Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Rich Kids of Instagram (2014)

Instagram is an interesting phenomenon. A platform for people to easily edit and share photographs, it has been criticised for devaluing traditional photography, creating an environment in which everyone's photos look the same and encouraging the promotion of unreal and unattainable lifestyles. One of the most critique-worthy things to come out of Instagram is the Rich Kids of Instagram hashtag and blog: the pictures of the wealthy teenage children of the richest people in the world, who use Instagram to show off their expensive possessions and lifestyle. They love to remind everyone how much money and stuff they have; those who follow #RKOI love to use them as examples of everything that's wrong in society today.

I love Instagram and I use it all the time but mainly for looking at pictures of cats (#catsofinstagram). I've avoided #RKOI due to a complete lack of interest but I was intrigued to discover that in 2014 the blog Rich Kids of Instagram had been fictionalised in Rich Kids of Instagram: A Novel. The book follows the trials and tribulations of several bright young things, including the daughter of a wealthy media mogul; a minor European royal; and the son of a Hollywood producer. These teenagers are joined by a network of wealth and privilege: they go to the same parties, shop at the same exclusive stores and holiday in the same expensive destinations. Their world is briefly disrupted by the arrival of internet Wunderkind Josh Evergreen, a prodigy who has sold a website that changed the face of music for a phenomenal amount of money and who enters the world of the wealthy. The bright young things want to know: where did this mysterious man come from, what will he do next and (most importantly) what can he do for them?

Designed to be a satire, Rich Kids of Instagram: A Novel follows some well-worn paths. Money can buy you lots of things but it can't buy happiness. The sins of the father are visited upon the children. Conspicuous consumption of things always involves conspicuous consumption of drugs and alcohol (are there no wealthy people who don't have substance abuse problems?). These are pretty standard tropes and are on their own quite a bit blah. However, what this book does do really well is highlight the uncomfortable truth that while money may not buy happiness, it can cushion you from having to experience a lot of unpleasantness or even acknowledge that unpleasantness exists. When you can touch $5 million worth of stuff before leaving the house (the comfort ritual of one of the teens), you really are living in a different place to the rest of us.

This book is nothing remarkable and I absolutely would only borrow it from the library but, given that all the characters are completely awful, I was surprisingly engaged. Three stars.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Vintage Weddings by Katie Fforde (2015) or, the book that made me bake a loaf of wholemeal bread

Beth, newly graduated from university, has run away from home. Having agreed to organise her sister's wedding on a shoestring budget, her in-laws to be have lent her a cottage in the charming Cotswald village of Chippingford. Looking for work and some social contacts, Beth attends a village function at the falling-down village hall, where she meets Rachel and Lindy, the other young, single women of Chippingford. Rachel and Lindy have their own problems: Rachel is divorced and, although she bought her dream house and is living her dream life, is not as happy as she thought she'd be, while Lindy, at just 23 years of age is (as she calls herself) the youngest middle-aged woman in the world.

To build on their fledgling connection, the three women depart to the local pub and an idea is born: using each of their individual skills - Rachel with numbers and organisation, Beth with her web and marketing skills and Lindy with the local contacts and excellent seamstressing (is that a verb? It is now), the three women start a business that plans weddings on a budget. Frugal and sensible but not cheap, Vintage Weddings begins.

This novel is quite frankly charming and, as befits a charming novel, the highs and lows are gentle and easy. Each of the women is working through issues of their own. Rachel's organisation masks an OCD-like need for cleanliness and order. Beth acts more like a teenager with rebellion issues than a university graduate and Lindy has already given up on life to devote herself to her children. Of course, there are the requisite handsome and charming men to help them exorcise their demons: Raff, the raffish local scrapyard owner with the charming hoarder mother; Charlie, the scampish local farmer and Angus, an architect with an impractical dream. With the support of the village and some very good luck, Vintage Weddings begins to develop from an idea supported by a few glasses of red wine to a thriving business. The question remains, though - will Beth's sister be happy with the vintage wedding she is getting and will each of these women work through their own issues in order to recognise that true love is in their reach?

