Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

Author: Gavin Extence
Published: January 2013
What they say: A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …
Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.
What Sheli Says: I’d wanted this book since it was first published and treated myself to a copy in a sale a few months ago. I finally got around to reading it recently.
The book is written in a way that is easy to follow, and as it unfolds we find out more and more about the extraordinary Alex and his relationships with those around him.
The book has a very serious undertone to it, which I found unexpected and only really became apparent to me over halfway in. This turn in the book is heartbreaking when it happens, but is in no way depressing. Extence should be applauded for the handling of such a contentious subject in a factual, yet sensitive way.
I enjoyed this book and would like to read more about how Alex gets on in life. The only downside to this book was that I didn’t feel “gripped” by it in the way I’d hoped that I would have been.
Sheli's rating: 6/10

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


Author: Iain Banks

Published: 2009

What They Say: Imagine a world that is one of infinite parallel worlds, that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Presiding over this world is the Concern, an all-powerful organisation whose operatives possess extraordinary powers. There is Temudjin Oh, an unlikable assassin who journeys between the high passes of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and a wintry Venice; Adrian Cubbish, restlessly greedy City trader; and the Philosopher, a state-sponsored torturer who moves between the time zones with sinister ease. Transition is a high-definition, hyper-real apocalyptic fable for terrible times.

What Elaine Says:  Wow. Right where does one start with a book like this?  You might want to find a comfortable seat. 

Transition is only the second Iain Banks book I have read (The Wasp Factory being the other) and I’m happy and terrified to say this messed with mind in just the same way.  

As I’m sure most readers of this blog are away, Banks also passed away earlier this month after his battle with cancer.  I was about halfway through this book when I heard and it made reading the last half a rather more touching affair.  It really is a loss to the literary world.  Banks was a phenomenal author.  

Transition is a bit of an oddball in the Banks canon.  It appears that after some debate it was actually released in America under Iain M Banks (Banks’ sci-fi pseudonym).  I’m not sure I’d call it sci-fi but it’s certainly speculative fiction and I can see why the US used the Iain M Banks name to avoid confusion. 

So what’s it all about? Well having read it, it’s still quite difficult to explain.  Transition is set during what is deemed ‘the golden time’ between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the twin towers, a time when we didn’t realise quite how good we had it.  The plot is based on a rather complicated multiverse theory wherein (if I’ve got it remotely right) there are as many versions of Earth as we choose to imagine.  The story unfolds through many different narrators including a self-serving city trader, a state contracted torturer who refers to himself as ‘the philosopher’, and a world hopping assassin.  Following so far?  

The stories do eventually intertwine but for the most part they are fascinating in their own right and that’s even before coming to the overall story arc (a shadowy multiworld organisation known as ‘The Concern’) .  

The sections of the book told from the point of view of ‘The Philosopher’, generally made me retch and I mean that most literally.  Banks is an author that has the power to make me physically react to what’s on the page.  I’m not sure if that’s normal but my goodness is it powerful.  There are moments when I was so uncomfortable with what I was reading I simply couldn’t carry on.  My husband seems to think this is a bad thing and wonders why I persevere reading something like that.  To be honest, I’m not sure why but surely it’s the sign of a truly great author? 

Then we have the sections of book told from Adrian’s point of view (the self-serving city trader).  These made me laugh, a lot, and normally out loud on the bus. 

I was confused, amused, repulsed, but always enthralled by this book.  I have so many questions after reading it I kind of want to read it again but then there’s also a whole host of Banks novels out there that I’ve yet to experience.  If only there was some sort of multiverse whereby I could relive Transition and read the rest of his novels simultaneously.

RIP Iain Banks
Elaine's Rating: 9/10

“Perdition awaits at the end of a road constructed entirely from good intentions, the devil emerges from the details and hell abides in the small print.”

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Gillespie and I

Author: Jane Harris

Published: May 2011 

What They Say: From the award-winning author of "The Observations" comes a beautifully conjured and wickedly sharp tale of art and deception in nineteenth-century Scotland.

