Book 13of25 Bonfire #ReadwithRD

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This is my ‘Recommended by a magazine’ book. I can’t remember which magazine it was, but I think it was Marie Claire.

A bit of background, for those who don’t know. Krysten Ritter is perhaps better known as an actress, appearing in the much funnier than it should be TV show “Don’t Trust the  B**** in Apartment 23” alongside Dawson from Dawson’s Creek, Gia in Veronica Mars and most recently, everyone’s favourite angsty whisky drinkin’ leather jacket wearin’ superhero, Jessica Jones.

Bonfire

“Bonfire’ is her debut novel, pitched as a thriller about a young woman’s past coming back to haunt her.  Total honesty – books like this aren’t usually my thing. I have a surprisingly low appetite for dead bodies, assault and violence in general. Superhero wham, bam and some good gunfights are all good, but I think there’s so much going on at the moment, I could spend my time reading something uplifting and nice, basically.

I was interested though, I like Ritter’s acting and she’s had an interesting career so far, albeit slightly typecast as the sultry femme fatale with a lean towards nihilism.

The lead character, Abby Williams, is coming back home after decades away, hot on the trail of a big legal case against an evil corporate company who may or may not be harming the inhabitants of the small town she comes from. Demons of all kinds pop up; in the form of her abusive bully father who is old and succumbing to the ravages of age pretty gracelessly, old classmates and will they/won’t they old flames.

During the course of running down the leads in the case, Abby finds herself being drawn deeper in and remembering the girl who vanished, all those years ago…

So basically, it’s very pulpy and all over the place in tone. It lurches from love story to crime thriller and into human interest without really deepening the characters. I was frustrated with it because it wasn’t written very well, which made it a bit clunky to read, but also because I wanted to know more about Abby’s big city lawyer team and how they fitted (or didn’t) in within the town. I wanted the focus to be on the bad water but it ended up being on the weird grooming plot that pops up at the end with no resolution, really. I didn’t learn anything more about Abby and frankly, I didn’t really want to.

The other thing I struggled with is not imagining Ritter as Jessica Jones in the main role. Abby wears boots and leather and she drinks too much. She’s also had a pretty rough life and spends much of her day moping about and thinking about how her life has been pretty rough.

I might not read her next book, if there is one – you might enjoy it as a holiday read or perhaps cosied up with a hot chocolate in front of the fire.

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Jodi Picoult – A Spark of Light

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I still remember picking up a Picoult in Tesco Metro, nearly 15 years ago.  I talk more about it in this post, from the Archives.

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The last book I read of hers before “Spark of Light” was “Small Great Things”, which told the tale of a black nurse in the middle of a lawsuit with white supremacists who accuse her of killing their baby. It has all of the hallmarks of a great Picoult – a tricky situation, empathy with all those concerned through showing different perspectives in a sensitive and well handled way and engaging action throughout with just enough mystery to keep you guessing about what’s going to happen.

“Spark of Light” starts off in the middle of a hostage situation in a medical facility which provides abortions. Hot button topic right there, made more complicated by the presence of the hostage negotiator’s teenage daughter and his sister, caught up in the middle. Hugh convinces the gunman to swap his daughter for him in the hostages.

The story unfolds in a spiral pattern, almost – looping back around to the abortion centre time and again before swooping away to introduce one of the other hostages. I found this to be really confusing and I think one of the reasons why is because the characters of the women are not clearly drawn. I couldn’t tell the difference in voice between Olive, Joy, Jasmine, Izzy, Bex or Wren and kept having to check which one was which. This was distracting and disengaging as I found it hard to concentrate on the storyline.

I usually enjoy a bit of non linear narrative but in this instance, I don’t think it added value to the novel and instead added ambiguity and confusion.

As we pick through the characters and how they got to be in the situation, we start to realise that they were all there for a different reason and under different circumstances. Olive’s been given months to live after a devastating cancer diagnosis, Wren wants to practice safe sex and George (the shooter) is angry because his daughter had an abortion.  While I understood where Jodi was coming from in terms of telling each story and representing lots of different perspectives on why a centre like this is necessary (not all of them being for abortions), it came across as a bit heavy handed and a lot more ‘afternoon special’ than her previous books.

The father-daughter dynamic between George and his mysteriously unlocatable daughter, and Hugh and Wren, are carefully painted and positioned almost as a possessive relationship. This didn’t sit comfortably with me – your children are not yours to own, waiting to be set free whenever you see fit. Wren is 16/17 years old – almost old enough to vote and definitely old enough to make her own decisions.  The inference that women are looked after by their fathers until they are deemed old enough to be ‘passed on’ to their boyfriends and husbands was a bit much for me. This may not have been the intention but it was definitely how it read. Hugh spends quite a few chapters pining over her lost childhood, which bordered on creepy, in my opinion.

