do seem to be that, at least initially – to employ the classic cliche they don’t appear aware of “how lucky they are”, especially as I read Friendship right after Carys Bray’s A Song For Issy Bradley which deals with the death of a child. However, as the plot moved forward and things grew more serious for both characters I felt much more sympathetic towards them. I also had a few issues with the narrative structure of the book – it is told in the third person although it jumps between the perspectives of Bev, Amy and their new friend Sally – and covers quite a long period of time (around a year, with flashbacks to memories of Bev and Amy earlier in their friendship) but in fairly short chapters so that I felt I was moving between snapshots of the women’s lives when I would rather have been more immersed in them.

That said, I enjoyed Emily Gould’s writing style, the novel was easy and pleasant to read and I wanted to pick it up, to keep reading and find out what happened. I liked reading about characters my age (although their single New York lives are a world away from my countryside SAHM one) and think that many of my friends who are young “urban professional” women would be able to relate to them even more than I did. Friendship captures well that late 20s/early 30s feeling of thinking you “should” have “made it”, or at least be stuck well into a set career path and success by now; as well as the reality that many of us are not, at 30, living the lives we imagined we would be by this point when we started university 12 years ago. Bev and Amy’s friendship was well-handled too: the build-up of their closeness to the point of comfortable daily contact followed by awkwardness when their lives began to diverge is something many of us will be able to relate to.

(This is my 200th blog post!)

A Song For Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

★★★★★ (5 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: The Bradleys see the world as a place where miracles are possible, and where nothing is more important than family. This is their story. It is the story of Ian Bradley — husband, father, math teacher, and Mormon bishop —and his unshakeable belief that everything will turn out all right if he can only endure to the end, like the pioneers did. It is the story of his wife, Claire, her lonely wait for a sign from God, and her desperate need for life to pause while she comes to terms with tragedy. And it is the story of their children: sixteen-year-old Zippy, experiencing the throes of first love; cynical fourteen-year-old Al, who would rather play soccer than read the Book of Mormon; and seven-year-old Jacob, whose faith is bigger than a mustard seed — probably bigger than a toffee candy, he thinks — and which he’s planning to use to mend his broken family with a miracle.

Every once in a while you come across a book that truly gets under your skin and stays there for days, invading your thoughts even when you’re not reading it and affecting your emotions. A Song For Issy Bradley was one of those books for me.

Told in the third person but from the alternating perspectives of all five remaining family members we observe their emotions and reactions on the day, and in the aftermath of, youngest daughter’s Issy’s death from meningitis. I have to admit that reading about Issy’s passing was uncomfortable, and scary, at times (as a parent myself it was impossible not to imagine how I would feel was it a child of mine who fell ill), but I always say it’s a sign of a good book when it can affect your emotions and sometimes reading about awful events like this can help us as readers appreciate our own lives even more. Using multiple perspectives allowed the reader to see the characters through the eyes of each other as well as their own, and made me sympathetic towards every single one of them (even if, when reading about one through another’s perspective (especially when reading about Ian, who nonetheless remained my least favourite) you felt annoyed by their in/actions) as we were able to understand their motives. I enjoyed Alma and Zippy’s storylines the most – perhaps because as teenagers they were grappling with some major life changes as well as Issy’s passing – and found their experience and handling of the often-contradicting pressures of the outside world and their faith fascinating (especially as Alma leans more towards a secular life, whilst Zippy is sure she wants to continue to live, and marry, within the faith).

I was very interested in the religious angle of the story, despite not being of a particular faith myself, and kept telling my partner random facts about Mormonism that I had gleaned from the novel. The Bradleys are British, one of a small number of British Mormons (around 180,000 out of our 63 million people), none of whom I have ever met in person. I’m fascinated by what other people believe and had perceived the Mormon Church (officially known as the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) as being quite secretive about the details of their religious faith and practices (although spending time as a missionary is an essential rite of passage for Mormon men none have ever come to my door), so didn’t know much about it until reading A Song For Issy Bradley. The novel truly gives an insider’s view as author Carys Bray was a member of the LDS Church from birth until her early thirties (and I don’t think it’s an accident that her and character Claire have the same initials – for an article about Carys’ experiences within the faith, click here). Amongst other things I learned that Mormons aren’t supposed to drink tea or coffee, that they are required to wear special underwear, that they believe the overall leader of their Church is a living prophet who can converse with God and that men and women have very strictly defined roles. I would make a terrible Mormon wife – I may be a SAHM but I am definitely not housewife of the year and though I enjoy spending time with my son a clean house is never as important to me as reading a book is. Zippy’s story showed the pressures on teenage girls to be “modest” and to be responsible not only for their own “sexual purity” but also for that of the males around them who they mustn’t “tempt”, a concept which irked me greatly.

