Hiatus, Sort Of

hiatus

I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do this and that no matter how busy life got I’d keep up this blog in some form, but as it’s been nearly a month since I published a post I think it needs to be done. I haven’t had the new baby yet (he’s currently 4 days overdue) but my older boy has stopped having naps and I’ve been tired in general and just got behind on writing posts. I don’t want blogging to feel like a chore or to be something I get stressed out finding time to do, so I’ve decided to take a break for a while. I’m hoping to drop in now and then with a post or two, and maybe some guest posts, but I don’t seem to have time/energy for regular reviews just now – though I hope I will in the future, so please keep following this blog if you’d like to be notified when I return! In the meantime I’m still using Goodreads, so feel free to follow me there if you’d like to keep up with what I’ve been reading.

(The image for this post was shamelessly stolen from here.)

Quick Review: Us by David Nicholls

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Douglas Petersen may be mild mannered, but behind his reserve lies a sense of humour that, against all odds, seduces beautiful Connie into a second date… and eventually into marriage. Now, almost three decades after their relationship first blossomed in London, they live more or less happily in the suburbs with their moody seventeen-year-old son, Albie. Then Connie tells Douglas that she thinks she wants a divorce.The timing couldn’t be worse. Hoping to encourage her son’s artistic interests, Connie has planned a month-long tour of European capitals, a chance to experience the world’s greatest works of art as a family, and she can’t bring herself to cancel. And maybe going ahead with the original plan is for the best, anyway? Douglas is privately convinced that this landmark trip will rekindle the romance in the marriage, and may even help him to bond with Albie.

Yawn. This book was a sizeable disappointment. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up were it not written by the man behind One Day and Starter For Ten, but of course I couldn’t help hoping Us would be somewhere near as enjoyable as those despite the synopsis not holding much appeal. It wasn’t. David Nicholls is a good writer, so on a sentence-to-sentence level the book was an alright-enough reading experience, but the plots (there are essentially two narratives here: that of Douglas and Connie meeting, falling in love, getting married, having children etc.; and then the present-day tour of Europe storyline*) are dull and the characters unanimously unlikeable. Not even unlikeable in a complex or humourous way – just bland/or and selfish and/or stereotyped** – and, as I find with far too many books, annoyingly (and conveniently) upper middle class so that money is never an obstacle to the plot. As someone of 30 I found it quite a depressing read – is this the sort of life – where spouses grow apart and their teenagers hate them – that I’ve got to “look forward to” in another decade or two? I hope not! It is a testament to David Nicholls’ skill as a writer that Us is getting even 3 stars here, and I will still pick up any other novels he happens to write, but with sadly far lower expectations than I had previously.

* Which, to be fair, did its job of bringing places to life and making me want to visit a few of them.

** Douglas put me in mind of a poor man’s Don from Graeme Simsion ‘s The Rosie Project/The Rosie Effect, and Connie had a lot of similarities to Rosie too, especially the Rosie of the sequel.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: It’s July 1976. In London, it hasn’t rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back. The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children — two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce — back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.

Why did I read this book?
Because I liked all Maggie O’Farrell’s other books! (Though to be honest I didn’t feel that enthusiastic about this one, largely due to its premise, and renewed my library copy quite a few times before settling down to it. Once I did start, I read the whole thing quite quickly and felt I’d been a bit silly in putting it off for so long).

Favourite thing about the book:
Maggie O’Farrell’s writing, so absorbing, atmospheric and flowing, with a perfect eye for detail.

Other positives:
+ The novel’s characters, whilst not that exciting, were well written. I also enjoyed reading about characters at various life stages (Aoife is in her early/mid twenties, Micheal Francis and Monica about a decade older and Gretta in her sixties or seventies), and those who had made different life choices to each other (e.g. accidental family man Micheal Francis and child-free Monica).
+ Relatedly, the relationships between the characters, especially the sibling characters, were well drawn.
+ I enjoyed the exploration of the family’s Irish heritage and it reminded me of the British-Italian family in (bit like the italian family in The Distance Between Us).
+ I didn’t guess Gretta’s secret at all!

Least favourite thing about the book:
It didn’t feel very original, particularly when I have read all but one of her previous books and Instructions for a Heatwave rehashed so many of the same themes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Maggie O’Farrell is good at what she does and you know what you’re getting when you pick up on of her novels – but it does make it hard for me to see this novel as anything special.

Other negatives:
– Nothing really. I’ve partly given this book 4 stars rather than 5 as I couldn’t personally relate to this book or the characters (certainly not in the the way I could to The Hand That First Held Mine, for example), but that doesn’t mean others won’t.
(In case anyone is wondering, I’d place this as my joint third favourite Maggie O’Farell book: I liked it less than The Hand That First Held Mine and After You’d Gone, about the same as The Distance Between Us and more than The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox).

