All the titles below have been personally picked by the Gutter Bookshop's staff - Ann, Bob, Carrie and Sinead - as books we think you'll enjoy giving and reading this Christmas so do pop in and say hello, and you'll also help support your local independent bookshop!
Our Selection of Fantastic Fiction
Our Pick of the Best Non-Fiction
Our Choice of Cracking Children's Books
For Pre-school Children
For Young Children
For Older Children
For Young Adults
Great book-related and fun gifts from the Gutter...
It's not all about the books! We have great stationery and book-related presents in the shop as well - here's a small selection...
Gorgeous 2014 diaries from Moleskine and Paperblanks, and T-Shirts and Totes for Booklovers from Out-of-Print New York.
Art Calendars and Box Calendars from Pomegranate and BrownTrout
Gorgeous gift-wrap from Penny Kennedy and funky journals and notecards from Chronicle Books.
And finally, our ever-popular puppets from The Puppet Company and Rory's Storycubes including their new expansion kits of Fairytales, Prehistoria and Clues! That'll keep the kids' entertained throughout Christmas!
Broken Harbour by Tana French
Reviewed by Bob, 4th May 2012
Published 7th June 2012 (Ire) / 19th July 2012 (UK & US)
On a ghost estate north of Dublin, a family are found murdered in their home. Scorcher Kennedy, famed for his dedication at solving crimes, and new sidekick Richie head up the investigation as they slowly uncover the secrets behind the deaths. I've always enjoyed Tana French's dark psychological novels and 'Broken Harbour' is simply stunning. Much is written about the crime genre's ability to tackle contemporary issues and French's study of the property boom and its painful legacy is explored in a knowing and compassionate way. Mental illness and difficult family relationships are also core to the book but held together strongly by a clever plot and suspense. The novel is long and exhausting at times, despite taking place over a short space of time, but it's difficult to see what could have been left out. There's a couple of plot elements which are cleverly tied up but don't quite satisfy, but as an example of great police procedure and suspense writing this excels, and also demonstrates once again that Irish crime writing is a genre at the top of its game.
Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell
Reviewed by Bob, 12th March 2012
This is the first Kurt Wallender novel from Henning Mankell. I'd been recommended them by various people in the shop but I do like to start at the beginning of a crime series so it was a while before I got to this. It took me a little while to get into it - I often find that with translated fiction, it's the slightly unusual turn of phrase and the way that different languages structure sentences - but once I got into it I loved it! These novels aren't typical 'whodunnit' style crime novels - they follow police procedure as crimes are investigated but you aren't supposed to uncover the killer from a large list of characters, the novels work because you get so involved with Wallender's character; he's immensely flawed but also good at heart and as you wince over his mistakes you also admire his tireless pursuit of justice. I'll certainly be going back for more.
I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
Reviewed by Bob, 12th March 2012
What a load of rubbish. I'd heard mixed reviews of this series and was aware that it had also been made into film. I was intrigued by the authors (Pittacus Lore is a fictitious character who also appears in the novels) - the actual writers are James Frey, who became famous after his autobiography 'A Million Little Pieces' was discovered to be partially fictional, and Jobie Hughes. The two writers have recently parted ways after disagreeing on the way the books were progressing and it is now unclear who will write the remaining four books in the series. This first book is fast-paced and there's tense moments but the plot revolving around beings with superpowers seeking sanctuary on Earth after their own planet is destroyed feels hackneyed and derivative. There's a fairly blatant eco-message about looking after your natural resources but I soon lost interest with the standard teen-superpower-first love-aliens plot. I certainly won't be going back for more.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott
Reviewed by Bob, 12th March 2012
Published 10th May 2012
An adult thriller based on a teenage cheerleading team? I wasn't sure about this at the start but ended up thoroughly enjoying this cleverly written and interesting novel. Megan Abbott is wonderful at creating strong multi-faceted teenage characters and her research into how hard cheerleaders train to pull off seemingly easy tricks is astounding to read. There's something not wholly believable about 'new coach French' and the plot feels somewhat convoluted but the novel's strength is its portrayal of cheerleaders and the pain they go through to achieve their ambitions. (Possibly not an ideal read for parents of teenage girls though - it can be very worrying at points!)
Set in a dystopian future where former child terrorists have their memories erased and start again 'clean' with a new family but under an oppressive government regime, this novel for teenagers is a well-crafted and intelligent exploration of how power can corrupt and why people in authority don't always tell the truth. Pitched mainly at teenage girls, the novel also has a standard love interest and rebellious lead character but it is the political environment and depiction of government that makes this novel such an interesting read. It also raises intriguing ideas on the rehabilitation of young offenders and, like Orwell's 1984, the difficulty of knowing who to believe. The only disappointing aspect was that there is no resolution at the end of the book, it's the beginning of a series but I expected at least some of the plotlines to be wrapped up in this volume.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Reviewed by Bob, 3rd July 2011
Published 13th October 2011
I haven’t read ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (but I did enjoy the film) and I absolutely loved ‘Middlesex’ so I was delighted to receive an advance copy of ‘The Marriage Plot’ from HarperCollins’ new Independent Thinking initiative which recognises the role independent bookshops can play in recommending interesting books to customers that may be overlooked by the big chain bookshops.
‘The Marriage Plot’ is a dense yet totally compulsive novel that centres on the beautiful and romantic Madeleine Hanna and the two men that are in love with her: Leonard Bankhead, a manic-depressive biologist and Mitchell Grammaticus, a young man in search of spiritual enlightenment and aiming to ‘do the right thing’. The novel is a modern take on a traditional love story (Madeleine studies and writes an academic essay on female writers Jane Austen and the Brontes) but manages to encompass so much more. As with ‘Middlesex’, a simple plot structure is used to draw in all kinds of other ruminations, in ‘The Marriage Plot’ Eugenides examines the nature of love, relationships, mental illness, spirituality and biology. This completely enthralling novel is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and manages to be both entertaining and revelatory.
This fiction/young adult crossover novel was recommended to me a couple of years ago but I had never got around to reading it, then I was pottering around the local library and it jumped off the shelf at me so I decided it was time to slot it into my busy reading schedule.
'No and Me' is the story of Lou, an academically gifted but insecure thirteen year-old girl, and a seventeen year-old homeless girl, Nolwenn or 'No', that she befriends as part of a school project. Both girls are coping with a number of issues; Lou's mother is suffering from serious depression after the death of Lou's younger sister in infancy and 'No' comes from troubled past that has resulted in her sleeping on the streets. The novel is translated from French and is set in Paris.
This is an intelligent and thoughtful read. The author refuses to offer simple solutions to either girls' problems and there is definitely no 'happy ever after' ending. At times the book feels a bit slow and plodding and the prose can be a bit clunky at times, something I often find in translated novels where a sentence in the original language would have read perfectly it seems awkward once translated. However I also enjoyed the book immensely and feel it offers a lot more in terms of ideas and social commentary than many books written for the young adult market.
