Perfect – Rachel Joyce

Reading Bex’s review of ‘Harold Fry’ reminded me that I need to review Rachel Joyce’s latest book, Perfect, (among other things).  I have been put to shame by Bex, with her 12 posts of Christmas, as we were both working so hard in the last week or so. New Year’s Resolution then – I must post my reviews more regularly…..

9780857520661 After giving us the story of Harold and Maureen, towards the end of their lives, Rachel Joyce now tells the tale of two boys, growing up in the 70’s.  We see their childhood mostly from the point of view of Byron Hemmings – described as an imaginative boy, I’d call him anxious – so we get a rather one-sided view of his rather more confident friend, James, his little sister, his rather fey mother Diana and absent (yet always terrifying) father. Byron seems so sweet – naive and protective of his mother in particular – that I spent a lot of the book worrying about his future…

There is also a modern day thread to the book – told from the point of view of a man called Jim, an ex-resident of a recently closed-down psychiatric facility.  We get a good idea of what he has to live through every day – rituals, fears and anxieties – as we follow him in his home and job.  As a character I would say he bears a strong resemblance to Harold Fry – especially when he is adrift without Maureen.

The action in the story mainly follows Diana’s friendship with a young woman from a nearby council estate.  Class seems to be a theme in the story – Diana is obviously from a working class, theatrical background and the father is best described as ‘nouveau riche’ – and although you want to warm to Beverley (the new friend), since she seems to understand Diana much better than the other, more middle-class, mothers, you soon realise that the friendship is not a healthy one.

Rachel Joyce has once again taken serious themes – mental health, snobbery and loneliness, with hints of spousal abuse, alcoholism, blackmail and infidelity – and turned them into a story which demands that you enter into the feelings of the characters. It isn’t necessarily always a comfortable read but, once again, I feel there is a very positive ambience to the ending.

Jane

12 Books of Christmas – #12 Stoner – John Williams

ImageTwelves days and twelve reviews and I’ve got to admit, it was much tougher than I expected!  It wasn’t just writing the reviews, I’d forgotten how tiring (but enjoyable!) it is working in a bookshop in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  One more shift to go before  Jane and I get a well deserved day off and for anybody looking for a last minute recommendation on Christmas Eve, ‘Stoner’ will definitely be in there.

I’d like to be smug and say that I read this ages ago but I didn’t, I totally jumped on the bandwagon with this one.  I was a bit slow to get round to reading it though,  I remember hearing the Ian McEwan quote about it being his perfect summer read and made a mental note to read it but it wasn’t until we were selling huge amounts of ‘Stoner’ and it then being shortlisted and winner of the ‘Waterstones Book of the Year 2013’ that I finally got round to reading it.

One of the very few complaints I have heard about ‘Stoner’ is that nothing really happens but that is the point, the fact that it has such a subtle narrative and is still for want of a better phrase, a real page turner, is what makes it all the more clever.  The book opens by telling us that years after the death of titular character William Stoner, he will only be remembered as a name in an old academic book.  Stoner’s entire life is a constant battle but at the same time completely unremarkable. To begin with Stoner carries a life-long guilt after leaving the family farming business whilst pursuing his beloved academic career.  He regretfully marries hastily and is a disappointment to his wife (and she to him), she pushes him mentally and uses their daughter against him.  It is in his career that Stoner seeks to succeed but even there he is beaten down by bullying colleagues and work life is as bad as home life.  In a desperate and hopeless love triangle, reminiscent of Edith Wharton’s ‘Ethan Frome’,  Stoner begins a doomed affair with a younger student.  For the first time in the book since his daughter was small, Stoner is happy and somebody is happy with him and you really want him to step up and do something and change his life.  It’s at this point you realise that it is neither in Stoner’s character and although this book is new to me, it isn’t a new book and throws up further issues.  With the majority of the story taking place in the interwar years, things were much different, it would be unseemly for Stoner to leave his needy and vulnerable wife and child and I can not force my modern day mentality upon Stoner.

