Malin’s #CBR5 Review #134: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sarra Manning

Neve is in her mid-twenties and awkward around new people, especially men. She works as an archivist and seeks refuge in classical literature. Over the course of the last three years, she’s kept up an old-fashioned pen and paper correspondence with William, one of her professors from Oxford, whose currently lecturing in California. During the same three years, she’s also lost more than half her body weight (from a UK size 32/US size 30/European size 62 to a smallish UK size 16/US size 14/EU size 44) through a strenuous and rigid exercise and diet regime. William is due back in little over three months, at which point Neve is determined to be a size 12. She’s sure that once William sees her again, he will love her as much as she has always loved him, and everything in her life will finally be perfect.

Her little sister Celia is not convinced that Neve is doing the right thing, pining for William and rejecting all other men. She encourages Neve to get some dating experience, saying that she doesn’t want to be completely innocent when William finally returns. The only man she warns Neve away from entirely, is Mx, one of the assistant editors at the fashion and lifestyle magazine where Celia works, claiming that he’s a bit of a man whore and will only break Neve’s heart. As Max has a young blonde draped over each arm and throws an ice cube at her accidentally the first time they meet, Neve is pretty sure she’ll be able to resist his “charm”, yet ends up taking him home at the end of the night, desperate to get some of that precious experience with someone who seems to have lots of it. Their first night together is absolutely dreadful, and it’s clearly better if she and Max never speak again. More on my blog.

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Owlcat’s CBR V review #22 of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

I know there are some who dislike JK Rowling’s decision to discontinue writing Harry Potter books and/or not write other children’s books and, instead, turn her attention to writing the books that these aforementioned books are giving her the opportunity, i.e., in terms of money, to write.  I suspect, after reading this newest novel of hers, these adult books were the ones she was “meant” to write, but then again, I am not a fan of the Harry Potter books, having read only the first one.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a detective mystery set in London.  There are actually two primary characters, a military veteran, Cormoran Strike, who wears a prosthetic leg, who has begun his own detective agency, and a temporary secretary, who has moved to London with her fiance and is in search of a well-paying job but forced to be a temp in the meantime.  The story is frequently told from each of these two characters’ perspectives, although the quirky detective is the prominent character, and they play off one another’s personality well.

Strike is hired by the adoptive brother of Lula Landry, a famous, young model, to disprove her suicide that he is convinced was a murder.  The questions for the detective are whether Lula Landry jumped from her apartment or was pushed and if the latter, who pushed her.  There is a long list of possible perpetrators, although through the story, some become victims themselves and thus are eliminated from his (and our) consideration.  He occasionally takes his secretary with him or has her doing errands once he realizes she is by far the smartest and able temporary secretary he has had and begins to pay her “under the table” to retain her services rather than have her return to the temp agency.  Their relationship never strays from employer/employee until one night when she helps him through a particularly inebriated episode, but even then, it develops into a respectful friendship and doesn’t dissolve into any sexual encounter that a less skillful author may have thought was necessary.

In fact, it’s Rowling’s skill developing her characters that is most impressive.  I like that they are normal people we might meet or see on the street without ever guessing what is beyond their exterior appearance.  She peels away their external protection and we meet complex people among all the characters, not just the primary ones, with all their insecurities and confidence and histories. This goes along with her great descriptions of locations and we see the worlds they are living in and investigating clearly and how they might compare.  There is some humor in the characters, particularly Cormoran, and particularly in his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and with his secretary, but the humor wasn’t contrived and felt very natural, the kind of humor people exhibit around each other.

Although I read this novel knowing who the author was (I’d heard it referred to after someone had disclosed she’d written it using a pseudonym), I quickly forgot it was written by Rowling and instead, was immersed in the stories and characters as presented.  Had I read it thinking the author was one Robert Galbraith, I’d have felt the same way I felt knowing otherwise. So for me, this book clearly had a life of its own and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys detective stories.

 

loulamac’s #CBRV review #49: Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

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It’s not fashionable to like Amis’ later novels. The received wisdom is that since his glory days of Money, London Fields or The Information (my personal favourite), he has steadily become more eccentric and less ‘in touch’ with the world he lives in, and London in particular. While this may be true in some ways, how he puts words together is still a delight (I even enjoyed The House of Meetings). While Lionel Asbo isn’t as much of a return to form as The Pregnant Widow seemed to be, it’s still well worth a read.

