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review 2017-05-19 10:43
A difficult book to define that touches on interesting topics
The Transition - Luke Kennard

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK, 4th Estate for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely decided to review.

Just as a matter of curiosity and before I wrote this review, I checked if this novel had made it into the shortlist of the Desmond Elliott Prize for Fiction (a prize for what they call ‘future literary luminaries’) but it hasn’t. I have one of the three books that have made it in my pile of books to read so I’ll try and catch up and keep you posted. But now, the review.

I must confess that sometimes my list of books to read gets so long that when I try to catch-up I realise a long time has passed between my acquiring a copy of the book and the time I get to read it. Although in some cases it’s fairly evident, in others I’m no longer sure why I chose a particular book and can’t remember anything about it, so I plunge into it with few expectations. This novel is one of those. The cover is fairly non-descript and the title at best could be described as intriguing (but abstract. In fact, being Spanish, the Transition makes me think of the process of political change from Franco’s dictatorship into a democracy) but it doesn’t give much of the game away. The novel is a bit like that too. I suspect whatever I think of it right now, I’ll be mulling over it for a long while.

Karl, the protagonist, is a young man with a good English degree that he uses to try and make a living on-line, writing fake reviews and term papers for students. His wife, Genevieve, is a primary school teacher. They live well beyond their means (in what appears to be, as the book progresses, a general state of affair for young couples of their generation and that is uncomfortably close to reality) and, eventually, he ends up accused of fraud. (He is not wrongly accused, although the circumstances are easy to understand). Instead of prison, he is offered a way out; he can join a scheme that promises a step up the property ladder, help to start some sort of business, and a six month’s stay, rent-free with mentors who will help in the process of rehabilitation. Although his wife has committed no crime, she also becomes a part of the project. The details are somewhat fuzzy and we soon realise they don’t add up(Karl is told that the Transition is a new pilot programme but he later discovers it has been going on for well over ten years, who is behind it remains unclear, he starts hearing rumours about possible books that explain the philosophy of the programme, and the mentors they are staying with, Jana and Stu, seem to have more than a few cards up their sleeves) and what seems at first helpful and benign, soon morphs into something mysterious, seemingly conspiratorial and with a sinister ring, at least inside of Karl’s head. He pushes the boundaries, gets into more and more trouble and things take a turn for the worse. Has Karl been right in his suspicions all along?

The novel is narrated in the third person restricted to Karl’s point of view. As a writer (even if his content would not win the Pulitzer Prize), he is articulate and we get information about the variety of online writing projects he engages in. He might write an essay about fairy tales one day, several five-star reviews about a chair and then another essay about ellipses in Henry James. (He moves from the sublime to the ridiculous, the same as the novel does, but eventually, it isn’t clear if there is any substantial difference between the two). His sense of morals seems restricted to loving his wife and trying to ensure she is well, as she has mental health problems and he protects her and looks after her, even when she does not want him to. Karl is clearly besotted with his wife, despite the difficulties in their relationship, and his was love at first sight. Although we only have his point of view as a guide, judging by other characters’ reaction to her, Genevieve is an attractive and engaging woman whom everybody feels drawn to and Karl is convinced he is extremely lucky (and perhaps unworthy) to be with her. Other than that relationship, Karl does not seem to have any meaningful ones. He mentions his father but not with particular affection and his relationship with his friend, the accountant who suggested he joins the scheme, seems based more on past shared experiences than on a real bond (as becomes evident later in the novel). There are instances of Karl not being truthful (he keeps information hidden from Genevieve, some we are aware of but some we aren’t) and he does not fit in most readers’ idea of a hero. He has devious morals, he sabotages himself, he is self-interested, and yes, he is flawed, but not ‘deeply’ flawed. Personally, I could not find much to like or truly dislike in him. He has moments of insight and shares some interesting reflections about life, but like with the novel, there is some unfinished quality about him. He will only go so far and no farther and he can act rashly one minute and be truly passive or passive-aggressive the next.

The action seems to take place in a future not far from our present. There is no world building and the social situation seems pretty similar to that of the UK today. Computer technology has not advanced in any noticeable way and the problem with affordable housing seems to be only marginally worse than the present one, although self-driven cars abound. There are descriptions of paintings, some buildings, clothes, interior design, and some characters but dependent on what might catch Karl’s attention. I have seen the book described as a dystopia, but it is not clear to me that the whole world order is affected by the Transition (perhaps they have some designs towards world domination, but it isn’t that clear), and it does not fit neatly into the category of science-fiction either. Karl acts as an amateur detective at times, and the novel has touches of the conspiracy theory behind it, but they don’t seem fully formed. I have also read some reviews saying it is humorous, and there are funny moments, especially if one considers the contrast between the worst of our suspicions and what actually happens, but it is not a comedy in the traditional sense; even calling it a dark comedy would be a bit of a stretch.  As a psychiatrist, I was particularly interested in the mental health angle and although it is not fully developed, it highlights some of the ongoing issues with such diagnoses, and it rings more true to me that some other angles of the story.

