Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (2014)

When I was younger, I loved Ian McEwan. I first read him during the long dark final weeks of my Honours year, where in an effort to gain a bit of sanity and perspective I had escaped to the fiction section of my university's library and grabbed the first book from an author who wasn't dead who I had heard of. The book was Atonement, and I loved it. I then promptly devoured Black Dogs and Enduring Love. I was mesmerised by Saturday - I wanted to roll around in the prose of that one eventful day that in fact told the story of an entire life. But then, the McEwan-HereIRead love affair came to a crashing halt with the publication of On Chesil Beach. I bought this "book" for full price from a reputable bookseller, only to take it home and realise it was the novel equivalent of the first-year essay I'd submitted with 2.5-line spacing and 5cm margins, hoping the lecturer wouldn't notice that it was about half of its expected length (they did). On Chesil Beach is a short story padded out (and charged like!) a full novel based on some clever typesetting and a lot of blank pages. Even worse, it is a stupid story. I felt both ripped off and cross. Despite this, I still bought Solar when it came out. Just to give you an idea what type of story Solar is, there is a chapter where the protagonist thinks his penis has fallen off but in fact what fell off was (I think) the lid of a tube of lip balm. Stupid stupid stupid. I didn't even end up finishing it. I am clearly a slow learner, because I gave McEwan one more chance with Sweet Tooth. With a much kinder than I would be today two-star review, I was done with McEwan.

That is, until I watched last month's ABC's The Book Club. Marieke Hardy described Ian McEwan as that old boyfriend you feel fond about but forget how crap they are until you give them a call to talk to them again. I agreed with her completely! So when said that that his new novel, The Children Act, was wonderful, I picked it up.

The best I can say about this book is that it's not completely awful. Much like Saturday and Solar, we see the whole book through the eyes of a single character, in this case Fiona Maye, a High Court judge. When the book opens, she is reeling from the shock of her husband telling her he wants to have an affair because they haven't had sex for seven weeks and one day. She says no, he moves out and then she has to make rulings on a number of difficult decisions, including whether or not to rule that doctors can separate Siamese twins when the separation means certain death for one boy but not separating them means both twins will die and whether or not to override the wishes of a Jehovah's Witness boy who is 17 years and 9 months old and refusing a life-saving blood transfusion.

The Children Act is written very well because McEwan writes very good prose but, again, as with On Chesil Beach, the plot is just so stupid. No-one jeopardises a 30-year marriage because they haven't had sex for seven weeks but McEwan's characters act like this is a reasonable course of action for an educated couple whose professions are based on communication to take. Reading this book made me feel like McEwan hasn't actually spoken to any real people for a long time because actual humans just don't act like the characters in his novel do. Plus, let's be honest - McEwan is a massive elitist snob who doesn't like women very much. His contempt for women and the lower classes leaps off the page, not even barely disguised. It was quite surprising how obvious it was (although not surprising in and of itself).

Not a terrible book but I don't want to contribute to encouraging anyone to read it, so two stars.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Secret Keeping for Beginners by Maggie Alderson (2015)

Secret Keeping for Beginners centres around three sisters: Tessa, Rachel and Natasha. Rachel has just divorced her husband and is juggling a new job in a fantastic PR firm with running and paying for a London household for her, her two children and the manny, Banko. Tessa and her husband Tom own a successful salvage yard and were happy in the country with their three boys until Tom was discovered by television and now hosts his own successful TV show. Natasha is a hugely successful make-up artist who travels the world making up supermodels and high fashion shows. All three women are beautiful, fabulously talented and have heaps of Instagram followers and all of them are in someway at breaking point in their lives.