As she sits in her Bloomsbury home with her two pet birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter recounts the story of her friendship with Ned Gillespie--a talented artist whose life came to a tragic end before he ever achieved the fame and recognition that Harriet maintains he deserved.

In 1888, young Harriet arrives in Glasgow during the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter with Ned, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in their lives. But when tragedy strikes, culminating in a notorious criminal trial, the certainty of Harriet's new world rapidly spirals into suspicion and despair.

Infused with rich period detail, shot through with sly humor, and featuring a memorable cast of characters, "Gillespie and I" is an absorbing, atmospheric tale of one young woman's friendship with a volatile artist and her place in the controversy that consumes him--a tour de force from one of the emerging names of modern fiction.

What Elaine Says: Hmmm.  I’m not sure why I bought this book if I’m honest.  It’s not my normal sort of thing (whatever that is) and it’s also a very large chunky (albeit pretty) hardback edition.  Still, something obviously appealed to me so much that I not only bought it, I also picked it from the hundreds of others waiting to be read on my shelves and read it. Having done so however I’m still none the wiser as the ‘why?’. 

It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong.  It’s just not great.  It doesn’t please or stimulate thought it simply reads nicely.  In fact, if it weren’t for the monumental size of the edition I have, I’d say it was a perfect beach read. 

The story, the life of a fictional, relatively unknown, Scottish painter in the Fin De Si├Ęcle, as told by an aging (not very impartial) Harriet Baxter is interesting but the book takes some unusual turns and the main narrator is possibly one of the most irritating biographers I’ve encountered.  

Having read book and feeling as ambivalent towards it as I do it’s hard to actually rate it.  There are some very well read people I know that would love this book yet it just didn’t work for me.   The best I can do is say give it a chance yourself.  You may catch something I missed.

 Elaine's Rating: 5/10

"You may also wonder why I have been silent for so long, and why it has taken me all these years to put pen to paper. Perhaps I needed to gain some distance from a sequence of profoundly affecting events, not least of which was that Ned, in addition to wiping out his artistic legacy, also took his own life. By that time, I was thousands of miles away, and powerless to help him. Confident of an eventual reconciliation, I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unraveling, not only of our relationship (what with all that silly white-slavery business and the trial) but also of his entire fate. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. I will come to that in due course."

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Pyschopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Author: Jon Ronson

Published: Jan 2012

What They Say: What if society wasn’t fundamentally rational, but was motivated by insanity? This thought sets Jon Ronson on an utterly compelling adventure into the world of madness. Along the way, Jon meets psychopaths, those whose lives have been touched by madness and those whose job it is to diagnose it, including the influential psychologist who developed the Psychopath Test, from whom Jon learns the art of psychopath-spotting. A skill which seemingly reveals that madness could indeed be at the heart of everything. Combining Jon’s trademark humour, charm and investigative incision, The Psychopath Test is both entertaining and honest, unearthing dangerous truths and asking serious questions about how we define normality in a world where we are increasingly judged by our maddest edges.

What Elaine Says: Ronson is of course famous as the author of “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, a mind tripping, hilarious and (even more worryingly) true account of the US Governments pysch experiments during the 70s.   Now Ronson has turned his eye on psychopaths, or at least that’s what the title would suggest. 

Ronson actually started the book while looking into a mysterious book that was distributed to a select group of scientists in the US.  Having been brought into investigate this however he stumbles upon a far more interesting topic, psychopaths.  The book (as I expected) is a lot more about Ronson’s  journey than an insight into what goes on in the mind of a psychopath but it’s none the less wonderful for that.  

One of my favourite things about the whole book is how after learning about the Psychopath test (a scale used to measure psychopathic tendencies) Ronson starts rating everyone he encounters, including himself, with rather startling results.  

All in all this was more enjoyable than informative but it does have a few interesting tidbits into the world of psychiatry both past and present.  One for people interested in the mind but without wanting to actually stretch their own too much.

