Saturday, 2 March 2013

February Reading

The manuscript revision, as Poirot would say, marches. It marches fairly well. And when it does not march so well, I am getting a wonderful opportunity to learn the art of absolute Zen-like acceptance and calm in the face of metaphorical lions and tigers and bears.

Nothing matters! It's all fine! In fact, it's GREAT. An entire subplot has to be cut? Great! The last third of the book does not make sense any more? Great! The title may have to be changed? GREAT! I cry. WONDERFUL! YES! BRILLIANT!

(No, really, it is all wonderful, and it will all be fine.)

Anyway, I have another very good piece of news to share with you all. Ladies and gentlemen of the internet, I finally have a job! As of last week, I work in the magical emporium of words that is Orion Books. I now spend all day working on other people's books and then come home and write my own. Basically, my inner twelve-year-old thinks I am THE BIGGEST STAR IN THE UNIVERSE.

I should, however, probably make some disclaimers before I carry on: despite what happens in my professional life, this is still very much my personal blog. Nothing in it has anything to do with the official opinion of Orion and the Hachette Group at large. Likewise, anything I may previously have said about an Orion or Hachette title is my own view of it, and springs from my crabbed soul alone.

Luckily the titles I'm reviewing today are nothing to do with Orion at all. So, with a clear conscience, I will now have at my February book list.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Alas. Rarely have I ever read a book that I appreciated so much in the abstract but which bored me so heavily in practice. The writing in Moon Tiger is hauntingly lovely, its premise clever (the whole stretch of history viewed as it relates relation to the life of one woman, the tempestuous Claudia) and that premise well-executed. And yet, it had all the emotional effect on me of a lukewarm glass of milk.

Have I gotten too used to books with punchy, linear plots? Probably. I kept longing for stuff to blow up already - and then realising that the whole book was about the horrors of World War II and feeling crass.

I don't know what happened. There's a dreamy underwater aspect to this book, and maybe I wasn't in the mood for dreaminess. Objectively, I have to say that this was a beautiful book. Subjectively, it took me two weeks to get through its 200 pages and I resent it utterly as a result.

3 stars.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

In terms of actual technical accomplishment, this is far inferior to Moon Tiger. Subjectively, though? I enjoyed it a whole lot more.

Also (oddly enough) about the horrors of World War II, Code Name Verity is written as the account of a British spy who has been captured by the Nazis during her very first mission to occupied France. Verity (not her real name) has been ordered to write down everything she knows about British intelligence in exchange for her comfort in prison, but what she actually writes is a sort of third-person love-letter to Maddie, the girl who piloted her into France.

This is being marketed as YA, mainly because the two main characters are quite young. I'm not sure it should be. I get the feeling that someone said to Elizabeth Wein, "This is great, but because this is now for teens you need to make it LIGHTER! We need to LAUGH!" This is the only explanation I can find for the frankly weird tone of parts of the novel. The bits where Verity is recounting the story of her friendship with Maddie is both sweet and perfectly convincing, but around those we get passages about Verity's treatment in prison which can best be described as 'I've been captured by the Gestapo! LOL!'

This is horribly offputting, not to mention extremely unlikely, and although in later parts its inclusion does begin to make more sense, Verity would have been a markedly better book without it. I think Wien became a bit of a victim of her own admittedly good plot idea (I don't want to give anything away, but if you've read it you'll know what I mean). I see why Verity's story is the shape it is, but all the same the editor in me sat up and said, I want to cut ALL OF THIS PART.

Basically, this was an intensely mixed bag of a text. I loved parts of it, I disliked other parts. But overall I enjoyed myself, and that counts for something.

4 stars.

Armadale by Wilkie Collins

I have nothing to say about this book other than YES. I've registered my love for Wilkie Collins on this blog before. For me he's Dickens sans draggy social conscience and plus a lot of extra murder and bigamy and pirates. Basically, he's Dickens BUT BETTER.

This highly ridiculous, hugely fun novel is entirely based on the premise that everyone in it is called Allan Armadale. OK, I'm slightly exaggerating, but not much. There were two men called Allan Armadale who hated each other and swore an eternal feud, and then they both had sons, and they both got called Allan Armadale, and now they're meant to carry on the eternal feud - EXCEPT - they meet unexpectedly and become Best Friends. Are Allan and Allan fated to do ill to each other? Can their loyalty to Allans peres overcome their loyalty to each other? And what will happen when they both fall in love with the same (evil) lady?

Cue idiocy and fabulously manufactured mayhem. In a Wilkie Collins novel, six impossible things happen before breakfast in every single chapter, but he's so good at creating plot twists that you don't even notice how brain-achingly stupid all of them really are. Yes, all his heroic characters are sappy fools. Yes, his villainous characters are so evil that they might as well come with fangs and a pointy tail attached. But his stories are AWESOME.

As a side-note, Armadale gave me additional joy when I realised that wicked quack make-up artist Mrs Oldershaw is a fantastic caricature of real-life quack make-up artist Madame Rachel, subject of a biography I read last year. I love it when books connect. Anyway, Armadale was daft but great, a rollicking souped-up sensational yarn where everyone runs about crying and screaming and having prophetic visions. My favourite.

4 stars.

