Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This book is a long way from one that I would choose for myself. I read it for a book club, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up anything else by Kate Morton.

The central character is Laurel, a famous actress who witnessed a terrible event during an otherwise perfect bucolic childhood, and the author uses parallel timelines to reveal the characters involved and the reasons behind what happened. Laurel searches for answers as her mother lies dying, while we (the readers) are given a privileged view into long-past events through the eyes and thoughts of the people who lived them.

As such, the plot structure was frustrating, since there was very little revelation in Laurel’s story because we already knew more than she did. The plot took a long time to get going and only really accelerated in the final section, which was for me the most interesting and the best-written. I didn’t really like any of the characters – this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I have read many books in which I disliked characters, but I need to be interested in them, and I really wasn’t interested in any of the people in the book apart from two – Vivien, Laurel’s mother’s friend from the 1940s, and Gerry, Laurel’s brother who plays a bit-part role. The last section of the novel, which I liked the most, was told from Vivien’s point of view.

The end, when it came, felt rushed because of the need to spring all the final surprises in the last few pages, and while I did get a genuine “oh, riiight!” moment, it felt like a sudden slap in the face and I still felt that there was a lot more that could have been done throughout the rest of the novel to drip-feed hints and follow up details.

So – this is a decent story told in a workmanlike way, but for me it did not sparkle. The characters were mostly rather flat and did little that was unexpected, and any interesting things they did do were largely unexplained or sidelined. No more Kate Morton for me, but thanks anyway.

~100-word review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Oddly disappointed with this, influenced (I think) by reading Maya Angelou immediately before. The story of black domestics and their relationships with their white employers in 1960s Mississippi was well told, the characters beautifully differentiated and the events obviously drawn from affectionate and vivid experience, but in the aftermath of the emotions elicited by Angelou this one felt uncomfortably frothy. I wasn’t challenged by it, which was unexpected in a book dealing with emotional relationships in the context of such deep and vicious racial divides.

I can see why it is a bestseller, but I was expecting something deeper and I didn’t find it. A beach read, rather than a piece of social commentary.

~100-word review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I first read this as a teenager – I thought everyone did, but it seems not, because the members of my book club hadn’t, and none of them liked it. At all.
It’s a good thing I missed that meeting, because things might have got ugly. This book has lost none of its power to shock and move, although my emotions this time round were profoundly different as the mother of an 11-year-old daughter. I cried, I laughed and I raged at the injustice and the agonising self-justifications of a deeply wronged black child in 1940s America, and I’ll give the book to my daughters to read. When they’re a bit older.

2012 in review

So here we are at the tail end of the year. For me and my family, 2012 has been a year of spectacular highs and one or two crushing lows – a weird year in some ways, but it’s been creative and funny and scary and challenging and all of that stuff. In summary:

January was the month of snow, walking to work across drift-covered fields and nervy preparation for our first ever skiing trip in February, which was terrifying and exhilarating and expensive and fabulous and a thing to be repeated when we have saved up again. Real life, school and editing seemed terribly dull on our return.

March disappeared in a blur of school and work stuff (seriously, I’ve been back over my diary, and nothing happened. NOTHING), so we’ll move swiftly on to April, which was Book Club month, the inaugural meeting of a small group of friends from work. We have kept meeting, and during the year we have read a variety of books – not always ones I would have chosen, but isn’t that the point of Book Club? We’ve also had some truly memorable conversations, and not always about the books. Reading ladies of AHS, I salute you and look forward to more in 2013.

April was also the month when I was, rather astonishingly and out of the blue,  commissioned to write a book of my own. Therefore, writing and research in May, burying myself in the ancient and splendid Sussex dialect and peppering my conversation with words like sureleye and pathery. Turns out writing a book is actually quite hard work. Who knew.

June was more writing and great joy when I turned in the manuscript on time, but also sunshine, our brief warm summer, spent at school and guiding Molly through the first real round of her GCSE exams. Not that she needed much guidance; if ever a girl deserved to do well by dint of organisation, application and sheer gutsy hard work it would be my Molly. So proud.

In July I concentrated on getting to the end of the school term without collapsing or killing anyone (dropping my hours to four days a week certainly helped with this), and had a week at home on my own when Tom took the children to the coast (they had already broken up, I was still at school – happens every year). This was at the same time dark, empty and dreadful, and blissful, liberating and QUIET. Then, of course, came the Olympics – a fortnight of marvelling and weeping and laughing and marvelling all over again.

