J is for Joe Dunthorne

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First off, I have an admission to do with this book. I know the author – we went to UEA at the same time and were in pretty much the same social circle. That said, I’ll try to write the review as if I don’t know the author (lovely boy that he is) so it’s as unbiased as possible. I just wanted to get that off my chest, and now I have – let’s carry on.
“Submarine” by Joe Dunthorne is a bit like Adrian Mole, but not. It’s a bit like my teenage years, but not, because mine weren’t ruled by the penis. It’s like nothing else I’ve read, in a nutshell.
Oliver Tate is a fifteen year old boy (at the beginning, at least) who’s having a few issues with his parents. They don’t understand him, but he understands them enough to know that they need reassurances that he’s okay. Unfortunately for Oliver, these reassurances have a habit of going awry. He goes to a therapist to show his parents what a grown up he is, and also so he can tell them that the therapist said that they need to talk to him more and tell him all of their secrets. Instead, the therapist turns out to be his allegedly pan-sexual neighbour whose car he vomited on after the alarm kept him awake all night. Oliver, in a fit of maturity, tells his neighbour what he did. Of course, the neighbour tells Oliver’s mum who’s obviously even more worried than she was before.


This is the interesting thing about the novel. As it’s Oliver’s diary, everything he says and does, along with everything he says happens, is subject to scrutiny because he’s acting as a natural filter. He writes like most people write diaries – by pretending someone else is reading. That means there’s another censor on his tales, along with the fact that his girlfriend, Jordana, is actually reading his diary (although he knows about this).

Oliver’s experiences reminded me of how I felt at sixteen – nearly an adult but, quite patronisingly, so very far away. It also explains a lot about the boys I knew at sixteen – how they seemed to think about things completely differently, and approach everything in a weird, underhand way. There were times when I wanted to shout at Oliver, and tell him to ring Jordana if he liked her, rather than not think of her at all. It does explain a lot though, and it helped that I’m ten years older and a different gender to the voice of the story.
His parents have problems, which is a problem for Oliver because really, he’s a child in a man’s body. It was difficult to tell whether they were as irritating as they were drawn, or if the teenage filter was tainting Oliver’s view. That didn’t really affect the story, as it’s meant to be Oliver’s tale, from his perspective and coloured with whatever opinion he has at the time.
It made me want to know Oliver as an older person – to see how he turned out and whether he retained his love of words and the keenness to fit in social situations, regardless of the consequences.
I liked that Wales was a character all on its own. Swansea and the surrounding areas were a big part of the diary, but not a conscious one. The reader can see that Oliver loves Wales and his hometown but isn’t yet aware of it. The beaches are lightly sketched with enough detail so they’re easy to visualise. I think it might have been easier for me because I spent my teenage years in Plymouth, which isn’t too far from Wales and has a pretty similar coastline, from what I’ve heard.
Apart from anything else, “Submarine” is funny. It’s the comical touches that prevent the parent/sex stuff from getting too heavy. It’s hard to describe, and my witterings won’t do the subtle nuances of Joey’s book justice, but sometimes Oliver says things or thinks things that I have thought too. Usually he says things out loud that I’ve thought, but have had the tact to keep internalised.

So. I’d recommend this for people who’re feeling a little bit nostalgic, or who want to read something a bit different.

Next week: Kate Atkinson’s “Behind the scenes at the museum”. If Amazon deliver on time. Eep.