Favourite character:
Aoife, by far.

Least favourite:
I didn’t like Michael Francis or Monica very much, which probably influenced how I felt about the novel as a whole.

I recommend this book to:
~ People who like Maggie O’Farrell’s other books, or just family dramas in general.
~ People who have Irish heritage (like me, though mine is more distant than that of the characters here).
~ Those who want to feel nostalgic for the 1976 heatwave (I wasn’t born yet then, but it is rendered so vividly that I imagine others would appreciate it).

Quick Review: Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: ‘As soon as they processed my release Noah and I hit the ground running. A change of clothes. A wig. An inconspicuous sedan. We doubled back once, twice, then drove south when we were really headed east. In San Francisco we had a girl who looked like me board a plane to Hawaii. Oh, I thought I was so clever. But you probably already know that I’m not.’ LA It girl Janie Jenkins has it all. The looks, the brains, the connections. The criminal record. Ten years ago, in a trial that transfixed America, Janie was convicted of murdering her mother. Now she’s been released on a technicality she’s determined to unravel the mystery of her mother’s last words, words that send her to a tiny town in the very back of beyond. But with the whole of America’s media on her tail, convinced she’s literally got away with murder, she has to do everything she can to throw her pursuers off the scent. She knows she really didn’t like her mother. Could she have killed her?

This novel has already drawn comparisons (unfortunately not usually in its favour) to Gillian Flynn’s novels, and my review is no exception as one of the first things I have in my book review notes is that it reminded me of Sharp Objects due to its creepy-small-town-with-secrets setting. Many people have also noted that protagonist and first-person-narrator Janie is difficult to like (again, like many of Gillian Flynn’s characters), but I didn’t find this a problem and I often found her sarcasm and mean streak quite amusing. In between the chapters were exerts from texts, interviews, news stories etc. which I enjoyed and felt added to the story’s pace and suspense. Unfortunately however the mystery element of the novel slowed down too much as the story went on and some of the revelations (e.g. the Trace-related one) were a bit obvious, not to mention the town’s residents being unbelievably loose-lipped for what was supposed to be a secretive, insular community. I don’t regret reading this and would still check out more of Elizabeth Little’s novels (if she writes them – this is her first) but Dear Daughter wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped.

 

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: By day, two young women spend their hours emailing each other, discussing every aspect of their lives. By night, Lincoln, a lonely IT guy, spends his hours reading every exchange. Soon Lincoln is drawn into their lives, and finds himself falling for one of them. Lincoln decides it’s time to muster the courage to follow his heart.

Why did I read this book?
Mostly because I’ve enjoyed the other Rainbow Rowell books I’ve read (Fangirl and Landline), and because I got a copy of this for Christmas (thanks Hayley!). Being a fan of epistolary novels I was also drawn in by the book’s premise as it is partly told through emails.

Favourite thing about the book:
The characters: as in all Rainbow Rowell’s novels they were all very well drawn, from the main characters to those on the periphery.

Other positives:
+ Attachments is a “feel good” sort of book. It didn’t make me laugh out loud but it did leave me feeling happy, I enjoyed the minute-to-minute experience of reading it and found it hard to put it down.
+ I enjoyed it’s late 90s pop culture references and reliving the hype  (and anti-climax) of the Millenium.
+ Lincoln’s geekiness.
+ The romantic aspect of the plot was believable, even if its trajectory was a bit predictable.

Least favourite thing about the book:
Some of the content of Beth and Jennifer’s emails didn’t feel natural (it was hard to believe they didn’t already know the stories of how they each met their respective partners, for example), and for best friends who lived and worked near each other they didn’t seem to have many conversations outwith email. This damaged the book’s believability a bit.

Other negatives:
– The novel has a weird obsession with marriage and works on the assumption that it is the only indicator of a committed relationship. I suppose this could just be a handy narrative shorthand but I know lots of unmarried couples whose lives are exactly like that of married couples only without the rings/piece of paper.
– Lincoln seemed to suddenly grow about halfway through the book. Maybe I missed references to it before but all of a sudden his height and width seemed to be mentioned on every other page.
– I can’t say too much because I don’t want to drop a spoiler in here, but I thought what Beth said to Jennifer regarding something only being 93% not her fault was horribly mean and untrue (as obviously it was 100% not her fault). It made me like her a lot less as placing blame on anyone in her situation is pretty much The Worst Thing you can do.