The London Murder Mysteries: The Montgomery Murder by Cora Harrison
Reviewed by Bob, 12th October 2010
When wealthy Mr Montgomery is found garrotted and lying dead in the street, Inspector Denham of Bow Street Station needs help tracking down the killer. Archie and his blind brother Sammy, along with his cousins Jack and Tom, and their dog Mutsy need to earn some money to pay for rent and food and so, with the help of scullery maid Sarah, they set out to uncover the Monmouth Street Strangler.
This is the first book in a new series by Irish writer Cora Harrison, best known previously for her Drumshee series of books. This series is set in Victorian London and follows a gang of ragamuffin orphans, and their trusty dog, as they set out to solve murders.
The story races along at breakneck speed and should appeal to reluctant readers, especially boys, as there’s plenty of cliff-hangers and action scenes. The historical setting feels authentic and is obviously well-researched whilst not bogging the story down in unnecessary detail. If I had one criticism it’s that, in the post Harry Potter age where we expect cleverly constructed plots and characters, the revelation of ‘whodunnit’ lacks any real twist or element of surprise, and the whole book feels a little old-fashioned. It is great fun though and full of action with just the right level of gruesomeness to appeal to children without scaring the parents.
This review was written for the Nov 2010 issue of Inis - the Children's Books Ireland magazine)
Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Reviewed by Bob, 12th October 2010
What if everyone could hear every thought you ever had? What if all the women in your world had died, and you were the last child to have been born? What if everything you believed to be true was in fact a lie? So began 2008’s award-winning “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, the first book in Patrick Ness’s ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy for teens. “The Ask and The Answer” followed, winning the 2009 Costa Book Prize for Children’s Fiction, and now the series reaches its climax in the final volume “Monsters of Men”.
This is a book about war, with all of its horrors and confusion. Ness refuses to make it easy for the reader to make moral judgements, presenting scenarios where there is no clear indicator of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, just a realisation that sometimes people are forced to make impossible decisions. Nor does he shy away from death, and the anguish that it causes in those left behind. Stream of consciousness narratives from the main characters, along with the use of font and layout in the book, are very cleverly used to illustrate changes in tone and pace.
This is an incredibly well-constructed and executed novel for older teens that deserves to be widely read and awarded. Comparable to Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ series in terms of imagination and scope, reading the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy is a challenging, thoughtful and incredibly rewarding experience.
(This review was written for the Aug 2010 issue of Inis - the Children's Books Ireland magazine)
Wow! This is some novel. Firstly, I'm a David Mitchell fan - I adored Cloud Atlas and thought it was one of the most pleasurable and clever novels I had ever read, I loved Black Swan Green for its honesty and insight, and I struggled through Number 9 Dream appreciating its innovative and uncompromising style even if I didn't understand half of the plot. I had heard that this new novel was different again from anything he had written before and it is.
This new novel is a meticulously researched and detailed historical story set mainly on the island of Dejima, a trading post for Dutch merchants linked to feudal Japan via the port of Nagasaki, and is set in the final year of the 18th Century. The reader is immersed in intricate detail and a wealth of characters from the first chapter and this makes the first third of the novel tough going. At times confusing, you really need to concentrate on your reading of this book - something we're asked to do infrequently these days but, as with most tasks that require concentration and effort, this ultimately makes it a rewarding read. As the plot develops we begin to build relationships with the characters and a beautifully poignant love story slowly develops.
This is not a book for everyone. There is a heavy emphasis on historical accuracy and it's certainly not a relaxing read, it requires commitment and effort from the reader. But ultimately it is a beautifully accomplished and rewarding read from a highly skilled writer. Mitchell's mastery of language is evident throughout and some sentences are so wonderfully crafted that they leave you in awe of his ability as a storyteller. An amazing achievement.
This is a difficult book to review without giving away much of the plot but I'll try! The novel begins on Jack's 5th birthday and is told throughout in Jack's voice. Jack and his mother live in Room surrounded by their named belongings: Bed, Wardrobe, Rocker. The only world that Jack knows is the Room and the life that they live inside it. As the book develops, so does Jack's narrative voice and his experience of the world.
The novel is both compulsively readable and a cleverly constructed work of fiction, which manages to convince you of Jack's narrative from a child's perspective - a well-managed feat of writing for anyone to achieve. There is a necessity to provide Jack with a strong vocabulary for a child his age but this is well-handled and carefully explained. The character of Jack's mother is also well-crafted with a child's lack of judgment or criticism but allowing the reader to understand the true picture from an adult perspective.
There is a dramatic key change halfway through the novel that made me miss my train station (luckily the next one is only a couple of minutes away!) but if I had one criticism it's that the second half of the novel struggles to maintain the urgent drama of the first half. But that is light criticism and I can see this book being widely read, especially by bookgroups, and critically applauded. It'll be interesting to see how the book is marketed as it could appeal to so many different kinds of readers that I will be intrigued to see how the publishers' pitch it.
Buy it and read it.
This is the original book of the recently released film, for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar. Michael Lewis was previously best known for writing Liar's Poker - a book about his own time working for a greedy merchant bank in New York in their 1980's heyday. As mainly a fiction reader, I was worried that this wouldn't really be my kind of book, and I was right.
This book is a great piece of sports journalism. It shows how the NFL American Football game has developed in the last 50 years, and highlights the story of Michael Oher - a poor black child from Memphis who is adopted by a rich white family and goes on to become one of the biggest (and richest) stars of American Football. It's an inspiring story that says much about the American Dream that anyone can become successful.
Interestingly for me was how much it varies from the film (which I had seen previous to reading the book). As both are depictions of a 'true story' it's always interesting to see what liberties the film-makers have taken with a factual book. Sandra Bullock's character is certainly given more time on screen with the role of Sean, the father, diminshed compared to the book. It's also interesting that, presumably 'for dramatic effect' that certain scenes are changed substantially - in the book (which I believe is factually correct) the interviews with Michael regarding the possibility thay the Tuohys may simply have adopted him in order to score a prize player for their old college team take place in the family home with Sean Tuohy present at all times and answering questions on Michael's behalf. In the film, they take place in the NCAA offices and Michael is questioned alone.
I found the book tough going - I'm not particularly interested in American Football and the book is spilt pretty much 50/50 between Michael's story and the development of the NFL game. There is also a much stronger Christianity element running through the book. Unless you're into sports journalism I'd avoid this - it is a good book, and no doubt much closer to the truth than the film, but hard work for non-sports fans.
I'd heard good things about Japanese author Yoko Ogawa's writing and this novel seems to be turning into one of those word-of-mouth must-read books that take off now and again, so I thought I'd give it a go. It's wonderful! In essence that story is a simple one: a woman is employed as a housekeeper to a professor who, due to a car accident in 1975, is limited to an 80 minute memory. He can remember everything he learnt before the accident, including his love of mathematics and the magic of numbers, but each day as the housekeeper arrives at the house their relationship starts as new as he is incapable of remembering her. The professor's love for the housekeeper's young son and their mutual love of baseball draws them into an unusual and beautifully written relationship. Like Haruki Murakami writing, Ogawa's story is a strange tale with dep emotional resonance. She doesn't explain the deeper meaning behind the mutually dependent relationship of the three main characters but the reader is drawn into their world. There is a lot of maths in the book - but presented, like Sophie's World (a book I never really got on with but saw the merits of), in a way that draws the reader in rather than distances them. I'll certainly be picking up other Ogawa novels and will be recommending this as part of my Staff Picks very soon!