It probably sounds like ‘Stoner’ is an utterly depressing read, but it’s not.  Whilst by the end you will probably feel a little choked up, you will be glad to have spent time with Stoner and taken time to listen to his story and in the same way you’ll be glad that you’ve taken time to read John Williams’ book and give the author the attention he really deserves.

12 Books of Christmas – #11 Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

ImageIt’s a case of always the Bridesmaid with this book after being shortlisted for ‘The Women’s Prize’, The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ Prize, and Waterstones Book of The Year in 2013 but somehow missing out on all not to mention not even being shortlisted for The Booker.  It’s not that ‘Life After Life’ wouldn’t have been a worthy winner (it certainly would!) but it’s just been unlucky to go up against books equally as good.

I am a big fan of the ‘Jackson Brody’ books but it’s nice to have a new standalone novel from Atkinson featuring some really well-written feisty females reminiscent of the characters in ‘Behind the Scenes At The Museum’.  It’s quite a hard one to describe without giving the entire story away but it examines the space between choice, fate and chance. The plot revolves around Ursula Todd, a baby born on 11th February 1910 who after being born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, unfortunately dies soon after.  In the second chapter, we relive the scene again, this time Ursula lives as her mother intuitively knows how to revive her baby.  Several years later, with her mothers back turned, she drowns at the seaside.  After briefly reliving the day of her birth again, we go back to Ursula’s present day and find out in this life, she only nearly drowned.  Throughout her childhood, the same pattern repeats,  Ursula dies,  we return to the day of her birth, Ursula lives, but each time there’s a change and a sense of deja vu that she is unable to explain.  The First World War plays out in the background during Ursula’s childhood but it is during the Second World War, with Ursula now grown up, that the main story actually takes place.  Some really bad things happen to Ursula and she endures her most violent and saddest deaths during this time but there’s always a hope each time she dies that her next life will be better.  Ursula is fundamentally a decent person and you want her to keep resurrecting until she gets to fulfil her potential and for there to be a life line where she gets it all right and lives a happy, even an uneventful life. I’m not going to spoil the ending but I will say that I found the entire novel very clever and with the Costa Awards to be announced in January, I really hope ‘Life After Life’ finally gets the recognition it deserves.

12 Books of Christmas – #10 Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience – Shaun Usher

ImageI’d never heard of lettersofnote.com before this book was published so I’m a recent convert and I can see how addictive it is.  If you’ve not visited the website before,  it’s well worth a look but be warned, you’ll lose hours to it without realising!

The book itself is a stunningly well-designed tome of a coffee table book featuring over a hundred letters as seen on the website.  It brings together correspondence from all eras, from film stars to politicians to scientists and literary heroes.   The contents of the letters range from the poignant (the absolute heartbreaking letter from Richard Feynman to his dead wife Arline), to the informative (a school girl asking Einstein if Scientists Pray…Einstein replies that many apparently have some sort of faith) and the trivial (The Queen’s recipe for Drop Scones).  It’s not the sort of book you read from cover to cover (I’ve certainly not) but it is great just to flick through because you always find something interesting to read but that said there are letters I know that I could read over and over.  Also it does feel slightly wrong and even intrusive at times to read some of the more private letters but at the same time, as the title suggests, as ‘letters of note’, it also feels equally right to have these letters in particular out there to preserve for future generations.  As romantic as corresponding by letter writing sounds, in a digital age with instant communication, it’s obviously a dwindling art form. However, after flitting through ‘Letters of Note’, I can’t help but want to make an effort every now and again and put pen to paper.

12 Books of Christmas – #9 The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

Image“A book about a fairly average recently retired man who instead of posting a letter to his dying friend, ends up walking to the other end of the country to see her…it’s really good, I promise…” I said or something fairly close to that when I first tried to recommend this book to somebody and suddenly realised just how dull I made it sound.  I find Harold Fry such a difficult book to describe because even the blurb doesn’t do justice to it’s brilliance and I can honestly say I’ve never read a book quite like it.