August was Big Theatre month, when we sang and danced and played and acted until we (literally) dropped, and between us produced The Blue Dress, the best show we have ever pulled off. So proud of all the Big Theatre babes, but (naturally) of my own children most of all. We also camped in Yorkshire, spending five wet and windy nights under canvas wondering where the tent was going to spring a leak next (once – memorably – under my bed).

Back to school in September, but as always the bitter pill was sweetened considerably by my birthday on the 11th. Also, I took part in a community performance of Carmina Burana, accompanying an 80-strong choir as part of a semi-pro orchestra brought together for the day. I’ve never been prouder to call myself a violinist.

October was theatre again, recalling the Big Theatre cast and reprising The Blue Dress from the summer for a triumphant three-night run over half term. I also worked through the final edits for the Sussex book, involving lots of to-and-fro between me, the commissioning editor and the designer before we finally arrived at the print draft.

Eventually in November  Sussex Dialect was published, amid a great deal of pink-cheeked grinning on my part. Pity my poor friends and family, who have been forced to read the wretched thing over and over again and answer questions about it. (They haven’t really.) I also took part in my first podcast recording, having a total ball with Dion, Barry and Clo from the Scrolls book group at Geek Syndicate. I definitely want to do more of this.

December, as always, was a frenzy of concerts, school performances and preparations for Christmas, but also, out of nowhere, Wandering Weeds was published, containing a short story of mine which I had more or less given up for lost. Unbelievably happy about this, especially since fantasy fiction is what I really want to be writing. In the absence of any further ideas, though, I also signed a contract to write a Norfolk dialect book. Something of a pattern here.

Through this all I have edited, and written, and knitted, and edited more, and edited a LOT more, and generally wondered where all the work is coming from. If my freelance work continues to gather momentum in 2013 I’ll have to take serious stock of whether my current school commitments are sustainable, but that’s for the future. For now, I’m looking forward to going back to school and getting my teeth into writing Norfolk and editing a couple of novels which are lined up for the early part of 2013. Also, the last two months of 2012 showed an impressive average of a book published a month; I know I can’t sustain this over the next few weeks, but if 2013 can match 2012’s total in terms of publications with my name on (or in) them, I’ll be delighted.

Book Club – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

One Monday night in the month is Book Club night, when I meet up with a group of chums from work to eat nachos or deep-fried Brie, drink beer or hot chocolate (whichever suits), complain about other work folk who aren’t there and maybe, a bit, sometimes, talk about a book we’ve all read. We meet here and annoy the other patrons with gales of cackling laughter and shouts for more hot chocolate, interspersed with occasional insightful and pertinent comments about the book in question.

This Monday we met a little earlier than usual and all ate together by way of a nod to the festive season, which was lovely, and then the serious ones who’d actually read the book got their copies out of their bags and we got down to business. This month’s book was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – I can’t remember who suggested it but it may have been me, on the basis of a half-remembered perusal as a student in my early twenties. I remembered the powerful allegory and the spare prose, and I remembered being haunted by the book for some time after I read it.

All things considered I did enjoy the re-read, but I think the intervening twenty years have taught me enough about myself that the simple story, with its emphasis on destiny and striving towards one’s goals, seems less of a fable and more of a fairy story. The message was still powerful and clear, and I found moments of great clarity in the text – dumpout points when I had to close the book and leave it for a while in order to let the precise wording of a sentence or phrase resonate in my head. However, I did not find the haunting beauty in the storytelling that I remembered, and I was left with a sense of nostalgia for a simpler time in my life, when everything was bright and shiny and destiny seemed like something that I could simply reach out and grasp.

Now, in my early forties, I have a more complicated view of destiny and spirituality, and Coelho’s prose in The Alchemist felt too naive, too simplistic to reflect that. Being aware of omens is all very well, but the book had no shading, no rise and fall, and little in the way of nuanced character development – instead the reader is led by the nose past a sequence of Messages, and especially as a non-Christian, by the end of the book I did feel rather like I’d been beaten over the head with a Bible wrapped in a fluffy black-and-white blanket.

The rest of the group had a mixed response – some loved it, some were ambivalent, and a couple hated it so much they threatened to burn it. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say, I think, that this is a book that hasn’t aged with me.

