Book Review: We Are Not In The World

not in the world

We Are Not In The World, by Conor O’Callaghan, tells the story of Paddy, a middle aged Irishman who dusts off his HGV licence in an attempt to get away from the mess his life has become. The story opens as he crosses the channel from England to France. He has just discovered his twenty-something year old daughter, Kitty, stowed away in his cab. Taking along a passenger is against the rules so she must stay hidden but Paddy welcomes the chance to spend time with her. They have had a difficult relationship since she was teenager, tarnished by a torrid affair and marriage breakdown.

Chapters follow the months of Paddy’s journeying through France, stopping mostly at truckers designated rest areas. He and Kitty stutter between silences and family reminiscences. We learn Paddy’s backstory – of his relationship with his parents and younger brother. The latter is Kitty’s godfather and the family’s golden boy. Paddy understands why but still harbours jealousy.

Interspersed with this unfolding tale are chapters told from the point of view of the other woman. For years she has been orchestrating liaisons for sex – encounters described graphically. Her husband is mostly aware of what is going on but tolerates such behaviour for the sake of their young son. These chapters are placed in reverse chronological order, linking to the reveals of Paddy’s life story.

Neither Paddy nor the woman are likeable characters, their selfish behaviour hurting those they should be caring for. The fallout from their actions is unexpected and poignant. Both have suffered personal tragedies.

There are disturbing scenes around the lives led by HGV drivers, their apparent camaraderie shadowed by bestial undercurrents. Paddy can hide amidst their accepted transience but prefers to keep himself and the grief he carries apart.

“I must have dropped a load at some point, but where and when I can’t remember. There must have been no pick-up. Now we’re just a cab. Now we’re doing what the super in the container at Dover said not to, heavy mileage without a load. A load is family. I see that. The load’s ballast gravitates you to a steady keel. Without it, I have felt all over the shop, buffeted by cross-winds, headlong and not enough to fix me to the ground.”

The story told is spare, haunting and beautifully wrought, despite the oedipal suggestions and sexual explicitness. It is a tale of family, of differing reactions to shared events and upbringing, and how even inevitable deaths can lead to schisms. Paddy may have behaved badly on numerous occasions, but time is shown to pass. The reader will come to realise that alongside regret there can be moments of hope.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.

Robyn Reviews: Beartown

‘Beartown’ is a powerful novel from a master of character-focused fiction. Along with ‘A Man Called Ove’, ‘Beartown’ is probably Fredrik Backman (and translator Neil Smith)’s most famous work – and for good reason. Where ‘A Man Called Ove’ focuses on one man, ‘Beartown’ focuses on an entire community – what makes it, what ties it together, and what happens when those ties start to fray apart. Its a brilliant piece of literature, and while it doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of ‘A Man Called Ove’, it’s a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Beartown is a nowhere town – a tiny town in a Swedish forest growing smaller year by year as its residents gradually up sticks in search of work and opportunity. It’s also, like so many towns in the area, a hockey town: and therein lies the town’s greatest hope of a future. If their junior hockey team can reach the finals, Beartown will finally be put on the map. When that future is threatened by one person speaking up, battle lines are drawn. What matters more: the future of the town, or the truth?

The novel switches between a large number of perspectives, with Maya, Amat, and Benji probably the strongest. Maya, a fifteen-year-old musician, can’t understand the hockey obsession of the town – she’d much rather be playing her guitar. She can, however, understand their obsession with star player Kevin Erdahl. Maya is sweet and naive but also strong, with an integrity and maturity beyond her age. Its impossible not to like her, and as the mood of the town turns, to both admire and pity her.

Amat, also fifteen, lives in the poor part of town – and for that, his immigrant status, and his small stature, he’s looked down upon. His escape is ice hockey – ever since he first put on a pair of skates he’s adored it, and thanks to his obsession his hard work is finally starting to pay off. He’s been awarded a coveted place on the junior team as they aim for the national finals. Being a part of the team comes with new acceptance and community – suddenly he’s a star, his name cheered instead of sneered at, his teammates protecting him from bullies instead of bullying him themselves. But there’s a cost – and as Amat leaves his old life behind, he starts to feel uncomfortable at the new one he’s thrust into. Like Maya, Amat is sweet and naive – but unlike her steel, Amat is pliable, unable to stand up for anything when the time comes. He has a good heart, and while it’s easy to villainise those who don’t speak up, Amat shows just how hard it can be.