I finally got around to reading 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'! It's been sitting on my bedside table for months and I've wanted to see what all the fuss is about but there were always other books that jumped the queue due to bookclubs or buying decisions - when a book quite happily sells itself in good quantities there's actually less impetus for a bookseller to read it and form an opinion. Anyway, I've spent the last couple of days reading TGWTDT and stayed in bed most of yesterday morning to finish it which is in itself a sign I guess as I did the same with Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code', another book that captured the public's imagination and sold in huge quantities. So, first of all, my verdict on TGWTDT and then, the bit that interests me most, why I think it has similarities to The Da Vinci Code, and why that sells books.
TGWTDT is ok. It's not great and the translation leads to some clunky sentences, but the pace picks up as you go through it and the pieces are drawn together well. There's a double ending of sorts - the culmination of the crime first, then a second 'journalistic' finale, that gives a fulfilling plotline. I struggled to believe in the Salander character (the tattooed girl) who lacked any real education and everyone believed to be stupid but was in fact one of the world's best computer hackers. I also found it interesting that Larsson gets his hero, journalist Blomqvist, to refer to crime writers through the novel - obviously writers who Larsson also admires. But given a fairly common serial killer plot (albeit one with a slight twist), some dubious characterisation, and an ok writing style, why has this book become such a bestseller?
As I read the book I could draw a number of parallels with The Da Vinci Code which I believe is what has catapulted it into bestseller territory. Firstly, the plot revolves around a hero uncovering and piecing together a mystery through intelligent analytical skills (combined with some luck). This appeals to the 'conspiracy' train of thought which propelled Dan Brown to bestseller status - standard for crime books I know, but interesting in the way it plays on our paranoia that we're being kept from important information, I'd also argue that the mystery surrounding Steig Larsson's death and estate has added to this conspiracy element. Secondly, extreme violence / sadism - both books have their fair share of extremely violent acts and I would argue that in both books there is a strong sexual link to the violence involved (obvious in TGWTDT but inherent in DVC also I would say). I'm not sure what this says about us, but in fairness I think it's more about someone voicing our subconscious thoughts than a real urge to commit such violent acts. And finally, I'd say that neither book is over-written - sentences are short and pacy and there's not much room for delicate prose which means it is more of a sensory read than a mental one - not necessarily a bad thing, but not a particularly good one either.
So, will I read the other 2 books? Probably not. There's other crime writers I enjoy reading a lot more and whose characters I find more appealing. But then again, I did give in and read 'The Lost Symbol' so who knows...
The Neighbour by Lisa Gardiner
Reviewed by Bob, 10th January 2010
Published 4th March 2010
I’ve only read one Lisa Gardner novel before, I think it was ‘Say Goodbye’, and to be honest I gave up on it as I found it a bit dull and I didn’t feel any empathy with the characters. I’m pleased to say that I found ‘The Neighbour’ a much better read! The story centres around a young married couple, Sandra and Jason Jones, and their 4 year-old daughter Ree. When Sandra vanishes one night whilst Jason is at work, Detective Sergeant D.D. Warren (a character from earlier Gardner novels) is sent to investigate. Initially the husband is prime suspect, but there are soon others equally suspicious to bear in mind and as the plot unravels we discover there is an awful lot more to this seemingly normal couple than initially appears. What I loved about the novel is the way the secrets gradually unfold as Gardner switches from present to past, and from character to character. She is also prepared to tackle difficult and disturbing issues. However, the novel also feels quite slow moving in places and I found it a touch frustrating in its constant twists and turns. All in all though, a decent enough read for contemporary crime fans in need of a new author.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Reviewed by Bob, 10th January 2010
This is an intelligent and informative novel about black maids working in Mississippi in the early 1960s, a time when racial segregation was becoming a major political and social issue. The book tells its story through the voices of the maids and shows the lives they are forced to lead serving white families and raising their employers’ children. Eugenia Skeeter, a young white woman, is determined to help improve their conditions by reporting their stories for the world to read, but with the threat of violence ever present it’s a dangerous path to take. Not only is this book a well-written page-turner, it also gives a great perspective on how a society that fails to recognise the equality of all its members is forced to change through the determination and activism of a few.
Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan
Reviewed by Bob, 10th January 2010
When this was originally published in 2007 I was astounded by how popular a collection of short stories could be, even with the strong press coverage it received at the time. Having finally got around to reading them, I now understand why. Keegan’s writing is superb and the stories in this collection are beautifully crafted and emotionally affecting. She reminded me of the late John McGahern and her understanding of rural Ireland and its particular culture shines through, she tackles difficult and uncomfortable subjects but also shows a strong empathy for her subjects and their motivations. A literary collection that I will treasure for a long time.
The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale
Reviewed by Bob, 8th November 2009
Due for publication 20th January 2010
This was put in my hand with the standard 'We're expecting big things from this next year, give it a go', and for once it is well-deserved. This is a stunningly well-written book which is both highly readable and incredibly thoughtful. The story is split between the narratives of Daniel Kennedy, a Darwinian biologist in the vein of Richard Dawkins who refuses to believe in anything that science cannot explain, and his great-grandfather, Andrew Kennedy, who is serving as a soldier on the Western Front in 1918. Farndale's descriptions of a plane crash, and of the trenches of World War I, show his skill as a writer as you completely empathise with the characters. The unfolding story is also cleverly handled to leave you unsure of what may happen next. There are a few elements I wasn't so keen on, the character of Wetherby is almost a caricature of a fictional villain and the slightly mythical figure of Hamdi is not fully explained (intentionally, but somehow I found that frustrating rather than acceptable...) Regardless, this is one of the most interesting and well-written novels I have read in a long time and it deserves to be widely read.
The Gates by John Connolly
Reviewed by Bob, 28th September 2009
John Connolly's new book (his second this year!) is a step away from his bestselling crime novels and is instead a children's/teens'/fantasy fan's novel about a gateway to Hell being opened via the Large Hadron Collider (the thing that's been in the news recently as scientists try to recreate the Big Bang in Switzerland). Now, I have to be honest and say that I'm a John Connolly fan and he's also someone I know and like - and not simply because the last time I saw him he was driving a stunning Ford Mustang car - so chances of this being a bad review are small. However, I'm also not one to lie so if I didn't enjoy it I would simply have avoided reviewing it so there you go!
Anyway, there's nothing to avoid because this is great fun. Packed with information (lots of it in footnotes that reminded me a lot of Douglas Adams' Hitch-hikers books), and lots of comedy (which reminded me in parts of Terry Pratchett's sense of the absurd), as well as some great characters and scary bits this is a must-read for boys from about 9-13, as well as girls, and grown-ups too. Enjoy.
