loulamac’s #CBRV review #62: Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

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It’s the 1960s, and we meet our narrator (an unnamed little girl who seems to be about five) and her big sister Bea’s as they travel across Europe to Morocco in a camper van. The adult reader can infer that their mother is looking for adventure, enlightenment or just an escape from the norm, but we never find out the reason for their journey, or what the ‘norm’ back in London was. They set up temporary home in places as varied as a cheap hotel, an abandoned cinema in a friend’s garden, and a Sufi retreat; and along the way we’re introduced to an array of characters in the towns and villages of Morocco. All of this is shown to us through the filter of the child narrator, with no interpretation or explanation. Much is missing from the story, and so as an adult you find yourself inferring how old she is, who is periodically sending money from England, which of the men the mother is sleeping with, and how long things will hang together for.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet Esther Freud, and she said that when she was writing Hideous Kinky she kept the children’s uncertainty and anxiety in the forefront of her mind. So beneath the surface of the absurd and comic episodes such as the light-fingered prostitutes who share their hotel home stealing a friend’s nappies, or the girls’ realisation that they can never eradicate the ticks infesting the sheep dogs they befriend, there is a continual feeling of bewilderment and home-sickness. The girls are neither neglected nor unloved, but their mother’s flakiness is impacting on their lives and experiences.

This is a short and sweet book. Because it takes a day to read, and is full of comedic and wry moments, it would be easy to dismiss it as just sort and sweet. But in her presentation of the bad decisions adults make and the way they can affect their children, Freud makes this autobiographical novel much more than that.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #61: Meet Me Under the Westway by Stephen Thompson

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Some books come into your life, and within a paragraph or two you know you will never be the same again. You want to rush to the end to find out what happens, but at the same time you can’t bear the thought of these characters being gone. Meet Me Under the Westway is not one of those books. I rattled through it as quickly as possible, and every page had me shouting at my husband about how bad it was.

Jem is a wannabe playwright living in west London (it is pointed out to us, in a tiresome fashion, that this is ‘real’ west London, not Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill). He’s in his 30s and, despite not having a proper job, not only manages to live on his own in a one-bedroom flat but spends his time hanging out in Holland Park and going to ‘old men’ pubs, poncey bars and wanky cafes in a post-modern and knowing fashion. When he’s not doing this (or moaning about girls and the fact that no one seems to recognise his genius, or shagging unsuspecting Eastern European barmaids) he’s at his local community theatre with other wannabe writers. Over the course of the novel, Jem gets jealous of a mate’s success, cops off with some girls, gets drunk, and has a bit of success himself. And that’s about it.

In case you were in any doubt, let me spell it out for you. Jem is a complete twat. He has a teenager’s snobby attitude to his hard-working middle class parents (at one point he’s too embarrassed to go to the pub with his dad), and the way he behaves towards women makes Ron Burgundy look like dream husband material. The writing is hopelessly clunky. A character is described as wearing a cream flannel suit and ‘the lapels of his jacket are flecked with dandruff’. How would said flecks show on a cream suit?? After a bout of bad behaviour with a girl, Jem realises he’s in the ’doggie house’. Yep, not a doggy bag or doggy style, but the ‘doggie house’. WTF? The flow and balance of the story is all wrong too. After 200 pages of Jem whining and doubting himself and drinking pints, his discovery and breakthrough as a writer and the staging of his first play is crammed into the last 40 pages.

Given that Thompson’s first novel was a semi-autobiographical study of a guy struggling to distance himself from his crime and drug-filled youth, I was amazed at the fatuous characters and vapid story in Westway. Perhaps he was trying to be ironic, but I felt like I was trapped in a really bad draft of an early David Nicholls novel, or a never-ending article by Danny Wallace.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #60: The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough

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I’ve been reading this for what feels like years, or at least months and months, as this is the kind of book that you end up dipping in and out of – partly because reading it is a seemingly endless chore, and partly because of its girth. At 1,056 densely-typed pages (including the cast of characters, notes and glossary), it is a real beast. Fit in my handbag? Not likely, I pretty much had to get it its own special wheely suitcase. Which meant that when I was doing things like running to work or travelling abroad, it got put on the back-burner in favour of my Kindle. So maybe it has been years, but now it’s over. Hallelujah.

The novel is concerned with the rise to power of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Marius is low-born and as ambitious as he is wealthy; Sulla has the patrician heritage but not the money to succeed in politics. Their lives are changed when they marry the daughters of Gaius Julius Caesar (the grandfather of Julius Caesar himself), and their fates become intertwined on the battlefields of north Africa and northern Italy. Marius will also face very different conflict in the form of the political machinations of the Roman senate, as the old guard of Rome struggle to preserve the right of the patrician class to rule.