Favourite character:
Lincoln. I liked his nerdy D&D friends a lot too, and I could relate to his mum in some ways.

Least favourite:
Pretty much all the main characters were likeable in an overall sense even if they did a few annoying things. Lincoln’s ex seemed quite annoying and fake though.

I recommend this book to:
~ People who want to read something light-hearted, funny and romantic, even if they don’t usually like anything that could be described as “chick lit” (I generally hate it and find the characters and writing to be low quality, however that’s not the case here).

Quick Review: The Boy Who Made it Rain by Brian Conaghan

★★ (2 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: At only sixteen Clem’s world is turned upside down. His Willy-Loman-like father, a travelling salesman and a loser, is transferred from Eastbourne to Glasgow and along with him go Clem and his meek accommodating mother. But Glasgow is rough and Clem’s posh English accent is not well-accepted in the sink school he attends. And he’s a brilliant scholar. He soon becomes the target for McEvoy’s group of thugs for whom slashing faces is the most important ambition in their depraved lives.

I discovered The Boy Who Made It Rain after reading Brian Conaghan’s second novel, When Mr Dog Bites (which I loved); and was interested to read its observations on the contrasts in life between different parts of the UK as I too have lived in a few different ones. It has an interesting structure as the first half is made up of short vignettes by people who knew Clem prior to some un-named incident: his girlfriend, a teachers, various classmates etc.; with the second half being told from Clem’s POV. Unfortunately I didn’t find the story (in either of the ways it was presented) to be well-paced or original, and the ending was predictable to an extent (though tamer than I was expecting). Protagonist Clem reminded me of several other, largely unlikeable, teenage boy characters (particularly the dude from Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers, but also Miles from John Green’s Looking For Alaska). It’s a shame this was so disappointing because Brian Conaghan other book is really good and when we chatted a bit on Goodreads he came across as an amiable guy, but unfortunately, it was.

Alice and the Fly by James Rice

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: This is a book about phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. It’s about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it’s about love. Finding love – in any of its forms – and nurturing it. “Miss Hayes has a new theory. She thinks my condition’s caused by some traumatic incident from my past I keep deep-rooted in my mind. As soon as I come clean I’ll flood out all these tears and it’ll all be ok and I won’t be scared of Them anymore. The truth is I can’t think of any single traumatic childhood incident to tell her. I mean, there are plenty of bad memories – Herb’s death, or the time I bit the hole in my tongue, or Finners Island, out on the boat with Sarah – but none of these are what caused the phobia. I’ve always had it. It’s Them. I’m just scared of Them. It’s that simple.”

Why did I read this book?
I had seen a few reviews of it on other blogs and was intrigued by its, admittedly dark, themes: mental health, bullying, dysfunctional families; and by the fact it has a teenage protagonist. I thought I’d have to wait until my library got a copy to read it but Hayley kindly passed on her preview copy.

Favourite thing about the book:
Two overarching themes of the book were 1. that living inauthentically and focusing on the superficial can lead to disaster; and 2. how important it is to take notice and care of those around us. Both issues deserve more attention and their inclusion in any novel can only be A Good Thing.

Other positives:
+ James Rice’s prose was easy to read without being over simplistic – I’ll be looking out for more books from him in future.
+ Relatedly, I liked the inclusion of police transcripts within the text, which, relatedly once more contributed to the novel having…
+ A good amount of suspense, and being well-plotted in general.
+ Greg was likeable, even if all his actions weren’t.
+ Alice And The Fly showed what day to day life can be like for young people who are bullied at school and unsupported by their families. Obviously it is not a good thing that anyone has to live like this but novels like this may prompt people to take more more notice of the young people around them.
+ The book edged into satire regarding Greg’s mum’s obsession with outward appearances, and at times was quite funny (upside down Christmas tree anyone?).

Least favourite thing about the book:
The love story element. Although key to the novel’s plot I found it a bit predictable and felt Alice’s character had a tad too much Manic Pixie Dream Girl about it.

Other negatives:
– Occasionally the text would be interrupted by a (thankfully) short stream-of-conciousness chapter. These were clearly designed to give us insight into Greg’s condition, and they did somewhat, but they were also annoying to read.

Favourite character:
Greg.

Least favourite:
There are a lot of people to dislike here – notably Greg’s bullies and his parents (I can’t decide who I disliked more: his dad, the absent philanderer, or his mum, who was incredibly shallow).

I recommend this book to:
~ People who like stories with teenage protagonists.
~ Anyone interested in mental health.
~ Those who like reading about dysfunctional families.
~People who liked Nathan Filer’s The Shock Of The Fall, though to be honest I liked TSOTF a bit more than I did this.