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
Reviewed by Bob, 24th August 2009
Due for publication 25th February 2010
I never got around to reading 'Then We Came to the End', Joshua Ferris' first novel that was critically acclaimed and one of the most popular Richard & Judy titles from last year but I heard mixed reviews from friends who had read it so I thought I'd give his new one a go. Hmm... not quite sure what I think of this, is my honest response. The plot centres on Tim Farnsworth, a successful lawyer, married with a daughter, who has an undiagnosed medical affliction - at various points during his life he feels compelled to walk until he collapses exhausted wherever his legs have taken him. The novel examines the effect this has on his life and family, and what it means for a man to lose control over his own body. It's well written and convincing, and does not shy away from a dark and inevitable ending but in the end, without an offer of redemption I'm not sure what we're expected to take away from the story.
Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
Reviewed by Bob, 29th June 2009
Due for publication 7th September 2009
Disappointing. I loved 'Restless', Boyd's last novel which went on to be picked up by Richard & Judy and won the Costa Best Novel of the Year award, but this latest work just felt a bit uninspired and tired. The set-up is interesting enough; a chance encounter in a restaurant and a murder which follows forces Adam Kindred, a cloud expert in London for a job interview, to abandon his entire life and disappear into London's homeless masses. Additional characters are added, an ex-SAS hard nut sent to track him down, a policewoman with an inquisitive nature, a prostitute who befriends him, a head of a pharmaceutical company developing worrying symptoms, but whilst the thriller style plot passes along nicely it all feels a bit tired and predictable. As with The Rapture below, a literary thriller often falls between two stools, and this one doesn't quite hit the mark with either.
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Reviewed by Bob, 22nd June 2009
Due for publication 29th October 2009
This is an odd one. Three separate stories put together like the chapters of a novel, each one resulting in the suicide of a young boy's father (although the central story is slightly more complex than this). The book is dedicated to David Vann's father who, we must assume, took his own life whilst David was an impressionable young boy, this novel certainly seem's to be his way of exorcising the anger and grief that this suicide brought him.
The lack of division in the three stories (at least in my advance copy) was confusing. I spent a large part of the second story trying to work out if I had mis-read the first story as it didn't follow. I'm not sure if this was supposed to be a clever literary device in a 'which is the truth' kind of way but as a reader I found it both annoying and distracting.
It's the central story which is the most powerful and disturbing. The story of a young boy and his depressed ineffectual father who go to live in a small cabin on an uninhabited island, Vann builds the tension and frustration of a boy becoming a man, dealing with a weak role-model for a father. The dramatic twist and resulting second half to the story is both shocking and poignant.
As a well-written and highly personal novel that deals with the death of his own father, Vann has created a literary work that reminded me of Marilynne Robinson and Annie Proulx. As a reader though it can be a bit like wading through another person's therapy session at times, slightly disjointed and uncomfortable.
The Rapture by Liz Jensen
Reviewed by Bob, 15th June 2009
Liz Jensen has been around as a writer for a few years now, and although she has picked up some good press reviews she never seems to have caught the attention of the general public, and I have a feeling that this latest book will follow the same route.
'The Rapture' is a literary thriller about a mentally unstable 15 year old girl, Bethany, who has murdered her own mother and believes she can forsee natural disasters, and ultimately the coming of The Rapture, the end of the world as we know it. Her psychologist, Gabrielle Fox is the novel's narrator and brings her own mental problems to the situation as she learns to cope with being in a wheelchair following a tragic car accident that killed her boyfriend. The novel is set in the near future where climate control has become unstable and evangelistic religious groups have grown in power as a result.
This is a powerful, well-written book that races along at a great pace. The two lead characters, Gabrielle and Bethany, are both infuraiting and enthralling. The plot is a bit clunky in places, Gabrielle's childish reaction to seeing her new boyfriend talking to another woman comes across as unbelievable, especially given that she is a trained psycholgist (albeit one who is low in confidence). But in general, this is a good readable novel that falls somewhere between Margaret Atwood and Michael Crichton. Sadly, I can't work out who buys those kinds of books so I think Liz Jensen has a way to go before hitting the bestseller lists.
The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
Reviewed by Bob, 8th June 2009
It's been ages since I read a Michael Connelly thriller and after finishing the second part of Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking Trilogy "The Ask and The Answer" I needed something completely different but equally gripping so settled for this stand-alone crime novel that sits outside of Connelly's Harry Bosch series.
"The Scarecrow" features Jack McEvoy, an investigative reporter for the LA Times, who previously appeared in one of Connelly's earlier hits "The Poet" (a book I think I read many years back but remember little about). When a woman is found dead and dumped in the boot (the trunk for the Americans amongst us, and somewhat relevant to the plot...) of her car a 16 year-old drug dealer is quickly arrested and charged. Pretending to be working to prove the boy's innocence, Jack actually sees this as a possible Pulitzer winning story of how a young murderer is created by the culture he grows up in. Problem is, he soon realises that the boy is innocent and there's a much bigger story, and murderer, to be discovered.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel which raced along at a great pace and took you with it. We know from an early stage who the killer is but are left guessing until the final few pages to see if McEvoy and his partner will uncover the truth. The twists and turns are deftly written with enough surprises to keep you guessing as to what will happen next and the final pay-off is well constructed. If you want to a good thriller that will keep you glued for a couple of days I'd recommend this one.
Well, I've been rubbish at writing reviews but not quite so rubbish at reading books so here are a few books I've read recently with some non-laboursome comments:
The Lost Child by Julie Myerson (already published) - Heartfelt and, forget the controversy, a good book.
Gone by Michael Grant (published 6th April 2009) - Fab for teens, Heroes meets Lord of the Flies - bring on Book 2.
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (already published) - Dull. Supposedly both literary and important it left me cold - I managed about a third before I gave up.
The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (published 1st June 2009) - Pretty good dark teen novel with a touch of Diana Wynne Jones. Debut from a Dublin writer, the twist at the end is what made it for me.
The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt - Huge fan of A.S. Byatt, 'Possession' started it but the quartet that started with 'Virgin in the Garden' made me a lifelong fan. This was hard going though with a dizzying array of characters. Worth reading but doesn't carry you away.
The Likeness by Tana French - Loved 'In the Woods', this was well-written but riddled with holes for a crime novel. Well worth reading as long as you're willing to suspend your belief. Reminded me a lot of Barbara Vine's 'A Fatal Inversion' - which is good.
The Insider by Ava McCarthy
Reviewed by Bob, 29th December 2008
Due for publication 4th May 2009 (Feb '09 in Ireland)
This is one of my 'ones to watch' for 2009. Set in Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains (oh, and the Bahamas), this is page-turning crime thriller in the same vein as Harlan Coben and Lee Child. Harry Martinez is a female security expert who uses her computer hacking skills to show businesses just how vulnerable they are to IT fraud but when someone tries to kill her, and €12,000,000 suddenly appears in her bank account, she is drawn into a world of high-rolling gambling and corporate crime. This is a great first novel from Ava McCarthy and will have you reading into the night. Harry is one of those great characters that you really connect with (even when she makes stupid mistakes) and this is one of those novels where you learn lots about something (in this case hacking) without ever being bored. Recommended.
