Archive | August, 2015

Van has finished reading…A Better Man by Leah McLaren

21 Aug

On the surface there’s something a little out-of-the-box about Nick and Maya and their perfect children in the @CBBookGroup August read – no, stay with me. It is the surface that Leah McLaren gives us first, the sheen that should be everything they want before revealing the depth that makes that surface reflect back to them everything that’s missing.

When Nick decides to tell his best friend, Family Lawyer Adam, that he wants out, Adam’s advice is that he’ll be taken to the cleaners unless he changes his ways – or at least appears to. So Nick becomes a better man: supportive, engaged, present.

There’s more than a hint of this perfect couple being on the brink of reaping what they sow in the moment when one of the twins bites Maya as she breastfeeds them. Little Isla, all innocence and curls, parrots back her mother’s profanity with a smile.

Maya is keenly observed. The breadth of her bewilderment at where she finds herself, at the depth of her investment in protecting her children, in doing everything she can to keep them close, the underlying desperation that swamps her is palpable. But for all that, it feels very much like Nick’s story. His little moments of epiphany are very astute, and wittily presented. It’s a really funny book – until it ceases to be funny because actually it’s desperately sad.

There’s a real sense of the romantic comedy about this book – at least in the first instance – and there are a couple of knowing references to ‘life in the movies’ that point to Leah’s awareness of the boundaries of genre. But it would be a genuine shame for readers to miss this book through thinking it’s ‘merely’ chick-lit or rom-com fluff. The investment I felt in Nick and Maya – and in Adam as well, though not in the same way – was strong enough to augur those moments where I looked at the ceiling and said, ‘no, don’t do it!’

And if ever you needed proof that you should never, NEVER trust a lawyer this book is it. Pick it up and read it so you can tell people how much better it is than the film it’ll be made into.

A Better Man was published by Corvus Books on 6th August 2015 ISBN: 9781782396345

You can find Leah on twitter @leahmclaren

Van has finished reading…Lost Horizon by James Hilton

17 Aug

The Curtis Brown Book Group sent me a lovely new copy of Lost Horizon as part of a welcome back package at the start of the second Book Group term. In fact I’ve had a copy of this waiting for me on the window sill at work that I never seemed to get around to (although this one has a nicer cover!).

The story is revealed in a format that you don’t see so much these days: Acquaintances coming together and discussing old times; a chance comment and a connection made; adjourn to an hotel/drawing room/parlour, wherein the bones of the main story are revealed. I suspect it may be frowned upon now as somewhat clichéd, though it’s interesting just how effective it is at giving the reader all the preparatory insights needed: how x feels about y; what z has managed to achieve since the last coming together; what sort of a person the hero was when they were younger.

And of course it helps if one among the group is a writer and so able to piece the whole strange debacle into something readable.

Okay, I’m being a little disingenuous there, because what you get between the covers is a fantastic story in more than one sense of the word. It’s hard to imagine how far-reaching a story it was when first published, until you realise that while most people might not recognise the title, they will certainly be familiar with the concept of Shangri-La. It’s an idea that haunts us as a species, the thought that somewhere out there is a hidden vale of perfection wherein we could eschew the world entire and all its – and our own – problems. The East was far more mysterious back when it was written and that mystery drew its fair share of devotees – This book falls between Hesse’s writing of Siddhartha, The Journey To the East and The Glass Bead Game, all of which in their own way vaunt the benefits of the higher mind and the aesthetics of the East. That said, I’ve no idea whether Hilton was a devotee at all – not a small element of Shangri-La’s success, after all, is borne in its ability to be everything – religion included – but in moderation.

Written between world wars and perhaps close enough to the start of the second world war to have been influenced by the earliest political rumblings of what was to come, it’s understandable that a preoccupation with a finer life, with peace and harmony should be so pervasive. Even if it weren’t sparked by the impending cataclysm of the second world war, in terms of the end of the war and what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the book could almost be considered prescient.

There are so many new books these days it’s impossible to be able to keep up with them all. As a blogger the focus tends to be on the new – it’s the next gripping story that people want to be interested in, the next might-just-be-my-favourite-book-ever. It almost felt like a holiday going back to Lost Horizon, returning to something written when the world was not marginally, but radically different. Something that, had it been written now, could well be classed as historical fiction. But I’m loathe to talk of it as an old book. It’s a good book, and isn’t that the great thing about good books? No matter how long ago they were written, good books are never old.

The copy I have was published by Vintage Classics in June 2015 EAN: 9780099595861

You won’t find James Hilton on Twitter (not this one, anyway)

Van has finished reading…Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

7 Aug

We have these phrases – I’m loathe to call it a cliché as there’s generally a hint of truth about a cliché – that we roll out at convenient moments. A life turned upside-down. It’s hyperbole at best, at worst a band-aid over something we can’t, or perhaps don’t want to try and describe. But Jenna’s life really is turned upside-down. Thirteen years old, ever since she was able to do so, she’s been searching for her mother who she hasn’t seen in ten years. There were circumstances: traces of violence; a body – not, it would appear her mother’s. She was found unconscious nearby and taken to hospital. But when she woke she fled. And all the questions that raises have haunted Jenna since. But chief among them: why did she leave her behind?

  This book is built on memory, how we remember people, places, events, even to a scientific level. How memories are imprinted in our minds, and also how trauma can leave the white noise that is the hole in Jenna’s recollection of that all-important event ten years before. Then there is the cliché about elephants and their memory. No surprise, then, that Jenna’s mother, Dr Alice Metcalf’s post-grad study is around memory and grief in elephants. This brings in a wealth of research, presented through the voice of Dr Alice – fiction to all intents and purposes, though you have to know that this is Jodi Picoult weaving in actual scientific research or anecdotal evidence from all those people mentioned in the acknowledgements. It’s striking for two reasons: firstly, it never feels wasted, though the temptation must surely have been great to include just one more brilliant elephant story of the many she’d found, and; secondly, these are things that actually happened so that, scientifically observed and presented or not, you can’t help but anthropomorphise, can’t help but feel that connection even across the unbridgeable distance of time and experience.

  Jenna is excellently drawn – the kind of wise-beyond-her-years, ever-so-slightly-smartmouth outsider teenager you’d frown at, but with a smirk. Her partners-in-detection I found interesting not in the differences but in their similarities. They were distinct enough in their behaviour and speech patterns, though I wonder whether it was a brave choice on Jodi Picoult’s part to have so small a gap between them – I suspect it wouldn’t have been so successful a pairing had they been outlandishly different. There is for the most part a sense of restraint about Dr Alice which fits for an academic. And yes, even the elephants have their own distinct characteristics.

  The title is spot on, though it’s only after reading the book that I can say that. Just think how many ways you can phrase those two words: they all fit.

  The ending I really like – no, I’m not going to blow it, you need to read it for yourself – although I did feel like I wanted a little more out of the ending ending, or perhaps that should be a little less; there was for me something perhaps a little rushed about the last few pages, something a little too tidy. But that’s just me.

This is the first Jodi Picoult novel I’ve read – I have a friend who loves Jodi’s books (yes, you know who you are!), so much so that we frequently had to pry one from her grip when she stayed with us on holiday. So it’s not only thanks to Hodder and Bookbridgr, but also thanks to her that I got to pick this book up. I’m very glad I did. A gripping story; turns that’ll keep you second-, third- fourth-guessing; characters that’ll have you hoping for the best and fearing the worst; and elephants: what’s not to love?

Leaving Time was published by Hodder & Stoughton in November 2014 ISBN:97818444778144 or ISBN:9781444778168 (PB)

You can find Jodi on twitter @jodipicoult or at her website: