Sunday, 19 October 2014

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

If you know me beyond this blog you may be aware - by which I mean, you may have got bored with me banging on about it - that I am a huge fan of The Mountain Goats, led by (and often consisting solely of) singer-songwriter John Darnielle.

Wolf In White Van is Darnielle's first novel, and those who know his music will certainly notice recurring themes and motifs in the book that crop up repeatedly in his lyrics. Misunderstood, teenagers drifting through comic shops and amusement arcades in soulless, rundown American towns, depression, awkward family relationships and a tendency to retreat into a world of fantasy are all elements of Wolf In White Van that Mountain Goats fans will recognise, and as usual, Darnielle writes about them with remarkable poignancy and clarity.

Don't, however, imagine that you need to know Darnielle's music to enjoy this book. It's an exceptional piece of work by any standards. I would be reviewing this in exactly the same way had I never heard of the author's previous work.

Wolf In White Van is an introspective, reflective novel narrated by Sean, a young man whose face has been partially destroyed by an 'accident' at the age of 17. Sean makes his living through what is essentially a role-playing game by correspondence that he devised during his recovery. Called Trace Italian and set in a post-apocalyptic America, it's played by the readers of comic books and science-fiction magazines who pay a subscription fee and receive each step in the game by post, mailing their choices for the next move back to Sean in attempt to reach the game's ultimate goal, a secretly-located safe haven for survivors.

As the story gradually unfolds, we learn not only of an alienated teenage couple whose intense obsession with Trace Italian (and with each other) has resulted in tragedy, but also of the days leading up to the horrific event that left Sean disabled and severely disfigured.

There is a great deal of beauty in Wolf In White Van. Darnielle's prose is outstanding, and there are whole passages that read to me like an extended prose-poem. His ability to pick out mundane details and turn them into something of an incredibly evocative, sometimes tragic significance is nothing short of remarkable. There is also such a desperate, vividly-realised sadness to parts this book that at times I found it almost painful to read (and rightly so - this is no criticism on my part). 

A short but digressive novel, Wolf In White Van doesn't really leave its protagonist in any different state, mentally or physically, than the one in which he starts his story, and at the end, I was left wanting something more afterwards to bring the story to a neater finish. However, this by no means a plot-driven novel and it can't be denied that the ending is a powerful one, however uncomfortable it was for me to read: I can admire Darnielle's decision to leave the story there rather than pandering to any desire for a more reassuring conclusion.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Perfect People by Peter James

Peter James is an impressively prolific bestselling thriller writer, of whose books I had before now read precisely none. I picked up Perfect People at a low-price book sale along with various other thrillers this summer because I was keen to know what Peter James does that sells so well, and because I was interested in the subject matter: a couple who agrees to have a genetically engineered son to avoid losing another child to the hereditary disease that killed their first baby, Halley, at the age of four.

Perfect People brings to mind of those high-concept, borderline sci-fi thrillers that were popular in the 1970s – think Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil or The Stepford Wives. As such, despite its contemporary themes of ‘designer babies’ and elements involving a religious fundamentalist terrorist organisation, there is something about it that feels oddly dated. This isn’t helped by the slightly Bond-villainish character of Dr Dettore, the geneticist who convinces John and Naomi Klaesson to agree to have a child with favourably tweaked genes. To avoid having to conform to US or European law, his clinic is located at sea on board a mysterious cruise liner, and there are chapters set on a mysterious island that can’t be located on a map. For the duration of the book, I rather felt as if I was reading a novelisation of a film, and not a recent one at that.

Perfect People's plot certainly does make you want to plough on quickly to end, despite the enormous suspension of disbelief required. I did keep turning the pages, despite my misgivings about elements of the story and frequent irritation at the writing style (heavy on the telling, light on the showing, and peppered with mundane exposition).

I don’t, however, think the story that will stay with me, and I felt none of the chills or unease that the ‘perfect people’ of the title should have conjured up. John and Naomi’s designer children (apologies if you consider this a spoiler, but the fact that there are two of them is already annoyingly revealed by the book’s own cover art) are obviously not like other toddlers, but their 'otherness' is all cliché: the idea of the cold, insular, unnaturally academic, freakishly beautiful and potentially psychic blonde child is a familiar one from The Bad Seed or The Midwich Cuckoos. They may be called ‘New People’ in certain quarters, but there’s nothing really new about them from the reader’s point of view.

