The Girl in the Road

26200137Title: The Girl in the Road

Author: Monica Byrne

Summary: One day Meena gets out of her bed covered in blood, with mysterious snakebites on her chest. Someone is after her – and she must flee India at once. As she plots her escape she learns of The Trail, an energy-harvesting bridge across the Arabian sea. It has become a refuge for itinerant dreamers and loners on the run. Now it will become Meena’s salvation.

With a knapsack full of supplies, Meena sets off across the bridge to Ethiopia, the place of her birth. But as she runs away from the threat of violence, she is also running towards a shocking revelation about her past.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: ‘Weird’ and ‘What’ were the two words i thought when i’d finished reading this book. And currently one of the most positive things i can say about it is that it still has me thinking. There are plenty of things to ponder on, in hindsight, if you choose to.

On the face of it, this book is about two women, each on a journey. Alone, their stories were somewhat interesting, but not interesting enough. It was clear to me from the start that their lives would overlap at some point and i spent most of the book waiting for it. Meena, with her strong will, fierce independence and sexual freedom, i liked a lot at first. Then she started showing how shallow, selfish and reckless she was and i didn’t care any more. Mariama intrigued me enough all the way though, and the fact that she had a set of supporting characters that were not simply memories helped her story a lot.

Set in the foreseeable future, the science fiction aspect of the book was subtle, believable and very interesting. It was also simply a setting for the narrative; the advanced technology plays no intrinsic role to the plot (other than that of The Trail, which still is a setting and could easily be switched out without affecting the core elements of the story). I both loved and regretted that the science fiction wasn’t a larger part of the book. Loved, because it allowed the focus to fall on the characters while allowing the narrative as a whole to be more than contemporary. Regretted, because it was interesting and i would have loved to see more of this world.

I found the first 200 pages really hard to get through. I felt no drive in the story; there was nothing intriguing enough for me to want to pick up the book and keep reading. The book starts out strong, throwing the reader into the lives of these women immediately after something terrible has happened to each of them and we’re left trying to keep up. But after the initial chapter or two the time in both narratives, though particularly in Meena’s, moves very slowly. Days and week stretch out, and we see them make slow, slow progress on their journeys.

It’s only at the last 100 pages where both the plot and the pace pick up. By this time there were overlapping elements in both narratives, but how, exactly, the two women were linked was saved until the last few chapters. The questions the revelation brings are numerous, and the role these women play in each others’ lives and the magnitude of that is only given the last 10 pages or so. It’s a shame in some ways, but an excellent place to finish for others.

Or, it would have been an excellent place to finish, were it not for the epilogue. I’m generally not a fan of epilogues–of dragging a book out and wrapping it up too thoroughly–and this epilogue wasn’t even the worst. It was open ended, it left the reader with something to think about. The thing is, the book does that well enough without the epilogue! There are plenty of elements to think about and pull together, without throwing in another one in the epilogue. I think the book, as a whole, is stronger without that extra intrigue; it feels a little self indulgent of the author (as most epilogues do).

The details and symbolic parallels between the two women’s lives are scattered throughout the book, and it is this aspect that i am mostly still pondering on. Some details are small, seemingly insignificant things like names and brands. Other are larger and more important concepts and themes. These are the really intriguing parts of the book for me.

It’s a shame that the first two thirds of the book wasn’t independently stronger–it hinges so much on the revelation at the end of the book. I suspect the best way to enjoy it and get the most from it would be on a re-read. Unfortunately, it was such a slog to get through it the first time, that i’m disinclined to read it again.

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Rough Music

rmTitle: Rough Music

Author: Patrick Gale

Summary: Julian as a small boy is taken on the perfect Cornish holiday. With the arrival of glamourous American relations emotions run high and events spiral out of control. Though he has been brought up in the forbidding shadow of the prison his father runs, though his parents are neither as normal nor as happy as he supposes, Julian’s world view is the sunny selfish, accepting one of boyhood. It is only when he becomes a man – seemingly at ease with love, with his sexuality, with his ghosts – that the traumatic effects of that distant summer rise up to challenge his defiant assertion that he is happy and always has been.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: This was my second Patrick Gale book, and while i had nothing bad to say about the first one i read, Notes From an Exhibition, it just wasn’t my kind of book, either. The same can be said for Rough Music, but for some reason, i loved this one. I couldn’t put this book down. I had to keep reading.