Spider by Michael Morley
Reviewed by Bob, 15th January 2008
Due for publication 29th May 2008
This is a taut crime thriller, and not one for the squemish! Centering around a serial killer, the Black River Killer, and Jack King, the FBI profiler who failed to catch him, this novel is a rollercoaster ride of gruesome murders, psychological investigation and nerve-tingling tension with all manner of twists and turns on the way. I've been going through a bit of a crime phase recently (only in terms of reading I promise...) and I've covered everything from Dorothy L. Sayers through Susan Hill and modern gory crime like this one. Not everyone's cup of tea but if you fancy a bit of Silence of the Lambs meets Patricia Cornwell meets Lee Child I'd give this a go. And for once, the payoff at the end of this one is worth getting to, all to often contemporary crime falls flat at the finish but as first novels go, this is pretty impressive.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Reviewed by Bob, 15th January 2008
I love Alan Bennett. There's just something about that dry Northern humour and impeccable phrasing that is both amusing and emotive. Bennett is really known as a dramatist and, from a booksellers perspective, for his autobiographies 'Writing Home' and 'Untold Stories' so it's wonderful to read a straight novel (or novella given it's size) by him. 'The Uncommon Reader' is the story of what happens when The Queen stumbles across a mobile library one day whilst walking the corgis. Deprived for all of her life of the 'leisurely' pursuit of reading she soon becomes a voracious reader. But this has consequences for her household, advisors and for her public. This is one-sitting read, not a laugh-out-loud book but one that wryly amuses and informs. Put it on your 'must read' list!
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Reviewed by Bob, 6th October 2007
This is the first book in a trilogy by Garth Nix and is aimed at the teen market but as with a lot of these books it has crossover appeal for sci-fi fantasy fans whatever the age. This book is the story of Sabriel, daughter of Abhorsen, who discovers that her father has been taken into the world of the Dead so that he is unable to prevent a great force of evil, Rogir, from passing into the world of the living and destroying his daughter. It's a wonderfully imaginative novel combining the technology of the modern age (trucks and tanks) with magic. The roaming dead and dark forces that pursue Sabriel and her companions through the novel are genuinely scary and disturbing so I certainly wouldn't recommend this book for anyone under 14. The only concern is that with Sabriel in flight for the entire novel it can feel slightly repetitive as it's difficult to maintain the adrenalin for whole book. But I certainly intend to go and pick up parts 2 and 3 so it can't be that bad!
The Master by Colm Toibin
Reviewed by Bob, 6th October 2007
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and winner of the Dublin IMPAC Award this is a stunningly well-written novel by Ireland's finest literary author. Covering 5 years in the life of Henry James, Toibin's novel is both an impeccably researched biography of a great writer and a fantastic novel that examines the mind of an American in England at the turn of the century. I loved the way he manages to incorporate the style and phrases from James' work but also have an independent voice of his own. There is a careful balance between the public life and private thoughts that reminded me of Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day' with what is not being said often more revealing that what is. A wonderful literary book that deserves to be read.
Wilderness by Roddy Doyle
Reviewed by Bob, 10th September 2007
This is a new children's book by Roddy Doyle and is released at the same time as his new collection of short stories for adults 'The Deportees' (which is also very good!). Tom and Johnny are taken on a husky safari in Finland by their mother Sandra, who needs to get some distance from her teenage step-daughter Grainne who stays at home with her father Frank to meet her mother who abandoned her at an early age to go and live in America. As real life danger threatens the wildreness safari, Grainne attempts to negotiate an emotional minefield dealing with her feelings towards both her existing family and her returning mother.
This is a wonderfully written book in Roddy Doyle's distinctive voice. His ability to understand the way children think, even teenagers, will strike a chord with younger readers and the family relationships will ring true with teens and adults. It's a very straightforward book and the plot isn't especially original, but it's a good read and worth getting for 12-13 year olds who may be struggling to find their role in the family.
Maximum Impact by Jack Henderson
Reviewed by Bob, 15th April 2007
Due for publication 1st June 2007
Another 9/11 novel but an altogether different kettle of fish. This is a full-on testosterone fuelled thriller that started life as an e-book but was soon snapped up by a conventional publisher and is due a big Summer launch. I went out for dinner with the author a few weeks ago (hence the freebie!) and he was a lovely, amiable man - which was why I was surprised by the depth of knowledge and research on America's security systems and the hacking community that was obviously done for this book. Basically, it's your standard thriller fair - terrorists, explosions, cover-ups, technological wizardry, all action heroes, but with a good bit of added conspiracy theory thrown in too for good measure. At points it becomes a bit cliched, and at others it pushes its luck on the believability front (especially during the somewhat drawnout ending), but it's still a riveting read which will keep you turning the pages into the night. Worth a read if you're a Tom Clancy fan.
Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Reviewed by Bob, 25th February 2007
Due for publication 1st June 2007
This is the 9/11 novel from one of America's foremost literary writers and it's very good. DeLillo explores the atrocity primarily from the perspective of a separated couple, Lianne and Keith, but also their friends, family and other New Yorkers to show how everything changes in the aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers. As the tragedy draws them all together it also pushes them apart as they explore their feelings and relationships towards each other, New York and the terrorists.
The narrative can be confusing at times but Lianne, Keith and their son Justin are beautifully flawed characters, real people that you can believe in, and their confusion and self-questioning after the attacks make you realise the fragile world that we each build for ourselves. DeLillo doesn't give easy answers but the ending does seem to signify a resolution of sorts and a better understanding of how we react to catastrophe as human beings.
There is a danger that this will be written off as another book about 9/11. It deserves reading for what it says about people and the way that they can beautiful, even at their most vulnerable.
Love Falls by Esther Freud
Reviewed by Bob, 25th February 2007
Due for publication 4th June 2007
This new novel by the author of 'Hideous Kinky' is a coming-of-age tale set in Tuscany during the summer of 1981, the summer of Charles and Diana's wedding, and is centred on Lara, a 17 year-old girl as she discovers love, passion and adulthood during a holiday in Italy with her estranged father.
The novel is well-written and easy to read, although it has its brutal and shocking side as well. Freud is good at capturing the romantic naivity of Lara and the consequences it can lead to, and the feeling of a hot and heady Tuscany in July full of the spoilt English upper-middle classes. Sadly, it's all just a bit predictable and you feel a sthough you've heard it all before. Freud has obviuosly spent a significant amount of time in the region but whilst she carefully weaves this knowledge into the story, at times it feels more like a travelogue than a novel.
All in all, I quite enjoyed it, but I won't remember it in a few weeks. One for summer by the pool perhaps?
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Reviewed by Bob, 26th January 2007
I've put off reading this for years as I had heard that any fan of her first book 'The Secret History' would be disappointed by this one. Having finally picked it up, I'm afraid that it's true. It's a dark, gothic novel written in Tartt's distinctive voice but here her narrative meanderings and observations are exhausting as the hot climate she constantly describes, by halfway through the book you have already heard just about all you could want to about the main character Harriet and the dysfunctional family that she is growing up in. There are some great set pieces which really get you turning the pages but this feels like a book to wade through rather than race away with. Saying that, I've still got a 150 pages to go and the end section may change my judgment completely..