Moreover, the relationship between parent and child here is infuriatingly inconsistent – neither parent is really shown to bond with their children as such, and Naomi in particular behaves as if she actively dislikes or even fears them, but suddenly when required for the purposes of the plot, they suddenly begin to behave completely differently towards them. I fully understand that the parent-child relationship is a complex one, but I don’t find the sudden turnaround in Naomi’s maternal instincts particularly credible. Other inconsistencies include the claim that the ‘new people’ abhor violence, which seems deeply out-of-kilter with the children’s ability to butcher their own pets or inspire outright terror in the other toddlers at their playgroup.

A bit of a wasted opportunity, this one. Plenty of potential, but just felt careless in the execution, as if the author was taking a paint-by-numbers approach to fiction. 

Friday, 3 October 2014

Pretty Honest by Sali Hughes

A rare non-fiction review from me today - I almost never review the non-fiction I read, but I'm making an exception here for Pretty Honest because it's such a welcome treat to combine my twin passions of books and beauty. Plus, I enjoyed it so much that I can't wait to talk about it.

Most beauty books I’ve come across have been huge coffee-table affairs full of glossy photographs of iconic or avant-garde makeup looks. That’s all well and good, and I enjoy looking at those books as much as the next beauty obsessive, but there’s little in them that makes entertaining reading (rather than looking) and their ideas are fascinating but rarely attainable.

Sali HughesPretty Honest is a different kind of beauty book. Pleasingly chunky and compact, beautifully bound and printed on discreetly sleek matte paper, it’s more words than pictures, and it’s essentially a comprehensive collection of immensely readable essays on real beauty for real women. Pretty Honest recognises that beauty encompasses doing your makeup on the bus, covering troublesome zits, going mental with Barry M glitter when you’re 13, sprucing up your face for the (misnamed, as Sali rightly points out) walk of shame, and looking like yourself again after giving birth, having chemo or recovering from a serious illness.

There is far too much writing out there that makes beauty seem complicated: this book cuts the crap and reminds us with refreshing frankness that it really needn’t be. You can apply your nail polish while shouting at Question Time and eating crisps; you can wear as much red lipstick as you want because frankly, why the hell wouldn’t you? Pretty Honest is a welcome reminder that beauty is fun and should be a treat, not a chore. 

There are loads of recommendations for looks, techniques, routines and products, plus welcome dismissals of beauty myths and pointless products – you can forget your restrictive ‘colour rules’ and bin your bust gel, for a start. But aside from the wealth of practical advice, what really makes Pretty Honest stand out is its enthusiastic celebration and robust defence of beauty itself, and the women who love it.

Sali Hughes is very clear on the difference between beauty and the beauty industry, and I wholeheartedly agree that you can be passionate about the former without being uncritical of the latter. Anyone who has ever dared to stray into the reader comments on beauty articles on any newspaper’s website will be familiar with the criticisms that women (and sadly, it is almost always only women) face for expressing an interest in makeup or skincare. We’re shallow, we’re vain, we’re not spending enough time thinking about Syria and world famine, we’re being duped by advertising, we’re trying to ensnare men who prefer us without makeup anyway, we only need makeup because we’re not beautiful in the first place, we’re not Proper Feminists. All this is, of course, a pile of old guff, and Sali does a fine job of arguing against it. Pretty Honest is a  book that celebrates the choice, individuality and creativity that comes with makeup, and recognises that women who love beauty – shock, horror – think about other things as well. 

The book’s analysis of what beauty can mean to women is also astute. Too many beauty writers talk to women as if makeup and skincare is something we should buy into because there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we look without it, or because it’s the done thing to look a certain way. Sali Hughes simply doesn’t do this – she recognises that most of us simply want a face to fit the day’s mood or mindset, to look like ourselves at our best, to spend a few minutes doing something creative every morning in way that helps us feel confident and in control.  

I should probably point out that I wore makeup to have my gallbladder removed,* so obviously I’m someone who fully embraces beauty as an integral part of my daily life: my complete makeup collection fills six large washbags and that’s without skincare. I don’t, however, think you need to be anywhere near as into beauty as I am to enjoy this book – it would be a great read for anyone who likes the idea of makeup and skincare but doesn’t really know where to start, or feels stuck in a rut with their look, whether they’re a teenager or a grandmother.

Beauty fans like me will love the whole ethos of this book, no question – but the sheer warmth, wit and enthusiasm of Pretty Honest, together with the no-nonsense clarity of its advice, makes it a brilliantly unintimidating, friendly read for the beauty novice too. Unless you are one of those people who thinks they deserve some kind of medal for undertaking all personal grooming with Swarfega, vinegar and a J-cloth, this is a book I'd highly recommend.

