Monthly Archives: February 2016

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS by BA Paris

behind closed doors by ba paris

“The gripping debut thriller everyone is talking about” proclaimed the adverts and this book certainly is gripping, thrilling and more besides. Grace and Jack seem to have the perfect life – happy marriage, beautiful house, wealth, health and talent. But it soon becomes clear that behind the facade is one controlling,  manipulative husband and one wife who is well and truly over a barrel. Grace’s sister Millie is the reason she’s been so effectively skewered and, as the plot unravels, it becomes clear Jack has anticipated everything. It’s hard to say more without spoilers but, rest assured, this book is both clever and sensitive to some of the issues it raises, including domestic abuse and the impact Downs Syndrome can have on a family.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS is a real page turner – and full of unexpected twists and turns. Paris is a gifted story teller and although none of the major characters was hugely well developed (the reasons for Jack’s behaviour, for example, don’t quite all add up), they are credible enough to carry the story. My one criticism is that I felt Grace didn’t really make the most of the various opportunities she had to expose Jack or escape his clutches. Of course, any psychological abuse situation is complicated, with fear, and low self worth amongst the many factors at play, but Grace is inconsistent and this slightly affected my enjoyment of the book. That said, it’s a fine example of this kind of novel and, given how popular the genre is at present, I am sure it will do very well.

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GOLD FAME CITRUS by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold fame citrus by claire vaye watkins

Luz and Ray live in a California where water has all but run out.  They are squatting in a starlet’s abandoned mansion when they “find” a child, Ig, and decide to head east where water is rumoured to be in relatively plentiful supply. But in a world where the state hands out coca cola rations and a shape shifting super dune called Amargosa is slowly engulfing every small American town in its path, such a journey is neither safe nor straightforward. Ray’s status as an army deserter doesn’t help matters, nor do rumours of people never being allowed to leave forced evacuation camps. Nevertheless they set out to make the journey and are instantly confronted with yet more evidence of the environmental ruin that’s overtaken America – caved in highways, forests of dessicated yucca plants and the most intense heat imaginable. When their car breaks down, Ray leaves Ig and Luz in its shelter to go in search of help but never returns. They, however, are found by members of a wandering community who track the super dune and have adapted to live in its environs, dowsing for water, growing their own food and scavenging from the ruins that Amargosa leaves in its wake.

This community – and in particular matriarchal Dallas – nurse Luz and Ig back from severe sun stroke and give them a home. A grieving Luz soon grows to rely more and more on the community leader, Levi, both for his homegrown brute root that evens out the knots in life and to reflect her sense of self as a good mother, a good person. But nobody matters to Levi more than the Amargosa and the power it has given him- to curate, direct and enjoy his gift for being a charlatan.

Watkins mainly tells her story by way of a straightforward linear narrative but every so often she goes off piste, with varying degrees of success. In one instance she breaks off to present a guide to the new species that have evolved in the deserts surrounding Amargosa, which is both clever and poignant. At another point she zooms out and describes the way those flying over the super dune are intoxicated by its presence and the destruction it reaps – I felt this section worked less well and I found myself skipping pages at this point. However, her writing is always searing, unsettling and unusual, and never more so than when she’s describing the (lost) natural world. So we get, “The prospect of Mother Nature opening her legs and inviting Los Angeles back into her ripeness was, like the disks of water shimmering in the last foothill reservoirs patrolled by the National Guard, evaporating daily.” Sitting in Levi’s geodome, Luz reflects that every home is a mausoleum, a wax museum, thanks to “ferns on throw pillows coated in formaldehyde; poppies on petrochemical dinner plates; boxes and bags of bulk pulp stuffs emblazoned with plant imagery”.  Watkins does tender and beautiful – when Luz and Levi find a long abandoned swimming pool, being submerged in the green water is “like being in an angel’s inner ear” – and savage parody with equal confidence. There’s a genius extended riff on TV viewing that gives us reality shows such as Embalming with the Stars, Sixteen with HIV, Midgets in Middle Management, as well as Laughing Gas, “a raunch-com about dentists innovating a myriad of ways to violate their unconscious patients”.

As a commentary on fame and celebrity culture, this book is many layered. For example, Luz is Baby Dunn, poster child for the state’s conservation movement, and has lived her life in the shadow of headlines such as “Every Swimming Pool in California to Be Drained Before Baby Dunn Is Old Enough to Take Swimming Lessons” and “Without Evacs Baby Dunn Will Die of Thirst by 24”. Her instantly recognisable face prompts Levi to cook up a scheme to protect the super dune and his community from annihilation by the authorities but, like so much in this novel (deliberately and otherwise), what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.