Is for Ian Fleming

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The book for ‘I’ is “From Russia with love” by Ian Fleming.
It was recommended by Mr Charming, as he loves Bond and I had never read a Bond book. Wikipedia tells me that it was the fifth Bond novel, and Mr Charming tells me that Fleming thought it’d be his last.
I’m really glad I read this book – it’s not one I would have chosen normally, partly because I can never remember the plots of the Bond films, only the title songs. I’m also not a great lover of spy/espionage/crime stories.
However, in the spirit of the book challenge (and bearing in mind that it’s only a couple of hundred pages long) I threw myself into the Russians Vs the British.
Fleming’s style is quite formal and you can tell he wrote it in the 1950s. Everything’s quite proper, with an atmosphere of change, like bated breath. The women are more vocal, the hotels he stays in are crumbling and there’s an air of decay throughout the book.
Aside from this, there are a few uncomfortable passages around slightly inappropriate views on women, races and groups of people which make it feel like your grandad’s just popped round and begun a conversation on those people who’ve just moved in down the road.
Still, you forgive him for being of a different generation, just as you forgive Bond. One of my favourite passages describes the Bond girl (who I called Thingybob Onatop for the whole thing – see, mixed up my plots again) Tatiana Romanov. Fleming describes her as a young Greta Garbo – beautiful, slim and fit through her ice dancing, but she’s done a bit too much of that so her behind is flat, like a man’s. Brilliant. I would swear that a woman had written that passage.
The story (for those of you who don’t know or, like me, can’t distinguish between Goldfinger, Goldeneye or Gold Member) is fairly simple. The Russians are annoyed that the rest of the world aren’t taking them seriously, so they decide to kill someone in an impressive way. This someone has to be suave and sophisticated and important to the English (the US was dismissed as being a bit rubbish – too much money) but not so important that they get a big, media slap on the wrist. They decide on their target as being a 007 agent called… Bond. Surprise! The chess champion and the manly matron come up with a plan to basically prostitute a girl to Bond, lure him into a false sense of security, and then someone else kills him. That way they have evidence that Bond was double agent-ing on good ol’ Blighty, which they can wave around in front of MI6.

Bond and M are frustratingly egotistical when it comes to dealing with the ruse. Tatiana Romanov pretends that she has a crush on Bond, and she wants to meet him with a stolen decoder as a kind of dowry. Instead of weighing up the options and considering that the Russians may well be up to something, Bond and M go haring off down the greed and arrogance path without even considering the tax payers’ money which will no doubt be wasted on the trip.

The interesting thing is that the story starts with the bad guys – Red Grant, SMERSH’s chief executioner, takes up a large chunk, along with Rosa Klebb. Bond doesn’t appear by name until chapter 5 (thank you, wikipedia) and the man himself follows a good few chapters later. This Bond is not the one from the films. The ladykiller charm is still there, but Bond has a scar down the left side of his face and on his shoulder which he is quite self conscious about. Herein lies the single oddity about reading a Bond book – you get to know what he’s feeling, what he thinks and what his insecurities are. It’s a little intrusive. The Bond dialogue fits with the films – there are the same witty one liners and quips – but the internal thoughts display an insecure man who dislikes getting older.

I’m not going to say any more about the story, as I’d like you to read it without the twists and turns ruined.
Fleming writes with authority and an ease which puts the reader straight into Istanbul, or on a shaky plane on Friday 13th, or in bed with a lady. Once the book challenge is over, I may well read the previous four books.

A begging note

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Hello,
This is a book plea.

Does anyone have any of these books that I can borrow for one week in the next couple of months?
If anyone has any other suggestions for a first name author beginning with ‘U’, feel free to tell me – I don’t really want to read Umberto Eco!

  • Marian Keyes This Charming Man
  • Nevil Shute A Town Like Alice
  • Quentin Crisp The Naked Civil Servant
  • Sophie Kinsella Confessions of a Shopaholic
  • Umbero Eco The Name of the Rose
  • Victor Hugo Les Miserables (the abridged version please – I can’t read 1200 pages in a week!)
  • Wilkie Collins The Woman in White

I promise I’ll look after them and you’ll get them back within ten days!

Thanks in anticipation.

H is for… Helen Fielding

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Books read this week 1.5 (vg) cigarettes today 1 (vg but 9am so not that great) units 0 calories (not telling as is not diary but online blog)

Everyone in the whole world must have heard of Bridget Jones. Amazonian tribes will no doubt be able to pick out Ronald McDonald and Rennee Zellwegger faster than Jesus’ likeness. I’ve read this before but it was about ten years ago and I fancied something light after George’s trek through destitution.
Light I wanted, and light I got. It’s a couple of hundred pages of fluff, where an apparently podgy girl (overweight at 9st? How tall is she, 3foot nothing?) battles with life, love and her basic lack of willpower as well as a failure to recognise a good thing where she sees it.
Fielding has coined a couple of phrases which have made their way into our everyday language – “Smug Marrieds” for people who happen to have got it together enough to get married is one example. I suppose “Singleton” could be atrributed to Fielding too, but don’t quote me on that.
The fact that it’s a diary gives me the reason I dislike it. Bridget is whiny, self obssesed and generally useless. She stumbles from job to job, failing to learn from past mistakes and expecting someone to come along and swoop her off her feet. Of course, it’s only told from her point of view, and how reliable is that? However, if she comes across as whiny in her own diary, I’d hate to think how she comes across in real life. I’ll bet she’s the Sloane at the bar drinking cocktails and shouting to her three equally Sloaney friends sitting three inches away.
Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair. Bridget and the rest of her saga (which continues into Bridget Jones and the Edge of Reason, fact fans) represents a large part of the population, no matter what gender or job or accent, even if it’s a fleeting thought or a bad decision you once made.
The annoying thing about it is that she is, in face, swept (swoopt?) off her feet by the rich, handsome and successful Mr Darcy. One thing I do enjoy about the BJ (teehee) series is that she loves Pride & Prejudice, where Colin Firth played Darcy, which Bridget watches regularly. In the films, Mr Darcy is played by Colin Firth… Meta-textual overload…