Jodi Picoult had clearly done a lot of research around abortion laws, the main issues and real life examples, and that showed. I think that concentrating on one or two of the stories would have made it more engaging and easier to follow.

Emma Healey – Whistle in the Dark

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Emma Healey’s debut novel, “Elizabeth is Missing”, was published in 2014 and won the Costa Book Award for First Novel.  I found it to be an engaging, heartbreaking story of the reality of dementia, as Maud searches for her missing best friend. She has flashes of realization that she has asked these same people the same questions, but there’s nothing she can do about it and she soon lapses back into the panicked searching for Elizabeth, unable to focus on anything else.

whistle in th dark

Healey’s second novel, “Whistle in the Dark”, is the story of a mother and daughter – Jen and Lana. I read this a couple of weeks ago and had to look up the names of the main characters – a big difference to the level of interest I had to the first novel. This review isn’t going to just be a comparison between the two books, I promise!

The story opens with Lana’s miraculous return after being missing for four days while on an art trip with Jen. She’s okay but has mysterious injuries consistent with sexual assault and has refused a rape kit. She’s withdrawn and has a large gash on the back of her head, with no memory of how or what happened.

They return to London with Jen’s husband and Lana’s father, and gradually the cast of the story increases. The older sister, Meg, comes into view with a lesbian pregnancy as news. Jen’s precarious job in marketing passes by before she’s asked to take a leave of absence to recover after the trauma of losing Lana, and finding her again without knowing what happened.

The narrative perspective is all from Jen and I found it quite difficult to be sympathetic.  Lana is clearly depressed and has been suffering from anxiety and depression for a long time even before her disappearance. Jen hounds, harasses and spies on her in an effort to uncover what happened. She examines evidence, decides her daughter went to a literal hell and back and then thinks she’s hiding an intimate relationship before fixating on a religious obsession.  It was difficult to not shout ‘just leave her alone and give her cups of tea and a blanket, you selfish, self serving woman’ quite a lot.

She also becomes suspicious of the relationship between Lana and her husband, Hugh. They whisper in rooms and stop talking when she comes in. As the reader and being outside of the story, it’s easy to see that her family are worried about her when she’s clearly struggling.

I did find the story itself interesting – the juxtaposition between the bustle of London and the starkness of the hills and caves provides a definite backdrop to paint the details in. The climactic last chapters provided a good payoff but ultimately for me, I expected more. More than ‘where did Lana go?’, as laid out in the blurb on the back of the book.

Perhaps I couldn’t relate to Jen because I do not have a teenage daughter, and definitely not one who is depressed and has disappeared for four days. I was quite interested in Meg though, and the relationship between her and Lana. The way it was painted by Jen was apparently very differently perceived by the rest of the family, and for me it’s the gap between the perception and the reality which makes for the most interesting stories.

Book 12of25 Men Explain Things to Me #ReadWithRD

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men explain thingsThe book I read that was ‘written by a journalist’ was “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit. She’s written a clutch of books around human rights and environmental issues alongside being a regular contributor for the Guardian newspaper, political blog TomDispatch and LitHub.

The book is a collection of essays which starts with the most well known one, describing a dinner party instance when a pompous man describes her own book to her, and refuses to believe she can possibly have written it. This is the essay which is credited with the origins of the word ‘mansplaining’, although Solnit herself says that she did not create it and it is never written in that essay.

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 10.16.00That essay was first published in April 2008 on TomDispatch, and to be honest, it felt like the feminism journey had carried on from here and it was now out of date. Yes, men still explain things to me and others. Yes, some people are not aware of it but the conversation has moved on since then – which is a great thing. It read more as a marker in time rather than a rallying cry, which is the innate problem with the written and published text.  As soon as it’s printed, it’s out of date.

SuffrageddonIn a world where a suffragette musical is being made and has been crowdfunded by 250%, as Suffrageddon: The Musical, a place where there are Women’s Marches, international support to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland and so much more support for women, it’s clearly a precursor, an historical anecdote about that conversation in which it was recognised that this bloke was rude and ignorant.  You can read more on Suffrageddon here, by the way. It’s going to be at Latitude for all of you who are going this weekend!

As a collection of essays, the topics covered range from Virginia Woolf to equal marriage. All of these were interesting to read, possibly the most interesting being the equal marriage one and the ‘threat’ when we allow same sex marriage to exist. This was a nicely argued point – that same sex marriages are by definition, equal in that two men are seen as equal where a man and a woman may not be, in the eyes of the law. Therefore, for same sex marriages to exist and be equal by definition, that follows that marriage between a self identified man and woman are also equal. Solnit words it better than I do!