As dystopian literature, GOLD FAME CITRUS is far more realistic than the other books I’ve read in this genre (there’s a passage for example detailing what’s happened to the food supply: “the beef gray…pears grimy…hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust…raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts”). And yet I didn’t like it nearly as much.  For starters, there’s barely an iota of hope that’s survived the environmental crises engulfing Los Angeles and, rather than rising to the challenges they face (whether that’s an oppressive state or the reality of an ever dwindling water table), the book’s characters are self indulgent, irresponsible and thoughtless. I wanted heroes and was sorely disappointed.  Despite their names, Luz and Ray are no shining lights come to save the world. What’s more, Luz is defined almost entirely by her dependence on men, as are the other women in the book, and the cliche of the charismatic male who has everyone in his sexual thrall is tired and boring, even when satirical as it is here. Add in the fact that Luz is Latina, passive and shallow, whilst the (white) men are supposedly deep and masterful, and you have a whole host of other things that grate.

There’s some real gems in here, in particular Watkin’s ability to convey foreboding, fear and desperation. She’s clearly a talented writer and I am even prepared to forgive her for the rather abrupt ending to this book. But overall, despite much promise and potential, ultimately it left me as frustrated and unfulfilled as gold, fame and citrus are wont to do. A mirage in the desert, this book shimmers and entices but fails to really deliver.

 

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THE OFFERING by Grace Mcleen

the offering by grace mcleen

This ought to be good and the premise is certainly a powerful one – a personal account of mental ill health from Madeline, resident of a mental institution for over 15 years and who has recently and violently attacked her doctor. THE OFFERING is about the painful process of recalling life before incarceration, including the events that brought her to Lethem Park Mental Infirmary, as well as about her more recent memories, of both the day to day realities of being a patient and the circumstances that have resulted in her recent isolation. And yet, whilst beautifully written, keenly observed and deeply moving in parts, this book really didn’t hold my attention or grab my imagination, I am sad to say.

In common with McLeen’s THE LAND OF DECORATION, religion plays a significant role in the novel, and we learn about Madeleine’s unorthodox childhood going door to door with her parents and a bible. This socially outcast child becomes the same in adulthood and it’s not the only parallel. Her father looms large in Madeleine’s memory, primarily as a figure whose expectations she can never live up to, someone who seems to endlessly judge and find her morally wanting. The young Madeleine seeks solace, and God, in the natural world that surrounds her and soon learns to strike bargains that involve the offerings of the novel’s title. In Dr Lucas, a new doctor at the infirmary, Madeleine encounters another male figure trying to invade her thoughts and feelings – whilst we are temporarily lulled by Madeleine’s articulate self, she soon rails against him and his methods, and her disturbed self resurfaces. Robbed of all power and control over her fate, Madeline, both in the past and present, squeezes whatever control she can from her existence. One of the most effective scenes is when her fellow patients do the same – a small dinner time rebellion that momentarily invigorates Madeleine and the others.

The ultimate unreliable narrator, she certainly comes across as more sinned against than sinning, with flashbacks that reveal both parents to have suffered poor mental health, apparently exacerbated by rejection, hardship and fear. But there’s no mistaken diagnosis here – this is most definitely a portrait of someone with a grave mental illness. As the story reaches its climax, Madeleine, in touch, finally, with her past, recognises the hollow nature of her capacity for freedom and makes a deliberate decision about her future. In doing so, she begs serious questions about the nature of sanity and reason, whilst simultaneously confirming that she is, very obviously, out of her mind.

THE OFFERING is an important and honest book. McLeen’s writing is stunning at times. And the narrative is strong, striking and thoughtful. So I don’t really know why it made such little impact on me, why I struggled to finish it and got distracted by facebook, cookery books, TV, any number of things. It deserves better and I hope other readers find in these pages that which I could not.

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WONDER by RJ Palacio

wonder by rj palacio

This is a very special book and came recommended by a very special friend. It’s the story of a year in the life of Auggie, a ten year old who is about to start middle school. Auggie has a sister, Via, a dog named Daisy, a mild Star Wars obsession and his favourite time of the year is Halloween. He also has a cleft palate and suffers from mandibulofacial dysostosis, which means his face is severely deformed. “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” he warns us.

