Book Review: Secret Keeping for Beginners

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secret keeping for beginners by maggie aldersonPutting it out there, I love Maggie Alderson and I was overjoyed when I found out that she was releasing a new book (her first in about three years – rejoice!). So if this review is a tad bit biased, at least you know now. And yes, that does mean you should still definitely go out and buy all of her books immediately.

Set between London and countryside England (we’re already off to a great start!) Secret Keeping for Beginners tells the intertwining stories of three adult sisters and their mother. While each on the surface appears to have a great life, on closer inspection the reality is far more, well, realistic. Rachel is a divorced mother of two, but she’s also got a great career in PR and frequently jets off to European countries every second country. Tessa’s a muralist who lives in the country with her husband and three kids, and thanks to her husband’s reality TV show, she doesn’t have to worry about money in the slightest. Natasha’s a beautiful and successful career woman and even their mum, Joy, doesn’t seem to have a worry in the world. Except of course, they all do. Money troubles, mysterious letters and relationship secrets are all a part of the plot of Secret Keeping for Beginners – plus a delicious, flirty romance, like all good Maggie Alderson books (i.e. all of them).

Reading a Maggie Alderson book, I swear, is like slipping into a bubble bath after a long day of bleurgh. Yes, her novels are light and fluffy and the epitome of chick lit, but they are also damn wonderful. Just because she is writing about romance and domestic issues doesn’t mean that her writing isn’t still witty, well-structured and, essentially, entertaining. Will she win any awards with Secret Keeping For Beginners? No. But you will still manage to polish it off in the space of a weekend.

The protagonists in Secret Keeping for Beginners are beautiful, successful and lead lives that are appear glamorous. In all of Alderson’s novels, her characters have jobs that just seem so much more FUN than everyday jobs – interior designer, fashion journalist, muralist, beauty editor etc. etc. etc. Jobs that are probably just as successful as a regular, boring job, but can be presented in a way that is enviable and fun. Her latest novel is no exception to this rule that she’s created. Plus, throw into the mix descriptions of lovely clothes, beautiful country houses (seriously, I’m pretty sure Maggie Alderson is the reason why I want to move to London and spend my weekends in an English cottage) and handsome men and you have the thinking crumpet’s equivalent of escapism.

Not that I’m saying Secret Keeping for Beginners is perfect. It isn’t. There are certain aspects of the novel that just wouldn’t work in real life, like the way that Simon confides in Joy, despite meeting her only two times. And the problems that each of the women face are inexplicably solved in the space of a page, and only reinforce that these characters are dealing with very middle class issues. Prime example? One protagonist’s solution to her money woes is to sell her London house and instead move into a large London apartment. I mean, guys, that’s a really hard decision that I’m sure all of us worry about having to make someday. Right?

But, so what? I loved this book because it was exactly what I wanted it to be: classy, entertaining, smart chick lit. Maggie Alderson is a internationally best-selling author who has also been the editor of four magazines, amongst a whole lot more, and it shows. You don’t have to lose any brain cells in the process of reading Secret Keeping for Beginners but you’re also not going to be straining too many either. So seriously, buy this book, pour yourself a bath and crack open the chocolate. Your Friday night is now sorted. You’re welcome.

Have you read Secret Keeping for Beginners? Are you a fan of Maggie Alderson books? Do you read chick lit? Let me know!

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Book Review: Apple Tree Yard

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Apple Tree apple tree yardYard by Louise Doughty has the makings for a great crime novel. Infidelity, a murder, a court case and a twist at the end. Heck it’s even set in London, where apparently, based on the crime novels I’ve read, all murders occur. Must be the terrible weather that entices people to it.

Set in London and told from the perspective of Yvonne, Apple Tree Yard begins in a court, during a trial for murder, and works backwards from there. Despite being in a comfortable marriage, with a renowned career as a geneticist, Yvonne is still enticed by the nameless man who seduces her in parliament. Yet what starts as a clandestine affair quickly becomes all too real when Yvonne is attacked by a fellow co-worker and she feels as though she has no-one to turn to. After all, that’s the problem when you keep too many secrets.

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that the book that I read before this one was Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – a novel that took him the better part of a decade to write and which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So keeping in that in mind, I am probably being a bit unfair when I complain about Louise Doughty’s style of writing.

The issue that I had with this novel was the weird way that it was written. It was first person perspective, but almost as though it was in a letter form – rather than telling a story, the protagonist Yvonne speaks as though she is directly talking to her lover. While it definitely is something a bit different, which is usually quite refreshing, instead it came across as clunky, slow and a bit cliche. Overall, it felt like it could have had a good, tough edit, to make it more succinct and less…eh.