The author is better known as a poet, and the book is well-written although I wouldn’t say the language is particularly poetic or compelling. Like a post-modern puzzle, the book includes bits of the mentor’s book, diary extracts, documents, messages…  Ultimately, it does not leave everything to the reader’s imagination and struggles to impose a meaning that does not sit comfortably with it.

I have read some of the reviews and I agree that the book’s beginning is very promising but it does not deliver fully. In my opinion, it might be a matter of genre and also tone of voice (the light and comedic touches didn’t always seem congruous with the background atmosphere, although that could be read as a reflection of the narrator’s state of mind). The characters are not that easy to engage with (I found Karl understandable but not always emotionally relatable) either and the action and the story are not fully realised. The novel is ambitious and tries to do many things, some which seem to be in contradiction to each other, and that creates a tension that makes it crack at the seams.

On the other hand, the ideas behind the novel are interesting, the book is easy to read and the reflections and social comments are spot on, even if they are not resolved. I can’t see this book causing extreme reactions on its readers, but it would be a source of lively discussion in a book club. And I’m intrigued to see what the author will write about next.

 

 

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review 2017-05-18 19:35
The Nightly Disease
The Nightly Disease - Max Booth III

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

This one’s a bit of an oddball: the story of Isaac, night auditor in a hotel in Texas, spending his days sleeping and his nights in the drudgery of his job full of annoying customers, endless requests and weird happenings. And ‘weirder and weirder’ is how his nights become throughout the stories, from the moment he meets his new colleague Mandy who wants to pet an owl, and gets involved with Kia the bulimic homeless girl. Follows a gallery of shady characters, odd encounters, bodies piling up, and owls. (Yes, owls. The little creeps.)

I can’t tell whether I enjoyed this novel or not. It’s very bizarre, and Isaac’s descent into this half-believable, half-what-the-hell crazy world, was a mix of enjoyable and uncomfortable. (I it’s not the gory side that created that feeling for me, but the bulimic girl—to be fair, that’s probably because I myself have a history of eating disorders.)

On the other hand, the depiction of hotel jobs was quite funny, and the various circumstances Isaac had to fend through, from clogged toilets to murdered customers, even though somewhat unbelievable, had just enough of a touch of ‘based on something real’ for the surreal parts to flow in a... logical way, should I say? In that sort of inner logic pertaining the book.

Conclusion: 3 stars. Interesting and funny enough for me to probably try another novel by this author at some point.

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review 2017-04-22 09:55
"The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie" by Alan Bradley
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

I came across "The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie" when I was looking for new Canadian authors to read.  Alan Bradley gets great press, so I bought this book even though I was concerned that I might be getting an extended one line joke in which an aristocratic, 1950's  stiff-upper-lip Brit attitude was made amusing by being exhibited by an eleven your old girl.

 

What I got was something much more complex and engaging than that. I got Flavia de Luce, a young girl with a remarkable mind and dauntless heart, who is determined to solve a murder her father has been arrested for committing.

 

The book is set in England in 1950. shortly after the end of the war. Eleven year old Flavia lives in a large and once grand Stately Home with her two older sisters who are close to each other but exclude her, her emotionally withdrawn father and no memory of Harriet, her adventurer mother who is missing, presumed dead.

 

The book is tolde entirely in the first person from Flavia's point of view, su its success depends upon enjoying seeing through her eyes. Alan Bradley pulls this off perfectly- Flavia speaks and thinks in the over elaborate language of an intelligent, self-educated unsocialised child, intoxicated by the complexity of the world and unblinkingly confident in her ability to master it. Here is her description of her discovery, some years earlier, of the love of her life: Chemistry

The book’s title was An Elementary Study of Chemistry, and within moments it had taught me that the word iodine comes from a word meaning “violet,” and that the name bromine was derived from a Greek word meaning “a stench.” These were the sorts of things I needed to know!"

Flavia is proud of her rational mind and of having the objective curiosity of a scientist but also gives full reign to her imagination. This is her description of stepping into the grounds at night.

"As I stepped outside, I saw that the silver light of dawn had transformed the garden into a magic glade, its shadows darkened by the thin band of day beyond the walls. Sparkling dew lay upon everything, and I should not have been at all surprised if a unicorn had stepped from behind a rosebush and tried to put its head in my lap."

Flavia, recognises that her fascination with death and poisons might be considered pathological but she also knows that it is a true part of herself. When she comes across dying man in her garden and holds his head as he breathes his last, she is honest about her reaction:

"I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

"The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie" is a splendid detective story. Its characters and plot put Agatha Christie to shame. It evokes uppor-class England in the first half of the last century deftly and simply. It unfolds the plot at just the right pace. Yet, by far the biggest achievement of the book is the gentle disclosure of the mystery of Flavia de Luce herself.

 

Flavia lives in an emotional desert that could crush a lesser girl. She feels that she is not loved. Her solution is to decide that she must love herself. At one point, riding her mother's bike, that Flavia restored and rechristened as Gladys, at great speed, she gives way to joy, thinking:

"I was me. I was Flavia. And I loved myself, even if no one else did. “All hail Flavia! Flavia forever!” I shouted, as Gladys and I sped through the Mulford Gates, at top speed, into the avenue of chestnuts that lined the drive at Buckshaw."