The central conceit of the book is that despite their closeness, the sisters are keeping big secrets from each other. Rachel is in dire financial straits and is struggling to even find enough money for food. Tessa is incredibly depressed and is withdrawing further and further into her own private world. Natasha is refusing to reveal her sexual identify for fear it will damage her in her business, and the double life she lives creates a barrier between her and her sisters. So far, so good (although I did find hard to believe that Natasha wouldn't talk to her sisters about her sexuality - I can understand not talking about it at work (although of course one should not have to hide any part of one's sexuality for work, which is why there are discrimination laws in place), but not her sisters? I did not buy it). However, it gets more complicated. It turns out that Rachel's boss, Simon, had a brief fling with Tessa  before she was married and he's in love with Rachel and his business is experiencing financial stress and he's carrying around a big secret that he refuses to tell anyone until 10 pages before the end. The mother of the girls, Joy, has been receiving mysterious letters addressed to the person she was before she changed her name at 16 that she refuses to open. Plus Banko is hiding his secret crossdressing from Rachel and then lies about wanting to be a fashion model.

THAT'S TOO MANY SECRETS. Seriously, about seven of these could have been cut and it would have made not one whit of difference. I understand secrets are the theme of the book but there was no need to create a "secrets are the theme of the book" stick and start whacking your readers over the head with it. Joy's secret was frankly stupid and completely unnecessary. Giving Simon four secrets was massive overkill. That said, Alderson writes really well, so the book was lovely to read. There were moments of genuine humour and the relationships between the sisters was lovingly depicted. So, how do I rate this book? Using the patented HereIRead Book Evaluator Tool (TM):

Including LGBT characters not defined by their sexuality
Good depiction of relationship between sisters
Enjoyably written

Too much unnecessary plot
Used the annoying trope of a smug wise elderly woman who gives out excellent advice
Alderson cannot write from the point-of-view of a man and should never ever try again. Simon's sections were cringe-worthy
The entire character of Tessa

A book that should only be borrowed from the library but is nice easy reading: three stars.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Gone But Knot Forgotten by Mary Marks (2015)

It's a regular Tuesday and Martha Rose is heading to her weekly quilting session. She is stopped by an unusual phone call - her high school best friend Harriet has been found dead and Martha is the executor of the will. Martha hasn't seen Harriet for decades and in that time dramatic things have happened - her son died, her husband vanished and she became a recluse, roaming the halls of her mansion alone. When she was found, she had been dead for 10 months. Martha feels awful that someone she once loved died so alone and was determined to find out how her gregarious and outgoing friend became someone that no-one missed.

At the same time, Martha has quite a bit going on in her personal life. Crusher, a big biker who she had a steamy night with one book ago, has decided he wants to marry her and is slowly trying to work his way into her life. Her daughter has moved in with a man, so Martha has started a wedding quilt, just in case. Plus, not far into sorting out Harriet's estate she receives another shocking call - Harriet has been murdered, and Martha is determined to find out who the murderer was.

This is the third Martha Rose novel. I realised a few chapters in that I had actually read the first one (review here) and I liked it. I feel exactly the same about this one. It's well written, the characters are engaging and Martha feels like a real person, with both good and bad qualities. I liked that she was spunky enough to stand up for herself but I did wish she'd cut back a bit on the refined sugar and saturated fat (this girl's diet is not good! If she keeps up her current levels of red and processed meats, she's in for a heart attack before too long). The book is a little light on quilting for a title with a thread pun in it but the quilting is there (and there's a free pattern at the back). It is a nice book and a good cosy way to spend an afternoon. That said, I took an entire star off my rating because the author is a gun control advocate who misunderstands the second amendment. I can't be supporting that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (2015)

Blackout opens in Paris, where journalist Sarah Hepola has been sent on an assignment. She remembers drinking cognac, smooth and sophisticated in its distinctive snifter. She has flashes in the cab back to the hotel, walking carefully across the foyer so as not to display her drunkenness to the concierge and then...nothing.

This happens to me sometimes. A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching me wouldn't notice. They'd simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.

Hepola blacked out, and when she woke up, she was having sex with a stranger. Hepola is an alcoholic, a blackout drinker. She describes a blackout as:

..the untangling of a mystery. It's detective work on your own life. A blackout is: What happened last night? Who are you, and why are we fucking?