No matter how irritating Bridget is, I just can’t help enjoying her stumbles through life and, as always, the slightly abhorrent protagonist is saved by her friends. Countless times, Bridget’s friends come to her rescue. In one episode, she offers to make birthday dinner for everyone, fails to prepare (prepare to fail, as the old adage goes) forgets all of the ingredients, burns everything and basically gets in amassive muddle. Her friends, knowing her as well as they do, collect her from her disastorous flat, tidy up the mess and take her out for a slap up meal. That’s what friends are for, and she can’t be that annoying if she has friends like that, can she? Can she?

For the eagle eyed readers, the half book I read was Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind up bird chronicle”. I read Fielding first, and thought I’d tale advantage of my six hour travel to read Murakami too. Unfortunately, I didn’t bargain for a) a hefty tome of 500 pages and b) four hours of sleep the night before the journey back.
I will definitely finish it soon.

G is for.. George Orwell

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“Down and out in Paris and London” by George Orwell was his first full length work. It’s essentially autobiographical and tells the story of Orwell being poor in the late 1920s. basically. When he talks about poor, it’s not your average, nowadays poor of I can’t afford a pair of pretty shoes or I might have to forgo that Starbucks, but a state where everything depends onfood. Finding a penny in the gutter could make your week, as that would mean you can afford a hunk of stale bread, surviving for another day.

For the first half of the book, Orwell’s in Paris, scraping out a living amongst the whores and restaurant workers. It’s a complicated existence where he has to pawn his possessions to get money, but not too many to look destitute, or the boarding house managers will throw him out, rent paid or not.

His narrative style is odd but definitely Orwell – although he’s outside of the situation simply by it being his past, he manages to convey his emotions and feelings throughout, without being sentimental.

The second half of the book concentrates on him being homeless in London, after a job he returned for fell through. It describes a world where the homeless are provided for in the form of prison-like shelters, but most come with caveats. The Salvation Army ones demand prayer, which seems ridiculous as the men (the majority are men) barely have faith in themselves, let alone a deity who they can’t see or hear and is content to let them starve to death. Other shelters subject the ‘inmates’ to an intrusive full search, confiscating money, tobacco and anything else before they’re allowed to sleep on the concrete floor, with their boots as pillows if they’re lucky.

This all sounds pretty bleak. It was, and yet, Orwell carries you through his story with hope by painting vivid pictures of the characters he met along the way. It helps that he went on to become one of the greatest writers ever, and future echoes of “1984” are recognisable in the anger Orwell feels at being treated like cattle in the face of the establishment, and the despair of the men he mixes with at being trapped in a cycle they can’t get out of.

This is all relevant today – if you’re homeless, you can’t get a job and if you can’t get a job you can’t get a home. There are many choices to be made before you become homeless, but there are millions of people in the UK alone who are, or who have been, living on the streets. Orwell even proposes a solution – turn the ‘shelters’ into a self sufficient farm. The people who live there could be allowed to stay for longer than one night on the proviso that they farm the land to grow vegetables and raise animals. The people get food, shelter and a sense of self worth they may never have had. I’ve seen stuff on this sort of thing recently, but it’s a great idea that could work now – a half way house between the streets and a home.

Of course, this is a pretty Guardian view – there are people who feel more comfortable on the streets, they fit in there and have spent decades building up their lives based around a routine.

I don’t normally read books like this, but was highly recommended by Miss F and, at the end of the day, that’s what the book challenge is all about. I’m glad I read it though, and look forward to re-visiting Orwell soon.