The book bristles with births, marriages and deaths, allegiances and betrayals, battles and even murder. However, it still manages to be deathly boring. I accept that with historical novels, you need a spot of exposition and character back-story, but in The First Man in Rome, that’s pretty much all you get. The plot points, which span 10 years, could be covered in a couple of hundred pages. But this is Colleen McCullough. She likes to wear her research on her sleeve, and no one at her publisher’s seems to have had the guts to tell her to edit. This is the first of seven volumes in her Masters of Rome series, and despite the fascinating subject matter, I won’t be reading the rest of them. Life’s too short.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #59: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

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I’m probably going to get struck by lightning for putting this out there on the internet, but I didn’t lose my mind over this book. I’m a bit too old to have grown up with The Princess Bride movie (it was all about Indy, Star Wars and Clash of the Titans for me), but my little brother introduced me to it when I was in my late teens. It’s a great movie, fun, quotable (‘I am Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die’), romantic and exciting; much more than the sum of its parts (although they are excellent parts). Somehow, the book doesn’t hit the spot in quite the same way.

Young couple Buttercup and Westley are parted when he goes off to seek his fortune and earn the right to ask for her hand. Buttercup is the most beautiful woman alive, and comes to the attention of crown prince Humperdinck of Florin. She thinks Westley dead, killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and so reluctantly agrees to marry Humperdinck. Just before the wedding, she is kidnapped by a motley crew made up of a Sicilian genius, a Spanish sword-fighter and a giant. A mysterious man in black defeats them all, and rescues her. And then Humperdinck catches up with them, and things start to get messy.

The story has it all – star-crossed lovers, revenge, poison, torture, resurrection, sword fights – and it is charming and funny. The characters are wonderful (my personal faves were Fezzik the giant and Miracle Max), and Humperdinck and his factotum Count Rugen are loathsome baddies. What makes it different from a standard fairy tale is that Goldman presents it as the abridgement of a much longer book by an S Morgenstern. Framing the book is a fictional story of how he first heard it as a child and how he came to publish the ‘abridged version’, which is interspersed with Goldman’s explanations and commentary. I think it was this that grated, and stopped the book being truly magical.

Right, I’m off to hide in my underground bunker in case lots of crazed Bride-iacs descend on me.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #58: The Shining by Stephen King

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The Shining was my first foray into the dark, charming, inescapable world of Stephen King, back when I was about fourteen. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was outgrowing the James Herbert and Shaun Hutson schlock horror that had titillated me. The Shining was something different; scary but in far subtler and more sinister ways. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the Kubrick movie (I know, don’t tell Big Steve), and for many years my memory of the story, the hotel and the Torrances has been overshadowed by that. So, with the hardback Doctor Sleep burning a hole on my bookshelf, I decided to go back to The Overlook to see what I’d make of it as an adult.

For the seven of you out there who don’t already know, the book tells the tale of the Torrance family. Jack is a dry drunk who, having lost his job at a New England boys’ school, takes wife Wendy, son Danny and play-writing aspirations to a resort hotel in the Rockies where he has snared a job as the winter caretaker. The three of them will be snow-bound from October till May, and Jack sees the Overlook as a chance to get his life back on track; perhaps the last chance he and his family will get. Needless to say, things go very very badly wrong.

This time, I read an edition that had an introduction written by King in 2001. A quarter of a century older (and no doubt wiser), he said ‘there is a cocky quality to some of The Shining’s prose that has come to grate on me in later years’, and he’s right. While all the signs are there, King wasn’t yet the master story teller and wordsmith he has become. But adverbs and overblown phrases aside, the book is a terrifying study in addiction, the collapse of sanity, and the nature of evil. In the relationship between Danny and Dick Halloran (chef at the Overlook, and fellow ‘shiner’), King really hits his groove, and I can’t think when I’ve been touched by an on-page relationship more. It is Dick who helps Danny get through his trials that winter, although they barely make it out in one piece. Danny Torrance learns how to live in constant fear, and if the reviews of Doctor Sleep are anything to go by, The Overlook is still casting its long shadow over him. Bring it on.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #57: The Heart Broke In by James Meek

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More and more I find that when I read a contemporary novel, particularly one set in middle-class London, I struggle to care because I find the characters so unpleasant and self-absorbed. The Heart Broke In had potential to be just one of those spoilt middle-class numbers, and does open with the introduction of a thoroughly vile individual. Fortunately though, with its observations on the nature of love, loyalty, self-preservation and immortality, this book manages to be much more than another trawl through the tribulations of an Islington set.