 Elaine's Rating: 7/10

“As I glanced at the phraseology of the research report, dull and unfathomable to outsiders like me, I thought that if you have the ambition to become a villain, the first thing you should do is learn to be impenetrable. Don’t act like Blofeld—monocled and ostentatious. We journalists love writing about eccentrics. We hate writing about impenetrable, boring people. It makes us look bad: the duller the interviewee, the duller the prose. If you want to get away with wielding true, malevolent power, be boring.”

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Radio

Author: M Jonathan Lee

Published: April 2013

What they say:
A comedy so black that you'd have to eat a lot of carrots to know whether George's adventures are actually visible. The Radio centres around the decline of the lovable, yet hapless George Poppleton, a middle-aged, henpecked father and husband who stumbles across an old transistor radio in his loft. His obsession with listening to the radio drives him on an unexpected journey, fuelled by the painful memories of the suicide of his only son many years before. Whilst his only daughter, Sam, and wife, Sheila, plan perhaps the most ill-fated wedding ever conceived, the radio transports George further and further away from reality. When a garlic baguette is used as a lethal weapon and the hogs finally take a stand and turn on the farmer who is about to roast them, nothing is likely to go as smoothly as the family may have hoped. The accidental return of Sam's ex-fiance, David, coupled with the endlessly drunk Auntie Lesley ensures that an almighty farce is just around the corner. The Radio ends with an unimaginable twist, when the family realise that things are not at all how they seemed. It is a story of what it means to be a family, the perception of loving and being loved, and what it means to be sane. It will appeal to anyone who enjoys family-based modern contemporary fiction with both poignancy and humour. Jonathan has been inspired by a number of novels, including Alex Garland's The Beach, and his writing is comparable to Mark Haddon, Nick Hornby and Joseph Connolly.

What Sheli says: I was expecting good things from this book when I started it, but never expected it to be as good as it was!

We meet George who is a loveable father figure who is just a little eccentric, and his wife Shelia and daughter Sam. They are a fairly typical family with their fair share of dysfunctional attributes! George, the downtrodden husband finds an old radio that he starts tinkering around with while his wife and daughter go out and have fun while he looks after his grand daughter. The tinkering becomes a bit more than that when he and the radio become inseparable and it becomes the most important thing in his life.

Some parts of the book had me laughing out loud, most had me chuckling, but some bits were desperately sad. The book was fabulously written and it was a real pleasure to read. It's easy going style and good pace kept me gripped and I finished the whole thing in a day. I'd love to read more about George and his family, and a little birdie had told me that there is more to come.

A fantastic book which is comparable to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Lost and Found. You should all go and buy it now!!

Sheli's rating: 10/10

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Angels & Insects

Author: A.S. Byatt

Published: 1992

What They Say: In these breathtaking novellas, A.S. Byatt returns to the territory she explored in Possession: the landscape of Victorian England, where science and spiritualism are both popular manias, and domestic decorum coexists with brutality and perversion. Angels and Insects is "delicate and confidently ironic.... Byatt perfectly blends laughter and sympathy [with] extraordinary sensuality"

What Elaine Says: I may have mentioned it previously but I love Byatt.  There are very few authors (living or dead) that even come close to having the command of language she has and far from being pretentious (which some claim) I believe she is an author that credits her reader with as much intelligence as she herself possesses. Both wonderful and ever rarer traits it seems. 

That being said, "Angels and Insects" just didn't deliver for me.  It's wonderfully written (of course) but it didn't quite enrapture me the way Byatt's other novels and short stories have.

There are two novellas within the book which explore, in turn, the Victorian fascination with the rather conflicting ideas of science and spiritualism.

The first novella "Morpho Eugenia" is a study of Victorian mores as well as faith.  It's interesting, beautiful in parts but for me there were far too many lengthy discussions about entomology (that would be the insect part of the book) and I found rather than adding to it, they distracted from the narrative.

