Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: ‘Bright Young Things wanted for Big Project.’ They’re in the prime of their lives but our bright young things are all burnt out. Six sparky twenty-somethings just out of university and working dead-end jobs, they are all bored to tears with their lives and looking for a way out. When a mysterious job is advertised in the newspaper, they all apply. What they least expect is to find themselves prisoners on a deserted island. There’s food in the fridge and they have a bedroom each, but there’s no telephone, no television, and no way to escape.

Why did I read this book?
Scarlett Thomas was one of the best authors I “discovered” last year (I’m late to the party, I know) – I greatly enjoyed PopCo and fell in love with Our Tragic Universe. Naturally I now want to read all of her work (although I might skip her very early crime novels) and thought I’d start with this and Going Out (both of which pre-date PopCo) before treating myself to The End Of Mr Y.

Favourite thing about the book:
Scarlett Thomas’ writing style. It’s snappy and intelligent without being draining to read.

Other positives:
+ Although published in 2001, Bright Young Things was written in the late 90s and it instantly transported me back to that time – when the best thing you could do with a mobile was to play Snake, Blur were still making music and the internet was something only geeks were very bothered about. The book is packed with pop culture and fashion references and I loved the nostalgia trip it gave me (I was around 15 when it was written).
+ I enjoyed the lengthy “Truth Or Dare” scene during which multiple revelations regarding pretty much all the characters come about. The spilling of juicy secrets was fun and the way the characters interacted was believably and skillfully written.

Least favourite thing about the book:
Its ending, or perhaps I should say “non-ending”. It felt very rushed and was so frustrating that it almost made me wish I hadn’t bothered reading the book.

Other negatives:
- The characters were not always distinct enough from each other, especially early on. I spent the first half struggling to remember who was who and double checking their initial back stories to remind myself.
- Bright Young Things is really very thin on plot. Despite the premise being quite a “big idea” it felt very much like a device to enable conversations rather than something with a purpose and didn’t feel like the best tool for the job.

Favourite character:
Anne, with Paul a close second.

Least favourite:
Jamie, though I also found Emily and Bryn pretty hard to relate to.

I recommend this book to:
~ Anyone who wants to reminisce about the late 90s, or just wants to read all Scarlett Thomas’ back catalogue. If you like the idea of this book but don’t feel impressed by the way it’s carried out I suggest you check out Cold Earth by Sarah Moss.

Quick Review: When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie #3) by Kate Atkinson

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: On a hot summer day, Joanna Mason’s family slowly wanders home along a country lane. A moment later, Joanna’s life is changed forever. On a dark night thirty years later, ex-detective Jackson Brodie finds himself on a train that is both crowded and late. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly hears a shocking sound. At the end of a long day, 16-year-old Reggie is looking forward to watching a little TV. Then a terrifying noise shatters her peaceful evening. Luckily, Reggie makes it a point to be prepared for an emergency.

This is the third book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, following on from Case Histories and One Good Turn (the first of which I loved, the second of which I found mildly disappointing) and, like its predecessor, set in Edinburgh (yay!). When Will There Be Good News? was, like all Kate Atkinson’s work, extremely well-written and able to draw you into the characters’ worlds smoothly and skillfully. Every location, every person, was just detailed enough to be believable without that description becoming tedious. I much preferred the characters of When Will There Be Good News? to those in One Good Turn (and even those that appeared in both, like Jackson and Louise, were somehow more sympathetic here) though mostly I just loved Reggie and Joanna, they were brilliant. I’ve held back from giving this five stars because it didn’t feel as tightly plotted as the previous books in the series: it was 85% build-up and the clues came too slowly to be shocking or to make me want to keep reading (the characters and writing were enough to do that, but I expect a more gripping story when reading crime). Still, as a whole, it’s a series I highly recommend.