Ritchie is a faded pop star who now produces a successful teen talent TV show. He’s also partial to a bit of under-age action behind his wife’s back, despite the moral and legal implications. His sister Bec is a scientist who may have found a vaccine for malaria, and as the book opens is dating Val, the editor of a scandal-sheet newspaper. Alex is following in the footsteps of his scientist uncle, and is on the cusp of fame as he is feted for discovering a ‘cure’ for aging. The plot revolves around this group as they fall in and out of love, trust and betray the wrong people, and make some life-changing decisions.

Meek has a real gift for putting sentences together. That sounds sarcastic, but he really does. Towards the end of the book, as one couple’s relationship is under more and more strain, he writes a passage describing how you’re never alone in a relationship, it’s never just the two of you, you always have company:

‘It might be Excitement, capering all over the bed in a spangled leotard, it might be the corpse of Love lying on the floor in a pool of blood, it might be the matronly Domesticity clacking her knitting needles in the corner, it might be the pale clerk of Boredom examining his nails by the window.’

Which I think is just gorgeous. Unfortunately he also has a habit of attributing preposterously navel-gazing, self-absorbed and existential thoughts to characters in a way that rarely rings true. It’s this over-articulation that hamstrings an otherwise enjoyable novel, which is a real shame.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #56: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

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I really enjoyed The Hunger Games when I read it. The movie wasn’t so good, but JLaw could make a film adaptation of Cinderella’s Secret Diary worth watching (you can read my review of that turd here). Catching Fire was ok, but towards the end, the story and my patience with the dystopian world Collins had created was starting to wear thin. And then there’s Mockingjay. Dear dear. It isn’t very good.

**The Hunger Games/Catching Fire spoilers will follow**

The plot picks up immediately after Katniss’ rescue from the games arena by the rebels. She has been reunited with her family and Gale, and is stashed away in their underground headquarters in District 13. While some of her allies from The Capitol have been saved, Peeta is still in the hands of President Snow, and out of a desire to save him Katniss agrees to become the figurehead for the burgeoning rebellion. The rest of the novel charts the exploitation of her celebrity/talisman/cult status by the top brass of District 13, against a background of the progress of the battle against the Capitol. Luckily for her (although perhaps not the reader), her celebrity affords her considerable freedoms in this totalitarian state, meaning there are the usual interludes of Katniss not being able to decide who she prefers kissing, hunting small furry things in the woods, and having panic attacks/tantrums. And then the book ended, thank goodness.

I think the biggest problem I had wasn’t the clunky writing and preposterous dialogue (books one and two had plenty of them too), it was the complete collapse of Katniss as a likeable or believable character. I went from caring about and rooting for her in The Hunger Games to totting up how many pages I had left to wade through and thinking ‘oh for God’s sake stop whining’ in Mockingjay. She goes from being a feisty, independent spirit who kept her family alive despite her grief at the loss of her father and made it through a horrific contest in one piece, to a pathetic, feeble mannequin, who spends most of her nervous breakdown worrying about boys. By the end, her twisted thought processes and absurd decisions are on a par with Bella Swan’s, and feel like a complete betrayal of the Katniss of old. Not good.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #55: Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

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In his more recent outings, Carl Hiaasen seemed to have become a victim of his own success. His formula of Floridian zany crime capers centred around flawed heroes, hot chicks and ecological irresponsibility was wearing thin, and his books had become caricatures of themselves. Bad Monkey, however, is something of a return to form. Not back to the heady heights of Double Whammy or Sick Puppy, but Hiaasen’s enjoying himself again, and as a result so did I.

Andrew Yancy is a disgraced Miami cop, plying his trade in a small sheriff’s department on the Florida Keys. After some complicated turns of events, mostly down to his boss’ laziness, Yancy ends up with a severed arm in his freezer. At the same time, his career is downgraded even further, as criminal charges brought by his ex-girlfriend’s husband (who he publicly sodomised with a vacuum cleaner attachment) see him bumped down to roach patrol as a restaurant inspector. What’s more, a greedy real estate huckster is building a monstrous holiday home next to his house, breaking all the building regulations and obscuring his view of the sunset. Things start to look up when he meets a sexy Miami-based pathologist who aids his investigations into the owner of the severed arm; investigations which Yancy hope will see him reinstated at the sheriff’s department. On the trail of the arm’s widow, he finds himself in the Bahamas, during a hurricane, and all hell breaks loose. See? I told you Hiaasen was enjoying himself.

