Monday, 16 April 2018

Aftercare Instructions - Bonnie Pipkin

A sunny day, a garden chair, a new book by a writer unfamiliar to me - what better way to while away a spring afternoon. Plus I thank my lucky stars that despite being an Old Adult (who’s never quite grown up) I do enjoy fiction intended for the YA readership. The book in question is Bonnie Pipkin’s first novel and it would be disappointing if it was to be her last.

The premise could be viewed as contentious within the context of today’s sometime fractured society and the extreme views of many within it. For the story deals with teenage abortion. Not exactly a barrel of laughs you might be thinking and you’d be right but stories like these that deal with sensitive and emotional issues are important for highlighting more than one side to a challenging debate.

The main protagonist is Gen. The blurb insists on using the diminutive instead of her full name which I loved as it offered two interpretations which I saw as running parallel to the premise of the story in that there are two sides to most questions. You’ll have to read the book if you want to know her full Christian name because I’m not going to tell you! Gen seems to have had a lot to deal with in her seventeen years and finds a semblance of security and grounding in her relationship with Peter. However Peter abandons her at the Planned Parenthood Clinic which gives poor Gen something else to deal with. The novel shows us how she deals with her past and her present comes to accept who she is. 

The narrative offers a first person account interspersed with a play script which fills in the details of Gen and Peter’s relationship.I thought this was a clever device especially as using dialogue as a descriptor allowed the reader to absorb the salient facts of the relationship without a load of unnecessary waffle. That can be a drawback in the debut novel where the writer feels they must throw everything they have at the reader. That trap is avoided . And again it’s a device that links in with something that happens to Gen further into the novel. I’m sorry but I just can’t tell you, I will not do a spoiler! That goes for the chapter headings too which I also enjoyed and thought were clever. 

It’s a very accessible and easy to read book which can perhaps belie the power within it. Some strong characters populate its pages, always very necessary when you’re trying to appeal to the younger reader. And I think this should resonate well with that intended audience.  It is set in the United States where some systems and protocols differ from the UK.  I found myself fleetingly thinking of John Green and Louise Rennison, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower but it is a story that finds its own voice and transcends the geography, and my comparisons!

A laudable debut. Young Adults? You’re in for a treat. My thanks to Nudge Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The Pharmacist's Wife - Vanessa Tait

My first instinct was to deride a comparison with Sarah Waters whose work I love but having completed the novel I totally understand the parallels. At times this book makes for uncomfortable reading but it covers a wide plethora of issues regarding women in the Victorian age. 

Our ‘heroine’ (forgive the pun, read the book to get the pun!) is Rebecca Palmer who has married a pharmacist. The book begins as Alexander Palmer opens his new pharmacy. Without revealing too much neither Alexander nor the marriage is all that it seems or indeed all that it should be. Alexander’s desire for fame and fortune with the manufacture of a new compound overrides any integrity or humanity he might have, not to mention his fetishes. Dispassionately he administers his new drug to his wife to ‘pacify’ her. It is only Rebecca’s awareness and intelligence that enable her to find a path out of the labyrinth of deceit and skullduggery which she manages to parry with some of her own. 

This dark and brooding tale threatens to engulf its reader with the gloom, despair and unpleasant proclivities of the majority of male characters. Homage to Dickens here with the aptly named partner of Alexander Palmer (which I won’t divulge as I think it would be a spoiler to do so). Gabriel and Lionel seem to be the exceptions. The female characters are well drawn and guide the reader to the outrageous inequalities of the Victorian age. They also help to illustrate how drug and drug dependency haven’t changed throughout history sadly and the book doesn’t seek to sugar coat the tragic consequences. Intentionally the writer draws our sympathies towards the female characters, the trio of Rebecca, Evangeline and Jenny.

The writing is lively and well paced, the novel reads authentically and the atmosphere created is tangible, you can almost smell the streets, a testament to solid research. The cruelty of some aspects the story are spiky to read. It made me edgy but I guess it was supposed to, something of the Victorian gothic among the pages. The conclusion is redemptive, as fictions maybe need to be. I did enjoy the book and I am grateful to Readers First for the opportunity to do so. 

Thursday, 5 April 2018

What Lies Within - Annabelle Thorpe

My earliest awareness of Marrakech was the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, Marrakesh Express’. At the time I thought that ‘striped djellabas’ were some kind of eastern lollipop, I was prone to confectionery fantasy at the time. Later it took on that mystical, gap year type of romantic location. Now, here, to set the record straight is Annabelle Thorpe’s new novel which conjures a place of paradoxes, intrigue and romance with a darker vein insidiously flowing through its streets.

