Monthly Archives: October 2012

HEARTS AND MINDS by Amanda Craig

This is an uncomfortable read – compelling and  definitely enjoyable, but uncomfortable too. It’s the story of London’s immigrant population told through the experiences of Job, a teacher who has fled Zimbabwe and is now driving taxis and cleaning cars; of American Katie, who is trying to piece her life and heart back together working for a magazine that has thrust her right into the eye of class politics; of Ian, a white South African struggling with England’s weather, as well as the discovery that the violence and racial division of his homeland is alive and kicking at the North London state school where he teaches;  and of Anna, a teenager trafficked from Ukraine, who is beaten, raped and forced into prostitution. And then there is Polly Noble, single mother and human rights lawyer, whose au pair’s body is found in the lake on Hampstead Heath, sending her carefully balanced existence into a spin and bringing her face to face with her conscience. Each individual story is utterly gripping, the characters are believable and the threads that bind them together are never contrived. But the book’s real power lies in its commentary on modern London. In fact, more than anything, this is a book about our capital city, particularly the underworld that has always provided such riches for writers willing to go there. What they find  and shine a light on can provide a new perspective on our own actions, attitudes and degrees of responsibility. I know I could all too easily be guilty of some of Polly’s behaviour – the self-justification and the self-righteousness – so whilst this book did make me uncomfortable, it is very much worth reading as a reminder that how we reach out to others, with our hearts as well as our minds, is what matters the most.


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Miles has locked himself in the spare bedroom of a house in Greenwich. It belongs to an atrocious couple he has never met before but who annually hold an ‘alternative’ dinner party for friends of friends. He refuses to come out and his hosts refuse to call a lock smith  for fear of damaging the 18th century door and frame. Instead they slip wafer thin ham under the door, despite knowing he is a vegetarian, and write a column for the magazine supplement of the Guardian, citing the title of a previous article so we are left in no doubt about their response to the squatter – ‘I was mugged by my own brother’. It  prompts well wishers to flock to Greenwich and set up camp underneath Miles’ window, sending up food parcels and attracting all the paraphernalia of a 24 hours modern news cycle and itinerant merchandising opportunities. The book is not really about this though, other than as a premise that ties together the thoughts of 4 different people who have some kind of connection with Miles, past and present. Anna, who was on a school trip with him as a teenager but who has all but forgotten him. May, in a care home and still mourning the daughter who once went out with Miles before she killed herself years ago. Precocious Brooke, who is punning her way through a difficult patch of childhood. And Mark who converses with his dead artist mother, recently tried to pick up Miles at the theatre and  is responsible for bringing him to the dinner party. The connections are tenuous and we never actually learn why Miles takes up residence in this Greenwich bedroom, but somehow this doesn’t frustrate me as it might in other novels. Perhaps because the structure and essence of THERE BUT FOR THE is all about things unfinished and unexplained, threads from the past that are still weaving their way through the present, the ripe potential of random events to send ripples into all our futures, upsetting the best laid plans. It’s executed beautifully and unlike some writing, which weighs heavy with almost self-conscious literary skill, this is light and sparky – really wonderful.

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HIDE AND SEEK by Clare Sambrook

Harry’s little brother, Dan, goes missing and Harry blames himself. His family breaks apart, his friends form new alliances and even his trusty auntie Joan and fireman uncle Otis can’t rescue Harry from the fall out. As the days and months go by with no sign of Dan, everyone has their own way of coping. Harry turns detective and hunts down whoever might have Dan, his Mum fixates on the idea of having another baby, and his Dad tries to fight back and hold everything together. This is definitely not a book to read if you are feeling emotional and it’s written beautifully – never obvious, the heartbreak comes up on you from behind and literally punches you in the gut.  However, HIDE AND SEEK is just about saved from being  too painful to bear by the humour that comes from Harry’s nine and a half year old voice, be it wondering if police women wear navy blue bras with extra riot padding or repeating the colourful dialogue he overhears in the London square outside his window. And ultimately it’s hearing Harry’s voice again that allows the family to start the process of moving on from what has happened – and allows him to let go of the guilt he feels.  Joan says: ‘sometimes pain brings people together and sometimes it tears them apart’ but in fact HIDE AND SEEK demonstrates how both can be true and its this honesty and conflict that makes the book so memorable.

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HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron

I didn’t really enjoy Nora Ephron’s most well-known films (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) but when she died earlier this year I read so  many good reviews of this book I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. I am really glad I did. From the recipes thrown in every so often, to the incredibly funny anecdotes and one liners, HEARTBURN got to me. The story of a marriage break up, told with the benefit of hindsight, Ephron confesses all, as therapy, as warning and as entertainment. She concludes that there is no such thing as a faithful man, that denial in the face of the facts is perfectly normal, that the end of a relationship is not the end of the world even if it feels like it, and that mashed potato has the potential to mend broken hearts. She also reveals why writing about painful events is so powerful and it is these words that have stuck with me:

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and  I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

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PHANTOM by Jo Nesbo

What joy, a new Jo Nesbo and a chance to catch up with Harry Hole again. This time it’s really personal as Harry returns to Oslo to find out why Oleg, the teenage son of love of his life Raquel, is being held for murder. Drugs, guns, old Nazi escape tunnels, police corruption and Jim Bean – all the elements are there for another cracking installment in Harry’s eventful career. And a bitter sweet ending that leaves open the possibility of yet more to come….can’t wait.

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WHIT by Iain Banks

I think this was the first Iain Banks book I ever read, years ago, and I am still in awe of how totally different each of his books are and of his incredible imagination. WHIT is the story of teenager Isis, the elect of God, who is sent out amongst the unsaved on a mission that eventually forces her to question virtually everything about the cult in which she has been raised. Her journey to Babylondon and beyond brings Isis into contact with aspects of the modern world that are rejected by her techno-phobic community and her perspective shines a light on our seemingly normal ‘rituals’ and values, suggesting they might be just as strange as some of those she has grown up with. The real journey though is one of discovery –  that her jealous brother has been undermining Isis’ position and that her grandfather, founder of their faith, is a lecherous devil who tries to sexually abuse his grand-daughter. Despite these revelations, Banks depiction of the cult is surprisingly sympathetic – at times more so than his treatment of society at large – and Isis emerges as a genuine and credible example of goodness. There’s a strong moral dimension to the novel that, tellingly, is very distinct from the immoral religious one. As Banks himself has said, Isis comes to recognise the value of community over and above religion and that people not profit are what matters. Unusually for a male author, all of the women in this novel shine, whereas the men are, on the whole, either nasty pieces of work or incredibly shallow. For that alone I give it top marks!

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