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THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES by Kate Tempest

Harry is a high end drug dealer, in partnership with her lifelong friend and back-watcher Leon. One night she meets and falls for Becky, a dancer, who also waits tables in the family cafe and gives massages to strangers in hotel rooms. She notices Pete in the family cafe because he’s reading a book written by Becky’s estranged father. The two get talking then get together. Pete is Harry’s half brother but none of them realise the connection until Harry throws a surprise party for Pete. A surprise party at which Harry also discovers she knows Becky’s drug dealing uncles – and not in a good way.

THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES explodes into being as Leon, Harry and Becky are fleeing London with a suitcase full of money. The opening prose is pure poetry  and it only gets better and better. This book is gritty, funny, sexy and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Tempest has created characters that are so real it hurts sometimes. They are linked not just by the story she’s woven but by being variously abandoned and ambitious, and the bricks of their lives, from childhood upwards, are carefully laid and cemented together, generation on generation.

Tempest has captured London too, “cocksure, alert to danger, charming”, in particular parts of my south east corner where “The road is strewn with picked clean rib bones, and the faint smell of boozy piss mixes with the sweet rot of skunk smoke.” But she’s been clever enough not to let the city take centre stage, with a story and a pace that’s irrepressible.

A book about the bass line, THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES thrums with truth, from lines like “People are killing for Gods again. Money is killing us all.” to the way Tempest steadily unpicks the relationship women have with their bodies and their sexuality. It’s a book with purpose but never feels worthy. A book that’s incredibly daring but never tries too hard.

Tempest is a poet, a rapper and spoken word performer. She gives us phrases like “Harry’s voice is a broken window, letting the rain in.” and “She swallowed her doubt, but the hook stuck in the flesh of her mouth, pulling her upwards, away from him.” At times the words on the page feel like song lyrics, so I wasn’t surprised to learn after reading it that THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES is a companion piece to her Mercury Music Prize shortlisted debut album EVERYBODY DOWN.  It certainly made me sing. It made me want to fling open windows too and read passages to passers by, at the same time as wanting to hunker down and greedily savour every word in the peace of my own company.  Extraordinary.

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

life-after-life-by-kate-atkinson

A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS and STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson

started early, took my dog by kate atkinson when will there be good news by kate atkinson

More from the incomparable Atkinson and the next two in the Jackson Brodie series.

WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS sees Brodie involved in a horrific train crash, his identity stolen by a released prisoner, a kidnap, arson, some greek and latin text books used to hide drugs, and several wrong turns. Jam packed with accident, fluke and surprises galore, it is the living embodiment of a line much favoured by Brodie: A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen. It is also another of Atkinson’s tributes to the interconnectedness of people’s lives, especially their pasts, presents and futures.

As with the other Brodie books, women and girls being murdered is a key preoccupation, and here, as well as our detective’s familiar take on things, we are treated to the perspectives of a female police officer, Louise, (She had always preferred North and South to Wuthering Heights. All that demented running around the moors, identifying yourself with the scenery, not a good role model for a woman), and Joanna Hunter who, as a child, was the sole survivor of a vicious attack on her mother and siblings. But this is not your typical crime novel. The darkness isn’t allowed to completely descend and WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS is as much a celebration of the good that people do for one another, as a catalogue of harms. One character in particular lifts the book into the light – a smart, feisty 16 year old by the name of Reggie, who administers mouth to mouth resuscitation on Brodie when he’s thrown from the train wreckage, outfoxes the comedy criminals in pursuit of her scurrilous brother, and is a terrier when it comes to the people she loves.

Louise is also a triumph. Angry, awkward and utterly appealing, she crashes her way through the book, cursing under her breath and furious with pretty much everyone, especially Brodie and her husband (She had made a terrible mistake, hadn’t she? She had married the wrong man. No, no, she had married the right man, it was just that she was the wrong woman).

It’s Louise and Reggie’s dogged persistence that help bring the novel’s main crimes to light and then to resolution. Brodie’s plays a central but ultimately supporting role but it’s the women in WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS who deserve a medal. So too does Atkinson for having penned yet another masterpiece. One of the many brilliant things about it was that I kept thinking it was over then turning the page to find across extra little tying up of ends – when the end does come it’s hugely satisfying and complete as a result. Other writers really should take note!

In STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG, Brodie is trying to track down the birth parents of a woman named Hope McMaster, who is living in New Zealand, pregnant and prone to sending him over enthusiastic emails at all times of day and night. As he drives the length and breadth of the country following up various leads, Brodie’s also scouting out potential houses, somewhere to settle down and call home.

Meanwhile, in Leeds, Tracy, a former police officer turned shopping mall security guard, ends up in possession of a small child called Courtney, triggering memories of one of the first cases she worked on – the murder of a prostitute and the toddler left behind locked in her flat with the corpse for 3 weeks. As Tracy grapples with her conscience she must take ever more extreme steps to avoid falling into Brodie’s clutches and the hands of two leather clad thugs who are also apparently pursing her.

Starring a rescued dog, several bent coppers, an aged actress struggling with  the onset of dementia, another private detective called Jackson, and the ever present voice of Brodie’s ex girl friend, Julia, this is yet more quality writing, wit and clever plotting from Atkinson. Who else would give us lines like these: If Britain had been run by Betty’s [tea room on Harrogate] it would never have succumbed to economic Armageddon….All those tiny ancient marine life forms falling to the ocean floor to come back to life one day as a Disney Fairies Tea Set….Tracy had never picked anything in her life apart from scabs and daisies, and the latter was more of an assumption than an actual memory…..She felt as if she’d accidentally wandered into the middle of a Werther’s Original advert….He didn’t want to be responsible for Hope McMaster going into premature labour brought on my exclamation marks.

Can’t wait for the next in the series.

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THE CASUAL VACANCY by JK Rowling

the casual vacancy by jk rowling

I am sure I cannot be the only one to have spent the first few chapters of this book expecting Dementors, a flying motorbike or a Hippogriff to come hurtling round the corner but once I got over that I really enjoyed Rowling’s spot on portrayal of life in the fictional West Country town of Pagford. It opens with the demise of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, whose championing of a closer relationship with the local council estate called the Fields where has was born, has won him both friends and enemies amongst the local great and good. As supporters and opponents line up to fill Barry’s shoes on the council and determine the future of Pagford, Rowling takes us behind the town’s front doors to reveal all kinds of scheming, secrets and skulduggery.

We know she can tell stories and THE CASUAL VACANCY is no less good in this respect than the Harry Potter books. But what’s thrown into the mix here – and is a pleasant surprise – is Rowling’s acute  eye for parody, her insight into people’s vices and a healthy dose of honesty. Very few of the residents of Pagford escape her satirical observation. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of over fed and sanctimonious local butcher, Howard Mollison, who is leader of the parish council and relentless in his sucking up to those richer and more powerful than him. Howard’s daughter in law, Samantha, obsessed with the sculpted abs of a singer in a boy band, is also a triumph. But it’s the characters on the estate that elicited most of my sympathy, especially Krystal Wheedon, who is battling to keep her much younger brother Robbie being taken away by social services from their drug addict mother, Terri. The petty troubles of the Mollison’s, for example, pale into insignificance beside the tragedies that befall the Wheedons but, whilst Rowling’s politics shines through, she doesn’t fall into any obvious traps – this is a multi dimensional book full of complex, real personalities that simultaneously reflect the best and worst of human nature.

Interestingly, it’s the teenagers that give the plot its momentum, hacking in to the council website and posing as the ghost of Barry Fairbrother to wield some rare power over the adults of Pagford. This works practically in that the older generations are perhaps less likely to have the appropriate IT skills, but it also suggests that Rowling is still fascinated by what goes on in young people’s heads.  This very definitely isn’t a book written for children though. Funny in parts, this is essentially a very dark book – drug taking, self harming, domestic abuse, rape, and suicide all happens behind Pagford’s closed doors. Rowling seems fascinated by the shortsightedness and hypocrisy of the town’s residents, returning time and again to the crushing impact of poverty and inequality, to the damaging decisions of people unable – or unwilling – to open their minds to difference and disadvantage. In doing so, and whilst exploring the modern tendency to judge others from positions of relative anonymity, Rowling has herself very publicly, passed judgement on the snobbery and smugness that infects Pagford. Thank goodness, frankly, because it’s this which elevates THE CASUAL VACANCY from something that might otherwise have been little more than an updated Joanna Trollope novel.

