We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

9781846689659Tolstoy tells us, in Anna Karenina, that ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ but I’m not sure that he would ever have thought of the ways to be unhappy the family at the centre of this novel have found. And I can’t really tell you much about these ways as they are a major part of the plot – you could still enjoy the book if I told you but you would be losing something in the telling.

What can I tell you? This is a book about families and about learning who you really are. It is about a girl who used to talk all the time and is now very quiet, who used to have two siblings and now seems to be an only child, who was once the subject of scientific papers and now revels in the anonimity of going to University hundreds of miles from her home. Our heroine, Rosemary, is someone who you take into your heart – she is alternately engaging and annoying, obviously clever and socially inept.  She starts her story in the middle and we follow her both back into her past and as the tale progresses towards the present day – the secrets of her life are doled out to us piece by piece so that, by the end, a fuller picture emerges.  We also, incidentally, discover lots of seemingly unrelated stuff – odd facts and quotes from a variety of disciplines; philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and religion – and meet some fascinating characters. A paranoid building manager (but it turned out they were watching him all along), a self-centred drama queen (who ends up sacrificing her future for someone else’s cause) and a big brother (who turns out to need protecting, mostly from himself).

I hope I haven’t made this book sound too ‘worthy’ or serious. It is contemporary fiction written with a very light touch – there is humour as well as sadness – and I can see me recommending it to a lot of customers.

Jane

 

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The Third Daughter – Susan Kaye Quinn

After enjoying my first steampunk novel (and while waiting for David Barnett to publish the next volume) my eye was caught by a book with all the Victorian automata and goggles required by the Steampunk genre but set in a world with many similarities to India. Of course they called it ‘Bollypunk’.

Third daughter

The story involves Aniri, the third daughter of the title, a princess who hopes to marry for love. Her older sisters have married for political reasons, but seem happy, but Aniri has her heart set on a dashing court fencing-master (and courtesan – gender roles are rather reversed in this world) from a neighbouring state. However, when her mother, the Queen of Dharia, hears that the barbarian nation to the north has developed a new weapon – a flying ship – she asks that Daria agrees to travel there to find out the truth of the rumours. The only way she can do this is by accepting an offer of marriage from Prince Malik, the ruler of the northern state.

Aniri is certainly on the feisty side – she is an adept swordfighter and climber – but she is still politically naive.  Alone in Jungali, the northern land, apart from a couple of servants, she struggles to know who to trust – Prince Malik, her lover Devesh, her bodyguard Janak or even her own mother.  And her growing attraction to the Prince (who sounds like an awesome kisser!) doesn’t help. The plot rattles along, with fights, flights, fires and the odd fainting fit, and you are carried along by the need to know who deserves Aniri’s love. The characters are good – the ones who need to be obvious, like the scheming Jungali general, are obvious but the rest have plenty of depth and are realistically drawn. The ending had me on the edge of my seat (even though, as the book is the first of a trilogy, I knew the heroine at least should survive).

I really, really enjoyed this book. It was fast-paced with a gripping plot and, although you did realise who the heroine would end up with part way through, it didn’t fail on the twisty-turny front. It is an action packed romance which would be suitable for young adult readers. My only disappointment is that, at the moment, it is not being stocked in the shop. But I am certainly going to be begging for it to be added to the catalogue – this is such a Bradford book I feel we really have to have it!

Jane

Cruel Crossing – Edward Stourton

Have you all heard about Waterstones Book Club? Not the one we run instore (although that is good and more of you should come along…..) but the national one which promotes a group of the best recent publications? We get a new batch every few months and I have to say that the current crop are a bunch of absolute crackers. I have usually read one or two of the list (and try to squeeze a couple more into my busy reading schedule) but I think I am now up to 5 of the dozen on offer and at least two of the remaining seven are tempting me. I have already reviewed Perfect, Shadow of the Crescent Moon and We Need New Names and Bex has talked about Love, Nina but my most recent foray into the list has been BBC journalist Edward Stourton’s look at a little known group of stories from World War 2.

9780552777896I am not a big reader of modern military history – although I do love a historical novel and setting one in a war-zone wouldn’t put me off – but this book caught my eye.  Firstly, the jacket is in a style I love – like the old railway posters from the early to mid C20th – and then this was the story, largely, of the ordinary people caught up in a war. Although some of the stories are those of the servicemen who escaped over the Pyrenees most of them focus on the civilian men and women who risked their freedom, their families and their lives to help them.

