Tuesday Intro: The Heart Goes Last

imageThis week, I’m linking up again with Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea who hosts a post every Tuesday for people to share the first chapter / paragraph of the book they are reading, or thinking of reading soon. I really enjoy these tasters when I read them on other blogs so wanted to join in.

Next up for me is The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, an author I love though I heard conflicting things about this book. Here’s what it’s about…

imageLiving in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

And here’s how it starts…

Sleeping in the car is cramped. Being a third-hand Honda, it’s no palace to begin with. If it was a van they’d have more room, but fat chance of affording one of those, even back when they thought they had money. Stan says they’re lucky to have any kind of a car at all, which is true, but their luckiness doesn’t make the car any bigger.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Emma

(Revisiting) The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

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Many, many – possibly showing my age hear but – many moons ago, whilst doing an A level in government and politics, my teacher recommended I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Despite leaning to left so far at the time I am amazed I didn’t fall over, I had never heard of the book – which promotes socialism over capitalism as the only real option if the working classes are to ever have a decent standard of living and reap the rewards of their labours.

I immediately went out and read it, though it wasn’t the easiest book to get through, and it has stuck with me ever since. I remember it made me angry at times, sad at others, and utterly depressed for most of it. Life for the characters in this book was harsh, bleak, and – often – short. They worked hard (or rather were worked hard) for little pay and, when they didn’t work, there was no safety net to catch them.

Recently, it came up in conversation and I decided maybe the time was right to read it again. I couldn’t remember the plot, I realised, but still had images of the painters and decorators the story centres around in my head and also one scene in particular where someone dies hadn’t ever left me.

As soon as I started reading, the story came back to me pretty much straight away, as did the indignation I felt for and the frustration I felt with the characters. They are treated so badly – yet they don’t stand up and say no. Of course, with no welfare state to protect you and plenty of other men willing to take your job, it’s probably no surprise.

This isn’t a subtle book. It’s one that beats you over the head with it’s message, which it repeats pretty consistently throughout the book to make sure you get it. It paints a picture of a world I wouldn’t want to live in – one that in the grand scheme of things isn’t that long ago. Reading it, part of me thinks how far we’ve come – with employee rights and state benefits – whilst part of me wonders if we’ve come very far at all and if we are maybe just more comfortable in our chains thanks to satellite TV and smart phones.

Reading back over what I’ve written I realise I’ve gotten quite feisty, which is what the book was no doubt written to do – to light a fire and wind me up (in a political way). It is how I felt back as a teenager and how I hope other people will feel reading it.

Despite being over a 100 years old a lot of the messages in it are relevant and just need looking at with a modern eye.  I’m not saying we should all storm the barricades but I am saying, after reading it, in this capitalist world maybe we should think about how we treat each other and those that work for us / wish us.  This one is worth a read if the news of more cuts to welfare make you feel uncomfortable or you are a political bent – though appreciate it’s not for everyone.

Emma

The Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

imageOnce upon a time, Ani (pronounced Ahh-nee not Annie) was TifAni, a teenager who desperately wanted to fit into the high school her parents couldn’t really afford to send her too, even after “the event that changed her life”. Now, she could afford to buy the school – or at least her fiancé Luke could – thanks to his old money roots and job in finance.

Ani worked hard to find a man like Luke, and her job at a top women’s magazine (with it’s access to high fashion clothes she could never otherwise afford). She still works hard – dieting, exercising, maxing out her credit cards, and pretending to be someone she’s not. All for a ring on her finger, and a need to escape a past she is too embarrassed to face. That is until a TV crew approach her to make a documentary about.

Despite Luke’s objections she agrees to take part because it will allow her to show everyone what she has become, that she is not the girl they thought her to be. Who that girl is is unclear. I thought she was a mean girl – she is a mean woman so it made sense – but it’s more complicated than that, and darker than I expected.

The cover of this book says for those who liked Gone Girl (yes, another one!) but I can’t see it myself. This isn’t crime fiction and only a little bit of a thriller or suspense. More than anything, it is a book about a woman finding her way back from a series of events no one could have predicted and which changed her whole life, not for the better. I liked this about the book.

I wish I could have liked Ani as much but I just didn’t. I understood why she was the way she was but I could find nothing redeemable about her. She was nasty to everyone, including herself. And, as a smart woman, I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t ever sought help to fight her demons. As the main character and the only voice you hear, this made it hard to read at times, especially as the other characters are under developed.

This means I liked but didn’t love the book. It wouldn’t stop me reading another book by Jessica Knoll though or recommending the book because, as a debut, it’s still pretty good.

Emma

Cripple Creek by James Sallis

imageA year after the events in Cypress Grove, life for Tuner – the main character – is pretty good. He is settled, with a job as a deputy and a girlfriend (Val) who seems the perfect fit for him, a woman who wants – need – her own space as much as he does. It isn’t necessarily where he thought he would be but it seems like a good place to end up for someone who has been a policeman, convict, and psychiatrist among other things. He life is simple and he is accepted for who he is in the small southern town he has landed in.

