The Rosie Result – Graeme Simsion

The phrase ‘difficult second album’ seems to be one which has parallels in the book world (although, in many cases, the first book we become aware of by any given author is often their fourth, fifth, etc….). This is never more obvious, for me, than when I read a series. First book – fabulous: second in the series – somewhere between ‘are you sure this is the same author, they seem to have forgotten how to write/who the characters are/what happened in the last book’ and ‘okay, but a bit underwhelming’. If this happens (and it does, surprisingly often) do you bother to go on and read the third book? I think, for me, it depends on how much I invested in the characters – who are usually pretty much all in place in the first book. I was totally blown away by the people I met in The Passage and Wool so I persisted, even though I found the subsequent books a bit less gripping. I’m glad I did, because I needed to see how the story arc ended in each case – the same situation as with The Lord of the Rings although I actually really enjoy both The Two Towers and anything to do with Tom Bobmadil #unpopularbookopinions – but some other series haven’t been so lucky. I won’t name them – because they were good books, just not quite enough for me to persist with, the fault lies with me – but if you have time you could scan through this blog or my Goodreads feed and find them. The question is was Don Tillman, the hero of The Rosie Project, someone I cared enough about to complete his story arc?

9780241388358Let’s just say Don is a really special man. I was totally gripped by his life while he was in the process of meeting and wooing the Rosie of the title and, although I quite liked the second volume, it wasn’t quite as enthralling. It may have been the whole Jane Austen thing – the best book is the one that leads up to the wedding, not one that tells you what happens after – but the personalities of Don, Rosie and their various friends and colleagues were enough to keep me reading. This third book, however, introduces us to a brand-new personality Hudson, Don and Rosie’s son and he is just as special as his parents. Hudson is eleven and in his final year at primary school – always a tricky time of a child’s life when decisions about what secondary school to choose raises its head for parents and the youngsters themselves are starting to work out who they actually want to be. For Hudson there is the additional problem of having to move from New York to Australia – like most boys his age he resists change and this is a big one: the resulting issues at school lead Don and Rosie to have to consider whether their son may be autistic. Don decides to take a sabbatical from his job (and, after a controversy in one of his genetics lectures, his employers are only too happy to offer one) and focus on ‘the Hudson Project’. In the process of this work the family learns much about the education system and how it deals with autism, how those with autism see themselves versus how they are seen by others and how to deal with loss, friendship and change.

This book may not have as many of the laugh-out-loud moments that the first book had but I was fascinated by the story and very involved in finding out how parents deal with this kind of issue. Don and Rosie are a very special couple so their approach may not be the one many would choose: because their son is both as wonderful as they are and also far more in tune with the modern world we eventually find that his own solutions make the most sense. This is a book with a huge amount of warmth and a clear-eyed view of the situations faced by families all over the world.

Jane

 

 

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To lighten the mood I’m reading like a 9 year old…

Politics, disastrous fires, climate change and my gradually expanding waistline are all things I’m trying hard not to think about. I can do something about the latter (although whether I will is another matter) but the rest leave me feeling a little powerless – rather like the average child these days. My answer is, obviously, to read as if I were a child and, more specifically, as if I were one of the youngsters I’ve been seeing over the recent Easter holidays. So, having done my Easter egg colouring sheets, my word search and the Find the Duck treasure hunt, I’ve settled down with these two…

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties – Henry White & Humza Arshad

42811557Humza Khan is a fairly typical boy. He lives with his parents – cricket-mad Dad who is always telling very tall stories and super strict Mum – but is mostly interested in becoming a celebrity. In Humza’s case he is going to be a famous rapper: after all, he’s already the greatest eleven-year-old rapper his home town has ever known. Helped by his best friend Umer and his favourite teacher, Mr Turnbull, he’s going to create a track which will be far too cool for the school end of year talent show. Things start to go wrong, however, when the punishments for his latest misdemeanours include joining the school cricket team (now run by his Dad, the world’s most embarrassing parent) and having to baby-sit his elderly Uncle (confusingly known as Grandpa): they get worse when teachers at his school start falling sick and being replaced, not by supply teachers, but by proper Asian Aunties. At first this seems like the best thing ever – no homework and plenty of rewards in the form of sweets, cakes and yummy samosas – but when Mr Turnbull is replaced things seem to be getting serious. When Grandpa – who is nowhere near as decrepit as he first seems – becomes sure that Hamza’s own Auntie Uzma isn’t really herself anymore it seems that Humza, Umer and class brain Wendy (who is, frankly, disgusted to be replacing homework and essays with cake appreciation) need to investigate what is going on.