Secondly, there were aspects of the plot that didn’t really match up or have a great deal of relevance. One thing that we’re given a teaser about is the state of Yvonne’s son – we know there’s something odd about him, but what is it? What bearing will it have on the murder? Well, it turns out, it doesn’t really have much to do with the plot at all, and in the end it just sort of fades away, rather than being resolved. And while from the get-go Yvonne is described as smart, successful and leading the perfect life, it takes a long time to figure out what exactly it is that makes her life so enviable. The result is that instead of a suspenseful thriller about a high flyer, we’re dealing with a lacklustre affair that doesn’t really seem to have much to motivate it.

This book definitely does have potential and I can appreciate that Doughty tried to change up the traditional ‘whodunit’ crime thriller. Yet while I’m not the biggest crime reader, even I felt that I could guess the twists that were coming and some of the characters were just a touch too transparent. While it was an entertaining read overall, I have read better crime, and would probably recommend something else.

Have you read Apple Tree Yard or anything by Louise Doughty? What did you think? Are you a fan of crime novels? Let me know!

Book Review: Middlesex

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middlesex by jeffrey eugenidesJeffrey Eugenides frequently writes novels with strange premises. In The Virgin Suicides he created a story around a family of teenage girls who kill themselves. Weird, but highly successful and an entertaining read. His second novel, Middlesex, successfully tackles a new, equally tricky topic. Incest, immigration and intersex are just a few topics covered.

Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Price for Fiction, Middlesex is an epic story in every sense of the word. Spanning almost a century and across three generations, it tells the story of Calliope/Cal who was born as a hermaphrodite but only finds out when she is a a teenager. In order to tell her story (just a quick note – although Calliope eventually identifies as a man, I’m going to be using feminine pronouns because the majority of the novel she is portrayed as a woman) though, Calliope has to go back through time to when her grandparents fell in love with one another in Turkey. Of course, things were slightly more complicated than a usual love story because they had to deal with a war, a rogue gene (which shows up in Cal years later) and, oh yeah, the fact that they are brother and sister.

Tackling everything from ‘The American Dream’ to the Depression through to gender identity, Middlesex is a huge bite to chew, but thankfully Jeffrey Eugenides has the skills and finesse to make it a worthy read.

Do I think that Middlesex deserved the Pulitzer Prize? Wholeheartedly yes, but that didn’t make this the easiest book to read. While the premise definitely intrigued me, like many epics, it was what I would describe as a ‘slow burn’. For the first half the book (which is about 530 pages), we aren’t dealing directly with Cal’s story, but rather the story of her grandparents, their immigration and then the romance between her own parents. Despite being a story about gender identity and intersex, first we are told stories about the Depression, The American Dream and racial injustices in Detroit. And while this definitely adds depth, colour and emotion to what would otherwise have become a sensationalist novel, it can be a bit trying.

In saying that, Middlesex is written beautifully. Reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and even Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The GoldfinchMiddlesex is truly the complete package. While the story does revolve around Cal, it also revolves around the lives of so many other characters, who are each as flawed, complex and human as the next. And though it is a large novel, the fluidity and beauty of Eugenides’s writing show that he has bought care and thought into every page written.

What I enjoyed best about this story though was Eugenides’s ability to tackle subjects rife with taboos and humanise them. Incest is certainly frowned upon, yet portrayed in Middlesex it just comes across as another form of love. And with Calliope we learn about the anguishes and burdens that an intersex person has to deal with – a perspective we’re rarely shown in film, television or in novels. Though each story would of course be individual, I enjoyed being given this viewpoint in a way that was sensitive and accurate.

Middlesex isn’t for the faint of heart or for anyone who wants a quick Sunday read. If you choose this book, know that it will be complex, exhausting, but also truly rewarding. It’s definitely worth the slow burn and worth the hours spent reading it.

Have you read Middlesex? Are you a fan of Jeffrey Eugenides? Let me know!

Five Feminist Females from your Favourite Fiction

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Feminism is becoming the ‘in thing’ of recent years. Suddenly, the gender pay gap, domestic violence and the atrocities of sexual assault are becoming newsworthy. Which, in my eyes, is long overdue and frankly pretty amazing. But while in the year 2015 we have the likes of Caitlin Moran, Beyonce and Taylor Swift singing the praise of equality and girl power, that doesn’t mean we’ve been lacking in years past. Once again, books and the world of fiction prevail to show that they were on top of this yeaarrrrsss ago. Below is a list of my favourite fictional feminists, and while you may not agree, I’d love for you to shout out and include your own.