Seventeen-year-old Benji is the backbone of the junior ice hockey team, known for his fierce fighting and protection of Kevin, the team’s star. He’s the cool kid – but Benji has more heart than most, and while he’s crafted himself into whatever Beartown and Kevin need him to be, he’s increasingly uncomfortable with that image. Benji’s character arc is one of the strongest, a compelling secondary narrative to the main story.

Of course, there are major adult characters in the novel too – Peter, the hockey club’s general manager and Maya’s dad, roles which eventually put him in conflict; Kira, Maya’s mum and a high-flying lawyer who, as an outsider to Beartown, still doesn’t understand it; Sune, the adult team’s elderly coach and increasingly ostracised by the club’s ambition. Each of these has a part to play – but it’s Maya and Amat who have the novel’s heart.

The town is central to the story, and Backman crafts a wonderful sense of place, emphasising Beartown’s isolation and accumulating state of disrepair. Like a Swedish winter, it’s a cold and unforgiving place, not fond of outsiders or those who threaten the status quo. This is superficially a book about ice hockey, but anyone who has lived in a small town can recognise the atmosphere of it.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that captures person and place perfectly, this is the book for you. Recommended for those who enjoy books about human nature, community, and just generally good reads.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd May 2018

Jackie reviews ‘A Man Called Ove’ here. Robyn reviews Backman’s latest release, ‘Anxious People’, here.

Book Review: Beethoven

beethoven

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“I do not write for the multitude – I write for the cultured!”

Ludwig van Beethoven has been described by some as the greatest ever composer of Western classical music. Numerous biographies of the man have been written, creating an image of an eccentric genius. Laura Tunbridge states that she wished to cut through the myths and place Beethoven’s life in its historical context. She employs a structure of nine of his compositions, exploring not just the Vienna in which he lived and worked but also the audiences available at the time, whose willingness to promote and attend musical performances was key to building renown. Beethoven harboured a lifelong desire for cultural acclaim alongside the practical support of wealthy patrons.

The book opens with three introductory sections. These set out: the financial struggles Beethoven faced, caused mostly by the Napoleonic Wars; musical terms employed in his compositions; the musical and family background in Bonn that shaped him, including his father’s wish that Ludwig be a prodigy in the manner of Mozart. On his first visit to Vienna, Beethoven captured the attention of the much lauded Mozart but then had to leave due to his mother’s final illness. He returned to the city for a second time to study under Haydn and did not return.

In Vienna, the ‘van’ in his name was wrongly assumed to be equal to the ‘von’ used in Austria – of noble birth. This suited Beethoven well. From early on he believed that the music he created was of a high order and deserving attention. He cultivated friendships that granted him access to those he needed to impress to raise money and build prestige. He wished to be heard by ‘educated listeners’ who would appreciate the difficulties inherent in playing his compositions. He had no interest in creating ‘crowd pleasers’.

“the practice of using the arts to assert cultural supremacy has been around for a long time”

There are marked differences between Beethoven’s early works and those from his later period. Some of this was down to changes in instrument design, allowing for greater range and a more robust sound. He worked through the ‘transition from creating music of ‘feeling’ to ‘art’’.

“Music was no longer to be merely an entertaining or interesting diversion but something more substantial”

Beethoven embraced this change fully, challenging what was possible. Given that performances at the time required musicians who would only have one or two rehearsals before playing to a captive audience, this approach could result in cacophony.

“His music could quickly reach the point when those who do not understand its rules and enjoy its difficulties would find no pleasure in it … complexity for its own sake”

The nine sections in the book offer as much musicology as exploration of the composer’s character and motivations. The history of the time is interesting but to fully appreciate the study of the music discussed one may need more of a background knowledge and interest than I possess. At times the discussion of musical terms and form became soporific.

The man himself does not sound appealing. Described as ‘sensitive, irritable and suspicious’ he comes across as arrogant and hypocritical. For example, he frequented brothels yet condemned his sister-in-law for sleeping with men she was not married to. He fought in the courts for custody of his nephew yet treated him terribly, resulting in the boy running away on several occasions.

As Beethoven’s music became ever more dense – and he, internationally famous – acquaintances would offer platitudes and practical help to gain access and curry favour by association. Others were more pragmatic, willing to offer criticism as audiences walked out of performances due to the chaotic and incomprehensible noise being made.

