Archive for the ‘Audiobook’ Category

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

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The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

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We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

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I’ve not read anything by Jonasson before, although I am aware of the acclaim that The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of A Window And Disappeared attracted. And it had appeared in Waterstone’s May Book recommendations so I had pretty high hopes. Social satire, I thought; comedy, I expected; characters, I looked forward to.

I’m not sure I got any of that.

And that disappointment wasn’t even the worst.

The novel follows Per Persson, the hapless and penniless grandson of a criminal multi-millionaire horse dealer, whose father’s a drunkard and whose mother’s almost invisible. He drifts into a job in a brothel and, when the brothel becomes a hotel, he drifts into a situation living and working as the receptionist there. The Receptionist is, in fact, the name by which he is most often referred by the narrator, even 150 pages after leaving the hotel.

The narrative style is very knowing and the tone of that voice comes across as rather arch and dry, which I did rather enjoy. At least, initially. It was different from the intimate narrative voices I usually read or the wide sweeping divine narrators. I did not, however, find it either warm in its humour, nor terribly funny. Which seems to be a major issue in a novel sold as comical.

It seemed, instead, just a little mean.

I don’t know. Maybe it was the fact that it was in translation.

Persson meets two more unlikely charachters: Johanna Kjellander, a priest who does not belief in God and has just been evicted from her Church; Hitman Anders himself, recently released from prison following two murders and unwilling to return to the criminal justice system so avoiding committing any more murders. But quite happily handing out beatings and broken limbs for various criminals. Obviously the police in Sweden only deal in murder. Well, with the wealth of Nordic Noir novels, there seem to be a lot of murders to deal with!

In any event, Persson and Kjellander end up managing Hitman Anders’ contracts in exchange for a healthy slice of the profits., boosted by a somewhat hysterical media interest in the Hitman, the most dangerous man in Sweden.

And this is only the first of three unlikely business enterprises that they develop to exploit the intellectually challenged Hitman who finds God, becomes a Pastor of a church and a patron of the needy. Public opinion swings from hysterical terror to adulation.

Fraud, deception, drunkenness and assassinations follow. Tax evasions, heaven forfend. Dead bodies are left in their wake.

And, in all of this, not once did I really like either Persson ot Kjellander or the Hitman. Nor was there any real pace to the story which wandered around. And I found the incessant anti-Church commentary from Kjellander and the mockery of the church in the book uncomfortable. As a reader, it was just a little tedious and, although I am not a church-goer, I didn’t think that the  Communion becoming merely a winefest and the mockery of the congregation and the clergy and the administration was actually done in very good taste. Especially bearing in mind the final chapter.

Which brings us to the concluding chapter. Which didn’t. Conclude, that is. It didn’t conclude. I was listening to it as an audiobook and it literally just stopped. With no real sense of ending, it just stopped. I’m a fairly avid reader. I’m an English teacher. I am a writer. I know how to signpost an ending; I know about narrative structures; I can feel narrative arcs. And I did not know this book was ending. I cannot recall any other book that I have read where the ending was so blunt. I literally had to check to see that I’d not skipped over a couple of chapters.

I must say that, on the strength of this, I am not tempted to try to dig out a copy of The Hundred Year Old Man!

  This review is going to be controversial. There is a lot of hype about this book with the movie and Matt Damon and the Hollywood machine in overdrive.

I didn’t like it.

Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t well written. Clever, credible and smart, yes; well written, not so much!

So the basic premise is as follows: there is a NASA programme of manned Mars landings; on one mission, a storm forces the crew to abort the mission but a terrible accident appears to kill Mark Watney, a member of the team, so they leave without him.

But he’s not dead.

He survives alone on Mars, believing himself abandoned.

The set-up detailed and well thought through: whoever Andy Weir is, he’s had a thorough meditation on how a Mars expedition might work: supplies, habitation, rovers, life support, ascent and descent vehicles. How to regulate atmosphere, create oxygen, hydrogen and water. Credible sounding acronyms. Very techy and reasonable.

He also has thought through Watney’s situation incredibly thoroughly. His procedures for Watney’s creation of viable soil, additional water and hydrogen, modifications to his rover and communications all seem credible and reasonable. I mean, I’m no expert and it may be riddled with plotholes – IMDb will probably identify them soon enough – but it has an air of credibility at a technical level. I mean, check the number of times when characters “run the numbers”. How could the novel not feel credible when there are numbers to run?!

What it doesn’t have any credibility on – for me – is in characters. Watney at no point shows any sense of mental deterioration in the time alone on the planet facing almost certain death. His frequent fist-bump interjections “Yay! Go me!” were neither credible nor charming. It is inconceivable that he suffered no deterioration, however upbeat and positive his core personality.