I read this book while on holiday and it seriously made me want to shift my holiday to a Cotswald village for a month. The descriptions of the village lifestyle - the charming scenery, the excellent local produce, the eccentric local characters - were delightful. Since unfortunately I can't actually head off to England for a month, I settled for making a nice wholemeal loaf of bread instead:

It was a pretty good substitute! A very nice no-stress read, three stars.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What Came Before by Anna George (2014)

"My name is David James Forrester. I'm a soliciter. Tonight, at 6.10, I killed my wife. This is my statement."

It's not often that a reader can hear from the victim after their untimely death, but that's the unique premise of What Came Before. The book opens with David Forrester, covered in blood, panicked and physically ill due to the act of violence he has just committed against his wife. The story then shifts to Elle, who is floating above her body, a disembodied presence watching her lifeless figure. Over the course of the novel, both David and Elle tell the story of their relationship, explaining what came before Elle's gruesome end.

It seemed oddly coincidental that I picked up a book on domestic violence in the same week that domestic violence advocate Rose Battie is recognised as Australian of the Year and the federal government cut funding to support services for victims of domestic violence. But it's not actually surprising: What Came Before adds to a growing body of work by Australian authors that looks at domestic violence and its often fatal impacts (including Lianne Moriarty's Big Little Lies, which I reviewed here). Elle was a successful lawyer who left the law and become a screenwriter and director. Her first feature film, Daisy, was a critical and commercial success and she is working on her second film, Limerance. Limerence (as described by Elle), is "a termed coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in the seventies to describe that heady, in-love state felt typically in the early days of a relationship, those all-consuming and intense feelings that inevitably pass." She first meets David at her going-away party from the law firm that he has just started at. He never forgot her, so when he sees her four years later at a Almodavor retrospective at the Sun Theatre, he immediately approaches her, they hit it off and she takes him to her home for what she plans to be her first one-night stand. David, however, has other plans.

This first night proves to be symptomatic of their entire relationship. Even after she clearly tells him she doesn't want to see him anymore, David entices and manipulates Elle into beginning a relationship with him. Each time she pulls away, he finds ways to get what he wants until their relationship is dominating heir life. As the book continues, the violence escalates in a subtle yet dreadful way, until it almost hard to read. This is a broken, twisted relationship, and having both protagonists telling their story adds to its emotional power.

What Came Before is Anna George's first novel, and her lack of novel-writing experience is clear. At times, the prose seems somewhat overworked and the word "Seddon" is used an awful lot of times (I get, it, you're in Seddon. The location says stuff about the characters. Enough with the Seddon references.). I also thought some of the metaphors were a bit heavy handed, like the Seddon/character one and the vagina as relationship barometer. That said, these are minor quibbles for a book I read in one sitting. I look forward to Anna George's next novel - four stars.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss (2014)

Cat Out of Hell opens with retired librarian Alec Charlesworth holidaying on the coast of North Norfolk. It is midwinter, and the cold weather matches Alec's mood as he mourns the recent death of his much-loved wife, Mary. While away, he opens an email from a former colleague, Dr Winterton, that tells an odd tale of a murderous talking cat...

I select books to read for a number of reasons. I do quite a lot of reading for work - some, admittedly, more enjoyable than others. As I explained here, sometimes I read a book just because everyone else is (no, I wouldn't jump off the cliff but I would certainly drive to the location just to see why everyone else is doing it). Cat Out of Hell I borrowed just because I really really liked the cover:

See what I mean? It's a really great cover. That said, given that cover appeal was literally the only reason I picked the book up, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I have read and very much enjoyed Eats, Shoots & Leaves so was not surprised when the novel was perfectly punctuated. It was also not surprising that the novel was incredibly well steeped in literary heritage. Set in an academic library in the university town of Cambridge, references to great works of literature are scattered throughout the text. I was, however, a little bit surprised at the gruesome murders, until I flicked to the back of the book and realised it was published by Hammer Books, a Random House imprint that publish horror books.

Genre placement sorted out and cover close at hand to look at whenever I felt like, Cat Out of Hell is an entertaining ride. Moments of genuine pathos as Alec copes with his grief are contrasted with biting black humour (Roger the talking cat is well travelled and read and possesses an acerbic wit and charm) with the obligatory horror genre gruesome deaths thrown in for good measure. That said, the plot contains many gaping holes (which Truss acknowledges but doesn't fix, which I thought was a bit of a cop-out). Following The Paying Guests and preceding Americanah, it's also blessedly short. A charming yet fatally flawed book: three stars.