Things Can Only Get Worse – John O’Farrell

I tend not to discuss my political beliefs (such as they are). If you were to ask me, outside the polling station, how I’d voted I’d probably say ‘in a secret ballot’. Aside from anything else I reckon it frustrates the trolls. Although I suppose anyone looking at my Facebook feed, the kind of posts I like and the comments I make would be fairly sure that I am unlikely to vote for Messrs Farage, Gove or Trump (were I entitled to). I’m not suggesting my way is better – I love the fact that so many of my friends are so politically engaged, particularly the younger ones – but it is the one I feel comfortable with. Of course, some people’s entire raison d’être is political and they still manage to be funny in almost everything they do – those are some serious skills, in my opinion…

OFarrellJohn O’Farrell is one of those who are funny and also serious about their politics. Reading him means that you can laugh along with political figures (rather than just at them, which is the more usual but meaner way) but also get insights into how government actually works. This book is a follow on to an earlier book in which O’Farrell pondered on the fact that his first 20 years as a Labour supporter seemed to coincide with their two decades outside the corridors of power. He never actually claimed that the Thatcher years were all his fault but, well, surely it could be more than just a coincidence? In this book he discovers that being in opposition is often easier than being the people in charge and not just for politicians. As well as national and local politics we also get the story of O’Farrell’s involvement with local schools as he campaigns for a much-needed new secondary school and then finds himself a key member of the board of governors. The book covers Labour’s years in power, the Gulf War, Blair’s fall from popularity, Brown’s brief time as PM and then the resurgence of the Tories in 2010. And then, of course, the series of elections which have enlivened our lives in the past few years. Or at least given satirists plenty of material.

Reading this book I was impressed by O’Farrell’s commitment to his political party and to his community (partly in a self-interested way – his kids needed a school to go to which didn’t involve crossing half of London) and his ability to make me laugh. The biggest lesson I’m going to take away though is, probably, the one that he learned himself: the difference between his teen/twenties and his more mature years is his acceptance of the need for compromise. Compromise, in politics as in life in general, is not a sign of weakness but of maturity. It may be the best way forward for us all.

Jane

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Smile – Roddy Doyle

Like most people my first introduction to Roddy Doyle was via watching the film of The Commitments. I loved the characters, the songs and, above all, the accents. The quote about being black and proud is a classic and I’m never going to forget the fully accented chorus to Mustang Sally in the early stages of the film (Roide, Sally, Roide….). It is quite easy, however, to forget the gritty social commentary which goes with the music and the humour. Like the Blues Brothers you remember the jokes and the classic blues tracks and have to be reminded of the tumbledown housing estates and the orphans. But this seems to be Doyle’s speciality:  making a painful and miserable situation darkly funny.

SmileSmile tells us the story of Victor Fforde, recently split up from his glamorous (and well-known) partner, as he adjusts to single life by contemplating his childhood, career and relationships over a pint or two in his new local. His new local is, in many ways, an old local as he has moved back to the poorer side of Dublin. He is aided and abetted in this by Eddie Fitzpatrick, an old classmate from his days being taught by the Christian Brothers: he can’t quite place Fitzpatrick in his memories and is, frankly, repulsed by the man but he can’t seem to avoid him. The book itself is short, a mere couple of hundred pages, but it packs quite a punch in terms of its description of brutal religious schooldays, passionate relationships and, in passing, attitudes to reproductive rights in Ireland. The ending is unusual for the author – a bit odder than you might expect – but the story itself is pure Doyle.

Jane

The Break – Marian Keyes

It can be quite easy to be a bit ‘sniffy’ about certain genres of books (or films, foods, music, whatever) and to assume that your chosen favourite is the best. In fact one of my pet peeves is people who, when talking about a film, book or song which is in a genre they don’t enjoy, call that particular film, book or song terrible. Let’s be honest, with very few exceptions, these things are not terrible – they are just not to your taste. Personally, I don’t really enjoy spy thrillers or hard sci-fi space operas but I’m not going to tell you John Le Carré and Alastair Reynolds are awful. And yes, I have been known to correct friends and colleagues if they start to rubbish other people’s choices (especially if they have just made me listen to five Neil Young albums back to back – there’s an artist who is definitely not to my taste…). Annoyingly, the genres most often derided are those favoured by women and young people – I guess it is too easy to deride chick-lit and YA fiction and especially if you don’t actually read any. I’m not saying that all chick-lit and YA is wonderful but some of it is very good (even if you are a man or over 20). Some of the best I have read is by Marian Keyes…

breakThe Break is the story of a big, messy, complicated, Irish family (and yes, I also enjoy Mrs Brown’s Boys – bite me…) and in particular it is the story of Amy.  She is a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, PR professional, friend, and, at the end of the list, a wife. She has to find time to support friends who are newly single (again), to provide emergency care for her father when her Mum needs a rest from dealing with Alzheimer’s, to care for her fragile niece when her brother and his ex-wife seem to be harming rather than helping her and to try not to strangle her annoyingly independent older daughter – so it is no surprise that her relationship with Hugh, her husband, is low down on the list of things she has time for. Hugh, struggling to cope with the death of his father, shocks the whole family by declaring that he is leaving them – not forever, but for six months; not a break-up but a complete break.

