Non-fiction

Dreams from My Father – Barack Obama – 5/10 (DNF-ish)

dreams from my father

I have nothing really to add to my “initial thoughts” on this one – the last third of the book also failed to grab me. While the visit to Kenya and all of his family history is interesting enough, it dragged somewhat. I finished it but didn’t pay much attention to the end.

I thought Audacity of Hope was much better.

Additional information
Copy borrowed from Westminster Library as an audiobook. 
Publisher: Orion Books, 336 pages (paperback)
Order Eleanor & Park from Amazon*,Waterstones or Foyles
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
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Current Affairs, YA fiction

Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell – 9/10

I am writing this review 10 months after reading the book, so bear with me if some of it is a big vague!
“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
E&P
Eleanor knows what it’s like to be the outsider. Big red hair is just the first of her problems. When Park shows her a moment of kindness on the school bus, she finds a soulmate. This is the story of two misfits just trying to get by in the world.
It’s no secret that I loved Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, and I also read Fangirl this year. Part of what I love about Rowell’s writing is the effortless humour – it’s real, unaffected. I found the main characters a little unrelateable to be honest – they were such misfits that it was quite tricky to identify with them. That said, they are very sympathetic and pleasant characters to spend time with, and certainly vivid creations of Rowell’s. The relationship between them is built up very gently and slowly, which really suited them – they are both a bit quiet and not wanting to upset any kind of status quo.
The side characters are in a sense more one-dimensional which is all they needed to be – Eleanor’s mother is a victim, her stepfather is abusive, Park’s father is a bit distant and doesn’t really understand his son… all of them provide the necessary conflict for our main characters. I found Eleanor’s mother quite frustrating in her inability to perceive the abuse going on around her, but perhaps (my knowledge of domestic abuse is thankfully non-existent!) this is actually an accurate portrayal of a typical abuse victim.
Rowell manages to touch on a lot of topics in her books – this one includes not only the travails of being a teenager, and a misfit one at that, but also domestic abuse, gender identification, poverty, family conflict, comics and music (particularly of the 80s). This was actually pretty dark (or certainly darker than I was expecting) and doesn’t have the fairytale ending you sort of expect of YA books these days. I think it was really interesting that Rowell chose to set the story before the internet and mobile phones. Whether that enables her to draw on her teenage years more easily, or whether it facilitates a certain set of conditions she wants to explore, I’m not sure.
The setting is unremarkable – it’s not crucial to the story, it’s just a town in the middle of somewhere. All school buses and classrooms are equally cruel.
Personally I thought Attachments was better in some ways, and definitely more approachable for an office-resident adult, but this is a bigger, wider-ranging, more serious work – and I’ve failed to convey just how good it is in this review!
Other reviews: Semicolon, Book’d Out
Additional information
Copy borrowed from Mini-Me, who read it the same week. 
Publisher: Orion Books, 336 pages (paperback)
Order Eleanor & Park from Amazon*,Waterstones or Foyles
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Historical Fiction, Non-fiction, Review copies

Mini-reviews: Strings Attached and Bellman & Black

strings attached

Strings Attached – Joanne Lipman & Melanie Kupchynsky – 6/10

“Mr K had achieved the impossible: he had made us better than we had any right to be.”

A memoir after a fashion – Joanne and Melanie learnt violin from Melanie’s father, the fabled Mr. K. Famous as an incredibly tough but motivational teacher in their New Jersey school district. The writers alternate chapters, and it’s also partly a family memoir for Melanie, writing about her invalid mother and missing sister.

Coming from a half-musical, half-education background, I found a lot of the material about Mr K’s enthusiasm and teaching styles and musical tuition really interesting. I was less interested in the stories of growing up and school awkwardness and actually the storyline of Melanie’s missing sister (a heartbreaking story and I know why it was included, but it felt like an incongruous addition).

bellman and black

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield – 7/10

Another e-book that spent a year unreviewed. See a theme here? Also I should start with a note – I am not a fan of supernatural storylines. And I did really enjoy another of Setterfield’s novels, The Thirteenth Tale, though there was a strong homage tone there.

