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
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, 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.

 

Comfort Reading, Review copies

Lizzy and Jane – Katherine Reay – 6/10

“The cake and I faced each other – the last two elements of a discarded celebration. I covered it, shoved it into a corner, and started to wipe down the counters.”

lizzy and janeElizabeth is making it in New York as a chef, but something’s not quite right and she can see the writing on the wall of her restaurant. She decides to fly home for the first time in 15 years to visit her widowed father and her sister, who’s struggling with cancer. Can Elizabeth cook the family back into happiness, and will prickly Jane let down her defences enough for Elizabeth to help?

This reminded me so much of The Love Verb, that it’s not funny. Also a little bit of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (although really the only connection there is the friend as impatient patient). The writing isn’t very demanding, but pleasant enough; it tugs on the heartstrings every now and again and there is the occasional plot twist, but much of it predictable and comforting. Like hot chocolate. What I did particularly like about this is that while it looks like it’s going to be an Austen retelling, it actually wasn’t; in fact, even though the two main characters are named for Austen’s most famous sisters, neither of them is (I thought) particularly like Austen’s Bennet girls. They are much more alike, both hot-tempered, proud and indignant, but capable of great compassion.

Instead, the Austen reference is about the experience of having read Austen – what the reader learns from Pride & PrejudiceSense & Sensibility and Persuasion (and I was glad to see some references in there to Persuasion which I think is a vastly underrated Austen novel!).

The New York setting doesn’t feel that strong – but we don’t spend very long in New York. Seattle felt very small-town – they seem to walk nearly everywhere or take very short car rides – is it really that small? That said, culturally it was a pleasant and consistent depiction of a relaxed way of life contrasting with New York’s hecticism (I may have just made up that word).

One niggle (and it’s possible that this is fixed in the print version, but it wasn’t in my eGalley): in The Love Verb and other cooking-related fiction (e.g. Meet Me At The Cupcake Cafe), the author included the recipes. I would really have liked the recipes to be included in the book so I could replicate some of them at home!

Enjoyable, light; it won’t stay with you long but it’s a very pleasant read while you’re at it.

Additional information

Copy through NetGalley from the publisher in exchange for an an honest review.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 220 pages (hardback)

Order Lizzy and Jane from Amazon*
* 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

Review copies, Thriller

A Dangerous Fiction – Barbara Rogan – 7/10

“In the well-ordered world of fiction, murder and mayhem never arrive unheralded. For as long as men have told tales, disaster has been foreshadowed by omens and signs. But if there were portents the day my troubles began, I never saw them.”

dangerous fiction

Successfully running a publishing firm, Jo Donovan’s life seems to be coming together again after the shock of the death of her husband. When a would-be client starts stalking her, she starts to see ominous shadows everywhere. Then someone close to her dies in suspicious circumstances, and Jo herself becomes a suspect.

It’s been a few months since I read this one so I’m struggling to remember all the details, but it was very enjoyable. For a start, I didn’t figure out who the baddie was at all – massive surprise at the end. And the way that Jo’s security was taken away, step by step, was quite… not chilling, but obviously devastating for Jo.

The cast size is just about right. Rogan develops 5-6 characters enough that they could all be suspects and that Jo has thorough interactions with them, without any of them feeling like they take over the story. There are some cute bit-part characters too. I loved the ex-Marine with the guard dog.

It’s all set in New York and is very New York, though not as totally New York as a couple of other books I read later in the year (particularly Let The Great World Spin and My Salinger Year).

Definitely worth a read – it’s a quick thriller, but with a fun literary setting and pretty well done.

Additional information:

Copy kindly provided some months ago by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Penguin, 324 pages
Order A Dangerous Fiction: A Mystery from Amazon*
* 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