A Song For Issy Bradley is extremely well-written, both in terms of structure and pacing and on an individual sentence-to-sentence construction level. The dialogue is believable, the narrative descriptive enough to put you in the room with the characters but not enough to overpower the plot or ever begin to bore you. The only thing I would change about A Song For Issy Bradley is that I would have made it longer – I didn’t want to leave the characters, or their stories. I can only hope that Carys Bray will write a sequel, and I’ll definitely be reading her next novel, whatever the subject matter may be.

Off Key by Mark Robertson

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Charlotte has supported Kyle’s precarious musical career for three years. Now it’s her turn. When Kyle doesn’t want to play the breadwinner, she looks to a future on the other side of the Atlantic. Saxophonist Kyle has no money, no career and has now lost the love of his live. Can an autistic twelve-year-old boy and an alcoholic ‘has been’ be his salvation?

Why did I read this book?
Mark Robertson emailed me and asked whether I would be interested in reviewing his novel. He pointed me in the direction of the free sample of the first two chapters on his website and as I liked what I read there (and Mark’s sense of humour in the emails we exchanged) gladly accepted a copy to review. The trouble with chatting with an author before you read their book is that you can then feel a bit mean when it comes to review time if you didn’t 100% love their work, but this blog has a tradition of being bluntly honest and I’m not about to change that now…

Favourite thing about the book:
That it made me laugh. There were many funny sentences, and amusing set-pieces like the band playing a gig that turns out to be a warm-up for an entirely different sort of act. I also liked the image of Kyle playing “Musical Tricia” in the morning – practising his improvisation based on the emotions of chat show guests.

Other positives:
+ Despite the issues I had with Off Key I was left with a warm-hearted feeling when I closed it for the last time. It is a feel-good book and sometimes that’s just what you need. (As an aside, I think the story would work very well – better, even – as a film than it does in novel-form, but that might be because I tend to use films for light entertainment and novels more as thought-inspiration (not that Off Key left me entirely without thought)).
+ As someone around the same age as Kyle, Charlotte and Dainty (who are in their early 30s) I thought the novel captured our life-stage, and the feeling that we really should have “made it” by now, well.
+ Off Key has a good balance of serious and funny – and in that way it reminded me of Nick Hornby’s work.
+ Many of the characters were well-developed, notably Kyle but also Dainty and Ethan who showed different sides to their personalities as time went by.
+ I’m not a musician but I enjoyed reading about the band’s gigs and practices – all the behind the scenes stuff I’d not otherwise see. Relatedly, I liked this comment on the music industry: “what was it that decreed that he, Kyle Johnson, was a failure whereas someone whose commitment to playing music stretched to one hyped up album, three autobiographies and a career designing pants and eating bugs in the jungle, was a success.”
+ Whilst the romantic comedy plot was predictable, I didn’t see the Harry-related final twist coming.

Least favourite thing about the book:
Off Key contains a lot of stereotyping and whilst I don’t think any harm was intended by it (or that it was intentional – this is a genuinely warm-hearted book at its core) I couldn’t help noticing it and being annoyed by it. The male characters are by and large obsessive, messy, lazy beer-drinkers whilst the female ones hold everything together, long for babies, love shopping and despair over how useless men are (there was also a strange scene where one woman gives a friend a spare tampon and they go into a long conversation about periods – I’m sure this is an example of a male author trying to write convincing dialogue about the female experience but never in my life has a request for a spare tampon resulted in any further conversation than “sure, here you go” or “no, sorry”). Meanwhile, the Black characters are excellent dancers and (if they’re female) have great bums. There are also some uses of language which I was a bit uncomfortable with – little things like the synopsis describing someone as “autistic” rather than a “having autism” (the person’s condition shouldn’t be their defining feature). I didn’t think Ludo was given short enough shrift for his treatment of women, either.