Two-View Book Review: The Most Beautiful Rot by Ocean Capewell

My co-reviewer for this book ismy friend Ingrid, a zine-maker who you can find at www.mythologisingme.tumblr.com

I: ★★★★★ (5 stars)
H: ★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: The Most Beautiful Rot is a secret peek into the backyards and living rooms of young queer america. It’s a testament to the act of digging through the bleakness of everyday life to find something beautiful growing underneath, something that you weren’t expecting. This book is also about overflowing dumpsters, stupid men, catastrophic illness, hot queer makeouts, and a compost pile gone horribly wrong. It’s about solidarity, kale, girl love, and the families we make when our other families leave us behind. The story is narrated by four housemates. First we meet Tabitha, the youngest, newest housemate who’s super-excited to have discovered this new way of life, until she discovers something untoward in the compost pile. She tries to seek revenge, but even that goes awry. Next, the focus is turned over to Xandria, our reformed crusty who’s wrestling with some ghosts from her past that won’t stop haunting her. Jasmine takes over the narration next with her dreamy, poetic style that culminates in a shocking–and devastating–revelation. Lydia carries us towards the end with her sassy productivity, towards the change that threatens to tear their family apart.

Why did I read this book?
I: I’ve been an avid reader of Ocean’s zine series ‘High on burning photographs’ for several years now. She has the ability to write about raw topics in a really beautiful way. I bought this through her crowdfunding campaign because I wanted to read it but also to support her writing.

H: I’m also familiar with Ocean’s zines, and though I haven’t read any in a while I remember enjoying them and thinking Ocean was/is an excellent writer. I was drawn to the novel’s unusual premise and the promise of characters unlike those I usually find in novels (and I wasn’t disappointed).

Favourite thing about the book:
I: It’s beautifully written, and I like how there are several different characters you get to meet. I think having Tabitha be brand new to the group made you sympathise with them and feel like you could be them in the scenario of the world Ocean has created.

H: That it shows us a world rarely seen in fiction, with characters living lives “outside the norm”; characters who I could often relate to and who were all interesting.

Other positives:
I: + The cover is gorgeous! I didn’t want to put this as my favourite thing as you know, it’s a cliché that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However it’s adorable and delicate and makes people want to ask what you’re reading.
+ I also felt like the length was suitable, my curiosity was sated by the end of the book, without feeling like things were too neat and tidy. I finished it feeling satisfied.

H: + I agree with Ingrid, the cover is lovely!
+ Ocean is a brilliant writer, and saying that is a vast understatement. I can’t stress enough how much I love her style, and how well she communicates the thoughts of her characters and enables the reader to visualize their world.
+ I liked the multiple narrator device and felt like each individual voice was strong and distinct from the others. It was interesting to see how different people viewed the same situation and people around them/each other.
+ Ocean leaves things open enough to encourage readers to make up their own minds about events and characters’ motivations. The Most Beautiful Rot would work well as a book group choice for this (and other) reasons.
+ The sex scenes weren’t cringeworthy! It’s hard to write these well, but Ocean managed it.

Least favourite thing about the book:
I: There really isn’t one. I thought it was the perfect patchwork of experiences and characters and life experiences.

H: I’ve held back from giving The Most Beautiful Rot five stars because I felt it could have been just a little a bit longer, gone just a little bit deeper into each character’s story (though overall I was satisfied by it).

Other negatives:
I: – I think the world created in the book is one which might be a little specific to US culture, so as a reader from the UK it can at times be a bit hard to relate to. Though I know communal living does exist here, it’s just less common, or maybe the people involved are less vocal in the zine community here. However that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, I wanted to get thoroughly lost in the world of this book.

H: – None!

Favourite character:
I: I love them all but maybe Lydia, because I loved the writing style in her chapters and she’s ultra femme and she’s got a kickass job and a mindset I can relate to and I think I would have fallen in love with her if I was Tabitha!

H: I liked all the characters, but I think Jasmine was my favourite. Obviously (to anyone who’s read the book) she’s not in the best place during this story but I loved her “voice” and attitude and she was the character I most wanted to get to know better.

Least favourite:
I: I think Xandria was hard to pin down at first, she’s obviously got some serious demons and is less happy to open up so as a reader I wasn’t sure how to relate, but as I got further into her backstory this was totally justified, I feel. I liked that she reached out to Tabitha from the start though, really I don’t have a least favourite at all!

