“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

I’m repeatedly on record on this blog saying that I’m not a particular fan of child narrators. However, when the narrator sounds enough like the age they’re supposed to be, then I have less to complain about. However, Ian McEwan has taken the premise to its logical extreme here and, oddly enough, it works. In Nutshell, the narrator is perhaps a unique voice in the literary canon: he hasn’t yet been born.

Our protagonist is still a few weeks off his birth day, but he’s keeping himself entertained by listening to and learning from the world around him. He’s discovered that his mother is called Trudy. He’s also discovered that John (her husband and his father) doesn’t live with them anymore. Trudy does, however, spend an awful lot of time with Claude, John’s brother. It also soon becomes painfully clear that Trudy and Claude are plotting something, unaware of the witness that listens to every word and is the innocent implicated party in the whole plot.

You could take the premise of this novel in one of two ways – either to say that the whole thing’s ridiculous, or to just go with it and enjoy the wry humour of the unborn child who has a mastery of philosophy and prose that I can only dream of. It’s explained that Trudy listens to a lot of podcasts and news stories, all of which the baby also hears, and so he has become vastly informed about the state of the world, knowing not only that he lives in London, but also having a basic understanding of many of the socioeconomic factors governing twenty-first century Britain. His style is engaging and somewhat comical, yet also moving and profound and packed with debate on right and wrong, crime and punishment, gender, parenthood and modernity.

The whole thing is somewhat Shakespearean in nature, with the hero’s mother and uncle plotting against the father. I’m not clear enough on my Hamlet to know quite whether it’s a direct lift or not, but there feel like there are definitely enough similarities to assume that it’s a retelling. McEwan sparkles as usual, although I’ve not read very much of his catalogue. The premise is wonderfully unique and I think helps give it a bit more nuance, excitement and fun. One of the funniest ongoing jokes is that Trudy hasn’t quite given up drinking while she’s pregnant, and as such, the foetus is something of a wine snob before it’s even born, being able to detect the grape being imbibed even without hearing it said. Part of the novel style of the book comes from the fact that sight, smell and taste are all but impossible to use as senses, meaning the book relies heavily on sound and, interestingly, touch.

It’s a fascinating experiment and it’s really paid off. There’s a satisfying ending that still somehow leaves you wanting to know more, and the writing simply sparkles. Ingenious.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

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“Illywhacker” by Peter Carey (1985)

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“My name is Herbert Badgery.”

This week I did something that I haven’t done in years – I gave up on a book. I’m unfamiliar with Peter Carey’s work, but Illywhacker has been sat on my shelf for years, waiting for the right moment to be read. Maybe I chose the wrong moment after all, I don’t know, but I do know that when it’s taken me a week to read the first third of a book, something is wrong. Someone asked me this week, “Well, why are you continuing then?” and, frankly, I was struck by that. People have asked me before and I’ve always said that I’m too far in now, that it has some redeeming features, or it’s not very long, but this time, giving up seemed the only option. Thus, I present a review of the first third of Illywhacker.

Herbert Badgery is an Australian confidence trickster who has had a long and interesting life. We meet him as he begins to reminisce about that life, leaping into the time he was selling cars in Victoria, but had visions of being an aviator and bringing the first Australian-built aeroplanes to the world. Moving in with a kind family, he begins to get feelings for their young daughter, which are apparently reciprocated when she accosts him on the roof one day. The rest of the novel’s first part details their marriage, their passion for aviation, and what happened as they both got to know one another better. From then on, I can’t say.

I think my trouble stems from the books insistence in it being a “dazzling comic narrative” when, actually, it’s not all that funny. Oh sure, the situations are surreal and unusual, but that’s not the same thing. I need to stop being lured into books simply because they tell me that they’re funny. So often I end up disappointed or bemused. The writing itself is quite good, and there’s an interesting narrative path being taken, but it just didn’t captivate me enough to want to hang around for nearly six hundred pages.

The main character, Herbert Badgery, has one interesting trait – he’s telling this story towards the end of his life when he’s 139-years-old – and otherwise I found little about him that gripped me. Some of the characters around him, his wife Phoebe, and her former lover Annette, are quite interesting, but their stories are wrapped up in Badgery’s own, and only he and Carey seem to think his story is one worth telling.