I think the thing i don’t like about Gale’s books is that they are character driven. There is no main plot or storyline, per se, but an exploration of the characters and their lives. I’m sure others would argue that the characters’ lives is the storyline, but i see it more as a series of events. Semantics, but there is a difference. Regardless, Gale is brilliant at what he does. He shaped these vivid and flawed and realistic characters, he made me sympathise and despise all of them in turn. Although i dislike the lack of a plot, characters can make or break a book for me. I don’t have to like them, but they have to be well-written, and these ones are.

Set in two time lines, simultaneously told, the book details the events of the same family on holiday to the same cottage in Cornwall years apart. It is the events that happen at the cottage and among the members of the family that make up the story. What i do like about Gale’s story telling is the hints and information we are given, and slow reveal of things. We know something happened on the first holiday, and we can take educated guesses as to what, but there are more questions to be asked, more things the reader wants to know, that don’t get revealed until the last few chapters. The second present-day holiday includes both new, dramatic events and a reverberation of the events of the previous holiday. An interesting twist in this is that the mother of the family, who was a main party in the events of the first holiday is, at the time of the second holiday, now suffering with early onset Alzheimer’s. How much does she or does she not remember?

I was gripped, basically. I knew the vague plot, and the major points of what had happened on the first holiday, while the drama that would be surrounding the second holiday is revealed very early on. These weren’t the things that made the story gripping. It was the details, the characters and their motivations. The story is told from three alternate points of view: the mother, the father and the son. What i felt was lacking most of the way through was the point of view of the other child–i wanted to know more about her, her thoughts and motivations. But of course this was the point. To include hers would have given too much away, and the revelations saved for the very end of the book were mostly hers.

I’m still shocked at how much i really enjoyed this book. It’s still just not my kind of book, but there is also something in it i love, and envy in writing. Realistic characters, well-told. I need more books that have that and more of an external plot pulling the characters along. I’m undecided if i will read any more books by Gale. I think i like the idea of having him as a ‘safe’ back-up author that i can turn to if i need an easy not-my-usual read, but i also fear, after reading reviews for his other books, that i’ve already read the best two.

The Sun Also Rises

tsarTitle: The Sun Also Rises

Author: Ernest Hemingway

Summary: A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation. The story follows the hapless Jake and the flamboyant Brett as they journey from the wild life of 1920’s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealised love, and vanishing illusions.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I’ve been wanting to read Hemingway for a while now. From what i’d heard of his writing style, it sounded like something i would love. “Economical and understated,” as wikipedia describes it. I hate overly descriptive and unnecessarily verbose writing.

In terms of the writing style, i got pretty damn close to what i had hoped for. Hemingway might use simple language, but that doesn’t mean what he’s trying to get across is done simply. He gives the reader enough information and trusts them to put it all together–he doesn’t spell it out. This was most true for me in the dialogue. What the characters say–and don’t say–to each other says more than how they say it, or the look on their face when they say it. There are no props to hold up the dialogue; there is just the dialogue.

However, to say that Hemingway uses an economical writing style, isn’t to say he doesn’t over describe things. Or, that he doesn’t describe unnecessary things. Where there were several long paragraphs of prose, the writing could drag a little. This held most true at any point he wrote too long about bull fighting… At these points the writing sometimes became less understated and more perfunctory, and, ultimately, pointless.

The plot i was divided on. I love the characters and their relationships, their drunken adventures and wild emotions. Even when nothing much was happening to really drive the plot (what there was of a plot, anyway), i was enthralled by these people, their interactions and their motivations. I disliked the bull fighting. I would say ‘hate’, but i consciously did not pay it enough mind to find the effort to hate it. It was a setting, nothing more, and how much time was taken up with it was ultimately self-indulgent on Hemingway’s part.

I had been led to believe that Hemingway’s female characters are pretty awful. Perhaps having such a low expectation is the reason i didn’t find his main female character that bad. She wasn’t a well-written female by any means, but not as bad as i had feared. She bathed a lot (really, at least five or six times she randomly ended a conversation or outing by declaring that she needed to bathe), but otherwise she was quite an interesting woman for the time. Fiercely independent, she lived for the moment, for the fun, and refused to let any man tame her. Not all men fell at her feet, but she was easily desirable (i think) because of her fun and independent nature. And this, really, serves as the plot.

Were it not for the excessive inclusion of bull fighting and Hemingway’s occasional habit of somehow managing to over-describe within his uncomplicated syntax, this book would be getting four or five stars. I look forward to reading another Hemingway, with the hope that it can fulfil this criteria!