HERMIONE GRANGER

I recently re-read the Harry Potter series (I’m interning at Bloomsbury in a couple of months, so it seemed like ‘necessary’ research) and it reinforced how much of a badass feminist Hermione Granger is. First, she doesn’t take smack from those girls who seem to care more about looks than brains, and when Rita Skeeter insinuates that Hermione Granger is only interested in love, she, quite literally, holds her head up high and discards it. Second, she pretty much single-handedly keeps Ron and Harry alive for the better part of seven years, not to mention she has the foresight to do things like, I dunno, research how to destroy Horcruxes. (Seriously Ron and Harry, how had that not crossed your mind for so many months?) Third, she shows that physical brawn won’t necessary save the day, and that brains, cleverness and the trusty library are all equally, if not more, important than fighting. Fourth, she makes it quite apparent to Ron and Harry throughout the series, that there are women who are just as impressive and brainy as there are men, and even more importantly, she isn’t going to get stuck with the task of domestic chores simply because she has a vagina.

Finally, in light of all that, she still had the guts to punch Draco Malfoy in the face – because sometimes, even a feminist knows that sometimes a punch in the face is what is required.

Special Mention: Molly Weasley

Though not as much as of a supreme feminist icon as Hermione Granger, I’d like to give a special shout-out to Mrs Weasley, who proves that a woman can still be a feminist even if she fits ‘traditional’ roles of a woman. Although Mrs Weasley is a homemaker and cook of the Weasley family, there is no denying that she is also the matriarch, and that her love for her family is as fierce and strong as anyone else’s out there. Plus, she killed Bellatrix Lestrange. What a badass.

ELIZABETH BENNETT

Yes, Elizabeth Bennett ends up marrying Mr Darcy and living happily ever happy, but a lot happens between their first unfortunate meeting and that proposal. Elizabeth is considered the smartest and the strongest of the Bennett sisters and it shows when she resists Mr Darcy’s charms. In the 21st century it’d be pretty hard to ignore the proposal of a millionaire who looks like Colin Firth, but let’s also consider that this was 150 years ago – when women weren’t allowed to work, own property or vote, and a man was the only ticket out of the family home. Despite all this, Elizabeth holds firm to her principles and her beliefs that a woman should be treated with dignity and respect – regardless of how cute the guy is. I think a few of us could perhaps take a leaf out of Elizabeth’s book, don’t you?

ANNE SHIRLEY

Anne Shirley is perhaps my favourite character in the whole entire world. She is imaginative, feisty and strong. Anne hadn’t lived a particularly easy or nice life before she moved into Green Gables, yet it didn’t stop her from respecting herself and others. When Gilbert falls in love with her, she doesn’t fall for him (even though the rest of us did) because she felt that he didn’t treat her with respect. Even though this was written over 100 years ago, Anne is determined to be the smartest person in her class – both in Avonlea and then at university. When she has to become the homemaker that doesn’t even stop her – why should chores stop her from achieving her dreams? Finally, Anne makes a very apt remark that women should be allowed to vote, because they’re usually the ones who know what’s what. Anne the Feminist has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

KATNISS EVERDEEN

This one is pretty obvious. Katniss literally sacrifices herself to save those she loves. When her father died she took on the role of breadwinner in order to keep her family alive. She’s manages to survive and win the Hunger Games, yet at the same time retain her dignity and treat others with that same dignity. She doesn’t marry the man that she’s supposed to, and she doesn’t agree with being a spokesmodel solely so she looks good. Basically Katniss Everdeen is a woman that all of us should aspire to be. She turns the stereotype of gender roles on its head and she flourishes, while still maintaining what is important to herself. Katniss Everdeen, I salute you.

IRENE ADLER

I’ve included Irene Adler because she serves as a welcome feminist in a world that is rather sexist. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though I love him, is a wee gender-biased, and 95% of the characters from the Sherlock Holmes novels show this. Yet despite this, he created a character in Irene Adler that shows that sometimes it’s a woman, despite the century or the way she looks, that can defeat even the smartest of men. After all – no man has ever defied Sherlock Holmes, but that doesn’t mean a woman hasn’t.

Who’s your favourite fictional feminists? Are you a fan of any of the above? Let me know!

Book Review: 44 Scotland Street

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44 scotland street by alexander mccall smith Alexander McCall Smith is one of those rarities – he’s a man who has successfully written a tonne of chick lit. Whether it’s romance, household affairs or anything else that is deemed ‘too feminine and trivial’ for many male writers, McCall Smith simply takes it in his stride. Set in Edinburgh, 44 Scotland Street tells a series of different stories from the third person perspective of the occupants at, you guessed it, 44 Scotland Street. There’s Pat, a 20-year old who is on her second gap year; Bruce, her conceited yet disastrously handsome roommate; Irene, the pushy mother downstairs, and a whole host of others. Basically, picture all of those Love, Actually type storylines that were really popular five years ago and you have the storyline of 44 Scotland Street. Now I’ve read Alexander McCall Smith, and I think it’s fair to say that he is essentially the Jerry Seinfeld of Scotland literature – he manages to entertain the masses by describing the everyday. Not much seems to happen in McCall Smith’s novels, and usually that doesn’t matter. His charming characters, gorgeous scenery and elegant prose usually make up for the fact that there’s, well, not all that much of a storyline. I did know this going into 44 Scotland Street. I had also read that it was originally a newspaper periodical, where a bit each week would be published by The Scotsman (so very Charles Dickens of him). So I assumed that the storyline would be slow-paced, at best. Yet, to be brutally frank, there is slow-paced, and there is glacial. 44 Scotland Street was the latter of the two. First, there was the dynamic of the storyline: where instead of there being a central plot, with smaller plots surrounding it, there were a serious of small plots that didn’t really seem to go anywhere. I’ve never been a fan of this type of storyline, in much the same way that I never enjoyed Love, Actually or even short stories for that matter. If I’m going to read a story about a character, I want to be immersed fully into their lives, witness their woes and experience their emotions. And, the reality is, that’s near to impossible to do in a 300 page book that covers the lives of about eight different characters. Second, I felt as though there wasn’t much conflict in this book to start with, but what there was was either not resolved or acknowledged at all, or, quite literally, laughed off. We’ve been introduced to all of this people, yet there is no resolution to what we’ve been told about them. Pat still has a bit of a crush on Bruce; Bruce still thinks he is the greatest person living in Scotland; and even Irene, the pushy mother, appears to be as equally pigheaded as she was at the start of the novel. While I know that this novel was the first in a series, I felt as though I was being cheated out of a conclusion. Finally, my least favourite thing about this novel was the endless number of dull conversations included about, well, nothing. I assume Alexander McCall Smith put them in there as a way of describing his characters and of showcasing the mundane of everyday life, but honestly, there were just boring. They would go on for pages and pages and I would just lose interest and go and watch TV instead (or even worse, I think I got so bored, I was driven to doing the household chores). As a result, for someone who usually reads these sort of books in a day or two (perspective: I just re-read all seven Harry Potter books in two weeks), I found myself lagging, losing interest and only picking it up because I wanted to finish it and find something else to read. I still don’t mind Alexander McCall Smith or his writing style, and I can definitely see why people find his work so charming, but 44 Scotland Street was a disappointment and it has put me off trying to read any more of his books, at least for a while. Have you read any of the 44 Scotland Street series? Are you a fan of Alexander McCall Smith? Let me know!

Book Review: Invisible Monsters Remix

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invisible monsters by chuck palanuik

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll probably know that I’m quite a fan of Chuck Palanuik. Although he writes largely disturbing fiction (turning human fat into soap etc.), in my mind’s eye, he’s actually a super nice guy whom I would like to invite over to dinner. Where I’m sure he would manage to make me feel decidedly unhip, uninformed and probably not very well-read, simply because of his awesomeness. Damn you, fictional Chuck Palanuik.

Invisible Monsters Remix is Palanuik’s third novel, Invisible Monsters, republished in a slightly different format: instead of Palanuik creating a book that goes from start to finish, where the reader can determine how far away the end of the story is based on the dwindling pages, he decided on something new – to have the chapters all out of order, and hey! even some that you had to use a mirror to read.

In terms of actual plot, Invisible Monsters centres around an unnamed protagonist who was formally a model…until she had her jaw blown off. Now horribly disfigured, she joins forces with Queen Brandy Alexander, a beautiful, larger-than-life transsexual woman who takes the protagonist under her wing.

I’ve wanted to read this book for quite a long time, as the premise both intrigued and horrified me – what happens when someone beautiful loses their looks and their place in society? Considering my general awe surrounding Palanuik, I just assumed that Invisible Monsters would be a real treat; albeit a somewhat disturbing one. Yet unfortunately, for the first Palanuik book ever, this was not the case.

