Category Archives: One for the bus

Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell


The Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty is in trouble. In the fading resort of Swamplandia!, the family is reeling from Hilola Bigtree’s death from cancer, and as the Chief’s debts mount up, the children each find their own ways to deal with their terror of the unknown and save the park that is their home. But Kiwi has gone to work for a rival theme park, Ossie has found a boyfriend who may or may not be a ghost, and the Chief has gone AWOL, so it’s down to plucky, 13-year-old Ava, her red alligator, and the mysterious Bird Man to enter the swamp and fix their family fortunes. But the swamps are treacherous, and not everything is as it seems…

Told from both Kiwi and Ava’s perspectives, this is a darkly innocent narration. I love Ava’s voice, her bravado and her bizarre frames of reference that only a girl who grew up in an alligator-wrestling theme park could come up with. Lines like: ‘I could feel the secret rolling between the four of us like an egg in a towel.’

Her grief about her mother is expertly woven into the consciousness of a girl who does not know how to express it, manifesting itself not in passages about how she misses her mother, but in nervous tics, a lack of assurance about what to believe, and a desperate search for affection when she meets the Bird Man.

The gator-swamp is an excellent, other-worldly setting that makes it impossible to know what we as readers can and can’t believe in. Perhaps ghosts are real, if they can create such a lasting impression on a family. Perhaps men can commune with animals, if the Bigtree legacy is to be believed. It reminded me of Life of Pi, the way that the line between magical realism and traumatic experience were blurred.

The story of Louis Thanksgiving, that one heartless reviewer on Goodreads who clearly likes her stories flat and dull and obvious from the outset, was brilliant. Like an orphan from a fairytale, Louis was only adopted to serve as cheap labour on a Florida farm. His background is so starved of love and opportunity that the Depression is, to him, a blessing.

Happiness could be felt as a pressure too, Louis realised, more hard-edged and solid than longing, even… in fact he’d been so poor in Iowa that he couldn’t settle on one concrete noun to wish for- a real father? A girl in town? A thousand acres? A single friend? In contrast, this new happiness had angles. Happiness like his was real; it had a jewel-cut shadow, and he could lose it.

And once you’ve followed Louis’ tragic, wasteful, pointless story to its conclusion, you’ve fallen a little bit in love with him too, just like Ossie. Whether or not he is a ‘real ghost’, you are brought face to face with the injustices of poverty, bad planning and a lack of accountability. That’s why we get the ‘unbelievable’ story of Kiwi going to Harvard, because he could never go – the system is rigged so that of course he could never go. It is a notion more fantastic than a 13-year-old alligator wrestler. In its own, dreamy, teenage way, Swamplandia! is as furious as a much more explicitly political book.

A lot of reviewers have criticised this book for being too dark (stupid), for not properly explaining one of the climaxes of the book (stupid, because everything in life comes with an explanation) and for stranding us with an implausibly happy ending. But if you try to pick out what is ‘plausible’ about this book you entirely miss the point – it is getting tangled up in this problem that makes the book so compelling. And I defy you not to care about these kids. I couldn’t put it down.

First line: Our mother performed in starlight.
In a tweet: A dark, murky, terrifying tale of adolescence.


Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn


When everybody else is raving about a book I do love to prove them wrong, but sometimes that’s just not possible. This was a genuinely enjoyable, thoughtful thriller that kept you guessing right up to the end and was highly original in its execution.

I suppose these questions stormcloud over our marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Nick Dunne awakes on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife has disappeared. He knows they haven’t been getting on. Her diary reveals that she was afraid of him. That he could be cruel. And Nick has secrets to hide. So what did happen to beautiful, amazing Amy?

The novel is beautifully paced and the voices of Nick and Amy are convincing and distinct. Extraneous details act as colour to their relationship and also excellent red herrings, and the narration chillingly paints a convincing picture of the very cruel, very legal things that two people in a relationship can do to one another (emotionally and psychologically, not in a 50 Shades way), before the mystery even occurs. But also, you end up rooting for some surprising people, for some surprising (and sometimes disturbing) reasons. Probably the best thing about it is the way we see two conflicting sides of the story, and knowing that we’re reading a crime novel, our efforts to figure out the twist, to see how or whether he did it, actually leaves us open to easy manipulation.