(25th February - The last 150 pages were very good! Still a bit of a wade-y book worth it in the end!)
Restless by William Boyd
Reviewed by Bob, 26th January 2007
I've never read any William Boyd before, although I've always heard good things about his books. I picked this one up at the airport on a recent trip to Paris as I mistakenly thought it had a Paris setting and I always think it's a nice idea to read a book that's set in the city i'm visiting. Strangely enough, although there is a small section set in Paris the bulk of the book is actually set in and around Oxford, the city I just moved away from.
I really enjoyed the novel. It was clever enough to keep you turning the pages, structured well enough to be satisfying as a literary novel, and straightforward enough that you didn't spend your time trying to work out what on earth was going on. Think of it as John Le Carre crossed with Douglas Kennedy and you're in the right area.
Interlude (1st January 2007)
Well, despite my busy work schedule there has of course been some time to read some books (although not as many as I would have liked) and, despite now having a bookshop full of books to choose from, I have been catching up on a few more things at home that I had never managed to get to. I spent a couple of weeks reading Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy which I have to say I thoroughy enjoyed. I must admit that it wasn't quite what I was expecting, despite having heard everyone else talk about it for the last few years. The first book ('Northern Lights') is simpler and more imaginative than I thought it would be (Daemons, Zepplins and Armoured Bears) but I actually enjoyed the later two books more as they explored religion, church and the idea of self. I must admit that my theology knowledge is a bit sparse but I did study a bit of Milton's Paradise Lost at 'A' level which was a help. All in all, very clever and a great story for both teens and adults.
I'd normally try and read a classic over Christmas (usually a Dickens) as there's time to give a good book some real quality time but no such luck this year with my whole two days off being spent eating and sleeping, and trying to get over the usual cold (working with the public has health implications!), so I've gone back to John McGahern's 'If They May Face the Rising Sun' which is just so beautifully written, in such a strong Irish voice, that it reminds of what a wonderful writer he was. Oh, and I did also manage to finally read Ursula Le Guin's 'Wizard of Earthsea' as well which is fantastic, kind of like a cross between Harry Potter and the Norse Myths if that isn't too flippant.
I must go and check a few blogs to see what I should be reading in 2007. One book I can already tell is going to be huge is 'The Book Thief' by Marcus Zusak, another teen/adult crossover novel. Strange how many of the biggest books these days are those kind of crossover books. I could say that it's because we can't deal with proper grown-up books anymore but I think it's actually something about rediscovering the sense of enjoyment we had in reading as children, and all of these big books (Harry Potter, Curious Incident of the Dog.., Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) explore quite big issues in a straightforward narrative. Anyway, enough rambling, back to reading...
Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
Reviewed by Bob, 29th November 2006
Already published (in 1977!)
I've always loved Diana Wynne Jones' books ('The Ogre Downstairs' is still my favourite as it spoke to me about my own life at the time). When I was an avid young reader of 11 years or so I would get as many of her books as I could find out of the local library and I was thrilled to find this one in a charity shop a couple of months ago. I have checked and it is still in print if you want to buy one and happily for me, after starting it, I realised I had never read it. As with lots of her books this one contains a fair bit of magic, enchantment, spells and the like (it would be a great buy for any Potter addicts) but there are also underlying themes about families, abandonment, trust and friendship. After 'Gilead' I needed a book like this that I could read in a couple of hours, curled up in a chair with mugs of tea and ginger biscuits; roll on winter...
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Reviewed by Bob, 29th November 2006
Gilead is the second novel from Marilynne Robinson, the first being 'Housekeeping' back in 1981. The book is narrated by Reverend John Ames who, aware that he is reaching the end of his life, is writing to his young son with both reminiscences and instructions on life. I felt that the book was quite similar to Banville's 'The Sea', both in style and theme, and at times I found it difficult to keep track of the story as Ames' mind wandered from one subject to the next. However, some of the sentences are incredibly well structured and beautifully written, Robinson is certainly an accomplished writer. Despite the fact that I found the book difficult at times I enjoyed reading it. The book does contain a strong theological theme and I felt the book was centered around the role god plays in life, whether you are religious or not. It's deftly handled by Robinson, speaking as Ames, and it's interesting regardless of your personal beliefs. If you like a challenging literary read then this is a fine novel. If you like something straightforward, I wouldn't go for this one.
The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle
Reviewed by Bob, 2nd November 2006
I've had this one knocking around for a while and remembered my old Bloomsbury contact urging me to read it as T.C. Boyle is supposedly a great prose writer. The only thing that's been stopping me is the one problem I've always had with T.C. Boyle; that is one of his early books 'The Tortilla Curtain'. Now, 'The Tortilla Curtain' is supposed to be a good book, but I've never read it. Somehow, though, through the book having a very striking cover design (it was a sepia tinted cactus, I can still see it now) and a never ending supply of stock I feel like that book has haunted me through my bookselling years. There's a few of those around (I might add it to my Top Tens listings - 'Top Ten book jackets I never want to see again') but it does mean you have a strange reluctance to read an author. Oh how arbitrarily my reading choices are made!
Anyway, 'The Inner Circle' is a well-written novel based on the work of sexologist Alfred Kinsey. It is narrated by John Milk who is Kinsey's first recruit as he embarks on recording the sex lives of American people as a scientific project. Having seen the film 'Kinsey' a year or so ago I already had a good background knowledge of how the story would develop (I'm not sure if the film was based on this book or the original biographies but it was very difficult to envisage Kinsey as looking any different from Liam Neeson!), but it was interesting to see how Boyle explored the dichotomy between sex as a scientific experiment and as part of an emotional relationship. The characters and emotions of the lead characters, John and his wife Iris, Kinsey and his wife Mac, and the other researchers are cleverly drawn so that you understand the passion they feel for their project, but also the strain that it puts on their relationships.
This book has certainly made me want to go and read more of T.C Boyle's work. Probably not 'The Tortilla Curatin' though...
Well I'm still reading away at anything I can lay my hands on, in the past few weeks I've covered Zadie Smith's 'White Teeth', a book which I've always put off because I thought it would be pretentious and overly literary but which is in fact a fantastically funny and very witty novel which I would heartily recommend to anyone; Anne Bronte's 'Agnes Grey' which is wonderfully involving and not at all difficult to read but perhaps a bit dainty and delicate for modern tastes as it lacks the raw passion of her sisters' 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Jane Eyre', but still, good enough for a bit of romance; and I'm just finishing up Daniel Defoe's 'Moll Flanders', another black classic (as us book-y people like to call the Penguin Classic series) that I had failed to get around to, language was a bit trickier in this one (she did so many bad things but some of them are so delicately described that your not always sure what they are!) but I'm thoroughly enjoying it. From what I've heard, she's about to find redemption in the Lord though so I've got a feeling that the end will be an anti-climax!