“its difficulty became a sign of its greatness. Effort had to be put in not only to play this music but to understand it too”

Unlike certain of his patrons, Beethoven was neither pleasant nor humble. He would sell exclusive, advance rights for his compositions to multiple sources. Money was a driver for this but also his belief in his own artistic worth – that it deserved greater recompense. Of course, an artist doesn’t have to be ‘nice’ to be lauded a genius – especially by the self-appointed arbiters of taste and artistic appreciation. I pondered if, as now in many creative spheres, certain fans and critics saw in his art what they thought they should.

Beethoven relied on unpaid helpers as well as his numerous if not always reliable patrons. He fell out with many of his contemporaries due to the way he treated them. One may question if his musical output was heavy, dense or brilliant. At the time, much of his later work was too difficult to play so was not well received by audiences and performers in a changing demographic.

The author is honest in her portrayal of an artist who remains something of an enigma, a construct built from myths propagated over centuries. The reader gains a picture of a man frustrated in his personal life and believing himself undervalued. He was not unappreciated in his own lifetime but the plaudits poured on him rarely appeared enough to please.

Any Cop?: In picking this book to read I did not expect there to be quite so much parsing of the chosen musical compositions. This detail aids understanding of classical structure but I suspect I am not the intended reader. Nevertheless, I gained a better understanding of Beethoven’s life, character and motivations in what is otherwise an engaging tale. That I didn’t find anything to like in the man is neither here nor there.

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: Full Disclosure

‘Full Disclosure’ is a delightful contemporary YA novel about navigating school, identity, and relationships with a slight twist – the protagonist, Simone, has HIV. A debut by a teenage author, it keeps the perfect balance between a fun YA contemporary and providing an honest look at the struggles of living with HIV – not because of the disease, which is easily controlled, but because of the stigma surrounding it. Simone makes a delightfully relatable protagonist, with authentic teenage worries compounded by the added stress of her secret. This is an incredibly important book, and highly recommended to teenage and adult readers alike.

Simone Garcia-Hampton has only been at her new school for a few months, but she’s determined that things will be different. Here, she finally has best friends, she’s respected and using her talents as the director of the school play, and she’s got a crush – Miles, the only Black boy on the school lacrosse team. She’s doing great – which is why it’s paramount that her HIV status stays a secret. After all, last time it got out, things got ugly. However, when it becomes apparent that Miles actually likes her back, things get complicated. She knows that undetectable means untransmissible – but will Miles still like her when she tells him her status? Then she starts receiving threatening notes – someone in the school knows, and if she doesn’t break up with Miles by Thanksgiving they’ll tell the whole school. Now Simone is juggling a new relationship, her classes, the school play, and desperately trying to keep her secret – and sooner or later, she knows it’ll all come tumbling down.

Simone is a fantastic protagonist. Brought up by two gay dads, who adopted her as a young child, she’s had a liberal and loving upbringing – other than having to take medication every day to control the HIV she was infected with by her birth mother. Her dads and doctors have always impressed the importance of taking her medication and being careful – and she is. But now, at seventeen, she’s ready to start exploring relationships and sex – and with her diagnosis, that’s a whole can of worms beyond what most seventeen year olds have to deal with. Simone is a strong, intelligent young woman, but having bad experiences with people finding out her HIV status before has knocked her self-esteem, and she’s terrified of the idea of having to disclose it to anyone else. She’s scared to confide her worries in anyone because that would either involve having to disclose her status or talking about sex with her parents. The stress of Simone’s predicament is wonderfully portrayed. It’s clear that she always wants to do the right thing but is terrified of being hurt again, especially when her life seems to be finally going well.

Being written by a teenager, all the characters feel believable. Simone and her best friends – Lydia and Claudia – are accepting and sex-positive, yet simultaneously awkward about sex and relationships in a way that feels completely authentic. Claudia is an asexual lesbian and Simone bisexual, and its great seeing them navigate those identities and figure out which labels suit them. There are also discussions on exclusion within queer spaces – being not bisexual enough when being in a male-female relationship, for example – which are important, and it’s great seeing them handled so well in a YA book. They’re not perfect – Claudia has a very black-and-white worldview common to teenagers figuring out the world, and Lydia can be passive and indecisive – but their imperfections make them three-dimensional and generate discussion.