Three friends from university, Hamad, Freya and Paul remain close even though their lives take them on divergent paths. A job proposition from Hamad brings Paul and Freya to Marrakech. There the past and the present unravel, but distinguishing between the truth and the lies are at the heart of What Lies Within. 

The opening prologue infers a crime and indeed there is but it’s sub text almost and is cocooned inside the tapestry of deceptions and bewilderment endured primarily by Freya.  There are some delicious twists in this novel that try to push it towards the psychological thriller genre but it also examines relationships, friendships and the different depths that they can function in. 

Of the three main characters Freya seems to behave with the most integrity, Paul with the least and Hamad somewhere in the middle. My feelings towards them mirrored that pyramid! Of the other characters some were functional, some were redolent of book characters from past times, almost but not quite stereotypical. But the mystique of living in a foreign country was sustained throughout for our ex pats and their interactions with those native to the region. 

I found the book well written and well paced, slow to start, with scene setting and character building.
I enjoyed the way the book gathered momentum as the truths were exposed in alarming quantities. The ending was a little predictable but, realistically, where else could it go? To have left things hanging would have been cruel to the reader!! On the whole I found it to be a substantial and satisfying read. My thanks to Bookbridgr and Olivia Mead at Quercus books for the opportunity to read this riveting tale. 

Monday, 2 April 2018

Every Note Played - Lisa Genova

This is a very easy book to read. By easy I mean it has a well-paced, flowing narrative. It is populated with accessible characters. But that’s where the easiness ends. The rest is very difficult. I was already in tears by page 63. So you’ve been warned!! But do read this book. Even if you’re not habitually a reader……..please…… this book. 

If I may quote from the novel, ‘He knew that Lou Gehrig had it, that Stephen Hawking has it, and was peripherally aware of the Ice Bucket Challenge. That was the extent of his knowledge on the subject, and he wasn’t seeking to know more.’ I suspect that more than sums up many of us. It seems somehow fitting and karmic that this book should be published so close to the sad demise of Professor Hawking as public awareness of ALS may already be heightened and floating in the collective ether. Reading this book will tell you practically everything about Motor Neurone Disease in powerful detail .And the great strength of this book is that it doesn’t do it with clinical, factual detachment, it does it from the sufferer’s perspective, and his aides and carers. You would think that in order to do this so unflinchingly well the writer must actually suffer from a form of MND. But I don’t believe that to be so. It is one thing to do impeccable research and observation but quite another to render all that into such palpable, empathic yet informative prose. 

However to make the story ‘just’ about a concert pianist felled by a crippling illness might not cut it. Instead Lisa Genova expands the tale, like a improvised musical composition, to show the effects the situation. has on others’ lives. Not merely from the everyday, practical applications of caring for someone with such an horrendous condition but how that condition causes others as well as the sufferer to contemplate and maybe atone for their pasts. Not wishing to give anything away there is a curious kind of redemption at the end of the book. 

The main characters, Richard and Karina, are not especially warm characters! But I think that makes the story all the more potent. It makes you think of the old adage of not wishing something on your worst enemy. Their daughter, Grace, is softer but still potent because you feel so much for how she has to deal with this situation. 

The title ‘Every Note Played’ holds meaning on several levels; for Richard because he has played all his notes, the disease has seen to that. The writer offers us a blow by blow, every last detail of ALS’s destructive power. And the book itself is like a concerto; three movements, pre ALS, during ALS and post ALS. 

Very hard to say that this is an enjoyable book of course but I am pleased I have had the opportunity to read it. Thanks to Readers First and Allen & Unwin for the opportunity.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Best Kind of People - Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall is a new writer to me and I am most pleased to have made her acquaintance! Although set in North America and seen from those perspectives legally and sociologically this current work is pertinent and topical to issues in the whole of our muddled world today. Whilst it offers no answers it does highlight the impact on friends and families in a compelling and compassionate way.

George Woodbury is an upstanding citizen of Avalon Hills. From a privileged background George gained an heroic status by defusing a potentially tragic situation when his daughter was seven years old. Ten years later George faces accusations of sexual misconduct. What follows is something of a ‘did he, didn’t he?’ type tale and I have no intention of becoming Ms Spoiler 2018 by divulging whether he did or didn’t! However the focus is very much how this situation influences the lives of his immediate family and their relationships and on a broader level raises awareness of how society as a whole responds to female voices.