Lionel Asbo is a serial jail-bird pit bull-owning thug. He lives with his orphaned nephew Des Pepperdine (the nearest you’ll get to a sympathetic character in an Amis novel) in the fictional London neighbourhood of Diston, where life expectancy is fifty-four and on average single mums have six kids. Lionel (or Loyonoo as he pronounces it) has had so many ASBOs served against him (his first when he was still a toddler) that he has changed his name by deed poll. While Lionel is serving yet another prison sentence he wins £139,999,999.50 on the lottery, and is thrust into a world of ‘lotto lout’ limelight, getting barred from five star hotels and dating Jordan-esque glamour models. Des, meanwhile, is studying at university and living in Lionel’s old high-rise flat with his pregnant girlfriend. The bulk of the novel charts the way in which each of the cast of disreputable and broken people react to Lionel’s new-found wealth.

It is true that the characters and plot are outlandish. It seems Amis is trying, in his inimitable heavy-handed way, to create a dystopian fairy tale for our fame- and wealth-obsessed times. In Asbo though, he has created as threatening and compelling character as he has managed to do for years. There is a great sense of dread and pressure that pervades the book. The prose is every bit as complicated, winning and prone to linguistic acrobatics as you would expect it to be, but it’s the simple descriptions that do it for me. Early in the novel, Asbo is debating whether his latest offence should be classed ABH or GBH:

‘Criminal law, after all, was the third element in his vocational trinity, the other two being villainy and prison.’

Asbo’s Alma Mater Stallwort prison is described as ‘looking like a terrible school for very old men’; and the scene where Asbo treats his brothers to a swanky dinner, knowing that they all desperately need a hand-out and that he has no intention of giving them a bean, is as good as any Amis has written.

I did get annoyed on one point of detail. Lionel is named after the great light entertainer Lionel Blair, because his mum, with five sons already, had run out of Beatles to inspire the name of her sixth son. Mention is made of how she even named one of the five after the ‘forgotten’ Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe. If she’s such a huge fan, why didn’t she name Lionel after Pete Best, the drummer before Ringo? Don’t make such a point of making a character a loopy Beatles fan and then get that wrong. Annoying.

This book may be over the top, so much so that it’s an easy target for all the blinkered Amis-haters out there. If you’re one of them, then don’t bother reading it. If you’ve got an open mind though, and can go with the distorted and disfigured world presented, then you’ll enjoy it.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review#31: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

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After reading a novel about an old lady with Alzheimers who might have murdered her best friend, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel provided a much more lighthearted and welcome perspective on growing older and the possibilities that lie ahead before death comes. The writing is often funny, making fun of Brits and Indians, the young and the old, but with an underlying kindness that takes away the bite.

The plot is simple: an Indian doctor in London, married to an Anglo woman, is sick and tired of his crass and randy father-in-law’s presence in his home. Norman has been kicked out of several homes and Ravi is at the end of his rope. After confiding his desperation to his businessman cousin Sonny, Sonny and Ravi develop a scheme to build an old folks home for Brits in Bangalore. The story follows the first year of the hotel/home’s operation and involves a colorful cast of characters — pensioners of varied backgrounds, hotel staff with their own problems and frustrations, and the country of India, which seems to have a hypnotizing allure for those who visit.

The introduction of the elderly Brits is sometimes funny and sometimes poignant. Norman is initially uninterested in moving to India until he hears that the hot young women are plentiful and accommodating. Evelyn is somewhat estranged from her children and lonely. Muriel is a feisty cockney woman who has been mugged and is desperate to find her son, who is on the run from the law. The Ainslies seem to have an enviable marriage and make the most of the opportunities the India affords them. But of course, as we see through the unfolding of the tale, there is so much more to each of them. The crass and bigoted fogeys can be sentimental and kind, the unassuming lady who fades into the woodwork can be bold and daring, and those who seem to have it all may have problems, too.

There’s a lot of “the grass is always greener” theme in this book. The Brits  come to appreciate the Indian ways of revering family and approaching life with joy and acceptance. The Indians seem to want to leave for England and escape the suffocating effects of familial obligations and lack of opportunity. In the end, it’s a sweet story about appreciating the golden years, accepting mortality and being ready to try something new, no matter what your age. This is not great literature, but using the General Maximus standard from Gladiator, I must say, I was entertained.