Then, a young man is arrested for drunk driving. He has close to a quarter of a million dollars in his bag in the boot of his car. Not what you would expect to find…and neither is the jailbreak that follows, leaving the sheriff seriously injured. The trail leads Turner back to Memphis, where he was a cop and a killer, not somewhere he wants to be. Life, though, is rarely what he wants and that’s the case in Cripple Creek where things go from bad to worse for Turner.

Having read more than a few James Sallis books this isn’t a surprise. His stories tend to be quite dark, full of troubled characters and broken lives. Yet, generally, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t find that here and I felt a little sad at the end as a result. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it though, I did, and I grew to like Turner as a character more than I already did. No matter how many things he might have done, in his heart he is a good person and I’d want him on my side in a fight. He is true to himself and others and his back story, woven through the book in short chapters, helps explain why he is who he is.

This way of telling his story is the same in Cypress Grove, which I think it would help to read first but isn’t absolutely necessary, and it’s one I like – as is Sallis’ sparse writing style and way of setting the scene and painting a picture of a world I don’t really know at all. Still, I feel I know Turner’s south – the good, the bad, and the gritty. I’m not sure it’s a place I would want to live but I do want to keep reading about it…

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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What if you aren’t the Chosen One?

The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions.

Not normally one for reading young adult books, I loved the cover of The Rest of Us Just Live Here when I saw it on the library shelf. Then I read the blurb – and couldn’t resist because my guilty pleasure is watching shows where good looking teens fight supernatural bad guys, usually while punning and falling in love. I just can’t help myself.

So, because I have been trying to step outside my comfort zone with reading, I decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed it. It was a fun read – cleverly written and very tongue in cheek – but also very smart.  The story kept me interested, despite not being the target audience, with each chapter opening with a few lines about what was happening to the indie kids (those chosen to fight the latest big bad) whilst everyone else went about their everyday lives.

Everyday for Mikey and his friends include the usual teenage crushes and questions of being in love. It also included anorexia, alcoholism, mental illness and sexuality.  All heavy hitting issues yet each was dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism thanks to the characterisations – each person felt real and solid and I found I cared for them – and humour.

It’s hard to think back to my teenage years but there are some really well presented messages here about how it’s o.k. to be yourself whoever you are and, whilst this might or might not be “normal”, there really is no normal. In fact, we are all different, all special..and all dealing with things that are hard at times and feel overwhelming.  There don’t have to be blue lights coming from the sky and portals to other dimensions opening for important things to be happening in our lives. For all of this, though, we do get through things and life goes on – often in (good) ways we don’t expect.

Thankfully, none of these messages are laid on too thick or too heavy handed. They are woven in as the characters and story develops. This is a hard thing to do and Patrick Ness does it well. So, while I can’t say I’m now a convert to young adult books, I did enjoy this one and will be recommending it. Liked it a lot!

emma x

 

 

November 9 by Colleen Hoover

imageI’m not much of a one for romance I must admit and so when November 9 was selected for Kimba at the Caffeinated Book Reviewer’s online book club (you can join here on facebook) I did have a bit of an “oh oh” moment.  Still, reading books you wouldn’t normally is all part of being in a book club so off I went and bought a copy.

November 9 is the story of two teenagers, Fallon and Ben, who meet on the day Fallon is about to move from LA to New York to start her life again after living in limbo for two years since being injured in a house fire.

They spend the day together and then, as Ben takes Fallon to the airport, agree to meet at the same time / in the same place the following year and every year after that for five years – or until they are 23 because that is the age Fallon has decided you are old enough to know your own mind.

It’s a familiar idea, and I was reminded of movies like An Affair to Remember where misunderstandings and miscommunications lead to lots of heartache before everything turns out well in the end (it has to right, this is a romance?).  Saying that, though, it didn’t feel old or stale because  Colleen Hoover has a really nice writing style.  The novel and the story felt fresh and modern and I found that I really liked Ben and Fallon.

I did find them a little to old for their ages – I am not sure I would have been quite as wise as Ben when I was 18 – at least on the surface.  Then their actions showed just how young and naïve they really were.  It meant there were layers to the plot I didn’t expect and I found myself turning the pages quicker and quicker as the book went on.  I had to know how it ended.  And, whilst I may have let slip, there is a happy ending (spoilers – sorry!) there is a great twist before you get there that I didn’t see coming.

Will I rush out and buy another romance novel as a result of this? probably not but I may well pick up another book by Colleen Hoover when I come across it because I liked November 9 a lot.

Emma

 

 

November Round-Up

November was a bit of a strange month reading wise because I was in a slump. I’d had such a good October that it probably had to happen. To try and get myself out of it, I had a week of reading short stories. It worked and I discovered some new authors as a result, which was a bonus. Here’s what worked, and didn’t, for me this month.