Notes From an Exhibition

notesTitle: Notes From an Exhibition.

Author: Patrick Gale.

Summary: Gifted artist Rachel Kelly is a whirlwind of creative highs and anguished, crippling lows. She’s also something of an enigma to her husband and four children. So when she is found dead in her Penzance studio, leaving behind some extraordinary new paintings, there’s a painful need for answers. Her Quaker husband appeals for information on the internet. The fragments of a shattered life slowly come to light, and it becomes clear that bohemian Rachel has left her children not only a gift for art – but also her haunting demons.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: I can’t say enough good things about this book. In fact i only have good things to say. Which might seem odd, given the three stars i’ve given it, but i’ll get to that.

The story revolves around a family; Rachel, Antony and their children. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view and veers backwards and forwards in time to explore each characters’ childhood and adult lives.

It’s a quiet book. There are no huge revelations or action-packed scenes. It reveals its secrets slowly, over the course of the entire book, making each chapter a short story of its own that overlaps and weaves with the others.

I read it as much more of a character study than simply a narrative, and enjoyed it this way. I got to know these characters, their history, and explore how they each dealt with family, mental illness and death. No character was perfect, but neither was anyone entirely flawed. Seeing the same things from several points of view, and at different stages of the non-linear timeline gives the reader an omniscient perspective of events. It makes it hard to make any judgements on the characters involved and i finished the book with a sense that in spite of people’s intentions, life is random, unpredictable and completely out of our control.

The writing is excellent. Simple, but powerful. Gale deals with serious topics in a way which seems to easily convey so much meaning and depth.

As much as i can praise this books, as very well-written as it was… it’s just not my thing. I enjoyed it immensely for all of the above reasons, but it is not the kind of book i would usually read. I would not be able to read books like this too often; they would eventually bore me, i think. I need a little excitement, a little more humour and less normality. But as a one-off, i am very pleased i picked up this book.

The Art of Fielding

the-art-of-fieldingTitle: The Art of Fielding.

Author: Chad Harbach.

Summary: At Westish College, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for the big leagues until a routine throw goes disastrously off course. His error will upend the fates of five people.
Henry’s fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz realises he has guided Henry’s career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.
As the season counts down to its climactic final game, all five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: This was all about baseball without actually being about baseball at all. An American college was the setting, a baseball tournament the context and the characters themselves the plot.

I enjoyed it. I was interested, invested. I wanted to know what would happen to these people, if and how things worked out for them. And for the first two-thirds of the book, it was getting a solid four stars.

I didn’t like all of the characters, at least not all of the time, but they were real enough for me to be interested in them, to want to follow their lives for a little while.

Pella i was distinctly hot and cold on. I admired her for up and leaving a marriage which had offered her nothing without even packing a bag (and wanted to know a lot more about what went on there). I didn’t begrudge the fact that she was running back to another man who could look after her—her father. I did get a bit sick of her fickle indecisiveness and her admitted dependency on others—on men—but her unwillingness to really do anything about it.

Mike—Schwartz, as he was for me throughout—i did adore. Somehow selfless and selfish both at the same time, his feelings and motivations came through easily and believably for me. He almost wanted to be a tortured soul, as if he wasn’t that, he wouldn’t know what else to be.

Owen was a nice enough guy. I like the idea of his mellow, laid back personality. His quiet, obsessive need to read. But the Buddha thing got dull pretty quickly. This might have been different had the book ever shown things from his point of view—his integral role in the story was conspicuously lacking without one.

Guert… I think Guert intrigued me the most. And i mean generally, his all-round character. Not his starry-eyed love for a student. I think i enjoyed his mind the most. He was honest with himself. With what he wanted out of any given situation and what would be best. He made mistakes, but he didn’t try to fool himself into thinking he hadn’t made them.

Henry i was highly ambivalent towards. His perfect shortstopping was nice. His innocence and naïvety was nice. His dedication was nice. Just nice. Not that exciting, not that boring. When he throws his first off-ball, his story had the potential to get interesting. Instead, it drags on. With every game, with all his second-guessing and lack of acknowledgement of a problem, i got more bored. I wanted something to happen. It didn’t. Instead, he hid himself away and practically starved himself to death.

Regardless of my opinions of the characters and their lives, i was enjoying the book (i can enjoy characters i dislike, so long as they are well done—which they are here). I enjoyed it until Guert talked about that house he didn’t buy four years ago. Until he drove past that house the same day, and it’s conveniently for sale. Until it went on sale that day. Until Guert considers getting a dog. Until it turns out the current owners have a dog they want to leave behind. On what planet would any of that actually happen?