It’s such a slim collection that I read it in an afternoon, sitting in the garden in the sunshine. It’s thought provoking and the essay which mentions Woolf reminded me that I have never read anything by her – perhaps it’s time to start! Any recommendations?

The graphic novel one 11of25 #ReadWithRD

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This post is the ‘book that is a graphic novel’ one. I actually read a few from different comics because it felt like a bit of a cheat to read one issue as a whole book – it doesn’t take very long to read!

The two I read were ‘Saga’ and ‘The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Volume 1’. I haven’t read a lot of graphic novels and I tend to stay away from the ones with thousands of issues – it seems to be too hard to keep up, too easy to get confused about what’s going where and who’s doing what and to be honest, also too expensive.  I have a weakness for notebooks, fancy water bottles and running shoes already – adding ‘five issues of various new comic book series per week’ to that list is a stretch too far.  I have read graphic novels though – the standalone ones which tend to have a strong political slant. Maus, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (maybe the last one isn’t too political but then again, maybe it is!).

Thanks as always to the ever brilliant Mr Charming for pointing me to Saga.  Aside from being excellent in lots of other ways, he is also an employee of the equally excellent library service in Norwich. For those of you who don’t know and are local, not only is there an extensive graphic novel collection in the main city library but there is also a wealth of knowledge in the staff who are more than happy to help out and recommend/reserve/purchase books if you need them. If you aren’t local, it’s worth asking your local library or even popping down to see what they have to offer, if you haven’t already!

SagaSaga is the love story across enemy lines – a couple from two sides fall in love as they realise they don’t have their hearts in the war they’re fighting in. In the first few pages, Alana is in labour and has a baby. She, Marko and their newborn then have to flee from their respective armies as they are both deserters – traitors. It’s written by Brian K Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples.

The artwork is nice to look at but, in my extremely humble opinion, nothing special. Some of the panels are a bit graphic for me, if I’m completely honest. One of the bounty hunters is a female/spider hybrid who is terrifying and beautiful, but it’s an unnecessary image to have her topless as well. I’m not very far into the narrative but what I have read is interesting – the characters are strong and I especially like The Will, another bounty hunter who acquires a small child to look after within the early stages, alongside his cat, Lying. It’s special talent is pointing out a lie by pronouncing “LYING” at the person doing the lying, which is pretty funny and has already proven to be awkwardly timed.

I will keep reading it – I’ve only read Volume One so far and I know there are lots more of them so I will carry on. I also picked up Volumes 2 and 3 at the same time so I have no excuses not to!

squirrel girlThanks to an amazing friend,Weedy, for gifting me ‘Squirrel Girl’ for my birthday. I had heard a bit about her in the past but never really got around to picking it up. She’s part of the Marvel universe and is pretty kickass, actually.  i don’t think it’s technically a spoiler to say that she defeats Victor Von Doom AND Thanos pretty much single handed, as that’s the blurb on the front of the comic. IN the first four issues, she goes to college in a bid to be a more ‘normal’ girl and get some education before getting a pardner, who she hopes will be Iron Man. Her best friend and sidekick is Tippy Toes the squirrel, who has an excellent pink ribbon round her neck. His neck? I’m not sure it ever says but to be honest, I thought he was more of  he. She also gains a roommate, a crush and  runs into some ultimate bad guys along the way. It’s created by Ryan North and Erica Henderson.

I like her character – her cheerfulness, her enthusiasm and her willingness to see the best of people are refreshing and not quite what we have been used to in the MCU in the cinema, at least. I think that the upcoming “Antman and the Wasp” film might have some of the quippiness that Squirrel Girl has, and maybe the crossover – I don’t know. It’s lighthearted and fun and I will probably read the next issue – I can’t help thinking that it would make a great film though, or a Netflix standalone TV series as an anecdote to the ‘dark and scary’ Defenders endless parade we have at the moment.

As far as graphic novels go –  I don’t think its that different from reading a book, Although judging by the facial expressions on the wait staff where I had dinner and read one night last week, they were surprised to see me reading a comic book.  I would say that I want to read series which are beautifully drawn – that’s part of the point, for me. Secondly, I find it difficult to remember to look at the panels and not just read the text, which comes from me not being used to reading them. I think that would become easier with time.

The Possible World Book 10of25 #ReadWithRD

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My ‘book that you got for free’ is “The Possible World” by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz. Thanks to the publisher, Random House UK, and Netgalley for providing me with a digital copy.