Auggie is trying his utmost not to be defined by his face and the boy we meet in this story is just like any other of his age in so many ways. It’s other people who are the problem, especially those determined to label him a freak or special needs. Having never been to school because of all the surgery he has needed, starting at Beecher Prep is tough enough, never mind the enormous battle he faces trying to overcome people’s reactions to, and prejudices about, his face. As the school year unfolds, Auggie struggles to fit in and it seems he will always be the boy others avoid and stare at.

Palacio tells the story through various different narrators, including Via and two of the children who Auggie makes friends with at school, Jack and Summer. She’s captured their different voices and perspectives beautifully, and relies on a simplicity that suggests a writer confident in her own skills. WONDER explores both what it’s like to be different and how we react to difference, whether with fear, caution, or open mindedness. Palacio also goes out of her way to contrast Auggie’s life with that of some other other children in the book, who might not be suffering because of they way they look but have other challenges going on. She’s created a hugely loving, warm and accepting family for Auggie, who embrace him for who he is and are deeply proud of his bravery. But some of his peers are not so lucky and Auggie’s story makes us really think about what’s important.

There’s a clear moral to the book – it’s this, more than anything else, that marks it out as written for children – and a message that runs throughout: “always try to be a little kinder than necessary.” But Palacio is also telling us that what we do with our lives matters, even if our lives just revolve around going to school each day. That we shape the world by the way we treat others, the example we set and the good we try to do. It’s not a new idea but it’s one that definitely bears repeating. Both heartrendingly sad and enormously uplifting, WONDER is the kind of the book that enriches your life and stays with you way beyond the last page has been turned.  Read, enjoy and remember: neither judge a book by its cover nor a person by their face.

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BOSSY PANTS by Tina Fey

bossypants by tina fey

Tina Fey first came onto my radar when she did “that” impression of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. I thought it – and she – were genius and this book confirms my first impressions: Fey is one seriously smart, funny woman. The woman thing is at the heart of this memoir, which is full of anecdotes about the sexism she has encountered through her career and some great riffs on breast feeding, juggling motherhood and work, and the pleasure of work alongside people like Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler. The latter is the source of one stand out tale: she was messing around with the writers on Saturday Night Live, doing something “dirty, loud and ‘unladylike’ ” when Jimmy Fallon, the then main star of the show, asked Amy to stop, saying “I don’t like it”. Fey describes her colleagues response – “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him: ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ ” – as a totem to which she returns time and again, the whole point of her work and a guide to how to deal with the critics that say women just aren’t funny, whether they do so directly or indirectly.

In BOSSYPANTS  we learn that Fey first developed her love and comedy and performance as a teenager who enrolled in a theatre program for young people. It was a formative experience, both professionally and politically. She says of it: “We should strive to make our society more Summer Showtime: Mostly a meritocracy, despite some vicious backstabbing. Everyone gets a spot in the chorus. Bring white shorts from home.”  We discover too that she idolises Don Fey, a strong father figure, whom she credits alongside other “cost free techniques” such as “Calamity, Praise, Local Theatre, and flat feet” for helping to raise “an achievement oriented, obedient, drug-free, virgin adult”. Don, his daughter tells us, looks like he’s “somebody” and she clearly revels in stories about him being a “badass”.

But it’s not until adulthood and Fey’s days at Saturday Night Live and beyond that the book really gets into its stride. There are some brilliant laugh out loud moments. One of my favourite chapters is of her online response to social media trolls, particularly this, to a post by “SmarterChild” on a body building forum asserting “I’d stick it in her tail pipe”:

“Dear SmarterChild,” write Fey, “Thank you so much for your interest. Whether you meant it in a sexual way or merely as an act of aggression, I am grateful. As a “woman of a certain age” in this business, I feel incredibly lucky to still be “catching your eye” “with my anus”. You keep me relevant!”

As a woman who tends to read a certain kind of book, I personally feel incredibly lucky that  I can still be moved to tears of laughter and not just tears of despair.

Equally good are the sketches about the cruise she takes with her husband, the reflections on how to survive a photo shoot, and on her first “real” job on reception at a YMCA. There’s definitely something of the sketch show about the whole – it’s more a collection of moments than a coherent whole. But the sheer force of Fey’s personality and talent makes this a stand out book for me – she’s unyielding, self deprecating and very, very funny. It’s pure entertainment and, as someone who also identifies as a bossy pants, I loved it.

 

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