The most impressive thing about this book is how, despite covering some important and heavy-hitting topics, it always remains first and foremost an enjoyable YA contemporary. It never feels preachy, and it’s packed full of lighthearted and fun moments as well as the more difficult ones. Discussions around the stigma of an HIV diagnosis, bisexual exclusion in queer spaces, the importance of safe sex and consent, and the difficulty of navigating school cliques and stereotypes are woven naturally and seamlessly into the overarching plot, enhancing rather than detracting from the central story about a girl navigating her first serious relationship. It’s an incredibly mature novel yet accessible to its teenage audience.

Overall, ‘Full Disclosure’ is a powerful YA contemporary covering some crucial topics in an engaging and enjoyable way. Highly recommended for all teenagers and young adults, anyone who works with them, and anyone who wants to educate themselves on what growing up with HIV is like while enjoying a great read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 30th October 2019

Book Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who emigrates to America. In the 1950s there were few opportunities for employment in Ireland. Eilis’s three brothers have already moved to England. Her sister, Rose, has kept the family afloat since their father died four years ago. Eilis is content to remain in the small town where she was born and raised but Rose wants more for her sister, recognising her intelligence. She approaches a visiting priest from Brooklyn and he agrees to sponsor Eilis and look out for her as needed.

Thus Eilis leaves her mother and sister in the family home to sail across the Atlantic aboard a crowded liner. She will be employed in a department store, all arranged by the priest. At night she takes classes in accountancy and book keeping – as she did in Ireland – hoping that one day she may work in an office rather than on a shop floor. She lives in a boarding house with six other women, including the strict, Irish landlady.

Although homesick, Eilis recognises that she has no choice for now and must make the most of this new life. When the priest decides to organise weekly dances to raise funds for the church, she goes along to support the venture. Here she is noticed by a young Italian man – finally she has events to look forward to.

The crisis in the tale occurs within Eilis’s family back in Ireland. She returns for a visit that she ends up lengthening. Just as she was sent to America without much discussion, now she finds her life being managed for her once again. She must decide what she actually wants – a choice between two very different but equally appealing futures.

Stories that feature a cast of ordinarily decent, consistently hard-working people are a rarity on my bookshelves. The characters conjured here are far from perfect – there is a degree of bitching at the boarding house and racism is rife, as was typical for the time. Nevertheless, Eilis is well supported in all her trials and endeavours. Even the Catholic Church is depicted positively.

The writing is deft and engaging. Difficulties are presented lightly, Eilis’s character and ambitions driving the narrative. Both small town Ireland and the immigrant communities in Brooklyn are evocatively portrayed. Eilis appears comfortable with the narrowness of her existence, mostly conforming to expectations.

An agreeable read albeit one that offered little memorable tension. Likely to appeal to those who enjoy tales of nice things happening to a nice girl.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.

Robyn Reviews: The Cousins

‘The Cousins’ is Karen McManus’s latest YA mystery. It’s slower paced than some of her other novels, with more of a contemporary focus than crime thriller, but equally as enjoyable and compelling. With each new novel, McManus continues to cement herself as a stalwart of the YA mystery genre.

Decades ago, the wealthy Mildred Margaret Story – owner of a lavish resort on Gull Coast Island – suddenly disinherited her four children with a single sentence: ‘You know what you did’. They never heard from her again – until unexpectedly, each of her three grandchildren receives a letter inviting them to work at her hotel for the summer and meet their mysterious grandmother. The three barely know each other, but suddenly find themselves packed off to the island to untangle a family mystery that’s remained buried for years. However, the more time they spend on the island, the more it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems – and some secrets are better left well alone.

The story alternates between four perspectives – the three grandchildren, Milly, Audrey, and Jonah, and flashbacks of Milly’s mother Allison, Mildred’s only daughter. Milly is introduced as the typical heiress – entitled, obsessed with fashion and her appearance, more interested in scoring drinks off men in bars than obtaining the grades for college. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye, and once you get past her caustic one-liners she becomes a caring and insightful character. She also shares her grandmother’s name – Mildred Margaret Story-Takahashi, for her Japanese father – and, despite her protestations, is more desperate for her grandmother’s approval than anyone else.

Audrey is an absolute sweetheart and one of the nicest characters in the book – however, she initially comes across as angry and petulant, throwing a competitive swim meet just to spite her instructor. There’s obviously a lot going on in her life behind the scenes, and her character development is probably the strongest of everyone’s. In many ways she’s naive and anxious, but she’s also incredibly smart and always wants to do the right thing.