Anyway, this all indicates that I've run out of advance reading copies for now, so if there's any publishers out there who want to get in early with The Gutter Bookshop and get a book reviewed up here then drop me a line, I promise to be nice...
Next of Kin by John Boyne
Reviewed by Bob, 26th September 2006
Due for publication 5th October 2007
Now, as I've said elsewhere, John is an old friend of mine so chances of this getting a bad review are slim. But in all honesty, this is a good book and a great read (and if I hadn't liked it I would simply have forgotten to review it!)
Set in 1936, the year of the abdication of Edward VIII over his love for Wallis Simpson, 'Next of Kin' centres on Owen Montignac, a handsome and charismatic young man who has been relying on his inheritance from his recently deceased and wealthy uncle to pay off his large gambling debts. When he is disinherited, and left relatively penniless, he must resort to desperate and criminal measures to protect his own interests. A chance encounter with Gareth Bentley, the gullible and lazy son of an eminent judge, leads to theft, murder, false accusation, and far-reaching consequences for all concerned.
John's lead character is likened to Patricia Highsmith's anti-hero Ripley on the back cover 'blurb' of the book and it's true that there is a certainly a debt to Highsmith in the book. There is the same unsettling feeling of a lead character who is both charismatic and capable of horrendous deeds, a plot where you never know if justice will be carried out, and characters who cannot be simply defined as good and bad. The story is cleverly played out with enough twists and surprises to keep you turning the pages late into the night, and the final few chapters deliver a skilful and original conclusion.
John's novels have always been centred around historical facts, and in my mind this is his most successful blurring of fact and fiction to date, helped by well-written and exciting prose. If you like historical fiction, crime novels, Patricia Highsmith, or just a good page-turner, then go out and buy a copy. It's well worth it.
Seizure by Erica Wagner
Reviewed by Bob, 21st September 2006
Due for publication April 2007
I'm sorry but I didn't enjoy this at all. 'Seizure' is a novel about Janet, a woman who suddenly discovers her mother has just recently died, despite being told that she had been killed in a car accident whilst she was still a child. She travels to a remote house left to her as part of her mother's estate and meets a stranger, Tom, who is living in the house. The narrative is interwoven with childhood stories, both true and imaginary, stories that come to bear on the present.
Erica Wagner is Literary Editor of The Times and this is her first novel (although she has previously published a short story collection and a Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes biography). The writing style is unusual, it reminded me of Ali Smith's 'The Accidental' with its truncated sentences and sparse language, which can make it difficult to work out which character is the narrator. I think it worked much better in 'The Accidental', here I found it frustrating and deliberately obscure. And to be honest, the climax of the novel was a disappointment with little dramatic effect and an unsurprising conclusion.
Saying that, I like a nice straight-forward narrative and this was a bit dark and 'literary' for my tastes, I didn't like John Banville's 'The Sea' that much either and that won the Man Booker Prize so if you're a fan of that and 'The Accidental' you may want to give this a go.
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Reviewed by Bob, 18th September 2006
This is the book that the new hit musical is based on; a novel that fleshes out the life of the Wicked Witch of the West from 'The Wizard of Oz'. It's a strange one, not what I was expecting at all. From the look of it I presumed it would be a crossover novel, suitable for both adults and kids in a Harry Potter style but it is very much an adult book (unless you're happy with sex, swearing and political theory being part of your bedtime stories!)
Elphaba (who later becomes known as the Wicked Witch of the West) is a feisty and opinionated young woman who also happens to be green. Her story is inevitably a tragic one, Maguire's skill in this novel is in staying true to the original story whilst looking at everything that happens from an original angle. So, we learn how Elphaba's love of science helped her create the winged monkeys, the real relationship between her and Glinda and why her sister's shoes were so important to her.
Saying all that, it was a bit long, overly laden with political motifs and covered too much ground. Elphaba is a wonderful creation and lovingly shaped as a character, and the plot is cleverly constructed to explain the 'facts' of the existing story, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped. It does remind me of those detailed fantasy novels where a whole world is constructed to explain quite a simple story, fine if you're writing a seven book epic but somewhat dull in this novel.
Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín
Reviewed by Bob, 14th August 2006
Due for publication 1st September 2006
I'm a big fan of Colm Tóibín's; 'The Blackwater Lightship' is an intensely moving novel and although I haven't had a chance to read all of the Impac Prizewinner 'The Master' yet, the excerpt I did read was both enjoyable and highly accomplished. Add to that the fact that I was once lucky enough to go for dinner with him, and that he was fantastic company (some of the stories he told would have you in stitches), so you may forgive me for having a somewhat favourable opinion.
In all honesty, I don't think that this short story collection contains the best work he has ever written but the stories are as emotionally charged as his earlier work, and he never patronises the reader by over-explanation. Whilst a number of the stories seem straightforward and simplistically written, his careful use of language and understated style give the tales a thoughtful resonance that stays with you long after you've moved on to the next story.
Short stories rarely sell well in bookshops (I'm never sure why because they can be just as satisfying as a chunky novel) so I'd be surprised if this took the book charts by storm, even in Ireland, but Tóibín deserves his recognition as one of Ireland's most interesting and creative writers.
So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor
Reviewed by Bob, 27th July 2006
Due for publication 7th August 2006
I was a bit nervous of this one, everyone else had raved about his first book 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things' and it sold by the bucketload in whichever bookshop I was working in at the time, then I read it and thought it was ok... bit tricksy, well enough written but very first novel-ly, one of those where you can see the literary workings behind the curtain of words (dodgy Wizard of Oz reference of the week). Anyway, I'm pleased to say that this second novel 'So Many Ways...' is brilliant and is bound to be up for a number of awards.
Basically it follows the life of a married couple, David and Eleanor. David is a museum curator and the novel is largely told from his perspective. Cleverly, this focuses on his fascination with fragments from the past, both from his own family's history and also those of Eleanor. The past frames and directs the lives that they lead together. At times we are offerred alternatives to the main storyline based on these fragments: this may have happened, or this, or this - but rather than being a distraction in an overly clever post-modernist kind of way, they illustrate just how all of our lives are decided by both chance and by the decisions we make. There is a clever twist at the end of the tale, that is both surprising and emotionally wrought enough to leave your heart aching as the novel finishes. I'd recommend giving it a go.