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HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #37: Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

This book was delightful in many ways, and disappointing in others. My issue with this book is more an issue with the back cover summary, which induced me to pick it up. The back cover implied that this was going to be “Real World: London,” where 12 or so gods move into a London townhouse, “stop being polite, and start getting real.” I was expecting trashy reality television, with Greek gods.

This book is not that. I took Latin when I was younger, and most of our class was spent learning about the analogous Roman gods and learning very little about actual Latin. The stories are fascinating. This felt like a modern update of a classic story.

Aphrodite and Apollo are engaged in an epic battle of wills. Thousands of years of living among mortals has induced incredible boredom in most of the gods. Their powers are waning as people’s belief in the gods falls. The infighting between Aphrodite and Apollo eventually draws two innocent humans, Neil and Alice, into the world of the gods.

What I didn’t like was the fairly standard “innocent girl dragged into conflict, heroic man rescues her” plot line of Neil and Alice. It was boring in a book that had an otherwise interesting premise and set of characters.

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #34: The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

I’m pretty sure I saw this recommended here on Cannonball Read, so thank you to whoever mentioned it. It’s a nifty mix of history, sociology, and science, with a smattering of that super-fashionable sort of Big Idea Meta Thinking Furturism stuff that TED talks are based on. The latter turns me off – there’s a neatness to that kind of thinking that I find a little hinky – but the book is such an enjoyable read, and Johnson for the most part maintains a lightness of touch with his ‘theory of urban networks’ thesis.

Next time you enjoy a glass of tap water, or have a shower, or flush a toilet, give up thanks to Dr. John Snow* and also the Rev. Henry Whitehead, for their work in proving that cholera is a waterborne disease. Snow’s (literally) groundbreaking work came about with a devastating cholera epidemic hit Golden Square in Soho in 1854. Johnson creates a vivid sense of what central London was like in Victorian times, drawing heavily on Dicken’s angry depictions of children in poverty, making the point that London then was the beginning of the modern city as we know it – but also a completely different, alien world.

Reading this armed me with lots of fascinating facts about poo, which is always dandy for a certain kind of after dinner crowd. And having just seen a performance piece based on Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, made me that much more in awe of my adopted home. No matter what Boris Johnson does to London, it’s seen worse plagues than him, and survived. Two days ago I walked through Soho in the sun, looking at the spot where the Broad St. water pump used to stand, and got shivers.

The last chapter does take off from the facts about Snow’s discovery in to a wider view of the oncoming future, what with megacities, super viruses, germ terrorism, and global warming to contend with. I’m enough of a wuss that I skimmed it. But the story of how the waterborne idea was proved, and the consequences of that work, was gripping.

*Not that one. He knew something.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #4: The Man In The Queue by Josephine Tey

I first heard of Josephine Tey last year, just before the whole real-life mystery of Richard III was getting the media treatment. Reading The Daughter of Time had a double effect: I knew my Richard III when his bones were presented to the world (cue smug grin), and I immediately put everything Tey had ever written on my Christmas wish list. I now have a neat little collection on my shelf (are we allowed to use the words “box set”?)
The Man in the Queue is Tey’s first novel, written when the world was young – in 1929. It’s a good old-fashioned crime novel. A man gets stabbed and dies while waiting in line for the last performance of a long-running and very successful play in London’s West End. It takes a while to identify the victim, and the people who were standing close to him just before he died are not helping the investigation much. Inspector Grant does a lot of old-fashioned policing and finally runs a suspect down, only to then seriously doubt his involvement. As far as crime novels go, it’s nothing new, and it’s not all that difficult to guess who the perpetrator is, but that’s not the point – and the plot not being the point is generally a good indication of a good book.
Firstly, Inspector Grant is a good egg. He’s charming, and just all-round nice, even though Tey doesn’t spend a lot of time describing his inner life. Her writing simply makes everything work, and Grant’s investigation, while not exactly thrilling, seems traceable and logical. I liked the man because he made a lot of sense.
Secondly, it’s all so charmingly old-fashioned and outdated. The thought of an Inspector of Scotland Yard running after a suspect and then running straight on to find a public phone box to report back to HQ made me squeal with delight. At one point, he turns up unexpectedly at a witness’ door and pretends he just needs to use the telephone, and nobody finds that at all strange. There are even false beards, and I bet false beards were all the rage in the Twenties. I loved it. The fact that the author never meant for any of this to be out of the ordinary makes it even more charming.
The majority of Tey’s works were written after 1945, and it’ll be interesting to see how her writing and the setting change. There are six more novels, and I’m saving them for cosy evenings.