Initially, Jonah seems like a typical entitled man, complaining about how going to the island is ruining his chances of going to an exclusive science camp and throwing insults left, right, and centre. His attitude and refusal to open up makes him a bit of a mystery – but as the story unfolds, he too becomes a far more sympathetic and intriguing character.

The plot is sedate, with more focus on family dynamics than the mystery until nearly the end of the book – but this works well, allowing each character to become established and their backgrounds to become clear. Towards the end, some of the revelations are pretty far-fetched, but nothing completely breaks the bounds of plausibility and McManus makes you want to believe it. The ending is excellent, with just the right amount of lingering mystery. The only part I’m less fond of is the romantic subplot – McManus always has one, but it doesn’t feel entirely necessary in this book. That being said, there’s a certain scene related to it involving a balcony which is absolutely priceless, so it might be worth it for that section alone.

This is a book about money, and the exploration of the lives of the rich – not the obscenely wealthy billionaires, but the sort of comfortably wealthy people who end up CEOs and politicians – is one of the most interesting parts. Their attitudes to money are so different, and there’s a complete gulf in understanding over what it actually means to be poor. It illustrates perfectly how those who have always had plenty simply cannot understand what it’s actually like to struggle to make ends meet.

Overall, this is a slower story than McManus’s previous books, but equally as well written with excellent characters and an intriguing backdrop. Some may not find it as engaging, but read for what it is rather than what it isn’t it makes a highly enjoyable read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd December 2020

Robyn Reviews: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage is the first book in Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy – the prequel trilogy to his ever-popular His Dark Materials. As someone who grew up with His Dark Materials, I was excited to return to the world of daemons and magic – but also wary. Spinoff series are famed for never being as good as the originals. Given that, La Belle Sauvage was a pleasant surprise.

The book follows Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old only child of a pub landlord. Malcolm is an intelligent and inquisitive child, well-mannered and keen to help everyone he comes across. He goes to school but understands that education is not really an option for him – he’ll take over the pub from his father or go into a trade instead. When he can, Malcolm volunteers at the local priory, helping the nuns in the kitchen and catching them up on all the news he overhears at the pub. However, his life is turned upside down by the sudden arrival of a baby at the priory – Lyra, the daughter of Lord Asriel, hidden away for her own safety.

La Belle Sauvage is split into two parts, unevenly weighted. The first follows Malcolm’s life in Oxford – his friendship with the nuns, his work at the pub, and the growing influence of a mysterious branch of the Church at his school. In my opinion, this is the stronger part. There’s less otherworldly fantasy, with the focus instead on building the characters and community setting. Malcolm is an absolute sweetheart, fiercely intelligent but completely naïve in the ways of the world. It’s a pleasure spending time with such a nice character. His relationship with the nuns – especially Sister Fenella – was heartwarming, and I loved his interactions with Dr Relf. There are regular cameos from characters we know from His Dark Materials – Lord Asriel, Marisa Coulter – but no real knowledge of the original trilogy is required. The feel is very different, and it’s all the stronger for it.

The second part is shorter, faster, and action-packed. This is where the fantasy element really comes into play, with witches and fairies and hidden lands. Despite being a huge fantasy fan, I thought this was the weaker part of the book. Malcolm continued to be a delight, and his evolving relationship with his companion, Alice, was interesting and well-handled, but the additional elements after such a slow, steady start were confusing and almost felt rushed. The writing was as great as ever, but the switch of pace was jarring and disconnected me from the story – I wasn’t as invested in some of the dramatic moments as I should have been. This would have worked better as an entirely slower book – stretched out like an epic fantasy – or an entirely faster book, with less of the build-up in Oxford and a tauter overall feel.

That being said, I enjoyed reading, and I think it’s a strong addition to the canon. Philip Pullman is undoubtedly a fantastic writer and he’s managed to create a collection of new characters that I care about just as much as the originals – a difficult feat in a spinoff series. I’m excited to see what happens to Malcolm and Alice – and, of course, their daemons Asta and Ben – next. (After all, we already know what happens to Lyra).

 

Published by David Fickling Books (Penguin)
Hardback: 19 October 2017
Paperback: 6 September 2018

Gig Review: #Cornerstone2020 New Writing Showcase in Bristol

On Thursday of last week I travelled to The Tobacco Factory in Bristol for Penguin’s #Cornerstone2020 new writing showcase. The Snug was packed with booksellers, bloggers, authors and publicists all eager to mingle and enjoy the generous hospitality. Drinks and snacks were provided; and then there were the books. By the end of the evening the overflowing table above was bare and emails were being exchanged to ensure that eager early readers could be provided with copies direct from London on the organiser’s return.