Nor are the other characters credible at all: having Mindy – who first realises that Watney is still alive – say “Um…” at the start of every sentence is not the same as creating a character. Nor is mentioning that another character squares his papers on his desk. Weir does not do people well!

There is a phenomenon – mainly in fanfiction – of the Mary or Marty Sue character: an idealised wish-fulfilment character which is often an author inserting himself into the novel. I feel there is an element there in the character of Rich Purnell, the geeky pseudo-autistic tech who creates the manoeuvre which allows the Hermes spaceship to return to Mars to try to rescue Watney. I think Rich Purnell is Andy Weir!

As a writer, I also didn’t find the shifts from Watney’s first person log reports (which felt more like a teenager’s diary than a log report!) to third person narrative on Earth (and the dialogue! Oh my god the dialogue!) and especially the flashback episode.

So… did I hate the book? No! It was clever and smart and held my interest.

But it was not a great book. And certainly does not deserve the huge praise and hype it’s received.


  My first Discworld novel was Carpe Jugulum which is still my favourite, so it seems very fitting for me that my last (new) Discworld novel takes me back to Lancre, the redoubtable Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Tiffany Aching.

Pratchett never finished this novel – not the half-dozen other novels which he appears to have been sketching out when he died on March 12th. It has been pieced together and different scenes stitched to one another like a literary jigsaw and it does show but it is such a fitting tribute to Pratchett!

It’s almost banal to be talking about the plot – elves invade Lancre; witches unite to combat them. The elven realm and glamour are familiar and well done; the descent into the Elf King’s Barrow was great: masculine, childish, hormonally self-obsessed. The Nac Mac Feegle provide the comic relief, as does a somewhat diabolical goat.

The heart of the novel, though, occurs maybe fifty pages in and took me by surprise. Granny Weatherwax died. The Iron Lady of Lancre, the anvil on which the moral compass of Discworld spun, died.

Is it just me, or has Death been notably absent from the Discworld novels recently? Probably understandable, considering Pratchett’s health.

The rest of the novel follows Tiffany Aching’s attempts to step into Granny Weatherwax’s shoes, maintain two witches’ steadings and combat the elven threat.

Granny Weatherwax’s death and the vignettes – the guttering of her life’s candle – of how her death was reflected across the Disc was so reminiscent of the tributes Pratchett himself received across Twitter and the blogosphere. It was incredibly poignant. It felt like a farewell from Pratchett. A graceful, unsentimental and respectful passing on. I can only hope that Pratchett experienced the same.

Why are so few book covers yellow? This looks gorgeous! Like a literary bumblebee. I have to confess, the only reason I picked this up was the cover – despite the advice parents give their children the world over. That and Waterstone’s promotions. But I’m really glad I did because it’s a powerful, haunting, human and compelling novel.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Peize in 2014, the novel revolves around three children. Two of whom are missing. All of whose share one story.

We enter the story in 1996 when our narrator, Rosemary Cooke, is at college. I was at University and socially awkward between 1992-6, so there were elements of Rosemary’s life which struck a chord! Although generally my experience lacked the drugs, arrests and ventriloquists’ dummies which Rosemary had to navigate.

We first meet Rosemary witnessing and accidentally becoming embroiled in a scene (as my mother would say) or a fracas (as a police officer might describe it) initiated by another student, Harlow Fielding. As a result, both are arrested. An unlikely friendship between the outwardly reserved Rosemary and overly dramatic Harlow.

This friendship, though, is not the story; nor is this incident the start of the story. Over the course of the novel, we hear the story of Rosemary’s childhood focussing on her aged five, dispatched to her grandparents house for a week.

Or rather the stories. We receive the consciously modified and edited version given to Harlow as a safe and practiced narration, crafted for effect. But the same story is retold with the edited sections removed and we learn that her sister, Fern, disappeared whilst Rosemary was away. We hear memories, possibly reliable and possibly not; recovered memories. In 1996, having done his own disappearing act, Lowell visits Rosemary and we hear new accounts of the same event from his point of view.

The structure of the story, starting in college but circling the events of fifteen years previously could have become tedious and dull, or confusing,  with a lesser author or a less engaging narrator. Rosemary was delightful! Smart, damaged, insecure, funny, self-aware. A remarkable guide on the journey that the novel represents. The novel does explore these layers of memory, consciously or subconsciously shaped into different stories. And it does chime with my own experience and understanding of memory. Do I feel like I know the truth about Fern’s disappearance? No. Did I feel that the novel was strikingly experimental in style? Not really (compare Eleanor Catton’s novel The Rehearsal). Did I feel her use of language was lyrical and poetic? Again no (compare The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams).

