What I read on my holidays…

Ok, so this is two weeks later than planned, but here it is, holiday related blogpost no.2 (if you missed number 1 it’s here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-T) – What I read on my holidays.

I read 11 books on holiday, which for a 16 night trip is a little slow, but it was a going-out-doing-stuff holiday rather than a sitting-by-the-pool holiday so that’s ok. It was still 3 books more than I packed, so involved scavenging from husband’s bookpile and wandering the streets looking for an English-language book shop (which is now pretty much a traditional part of all our holidays).

The books were, in no particular order:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Them by Jon Ronson

Funny Valentine by Amy Jenkins

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This Year It Will Be Different by Maeve Binchy

Mini Shopohlic by Sophie Kinsella

And I can’t even remember what the 11th book was. I know I bought it at the St Richard’s Hospice book shop, but I have no recollection of the title, author or content. Clearly, not one that made a big impression.

So out of the ten that impinged enough for me to recall them two weeks later, what do we think? I’m quite pleased with the mix. A bit of a preponderance of chicklit, but also one collection of short stories, one blokelit, one crime/psychological thriller, a couple of “grown-up” literary prize winners, and two non-fiction (or Real Books as much beloved husband terms them). No sci-fi or fantasy, but I’ve got a Jasper Fforde and a Neil Gaiman on my to-read pile, so I’ll excuse it.

That’s my first reccomendation then. Not a particular book, more an approach to books – read widely. A lot of readers I talk to get quite hung up on particular genres – “I don’t like crime” “I can’t stand romance” “I only read non-fiction. Made up stories are a waste of time”. And I do the same. I’m not a big crime reader. This is silly of me though. There are really only two meaningful genre categories – good books and bad books. Seek out the good books, regardless of genre or amount of blood on the cover. It’s totally cool to have personal preferences and favourites, but if you only read stuff you already know you’re going to like, you never get surprised, and being surprised by a story or a writer is one of the great pleasures of reading. So off you all go and read a book you’re not sure you’re going to like.

Wait. Wait. Come back. You can do the reading thing in a minute. Turns out, I haven’t finished. I have neither the time or the energy to review 10 books in full (only 10 – really bugging me now that I can’t remember no. 11), so I’m just going to give you the edited version.

Happily none of the books I read were terrible, but some were much much better than others, so here’s my top and bottom picks from the list.

The Top Three:

Unsticky by Sarra Manning

This is a great holiday read. Easy to read, funny, fast-paced but doesn’t make you feel like your brain is atrophying while you’re reading it. What Manning has done is taken a classic romance plot – rich, powerful, older guy meets younger slightly lost woman and a whole indecent proposal thing ensues – and made it feel modern. Even more impressively she’s managed to make both characters sympathetic, so her slightly lost heroine never feels pathetic, and her older guy, whilst deeply manipulative and occasionally really unpleasant, is also vulnerable and surprisingly sexy. Probably my personal favourite read of the whole trip.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

A book to read with your jaw on the floor in incredulity whilst all your worst suspicions about the inner workings of the British media are confirmed and exceeded. A lot of writers and commentators currently do a really good job of satirising and unpicking the worst misrepresentations that crop up in the media. Charlie Brooker and Ben Goldacre both spring immediately to mind, but, for me, this book, with it’s level of detail and specific examples, is the one to read if you are at all concerned about the impact of bad media on society as a whole. I could write a whole blog just about this subject but instead I’ll say read this book or check out the author’s website: www.flatearthnews.net

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This book won the Booker Prize in 2008 and whilst the Booker judges have a slightly patchy record at picking books that actually qualify as being readable, this is a corker. It’s a a first person narrative, written from the point of view of a Bangalore entrepreneur, who styles himself the White Tiger. He’s a fascinating lead character, full of humour and a good dollop of moral ambiguity, and there’s enough plot in there to make this a character study that also makes the grade as a page-turner.