William Bellman kills a rook with a catapult at the age of 11, and for years it seems to bring him good luck. Slowly his wonderful life is eroded and he spends more and more of his time at funerals, where he always sees a ghostly stranger. The stranger has a business proposition for him…

This reminded me very much of another book, and I cannot think which one it is (I think it’s a Philippa Gregory one?), in which the women are very conscious of the circle of fortune – sometimes a family is at the top, and sometimes at the bottom.

Really well written, though like Life After Life, could have done with some of the chapters having been cut down. I wasn’t a fan of the supernatural aspect and in fact found the non-resolution of it quite frustrating. But, it didn’t bother me as much as it might have.

Audiobooks, Current Affairs, Non-fiction

Mini-reviews: Audacity of Hope and Life After Life

audacity of hope

The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama – 7/10

I listened to this back at the start of 2013. From what I can remember:

a good quote

– a decent primer on American politics and how it works

– a reading voice (the author) I would happily listen to for hours

– a distinctly non-pompous, “everyman” tone

– surprising honesty about personality types (introversion/extraversion) and the difficulties of sharing childcare responsibilities

I’d definitely recommend it. I’m now reading Dreams from my Father.

life after life

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson – 7/10

Ursula is stillborn. Ursula is born again and dies falling from a high window. Ursula is born again and finds her way into an abusive relationship. Every time, Ursula dies and is reborn, given a slightly different chance in life.

This is one of those books I would rather have read in print rather than as an ebook. I didn’t have a sense of the progression of the story because I didn’t have a sense of the physical progression through the book.

I loved When Will There Be Good News, the only other Kate Atkinson I’ve read. Life After Life is very well written, though some of the storylines were distinctly less enthralling than others (could have done with a stronger edit). Some of them were very interesting and unexpected. Good characters, interesting to see the progression through time of fashions and places… Go read it.

Current Affairs, Review copies

Old mini-reviews

Some of my reviews have been outstanding since 2012, to the point where I can’t remember very much about the books any more. So it’s time to jot down some thoughts and move on.

Also – 3 of these were NetGalley copies i.e. on the Kindle – which is how they got forgotten about for so long (and the other one I had in paperback but lent it to a friend and haven’t got it back… though I don’t really want it back). So the moral of the story is here, my friends, out of sight, out of the review chain.

little night

Little Night – Luanne Rice – 5/10

I don’t remember very much about this one at all except that it centred on domestic violence. Now that I’ve read the internet a bit to remind myself, it was more complex than that. It’s a web of family dysfunction – very pronounced characters struggling to play nicely together. It’s very New York, but apart from that nothing really stands out. Next.

last apache girl

The Last Apache Girl – Jim Fergus – 5/10

An amateur photographer signs onto the “Great Apache Expedition”, one of dozens of men hoping to free the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher kidnapped by a violent band of Apaches. A wild Apache girl is being held as counter-argument, and Ned slowly builds a relationship with her, but their relationship is doomed from the start.

Somewhat like Dances with Wolves. I don’t remember struggling to get through it, but if you’re going to read something like this, I’d stick with Dances with Wolves.

house of serenades

The House of Serenades – Lina Simoni – 6/10

Historical romance/social study set in 1910 Genoa. Romeo & Juliet after a fashion – rich girl meets poor boy, falls in love, daddy says no. Has some interesting things to say about treatment of women in that age – particularly women who we would expect to be financially independent. Don’t remember a lot about it but I did zoom through it pretty quickly – that’s always a good sign.

world without you

The World Without You – Joshua Henkin – 8/10

I actually remember really enjoying this one – it’s sentimental and tear-jerking, but in a good way. It’s the story of the family left behind when a US journalist dies in Middle Eastern conflict; how his wife struggles to interact appropriately with his grieving parents – she wants to be part of this family and give them access to their grandson, but also wants to move on. The parents are struggling in marriage and in grief. The three siblings are each fighting their own demons – including one who has embraced Orthodox Judaism and feels excluded from her family as a result. Would definitely recommend (but keep the Kleenex handy).