Other negatives:
– The novel could have done with a stronger/stricter edit. It had many of those mistakes you don’t notice when you’ve written something yourself and have read it through a hundred times but which are immediately detectable to a new reader – words capitalised in one place but not in another, question marks where there should be full stops and so forth.
– The plot seemed to lose its way a bit around the 40% – 75% mark and I have to admit I had to force myself to keep reading at times, though it did pick up by the end.
– The character of Craig got lost a bit and I would like to have known more about him. I was left feeling not too sure what the point of him was except to assist Kyle in making a mess which annoyed Charlotte and thus set other parts of the plot in motion.

Favourite character:
I liked almost everyone, but probably Kyle. He undergoes a transformation during the book that leaves him a better version of himself.

Least favourite:

I recommend this book to: ~ Nick Hornby fans.
~ Musicians.
(Though I do so cautiously due to the novel’s stereotyping.)

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. All views are my own and I have not received any payment for this post.

Two-View Book Review: The Amber Fury (also known as The Furies) by Natalie Haynes

whr amber fury

Hayley: ★★★ (3 stars)

Hannah: ★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: When Alex Morris loses her fiancé in dreadful circumstances, she moves from London to Edinburgh to make a break with the past. Alex takes a job at a Pupil Referral Unit, which accepts the students excluded from other schools in the city. These are troubled, difficult kids and Alex is terrified of what she’s taken on. There is one class – a group of five teenagers – who intimidate Alex and every other teacher on The Unit. But with the help of the Greek tragedies she teaches, Alex gradually develops a rapport with them. Finding them enthralled by tales of cruel fate and bloody revenge, she even begins to worry that they are taking her lessons to heart, and that a whole new tragedy is being performed, right in front of her…

Why did I read this book?
Hayley: I’d seen it recommended online so when I found it in a bookshop whilst on holiday I decided to pick up a copy.

Hannah: When I heard The Amber Fury was set in Edinburgh and about teenagers with “issues” I knew I had to read it. The glowing reviews I saw all over the place added to my excitement – and apparently that of many other people in Angus, as I had to wait months for my turn with the library’s copy!

Favourite thing about the book:
Hayley: I read it during a reading slump and it managed to keep me engaged enough to finish it quite quickly and I remained gripped during a long train journey.

Hannah: How gripping it was – I read it in a day. You know something bad will happen but you don’t know what or when, and the tension builds perfectly.

Other positives:
Hayley: + I liked how the focus on teaching troubled teens didn’t end in an inspirational movie way, that element was part of the book that felt quite realistic.

Hannah: + Declare me a philistine if you want but I’ve never been bothered about classical literature and although I’m not about to rush out and buy a book on Greek myths or plays this did show them to be more interesting than I’d previously assumed.
+ I liked the character of Mel and analysing her ambivalent motives.
+ The book asks good questions about professional boundaries and whether certain jobs are appropriate for certain people at certain times of their lives.
+ The bereavement aspect of the plot was well-handled – it reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone (which is one of my favourite books), especially as it too is set in Edinburgh and London.
+ Its Edinburgh setting (although it is very much a “tourist’s Edinburgh” that we see).

Least favourite thing about the book:
Hayley: Despite getting the job via her friend I didn’t find it very believable that Alex was given the job considering that a) she has no teaching qualification and b) is drowning under grief and quite unstable and vulnerable as a result.

Hannah: I’m not entirely convinced that the kids would be as interested in Alex’s lessons as they appear to me – it was one of those wonder-teacher kind of stories that i’m always dubious of (like that movie Dangerous Minds), though obviously she didn’t work complete miracles (slight understatement?).

Other negatives:
Hayley: – I found that plot quite predictable and as I neared the conclusion I really found myself hoping for a big twist and when there wasn’t one I felt quite deflated.
– I detected an element of a class divide/class snobbery between Alex and the pupils and Alex and the woman implicated in her partner’s death.
– I agree with Hannah that it seems unlikely the pupils would be so interested in the greek tragedies and this seemed more like a way of indulging Alex’s interests and expertise than anything else. I’d also like to think there would be more of a formal structure in place for her lessons to adhere to?
– Alex isn’t very distinctive as a character so I found her and the other character’s difficult to empathise with.