And two that I didn’t like so much…

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Hannah started her career as a poet, before moving into crime fiction. I believe this was her first novel, and it’s not a stinker by any means. The story centres around a woman who comes home and realises that the baby in the crib is not her child. You spend most of the book not sure whether her baby really has been abducted, or whether the lead character is insane, or whether there’s another explanation entirely. The story is told in two different timeframes with two narrators and the two narratives converge at the end of the book. It’s structurally interesting. The plot idea is sound and the method of telling is potentially effective. Ultimately, I just wasn’t feeling it. I think for this story to really work you have to engage emotionally with the main character and you have to care about what’s happened to the baby, and the writer just didn’t quite do enough to get me there. Close, but no cigar.

Mini Shopoholic by Sophie Kinsella

This is the latest book in the mega-successful shopoholic series. In a way I can’t complain about it, because you know buying a book in a series like this that you’re going to get exactly what it says on the tin, but actually that’s the source of my first problem. You get exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more. Even within a series of novels, it’s great to be wrong-footed occasionally. The incomparable Sir Terry of Pratchett has written 38 Discworld novels, with the 39th due later this year, and at their best (see Night Watch or Monstrous Regiment) they can still push the series into new directions. Mini Shopoholic doesn’t seem to have any such ambitions. It is just another shopoholic novel; there’s nothing to make it stand out and sing on it’s own merits. My second qualm follows on from that thought and is about the story itself . There doesn’t seem to be a quite enough plot to sustain a whole book. Luke is quite busy at work. Becki organises a party. Minnie is a bit naughty. That’s pretty much it. The most interesting development, the involvement of Luke’s mum in the story, feels like a preparation for a future book, rather than an intrinsic part of this one. Personally, I think that, even within a series, each novel has to stand up on it’s own as a standalone story, and I’m not quite convinced this one does.

So there you have the books I read on holiday. Some I’d heartily recommend (and for the record Half of a Yellow Sun and Them only narrowly missed out on places in the favourites list), and a couple I wasn’t so taken with. Feel free to comment if you’ve read any of the above, or if you have any book recommendations for me. My to read pile is almost down into single figures and I’m starting to get twitchy!

Come back tomorrow (well, you know, maybe not actually tomorrow…) when I will be attempting to draw a coherent argument about stuff that encompasses Carol Vorderman making recomendations for maths teachers and David Starkey thinking the white kids talk like the black kids. It’s going to be an absolute ball.

And I’ve just remembered book number 11 – Jojo Moyes’ The Peacock Emporium. Pretty good, but not up to the standard of my favourite Moyes’ novel which I reviewed here: http://wp.me/p1sVoH-k  Oh, it’s a relief to have remembered though.

Goodbye.

Another review… The Last Letter from your Lover

Well, three posts in, this seems to be turning into a reviews blog, which wasn’t really what I was intending, but these are the thoughts that are popping into my brain, so I’m going to go with the flow for the time being. Although, that in no way implies the adoption of a definite theme – I totally reserve the right to mainly be thinking about Marmite by this time tomorrow.

So, another review, but a book this time: The Last Letter from your Lover by Jojo Moyes. This was the Romantic Novellists Association’s Romantic Novel of the Year at their Pure Passion Awards, and they were right. It’s a great book. Go out; buy it; read it. That is all.

Now anyone who is feeling in a hurry can depart at this point, having gleaned the central elements of the review. For the rest of you, here’s a bit more detail, and a (slightly belated) attempt at a bit of critical balance. The book is one of those wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey narratives with a present day bit and a historic bit, and a bit of a literary device with a newspaper and some letters to marry the two halves together. In the past, the story centres on Jennifer, suffering from amnesia after a car accident and, somewhat inconveniently, losing all recollection of her ongoing extra-marital affair. In the present, Ellie is a journalist who’s currently dating a married man. Both narratives have elements of classic romance, but also explore fidelity and, more to the point, infidelity.

