Wednesday 21 January 2015

The Children Act - Ian McEwan

Review by M

On the whole, I consider myself an Ian McEwan fan and am readily willing to give his novels a go with the expectation that I will become ensconced in them. The Children Act was no exception to this.

A short novel, The Children Act is about a high court judge working in family law. Ironically, we meet her just as her husband has an affair. While she struggles with this internally she must, or chooses, to simply carry on with her legal workload as if nothing has happened. The reader is given some lengthy insight into her cases, many of which revolve around child custody and dilemmas over interpreting what is best for the child in line with the actual, legal Children Act. The bulk of the story really focuses on an interesting case of a seventeen year old Jehovah's Witness who is resisting a blood transfusion.  This element of the novel held my interest and attention for hours and is the element that I remember most (I read it a few months back), and I would recommend the novel to other readers simply for this aspect. The final section of the novel was a disappointment. It felt rushed, and much of it seemed improbable to me.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. McEwan's writing is smooth and makes for a quick and compelling read. I may have read it in close to one go.

Publication details: 2014, Jonathan Cape, London
This copy: digital review copy from the publisher

Monday 19 January 2015

This Should Be Written In the Present Tense - Helle Helle

Review by M

Hands up - of course I was going to read a novel by an author called Helle Helle. And I was also predisposed to expecting it to be a little different from everything else I was currently reading, and not least because it's been translated from Danish.

The story is about Dorte who has just moved in to a little house near a railway station not too far from Copenhagen where she is at university. From the first few pages, the tone is cosily friendly but boom, it throws a few jaggedy bits in and the reader is left questioning exactly what has or has not happened, or even is happening, and lots of whats and whys steer the novel. This is not sci-fi or fantasy, but much more about inner psychologies.

This short novel follows the everyday details of Dorte's unexciting life and I found it strangely compelling - perhaps because her life seemed so at odds with everything I expected she would do. Personally, I'm not sure if this is because of the writing or because of differences between continental Europe and Britain. My engagement with this novel was similar to my responses to some quietly gritty/raw French cinema.

This Should Be Written In the Present Tense definitely lived up to my expectations; it's a quiet and strangely surprising novel that mostly made me smile.

Publication details: Harvill Secker, 2014, London
This copy: digital review copy from the publisher

Catalyst - S.J.Kincaid

Review by Little M

Catalyst is the third and final novel in S.J.Kincaid’s Insignia trilogy. Starring Tom Raines as the main character, in his last year training for the Intrasolar Forces, Tom is on a mission to stay out of trouble and save the world at the same time. However, staying out of trouble seems to be proving difficult. With his friends Vik, Wyatt, Yuri and his plebs he discovers horrific schemes involving the Spire (training centre) and the globe.
Many third novels in trilogies seem to be a disappointment for many, some leave questions unanswered and others, theories unexplained. Contradicting this is Catalyst. Kincaid ties up the story with no loose ends and unanswered questions. For some it could be disappointing but personally I thought it was ended beautifully. It left the reader able to imagine how the society will continue with a little guidance.
Over all three novels Tom Raines has progressed as a character. Firstly he has grown up, although he still possesses the troublemaker traits; he has grown from being a boy, not fully understanding his potential, to a young man who is capable of most unimaginable things such as “break through the impossible”.
This has been one of my favourite series I have read and I fully recommend it to most teens and some adults too. However, it does contain many “teenage” events or thoughts so may not suit adults. It is most definitely suitable for both boys and girls so neither should be put off by any aspect.

Publication Details: Hot Key Books, London, published in the UK in 2014 (US 2014).

This copy: Paperback copy received for review from Hot Key Books.

The Dog - Joseph O'Neill

Review by M

The Dog was longlisted for the Man Booker 2014.

I never thought I'd ever sympathise with a Dubai-based westerner, but The Dog proved me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would especially recommend it to anyone who's ever/never worked/lived in or visited Dubai or who wrestles with moral dilemmas and ethics. Anyone who likes ink stamps or letter seals may well enjoy this too.

The narrator and main character is an American lawyer wallowing in the aftermath of a newly broken romantic relationship and has taken a very cushy looking job as a lawyer to a super-duper rich Lebanese family based in Dubai. The plot follows his related trials and tribulations, with some very drawn out internal debates (some readers may find these sections tedious but I quite enjoyed reading them).

Threaded through this plot are a series of interconnected master and servant relationships, as our naive narrator comes to realise. The realisation about the extended metaphor of the dog - for me (and perhaps for the narrator too) - was at times funny (sometimes very) but over-ridingly sad. Oh, what a loveable but frustrating character O'Neill has created.

The direction of the plot is slightly predictable, which adds to the sense of frustration, although the ending was not what I expected - though very plausible.

A review in The Guardian suggested that The Dog is too similar in many ways to O'Neill's earlier novel Neverland. I haven't read Neverland but I enjoyed The Dog so much, I'm happy to search out some more-of-the-same or even better in his other work.

Publication details: Fourth Estate, 2014, London
This copy: digital copy for review from the publisher

Sunday 18 January 2015

The Guest Cat - Takashi Hiraide

Review by M

A few years back, I thought I didn't like reading detailed descriptions in fiction. On the whole, I probably still don't, but sometimes.......The Guest Cat is one of those times. It's a little book and almost all of it is concentrated on minutiae that make for something far bigger than is immediately anticipated; poignantly uplifting.