At the beginning of the journey, Harold’s focus is solely on Queenie, his friend on her deathbed but the further he gets, the more you realise that the journey is as much about Harold, his wife Maureen and all of the disciple-like followers and regular people who join in as news quickly spreads about Harold’s trip.  For Harold and Maureen, the time apart allows them to each look back over their lives and try to make sense of both the good and bad times, their regrets and failed wishes.  Through flashbacks, it seems that Harold and Maureen are in a sort of rut and both are feeling jaded by life but examining their memories, they become aware that there is always hope, something which Harold tries to impart to his followers and us as readers generally.

There are some genuinely funny bits but it isn’t a comic novel, it’s a feel good, life affirming novel that deserves all the praise it gets.  I can honestly say that it’s a rare book as I have never heard of anybody who has read this novel and not raved about how good it is – I certainly count myself amongst them.

12 Books of Christmas – #8 Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe

ImageLove, Nina is a series of letters a young nanny writes home to her sister Victoria charting her adventures in 1980’s London.  Mary Poppins she most definately isn’t as she bumbles through caring for Will and Sam, trying to keep up with the other nannies and occasionally doing some studying.  To further complicate things, her boss and the boys’ mother is Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the the London Review of Books, who casually has the glitterati of the book world popping in.  It doesn’t help that Nina, an often experimental and disaster-prone cook, is made to cater for these visitors and also thinks regular face Alan Bennett has a part in Coronation Street.

There were times when I never thought that I would finish Love, Nina never mind it going on to becoming one of my favourite reads this year.  There are times that Nina seems really childish and even irritating and occasionally Mary-Kay could seem this way too – like an incident where they rather flippantly decided to get rid of the family cat because nobody really liked it.  It’s times like these that the boys feel like the adults and that really seems wrong.  What kept me going though was although I’m sure these letters have a had a good edit before publication,  they retain so much honesty that I think maybe one or two people may not be too pleased with how they are portrayed at times.  As with every family, whilst you love them, you may not always like what they are doing.  I think that goes for all the people featured in Love,Nina because, as a reader peeking into their everyday lives, you see the best and worst of the family and still feel a compulsive need to read on.  Having said all that,  the thing that really hooks you and again comes out in every single character is the brilliant humour and you get the feeling that it would be so much fun to be part of the Wilmer household.  Overall though, my favourite person from this book has to be Alan Bennett who keeps popping in,  makes some really great sound bites and leave again.  Stephen Fry has been described as the nations favourite uncle but after reading this,  I’d have to argue that he’d need to share that title with Bennett.  If there’s one thing Love, Nina has left me with,  it’s an overwhelming need to run out and buy Bennett’s complete works.

12 Books of Christmas – #7 Fault In Our Stars – John Green

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Finally with ‘Fault In Our Stars’ Green has broken out of the teen category and has become one of the bestselling Fiction authors of this year.  After reading several other Green novels, I was slightly worried when I read the blurb for ‘Fault In Our Stars’ about Hazel, a teen with terminal cancer.  There are already several successful (and rightly so) novels featuring seriously ill or dying children and teens and I wasn’t sure that the YA market needed anymore but ‘Fault In Our Stars’ is probably one of the best in its genre.

Hazel is suffering from Thyroid Cancer and when out of hospital is content to be like any other teen her age, relaxing at home and slobbing out in front of the TV.  Worried about her, Hazel’s parents insist that she tries attending a Teen Cancer Support group which she does reluctantly.  Despite sharing an illness,  Hazel fears she was right about her hesitation as she has nothing else in common with all the other sick kids, that is until the very cool Augustus Waters walks in.  Hazel is drawn to Augustus because, like her, he wants to act like any other teen and as they both know all about the illness, there’s always an unspoken understanding between them about what they can and can’t do, something even their families have trouble coping with.  Despite not meaning to, the inevitable happens and a very sweet and very normal teen romance begins and this is where John Green really succeeds as all the clumsy/awkward/fun parts of a new relationship take precedence over their respective physical problems.  I really don’t want to spoil the ending, but right up until the end, you are pretty sure you know how the story is going to end and in a sense as a reader you accept that but then everything changes and honestly you will not be expecting it.  I remember putting the book down after the last page and not knowing how to describe how I felt,  looking back I think it’s because I was in shock but now, I think it’s the sign of a brilliant book especially as several months on, I’m still thinking about that ending.