Friday, May 30, 2008

Sally – Freya North

I got this out of the library because I’d really enjoyed her latest book, Pillow Talk. This was her first. Always interesting to see where a writer’s come from.

To start with, I have to say, it was disappointing. The two main characters, Sally and Richard, are in the middle of sex when the book starts, and for the first half of the book, they don’t seem to do much else. And of course it’s all absolutely fantastic. Yeah, right. Then he tells her he loves her and she goes mental, so they both run off and have (bad) sex with other people. What on earth is that about?

The main characters aren’t terribly sympathetic, at least not to start with: the man is a total poser, and the woman seems to want to reinvent herself as a complete bitch. I have no idea why. He is an architect (like the main character in Home – is that cliché?), she is a primary school teacher (albeit that her school sounds in many respects more like a secondary school). That’s probably a cliché too, I’ll have to watch out for that one. Still, at least we get to see their work.

I think the thing I liked least in this book was a conversation where a friend of the main character confesses that she has stopped taking her contraceptive pills and is concealing the fact from her husband – she knows he doesn’t want to have children yet but feels she is ready. And the female character sees this as “wisdom”!

But half way through, maybe three-quarters, somehow, the book picks up. Once the two main characters fall apart and are wondering whether to get back together again, the story starts to work. We start to get deeper into the characters and see them more sympathetically. As with Pillow Talk, the characters’ main problems don’t stem from stupid misunderstandings but from bigger issues – attitutes and expectations. I guess Sally’s biggest problem is she needs to grow up and stop being a stupid cow. Fortunately, she does.

I guess at a high level, the story works. The characters’ relationship starts off as a “fling”. As the relationship gets deeper, so do the characters; and Sally at least has a lot of thinking to do when things start to get serious. It’s interesting to read about commitment phobia in a woman – all credit to the author for reversing what’s normally seen as a male trait.

Overall I’d have to say this is not a patch on Pillow Book, but the books are not without similarities, and I haven’t been put off reading another Freya North.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Long Way Down – Nick Hornby

The setup and premise for this book are fantastic. Four people meet on top of a tower block on new years’ eve. They have nothing in common, but they are all there for the same reason: to throw themselves off the top. Very black, of course, but very funny. Very much my sense of humour, and very much my kind of story. Most of the story is about the same four characters, although they move from one situation to another. Bit like The Breakfast Club for Goths?

The characters take it in turns to narrate, which is interesting. Each has a different voice, which comes across in the way they talk; it’s not overdone, but they are each noticeably different which is good. The characters are each real and believable, and all flawed (some more than others, but isn’t that right?) which I like. Occasionally one of the characters at least talks to the reader, which is an amusing touch, but then that character is a bit loopy anyway.

The story feels believable too; it’s funny, but it’s not fantasy. It doesn’t have a tidy Hollywood ending, where somehow everything that brought them to this point is resolved. Instead, they have to learn to carry on living the lives they have. This is for me more positive: this is life.

There’s a great quote where one of the characters mentions an interview he read with someone who survived throwing himself off the Golden Gate Bridge. He said that two seconds after he jumped, he realized that he didn’t have any problems in life that he couldn’t do something about – other than the one he’d just given himself by throwing himself off the bridge.

The lack of a Hollywood ending is ironic since the story I most associate with Nick Hornby has the most unbelievable Hollywood ending ever. Yes, it was non-fiction – I’m thinking of Fever Pitch, of course – but winning the title on the last day of the season by winning 2-0 at Anfield? And with a late late goal from an unlikely source? Come on. That's every sports movie cliché ever! If the lack of a conclusive ending is typical of the author, it’s rather amusing, perhaps ironic. But then, fiction is under the obligation of being believable – real life is under no such obligation.

And did I enjoy it? Yes, I suppose I did. Given the great premise, I didn’t find it disappointing.


Monday, May 12, 2008

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemmingway

Ok, this is a long short story rather than a novel, but it was a single (small) volume at the library. I’ve not read any Hemingway before, so I thought it would be interesting.

This is a great story. I think it’s really well known, and I can see why. I felt it started slowly, it doesn’t get going until the man goes to sea, but equally, I can see why the first bit is there.