The escapes described sound like the stuff of movies – and they are not without the odd flash of humour – full of excitement and derring-do but we also see the bleak side. The treatment of Jews, and foreign Jews in particular, in Vichy France does not make for pleasant reading – I was, possibly naively, astounded to realise that a town in southern France which a friend has recommended as a fantastic holiday resort was previously the site of a concentration camp. And it was not an isolated occurrence either as camps were dotted around widely: some designed to restrain troublesome citizens and some as staging posts for the better known camps in Germany and Poland.

On the whole though this is an uplifting read.  Although there were some traitors, a few mountain guides who were less than entirely honest and not all the escapees made it across alive most of the tales have good endings. We even see interviews with survivors and their families and the framework of the book is based around a trek, which takes place each year, along one of the escape routes to Spain. If you enjoy the history of real people or have any interest at all in WW2 then this could be a good book for you.

Jane

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

ImageBullying, poverty, race issues, body image issues, parental abandonment and an abusive stepfather means that this YA love story isn’t an easy read.  Having already read ‘Fangirl’ by Rowell,  I knew to expect some John Greenesque type teen issues but it didn’t prepare me for just how grim this novel seemed at times.

Most of the issues belong to Eleanor, a slightly larger than average teen whose bright red hair and freckles alongside a unique style make her an easy target for bullies at her new school.  We meet Eleanor just after her stepfather has allowed her to return home after being sent to live with her mother’s friend for a year. Her new home set up is completely dysfunctional with Eleanor forced to share a room with her four other siblings, money’s really tight and her mother is absolutely terrified of her abusive husband but too afraid of being alone to leave him.

When Park first sees Eleanor on the school bus, his assessment of her is brutally honest as he decides to avoid the weird new kid on the bus as much as possible.   Very slowly and over many awkward  journeys, Park and Eleanor begin to realise that they share a passion for music and comics with Park being the first to acknowledge that he has feelings for Eleanor.  Eleanor is more hesitant – not just because of her chaotic background but because in comparison Park has an easy life with a stable family and is popular enough at school (though that’s not to say Park doesn’t have issues of his own).  Eleanor is used to never having any privacy but Park and his family are able to offer her a secret place where she can be a normal teenager in a normal family and still ever so slowly, Eleanor is able to begin to open up to Park.  There are times in the book where Eleanor is so infuriating because you just want her to speak up sooner and be a bit braver with Park but then you remember the risks she is taking and the guilt she is feeling leaving her family life behind.

Once it’s in full flow, the relationship between Eleanor and Park sweetens the entire feel of an otherwise heavy book but the clandestine nature of the relationship means that, as Eleanor keeps predicting, it can’t last as it is forever.  The ending was bittersweet and still raw but as this novel is set in the 80s,  I can’t help but wonder what became of Eleanor and Park and where they would be today.  I would love it if Rainbow Rowell announced a sequel since she writes general fiction as well as YA but in the meantime,  I’ll imagine my own happy ending as both Park and Eleanor deserve it.

Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

  9780857052926So the jacket of this book is a bit of a giveaway for exactly who it is that is back – featuring possibly the most infamous side-parting in history – but that seems to be the only obvious thing about it! I mean, how would you expect a novel featuring a monster who appears to have been returned from the dead to turn out?

Most of the reviews I have seen of Look Who’s Back focus on how funny it is and they are right – it is a funny book.  But not so much laugh-out-loud funny for me – more of  an occasional wry smile – as the humour is more satirical than anything else.  To be honest a lot of it is so near the knuckle that I actually felt I had to give myself permission to find it funny…

The novel starts with Hitler waking up on a piece of waste ground and discovering that he is now in modern-day Germany.  He is, naturally, disoriented and virtually falls at the feet of the owner of a newspaper kiosk in a nearby park and this is where his integration into modern life really begins.  The kiosk owner, and all those he subsequently meets, think that he is an uncannily realistic lookalike – we are the only ones who know that he is the real thing – and he embarks on a comedy career.  Most of the humour comes from the way that other people’s perceptions of his actions clash with his real motivations – although it is definitely a very dark humour.  The satire is largely aimed at our reliance on and addiction to the media but, rather chillingly, we also see how easy it is to twist the everyday worries of perfectly ordinary people until they fit in with some very unpleasant beliefs.

It is quite hard to describe Look Who’s Back – aside from to say it is funny and is well-worth reading – and I think that your own personal views of society and modern-day politics will colour your opinion of this book more than it usually would.  I can imagine this provoking very lively discussions at many a reading group!

Jane