Perhaps the novel gets better, I can’t say. Perhaps I would have fallen in love with the character as time went on, but I simply don’t have the will right now. I might return to the book one day, because I don’t like to leave things unfinished, but right now I need something that’s going to excite me a little more after a couple of sub-par books. Stylistically pretty good, but very much lacking in a coherent, engaging plot.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

“Wake Up, Sir!” by Jonathan Ames (2005)

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“‘Wake up, sir. Wake up,’ said Jeeves.”

Despite, according to some, giving off the air of a man who appears to have fallen out of a Jeeves & Wooster novel, I have very little experience with P. G. Wodehouse. I’ve only read one of the novels, and just haven’t got round to getting anymore done. I’ll count this as an attempt though. Set in nineties New Jersey, this novel takes the concept and updates it, turning Bertie Wooster from a British aristocrat to Alan Blair, a Jewish American alcoholic novelist.

Alan Blair is, at novel’s opening, living with his aunt and uncle due to money issues and the fact his parents are long dead. However, they are tiring of his antics and wish him to go to rehab. Instead, Blair decides to head off to New York state to find a Jewish community to spend his time with. He is accompanied by his valet, Jeeves, who is detached enough from Blair’s mistakes to serve as the perfect butler. Intelligent, capable and just like his Wodehouse counterpart, the most competent man alive.

While seeking out like-minded company, however, Blair gets drunk again and ends up insulting a local woman, resulting in two black eyes and a broken nose. He also learns that he has been accepted to the Rose Colony, an artists’ retreat where he can work on his novel in peace with fellow creatives around him. Arriving, he finds that drinking is all but encouraged, so his plans to stay on the wagon are quickly dashed, and things become even more complicated when he falls in love with a sculptor called Ava, and determines that she is the woman of his dreams – all because she has the most incredible nose.

Blair is fundamentally an unreliable narrator, thanks mostly to his alcoholism. Indeed, it takes many pages before we even learn that he is an alcoholic, as he manages to omit the fact he drinks until it’s absolutely necessary to bring up in the plot. He’s a foolish man who doesn’t know when to stop drinking, meaning every so often he entirely blacks out and has no memory of events. He obviously thinks very highly of himself and regards himself as a cut above most other people – he insists on wearing a shirt and tie every day – but, like most writers, he’s also barking mad and wouldn’t be able to cut his toenails without the assistance of Jeeves.

However, it actually took me an absurdly long time to come to the conclusion that everyone else had probably reached a hundred pages before. I suddenly noted that Jeeves has absolutely no interaction with anyone other than Blair, and suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and I decided that Jeeves didn’t exist. There’s actually no confirmation either way to his existence or lack thereof, so I think it’s up for grabs as to the truth. Personally I’ve settled on the side of thinking that Jeeves is an imaginative construct, used by Blair to try and get himself sorted and sober – but with very little success.

The novel’s biggest coup, however, is that despite the change in location, time and content, it still sounds remarkably like Wodehouse, which is impressive because even that man could occasionally sound like a parody of himself, and the conventions of his novels are easy targets for satire and pastiche. It’s much more graphic than Wodehouse, with a couple of very vivid sex scenes, and the language is often coarser, but on the whole you could mistake it for an alternate-universe Bertie Wooster adventure.  The metaphors and tricks with words themselves are pure Wodehouse though, and Ames has done a remarkable job. They’re funny and sharp, for example, a woman is described as having “copper, wiry hair that had a life of its own and not a very pleasant life at that”. Five times the book cover announces via reviews that it’s hilarious, and while maybe that’s a couple too many, it is funny.

In terms of plot though, very little actually happens. Blair likes to use thirty words when three will do, and his internal monologue is the key thing here. The events of the story take place over the course of a week, but quite how Blair ended up in his situation we can’t be totally sure, and the ending is just ambiguous enough for us to wonder exactly what will happen next. Interesting and engaging, and a nice update on a genre that could be mishandled.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“You” by Austin Grossman (2013)

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“So what’s your ultimate game?”