The second, "The Conjugal Angel" I found much more interesting.  Tennyson's "In Memoriam" is the inspiration behind this tale of seances and  spiritualism.  It's a bit jumbled and a bit abstract yet rather compelling.  

If this was any other author I would be rushing out to buy their other works, however as it's Byatt it is rather unfairly measured by a different yard stick (also I already own almost every one of her books).  Unfortunately, I just didn't find this up to par. 

Byatt has conquered the novel form and more than mastered the short story form, perhaps novella is simply a form too many for this amazingly accomplished author.

Elaine's Rating: 7/10


“How beautiful all this is,” she said. “How lucky I always feel to live just here, of all the spots on the earth. To see the same flowers come out every spring in the meadows, and the same stream always running. I suppose it must seem a very bounded existence to you, with your experience of the world. But my roots go deep …”

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Grimm Tales for Young and Old

Author: Philip Pullman

Published: Sep 2012

What They Say:  In this beautiful book of classic fairy tales, award-winning author Philip Pullman has chosen his fifty favourite stories from the Brothers Grimm and presents them in a 'clear as water' retelling, in his unique and brilliant voice. From the quests and romance of classics such as "Rapunzel", "Snow White" and "Cinderella" to the danger and wit of such lesser-known tales as "The Three Snake Leaves", "Hans-my-Hedgehog" and "Godfather Death", Pullman brings the heart of each timeless tale to the fore, following with a brief but fascinating commentary on the story's background and history. In his introduction, he discusses how these stories have lasted so long, and become part of our collective storytelling imagination. These new versions show the adventures at their most lucid and engaging yet. Pullman's "Grimm Tales" of wicked wives, brave children and villainous kings will have you reading, reading aloud and rereading them for many years to come

What Elaine Says: Will I never learn?  Pullman is an author that has enraged me with every book of his I've read (this is number 3) yet I keep going back to him.  It seems Pullman always finds a topic that I find irresistible and then proceeds to irritate the hell out of me.  After being burned twice ("Northern Lights" I loathed and "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" was very good up until Pullman's, frankly arrogant, afterword) I swore I would never touch another Pullman book.  That is until he decided to tackle the world of Fairy Tales.

I love fairy tales. Chaotic, disarming and rather twisted Fairy Tales appear to promise access to the meaning of life and then lead you straight into the woods (no pun intended) where it's dark and rather confusing.  Fairy Tales, in short, are messy.

Pullman, in his wisdom, has decided that this simply wont do.  To quote the Times Literary Supplement (and who wouldn't?)
"Pullman actively scrubs and caulks, bends the timbers and adds supports. His book is a showpiece of the “neatness and clarity” he is aiming for, with notes on the stories that give odd glimpses into his often vehement reactions.”"  *
In doing this he has taken any charm and, in my opinion, any heart out of the stories and left in their place 50 well formed yet vacuous works of fiction. 

It's not all bad though.  There are two redeeming features about this book for me:

One is that at the end of each story there are paragraphs referencing the varying narratives of the tale and explaining why Pullman felt the need to 'improve' on them. This is an interesting little addition and probably the reason I persevered.

Two is that cover.  Look at it. Just beautiful.  Quite possibly my favourite book cover in a long time.

All in all this was yet another infuriating encounter with Pullman for me.  Never has an author frustrated me so yet kept me coming back. I can safely say though that THIS was the last straw.  Until next time that is.

*You can read the full Times Literary Supplement article here.

Elaine's Rating: 4/10  

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

Author: David Mitchell

Published: 2007

What They Say: The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the Japanese Empire's single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, and costly courtesans comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancee back in Holland. But Jacob's original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured midwife to the city's powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken--the consequences of which will extend beyond Jacob's worst imaginings.

What Elaine Says: Wow.  I'm a little late to the whole David Mitchell phenomenon but hey, arriving late to the party is preferable to not even knowing it's happening.  This is a heck of undertaking by the author.  Set in 1799 Japan this book has all the markings of an epic and yet we, quite intimately, follow the lives of two people who don't quite fit into the worlds they have found themselves in.