Do I feel as if I’ve met a real person in Rosemary? Yes. What more could I ask for in a novel?

For me, at times, the novel did veer a little towards the didactic, the moral lesson of non-human animal rights. There were occasions when we were, effectively receiving science or philosophy lectures. Theories of Mind. Mirror Tests. The experiments of Winthrop Kellogg and Gua. The Animal Liberation Front.

I didn’t mind those moments for two reasons: they were delivered unerringly in Rosemary’s voice and entirely suited her character and history; and they were genuinely quite interesting studies of animal behaviours. And these scientific expositions were balanced with frequent literary allusion and references too including A Tale Of Two Cities (Ahhh! Madame Defarge!) and Thomas More’s Utopia. It really was a very literary novel.

And at no point did these expositions detract from the central grief at the heart of the novel and of Rosemary. Her grief at the double loss of her sister and brother.

I did want more Harlow, though. She exploded into the book. Several times. She broke boundaries. Seduced men carelessly. Stole. But she was engaging as hell! Oh well. Maybe any more time spent in her company would have made her tiresome.

I now have a choice. There is a huge ‘reveal’ perhaps 75 pages into the book. You may already be aware of it from other reviews. I think I’ll choose not to say what it is. But it may fundamentally change your response to the Cooke family. It may not. Enjoy reaching it!

I find with this blog that some books can be reviewed almost from the moment you finish them. Others, I need time to … ruminate. To cogitate. To digest. To reflect on.

This book, Ali Smith’s Man Booker Shortlisted How To Be Both, definitely falls into that latter category. It is beautiful. It is thoughtful. It is clever, smart and profound. Funny, touching and sad.

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The novel is in two parts and one quirk of the publishing is that some copies commence with one story; others start with the second. I actually had this as both an e-book which began with the story of Francesco del Cossa, a renaissance painter. Simultaneously, my audiobook version started with the story of Georgia, a contemporary teenage girl. I literally had both!

The two characters are connected in a dazzling array of parallels between their stories, their lives, their experiences. Their stories don’t simply parallel each other’s: they intertwine and weave and writhe around and through each other.

Let’s consider the title: what boths are we being shown how to be?

Certainly, this novel clearly explores our capacity to be both male and female. It took me a little while to realise that Francesco was a girl and pretty much as soon as I did she bound her chest and dressed as a man to be accepted as an artist. George has been given a deliberately ambiguous name and her friendship with the equally ambiguously named ‘H’ starts to explore her sexuality. Neither George, nor her wonderfully created mother, realise that Francesco is female. This exploration of gender and sexuality was no surprise: having read her Girl Meets Boy, itself based on Ovid’s account of Iphys in his Metamorphoses, some years ago now.

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We are also asked to be both in the past and present, both alive and dead: Francesco’s life in Renaissance Italy is gorgeously captured for us and made alive; she is brought to the present by George’s interest in her art; Smith grounds George in our present with her text messages, iPad and technology; and George keeps her mother alive by reliving her memories and creating rituals. Ironically, the dead characters (Francesco and George’s mother) almost felt the most alive. This issue of past and present is also addressed at a grammatical level as George constantly reminds herself of the appropriate tense to use to discuss her mother.

We also explore the dichotomies between the real and the painted – and by extension the unreal; the painter and the painting; the art and the viewer; the observer and the observed. As I was reading, and I don’t know whether this is true of any other reader, I assumed that Francesco del Cossa was an invention and only when idly googling did I discover that she was real, that the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos exist in Ferrara, which is itself a city I am familiar with through literature and the staple GCSE poem My Last Duchess by Browning. A poem which is itself based on an historical scandal – and which accuses the Duke, quite wrongly of having his first wife killed. Misrepresentation, history, fiction, reality, creativity all twining around each other. What actually is the real? And does it really matter?

Smith’s language throughout was gorgeous: sparse and even spare at times, realistic and painful at others, and warm elsewhere. There are philosophical and political stances explored in the novel but at no time does it detract from the humanity created within its pages.

Within the novel, George’s mother refers to Francesco’s art as

so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I’ve never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.
She turns to George.
It’s a bit like you, she says.

That formulation seems a perfect description of this novel itself: friendly, warm, generous, sardonic.

As a footnote, the novel I’ve moved onto now is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which also revolves around art, another dead mother and a grieving child. That novel seems to luxuriate in its own language and descriptions – all of which is fine! – but a marked contrast to Smith!

Ahhhhh David Mitchell.