Current Affairs, Thoughts and other Miscellany

The Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett – 8/10

“There was a weight to missing. It was as heavy as a child.”

Patron Saint

Rose never stays anywhere for long. First she marries suddenly, then she spends days and weeks driving around California, then she runs away to Kentucky. She settles and brings up her child in the strange surrounds of nuns and pregnant girls at a home for unwed mothers.

Rose is a surprisingly unsympathetic character with a lack of motive for being so – it’s never really explained. Nevertheless, her reluctance to invest emotionally in other people makes for an interesting counterpoint to the warmth of the characters around her, especially Son, who is so caring and gentle. She constantly pushes everybody else away, and Cecilia is the only one we see really examine that.

I guess there’s a recurring theme here of religion and vocation – Rose marries her first husband feeling that it’s her vocation, then that she must have been wrong. She stays at St Elizabeth’s for years, cooking three meals a day for twenty years – clearly she feels some kind of vocation to be there. The assorted religious attitudes of the nuns at the home, of the girls in their varying states of faith… it wasn’t until I finished the book that it hit me that this was a theme. It didn’t really seem to go anywhere though – just a thread through every character.

There’s no denying Patchett writes beautifully. I read this 400 page novel in a day with no trouble at all. While I never felt totally sucked into the plot, the writing is smooth enough that you just keep turning the pages without noticing. I liked the way this book moved from one narrative point to the next about every hundred pages – from an initial third person narrator in Habit, to Rose to Son to Cecilia. It dealt with the passage of time neatly and gave us the chance to move through different characters without having that irritating back-and-forth that plagues the modern crime novel.

The setting (and I’ll ignore anything that’s not Habit, Kentucky, because that’s where 90% of the book is set) is evocatively enough written without ever becoming a character of its own. The huge hotel could easily have become a character of its own (as the house does in The Thirteenth Tale), and we feel Cecilia’s frustration through the long, hot summers, the pitchers of iced tea, the swimming hole, without ever really having a strong sense of place.

This lost 2 points out of 10 from me – one for the fact that it was good but didn’t reach out of the page and grab you by the throat (the way that Bel Canto did) and one for the ending. I won’t say much for fear of spoilers, but a deeply difficult and uncomfortable situation is engineered, without any kind of resolution. After 380 pages of stunning writing, this was so dissatisfying I didn’t know whether to think the book was 20 pages too long (i.e. it should have ended before the twist) or 40 pages too short (the twist was unresolved – particularly with Cecilia having stumbled onto a big clue shortly before the end).

One other thing – I’ve never heard of Mariner Books, the publisher, before… just looked them up and it seems to be an imprint of Houghton Miffler Harcourt. But worth a mention, because this was a really beautiful edition, considering it was just a standard paperback; there was something about the softness of the cover, the type of paper used for the pages… I don’t know what it was. It was nice not to have to break the spine to lay it flat on the table while I ate my slow cooker beef stroganoff (yum).

Additional info

Bought at McNally Jackson Books in downtown Manhattan on a recent trip to New York.
Publisher: Mariner Books, 392 pages (paperback)
Order The Patron Saint of Liars from Amazon* or Waterstones
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Current Affairs

Mini-reviews

Some mini reviews because I want to get caught up before the new year.

hector-and-the-search-for-happiness

Hector and the Search for Happiness – Francois Lelord – 4/10

Read this on the plane to and from Germany on a rare weekend away from the Bedfordshire portacabin. I kept waiting for it to be transcendent… and it never was. I get that we are suppose to learn the simple lessons of happiness that Hector encounters, but it felt childishly written – and not in a good way like The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden. Next.

kitchen god's wife

The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan – 6/10

This was the very first book I read in 2014, and it has taken me until December 2014 to review it. In the meantime I have read a different book by Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and now cannot tell them apart in my mind. I do remember that The Kitchen God’s Wife felt smoother, a better constructed story (though, like TBD, the framing was a little awkward), and that I did read it all the way to the end fairly quickly. Reading some other plot summaries, more of it is coming back to me, but the fact that so little of it, except for the fractious daughter-mother-aunt relationship, seems familiar to me is not a positive sign.