Loved

imageAll told, I read one book I loved this month, Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica. I had heard great things about it and was a bit worried I would be disappointed. I wasn’t. It was a really interesting story with great characters and great twist. I couldn’t stop turning pages. Highly recommended!

 

Liked a Lot

imageTwo of the three I liked a lot were short stories, The Octopus Nest by Sophie Hannah which I thought was really clever and well written and A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li, possibly the comple opposite of Sophie Hannah in that it was intimate portrait of a Chinese American Nanny – who only stays with families for the first month after the baby is born.

2547263The last of the three books I liked a lot was Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith and it wasn’t much longer than the short stories, coming in at around 80 pages. Part of the Canongate Myth series it took a new, feminist look at a story from Ancient Greece and made it very relevant.

 

Liked

23624909Two more short stories made the list here, BBC national short story winner Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley and The Memory Man by Helen Smith. Both took different looks at the world of psychics, showing how being able to talk to the dead might not be quite a blessing some might think it is.

 

imageThe short stories gave me the motivation to pick back up Little Girl Gone by Alexandra Burt, which I enjoyed though not as much as I had hoped. It was a little too long so felt like it ran out of steam for me, though it was a good idea and well written. My main problem was not liking the main character. I may be in the minority here though.

Not for me

902743The characters were a big part of the problem in the two books that just did nothing for me.  In Fair Play by Tove Jansson they felt too stylised and I just couldn’t warm to them or quite get why they were behaving how they did, whilst in The Bed I Made by Lucie Whitehouse the bad guy was just not bad enough and the central character left me cold.

These two were at the start of the month and I am laying blame for my reading slump firmly at their door 😄. Thankfully, things did pick up and all in all it wasn’t a bad November in hindsight. How was yours – what should I be looking for or avoiding in December?

Emma

Tuesday Intro: 24th November, 2015

Once again this week I’m linking up with Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea who hosts a post every Tuesday for people to share the first chapter / paragraph of the book they are reading, or thinking of reading soon. I really enjoy these tasters when I read them on other blogs so wanted to join in.

imageThis week, I’m reading The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness. It’s young adult so not my normal read but I am trying to step outside the box with my reading a bit more and it looked interesting when I saw it on the shelf at the library.

Here’s what it’s about…

What if you aren’t the Chosen One?

The one who’s supposed to fight the zombies, or the soul-eating ghosts, or whatever the heck this new thing is, with the blue lights and the death?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.

Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions.

And here’s how it starts…

On the day we’re the last people to see indie kid Finn alive, we’re all sprawled together in the Field, talking about love and stomachs.

“I don’t believe that, though,” my sister says, and I look up at the slight tension in her voice. She gives me a half-annoyed nod of reassurance in the sunshine, then shakes her head again at Henna. “You always have a choice. I don’t care if you think it’s love –and by the way, NOT a word you should throw around so easily –but even if that, even if that word, you can still choose to act right.”

What do you ink? Would you keep reading?

emma

A Sheltered Woman, a short story by Yiyun Li

After yesterday’s BBC 2015 prize winner for best short story review, today I read The Times’ 2015 short story winner. Partly because I liked the sound of it but also because I wanted to compare the stories and see if I could hone my short story reading palette. I can’t say I succeeded with the later, though I did enjoy today’s story just a little bit more.

I think that is because it was different – there were no spooky goings on here – but also because it was a subject I know little about – Chinese American culture and I felt like I got a little glimpse into this world though Auntie Mei, a baby nanny.

A baby nanny is one who only stays for the first month of the babies life and takes care of child and mother. Auntie Mei is good at it and in demand – she has looked after 131 babies all told. She doesn’t get attached and she doesn’t linger, moving on as soon as the child is a month old. Her latest job, though, has her thinking it might be time for a change.

As with the other short stories this week, I was amazed by how much Li got into so few pages (16) and how real the character of Auntie Mei felt to me, how well I thought I knew her and her life by the end. She is an interesting woman with an interesting last, one who has made some very non-traditional choices in a pretty traditional world.

Li has a great way with words and painted a really detailed picture of a small slice of life. I have not read anything by her before but definitely will be now! Another well worth a read.

Emma

Briar Road, a short story by Jonathan Buckley

Next up for me short story wise this week, in recognition of national short story week, is Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley.

bbcnssa_2015_logo_webBriar Rose won the BBC national short story award for 2015 and – like yesterday’s The Memory Man – has a supernatural element to it as a psychic tries to help a family find out what has happened to their missing daughter. She visits their house, holds a séance, but can’t give them the answers they want.

I found the portrayals of the family and their reactions to the psychic’s visit very real – each was very different and not everyone’s was what you might expect.  Then there was the psychic herself – I loved her cynicism (“It’s a wonderfully written story, rich on the small details that drew me in.  On first reading, it seemed very simple but there was a lot of emotion here.”).

I can’t say I’m the best judge of a short story, as with all things we like what we like, but I can see why it won – this was a well written story that drew me in quickly and had me caring for the characters within a few paragraphs – something that is hard to do.  Well worth a read.

Emma