H: I found Xandria the hardest to relate to, though I didn’t dislike her. I felt that both her and Lydia could be a tad bitchy and sometimes acted in a way towards people that was incongruous with their true feelings, but I suppose we all do that sometimes.

I recommend this book to:
I: ~ Anyone who wants to read a novel about survival and female friendship, but I know that zine writers and feminists would particularly enjoy it.

H: ~ What Ingrid said! I think anyone who has had a crappy job, lived communally or felt their friends were their family will find a lot to like here.

Campari For Breakfast by Sara Crowe

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: In 1987, Sue Bowl’s world changes for ever. Her mother dies, leaving her feeling like she’s lost a vital part of herself. And then her father shacks up with an awful golddigger called Ivana. But Sue’s mother always told her to make the most of what she’s got – and what she’s got is a love of writing and some interesting relatives. So Sue moves to her Aunt Coral’s crumbling ancestral home, Green Place, along with a growing bunch of oddballs and eccentrics. Not to mention the odd badger or two . . . There she fully intends to write a book, fall in love, and learn to live decadently.

Why did I read this book?
I heard it was told, at least partly, through diary entries and that’s enough to sell a book to me. The “crumbling old country house” setting also appealed.

Favourite thing about the book:
Its setting. The country mansion felt very real to me; and whenever I’ve visited such places that have been opened to the public I’ve always wondered what it was like for the last family members to live there (usually in the 1970s or 80s) and although Sue’s family manage to hold onto the house Campari For Breakfast does answer the question of what life in a stately home in the late twentieth century was like.

Other positives:
+ As a whole, the plot wasn’t too predictable (though the “love story” aspect was rather).
+ Despite the above, I did enjoy following the development of the romantic plotline.
+ Sue’s bereavement was well-handled – realistic but without becoming too bleak as the rest of the novel lightened the atmosphere.

Least favourite thing about the book:
There is something a bit cliched about the “load of eccentrics in big old house” storyline and although it’s a trope because people (including me) like to read about it I got the impression that Campari For Breakfast felt itself to be more original than it was.

Other negatives:
- Sue’s sections have spelling mistakes in which are supposed to reflect her true voice but which I found annoying, especially as they weren’t frequent enough for me to be sure at first if they were intentional or the result of a proof-reading error.
- The extracts of Sue’s creative writing were dull and cringeworthy – I had to force myself to read them and even now can’t remember what they were about. (They reminded me a of a cross between the fanfiction sections in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and Adrian Mole’s Lo! The Flat Hills Of My Homeland.)
- Sue’s obsession with “romance” got a little tedious.
- Coral’s diary extracts were initially a bit boring to read but became less so as time went by and the point of their inclusion became clear.

Favourite character:
Sue, though I liked Coral a lot too.

Least favourite:
Icarus.

I recommend this book to:
~ Fans of Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle.

Quick Review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: In a tiny flat in West London, sixteen-year-old Marina lives with her emotionally delicate mother, Laura, and three ancient Hungarian relatives. Imprisoned by her family’s crushing expectations and their fierce unEnglish pride, by their strange traditions and stranger foods, she knows she must escape. But the place she runs to makes her feel even more of an outsider. At Combe Abbey, a traditional English public school for which her family have sacrificed everything, she realises she has made a terrible mistake. She is the awkward half-foreign girl who doesn’t know how to fit in, flirt or even be. And as a semi-Hungarian Londoner, who is she? In the meantime, her mother Laura, an alien in this strange universe, has her own painful secrets to deal with, especially the return of the last man she’d expect back in her life. She isn’t noticing that, at Combe Abbey, things are starting to go terribly wrong.