A blackout occurs when a person's blood alcohol is so high that their brain simply stops making longterm memories. The person doesn't pass out - they can still talk, dance, (fuck...) but they have no memory of it the next day. Hepola was a blackout drinker: her Saturday mornings were characterised by questions like the ones in the quote above. But while blackouts may have been common for her, she was also an alcoholic: she drank often and she drank a lot.

Blackout: Remember the Things I Drank to Forget is an account of how Hepola became an alcoholic and then came out the other side, alcohol free. It starts when she was a child, transplanted from Philadelphia to Dallas, Texas. Her childhood is characterised by poor self-esteem and a lack of ability to fit in: as the poorest kid in a rich district, other kids were making fun of her house and her parents car. She also grew up with an often-absent mum and an extremely unexpressive father, although she does not blame them for what happened to her. By the time she was a teenager, she was sneaking sips of beer from half-opened cans her parents left in the fridge. It was by drinking that she was able to make friends at school, with alcohol breaking down the barriers between different social groups. Hepola used alcohol to give her courage; to let the wild child within out. This continued through college and into her working life until, 20 years later, she reaches rock bottom while living in New York City.

I have written before of my deep and abiding love of the drunk memoir, and this is one of the best. Hepola's writing style is honest but not brutal. She describes perfectly the conflicting feelings of being cripplingly shy and wanting to be famous at the same time. She is genuinely funny without being flippant, which is a fine line to balance with this subject matter. I really enjoyed reading this book - even the bits after she sobers up, which are usually the boring parts. Obviously the references to AA and a higher power were fairly eye-roll-causing (AA really does rub me up the wrong way) but I felt happy that it helped her and that she was able to recover from her years of pain.

In the final chapter of the book, Hepola returns to Paris to try to find out what happened that fateful night but she couldn't: all the people she met then had left. It's a fitting end for a great book about learning to accept the person one is and the pain one carries - these things can't be changed or fixed but they do need to be lived with. An excellent drunk memoir; four stars.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

Two years ago I reviewed Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Although I thought it was well written, thought provoking and terribly clever, I did not like the book. I felt the trials meted out to Ursula became torturous after a while; when reading about her, I felt sadistic, a feeling I did not enjoy. Hence, when the companion book to Life After Life (which was made very clear is not a sequel or prequel but a complementary novel) was released this year, I was reluctant to pick it up. However, I do love Kate Atkinson and I really hate not having read a book that everyone else has (would I jump off a cliff...) so I borrowed it from the library. It sat on my shelf, borrowed but unread, for about two months until I got an email from the library telling me someone else had requested it and asking that I return it in three days. I reluctantly picked it up and then, within an hour, started kicking myself quite hard in the shins for waiting so long, because this book is excellent.

Like Life After Life, this book does not follow a linear narrative. However, unlike Life After Life, which explored parallel realities, where the different actions of the characters affected that particular reality but were wiped out when Ursula died and was reborn again, A God in Ruins sits within one reality only (thank God). Instead of moving between universes, the story moves back and forth along the lineage of Teddy - Edward Todd - and his parents, children and grandchildren. Broadly, Teddy, who was his mother Sylvie's best boy, goes to war, becomes a pilot, returns from war, marries Nancy, with whom he has Viola, who herself has two children, Sunny and Bea. Although Teddy is central to the story, Viola and Sunny both have chapters told from their perspectives. The story spans Teddy's entire lifetime of 90 years, which combined with the multiple perspectives results in a really full, fascinating exploration of a family and the effect of two terrible wars.

Given that I had to return the book to the library in three days, I read this book much more quickly than I wanted to. It is really beautifully written, with the kind of language that I wanted to savour and take my time with. At the centre of the story is Teddy, who every loves. He promises himself that if he survives the war, if he has an "after", he will be kind. And he is, but kindness and love don't necessary look like he thought they would. Like Life After Life, there is great loss and love throughout the book. In a testament to the power of this book to evoke feeling, for the first time in a long time, I cried while reading a book. I recommend this book strongly: five stars.