Size 12 Is Not Fat by Meg Cabot

I cherish a deep and abiding love for the romance novels of Meg Cabot. Their protagonists are delightfully sweet, if very dim (I can't tell if Cabot does this ironically or not. I have the bad feeling that she does not, but I am not going to pry into it in case I confirm my suspicions), and they all fall in love with lawyer prince vineyard owners and live happily ever after. I cannot even tell you how many times I have read the Queen of Babble trilogy (hint: many). They are so soothing and lovely, like mental ice-cream, and sometimes we all just need some mental ice-cream in our reading. So me going on holiday last week was the perfect excuse to buy one of the Meg Cabots I hadn't already read, the first in her series of gentle-murder-mysteries-that-are-secretly-romance-novels.

Heather Wells is a washed-up teenybop sensation (with weight issues) who's been forced to take a job as deputy building manager for a New York University hall of residence. When a girl falls to her death down one of the elevator shafts, Heather is the only one who suspects that it might not actually be an accident. Can she find the murderer?

Can she heck. Heather does eventually solve the murder (it's pretty easy), but throughout the book she is waaay more interested in getting into the pants of her preternaturally attractive and super-rich (of course) private detective roommate Cooper. Sure, this is a romance-thinly-disguised-as-a-murder-mystery, but REALLY I think that someone investigating a murder would not spend 95% of her waking life wondering whether or not a boy liiiiikes her. Jeeze, Heather. He likes you. Now go work out who is pushing girls down lift shafts.

I think that maybe pairing a romance with a murder mystery is a less good idea than it seemed a first. I like Meg Cabot romance novels. I like murder mysteries. And yet I sensed many flaws in this particular marriage of the two genres.

2.5 stars.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

I reviewed Belinda Bauer's latest crime novel, Rubbernecker, for Litro last week and LOVED it. If I had been handing out stars, it would have been a 4.5 grading to 5. So obviously I had to buy her first book to make sure she was that good all the way through.

And she is. Blacklands is the story of 11-year-old Stephen Lamb, whose uncle Billy was the victim of a high-profile white-van paedophile called Arnold Avery. Billy never came home, and never grew up, and his loss (his body has never been recovered, although Avery has admitted to his abduction) has devastated the lives of Stephen's mum and grandma. Neither of them have time for Stephen, and so Stephen hits on a plan to bring the family back together - he's going to go out on Exmoor and find Uncle Billy's body. When his search does not seem to be coming up with the hoped-for results, he tries a new tactic: contacting Avery in prison to ask where Billy can be found. But it turns out that Avery is more interested in Stephen himself...

This is an incredibly terrifying and ballsy premise, and it gets even more shocking from there. About a third of the book is written from Avery's perspective, a man who's Humbert Humbert crossed with one of Terry Pratchett's grinning psychopaths. Bauer writes a chillingly logical justification of his actions that feels disgustingly likely. He's a realistically evil character, just as Stephen (almost more impressively) is an absolutely realistic 11-year-old boy. It's rare to read a book not for children that bothers with getting its child characters right, but Bauer's really done it here. I loved Stephen and I was completely gripped and freaked out by his story. I think Belinda Bauer's my new crime writing hero.

4.5 stars.

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Last week, while I was reading this, I tried to explain it to my boyfriend by saying, "I'm reading a book about a serial killer."

"You're always reading a book about a serial killer," he replied, at which point I realised that he was completely right and felt terrible about it. The only vague justification of my reading habits I can give is that they're not all this gruesomely harrowing. I actually, er, prefer the funny ones. Or is that a worse admission?

Anyway, Kevin is all about a truly horrible high-school shooting. It's written from the perspective of the mother of the perpetrator, as she tries to come to terms with what her son has done and her own culpability for his actions. A lot of it is startlingly, unpleasantly realistic, and Shriver has done an excellent (maybe too excellent) job of bringing Eva's fear and distress and guilt to life. Likewise, Eva's marriage to the dopey but well-meaning Franklin is similarly well imagined - Shriver is a really good and very meticulous writer.

What I honestly just could not buy, though, was Kevin himself. We're meant to understand Eva as a flawed narrator, but even so I just could not believe for a second that even a version of her slit-eyed snakelike Son of Satan could ever possibly exist. In her mind, he literally is Rosemary's baby but without the little horns and cloven hooves. The rest of Shriver's world is so banal, so full of things that are just OK (and only if you squint) that Kevin the Evil Genius doesn't seem to fit into it.

I read about - and write about - murder because I don't understand why anyone could commit atrocities, and I think Shriver's asking the same questions here. I don't really agree with her answers, and I think that's because what interests (and terrifies me) is the idea of sliding scale between not-killer and killer, the connections between a good, moral, kind person and someone who eats babies. Yes, Shriver does try to show similarities between Eva and her son, but Kevin's so soaked through with cartoon villain evil that it doesn't really work.

That's not to say I wasn't heavily upset by Kevin. It's a harrowing read, and one that I don't want to go through again. If you want to attempt it yourself, make sure you have someone on hand to give you a hug at the end of each chapter.

3.5 stars.


  1. That's so interesting... until I heard other people talk about the book, I'd assumed we were supposed to believe Eva. I totally believed Kevin was an evil little fiend. I totally buy that some kids just pop out little satans (kids...humans). I have a dour view of human nature, evidently (but perhaps a trusting one towards narrators...)

    1. I always have to remind myself not to trust narrators! I'm too naturally credulous.

      I don't know - maybe you're right, but Kevin is just so *negative*. Even as a kid he just slumps about evilly. Maybe I like my villains with more moustache-twirling...