I am always delighted when book people leave their bases to tour other parts of the country. Prior to the Bristol event, much of this group had been to Edinburgh and Manchester. I had read on Twitter that these events were enjoyed by bloggers who attended.

So, what was the format of the evening?

To enable everyone to settle in and imbibe there was a chance to chat amongst ourselves. I honed in on Eley Williams who was deep in conversation with Matt, a bookseller I had met previously from Toppings Bookshop in Bath. I also chose to join a circle as a young lady there was carrying the Girly Swot tote from Galley Beggars so I thought they would be my sort of people. They turned out to be fellow book bloggers and we traded reading recommendations.

Susan Sandon, Managing Director of Cornerstone (a Penguin imprint), then brought the room to order and introduced the six authors who each gave a three minute pitch for their book.

Neil Blackmore introduced The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle as a seductive, sensuous novel. In it, two brothers embark on a Grand Tour of Europe where they plan to make connections and establish themselves in high society. Then they meet the beautiful and charismatic Edward Lavelle. The direction their lives are taking alters inexorably. The book will be published on 30 April.

Abbie Greaves introduced The Silent Treatment as a story inspired by a true situation she read about where a married couple hadn’t spoken for decades. In her tale, the couple live and sleep together but haven’t spoken for six months. Another blogger at the event had read an early proof and assured me it was brilliant and I must read it. The book will be published on 2 April.

Will MacLean introduced The Apparition Phase as a ghost story. Two children fake a photo to try to frighten an unpopular pupil at their school triggering a deadly chain of events. As a television scriptwriter, the author has focused on comedy and assured us that the book also has lighter elements, but it is what is lurking in the shadows that has always fascinated him. The book will be published on 15 October.

Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day is a dystopian thriller based on the premise that the world has stopped turning. Parts of the planet are parched by constant sunlight while on the other side never ending darkness engulfs those who remain. Only certain areas remain habitable – including Britain – and are fiercely guarded. The book will be launched this coming week, on 6 February.

Nick Pettigrew has only just been outed as the author of Anti-Social, the single non fiction title in the showcase. He has written a year long diary detailing cases he dealt with as an Anti-Social Behaviour officer – a job he has recently left. Described as wickedly funny it touches on many of contemporary society’s urgent yet neglected and widely ignored issues. The book will be published on 25 June.

Eley Williams was the hook that initially persuaded me to attend the evening. Her short story collection, Attrib., won the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Influx Press in the year that I (and Matt from Toppings) was on the judging panel. The Liar’s Dictionary is her first novel and explores the world of the  lexicographer and their mountweazels – false entries inserted within dictionaries and other works of reference. In the present day, a young intern is required to weed these out. In Victorian times, a disaffected employee inserts them. I find this premise delicious and can’t wait to read Eley’s creative celebration of the rigidity and absurdity of language.

Having heard from each of the authors about their books there was then time to mingle once again. Guests were eager to chat further and some wished to have their proofs signed which somewhat disrupted certain conversations. I managed to chat to four of the six authors before it was time for me to leave to catch my train home. I had made sure early on to pick up proofs and was pleased to find a tote provided.

Thank you to Lydia at Penguin for my invitation. I am delighted with my generous goody bag and look forward to some quality reading. The event was indeed enjoyable and well worth attending.

As an aside, the Tobacco Factory has a book swap corner and I now think this should be de rigueur in all pubs and cafés. From the reaction to my photo on Twitter, many readers agree.

Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green, tells a story riddled with scenarios that appear implausible yet is still satisfying to read. Set in Indianapolis, the protagonist is sixteen year old Aza who is plagued by OCD. Her best friend, Daisy, works an after school job at Chuck E. Cheese to enable her to save money towards college. When she hears the news that a local billionaire businessman has gone missing, and there is a large reward on offer for anyone who can help locate him, she decides that Aza and she should investigate. Several years previously Aza attended a camp – aimed at children who had lost a parent – with the man’s son, Davis. Despite living just across the river, Aza has not been in touch with Davis since.

Daisy writes popular Star Wars fan fiction and Aza is forever scouring the internet for information on the infections she fears. They put their collective on line skills together to find out all they can about the case. Daisy also hatches a plan to bring Aza and Davis back together. Despite his clear understanding of what is behind this sudden reunion, the lonely boy is drawn to Aza and they start to date. Meanwhile, Daisy gets together with Mychal, a talented arty student, which changes the dynamic of the girls’ friendship.

