Monthly Archives: June 2013

HALF A WIFE by Gaby Hinsliff

Another Hay on Wye festival buy, this is the former political editor of the Observer’s study of how to juggle work and family. The half a wife of the total refers to the role needed to keep a family running smoothly – the bills paid, the PE kit packed, birthday cards bought and sent, hoovering done and so on. Having described how challenging it is to ensure this role is properly filled for most families where both parents are working full time – and how more often that not it is the woman who busts a gut trying to get it all done – Hinsliff explores the alternatives and sets out what policy makers should be doing to make it all much easier. I like the fact she goes out of her way to stress that the important thing is to find a model that works for you – she’s not in the business of telling anyone the right way to raise a family or inducing guilt. I also like her no nonsense approach, the various reports of interviews with working parents and the way she challenges various myths eg its women who most feel the tug to be at home when children are first born. There’s also some really interesting evidence about how labour tends to get divided between same sex couples with children and  the benefits for all involved in single child families. A few things grated, such as her idea that a low paid worker is on £30,000 (she’s obviously not interviewed many cleaners, retail or even public sector staff in her research for the book), and the recommendations for national policy are a bit tame, but overall this is an intelligent, very accessible book that I wish I’d read when my daughter was young and I was trying to be a good mum, full time worker and do the work of half a wife.

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DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver

More young adult science fiction, described on the back cover as Margaret Atwood meets Twilight. I have never read the Twilight books (or seen the films) but the Atwood comparison is apt as far as a dystopian vision of the future is concerned, although the writing is nothing like as good as hers.

Lena Haloway is fast approaching 18, the age at which she will be subjected to a compulsory procedure on her brain designed to protect her from a rampant, dangerous and feared disease – amor deliria nervosa. Otherwise known as love. In common with all her peers, Lena’s life so far has been carefully controlled to ensure she doesn’t encounter boys unless absolutely necessary, and then only under strict supervision. Music, dancing, singing, touching or anything that might bring on the disease are completely forbidden and Lena is looking forward to being fixed so she can be paired with one of the handful of partners the state will identify for her. Until, that is, a seemingly chance encounter with a boy named Alex, part of an underground resistance movement, whose members live on the outskirts of Lena’s home town of Portland and are struggling to destabilise the authorities. Perhaps inevitably Lena and Alex fall in love, forcing her to question all the has been told about the ‘disease’ and ultimately uncover the truth about much more besides. DELIRIUM’s an easy gripping read on the whole but it did drag a bit for me in parts – too many pages of teenage romance! But it’s a clever idea, well executed, and although I am not desperate to read the rest of the trilogy, I certainly will at some point, especially as there’s a taster at the end of my edition of the book which suggests the next one may be a bit edgier.

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WITNESS THE NIGHT by Kishwar Desai

I read a review of this writer in the paper a few weeks ago and immediately felt I wanted to read her work. This definitely lived up to expectations. The central character is Simran Singh, an unorthodox and independent minded social worker whose unmarried status, smoking and drinking mean she is frowned upon by traditional Punjabi society. Her determination to shine a light on the practice of female infanticide ostracizes her even further – and at times even seems to pose a risk to her life. Told in part through the diary entries of a young teenager imprisoned for apparently murdering thirteen members of her family in cold blood, in part by emails between Simran and the teenager’s sister in law who fled to London just before the killings, and Simran’s own narrative,  WITNESS THE NIGHT shocks from the outset, yet is moving, sensitive and beautifully paced. The writing at times feels a bit odd – almost as though it’s been translated – but that doesn’t detract from its impact or the wonderful characterisation of Simran in particular. Secrecy, prejudice, deceit and corruption are rife in the society that Desai portrays and any girls that survive do so against the odds, fighting for their lives on an almost daily basis. The ties that bind families together are a source of horror in the world Simran uncovers and men in particular come off very badly – they tend to be greedy, weak, manipulative or all three. But the power of love, and sisterhood in particular, saves the book from being a totally bleak perspective on human nature – along with Simran’s self deprecating irreverence and humour. She features in other novels by Desai and I am looking forward to meeting her again.

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HEADHUNTERS by Jo Nesbo

Roger Brown, star of Headhunters, is slick, intelligent and likes to surprise you. Very slick. Very intelligent. And full of surprises. And so is this book.  I didn’t realise Jo Nesbo had written it until I saw the film advertised and was lucky enough to find this copy in a second hand book shop in Hay on Wye during a visit the annual literature festival. I can see why it made it onto the big screen, packed as it is with thefts, love affairs, greedy characters, revenge killings, corrupt corporation, missing artistic masterpieces and one extended scene in particular that sees Brown hiding out in a shit tank (literally) then impaling a killer dog on the prongs of a tractor.

It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds, I promise!

In part it’s the sharp plot that keeps it from being so and in part the compelling nature of the main protagonist who, whilst not a patch on Nesbo’s Harry Hole character is, nevertheless, a well put together combination of flaws and idiosyncrasies. Relentless and full of twists, there’s also an edgy tenderness to this novel, notably from the relationship between Brown and his wife, which keeps it from being just another boy’s thriller. We never quite know if one of them has the upper hand or who is telling the most lies – and why. It’s this that really piqued my interest and makes Headhunters stand out head and shoulders above similar books. Fast and furious, this happily helped me escape a busy and stressful few days at work – job done.

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CAPITAL by John Lanchester

In several of the books I have read lately that are set in London it’s the city that ends up being the star and the title of this one and the front cover (a jumble of houses and recognisable buildings) led me to expect the same. But I was wrong. Although London is the backdrop, especially the financial city, here it’s the human stories and characters that occupy centre stage, bound together by ties of economic and social capital. Ties that are increasingly put to the test as the 2008 financial crisis starts to impact on the residents of one London street.

We meet the inhabitants of Pepys Street as each household receives a mystery postcard bearing the message “We want what you have”. This is the start of a sustained campaign that culminates in harassment and criminal damage, all the while providing a framework for our intrusion into the lives unfolding behind each front door. There’s Petunia, the elderly and sick mother of a Banksy type artist who values his anonymity above everything else; Mickey the football club fixer, whose responsibility for the future star and teenage prodigy Freddy cannot forestall a terrible accident; Roger the archetypal puffed up London banker and his appalling wife Arabella who does little but redecorate her home and consume stuff; and the extended Kamal family who run the street’s newspaper shop and who you just know are going to be the target of some horrible racist prejudice. And then there are the characters who don’t live on the street but are an intrinsic part of its existence, such as Quentina the traffic warden who is an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe, Zbigniew the Polish builder, Matya the Hungarian nanny, Mary who has come home to care for her dying parent and DI Mill who is responsible for finding out who is sending the mystery postcards. Each is a vehicle for some kind of social commentary but is conjured with such enormous quantities of warmth, kindness and humour that, although this is a very satirical book, it’s also one that increases our understanding about what makes people behave the way they do – especially when that terrible London obsession with house prices is concerned!

CAPITAL made me both laugh and cry. It’s clever beyond words but not too clever for its own good. And as a record of the current state of the nation it’s a joy to read.

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