And then you’re into the main story, and it’s a great story. It has that theme that I love and can really associate with of overcoming a stronger foe using wits and bloody-mindedness. Alongside that is the idea of the value of experience and age. It reminds me of various stories I’ve read about mountaineering, pitting ones wits, skill, and determination against a mountain, not to conquer it but to walk up and down it and live to tell the tale.

I guess it’s partly because it’s a story rather than a novel, but I also liked the pared-down nature of the heart of this story – one man, on his own.

At its heart, I think this story is about what it means to be a man – or at least, one perspective on that. This is probably as male as writing gets.


How To Be Good – Nick Hornby

A change from all that chic-lit. Nick Hornby has been described as the male equivalent – lad lit, or, better, dick lit. I got this from the library because it was the only one of his they had at the time; I was looking for High Fidelity or About a Boy (I love that film). Anyhow.

This story didn’t really work for me. It had some good bits in, particularly the bits about church, but it felt like having come up with a good idea, the author didn’t know where to take it. Which was a shame as I enjoyed reading most of it. The relationship between the main characters was oh too believable, as were the different reactions of the two children. And the constant theme “what does it mean to be good” – although fairly heavily laid on, raised some interesting questions. But without offering any answers, the overall effect felt rather negative and muddled.

On the positive side, I do think that reading this prompted me to be a bit nicer to my wonderful wife, so that’s not a bad thing. And this isn’t going to put me off reading some of his other books.


Friday, May 09, 2008

The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy – Fiona Neil

The book conjures up really well the experience of being a stay-at-home mum, which is a million miles from the idyll that those on the outside sometimes thing it is. I know, I’m married to one! And it pokes fun at a number of stereotypes that are familiar from the school gates in affluent areas: Alpha mum, the ultimate pushy parent (her male alter-ego runs the PTA at my son’s school); Smug Mother Of Girls, who looks down on parents whose sons aren’t well-behaved and self-contained like her daughters (my wife knew two or three of these, but they all had boys as their second children, after which one commented, “boys are different, aren’t they?”).

However there’s more to the book than just the experience of being a mum. The main character is struggling in her marriage (who wouldn’t, with three boys to look after) and tempted to start an affair. One of her best friends is simultaneously involved in an affair with a married father-of-four. While the story is fun and deliberately so, I thought it dealt with this subject very well. The reasons why each of the characters are drawn into adultery are quite believable, and the inevitable outcome is made very clear.

There’s also a very interesting thread in the story comparing the main character, who gave up a high-powered job to be a stay-at-home mum, with her mum, a proto-feminist who adamantly clung to her position in work. The book makes quite clear that there are no easy answers to this dilemma and that the outcome is always weighted against the woman. On the surface of it, this argument seems week, in that while women face an impossible choice between children and career, most men have that choice made for them; but I’ve done enough game theory to know that choice is not always a good thing. But I digress. On this subject, the book occasionally borders on the preachy, but it never gets heavy. On the positive side, I don’t feel the book comes across and anti-men in any way (something I’m quite sensitive to); a couple of the male characters actually come across quite positively, which I always like to see.

The main character is very well drawn. She’s quite useless and disorganized, but you can see why; it’s quite believable that she used to be brilliant in a different role, but as a mum, she’s a square peg in a round hole. However stupidly she behaves, I still manage to feel sympathetic towards her.

Ultimately the book descends into farce, which is always a good way to finish up :) And we get a happy ending which makes sense and does not feel deus-ex-machina. Okay, there’s one detail at the end that I didn’t believe (where the protagonist accidentally sits on phone and dials her husband who is therefore able to listen in to a crucial hour of the action – yes, that actually happened to a friend of mine, but that doesn’t make it believable). But that isn’t critical to the plot, it just helps round it off a bit.

So in summary, I enjoyed this book, which is a wonderful mix of social commentary, satire, and madcap humour. It feels real and yet still works as an enjoyable diversion. This is what books about parents should be like.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Pillow Talk - Freya North

I liked this book. From the beginning all the characters feel real and contemporary. I particularly liked Petra and her work colleagues. I like the fact that we see both Petra and Arlo at work, and that we can see they’re good at their jobs. I liked the fact that it’s not generally misunderstanding that keeps them apart, but feelings and past experience. I liked that all the characters are believable and none of them are simply bad – even Miranda the teacher is quite sympathetic, and although she behaves badly, we understand why.