This book is really funny but with a great plot. All the characters seem both realistic and larger than life – Grandpa was my favourite – and, although most of them are very specifically from a South Asian background, they are very relatable for everyone. After all, every child of eleven feels that they could be world famous if only their family would stop being so cringe-makingly embarrassing….

Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet – Zanib Mian (illustrated by Nasaya Mafaridik)

9781444951226Omar is, once again, a very normal little boy living with his parents, older sister and little brother. Although he usually enjoys lessons (he wants to be a scientist and follow in his Mum and Dad’s footprints) he’s not looking forward to school – they have recently moved house and now he will be ‘the new boy’. Omar is a resourceful lad, however, and, aided by his imaginary dragon H²O he soon settles in to his new school. He makes a new best friend, Charlie, but also catches the eye of the class bully. Both Daniel, the bully, and Mrs Rogers, a rather stand-offish next door neighbour mistrust Omar and his family because they don’t understand their Muslim faith but he, and his family, manage to win them over with a combination of resourcefulness, food and good neighbourliness.

The story in this book is a bit less zany than Little Badman – no aliens or sinister aunties – but is one that any young child could relate to: being the odd one out.  Omar knows he will be odd because he is the new kid in class but discovers that he stands out because of his faith background – what is lovely is that the way he explains what makes him a Muslim is very low-key, very matter of fact and, frequently, connected with food, family and (rather less often) Ferraris. So as well as a pleasant story (with what could be called the Year 4 equivalent of ‘mild peril’) this would be a really useful book to introduce non-Muslim children to the everyday realities of the faith without being ‘preachy’. And for the Muslim children it is one of the rare chances for them to see themselves in the fiction they read.

Jane

 

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins

I have sometimes heard people say that they dislike studying literature (as opposed to just reading it) because they hate the idea of having to dissect books they have enjoyed: having to explain meanings, themes and characters. Now, maybe I was very lucky, but all the time I have spent – during school English lessons and through my degree course – I have never felt as if I have had to do this. Perhaps because of when I was studying (O levels in 1981 through to a BA in 1986) or the teachers I had, I felt that I never had to do anything more than read books and then explain what I liked (or disliked) about them. With examples, obviously. Almost as if my whole education was leading to a career in writing reviews and recommending books to people! This is definitely one of the things I count among my privileges – the fact that I got to spend three years reading some of the world’s greatest literature and that I can still think back fondly on almost all the books I read. I still think fondly of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner and Fielding: I will re-read Beowulf, One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Duchess of Malfi for fun even though I studied them – and, from what I hear, this isn’t always the case. Which could be one of the many reasons why I particularly enjoyed The Confessions of Frannie Langton – Frannie and I both find ourselves comparing her life to that of Moll Flanders.

9780241349199The book begins with Frannie on trial for the murder of the wealthy couple she worked for. She is the talk of the day not only for her crime but for the further sins of being black and being rumoured to be the lover of the mistress, rather than the master, of the house. We then look back to Frannie’s childhood in Paradise, a plantation in Jamaica, her relationship with Langton, her owner, a gentleman interested as much in the ‘science’ of race as in growing sugar-cane, and to her eventual move to London. The format of the story is that Frannie is writing down the story of her life to help her lawyer attempt to defend her: which means we hear everything from her point of view. She doesn’t reveal everything as it happens though and, although some issues (such as her true parentage) become clear before she tells us herself, this means that we don’t know whether she has committed the murders she is accused of until the end of the book. In addition to her own story Frannie leads us through an exploration of many aspects of life in the early part of the 19th Century – slavery, its abolition and the prurient interest of the abolitionists in how slaves were treated; the rise of science and the way it is often manipulated to fit into religious, political or other ideological beliefs; the position of women whether they are rich, poor, black or even French. Frannie herself is fierce and outspoken – she knows that all the cards are stacked against her and she has nothing to lose by speaking her mind.

All in all this is a really impressive debut – great for fans of intelligent historical fiction which also explores social issues, like race, gender and sexuality, which are still of such importance today.

Jane

This is not the world we know but it is the world we made.

We know that I like a good post-apocalypse but, watching the news at the moment, it seems as if we could yet be heading towards, well, if not an actual apocalypse, at least some major changes to the way of life we have today.  Our climate is changing so we may need to think about altering our diets and lifestyles, our politics are becoming more fractured, and extremes – in both climate and politics – are becoming more common. I think I enjoy fiction which explores the consequences of terrible events because they can help us to explore how those events happen. What little things we let slide until they become big things, what the straws that eventually break a camel’s back look like when they are still green stalks.