Hannah: – Rather like Catherine in Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner which I read a few months ago protagonist Alex was cast at an unrealistically young age. By the age of twenty five she has achieved far more in both her directing (and, as the novel progresses, teaching) careers than anyone I’ve ever met (especially those who want to work in the arts). If she had been five or even three years older it would have been a tad more credible.
– I would have liked to have read more from Mel’s perspective (I did enjoy the alternating narration but 50% of each would have been preferable to the balance that was struck in favour of Alex).
– Relatedly, I didn’t think Alex and Mel’s voices were sufficiently distinct from each other. The main difference seemed to be that Mel swore more.
– Alex was a bit of a non-character and not someone I could relate to, though maybe that was partly because she was grieving and therefore understandably preoccupied.

Favourite character:
Hayley: Robert was most likeable but I would have liked to see him developed more.

Hannah: Robert (and his partner Jeff).

Least favourite:
Hayley: Everyone else.

Hannah: Alex’s mum.

I recommend this book to:
Hayley: I’m not sure I would really recommend this book but it would definitely suffice as a book to read whilst travelling as it’s gripping enough but not vastly memorable.

Hannah: ~ People who want to read something absorbing and well-paced, with some interesting teenage characters and a story that’s not run of the mill.
~ Anyone interested in learning a little about ancient Greek plays.

Thank you to Hayley (Twitter: here; blog: here) in joining me for this review! ♥

The Book of You by Claire Kendal

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Clarissa is becoming more and more frightened of her colleague, Rafe. He won’t leave her alone, and he refuses to take no for an answer. He is always there. Being selected for jury service is a relief. The courtroom is a safe haven, a place where Rafe can’t be. But as a violent tale of kidnap and abuse unfolds, Clarissa begins to see parallels between her own situation and that of the young woman on the witness stand. Realizing that she bears the burden of proof, Clarissa unravels the twisted, macabre fairytale that Rafe has spun around them – and discovers that the ending he envisions is more terrifying than she could have imagined. But how do you protect yourself from an enemy no one else can see?

Why did I read this book?
The Book Of You seems to be everywhere lately – book blogs, newspaper book reviews, my goodreads feed, so I couldn’t fail to notice it. I enjoy psychological thrillers so although the plot didn’t sound terribly original (the court case part strand of it notwithstanding) The Book Of You quickly found its way onto my to-read and library reservations list.

Favourite thing about the book:
How gripping it was. You’ll see later that I had a few little gripes with the book but overall I enjoyed the experience of reading it and even recommended it to others when I was only part-way through.

Other positives:
+ Claire Kendal is skilled at creating atmosphere. Although I read The Book Of You in August it felt like winter when I was steeped in its pages, and the city of Bath came alive in my mind (I think I went there as a child, but don’t remember anything about it).
+ The character of Clarissa – more on that later.
+ The Book Of You was truly creepy and scary at times, and I always admire a book that is able to shape my emotions.
+ As Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner did where domestic abuse is concerned, The Book Of You shows that stalking can happen to anyone and that stalkers can be anyone (Rafe is a respected university professor). It also explains why people who are being stalked don’t always go to the police immediately/at all and through both Clarissa’s storyline and that of the court case she is a juror for we are shown how the services there to protect and help women can sometimes do the opposite.
+ I enjoyed the trial element of the novel which provided a “behind the scenes” look at what jury service in England can be like.
+ I enjoyed watching the developing relationships between Clarissa and Annie, and Clarissa and Robert, and felt these were well-written and portrayed.

Least favourite thing about the book:
The novel lost its pace a bit between the 70% and 90% mark.

Other negatives:
– The narrative switches between a diary style and a third person narrator which I found confusing initially and irksome through the book as a whole. I would have preferred one or the other all the way through (and preferably the diary).
– There are a couple of dream sequences, and you all know how much I hate those.

Favourite character:
Clarissa. I found her warm and easy to empathise with. I liked that she enjoyed reading and sewing and wasn’t a party animal, and that her experience with Rafe didn’t put her off having feelings for Robert or having some optimism for the future.

Least favourite:
Rafe, of course. Though I didn’t think much of Clarissa’s “friend” Rowena, either.

I recommend this book to:
~ People who enjoy psychological thrillers and being scared.
~ People wanting to understand more about stalking and how it can happen to anyone.
~ Anyone wanting to learn more about how English juries and courts work.
(I should also add, though it’s probably obvious, that this book contains graphic descriptions of stalking and domestic and sexual abuse, so if you are sensitive to reading about those things you might want to give it a miss.)