Funny, touching and rather gruesome in parts this book is really does have it all.  It's rather wonderful in fact.

I'm not normally a huge fan of historical fiction (Mantel aside) but something about Mitchell's writing is so fresh and bold it keeps you glued.

I'll definitely be seeking out more of Mitchell's writing. 

Elaine's Rating: 8/10

 “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love.” 

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Seating Arrangements

Author: Maggie Shipstead

Published: 1 July 2013

Publisher: HarperCollins - Blue Door

What They Say: Maggie Shipstead’s irresistible social satire, set on an exclusive New England island over a wedding weekend in June, provides a deliciously biting glimpse into the lives of the well-bred and ill-behaved.

Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff. Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.

Hilarious, keenly intelligent, and commandingly well written, Shipstead’s deceptively frothy first novel is a piercing rumination on desire, on love and its obligations, and on the dangers of leading an inauthentic life, heralding the debut of an exciting new literary voice.

What Sheli Says: This book centres around a WASPy family in New England as they have a family gathering for a wedding. The family turn out to be less than perfect and the inevitable family bickering starts and skeletons start falling out of the cupboard.

This story is well put together and a good debut, but not a lot happens. I have found this symptomatic of a few literary novels over the last two years or so, but it doesn't take away from the enjoyment. I wasn't sure if I would like this book at first, but enjoyed reading it although it won't make it's way onto my favourites list.

A little reminiscent of The Marriage Plot and made me picture a Stepford Wives-esque family. All in all, a good read and definitely recommended for a literary soap opera!

I received this book as an advance review copy from Lovereading in exchange for an honest review.

Sheli's Rating: 7/10

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Stories We Tell Ourselves

Author: Michelle Herman

Published: March 2013

What They Say: The two thought-provoking, extended essays that make up Stories We Tell Ourselves draw from the author’s richly diverse experiences and history, taking the reader on a deeply pleasurable walk to several unexpectedly profound destinations. A steady accumulation of fascinating science, psychoanalytic theory, and cultural history—ranging as far and wide as neuro-ophthalmology, ancient dream interpretation, and the essential differences between Jung and Freud—is smoothly intermixed with vivid anecdotes, entertaining digressions, and a disarming willingness to risk everything in the course of a revealing personal narrative.

“Dream Life” plumbs the depth of dreams—conceptually, biologically, and as the nursery of our most meaningful metaphors—as it considers dreams and dreaming every whichway: from the haruspicy of the Roman Empire to contemporary sleep and dream science, from the way birds dream to the way babies do, from our longing to tell them to the reasons we wish other people wouldn’t.

“Seeing Things” recounts a journey of mother and daughter—a Holmes-and-Watson pair intrepidly working their way through the mysteries of a disorder known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome—even as it restlessly detours into the world beyond the looking glass of the unconscious itself. In essays that constantly offer layers of surprises and ever-deeper insights, the author turns a powerful lens on the relationships that make up a family, on expertise and unsatisfying diagnoses, on science and art and the pleasures of contemplation and inquiry—and on our fears, regrets, hopes, and (of course) dreams.  

What Elaine Says: A short review for a short little book. This is a quietly beautiful and quirky little book. Divided into two distinct these are pretty much extended essays that read in a somewhat 'stream of consciousness' manner (Dreamlife in particular). 

"Dream Life" takes an indepth look at the authors dreams and subsequent interpretation.  It's actually quite funny at moments but I did feel the style starting to wear a little thin by the end.

"Seeing Things" is fabulously off beat and definitely my favourite part of the book. A strange and quirky examination of relationships within a family with an examination of art and science chucked in. 

Enjoyable, intriguing, a little touching and quite amusing I liked this book quite a lot.  Herman has produced something completely different than the norm and managed to make it charming in the process. 

Elaine's Rating: 6/10