Christine Falls by Benjamin Black
Reviewed by Bob, 14th July 2006
Due for publication 6th October 2006
This is a new crime novel written under a pen name by Booker Prize winner John Banville, and it's very good. Set in Dublin in the 1950s it features an eminent but troubled pathologist, Quirke, as he uncovers the truth behind the disappearance and murder of a young woman, Christine Falls. This is the first in a series of classic crime novels featuring Quirke, and Banville has chosen to write under a pseudonym to distinguish them from his 'art' novels , but it's still possible to see his literary style shining through. The 1950's Dublin setting was brought to life vividly and there were plenty of classic twists and turns to the plot to keep you guessing. I must admit that I didn't enjoy 'The Sea' that much, it was a bit over-inflated and wordy for my tastes, but I did really enjoy this.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
Reviewed by Bob, 26th June 2006
Due for publication 3rd August 2006
I loved Maggie O'Farrell's first novel 'After You'd Gone', I quite liked the second 'My Lover's Lover' and I never quite got around to her third 'The Distance Between Us', but I was lucky enough to go out to dinner with her a couple of weeks back (she had the most amazing pair of red shoes!) and thought I'd better catch up by reading this, her fourth novel. Written from three perspectives and set in two different times, 'The Vanishing Act..' tells the story of a secondhand clothes shop owner, Iris, and her long lost Great Aunt Euphemia or 'Esme' as she is known. Technically, the novel is accomplished, the fragments of the story come together as a family is reunited and old secrets are uncovered. The final, tragic ending is not unexpected but remains emotionally fraught. I can't pretend that it's the best book I've read this year, it felt slightly insubstantial and a tad predictable, but as a light but literary read I enjoyed it.
Memoir by John McGahern
Reviewed by Bob, 26th June 2006
I’m just finishing John McGahern’s ‘Memoir’, just out in paperback from Faber and Faber. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages after previously enjoying his novel ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’. McGahern has a wonderful style of writing; restrained and simple but with a huge depth of emotion at its heart. Like most great writers he has the ability to convey huge amounts to the reader in just a few short sentences.
The book describes his childhood in County Leitrim, Ireland, and it vividly conveys his early life, his close relationship with his mother, and the intense sense of grief and loss he feels when she dies of cancer when he is aged eight. His father is a forbidding and often violent man and along with his six siblings, the young John lives in constant fear of his unpredictable outbursts. The story of his family is at the heart of the book but what we also get is a real feeling for his love of the countryside and an affinity with the rural life that surrounds him, however harsh that life might sometimes be.
John McGahern died earlier in the year and as a lasting testament to his life and his skill as a wonderful writer; ‘Memoir’ is a fitting work. I would heartily recommend it as an intensely moving and beautifully crafted book.
Paula Spencer by Roddy Doyle
Reviewed by Bob, 11th June 2006
Due for publication 7th September 2006
This is Roddy Doyle's sequel to 'The Woman Who Walked Into Doors' and it's a great book. It's been years since I read the original and, having a useless memory, I can remember very little of what happened, but that doesn't matter too much when reading this new novel (although given a second chance I would go back and read 'The Woman..' again first as a reminder). Paula is a fantastic character and Roddy Doyle brings her, her family, and the city of Dublin to life. He treats the subject of alcoholism and domestic violence with respect, but doesn't shy away from portraying its ongoing effects. Whilst the book is necessarily harsh in places, it is also incredibly funny and the characters seem true to life. I can see glowing reviews on their way already.
In The Blood by Andrew Motion
Reviewed by Bob, 22nd May 2006
Due for publication 21st September 2006
What a fantastic book! It seems a bit unfair to review it so early before publication but if I don't do it now I'll never get around to it. I'll try to remind you about it when it comes out though because it's well worth reading.
'In The Blood' is Motion's memoir of his childhood, and it begins and ends with the tragic death of his mother when he was 16. The book works partly as eulogy to his mother and the strong bond of love that existed between them. Written in the voice of himself at 16, the book revolves around the time spent with, and apart from, the woman who gave birth to and nurtured him. Heartbreaking at times, it is also an incredibly funny book, Motion's use of words and phrasing come from his skill as a poet but it also reminded me of the warmth of writers like Alan Bennett and John McGahern, using an exceptional turn of phrase to convey much more than a simple statement of fact.
I was lucky enough to go to dinner with Andrew Motion last week and he explained how the death of his mother had 'sealed' his childhood so that he can recall all of it in great detail, and some of the memories recounted here are stunningly clear, you can imagine them precisely as you read them. He also explained that his father had recently died and he hoped that this book would also give an idea of the importance of his father in his childhood. His father is certainly a more distant figure but you get such a feel for these people both as parents and as individuals, Motion's prose somehow manages to help you understand all the things that go unsaid between two parents with young children whilst remaining true to the child's voice.
This is no misery memoir, Motion admits he had a settled and happy middle-class childhood. He does describe the pain and homesickness he felt at being sent away to boarding school aged 8, and he doesn't shy away from depicting the family customs of hunting and shooting . In the end though, the feeling that this beautiful memoir leaves you with one of a sense of loss through bereavement, but also of his deep love for his parents, his family and for his childhood.
March by Geraldine Brooks
Reviewed by Bob, 13th May 2006
An odd one this, originally chosen for Richard & Judy and described by its publishers as 'A Love Story in a Time of War', it's the sort of novel I would normally have steered well clear of. And then it won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and I thought I should reconsider.
The novel tells the story of March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women', and his experiences away from his family during the American Civil War. A major theme running through this historical novel is the story of the anti-slavery movement and there are numerous flashbacks to March's earlier life and his first love, Grace Clement, a slave he first met as a young man as he peddled books in the American South.
The book is certainly very American and worthy, which may explain its Pulitzer, but in fairness it is well written, has emotional impact and a real feel for the historical period. The narrative is confusing at times, as it's narrated in the first person it is not always clear who is being spoken about, and I'm still not sure I have a real hang on the timings of various incidents. But saying that, I enjoyed it much more than I expected to and feel that I learnt something of the anti-slavery movement and the positive and negative effects it had on the lives of slaves. I'm not sure I've ever read 'Little Women', if I did it was a long time ago, but March's family come across as much to wholesome for their own good and therefore not wholly believable, but when taking characters from a classic novel I guess this is unavoidable. All in, not a bad book.
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
Reviewed by Bob, 1st May 2006
Due for publication 14th September 2006
I seem to have been reading pastiches of Victorian novels non-stop recently, that probably says more about me than the number of books in the market but it does seem to be a very popular form at the moment... pretensions of grandeur perhaps? Anyway, having thoroughly enjoyed the melodrama of Jane Harris's 'The Observations' and plowed my way slowly through the density of D.J.Taylor's 'Kept' I am now faced with 'The Meaning of Night'. Highly praised by its publishers (not surprisingly you may say, but in fact publishers pick very few books to give the big push to and unknown writers are a rarity indeed) this has to be my favourite so far.
Slightly off-putting are the intrusive footnotes at the bottom of pretty much every page, obviously designed to authenticate the book as a 'discovered' confession, they actually seem to be written as proof that the author has actually done lots of research and wants us all to know about it. As is often the way with footnotes, they are either so interesting that you forget where you are within the story, or they're dull enough that you resent being interrupted. On which point I'll return to the review.
The Meaning of Night tells the tale of Edward Glyver, or Edward Glapthorn as he becomes known. From the opening chapter of violent murder, the tale develops to incorporate all those favourite Victorian fictional devices - illegitimate birth, fraudulent behaviour, detection, the uncovering of a hidden secret, and of course, true love. It's a great tale well told, with a central character who is both a hero and a villain until the very last pages. Weighing in at 600 pages with many twists and turns along the way, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who loves a bit of Dickens or Collins. As pastiches go, this one cuts the mustard for me.