* I wouldn't actually advise wearing makeup for major surgery. I woke up from the anaesthetic with mascara all over my face, and the nurses complained because my concealer came off on my oxygen mask. I should have done what my mum did for her mastectomy, which was go barefaced for the actual surgery and then edge her way to the bathroom upon waking in order to put her makeup on while still hooked up to an intravenous drip. 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Poppet by Mo Hayder

I should probably come clean at the start of this review and admit that I bought Poppet almost solely because it had a creepy cover and was set in a high security mental institution, so that gives you some idea of the level of discernment I applied to this purchase. However, despite a somewhat ludicrous plot and some annoyingly clunky prose, Poppet was nothing if not an entertaining, dark and occasionally gruesome read. Great literature this is not, but a great read for a plane journey it absolutely is.

Poppet is the sixth novel in Mo Hayder's Jack Caffery series. I haven't read the previous five, and perhaps I would have got more of a sense of Caffery's character if I had. From this novel alone, I felt that he was pretty much a standard maverick loner detective type without a great deal to distinguish him - however, this honestly didn't matter a great deal as much of the action happens from the points of other characters, primarily AJ, a senior psychiatric nurse dealing with an outbreak of self-harm incidents among patients at his place of work. AJ doesn't believe in The Maude, an evil presence rumoured to haunt Beechway, but it's obvious that something or someone is unsettling the inmates in the most terrifying of ways, and with Caffery's help, he's determined to discover what it is.

Although Caffery is a police officer, this isn't really a police procedural crime novel - most of Caffery's activities in the book take place outside his police remit, in fact. It's a gripping suspense mystery with strong elements of horror and of the psychological thriller genre - a sort of gritty, grimy version of modern gothic, perhaps. There was a great deal in the story that I didn't see coming, and the scenes in the psychiatric hospital conjure up a strong sense of atmosphere that works extremely well. The 'poppets' of the novel's title are a stroke of sinister genius, as is the case history of Isaac Handel, a recently discharged patient with a shocking past.

Less effective is the building of the relationship between AJ and his colleague Melanie, whose romance has a tendency to descend into cringe-inducing territory - and I was unconvinced by a subplot involving Caffery's investigation into the disappearance of a minor celebrity, Misty Kitson, who is almost certainly dead yet whose body has yet to be recovered. I must concede that it may have made more sense to me if I'd read the previous books in the Caffery series and better understood his history with Flea, a police diver connected with the Kitson case, but as it was, it seemed an unwelcome digression from the events at the psychiatric hospital.

There are some tiresome cliches and stereotypes in Poppet - I was itching to edit at times - but as an over-the-top horror/crime hybrid, it works extremely well, and I'd consider reading another in the series.

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

Daughter by Jane Shemilt centres on the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl, Naomi, from the kind of middle-class, well-off family that has a cleaner and a holiday cottage. It's Naomi's mother Jenny who tells the story of the events leading up to Naomi's failure to come home one night after her appearance in a school play, and of the aftermath of her - what? Abduction? Murder? Or has Naomi simply run away?

The general message of Daughter is that we don't always know our families - particularly our teenage children - as well as we think we do. Fresh-faced, chatty Naomi, who doesn't like the taste of alcohol, never smokes and rarely wears makeup, is soon revealed by the investigation into her disappearance to have been concealing no end of secrets from her mother, and this seems almost as painful for Jenny as the fact that she has gone missing. Moreover, Naomi's twin older brothers, Ed and Theo, seem to be hiding a few secrets of their own - and what of Ted, her neurosurgeon father?

Unfortunately, despite an engaging mystery plot, much of the book simply doesn't ring particularly true. It's not hard to believe that a teenage girl might have a secret boyfriend (or two) but I don't find it remotely plausible that, upon spending a day with such a boyfriend at her family's holiday cottage without her parents' knowledge, she'd be daft enough to leave stained sheets and half-empty wine-glasses behind in the bedroom for them to find. Nor do I think it plausible that a sixth-former would submit a naked photo of his underage sister for his school art project without his sister, teacher or mother having any kind of problem with this. And there are other elements to the story that I found just as irksomely unlikely - the ending, for example, not to mention the last few chapters building up to it.

I'm afraid I also felt it hard to care much about naive, mildly snobbish Jenny and her relationship with her characterless husband Ted. Both the couple and their marriage are somewhat dull, and their children are somewhat reminiscent of Julie Myerson's appalling brood in the now defunct Guardian column Living With Teenagers - rude, sullen, spoilt and in need of a sharp clip round the ear. 

It's also infuriating that it's implied several times - not just by the characters, but by the narrative overall - that Jenny's failure to notice her children's multiple problems is down to her dedication to her career as a busy GP, leaving her with too little time to devote to her offspring. Apparently nobody  (except, once or twice, Jenny herself) has an issue with Ted's equally demanding job, needless to say.