Golden State – Ben H Winters

9781780897264In a world full of ‘fake news’ the Golden State in Winters’ novel can seem like a utopia. The Golden State of the title is, obviously to us, California and the book is set after some kind of catastrophic event – as far as the people of the Golden State are concerned they live in the last inhabitable place left. Their survival is attributed to the fact that they adhere to the truth. At all times. In fact, more than that, they keep records of everything so that everyone agrees on what is real and true – they refer to it as the ‘Objectively So’. This situation is monitored by cameras, which are pretty much everywhere, and policed, in part, by the Speculative Service. They are the only people who are permitted to, well, speculate (since speculation is the act of considering and rejecting things which may not have really happened) and they can tell when people lie. Laszlo Ratesic is from a family who have worked and died for the service but his latest investigation, and his unwelcome new partner, will make him doubt himself, the service and even the truth itself.

This book is not just a fascinating blend of science fiction and Chandleresque hardboiled crime but also a look at what could happen if we try to replace our current world of ‘fake news’ with a benevolent dictatorship based on narrow focussed view of what the truth is. Let’s face it, any world where the truth is written in stone but works of fiction are banned doesn’t sound like much of an improvement to me.

The Last – Hanna Jameson

40048961In this book the end of the world is depressingly realistic. A nuclear war which happens because world powers mistrust each other and because financial power is hugely imbalanced. Well, I think that is why it happened, why our main character, a historian called Jon, finds himself in a remote Swiss hotel surviving after bombs begin to fall on the planet’s major cities. We see everything from his point of view – in fact we are reading his diary/historical record – so we know as much as he does. Which turns out to be not a lot. About twenty people have survived after the majority of guests and staff flee on the day the bombs start falling and they start to plan for an uncertain future. This future, however, is uncertain – food is running low, vital medicines even lower and then a body is found in one of the hotel’s four rooftop water tanks. Jon, who is already struggling with the situation decides to investigate this death – a young girl, unknown to the remaining residents – and starts to uncover some disturbing stories.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the fact that the survivors were a very human bunch. There are a couple who are your typical survivors – ex-army, survival planner types – but the rest are very, well, ordinary. A Japanese couple and their children, an Australian backpacker and a young student from England who just want to drink and take drugs to make the horror go away and then there is Jon himself. He wants to present an impartial document, for posterity, because he is a historian but we can see he is quite shallow, scared and pretty unreliable. He is given a set of master keys by Dylan, the ex-army member of hotel staff who has become their de facto leader, with the instruction not to tell anyone he has them. Jon immediately tells each person he meets. However, the group do manage to uncover some of the truth about events in the hotel in the first hours after news of the bombings began and both their past and their future starts to become clearer.

Jane

Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

I used to live and work in Durham, in the University bookshop. It’s a beautiful city and I loved working there (although I lived in a pit village outside the city – the centre was way beyond my budget as a bookseller living on my own). I really enjoyed working with academics and students (no, honestly, I loved it), we coped with the waves of tourists who replaced students in the summer and, best of all, we had our own literature festival. It was, as they say, small but perfectly formed – all the bookstalls were done by me and one other bookseller (with Rob providing the motorised transport of books to venues) – and attracted some pretty big names. As I recall there were probably about a dozen or so events over a week and the biggest name we got was Richard Dawkins. Which is pretty big. I also recall wearing a Mog costume for one event (I think I wore it, but seem to recall a photo of me with Mog so maybe it was Michael in the suit) and dressing up in medieval kit for another (I vaguely recall it may have been a kids event based on a Robin Hood theme…). Happy days. Anyway, one person who was a bit of a shoo-in for the festival was Pat Barker, because she was a local author. This was, I think, after the publication of Regeneration but before Barker won the Booker with Ghost Road so she was a biggish name but not huge. I’m happy to say she is also a lovely person (the festival used to invite us booksellers along to the post-event meals, all the authors were polite to us but Pat Barker was especially friendly).

38470228In The Silence of the Girls Barker returns to the wartime setting she worked with so well in the Regeneration trilogy but with a few key differences: this time she is focussing on the events of the Trojan War and she writes largely from the point of view of the women whose lives are so brutally changed by the conflict. Life for women in this period is a bit of a mixed bag. The women of the upper classes have all the material benefits – palaces, jewels, beautiful clothes, the best food and wine – but they don’t have the freedoms we take for granted. They can’t walk around freely, they have to be heavily veiled, and they are not free. Even the women who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or husbands – the only women who are not property are the prostitutes and they are, effectively, treated as common property. Of course the main character, Briseis, Queen of a city near Troy, doesn’t realise that her life is as good as it will get. She is very young and feels dominated by her mother in law but this is nothing compared to her life once the Greeks have defeated her city. The men and boys are killed – even pregnant women are slain in case the child they carry is male – and the women are now become the property of the Greeks. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a trophy – property once again, but now she has no power or status and, in fact, becomes a pawn in the struggles between Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon.

The history here is told well – I don’t know the Iliad that well but I’m pretty certain Barker sticks to the events within it – but the real meat of the book is Briseis and the way she survives what life (and the Trojan War) has thrown at her. Her inner strength as she submits, in body at least, to the change from Queen to bed-slave; her determination to stay alive, even as some of the women who share her fate chose suicide; her certainty that, even though she must share the bed of a Greek hero, and may even grow to love or respect them, she is still a Trojan woman. And, thanks to Pat Barker, the voices of those Trojan women are silent no longer.

Jane

Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

As I sit here thinking what to write I’ve been having a conversation with Rob about how many 1960s songs got covered in the 80s (or at least how many 60s sounding songs there were – Tracey Ullman’s Breakaway, Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin’s It’s My Party, even the Flying Lizards). We decided that the teens and young adults of that period had an interest because it was the decade they (and we) were born in. How well, however, did we know the 1960s? For us it was all Mary Quant dresses, blocky bobs and Lulu singing Shout but reality was somewhat different. I asked my Mum once what the swinging 60s were like – she pointed out that by that point she was a single mum of three living in Essex. Carnaby Street was a world away. As is the world of Claire Fuller’s 1969-set Bitter Orange.

9780241341827Frances Jellico is not very ’60s’. She is 39 and has lived all her life with her mother: in the last few years she has been her mother’s sole carer. Freed by her mother’s death Frances takes a job at Lyntons, a dilapidated yet grand house, cataloguing the garden buildings and statuary and there she meets Peter, doing a similar job in the house itself, and his fascinating Irish wife Cara. Frances could have stayed her staid, studious self (she even meets a vicar who seems to take an interest in her, perfect) but she becomes drawn into the younger couple’s glamorous and thrilling orbit. It soon becomes obvious that Cara is a rather troubled young woman, prone to emotional outbursts (often in Italian), and she gradually tells her story to Frances. Or what she wants to be or thinks is her story: Peter also tells the tale of how they met, fell in love and made their way to Lyntons and the two stories only match up in parts. The novel moves from the summer of 1969 to twenty years later where Frances lays, on her deathbed, in an institution which is not fully described until towards the end of the novel. In the later sections it becomes clear that not only does something terrible happen in the heady atmosphere of Lyntons but also that this is not Frances’ first brush with tragedy.

This is a lush and overheated novel, evoking the decay and overgrown nature of the house and grounds Frances and Peter are meant to be cataloguing. The writing is sensuous – lots of descriptions of luscious food, overblown emotions and traumatic self-doubt – and yet claustrophobic. A darkly beautiful tale perfect for reading during heatwaves and summer storms.

Jane

 

 

May round-up

I don’t usually do a monthly round-up. They are popular with book bloggers, as are posts showing planned reading for the month, book hauls etc, but I would prefer to be posting a bit more regularly. I suppose other bloggers also do author interviews, Q&As, blog themes and the like but I enjoy reading and telling you what I’ve read. To quote a famous Russian, ‘simples’… However, sometimes life gets in the way. Over the last month I have had a holiday (which may get mentioned in a bit…), changed my hours at work (dropping my hours – which should mean more blogging time but I have been trying to get back into my running and gardening) and been doing lots of other non-reading stuff. Also I discovered Microsoft Jigsaw. If you want to be productive at all, in any way, don’t even think about Microsoft Jigsaw…Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been reading in May.

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

whistledark.jpgI managed to miss Healey’s first book, Costa-winner Elizabeth is Missing, but I heard such good things about it that I was keen to read this. The story is told by Jen and describes the aftermath of what must be one of any parent’s worst nightmares. Lana, Jen and her husband Hugh’s teenaged daughter, went missing for four days while on a painting holiday in the Peak District. The holiday itself and the four days of parental panic are skimmed over a little: what we are really exploring in this book is the relationship between mother and daughter and Jen’s reactions to both the disappearance and Lana’s refusal (or inability) to say what happened.