I didn't want this book to end because I didn't want to leave Flavia. Fortunately, there are another four books in the series. I will be visiting her again soon.

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review 2017-04-16 11:13
Growing Up Winchester by Deadmockingbirds
Growing Up Winchester - Deadmockingbirds Growing Up Winchester - Deadmockingbirds

Cas, Sam and their son Dean return to Gramma and Grampa's house in Texas for Dean's third birthday party. Lots of cute moments in this fic. Plus Dallas Colt gets together with Christian Winchester. The story is unfinished but concludes at a satisfactory point.

Source: archiveofourown.org/works/3870082
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review 2017-04-09 23:10
Dark chick-lit or humorous mystery wonderfully written and with great characters.
Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for offering me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Liane Moriarty’s recent novel Truly, Madly, Guilty and when I was checking the reviews I read many comments referring to the author’s sense of humour that was not so evident in that novel (don’t let that put you off. It’s a fascinating story and the style of the narration is pretty unique) and I read many people referring to this novel. I also happened to watch a couple of the episodes of the HBO series and wondered how they might compare to the book. I haven’t watched the whole series, so I can’t comment in full but I must say the book is fantastic.

The novel tells the story of the events that take place at an Australian primary school (Pirriwee Public School) during an event organised for parents, the Trivia Night (where the participants are supposed to dress up like Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley. Yes, you can imagine the scene). To tell the story, the action takes us back to the school’s induction day. While some of the mothers (and fathers, well, only one man is looking full-time after the kids but many fathers attend too) already know each other, Jane is new to the area and doesn’t know anybody. By accident, she meets Madeline, who has three kids and has seen it all. Madeline is a force of nature and adopts Jane, who is much younger and far less glamorous. Celeste, a friend of Madeline and the most beautiful and rich woman around, is the third in the fabulous trio.

The story is told in the third person from the point of view of these three women, and there are interspersed fragments of what appears to be an interview with a variety of characters, all of them parents of the children at the school, that are evidently being asked questions about what happened on that fateful night. It is no spoiler (as that is clear from very early on) if I tell you that somebody has died. The novel builds up slowly, introducing the characters and their personalities and concerns. Jane is a single Mum who’s struggling but loves her son Ziggy and does the best by him. Things start going wrong early on for her and her son due to an accusation of bullying and that sets up a number of things in motion, splitting up the parents and creating a lot of misunderstandings and resentment. Jane is also hiding some secrets that have seriously affected her life and she moved there seeking some sort of closure. Madeline is the funniest characters. She is quick-witted, loves clothes and shoes, does not tolerate fools gladly and hates the fact that her ex-husband (and father of her teenage daughter Abigail, Nathan, who abandoned her leaving her to bring up their child alone when she was only a baby) has remarried and is now living in close proximity. Not only that but, his daughter, Sky, goes to the same school as her youngest one, Chloe. She is not one for forgiving and forgetting and she has a very hard time accepting that Abigail is becoming close to her father. Her character offers light relief as she’s quite extreme in her passions and behaviour and seemingly superficial —hers is a familiar character of chick-lit books — but it’s impossible not to like her or side with her as her heart is in the right place and she is very funny. Celeste is also keeping secrets. The perfect family, and her oh, so perfect husband, is anything but, and the novel is very good at portraying the complex nature of domestic violence and the kind of mental processes the victims go through.

The short interludes, at the beginning of each chapter, of fragments of interviews with other characters manage to create a sense of what the whole community is like, and by contrasting two completely opposite answers to the same question (some hilarious, others in earnest) one easily gets a sense of how what happened, happened. Of course, the real causes of the incident go much deeper than the disagreements between the parents and the amount of alcohol consumed, as will be slowly revealed. One of the reviewers compared these fragments to a Greek chorus and it is a very apt comparison (minus the moral undertones).

This novel is very good at creating characters that we can care for, although perhaps we might not fully identify with any of them. I’ve laughed out loud at Madeline’s antics quite often (although not all is fun and games for her either) and I have worried with Celeste and Jane. The writing is agile and fluid, with the different character’s voices well captured, differentiated and believable. The small community, that becomes also another character, is vividly portrayed and the ending is surprising, as it should be in all good mysteries (I kept worrying about who the dead person might be and just worked out what was going to happen a couple of paragraphs before it did), positive and heart-warming (despite the tragedy). The book’s lightness of touch and the interspersed comedic events make it easy to read but it does not detract from the seriousness and the sensitivity with which it touches upon serious matters. Bullying, family relationships (especially the complexities of non-traditional families), domestic violence, the influence of our childhoods and the experiences we go through in later life, and of course, the dangers of secrets and lies, are all important elements of this novel, that despite the style and the subject matter fits also within the mystery category.

I recommend this novel to any readers of women’s literature, chick-lit with a sting, domestic mystery and in general to anybody who wants to have a fun time whilst reading about serious matters. Now I know for sure I must read more books by this author.

 

 

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