Next meeting is on January 14th; we are being daring and reading two books this month, because we all have a fortnight off over Christmas so lots of time for reading. (Yeah, right.) The books are The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (don’t ask) and A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett – we wanted light and non-depressing, and I think we’ve chosen wisely.

Book Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Ok, I’m going to come right out and say it – I don’t really like Iain Banks. This is based on a reasonable sampling of his work – I have read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games, as well as The Crow Road and Espedair Street. I have also read The Wasp Factory before – many years ago, I suspect when I was trying to impress a fellow student with my edgy literary tastes.

Looking back at this list, for a writer I claim not to like much, I appear to have read quite a lot of his books – certainly more than for other writers I don’t like, where one book (sometimes less than that) is usually enough. This is a compliment to Banks as a writer – difficult and uncomfortable as I find his books, they’re almost impossible to leave in the middle if you allow them to get their claws into your psyche.

This is certainly the case for The Wasp Factory – which, by the way, I read for Book Club in June 2012. It was recommended by someone – I forget who, but certainly not me – and I was slightly resentful that not only was it by Iain Banks, but I’d already read it, and I didn’t really want to read it again. However, I reasoned, the whole point of Book Club is to read stuff that one wouldn’t otherwise, and to challenge one’s literary tastes, and for me Banks ticks both of those boxes, re-read or no.

The book is told from the point of view of Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen-year-old sociopath who suffered a terrible accident when he was young and who now lives with his father Angus on an island just off the coast of Scotland, somewhere near Inverness. Frank’s (never-named) island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and Frank and his father often visit the nearest town of Porteneil, a few miles away. The Cauldhames used to be rich and powerful in the local area – the pub in Porteneil is named for their family – but Frank and his father are now all that are left.

They live a strange isolated existence, visited once a week by the taciturn Mrs Clamp who does the house, and in the main they keep to their own activities – Angus locked in his mysterious laboratory, Frank in a highly organised defence of his island territory, involving explosives, ritual, totemic sacrifice poles and divination using the Wasp Factory of the title.

Through Frank’s highly logical and yet deeply disturbed narrative we learn that he has killed three times – all children, all younger than he, and all despatched with no passion or anger, simply a cold and brutal logic. We also learn about his feckless mother, who abandoned him during his early childhood, and his best friend Jamie, a dwarf who commonly sits on Frank’s shoulders in the local pub in order to see the band, resting his pint on Frank’s head and chatting up girls.

We also find out about Frank’s older brother Eric, who experienced something so traumatic while working as a medical intern that he lost his sanity and degenerated into a dog-torturing psychopath. We don’t learn about this until later, though – the horrific details emerge gradually as Frank waits for Eric’s inevitable return home after his escape from a secure institution. Frank is clearly terrified of his brother, but also loves him with a blind distraction. He oscillates between obsessive preparation and renewal of his defences and an almost parental concern for Eric’s welfare – is he eating? Where is he sleeping?

When Eric does turn up on the island the book’s climax is shocking, nightmarish and not for the faint of heart. It also triggers a world-changing revelation for Frank, which leaves the reader re-assessing everything they have read over the last two hundred or so pages and in many ways renders the details of the story even more shocking in retrospect.

I knew the ending, but that in no way detracted from the visceral, hand-over-mouth horror of the final few pages of the book. In Frank, Banks has created a deeply deranged and damaged anti-hero who nevertheless elicits a good deal of sympathy in the final analysis – a fine balance to achieve, but Banks has pulled it off with a clarity and power that leave the reader gasping.

This book is rightly a modern classic. Reading it is a bit like running a marathon – it’s hard, it hurts, it leaves you staggering and it shakes up your world-view. I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t go to Iain Banks very often; he challenges his readers, often repeatedly within the same passages, and that’s never relaxing or comfortable. However, this isn’t a reason for not liking his books – I loved The Passage by Justin Cronin, and that made me as uncomfortable as hell; ditto most of The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. In fact, my discomfort is a compliment to these authors, a testament to the fact that they are so good at creating a steady and shocking stream of horrors and unpleasantnesses while maintaining my engagement with the story.

I haven’t changed my opinion of Iain Banks’ books. I still wouldn’t choose to read any more of them, given a free choice, but I’m no longer quite sure why – I suspect they might be Boy Books, appealing more to a young male mind than to my own (which is neither of those things). Be that as it may, however, Banks is a writer’s writer – his prose is spare, powerful and eye-wateringly expert, with no word wasted. I don’t need to enjoy his stories to admire his writing and to be affected by the characters and narratives he creates.