It’s impossible to discuss the book in too much detail without giving away the ending and the twists, which everybody bangs on so much you’d definitely feel short changed. However, I did feel that towards the end it got a bit too deus ex machina for my liking, especially when it had started off so insidious and domestic. But seasoned thriller readers are probably much happier with the old familiar improbable resolution, so I am willing to let that slide. And crucially, it didn’t get in the way of enjoying what was an excellent, chilling, intelligent read.

In a tweet: Jonathan Franzen meets Donna Tartt. In a good way.

Review: Q by Evan Mandery

Q by Evan ManderyIf you could go back in time, would you save yourself from the greatest heartbreak of your life? This is the question that Q asks, in a whimsically postmodern fashion that mostly (mostly) manages to avoid quite straying into Zooey Deschanel territory.

I know I'm setting the movement back, but BAAAAARF.

Now, the first thing to remember is not to panic at the initial premise. Our unnamed narrator is a struggling writer (slightly worried this is thinly veiled metatext) whose own postmodern offering, Time’s Broken Arrow (UH OH) is moderately successful, and who has met the love of his life, the she-doesn’t-know-how-beautiful-she-is (ALERT! ALERT!), quixotically named (OH NO) Q (THIS IS NEXT TO “Z FOR ZOOEY” IN THE ALPHABET OF KOOK). However, it is definitely worth bearing with the fact that on paper this is a Pynchon-romcom mashup (in fact, it is one of those, but I can’t imagine that shifting many copies on the 3 for 2 table). Q is an organic gardener committed to the single organic farm that lives, almost magically protected, in the very centre of New York City. She is beautiful, kind, loving and generous – we seriously stop barely short of butterflies landing on her fingertips and birds singing along with her.

But just before their wedding, our narrator is visited by his future self, and told that they will suffer a terrible tragedy if he continues to marry Q. He believes him. And he commits an act of unforgivable sabotage on the most important relationship in his life. But then, one after the other, more future selves continue to visit him – marry someone else, divorce her, become a lawyer, get a dead-end job, etc. It becomes impossible to see how this could ever end well, but of course, you know our narrator will eventually be able to travel back in time, so perhaps it will never end at all…

Mandery has fun with the time travel stuff, but he also makes fun of its unscientificness – as a future self tries to illustrate the concept on a tablecloth, the waiter complains not about the state of the tablecloth, but his terrible grasp of the sequential fallacy. Because it’s not really about the mechanics of time travel at all. It’s not really even about Q, whose perfection and unflappable faith in her ridiculous rich-property-developer father (if you smell a PLOT DEVICE, you’re not wrong) makes her rather unbelievable. It’s about how you learn to live with your regrets, and the value that lends your moments of happiness.

But perhaps whether you’ll enjoy it boils down to whether you can grit your teeth and bear the following:

…in that apartment, where Q and I shared peanut brittle while watching Casablanca, and completed the Sunday crossword puzzle with jam-covered toothpicks, and made snow angels in a pile of sugar on the hardwood floor, and first made love…

That is your litmus test, right there. If you can cope with our narrator’s middle-class Brooklynite love affair with himself in New York city, then you will find yourself strangely moved by the things that follow.

In a tweet: The Time Traveller’s Wife instagrammed.

Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

I remember the hype around this when it came out, as the first major work from Pullman after His Dark Materials and promising a similarly inflammatory reading of religion. It was available in two simple-but-beautiful editions from Canongate, suggesting a choosing of sides or an aligning of allegiance (I’d be interested to know which sold better, the black or the white. My money’s on the black).

The Good Man Jesusand the Scoundrel Christ

Anyway, when I finally settled down to read it, it was in a much less imaginatively designed paperback and on loan from a theology graduate friend who described it as ‘really disappointing’, but who also acknowledged that she has a much deeper knowledge of the Bible than your average reader and thought she might have been giving Pullman a bit of a hard time.

Not so, theology friend! For somebody who had obviously done his homework on religious literature for The Amber Spyglass, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredibly simplistic retelling, and I say this as somebody with a pretty limited Sunday School grasp of the Biblical stories, plus whatever you pick up in English Lit class along the way. I wasn’t offended by it in a religious sense, but I really thought it smacked of a kind of adolescent storytelling – ‘Wouldn’t it blow everybody’s minds if Jesus wasn’t one person….BUT TWO?!’. There used to be an old drunk guy who would regularly get on my bus and tell everybody ‘IF YOU SPELL LIVED BACKWARDS, YOU GET DEVIL’ and then stare at you like he’d proved an infallible conspiracy about the universe. I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but he definitely wasn’t as clever as he thought, either, smelling of Special Brew on the 143. And I feel like he and Philip Pullman have been to one too many Tennants-flavoured theology seminars.