Ultimately, the end of the book was a let down to me. The first two-thirds, while enjoyable, were very long. It deserved a more satisfying, less rushed ending, or else it needed to be more heavily edited.

I enjoyed the writing and the characters, but not the construction, delivery and climax of the characters’ stories.

Expo 58

expo-58Title: Expo 58.

Author: Jonathan Coe.

Summary: Sinister spies, an Englishman abroad, and a pub called Britannia. Welcome to the centre of the world. Welcome to Belgium. Welcome to Expo 58.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I enjoyed this book. It was easy to read and on a few occasions made me laugh quite thoroughly. Though i am still puzzled as to how someone could have a “moon-shaped” face… Was it full, half, crescent or new moon?

An Englishman, Thomas, with a wife and baby gets shipped off the Belgium for Expo 58 to supervise the British pavilion’s British pub. While away he gets caught up in pseudo-romances and shady international spying.

Thomas… He comes across as quite weak-willed and unsure of himself. One minute he thinks he loves his wife and child, the next he finds his domestic life a bore. Part of him wants a whirlwind romance with the Belgian hostess, Anneke, while he also doesn’t really care about her at all. Really, Thomas doesn’t know what he wants. I think his wife figured that out a long time ago, and just exasperatedly puts up with him.

Mr Radford and My Wayne are by far the most entertaining characters in this book. Mysterious government agents of some kind, they make an amusing double act. They intimidate, reassure and manipulate people whilst finishing each other’s sentences.

The romance angle in the story only interested me for so long; Thomas’ clear unwillingness to even think about what he really wanted became a bore. His obliviousness to the international spies and covert operations going on around him where what kept me truly entertained.

He eventually discovered that something was going on, but couldn’t grasp what, and was then given a tall-tale of an explanation. Thomas is quite strategically roped into the games, but not quite in the way he thinks he is.

Seeing the whole thing unfold from Thomas’ point of view is interesting. Realising how close to the centre of the whole operation he is, but how completely unknowing he’s been. It’s quite obvious to the reader that what Thomas believes is happening is not actually what is going on, but when the truth (or what we can only assume is the truth—Mr Radford and Mr Wayne have never truly been forthcoming) is finally revealed, it was under his nose all along.

The best scene in the book, for me, was the meeting to discuss the British pavilion before the Expo began. A room full of grown men arguing about how (in)appropriate it is to talk openly about faeces. And a man adamantly defending the idea of an exhibition celebrating the British invention of the flushing toilet, followed by the funniest lines in the entire book:

“Might I remind you that at the entrance to this pavilion, which you propose to deface with this obscene display, visitors will find a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen?”
Gardener leaned forward. “And might I remind you, Sir John, that even Her Majesty – even Her Majesty…”

I was rather unimpressed with the ending, which seemed rather pointless and ended the whole thing on a bit of a downer. Enlightening us as to how Thomas lived out his unexciting life, and then enlightening Thomas to the missed opportunity of a life he could have had—a life he never fully considered taking.

I did like the details of the Britannia pub that was opened in Dover, and how it evolved, along with Britain, over the years. Ending up a far cry from what the representatives of Britain were attempting with the original Britannia pub at Expo 58.

Overall, a light-hearted and entertaining read. Not quite the ‘Ealing comedy meets Hitchcockian thriller’ the blurb promises, but amusing and thrilling in its own way nonetheless.

Billy Christ

16103977Title: Billy Christ.

Author: Michael Cameron.

Summary: Young Billy has problems relating to the normal world because he is immature, obsessive and delusional. In fact, when things get really bad his parents take him to see someone who can help – ‘the man in a bow tie.’ Since then it is only in his secret place, in a clearing in the woods near Butler’s Farm, that Billy can be himself. Here he can cut-up road-kill, say his prayers and make gruesome sacrifices to his God – safely watched-over by the shadowy figure of his Guardian Angel. Then one day a mysterious girl enters the clearing and shatters his world for good. Billy’s troubles begin when the girl is found dead a few weeks after he meets her and he is left wondering if maybe he was her killer – he can’t be sure… But he does know who killed her mother – he definitely did that.
Then there is the awkward matter of God: unfortunately for Billy He will keep cropping-up, even when Billy is in the clutches of the girl’s mother – the woman with the interesting curves and ‘busty substances!’ So life isn’t easy for Billy – but then if you’re the new messiah, no one said it would be.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: From very early on in this book until all the way to the end, i was describing it in three ways: Entertaining, funny and easy to read. And that’s ‘easy to read’ in an ‘always wanting to read more’ way. The sections were short enough for me to constantly be thinking, “Just one more…”

The first half of the book is told alternately between the points of view of the title character, Billy, and a girl he finds himself befriended by, Diana. When Diana turns up dead, the story skips ahead several years and is instead told alternately between Billy and Diana’s mother’s point of view. All three character’s voices are distinct and easily recognisable.