I was a little surprised to discover this novel is set in the 1980s as the synopsis fails to mention that (not that it would have put me off reading it, but it seems strange to leave that out). I enjoyed Almost English’s prose style and would consider reading more by Charlotte Mendelson but found the novels’ plot unoriginal and directionless. Protagonist Marina makes a lot of bad decisions/nondecisions which reminded me a little of Lee in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep who I found kind of annoying (Almost English also put me in mind of David Nicholl’s Starter For Ten, with its 1980s setting and educational/class divide theme). Her mother, Laura, was a little more sympathetic (though didn’t help much with my dread of eventually being an empty-nester) but also guilty of making bad decisions/nondecisions. Most of the plot issues would be resolved if people just communicated openly with each other, and having people fail to speak to each other properly is a thin device to hang a whole book on. The Hungarian/Central European (which country their hometown is in now is up for question) aspect of Marina and Laura’s life was interesting but not that well explored and its main focus seemed to be that Marina was ashamed of it. I didn’t enjoy the plotline with Guy’s father either, I saw it coming from a mile away and didn’t think it was resolved in an empowering or positive manner. 

Quick Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

★★ (2 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Billy’s mother is dead. He knows-because he reads about it in magazines-that people die every day in ways that are more random and tragic and stupid than hers, but for nineteen-year-old Billy and his little brother, Oscar, their mother’s death in a bungled street robbery is the most random and tragic and stupid thing that could possibly have happened to them. Now Billy must be both mother and father to Oscar, and despite what his well-meaning aunt, the PTA mothers, social services, and Oscar’s own prodigal father all think, he feels certain that he is the one for the job. The boys’ new world-where bedtimes are arbitrary, tidiness is optional, and healthy home-cooked meals pile up uneaten in the freezer-is built out of chaos and fierce love, but it’s also a world that teeters perilously on its axis. As Billy’s obsession with his mother’s missing killer grows, he risks losing sight of the one thing that really matters: the only family he has left.

This was originally going to be a two-view book review, but my co-reviewer Janet gave up after one reading session due to its relentless casual racism and classism, which perhaps tells you all you need to know about it. I battled on, and was “rewarded” by a book that was easy enough to read from a stylistic point of view but packed with “state of the nation” style rants in which Billy airs his (generally very unpleasant and judgmental) opinions. I was particularly struck by his nasty stereotyping of social workers (whilst teachers are portrayed as either staid old lady types or hipsters) – would he rather we have no such safety net? Of course it isn’t clear what is the opinion of Stephen May and what is his characters’ (and I’m not opposed to reading books with unlikeable protagonists) but overall this was a bleak, angry read which I was glad to close the final page of. Speaking of the ending, I wasn’t convinced that Billy would do what he set out to, and as a plot-line it seemed incongruous with his previous motives.

Two-View Book Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

My co-reviewer today is Laura, who writes the book blog Little Book Fiend and can be found on Twitter @laurabookfiend.

whr tellthewolves★★★★★ (5 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: 1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life — someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart. At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

Why did I read this book?
L: This is one of those books where the title drew me to it first. Then I read the blurb and knew I had to read it! Thank you Hannah for introducing me to this heartbreakingly beautiful book.

H: I stumbled across it when browsing goodreads – I think it was a “Readers Also Enjoyed” suggestion and noticed that not only had lots of friends there had read it but they all gave it four or five stars.

Favourite thing about the book:
L: My favourite thing about this book was the complexity of the relationships between the characters. Not just between June and Finn and Toby, but June and her family, and Finn and Danni (June’s mum) too. I loved that it explored friendships that defy age boundaries and also that “grown ups” can be just as petty and foolish as younger folk.

H: I loved so much about this book that it’s hard for me to review it at all (I always find it easier to say why I didn’t like something than why I did, I must be a malcontent) nevermind pick a favourite thing, but I’ll plump for: the relationships between the characters. Particularly between Toby and June (the push-pull of their developing friendship and June’s initial resistance to it), Greta and June (the mystery of why they drifted apart and why Greta finds it hard to let herself be vulnerable, all the love and hate and fun that goes into the relationship between two teenage sisters) and Finn and Greta (okay, he dies at the start of the novel, but he is a still a big presence. Of particular interest were the depth of June’s feelings for Finn and how he handles them).

Other positives:
L: + I really admire the way this book explored the history behind some of the characters’ unpleasant behaviour. They don’t just simply do mean things because they are mean people, but because they are hurt, jealous, damaged and very, very human.
+ This book made me cry. I love a book that makes me feel that deeply.
+ This quote: “I don’t think God would create a disease just to kill people like Finn, and if he did, then there’s no way I ever even consider worshipping him.”