Overall, while the cleverly structured plot did keep me turning the pages, this wasn't the gripping read I'd hoped it would be, failing on matters of character development and plausibility throughout.

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I think it's fair to describe The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters' first novel since 2009's The Little Stranger, as 'eagerly awaited', judging from the level of excitement I've witnessed on social media and in the mainstream press. It's hard for that degree of anticipation to end in anything but anticlimax, but I'm delighted to say that The Paying Guests lived up to my expectations.

Set in the 1920s, it begins with Frances Wray and her mother opening the top floor of their house to lodgers - the paying guests of the title. A young married couple, Mr and Mrs Barber are below the Wrays on the class ladder but unlike the Wrays, have a discernible income which enables them to rent what is effectively an apartment. Their presence not only opens up an analysis of post-WW1 shifts in affluence and status and paints a dingy portrait of an uncomfortable marriage, but also sets in motion a chain of events that will come to turn the lives of the Wrays and the Barbers upside-down. 

Part love story, part social commentary and part crime thriller, The Paying Guests has all the hallmarks you'd expect of a Waters novel: pin-sharp historical details, almost uncannily vivid characters and an account of a love affair between two women, the portrayal of which often painful in its emotional honesty, even when the two women are being far from honest with one another. 

I've seen some reviews alluding to slow progress in the first half of the novel, and yes, this section of the book is considerably more halting in its pace than the second half, which deals with the aftermath of a crime and becomes, at times, extremely tense. But it's at the beginning of the book, that the love story develops and we build a clear picture of the characters, which is essential to the success of the rest of the novel and, in any case, is beautifully written. The pace felt entirely appropriate to me, and kept me turning the pages throughout, regardless of plot.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

First of all, in case you're wondering why it's been a while since I posted a review, it's because I've been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series, and it's incredibly long and time-consuming. I don't want to review all seven volumes separately, and I still have three left to read, so it's been slowing my progress with other novels. I'm now taking a break from George RR Martin, and have just finished Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld.

A few years ago I read Sittenfeld's excruciatingly well-observed, frustrating coming-of-age novel Prep, about a girl who begs her parents to send her to a New England boarding school only to realise that she can never fit in - or admit that she has made a terrible mistake.

Sisterland revisits some of these themes, and like Prep, it has a narrator painfully ill at ease with herself - so much so that she has even changed her name from Daisy to Kate to distance herself from her childhood and from Violet, her twin sister. Daisy and Violet are, to a degree, misfits purely by virtue of being twins, but to make matters worse they are also psychic, prone to 'senses' about people, places and future events.

Whereas Violet is apparently happy to play the role of eccentric oddball, Daisy only reveals her talent when it seems it can help her make friends with the popular set - and needless to say, this backfires on her. As an adult, having reinvented herself as a housewife and mother to two pre-school children, Kate is every bit as embarrassed by Violet as she ever was - yet equally, also as inextricably linked to her despite their frequent rows. When Violet goes on public record as having predicted a major earthquake in the twins' home city of St Louis, Kate's past becomes not just an awkward shame but a threat to her family life, friendships and marriage.

In Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld gave us a narrator who was frequently selfish, hard to like and frustratingly poor when it comes to decision-making, and to an extent this is also the case in Sisterland. There are times when Kate's feelings towards her chaotic, free-spirited sister seem painfully judgemental, particularly with regards to her weight and sexuality, and yet there are also times when Violet is such an infuriatingly selfish and disruptive influence that we can easily see why Kate would want to distance herself from her. It's also hard to sympathise with Kate when she jeopardises her marriage in the most of foolish of ways, but she at least partially redeems herself when she deals with the fallout from this in a steadfastly determined and courageous way.
poor at making decisions - yet still somehow made the reader sympathise with her. She pulls off a similar feat in

While the twins' psychic abilities are central to Sisterland's plot, this isn't really a book about ESP. It's a domestic drama of families, relationships, guilt and coming to terms with the past. The relationship between Kate and Violet is fascinating - are they really such very different people, or have they consciously chosen to push different aspects of their personalities to the fore? Also interesting - so much so that I'd have liked to have seen more of it - is Kate's relationship with her emotionally inept father, who despite being the sort of parent who buys his daughters low-value Starbucks gift cards for Christmas, is still responsible for some low-key, off-hand revelations that suggest there is more to him than meets the eye, if only his daughters had looked beyond the surface.

This is more a novel of character than of plot; the latter, it has to be said, is not really the focal point of the book and is occasionally disappointing. Overall, though, the small-scale events of Sisterland set against the looming threat of a possible large-scale catastrophe make for a fascinating family drama.