Video games are a good way to spend some down time in between books, I find. I’m not an avid gamer by any means, but I play occasionally, usually something like the Portal series, or The Sims, which is an excellent game to binge on now and then. I’ve also been playing quite a lot of Civilization IV lately. I like a big, sprawling world where you don’t necessarily have to follow a prescribed path. Some people like simply shooting everything in sight. Games are big business, and in Grossman’s novel, You, we see just how much.

Russell has dropped out of his life path of becoming a lawyer and has applied for work at Black Arts, a video game company run by his old high school friends. With limited knowledge of how it all works, and relying on their loyalty to give him the job, he finds himself soon embroiled in creating the newest game in Black Arts portfolio, a fantasy epic where “anything is possible”.

However, it soon finds that there’s a bug in the system – one that seems to crop up now and then in all of Black Arts’ games, from their fantasy stories to the science fiction games. There’s a sword, the Mournblade, that is programmed to drive the user’s character into a killing frenzy until they themselves are killed too. Unsure as to where the code for this game-destroying sword is, Russell must go through the last twenty years of games, as well as recalling the real events surrounding the birth of the franchise. The deeper he gets, the more he realises that this glitch may have ramifications for far more than just the next installment of the game.

I think I’d misjudged what this book was going to be about, and had in my head something along the lines of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. Much of it is Russell playing through the various games that Black Arts have created. They all have the same heroes, just in different guises, regardless of genre, and each new one allows you to import the data from the previous one, meaning the same character can be played through for years. The fantasy games are basically Skyrim, but perhaps even more detailed, but most video game genres are present here, with the series spreading across the Commodore 64, through first person shooters, empire-builders, puzzle games and sandbox. In actuality, the games generally sound like they’d be quite fun to play.

On the other hand, the novel is mostly set in the second half of the 1990s, and we all know that computer graphics actually looked like then, so it’s quite sweet to have them getting excited over the quality, when not even Tomb Raider has arrived yet. As the story progresses, though, it becomes hugely entangled in itself, jumping around in time and in and out of the games too. Sometimes the real world is being narrated, other times it’s the in-game events. To confuse things further, Russell begins hallucinating the characters in his real life as they come to him in his dreams. Trying to keep up can be a bit of a mission.

I didn’t much feel there was a particularly good pay off either. By the time we got to the conclusion, I’d rather run out of interest, so the big reveal was lost on me. The mystery isn’t adequately solved, and with the character responsible for the glitch having been dead since the start of the novel, there’s no real explanation of what he was doing. I’ve read Grossman before, and you can’t argue the fact that he’s an interesting and unique writer, but there’s something just a tiny bit lacking from his stories. I think he overreaches himself, personally.

As for my ideal game? It combines aspects of Pokemon, The Sims, Theme Hospital, Portal and Civilization, but what you actually have to do in it is beyond me. I suppose one day I’ll find something…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“How To Stop Time” by Matt Haig (2017)

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“I am old.”

It was years ago when I first picked up a Matt Haig book, The Humans, thinking it sounded like a funny concept. I wasn’t prepared for what a profoundly wise and beautiful book it was, nor that he would become such an important part of my life, and the lives of countless other readers. I’ve plowed through his stuff since, and we finally now arrive at his latest offering, How to Stop Time. Everyone else seems to have read this a couple of months ago, so I’m a bit behind, but nonetheless, here it is. And it was worth waiting for.

Tom Hazard was born in 1581 and is still alive in 2017, although only looks about forty years old. He is an alba, a person born with a condition that means they age very slowly. It is a difficult life and one that involves having to constantly move around and change identity so people don’t notice that you don’t age, a task made all the more difficult by the modern world.

Tom works, reluctantly, with the Albatross Society who find other albas and protect them from scientists who would long to learn the secret of advanced lifespans, but he’s had enough and asks to be retired. He takes up a position teaching history at a London school, where he finds himself smitten with the beautiful French teacher Camille. But Camille is sure she recognises Tom from somewhere – somewhen – else, and Tom is reminded of the fact that any “mayfly” (normally aging human) who finds out about the albas tends not to have their lives cut even shorter…

One of the risks of writing books about people who have spent a long time in our history is the temptation to have them stumble across every major historical figure and befriend them. Haig resists this, and it is far more a story of the ordinary people. However, that’s not to say there aren’t famous cameos, but they are kept to a respectable minimum. Tom works for Shakespeare briefly, and travels to Australia with Captain Cook, but otherwise his interactions with history’s great and good are downplayed. He meets the Fitzgeralds in a French bar in the 1920s, and the Dr Hutchinson he meets in 1891 was a real man, but most everyone else is thoroughly normal.