First off, I am not going to go into too much detail with the plot of this book because one of the reasons  I loved it was the way it unfolded and knitted together. For me, a book which is cared for and thought about and written beautifully is a joy to read, and this one was. I don’t want to ruin it by spilling too much though!

possible worldThe first chapter is told first person through Ben – a little boy, small for his age and nervous about going to a birthday party with other kids, bigger and meaner than he is. His Mum assures him it’ll be fine and she’ll pick him up in a few hours. The scene is so real, so natural, between the small boys, that I was in the basement with them. As predicted, one of the boys is mean and Ben is so nervous that he goes to the bathroom for something to do. When he comes out, his life is changed forever. (Sorry, cryptic!)

In the meantime, we follow Clare, a centegenerian in a care home who is faintly exasperated with the ‘young ‘uns’ coming in at 70 years old. She only wants to sleep and read, and definitely does not want to make any kind of new friend or relationship at this time of her life. She’s too busy trying to forget the other relationships, at any rate.

Thirdly, we get to be a part of Lucy’s life as she navigates through residency and ‘death month’ – a month of night shifts which means balancing enough sleep in the daylight hours with just enough socialising so that your life is not all work/sleep/enough food to keep you alive. In this section it really becomes clear that O’Halloran Schwarz has a detailed knowledge of medicine and the ER – everything was clearly described and vivid, I could see it all.

As each person’s story unfolds it allows us to see the similarities, and in some cases there are crossovers. Characters pop up in multiple stories as the narrative is knitted together. The themes come out strong and clear: regret, shame, humanity. We are all striving for the same thing – no matter where we live or what we do or how our lives begin and end. Comfort, closeness from other human beings (or cats). Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t – we need to keep moving forward to get to the next section of our journeys.

I really loved this book. I think for a lot of books, your current state of mind makes a difference and I know that I am in exactly the right place, mentally, for this right now. Very rarely do I clamour to keep reading a book and this was the first one in a long time that I couldn’t wait to read at night, at lunch, whenever I could. I even put down my phone for long enough to mean I got some decent reading time before bed! I wholeheartedly recommend it if you’re a fan of time changes, flashbacks, stories with people in the middle of them – Kate Atkinson or Audrey Niffenegger.

Lastly, thank you to Liese O’Halloran Schwarz for writing this with her heart and soul.

I’m with the band: Confessions of a groupie 9of25 #READWITHRD

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with the band cover“I’m with the band: Confessions of a groupie” by Pamela des Barres is my ‘book that is a memoir’. In 1960s California, in the height of the Summer of Love and free spirits, Pamela tells all of the tales on the people she met, the things she got to see and do.

She describes herself as a groupie but acknowledges that the word has been corrupted in the interim decades. I admit I read this with some trepidation and a few misgivings – a woman following some musician blokes around in order to have sex with them doesn’t seem to be a fantastically equal opportunity, even if it was 5 decades ago.

Nevertheless, I was interested to read her story – what a time to be around and involved in music, with Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones rubbing shoulders (and other parts) with ‘normal’ people! Any google search will tell you about Pamela’s relationships with lots of famous rock musicians, so I’m not going to go into those in detail.

GTOsWhat I found fascinating was her drive and determination – she wanted to meet the Beatles, so she did. She wanted to be in a band and so she got into the GTOs, under Frank Zappa’s wing and with lots of other strong women who were doing what they wanted to do. Sometimes these were considered to be outrageous acts – not wearing many (or any) clothes, overindulging in alcohol or drug taking, but there was nothing really shocking. From a feminist perspective, I found it to be aligned with the basic principles – she did what she wanted for reasons of her own. She loved the music and musicians – creative, handsome souls – and wanted to get close to them. She made her own clothes, paid her own way and lived  her own life while recognising that she has needs to be attended to.

The other aspect I enjoyed was her inner monologue – her diaries are endearing and show her to be much less confident than she would have appeared, despite her young age. She describes her parents with such love and is generally such a positive person, it is easy to like her.

One thing which started to grate slightly towards the end was that ‘present day’ Pamela would describe the situation or story, before inserting a section from ‘past Pamela’ and her diary which repeated many of the same points in slightly different language. It may have been that I read it in minimal sittings so noticed the repetition more. Secondly, the last third of the book seemed to consist of PS, addendum and updates as it was re-released to commemorate anniversaries etc, which included obituaries and sad endings for many of the people in the book. This made it all a bit sad, really.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy it and I have had my interest in that part of history piqued – she’s written a few more books so maybe I’ll read those too!