I had two problems with this book and the first was Palanuik’s ‘quirky’ way to laying it out. Sure, it was something different and I applaud him for trying, but as a sentimental book lover, I missed the structure of a normal book. It became simply frustrating to flick back and forth to the next chapter, and while he was trying to avoid being predicable, the chapters were still set out in a way that I could determine quite easily how much of the book remained. And while some of the chapters were actually little stories about Palanuik’s writing, and thus nothing to do with Invisible Monsters, I didn’t have the enthusiasm or the energy to try and hunt them down after I’d finished.

Secondly, I felt that Invisible Monsters was written for shock value, but little else. The protagonist though literally faceless (practically, anyway), is also faceless in her personality – I’m not given any reason to really care about her or know anything about her apart from that freak accident. And while there are certainly twists in the storyline, they almost seem a tad pointless, and they are surrounded by a plot that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and isn’t particularly propelled by any real motivation. In short, Palanuik appears to be riding on the fact his novel will shock people, but as a Palanuik fan who has read his other books, his style of writing or content doesn’t particularly faze me too much anymore. Plus, a novel should have more going for it than simply shock value.

I still love Chuck Palanuik and luckily Invisible Monsters Remix hasn’t put me off reading his novels – particularly the ones he wrote later on in his career, which I think really show his maturity as a writer. If you’re curious as to his methods of shock and a fair deal of depravity, I don’t recommend Invisible Monsters Remix – go for the famous Fight Club or even his newest novel, Beautiful Youinstead.

Have you read Invisible Monsters Remix? Are you a fan of Chuck Palanuik or have you read any of his other books? Let me know!

Book Review: Brother of the More Famous Jack

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Brother of the More Famous Jack, written in 1982, is the highly-acclaimed, debut novel of Barbara Trapido. It is a novel that has received critical success and is still considered highly relevant more than thirty years later. I’d never heard of it and thought it was a newish release; in fact, I largely decided to buy it because when I was at the bookstore I was pretty hungover and wanted something that wouldn’t require a huge amount of brain power. No Tolstoy for me that day, thank you very much.

Brother of the More Famous Jack is a coming-of-age novel centred around recently graduated Katherine. Stylish, beautiful and smart, Katherine becomes wrapped up in the rambling, eccentric family of her professor, Jacob Goldman, who has six children with his sharp-tongued wife, Jane.

While Katherine becomes entangled with the Goldman family she also starts dating their oldest son Roger, who despite being beautiful and brilliant, is also snobbish, cold and elitist. When he eventually rejects Katherine, she moves abroad until ten years later when she returns home and once more faces the Goldmans

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, Brother of the More Famous Jack has gained critical acclaim far and wide for being a thought-provoking coming-of-age novel. After completing it, I could see why: Barbara Trapido’s writing is fluid and emotive – it engulfs the reader so that they too almost become part of the story. Whole pages would flip past and it was almost a surprise when I turned over the last page – not because of the conclusion of the novel, but simply because I had managed to finish it so quickly. Basically, Trapido has succeeded in writing an intelligent novel that is a breeze to read. Hallelujah says my hungover self.

One of the other distinctive quirks I enjoyed about Brother of the More Famous Jack was the distinct lack of likeable characters – or, I should, stereotypical likeable characters. Though Katherine is beautiful and stylish, she is also weak-minded, shallow and dismissive of her family (although in saying that, at age 18, which of us aren’t a tad weak-minded, shallow or dismissive or our family?). And although the Goldmans definitely have an allure, they’re also a family that are simultaneously disordered, unclean, bickering and elitist. Yet despite all the major flaws of these characters, as a reader I still became immersed in their world – and although I disagreed with many, if not most, of their actions, I still also felt compelled to continue turning those pages to find out what happened to them all.

The only drawback to this novel though was that Katherine was constantly domineered by the men in her life, and for a novel that has the makings to be a great feminist manifesto, it was sadly disappointing. First Katherine is overwhelmed by Jacob Goldman himself, then his son Roger, who despite apparently being liberal, thinks it’s perfectly accepted to tell Katherine how to dress, what make up to wear and to look down on her for being into something as petty as fashion. I mean, excuse me, but what? And yet Katherine goes along with it all. I would like to argue that it’s due to her age, but as we see with her partner in Rome and even Jonathan, she is constantly manipulated into doing things for her partner’s sake, rather than her own. (There is one exception of course, but I don’t want to say it as it will give away a large part of the plot.)

Overall though, Brother of the More Famous Jack is a witty, sharp and intelligent novel. For an easy read that will still keep you hooked, I’d definitely recommend this book.

Have you read Brother of the More Famous Jack or any thing by Barbara Trapido? Let me know!

brother of the more famous jack by barbara trapido

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