Set in Tokyo, a writerly couple of thirty somethings live in a rented cottage just off what they call Lightning Alley: the descriptions of their residence and the light are something to marvel at in themselves. A stray cat wanders in from the alley and becomes something of a guest in the couple's quiet and thoughtful lives.

The Guest Cat is a little book about the surprising and growing intensity of unlikely attachments. It is immediately and quietly alluring, moving at a slow outward pace which defies the rate of thought and change of mind that besets the protagonist.

Originally published in Japanese, The Guest Cat won the Kiyama Shohei Literary Award. This English edition was translated by Eric Selland.

Publication details: Picador, 2014, London, paperback
This copy: for review from the publisher

Books read in 2014

Books Read in 2014 - by Little M

1. Crown of Midnight - Sarah J Maas (finished 2 Jan 2014)
2. Blood Family - Anne Fine (finished Feb 2014)
3. All the Truth That's in Me - Julie Berry (finished March 2014)
4. Hostage Three - Nick Lake (finished March 2014)
5. The Bunker Diary - Kevin Brooks (finished March 2014)
6. Allegiant - Veronica Roth
7. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak (finished 3 May 2014)
8. The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion (finished 8 May 2014)
9. We Were Liars - E Lockhart (finished 17 May 2014)
10. Rooftoppers - Katherine Rundell (finished 29 May 2014)

Little M has started her own, separate book blog called Manchee & Bones. She'll be listing there from now on!

Books read in 2014 - by M
1. A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini (finished 8 Jan 2014)
2. Bird - Crystal Chan (finished 26 Jan 2014)
3. Hostage Three - Nick Lake (finished 4 Feb 2014)
4. Alex As Well - Alyssa Brugman (finished 19 Feb 2o14)
5. The Bunker Diary - Kevin Brooks (finished 6 March 2014)
6. The Wall - William Sutcliffe (finished 7 March 2014)
7. Kindred - Octavia E Butler (finished March 2014)
8. Close to the Wind - Jon Walter (finished 3 April 2014)
9. Bone Jack - Sara Crowe (finished 5 April 2014)
10. The Year of the Rat - Clare Furniss (finished 15 April 2014)
11. Jamaica Inn - Daphne du Maurier (finished 21 April 2014)
12. The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri (finished 9 May 2014)
13. The Vacationers - Emma Straub (finished 13 May 2014)
14. We Were Liars - E Lockhart (finished 14 May 2014)
15. Em and the Big Hoom - Jerry Pinto (finished 16 May 2014)
16. The Book of Unknown Americans - Cristina Henriquez (finished 18 May 2014)
17. Flambards - KM Peyton (finished 20 May 2014)
18. The Edge of the Cloud - KM Peyton (finished 21 May 2014)
19. Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys (reread; finished 31 May 2014)
20. Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel (finished 14 June 2014)
21. J - Howard Jacobson (finished 28 August 2014)
22. The Dog - Joseph O'Neill (finished 7 September 2014)
23. Dear Committee Members - Julie Schumacher (finished 12 September 2014)
24. This Should Have Been Written in the Present Tense - Helle Helle (finished 15 September 2014)
25. The Children act - Ian McEwan (finished 16 September 2014)
26. The Guest Cat - Takashi Hiraide (December 2014)

Ha! This list will be very telling when it's looked back on in years to come. Just another page in my diary.......

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

Review by M

Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2014; winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Some novels resonate closely with me for various reasons, and this novel is one of them. As a whole, it engulfed me. Despite some annoying elements, I loved it and won’t be surprised if it stays for a very long time on my ‘list of ‘favourite’ novels.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel about family relationships (and their difficulties), but it specifically explores questions about our humanity, our being, and ethical choices. The way it does this is directly via the plot (which I think is unusual and refreshing) but I’m not saying much more on this because of spoilers. 

Told in the first person by Pearl, she starts her story in the middle when she is making her way through university. She speaks directly to her readership as she takes them back and forth as she finds the courage to tell the beginning and some of the end of what happened to the brother and sister who left her family when she was just a young girl.

Fowler likes to keep her reader guessing but thankfully it is not too long before she introduces the big twist which puts the plot onto a level that goes beyond the everyday of ‘ordinary’ family lives. I’d suggest steering clear of reviews on this novel if you want to savour the impact of the twist when you read the novel. It really put me completely beside myself.

This is a wrenching and thoughtful read, delivered mostly with a light tone that works surprising well (given the subject matter). The annoying elements, for me, were: the character of Harlow (I could have done without her though I see how she makes Pearl think about her own ‘essential’ being); a bit too much tension; and I’d have preferred some of Pearl’s research to have been included as an appendix.

I suspect fans of Margaret Atwood (especially perhaps Cat’s Eye), Ann Patchett and Maggie O’Farrell will thoroughly enjoy this novel. Highly, highly recommended and definitely one to be discussed - but not online for fear of spoilers.

Publication details: 2014, Serpent’s Tale, London, paperback

This edition: gift from Little M