The novel details the varying points of view and the different ways in which people respond and deal with George’s basic accusation. In some ways I found George Woodbury himself to be a minor character in the book, whether that was intentional or not I’m not certain. I didn’t warm to him over much but as readers I felt the writer was inviting us to reach our own conclusions about him whatever the final outcome of his trial.

We are somewhat used, nowadays, to hearing of such cases on the news. Sometimes we become almost immune to the headlines, high profile for a few days then being sidelined as another piece of news takes over that big profile spot on the front pages. But we don’t always get to see and understand the effect on the family. This book attempts to allow us a glimpse into the crumbling lives of a family torn asunder by allegations they can hardly believe.

Ms. Whittall draws her characters with love and understanding but that is not to say she allows sentiment to cloud the issues. George’s wife Joan swinging like a pendulum between acceptance and denial seemed very believable and the decisions she made were also very convincing. So, too, George’s daughter Sadie, intelligent, almost stereotypical rich girl but not quite. Her confusion was almost palpable at times and some of her actions understandable because of it. George’s son, Andrew, a member of the legal profession and having escaped the parochial small town returned to support his family in this time of crisis and possibly ends up adding to his own crises. 

No book is perfect and there was some stereotyping and some sections lacked credibility. There is no real redemption in the book but I never felt that was the intention. I thought it was about examining attitudes and effects and asking questions for the reader to ponder long after the book has been read.

Without wishing to ignite non pc gender issues I did wonder fleetingly how different a male response to this book would be from a female’s?

I found the book absorbing and engaging. It was by no means uplifting to put it mildly! But anything that makes a reader think on a deeper level than they may have done previously is no bad thing. My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the opportunity to read this story.

Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro

With my new found determination to restart and sustain my use of the local public library despite my reviewing commitments I put my money where my mouth is and selected this book by Ishiguro last week. 

And what an enriching experience it has proved to be. Originally published in 2009 this is a collection of short stories with a common musical theme. And that theme is used to further explore themes of loss, love and the passing of time as we search for our dreams. Elements of frustration creep in from time to time in these compelling tales. You could almost see them as word symphonies, each story a different movement in the symphony of life. 

I remember reading The Unconsoled and being reminded of Kafka and that feeling returned here quite strongly. There was something both absurd and dreamlike about some of the narrative. As you might expect from Ishiguro it’s multilayered and the music metaphors are seldom far from our conscious and subconscious. I suspect this book may be more for devotees of Ishiguro than new readers but I’d like to be wrong about that!! 

Ishiguro is a joy to read. I feel like celebrating this wondrous collection of words and images so ably put together with a cohesion that insists that Ishiguro is one of the finest writers of our age. A most auspicious start to my rekindled library life.

My reflections on my library usage can be read here.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Her Mother's Daughter - Alice Fitzgerald

This is an extremely well written, keenly observed book about a contentious and harrowing subject. Fortunate that it is well written for in the hands of a less competent author it would possibly be unreadable. I do not want to offer any spoilers but do prepare yourself for an uneasy read. I do feel concerned that the writing of this book is an act of catharsis for the writer for it seems too dark a subject to choose to write about unless you have some deep and first hand experience of it that you need to deal with. For the intention is surely to heighten awareness of the long lasting damage done by such despicable acts. It also demonstrates keenly how difficult it is such to speak of such things for the suffering victim and how that in turn impacts upon others. Specifically here effective parenting has been compromised, possibly, irrevocably. 

Told through the eyes of mother, Josephine, and daughter, Clare, the juxtaposition of adult and child perception was skilfully handed. The writer clearly understands children and their ability to perceive which is often under estimated. In fact the child seemed to understand more than the adults! Troubling for the reader, though, is the fact that although you know how damaged Josephine is and how that influences her moods and behaviours it is hard to really empathise with her. She is such a prisoner within herself and her treatment of the children so unreasonable at times. All our emotion goes to Clare and her brother. Maybe that is another intention of the writer. Or maybe I’m playing amateur psychologist too much . Perhaps it illustrates that even if you have a devoted partner, wonderful children  the extent of the damage done to you as a child throws all of that into jeopardy. 

It’s not the first fiction to deal with the subject, it won’t be the last. It is a book to make you think but don’t expect to feel uplifted. I couldn’t say I enjoyed this book unless I divorce myself from the subject matter and merely examine the structure, narrative, characterisations et cetera . However I have no regrets about having read it. I thank Readers First/Allen & Unwin for the opportunity.