This, for me, is probably your crowning glory. I loved the realism and naturalistic voice of Black Swan Green; I also loved the mysticism and scope of Cloud Atlas. The Bone Clocks incorporates both those elements whilst ramping up the fantastical into a breathtaking and deft novel.

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The novel most closely resembles Cloud Atlas in its structure: a range of interconnected stories narrated by a variety of characters. The connection between them, in this case, is straightforward: the character of Holly Sykes whose voice introduces the novel in 1984 as a fifteen year old girl; whose voice closes the novel as a seventy-four year old in a post-apocalyptic 2043; and who crosses the paths of each of the other narrators in between – Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Iris Marinus Fenby.

2015/01/img_6603.jpg Each section works as a self-contained tale; and the whole is coherent, compelling and tragic. The way in which Mitchell incorporates his human voices into a fantasy cosmography and mythology is exquisite.

Let’s take a look at the different sections of the novel.

Our first introduction to Holly Sykes in A Hot Spell sees her escaping her parents’ pub and cheating boyfriend. Holly reveals that she had heard voices inside her head as a child, which she named The Radio People before being ‘cured’. As she walks, she encounters the equally teenage Ed Brubeck, an angling Esther Little to whom she agrees to offer asylum and a somewhat incomprehensible and unexpected encounter with a homicidal magical being. Following a quick memory swipe, we follow her off to The Isle of Sheppey where she picks fruit briefly before Ed Brubeck finds her to reveal that her brother, Jacko, has gone missing.

Holly was a wonderfully engaging character: realistically naive and gullible, regurgitating opinions and half-formed thoughts; childishly impulsive; impetuous and independent. And strong.

The second section, slightly oddly entitled Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume, a line from the carol We Three Kings, follows the Cambridge student Hugo Lamb in 1991. Ironically, that is one year before I entered Cambridge. The Cambridge depicted was not one I remembered – possibly as I wasn’t a member of the choral society, didn’t hang out with minor aristocracy and wasn’t groomed by societies of immortal atemporals. I was somewhat disappointed not to be approached by MI5! There did seem to be an element of caricature in the characterisation … but then, it was still a highly enjoyable caricature!

And I wasn’t a sociopath, which Hugo Lamb was. He seemed utterly devoid of conscience, ethics or morals, leaving friends dead, women used and the helpless cheated. And yet was somehow compelling. I liked him; and felt slightly dirty for doing so! He is also the deeply unpleasant cousin in Black Swan Green and the reveal there was a genuinely pleasurable ahhhh moment!

His encounter with Holly Sykes in a ski resort was brief and tender, offering him (and her) something akin to redemption.

The third installment, The Wedding Bash, set in 2004, was in my opinion the strongest and most tightly controlled section. Holly is now in a relationship with Ed Brubeck who is a war reporter for Spyglass Magazine, the same magazine featured in Cloud Atlas. They have a daughter, Aoife, and have amassed in Sussex for Holly’ sister’s wedding.

This section alternates between the domestic tensions in the Sykes-Brubeck household and Ed’s recollections of a near-death experience in Baghdad. Ed’s feeling of being torn between his world’s – domestic and international – was utterly convincing. As were his almost self-destructive interactions with Holly.

Perhaps the reason for the success of this section was the extremely light-touch fantasy elements.

It was a shame in some ways that it was succeeded by the weakest section, Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet set in 2015 following Crispin Hershey, author of Dessicated Embryos – a thinly disguised Martin Amis of Dead Babies fame – on the literary tour route as his career floundered. Partially as a result of a negative review of his most recent book by Richard Cheese man, whom we had previously met as an undergraduate friend of Hugo Lamb.

This section didn’t add much to the novel: Hershey was a self-interested and self-pitying egomaniac – without the delicious darkness of Lamb. We do see his character evolve, but it is one of the longest sections of the novel narrated by its least engaging voice. But it does serve to re-introduce both Lamb and the fantastical more concretely.

And that leads us to 2025 and An Horologist’s Labyrinth. This section explores the fantasy element to its full: its narrator is an atemporal immortal b
with psychosoteric powers of mind reading and control (scansion and suasion), telekinesis and others. Magic, in short. We learn of Horologists like Iris Marinus Fenby who reincarnate and Anchorites who decant others’ souls to achieve immortality. We learn of the war between them and the significance of 1984 and the offer of asylum becomes explicit.

This section could have stood as a fantasy element in its own right: the mythologising is deft and detailed, the characters convincing, the familiarity we have with Holly by this point, moving.

I was concerned that this book might not quite work, that the literariness and the fantastical might jar. But I was wrong. Save for the Hershey episode, I don’t think there’s a single misstep.

There is, however, one overwhelming message in this book: stock up on tampons and insulin in 2030. And move to Iceland.