In the interviews which accompanied the publication of her first book for adults, Rowling was suitable sanguine about its likely reception –  “The worst that can happen is everyone says, That’s shockingly bad.” It isn’t. It’s not shockingly good either. She’s not suddenly developed overnight into a poet or a modern day George Eliot. But this book does give us what we might reasonably expect of a Rowling novel – a good read, a smart plot and characters we can root for. And that is plenty to recommend it, in my book.

 

 

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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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PURITY by Jonathan Franzen

purity by jonathan franzen

This book left me feeling perplexed. Much of it is incredibly enjoyable, even profound. There’s a gripping narrative shot through with different perspectives on the idea of freedom and privacy, all of which resonated with me. The central protagonist is an interesting woman, which always earns brownie points. And the different story lines are successfully interwoven, moving back and forward in time, as well as between various setting, including Denver, East Germany, Oakland, the jungles of Bolivia and the mountains of Santa Cruz. Yet something – and I cannot quite put my finger on what – feels missing.

Many reviewers have used the word Dickensian to describe Franzen’s novel and it’s similarly grand in ambition and scope (and att over 550 pages long weighs as much as one of Dickens’s novels). A central character named Pip means comparisons with GREAT EXPECTATIONS are inevitable, and both books have in common the impossibility of living up to other’s ideals and unrealistic demands. From disturbed heiress Anabel and wannabe magazine founder Tom, who embark on what they imagine will be the ideal relationship, only to discover that jealousy, sexual frustration and money get in the way. To charismatic Andreas Wolf, whose Sunlight Project has pitted him against the likes of Edward Snowden, whose mother has always expected him to achieve greatness and whose first love drove him to murder  her abusive step father.  There’s comedy here too, of the satirical kind, rooted in attention to detail and some marvelous dialogue.

Packed full of secrets galore, surveillance and seduction, PURITY has a depth and breadth that’s rarely found amongst commercially successful modern novelists. It’s this quality that kept me turning the pages and I had high hopes right until the last full stop. That’s those hopes were not fully realised, did not detract from my enjoyment. In fact, I recommend the book. It’s just I am left with a sense that something is wanting – and undecided if perhaps that’s actually deliberate.

I’ve often wondered if there’s a case for anonymous reading, namely hiding the title and the name of the author to remove and prejudice and assumptions – this could potentially be an ideal candidate. For the anticipated perfection of a book named PURITY, especially one surrounded by all the hype Franzen tends to attract, is bound to disappoint on one level. Ironic really, given this very idea is so central to the novel.

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THE ROSIE PROJECT & THE ROSIE EFFECT by Graeme Simsion

the rosie project by graeme simsion  the rosie effect by graeme simsion

THE ROSIE PROJECT has been languishing on my book shelves since last summer and I only picked it up on a whim. It took a while to put it down again and I got so hooked I bought the sequel! Essentially it’s the story of Don Tillman’s search for a suitable wife and then, when he finds her, what happens when a baby arrives on the scene. The whole thing is made special by the fact that Don is Aspergic, making him a slave to logic, routine and very thorough research. Kind of  THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME but with an adult protagonist, rather than a child.

There are many laugh out loud moments and plenty that make you want to cry too. Simsion’s portrait is affectionate and warm – we are not laughing at Don, simply at the circumstances he finds himself in. There’s also plenty of anecdotes and insight that highlight the unique perspective of someone with Asperger’s, often with results that pose interesting questions about how Don’s approach to life is commonly judged. We also see him evolve into someone who can begin to receive and give love, who can be flexible if the situation demands, and who can at least understand the concept of empathy, even if he cannot quite do it.

The Rosie of the titles is less roundly developed but, nonetheless, worthy of the role she plays. Despite failing to meet the vast majority of the criteria Don has meticulously identified as essential in his future wife, it’s no surprise to anyone but himself that the pair end up together  Simsion’s also created some other great characters who, like Don, learn valuable lessons from their shared experiences.  THE ROSE EFFECT wasn’t quite as successful for me as the first book – the concept wasn’t as fresh, and there’s a touch too much coincidence/unlikeliness driving the plot. But overall these are fun, easy to read books that lightly touch on some very profound themes.

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