In line with my resolve to blog more often I’m publishing a review of a book I read for a fledgling book club, formed by myself and some friends from work who basically wanted a literary excuse to get together in a pub and laugh a lot. I wrote the review because I thought I wouldn’t be able to attend the meeting, but then I could, so the review was superfluous. However, it was purloined and read out anyway, and some folk suggested it might be blog-worthy. So I rewrote bits of it, added other bits, and … well, enough explanation. Hereafter, my review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. Contains spoilers.

This book is the story of a young girl, Rose, who discovers she can taste emotions in food – specifically, the emotions of the person who prepared the food. Hence the title, which I must say I found intriguing – Rose’s mother Lane bakes her a lemon cake, and Rose experiences all Lane’s sadness and frustration – and later the heady emotions of a new affair. This is an appealing idea from the point of view of the storytelling, since it gives Rose (and therefore us, since the story is told in the first person) a privileged view of the other characters in the book. However, this did not provide the insightful narrative I thought it might; instead it mainly produced descriptions of the various factories where items were manufactured, the emotions of the cows and chickens who were responsible for some of the ingredients, and rather pointless descriptions of the inner lives of bit-part chefs.

For the first two or three chapters I found this book difficult to get into. It seemed slow, and I found the reporting of Rose’s experiences too adult/mature in some of the interpretations she made. The descriptions of Rose’s emotional distress and her attempts to deal with the adult emotions surrounding her mother’s affair were well written, but I felt there wasn’t enough confusion in her responses – she dealt with her mother’s feelings in a very adult way (apart from a rather self-conscious breakdown and subsequent trip to hospital, which were themselves later rationalised as some sort of experiment to see how other people would react).

I enjoyed the middle section, dealing with Rose’s relationship with her brother Joseph and his friend George, but I didn’t really understand George’s motivation for maintaining his relationship with this weird family (loopy mother, distant father, odd son and clingy/bonkers daughter). To start with he seems to take Joseph and then Rose on as science projects, but then he largely abandons Joseph to go off to University and seems almost to be toying with Rose’s affections, responding to her whenever she calls but never reacting to her clear adoration of him.

Initially I thought Joseph was autistic, but as the story unfolded it became clear that his behaviour was much more inexplicable than that. It turns out he was intentionally distancing himself from his family and the world, dealing with his own special skill (which is never described) by assuming the nature and form of various inanimate objects. He spends longer and longer away – from himself? from his family? – and eventually becomes a chair. A chair. Really? This came out of nowhere, and was so bizarre that it threw me out of the narrative completely. There isn’t much attempt to explain how, or why, he does this, and it was a rather rude dump out of the story.

In the final section, dealing with his disappearances and the family’s reaction, I felt that the author was struggling to bring the story to a close. The revelation from Rose’s father, about her grandfather’s special skill and the reason for his own fear of hospitals, felt tacked on, as if the author had suddenly realised she needed to explain all the bizarre things that had happened and produced this as a rather obvious deus ex machina. I thought she threw the explanation away far too easily – if Rose’s father had talked to his daughter earlier in the story, the special abilities could have been explored and the father-daughter relationship developed. As it was, there was little expansion on the family trait and no resolution of the story.

Rose’s acceptance of her mother’s affair also bothered me – as did Lane’s apparent lack of distress that her daughter had found out about it. In fact, the whole family was so dysfunctional that it made the story difficult to read because their lives were so fractured and there was so little in the way of meaningful interaction between them. Rose also abandoned her longing for George with a suddenness that seemed at odds with her adoration of him throughout the rest of the book. The kiss between them was a clear, lucid moment in their relationship, and it felt like it should lead to some resolution for her, but the next we hear of him he’s getting married to someone else, and she trots along to the wedding like a dutiful chum, dancing with him and then releasing him to his bride.

As a study of loneliness and isolation, the book has one or two affecting moments in it – I thought the story of the reason for Lane’s resigned disillusionment with her husband was beautifully told. All in all, however, this was a nice idea, spoiled by inconsistent characterisations, inexplicable relationships, patchy plotting and one or two truly bizarre events. I’d like to say I’ll give this author another chance and read one of her other books, but sadly I don’t think I will.

Text from the author’s website:

Aimee Bender is the author of four books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which recently won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at USC.

Book review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender