Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Woman Who Stole my Life by Marian Keyes (2014)

Marian Keyes is often considered a chicklit author. Her covers are invariably released in shades of pastel, pink and purple with the title and author name written in friendly, glittery or metallic letters. This bright and breezy presentation belies the content of her books which, despite their engaging and often hiliarous content, deal with serious issue such as grief (Is There Anybody Out There?), domestic violence (This Charming Man), depression (The Mystery of Mercy Close) and alcoholism (Rachel’s Holiday). She is a great writer and deservedly one of Ireland’s most success authors.

Her newest novel, The Woman Who Stole My Life, tells the story of Stella Sweeney. Stella is 41 and one-quarter years old, of average height, and has just arrived back in Dublin in disgrace after having achieved great success (doing what, we don’t know). Her ex-husband Ryan has suddenly found karma and is giving away all of his worldly possessions in the belief that because of this good deed, the universe will provide for him. Stella, however, does not believe in karma. She says:

Once upon a time, something very bad happened to me. As a direct result of that very bad thing, something very, very good happened. I was a big believer in karma at that point. Then another bad thing. I am currently due an upswing in my karma cycle, but it doesn’t seem to happening. Frankly, I’ve had it with karma.

Telling the story largely through flashback, we find out that Stella’s “very bad” thing was getting Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune condition that caused Stella to become fully paralaysed, only able to move her eyelids. With her neurologist, Mannix Taylor, Stella is able to devise a system where she can communicate by blinking, and she and Mannix form an unusual and unorthodox relationship.

I felt that The Woman Who Stole my Life is the most grown-up Keyes book I’ve read. Stella and her best friend Jo are both divorced and dealing with the fallout from their relationship breakups on their family life and finances. Stella’s fabulous sister Karen has two small children and a business to run. Because of this, Woman has much less of the female/family bonding and humour that characterise her previous novels. I missed it but it makes this book more realistic, because as we get older our priorities do change. This realism came at the cost of some of the richness of the secondary characters – they were perhaps a bit more one-dimensional than I have become used to. However, Stella is lovely and likeable and I very much enjoyed her narrative voice.

In conclusion, this is not my favourite Marian Keyes novel (that honour remains with Sushi for Beginners) but it’s a great read and a lot of fun. Three and a half stars.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A brief literary tour of a small part of the UK

I have just arrived home from a whirlwind trip to the UK. Although my purpose was study (and I did get a lot of important research done!) I also managed to fit in a bunch of lovely bookish things.

On my first day at the research library, there just happened to be a Richard Ayoade screening nearby. Sam quickly ducked into the BFI bookshop and grabbed a copy of Ayoade on Ayoade and we were one of the last to get our book signed.

I am so heavily jetlagged in that photo I can hardly keep my eyes open! I think I was asleep about 45 minutes after that photo was taken.

I was dragged along to Stratford-upon-Avon against my will to see all of the Shakespeare stuff. I mean, I get why he's so important and acknowledge the impact he has had on the entire Western world but still...I just don't find him that interesting (please don't tell my university in case they take back my English degree!). I did get this lovely shot in his garden, though, so that's one thing.

Next was Chatsworth House.

This is literary for two reasons. It is the adopted ancestral home of the recently passed away Deb Mitford, the youngest of the wonderful Mitford sisters. Deb was responsible for saving Chatsworth by opening it up to the public. 

It is also the house upon which Jane Austen based Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice.

The house was truly spectacular and filled with remarkable treasures...

..and had wonderful gardens and pastures filled with sheep. I would marry Mr Darcy after seeing that house!

The gift shop was selling this gem, which I didn't buy then but am absolutely getting for my mother for Christmas.

On what proved to be the coldest and wet day of my entire trip (and that's saying something because I got rained on 10 out of the 12 days I was there), we stopped at Haworth, the home of the Brontë sisters. It seemed to be a gorgeous town but the weather was just too miserable to do any exploring. I did of course stop by the Parsonage, which was excellent.

Standing in the room where Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights had been written was an odd feeling. I could have stayed there for hours.

The final stop was the Oxford Bar, the hangout of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus. It is a tiny, crowded bar filled with locals and we stood out like a sore thumb. I didn't care though! It was oddly fun to inhabit the same space as a fictional character. I get the Magnolia Bakery thing now.

If I'd had more time (and money - some of these things are very expensive! Visiting Shakespeare's house costs AU$60 per person) I'd have seen more but I really enjoyed every thing I did. I now want to go back and read every Brontë, every Austen and the early Rankin novels all over again :)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (2014)

How to Build a Girl is the first novel from feminist extraordinaire Caitlin Moran. I have written before how much I loved loved loved her first book, How to be a Woman. I finished it and immediately ordered four copies to give to other women so they could understand and appreciate the pleasure that was intelligently written well-argued unapologetic feminism. It is a great book and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

As we discovered in How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran grew up in poverty in an industrial town, Wolverhampton, that suffered a sharp decline in the Thatcher years. With a weight problem, a father on disability benefits and a mother whose full-time occupation was looking after a brood of children, her childhood was not easy. Moran left school and home young and became a music journalist and, from there, the success that she is today. The protagonist of How to Build a Girl is Johanna Morrigan, a plump girl who lives in Wolverhampton, an industrial town that suffered a sharp decline in the Thatcher years. With a weight problem, a father on disability benefits and a mother whose full-time occupation was looking after a brood of children, Johanna's life was not easy. The novel follows her path to adulthood, including leaving school young to become a music journalist.

The duplication of material was one of the two major issues I had with the novel. Although the novel opens with a note where Moran clearly states the book is fictional: "But Johanna is not me. Her family, colleagues, the people she meets and her experiences are not my family, my colleagues, the people I met or my experiences. This is a novel and it is all fictitious.", a lot of the story is familiar from How to be a Woman.  I imagine, given the similarities in the titles, there was a conscious decision to almost "pair" the two titles. However, the crossover in material made reading the book a bit repetitious, like I was rereading a story instead of discovering it for the first time. I found this a bit irritating, because if I'd wanted to reread How to be a Woman, I could have just picked up the copy sitting on the shelf in my living room.

The second issue I had with the book was that I just couldn't figure out who its audience was. It opens with Johanna deciding that she needs to die - not literally, but figuratively, so she can reinvent herself as a new person who can save her family from a life of poverty. I get this - part of being a teenager is trying on new identities until you find one that fits; in which you can feel comfortable and yourself. In this section, her family is close and loving and a key component of her life. But then, once Johanna has successfully transformed herself into music columnist, she then becomes a lady sex explorer and all of a sudden can stay out all night without her previously close family remarking upon it or making a big deal. That did not feel real to me at all. I also found it really hard to keep track of time in the novel - near the end, it's revealed that Johanna has been a music journalist for two years, but before then time isn't marked in any way - the narrative is just a series of events without any way to mark the passage of time, like birthday parties or Christmas. Until I read that sentence, I didn't know if she'd been writing for two months or several years. There are also some strange moments where the point of view shifts to a woman 20 years in the future looking back on their youth, which sits really oddly with the first-person point-of-view of 16 (or 17 or 18)-year-old Johanna. The language is sexually explicit enough that it is excluded from the YA market but who else is that interested in coming of age stories about teenage girls? (Although, how awesome is it that this is not about the coming of age of a middle-class white man!! As a society we have reached peak white man coming of age stories, please stop writing them, white middle-class men.)

Those (major) quibbles aside, there is a lot to like about this book. Moran is a very funny writer and is completely apologetic about bring up all of the stuff that teenagers really think about, like masturbation and first kisses and the powerlessness that comes with being too young to really do anything to fix any of the problems you see around you. Her descriptions of the everyday poverty she lived in were really sad and an indictment of a first-world wealthy country who should be doing better for their families in need. I was entertained (if slightly confused) throughout the whole book, which is really super important. I think this book was one draft and one change-of-career-for-the-protagonist away from being a really excellent novel - three stars.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014)

Big Little Lies is the latest book from Australian author Liane Moriarty and it has been a huge success. As all the publicity material will tell you, it's been on the #1 New York Times' bestseller and the rights of the film have been optioned by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Since, as I recently admitted, I cannot resist a much-talked about bestseller, I immediately borrowed the book from the library and started reading right away.

And kept on reading, all day long, because this book is very good. The plot centres around three women who all have their children in the same local primary school. Madeline, although happily remarried, is still bitter about her previous divorce, which is not helped by the fact that the daughter she has with her second husband is in the same year level as the child her ex-husband has had with his new wife. Celeste is beautiful and rich but, while she seems to have everything she wants, is not quite right or happy in an oddly indiscernable way. Jane, who is much younger than the other two, is a single mother of a young boy who was fathered in mysterious circumstances. The three form an unlikely but strong friendship and, when Jane's son is accused of bullying, the primary school is split, often positioning the three women against the rest of the school body.

Although that description sounds serious, the book is in fact very amusing. The interaction between the primary school teacher and Jane is hilarious and I really empathised with Madeline's deliberate and persistent unwillingless to just let the past go. The relationships between the groups of parents ring true (PTA committees, dramas about birthday party invites and drunken bookclubs - all things I have been involved in!) and I really enjoyed the presentation of the subtleties of the political games groups of people who are forced together by circumstance engage in.

The one thing I am a little bit on the fence is is the portrayal of domestic violence. Just last week I had someone tell me that domestic abuse doesn't happen in their area because it's a nice wealthy suburb. By including domestic violence in this book, Moriarty does draw attention to the fact that domestic violence is not limited to not-"nice", poor people. This is very important! However, its description at the start of the book felt a bit fetishistic to me. This is completely fixed by the end of the book so perhaps I am being sensitive but I was definitely uncomfortable in the first 100 or so pages.

That said, I would unhesitatingly recommend this book. It is simply a very enjoyable, very fun read.

With each passing book, Liane Moriarty is becoming a better writer. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next. Four stars.