In the same manner as the non-fiction series of history books by Ian Mortimer, history is brought to life by these interactions with the “ordinary people”. We experience witch hunts, plague, the jazz age, voyages of discovery and Elizabethan entertainment from the ground level, with descriptions that conjure up all the sights, sounds and smells of a bygone era. Haig paints an immersive, exciting world, and it’s an honour to be able to join him in exploring it.

As with everything Matt Haig writes, it’s phenomenally profound and beautiful with a lot to say about the nature of humanity, particularly with how we don’t change, loss, love and aging. It’s bang up to date, with mentions of fake news and Donald Trump, and Tom’s worry that the 21st century is just turning into a cheap copy of the 20th. Via Tom, Haig argues that humanity has not advanced in a straight line from idiocy to enlightenment, but that it’s been more of a rollercoaster, although there’s a fear we’re heading into a new Dark Ages, with new susperstitions and witch hunts under different names with different targets happening once again. There is, however, in there somewhere a sense of hope, and an exploration of why we should keep on living and trying to better ourselves. One line I adored, as a bibliophile, was, “Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

And with people like Matt Haig still writing, I feel the world is a little safer still.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

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“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton (2014)

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“The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.”

I’m very poorly-travelled in the real world, preferring to do my travelling via literature. As such, I’ve never been to Amsterdam in reality, although I keep stopping in. In just the few years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been there on a stag weekend, hidden from Nazis with Anne Frank, and on one occasion just stopped in for dinner. I returned again this week, but it’s an Amsterdam I’m not familiar with from my readings. For this review, we’re stepping back in time.

It’s 1686, and Nella Oortman, an eighteen-year-old from a small village has arrived at a large house in Amsterdam where she is to live with her new husband, the rich trader Johannes Brandt. Nella is unfamiliar with the ways of the city, but is prepared to do her wifely duty. Her new husband, however, is vague and distant, and hardly seeks her out for conversation. His sister, the stern Marin, is anything but friendly so the best welcome she receives is from Cornelia, the maid, and Johannes’ black manservant, Otto.

Johannes, however, realises that his new wife is bored and purchases for her a beautiful doll’s house, and Nella sets about finding a craftsman to make furniture and dolls for it. She is shocked, however, when the furniture that arrives from her mysterious benefactor matches perfectly the furniture in her new house. Indeed, even the dolls are exact replicas. And then more parcels begin to arrive, with other things for her doll’s house that she didn’t request. It seems that the maker, the miniaturist, knows something that Nella doesn’t, and when the house’s many secrets begin to spill out, she isn’t sure if the miniaturist is sending a warning or a threat.

As much as I read pretty much anything, there probably is a certain pattern to what I read, and The Miniaturist at first glance seems like it’s going against that pattern. It doesn’t feel very “me” but something about it obviously stirred interest in my gut when I found it on a second-hand stall at a train station platform. It’s sat on the shelf for about two years, but then when I started it I was instantly captivated. The characters are vivid in their description, and the whole novel is permeated with a strange sense of foreboding. Like Nella, you wonder what is going on, who this miniaturist is and what they could possibly want with the family, and what secrets are being kept from the wider world.

I was sympathetic to Nella immediately, but I was particularly taken with the character of Marin. She is foreboding and unpleasant, but her manner hides something else and she becomes something else. Indeed, everyone inspires pity, but for very different reasons. With a couple of exceptions maybe, sugar plantation owner Frans Meermans being one of them. Amsterdam is painted as a living, breathing city, but one where there are always eyes watching everything that happens, a fact emphasised by the doll’s house figures, each laced with secrets that the maker could not possibly have known.

I was oddly moved by the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve been reading a little less lately due to a vain attempt to catch up some other media I’d been ignoring, but this was the first book for a couple of weeks I’d purposely set aside a little more time to read, not just using train journeys to plod through it. A charming and special novel, it is a simple story told beautifully and I’m pleased to have added it to my pool.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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