What we have then is a story of American teenagers and the troubles they each face. Daisy is portrayed as poor while Davis is incredibly wealthy yet each is seeking some of what the other has but cannot enjoy fully. Aza is so self absorbed by her serious mental health issues, she struggles to interact with anyone meaningfully. The strength of the story is in the multi-dimensional portrayal of lives, dreams and attitudes – the study of what a person actually is.

“I look into myself, there’s no actual me – just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances. And a lot of them don’t feel like they’re mine. They’re not things I want to think or do or whatever.”

Davis copes with his loneliness by reaching out to the world through his writing. Aza finds solace in his blog posts – she is more comfortable connecting on line than in real life. She wants them to have a relationship but struggles to get past her obsessive fears. However unlikely certain aspects that frame the story may be, the author writes vividly of how his characters’ think and feel. The problems faced by both those who suffer with OCD and those who care about their wellbeing are painfully evocative in their clarity.

This is an emotive but never mawkish tale about friendship, the cost of love and dependency. A fluid and engaging read for those who can accept the seemingly unrealistic framing.

Turtles All the Way Down is published by Penguin.

Book Review: Funny Girl

Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, is a gentle and percipient story about a team who create a 1960s situation comedy drama for prime time television. The protagonist is a young woman from Lancashire, Barbara Parker, who wishes to emulate her hero, Lucille Ball, and become a comic actress. To achieve her dream she travels to London where, through a series of lucky events, she meets a pair of radio writers and a producer who have been commissioned by the BBC to create a half hour show for a TV series, Comedy Playhouse. The team, including the already cast leading man, at first reject Barbara as she does not fit the look they desired for the female role. However, when they allow her a read through of the script it becomes clear there is a spark they could work with. Their decision to give Barbara the part changes all of their lives.

Barbara adopts a stage name, Sophie Straw, and adores the work she is given by her new colleagues. Their conceits, wit and education draw her into a world where she is eager to belong. They in turn value her talent, and two of the men are drawn to her looks and figure. Where most actresses are tall, straight and skinny, Sophie is buxom and curvy. With her northern accent – almost unheard of within the corridors of the BBC – and ability to cut through the affectations of certain highbrow media people, she is the root around which the sit-com grows.

Light entertainment is looked down upon by the serious critics. Amidst the many social changes of the 1960s was a wider hunger amongst the growing number of television viewers for shared enjoyment. The insufferably serious minded frown vociferously on the choices made by the millions who avidly watch popular TV shows. They believe such programming should be ‘relegated’ to the commercial channel and the BBC remain above populism.

“What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”

Barbara, now Sophie, remains ambitious but finds that success does not bring her the satisfaction expected.

“She began to fear that she would always be greedy, all the time. Nothing ever seemed to fill her up. Nothing ever seemed to touch the sides.”

Her co-star also develops a type of melancholy when he realises that fame in a sit-com will not propel him into the lauded parts in film and theatre that he expected and craves. Meanwhile, one of the writers is working on a novel and wishes to be taken seriously by the literati. What had initially felt like a lucky break loses its charm and momentum.

The tale takes the reader through the changes in the team as four series of their show are made. It then moves forward in time to what comes next.

The team members’ personalities lead to differing outcomes in their personal lives. These are portrayed with a light touch but offer insights that provide the depth in an otherwise benign if engaging read.

The final section depicts the characters in their old age. Even Sophie has become a product of the media: surrounded by people who want fame via the entertainment industry, removed from those with other ambitions and therefore assuming they don’t exist.

“Sometimes it seemed as though all anyone wanted to do was write television programmes, or sing, or appear in movies. Nobody wanted to make a paintbrush, or design engines, or even find a cure for cancer.”

She retains her occasionally astute observations, especially around how the aged are treated and how they regard themselves.

“people of their age wanted to think about the future, like everybody else, but what they most wanted was to live in the present, rather than the past”

The writing is easy on the reader but there are plenty of nuggets to chew over, especially on individual ambition in the arts and hierarchical conceits. Although providing a somewhat nostalgic look at what some regard as a golden era of light entertainment, there is much that is relevant in today’s climate of artistic judgement of quality and popularity. The various discontents are well rendered.

A strong addition to the author’s oeuvre, this is an enjoyable, undemanding yet satisfying tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.