I liked the fact that the plot is not a simple story of them getting together, but has other elements driving the characters: Petra getting to grips with her work and Mrs. McNeill’s legacy; Arlo learning to forgive himself. The story has more twists and turns than the classic model of the characters meeting, falling apart and coming together at the end.

I don’t like that it shares the modern sexual morality that any kind of romantic relationship between adults must involve sex. However, I do like the fact that most of the sexual relationships depicted in the piece (Arlo and Miranda, Rob and Petra, Petra’s parents with other people) are shown to be quite distructive.

There are a couple of coincidences in the book which feel a bit artificial. Petra getting on so well and so quickly with Jenn, and in particular, Arlo’s ex-bandmate happening to have Petra’s old parental home on the market. However none of these are central to the plot so they’re forgiveable.

I like that neither find in each other a miracle-cure either for past traumas or for their differing sleep problems. They have to continue to live with these problems, but at least they can help each other through them. For me, that’s far more realistic and romantic than a magical resolution. It comes from the fact that both of the characters are properly three-dimensional: both have other things – perhaps even more important things – in their lives than just finding a partner.

I like the way one or two characters move in or out of the novel; Rob disappears, Jenn appears. Again, like in real life, where the cast isn’t so tight that people can’t move in and out.

It felt to me reading it like the author actually knew about and was passionate about what she was writing about: London, North Yorkshire, Jewellery; perhaps also music and teaching.

And it’s also kind of encouraging for me that this novel contains major plot elements that are very similar to those in two of my NaNo novels (The Stranger, Home). They’re obviously not dumb ideas – although I have to hope they don’t become clichés!


The Trouble with Marriage – Debbie Holt

I found this book disappointing – it didn’t help that the last two books I’d read were the brilliant Addition and Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Why was it disappointing? I felt it lacked humour and – probably critically – it didn’t really speak to me about real life. I struggled to believe the central relationship, and there were a lot of characters I didn’t quite “get” – some who felt a little 2D. It didn’t help that most of the plot twists felt overly telegraphed. (The exception – the pregnancy – gave me a real smile).

I actually found it quite depressing, it made me feel quite insecure about my own family relationships. It probably wasn’t intended to provide a serious commentary on what it means to be a man or a woman, but I didn’t think it was terribly positive on either point, particularly regarding men. I’m a bit sensitive about that, being a man myself.

Its handling of domestic abuse was perhaps the most real part of the story – with sympathy for the guy as well as unconditional condemnation, but it was still simplistically resolved – he kills himself. What does this say? That sad though it is, the only remedy is execution?

The book’s reflection on the way divorce affects children was also fairly realistic – the page where the teacher asks the children what they could have if they had one wish was probably the best in the book. Several of them say they want their dads to come home, and cry; whereupon the heroine starts crying too and says she wants her husband back.

I also didn’t like the “country life” idyll of the setting, nor the main character’s attitude to her work. I’ll never have much sympathy for a character who says “I just can’t do maths” – at least not if she’s working as a learning support assistant. And I didn’t like the book’s attitude to mental illness – it’s merely used as a plot device for explaining a character’s unpleasant behaviour, with no indication that anyone can actually live with mental illness and strive to be a complete human being.

Yes, it had a happy ending, but I found that unsatisfying too – they don’t really work out their troubles, just each realizes the other doesn’t wants the marriage to end. In a sense, it falls into its own trap – the characters just live happily ever after again, although there is some hints of growth on Tilly’s part (more independence) and perhaps on Robin’s (he accepts she was right and he was wrong on a business matter). And it always winds me up when a large part of the plot of a book resolves around a simple misunderstanding and the two MCs being too stupid and stubborn to talk to one another. I suppose at least this makes the valid point that it’s good to talk. But come on – there can’t be two characters in the world more stubborn than me and my wife, and we can still talk to each other. It’s what happens when you do talk that’s the problem!

Ultimately I’m being unfair on this book, trying as I am to judge it on how it reflects the human condition. That reflects what I wanted it to be; it’s only trying to be one-level-up-from-M&B level fluff, and in that regard I can’t really comment on it.

The other thing that really affected me in this was it made me wonder to what extent Home shows a lot of the same faults. Actually, that’s not bad, if I’m depressed that my book might not be head-and-shoulders better than a fairly well-selling published novel! But I won't go into the details here.