H: + Carol Rifka Brunt’s prose. She is a beautiful writer. Within a few pages I was in love with the novel’s style – it effortlessly swoops you into another world and makes you feel that her characters are whispering their most intimate thoughts to you. I’m not sure if she’s writing a second novel but if/when she does I’ll definitely read it.
+ The handling of the AIDS issue within the story. It reminded me of books I read on the topic when I was a child (especially Morris Gleitzman’s Two Weeks With The Queen, does anyone else remember that?) when HIV was still a death sentence and surrounded in hushed tones (partly because it was linked so closely to the gay community and gay rights still had a long way to go. Well, they still do, but they had even further to travel back then).
+ The novel’s setting – both physical (NYC and the New York suburb of Westchester) and chronological (1987, and it isn’t forced or made a big deal of. It just feels right).
+ Tell the Wolves I’m Home is an excellent study of the impact of loss in a person’s life and how your life can be left with a gaping hole that’s easier to fill at some times than it is others.
+ The book will (gently) make you question (your) life: are you living it as you should, are you taking the opportunities you can?
+ This: “I really wondered why people were always doing what they didn’t like doing. It seemed like life was a sort of narrowing tunnel. Right when you were born, the tunnel was huge. You could be anything. Then, like, the absolute second after you were born, the tunnel narrowed down to about half that size. You were a boy, and already it was certain you wouldn’t be a mother and it was likely you wouldn’t become a manicurist or a kindergarten teacher. Then you started to grow up and everything you did closed the tunnel in some more. You broke your arm climbing a tree and you ruled out being a baseball pitcher. You failed every math test you ever took and you canceled any hope of ever being a scientist. Like that. On and on through the years until you were stuck. You’d become a baker or a librarian or a bartender. Or an accountant. And there you were. I figured that on the day you died, the tunnel would be so narrow, you’d have squeezed yourself in with so many choices, that you just got squashed.”

Least favourite thing about the book:
L: I would love to know more about what happened to June as she grew up. I have this vision of her becoming a nurse or something like that to support people with AIDS. But I guess this is also a good thing about the book. I feel it’s a sign of a great story if it makes you care so much for the characters that you want to know what happens to them after they step of that final page.

H: Dream sequences. There are a few, and everyone who reads this blog knows I hate them.

Other negatives:
L: At times I felt Finn seemed a little perfect. Then again, we were viewing him though June’s rose-tinted recollections…

H: None! I absolutely loved this book.

Favourite character:
L: June. I loved her introspection and insecurity, her boldness and her fears. I loved the way she grew as the book progressed. I also loved her obsession with the past. I found it very poignant that she wanted to live in a “simpler”, romantic time when the world around her is growing more and more complicated and frightening.

H: Toby. I was rooting for him and his friendship with June all the way through. There was something gentle and caring about him, and I liked hearing about his skilful hands and the secret basement room Finn made for him. I liked June too though and appreciated that she wasn’t afraid to “own” emotions she found embarrassing or choices that weren’t the best (Toby was the same, in fact), and that she didn’t care too much about fitting in with her peers. She was generally reflective and mature for her age, though seemed to have a blind spot regarding her relationship with Greta (or more specifically what Greta’s feelings about their relationship might be).

Least favourite:
L: This is a tough question to answer. For most of the book I would have instantly screamed: Greta! But as I mention above, for all she is incredibly mean and vindictive, and pretty much a complete bitch to June, her behaviours mask a deep vulnerability and sense of loneliness.

H: Danni (June and Greta’s mother). As the novel progressed and we came to understand her better I did feel more sympathetic, but (without wanting to give away too much of the story) her decision regarding Toby and Finn’s relationship was unforgivable.

I recommend this book to:
L: ~ Readers who enjoy coming of age stories, particularly ones that explore big issues.

H: ~ Pretty much everyone, to be honest. If you enjoy beautifully written literary novels then you will love this.
~ Fans of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. This is a better book – less affected somehow (I loved the book when I read it as a teen but as an adult found it a bit cringey, though I think the film version is excellent) – but encompasses some of the same themes such as loss, GLBTQ issues and is set in a similar time period.