I should state up front that I loved this book. It drew me in and made me laugh. It didn’t quite make me cry, but I’m a hard northern bird and it still came pretty damn close. I believed in the characters and I had to keep reading to find out what would happen to them. This should serve as a health warning on this review, because  it’s tricksy to critically analyse something you simply love. It’s like being asked to evaluate your own baby. Objectively, they may look a bit Gollum-y, but they’re still your baby and you (hopefully) love them despite, as well as because.

I think the love is more because than despite in this instance though. What I liked, more than anything, about this book was the intelligence of the storytelling. Very often romance stories are so tightly bound to the necessity of a happy ever after, that the jeopardy along the way doesn’t work – you know full well that Girl always ends up with Boy. It’s like watching the bit in Grand Designs when Kevin tells you it’ll never be finshed – we believed him in series 1, but now we know that he says that every week. The “Girl loses Boy” bit of most romance stories is much the same deal. This book manages to undermine those certainties, and is, in many ways, as much about the ends of affairs as their beginnings.

A lot of the plot and structural ideas are ones that have been seen before, such as the deployment of amnesia as a plot device, but here they’re just done better. The books feels like the Jojo Moyes crafted it, and cared for it, and kept tweaking and polishing until she achieved her just-right Goldilocks novel. At least I hope she did. If I hear that she wrote it all in one go without shifting out of first gear, then Moyes might actually manage to make me cry.

Source Code – Worth Doing Properly

So I went to see Source Code (shiny new Jake Gyllenhaal time-travel – sorry “time reassignment” – flick) last night, and it was… fine. Jake Gyllenhaal travels through time, into a dead guy’s memory, to try and identify a ruthless trainbomber before they strike again and obliterate the whole of Chicago with their big ol’ dirty bomb. And it was… fine. 

Here ends my review.

Here begins the small rant following on from said review. This film was simply…  fine. I was never bored (and I managed to have a little nap during Black Swan, so I do bore fairly easily), but the film was nowhere near as good as it should have been. The script sounded like a first draft, not a bad first draft, but not a finished, polished, honed, perfected piece of work. Many of the plot-holes could so easily have been ironed out during the editing process, if anyone had thought to try. The tension of finding the bomber could have been ratcheted up, by drawing out the characters on the train and making us wonder whodunnit, rather than rattling through a handful of unrelated false starts before walking right into the bomber with little or no preamble. The inate humour in Gyllenhaal’s character’s mini Groundhog Day could have given the whole film more variety in tone, if anyone had thought to suggest even a single joke.

The failure wasn’t in the premise. Clearly the premise – and specifically the “scientific” explanation of the premise, which can broadly be summarised as dead people remember the last 8 minutes of their lives, so if you find another recently dead person you can send them back into those 8 minutes to see what went on, is twaddle of the highest order. But a twaddley premise does not necessarily make for a twaddley film. The premise behind Back to the Future – if you hit 88 miles per hour you travel in time, cos of the flux thingummy; look stop asking questions, it just works– is twaddle, but the movie, itself, is a thing of near perfection.

The problem wasn’t in the budget either. The special effects looked good. Mr Gyllenhaal himself, presumably doesn’t come cheap. All those boxes were ticked perfectly adequately.

The problem with Source Code wasn’t the premise or the money, it was the lack of care and attention involved in making the actual film. It was a movie that felt like a flea-bitten kitten sheltering under a parked car from a storm – ultimately the kitten will retain an element of kitteny cuteness, but you can’t avoid the impression that nobody really loves it. This was an unloved kitten of a film. It seemed that nobody had bothered to lavish upon it anything beyond the level of care that was absolutely required to claim their paycheque. People decided that “fine” was good enough, and I paid money to watch the outcome, which ultimately means they were right.

And that makes me cross. Surely, if it’s worth spending the amounts of money studios lay out making films, it’s worth spending a little bit of creativity making them good. If you’re going to make something for other people to enjoy, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t make it as good as possible. And, sure, if you aim for greatness, you will very often fail, but you will end up with much better results than if you never aim for more than fine. “Good enough” just shouldn’t be good enough.