Young Billy is, well, oblivious would be the first word that comes to mind. With all his faith wrapped up in God, it seems he has little left for those around him. He has respect in abundance for the authority figures of his parents and the priests-cum-teachers at his Catholic school, but sees himself as more respectable than the other people he comes across in life. Including Diana, at least initially. Having no experience in the ways of lust and love, he doesn’t know what he’s getting into with Diana—or her mother—but he manages to get himself into it anyway, experiencing all the joys of heartache as well.

Young adult Billy is slightly less oblivious, slightly less wrapped up in his religion and has slightly more respect for a wider portion of the general population. Either that or he’s got better at pretending he has. (Spoiler: It’s the latter.) His clumsy advances towards Diana’s mum vary between innocently affectionate and disturbingly stalkerish—at least from her point of view. And the climatic scenes, for me, were filled with a tense uncertainty. As much as i though Billy was innocent of the things he was being accused of, i did not see him as an innocent character.

Ultimately i didn’t want Bill to get a happy ending. If you asked him, Billy may believe he did get one, but i am satisfied with a more ambiguous reading of it. He got away with murder, and walked out of the police station a free man, but his obliviousness lived on, and even faced with the facts of what the reader knew all along about his childhood, he doesn’t understand the life sentence he’s already been living with.

Overall, i loved to hate Billy; i felt only so sorry for him. His character is portrayed very well, the writing style has him LEAPING of the page v. well in my O. A lot of the time, with lines such as this:

“I hate dirtiness and things like squashed chips.”

I found myself reminded of Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye. Not because of what Billy was saying, but in how he was saying it, and his thought process.

In the end, what i love most about this book is the fact that it was so hard to put down. It was easy to read, and easy to get lost in. I wouldn’t want to live in Billy’s world, but it was nice to visit.

Espedair Street

Title: Espedair Street.

Author: Iain Banks.

Summary: Daniel Weir used to be a famous – not to say infamous – rock star. Maybe still is. At thirty-one he has been both a brilliant failure and a dull success. He’s made a lot of mistakes that have paid off and a lot of smart moves he’ll regret forever (however long that turns out to be). Daniel Weir has gone from rags to riches and back, and managed to hold onto them both, though not much else. His friends all seem to be dead, fed up with him or just disgusted – and who can blame them? And now Daniel Weir is all alone. As he contemplates his life, Daniel realises he only has two problems: the past and the future. He knows how bad the past has been. But the future – well, the future is something else.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: It took me a while to get into this book, and i don’t know why. Perhaps because it doesn’t start out as outright odd or different like Banks’ previous books have.

The premise is simple: The rise and fall of a rock star, and where he is now. The chapters alternate between then and now, and that helped the book not get too boring. Because honestly, not a lot happens. It’s less a plot-driven book and much more a character exploration. Which is fine, but it still wasn’t the most riveting. I laughed on more than a few occasions, but i didn’t overly care about any of the characters, let alone Daniel Weir, the focus of the story.

The book opens with a big cliffhanger:

“Two days ago i decided to kill myself…

Last night i changed my mind…

Nice hook to get readers interested, but the thrill wore off quickly and i was left wondering what the hell all the back story had to do with anything.

The fact that something happened to at least some of his band matesthat they are deadis alluded to throughout the book, and gradually becomes outright fact, but still the whole story is eked out over several chapters, with the details of what happened slow in coming. Personally, i just found this frustrating. The rest of the story wasn’t enough to keep me entertained, and it felt like the good stuff was being deliberately held back to encourage me to keep reading.

Well, it worked, and i finished the book. And my one-word opinion of it would be: “Okay.” This book is okay. The weakest effort i have read by Banks so far, but still far better than most. I guess the three stars i’m giving it is in comparison to the other Banks books i have read so far. Compared to most popular fiction, it could rate a little higher.