As you’d expect, Bad Monkey is teeming with oddball characters. Yancy is his most sympathetic main character in years, but even he is a total dick at times. The criminal mastermind behind the severed arm is utterly odious, and the grieving widow a self-absorbed princess in too-tight white jeans. My favourite was Neville, a sixty-something Bahamian and owner of the eponymous Bad Monkey (and boy is it bad), who becomes tangled up with both a mad voodoo priestess and our hero while trying to oust bent property developers from his families beach-front land. I found myself rooting for him and his grotty simian companion, and because this is Carl Hiaasen, everything turns out alright in the end. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, and all is as it should be. Phew.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #54: Look Away by Harold Coyle

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While I know it’s not politically correct, I LOVE Gone with the Wind. I grew up with it (along with Luke Skywalker, Scarlett O’Hara is one of the defining influences in my life), and so I’m a sucker for a sprawling American Civil War epic. Unfortunately Look Away, the first in a pair of civil war novels, doesn’t quite fit the bill. Sprawling (as in over-long) yes, epic not so much.

After a brief prologue that sets the scene by showing the tensions the anti-slavery movement brought to the fore in 19th century America, the novel opens in New Jersey in 1859. We meet James and Kevin Bannon, sons of a nouveau riche Irish immigrant, and quickly learn that Kevin has pinched James’ fiancée. No sooner is this revealed than the poor girl is floating in the river, and James has been packed off to the Virginia Military Institute. Thus it comes to pass that the two brothers end up on opposite sides in the ensuing conflict, and the rest of the book charts their experiences in the first two years of the war, as they each struggle to find their place in the strange new worlds they are thrust into, make friends, fall in love, watch comrades fall in battles they survive and try to hold onto their sense of humanity.

Unfortunately it’s not very well written. Not self-published vanity project kind of bad, but not great. While I don’t doubt the historical accuracy and amount of research done by the author, the level of detail that goes into the battle scenes is unnecessary. Rather than transport you into the peril and turmoil of some of the most famous military clashes of all time (Bull Run and Gettysburg to name just two), you end up confused and bored by the endless descriptions of march and battle formations, and the loading of rifles and muskets. The characters are badly drawn ciphers, and more than once I had to remind myself which brother was which, who was on which side, and which plucky yet repressed girl they were in love with. Rather than being swept along, I found reading it to be a real chore.

Right then, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to watch a couple of episodes of North and South…

loulamac’s #CBRV review #53: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

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‘You girls,’ said Miss Brodie, ‘must learn to cultivate an expression of composure. It is one of the best assets of a woman, an expression of composure, come foul, come fair.’

Thus is wisdom imparted by the heroine of Muriel Spark’s hilarious and tragic novel to her ‘set’ – a group of students at a girls’ school in between-the-wars Edinburgh. Miss Brodie is in her prime, and seeks to share her knowledge with a chosen few. With her unorthodox approach to education, clear favouring of this odd bunch of pupils, interest in the fascist movement sweeping Europe, and relaxed attitude to sex, she is mistrusted by her peers at Marcia Blaine school who see her at best as eccentric and at worst as heretical. She is a warped product of her time, striving to be modern while trapped in an environment that stifles her.

‘There were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.’

It is in flouting of tradition and expectation that Miss Brodie’s passion for life manifests itself, as in her small way she kicks over the traces of the mores of 1930s Scotland. However, it is also her downfall, as her pride in her ability to shape the lives of her girls blinds her to her betrayal by one of them.

You could read this as a funny short book about a peculiar school teacher, but it is much more than that. It’s about loyalty, betrayal and pride; it’s about belief, fate and love. And it’s about sex. Everyone is obsessed with sex, whether it’s Miss Brodie and her passion for the school’s art teacher that finds an outlet with his colleague in the music department, or her student’s fascination with her long-dead fiancé. As the novel shifts in time from the late 1930s (when the girls are 16 or 17), back to their earlier years at school, on to their lives as adults, and then back again to the 1930s, we see Miss Brodie’s love life become ever more complicated as she entangles her girls in it. Much of this is presented to you through the (very small) eyes of Sandy Stranger, who comes to both respect and despise the way in which Miss Brodie has set herself apart:

‘…she began to sense what went to the makings of Miss Brodie who had elected herself to grace in so particular a way and with more exotic suicidal enchantment than if she had simply taken to drink like other spinsters who couldn’t stand it any more.’

Ultimately, it is Sandy who influences Miss Brodie’s life in far more damaging ways than the elder woman could have imagined.