Keyes is, as ever, great at telling a warm, funny family story.  Amy and her family are all well-rounded characters, yet all individuals and you become fond of them. I particularly liked the double act of Neeve, Amy’s older daughter from an ill-fated marriage in her youth, and Amy’s mum Lillian who take the beauty vlogging world by storm. She is also, as ever, unafraid to touch on more difficult subjects. Not the fact that Hugh deserts his family (and can’t rule out the fact that, as part of his ‘break’ he may meet and sleep with other women) but the fact that he does so because he is depressed and can’t see any other way to get his life back on track. You want to hate him – to wish all kinds of nasty things to happen to him (and his sexual organs) like Amy’s man-hating friends and sisters – but, in many ways you can’t. We get flashbacks to the earlier years of their relationship and we can see that this is a marriage which is really worth saving, a man who has given his all to his family. We also touch on the sorrows of living with Alzheimer’s, the falling away of friends (when you fail to react to adversity in the way they think you should) and the horrors of reproductive politics in Ireland. But, you know, chick-lit is just froth…

As always a reminder that Marian Keyes writes brilliant novels – full of laughter and tears – which deserve a wider audience. Remember people, good chick-lit is for anyone, not just for giggly girls…

Jane

 

The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

For about five years Rob and I were heavily involved with Friends of the Earth – running our local group, going to conference and doing lots of campaigning. While we are still very well disposed to the planet we found that we had less and less time for active campaigning so now we do our supporting a little more remotely. Many of the campaigns themselves, however, have stuck in my mind and, like many people, the fate of bees has been a constant worry. Because without bees we would have a much more difficult future (and we’d probably have to survive that future without easy access to some of the amazing things which are pollinated by bees – fruits, vegetables, coffee and even *gulp* wine) we owe it to ourselves to consider how our actions, and those of our governments, affect the wider environment. Which means that, as well as apocalypses I am drawn to books which consider ‘green’ issues (and love those which carry both off with style).

beesIn The History of Bees Maja Lunde achieves both of these things. There are three linked stories set in England in 1852, America in 2007 and  China in 2098 – in the first William Savage is a seed merchant and failed academic who is trying to develop an improved bee-hive while struggling with depression; in 2007 we meet George who faces the problems of keeping his hives going in the face of Colony Collapse Disorder and finally, in 2098, Tao is one of thousands of Chinese workers who have to pollinate fruit trees by hand. Because the bees have all died.  This covers the history of hive development, the fight against the inexplicable death of millions of bees in the present day and gives us an in-depth look at a world without the unseen work all those bees do for us. For me the 2098 section is the most interesting because of this – the lack of various food crops is the obvious change but there are other things which were more surprising; cotton fabric, for example… Each portion of the story also has a human angle – specifically one exploring relationships between parents and children. In the 1850s William is investing all his hopes in his son, to the extent of missing how much one of his daughters, in particular, is supporting him: in 2007 George is, again, wanting to mould his son into his own idea of the perfect child (and again struggling with his own mental health) and feeling that he is failing. Tao’s story is the saddest – her son is very young and she loses him. He becomes ill and is whisked away by the state; her mission is, initially, to find hm and then, as she looks deeper, to discover what happened to the bees…

These are fascinating linked stories which explore both our relationship with bees and with our own families. The balance which must be made between individuality and society – the bee and the hive – applies both to insects and to humans.

Jane

 

 

 

The Last Dog on Earth – Adrian J Walker

Animal narrators are nothing unusual. I’d imagine very few children are brought up without some experience of stories told from the point of view of various bunnies, puppies and kittens and I, personally, have strong memories of crying my eyes out at some of the episodes narrated by Black Beauty (poor Ginger, I’m filling up just thinking about it…). It is, it seems, a tried and tested way of introducing youngsters to events and emotions which might seem too harsh if they had to contemplate them happening to people – I can’t even guess how many times I’ve recommended Badger’s Parting Gifts, for example – but as adults do we want the same things? Most animal-narrated books for adults that I’ve seen previously, such as A Dog’s Purpose, have been on the sentimental side so I’m not sure I was quite prepared for Lineker – the canine half of the narrating double act in the Last Dog on Earth.

51dtYojn65L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Lineker and his master, Reginald (he really doesn’t like being called Reg, although he often is), live in a deserted tower block in London after some not quite specified disaster. This suits them as Reginald is anxious about leaving his flat and, even before London became a deserted wasteland, he does everything he can to avoid any kind of physical contact with other people. However, when a starving, silent and persistent child shows up on their doorstep – and refuses to leave – their lives change. They have to leave the safety of the flat and try to cross the city to get the child to a refugee camp. They meet allies and enemies – the latter generally being the purple-clad followers of a charmingly plausible politician whose inflammatory views set the destruction in progress – and discover that no-one can get through it all on their own.