It is understandable why Jen is worried – Lana has had episodes of depression in the recent past, culminating in an overdose attempt which led Jen to visits to all local pharmacies with a request not to sell painkillers to her daughter – but it seemed to me that Jen is experiencing mental health issues of her own. She obsesses over what could have happened – fearing all the usual worsts since Lana had befriended a teenaged boy on the holiday and was eventually discovered by a man on an isolated farm – becoming anxious, suspicious and a bit paranoid. The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that the media follows the story closely and that one of the other people on the painting holiday is a slightly strange man whose religious beliefs include the possibility that some children can travel to hell and back. Jen almost stalks her own daughter to try to find answers – listening in on phone calls, searching bedrooms and following her to school – but doesn’t find them until she returns to the Peak.

Not quite a psychological thriller this is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman driven to extremes by the fear of what could have happened to her daughter. The characters are realistically drawn, both Jen and Lana but also Hugh and the older daughter, Meg, and the situation is plausibly dealt with. The final answers (which I won’t give away) are perhaps a little more far-fetched but possible all the same. I’m not a parent but the pain and worry of learning to deal with the fact that a beloved child is both growing apart from you and potentially putting themselves in danger seems very well described.

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

39988957I’m an atheist but I would never deny others the right to follow any religion – although I would really prefer their religion to promote tolerance, peace and fairness. I have friends who are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and, since I live and work in Bradford, many who are Muslim. I am always interested in learning about what other people believe in and also how their faith is reflected in their everyday life so I was keen to read Ed Husain’s House of Islam. I read his earlier book, The Islamist, an account of his youthful brush with the world of more politicised, radical Islam and how he moved away from it: this book promised to be a more rounded and mature look at a major world religion.

Firstly we get a pretty comprehensive history of Islam – its origins, its early schisms and spread around the world. The rise of various sects is covered and some of them are fairly roundly criticised. What is important to Husain – whose particular brand of Islam is based on Sufism, a very spiritual form of the faith – is the essence of the religion, the feelings it should create, rather than strict obedience to man-made laws. As a person who doesn’t follow the directions of any religion this is a good distinction – I like the idea of a world filled with good people rather than Christians/Jews/Muslims/Jedi who follow a set of rules which can cause difficulties, or even suffering, to those who are not following in the same way. Specific areas are considered – sharia law (which almost certainly doesn’t mean what you think it does…), the role of women, education and sex, the relationship between Islam and Judaism and attitudes to death – and some suggestions are made. These mostly seem to be a plea for a greater understanding  of the full range of possibilities for Islam. Although there are many Muslims in the West the view of them held by many non-Muslims is that of one particular aspect of the faith. Often this is that of more extreme versions of what is, at heart, a peaceful faith.

I realise that Husain is giving his opinion here. He doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even for all moderate Muslims. But he does speak very passionately and persuasively about something he seems to believe in wholeheartedly. Solving the problems of extremism (in all religions) can never be easy but a deeper understanding of other faiths would be a good place to start. I feel I have gained some of that understanding by reading this book.

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People – Julia Boyd

34594504Okay. So this doesn’t, on the face of it, sound like fun holiday reading but it was actually fascinating. It looks at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany between the two world wars from the first hand reports of non-Germans visiting or living in the country. The reports – diaries, journalism, letters and memoirs – are from a wide range of people. Diplomats, tourists, socialites, opera-buffs and school children are all represented and British, American and New Zealand voices are heard. Some are serious reports and some are more jokey in tone but, as we are repeatedly reminded, none of these people have the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of the travellers in this book (school-children excepted) are of an age to remember the Great War. This means that many of them are willing to accept many things in order to prevent another conflict. It seems shocking that so many were convinced, even after the persecution of the Jews began, that Hitler was the best hope for peace in Europe but, again, we have history to inform us and they did not. One of the points repeatedly made is that anti-Semitism was widespread and generally accepted in this era (although there is no suggestion that the methods ultimately used by the Nazis to deal with the issue would have been accepted in the same way). These reactions and reasonings are given without criticism – after all, we have no way of knowing what future generations will think of the way we are dealing with the global issues we face today. The main lesson I would like to draw from this gripping book is that we must not fall for smooth-talking political leaders who try to persuade us against our personal morality. Whatever religion (or none) we draw that morality from.

Jane