I liked Reginald, a fragile, fallible but, in the end, downright decent man. He has his issues – an inability to be touched rooted in a terrible personal tragedy – but, when it comes down to it he overcomes them to protect those he feels responsible for. The child is fearful, fierce and, essentially, hugely resilient – you can see why both Lineker and his master come to love her – and other, minor, characters (human and canine) are well described. But Lineker himself, well, he really was the character which made the whole story come alive for me. He is pure dog. He adores his master, especially his various smells, and thinks deeply on many subjects (and also about smells, food and squirrels – he really hates squirrels…). His language is earthy, but this seems pretty dog-like to me. He uses words we would consider to be bad swear words but they are the ones connected to bodily functions and sex – what else to we expect a dog to be interested in? I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels (as I’m sure I may have mentioned previously) but this one stands out. Partly because the apocalypse itself is unusual – an eerily realistic political disaster rather than a plague/zombie attack/nuclear war/environmental crisis – but largely because Lineker is one of the oddest, if most engagingand joyful, heroes I’ve come across in the genre.

Jane

 

Yesterday – Felicia Yap

How do you like your crime? Hard-boiled, cosy, police procedural? The list seems fairly endless and, after a while, one cosy crime novel or psychological thriller can seem pretty much like another. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good books out there but, well, after a hard week’s bookselling I start to get my franchises a bit mixed up. And this means I’m always glad to see a book which has something a bit more distinctive than usual about it. Ariana Franklin’s medieval female atheist pathologist perhaps, or A.A. Dhand’s Bradford-based Harry Virdee; or a distinctive setting like Bryant & May’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. But how about a crime novel where even the killer may not be aware that they committed a crime?

9781472242211The world in which Yesterday is set is our world. There are tabloid newspapers, reality tv, general elections and iPhones. All people, however, are one of two types – Monos, who can only remember the previous 24 hours, and Duos, whose memories span a whole 48 hours. Each night people fill in their diary (by law a private document, except in the case of serious crimes like murder) and each morning they learn the ‘facts’ of the day before. Society is split – Monos are barred from many careers and Duos are treated as a superior group – but academics are satisfied that, if people could remember everything they would divide themselves some other way. By nationality, skin colour or religion, perhaps… Against this setting Mark, a best-selling Duo novelist with a promising new career in politics looming, and his Mono wife are an unusual couple. They are being seen as the poster boy and girl for the government’s new policy of encouraging mixed marriages until the body of a woman, who turns out to be Mark’s mistress, is found and the police have only a short time to find the killer.

This was an interesting psychological thriller with a novel twist. Everyone has secrets – Mark, his wife Clare, his dead lover and the detective in charge of the case – and they are revealed as each of the four takes it in turns to tell their side of the story. But when facts are what you memorise from the words you write in your diary each day how do you find the truth?

Jane

Young Jane Young – Gabrielle Zevin

Sometimes it can be hard to remember what life was like before the internet and mobile phones. When, if you had arranged to meet friends in a town 30 minutes away at 8pm, you had to ring and let them know about any delays or problems before 7.30pm. Now, the habit seems to be to wait until 8.10 and then text that you’ll be there in an hour. First world problems really but quite irritating… The other issue, one which I’m actually quite happy about, is that when I was having my misspent youth (back in the 80s and early 90s) you did it, in modern terms, in private. There may be the odd regrettable photograph (have you seen 1980s hairstyles and fashions?), or even a bit of video but my University years are not all recorded indelibly on Facebook, Twitter or some blog. Maybe one day I’ll tell you all some of my adventures but it will be my choice – so many young people these days are putting a permanent record of their lives online before they have the judgement to know which bits are really suitable for public consumption. Maybe they aren’t bothered, maybe I’m hopelessly old-fashioned but maybe sometimes there are, shall we say, regrets…

young jane youngYoung Jane Young tells the story of one set of actions which led to such regrets – a young woman, while working as an intern for a popular politician, embarks on an affair with him. This, in itself, is regrettable as the politician is married to a good, if apparently joyless, woman but the real problem arises when the young woman, Aviva Grossman, sets up a blog where she talks about her life, her job and her relationship. This is a few years after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and in the early days of blogging and it seems to us, with the benefit of hindsight, obvious that the anonymity wouldn’t last. Of course it comes as a shock to Aviva and her family and this book is the story, largely, of what happened next. It is told in four parts – the first three are Jane Young, the woman Aviva turns herself into to escape her infamy, her daughter Ruby – a very modern pre-teen feminist – and Aviva’s mother. The different reactions seem to show how attitudes to women’s sexuality (and their ownership of their own bodies) have changed over the generations. Ruby’s attitudes certainly gave me a lot of hope for the future of women and feminism. All three stories overlap slightly and served to remind us that we are all, it seems, destined to make the same mistakes in child rearing we think our own mothers made. The fourth narrator is Embeth – the politician’s wife. In Aviva/Jane and her mother’s tellings she is a very unsympathetic character: when she meets Ruby she seems warmer and, in her own version of events, she turns out to be much more interesting. I’d quite like to have heard more from her but that would be another story entirely.

Jane