The novel is written in a pared down style which I guess is supposed to be redolent of Biblical writing, although why people insist on suggesting that people 2,000 years ago all narrated their own inner monologues in this sparse way I have no idea. Christ is the black sheep of the family, intelligent, sensitive to moral ambiguity, and distinctly non-miraculous whereas Jesus is all impassioned earnestness and miracles. Christ becomes Jesus’s history writer, and inevitably starts to edit some of the occurrences for the sake of posterity, neatly bringing in a debate about the difference between History and Truth (and often helpfully telling you that’s what it’s doing at the same time. Just so, y’know, you don’t miss the significance). The man who encourages Christ in his endeavours is a shadowy figure (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe he’s the devil) who seems to be preparing the way for the church (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe the church is bad) – an institution that Jesus himself is against (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: doesn’t that just blow your mind, man?). We all know how the story is going to end, and surprise surprise, Judas and Christ are in cahoots, only it’s Christ that gets the 30 pieces of silver (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: exhausted).

It isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot, and for fans of Pullman it’s another bit of writing to gobble up by him. But where His Dark Materials offered some really challenging ideas with a bit of Milton thrown in, I found this to be a bit facile in comparison, and without the gimmick of the religious retelling, not a very compelling novel in its own right. I kept thinking about one of my favourite novels, The Master and Margarita, which contains a retelling of Jesus’ story through the eyes of Pontius Pilate in a much more nuanced, interesting, beautiful way. This just didn’t compete.

In a tweet: Sunday school’s out for summer.

Review: Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

A coming-of-age novel that doesn’t pull many punches, Ten Thousand Saints opens with Jude and Teddy getting high under the bleachers of their Vermont high school in 1987, dreaming of escape. When Teddy’s half-step-sister, Eliza, arrives for New Years Eve from distant, thrilling NYC, events are set in motion that will change all of their lives forever, as an unfortunate cocktail of drugs at a party means that Teddy doesn’t live to see ’88 (not a spoiler – this is given away pretty early on). The repercussions of Teddy’s death are far-reaching and in Eliza’s case, perhaps a little bit contrived. Jude moves to New York to find Teddy’s half-brother and gets involved in the straight-edge scene, rejecting the drugs that killed his best friend, the drink he had never been that into, and the sex he wasn’t having anyway. Meanwhile, we see Teddy and Jude’s parents, half-parents and broken families – each with their own baggage left over from their 70s hippy history – make clumsy attempts to steer their children to safety, without any real idea of what that might be.

The title is a reference to Saint Jude, for whom Jude is named, as well as Johnny’s flirtation with Hare Krishna, and suggests the redemptive qualities to be found in the most unlikely of places. The apparent ‘saintliness’ of the straight-edge scene is shown to be just as desperate, addictive and motivated by darker emotions than drug addictions, and its violence is offset by the more timid, hippy sensibilities of their parents. And while there might not be ten thousand of them, the book overflows with characters, following Jude, Eliza, Johnny, their parents, and a host of excellently drawn supporting characters a vibrant, gritty portrait of New York.

Henderson’s obviously done her research, about the protests against the gentrification of Brooklyn at that time and about straight-edge culture, and it was genuinely pleasurable to learn about a period of NYC’s history through her writing. But there is something a bit rag bag in her inclusion of all the Big Hitting Issues of the 80s – we’ve got the policing, the teen pregnancy, the AIDS crisis, the straight-edge scene, the young angry teens – and while the novel’s too well written for them to really feel like they’re competing, the novel can sometimes sound exactly like the clamouring adolescent hormones of its characters, without much sense of respite. I read a really interesting review that compared it to Peter Pan in the total absence of adult authority, the chaos and exuberance, but also the slight sense of unreality. But I think that helps. Like the pregnancy that emerges, each character goes through their own gestation period, a crazy and sometimes desperate incubation that forms and forges them. And I think once you get on for the ride, and accept that some of the freewheeling plot is a bit ridiculous, then the novel becomes a very powerful portrait of adolescence.

In a tweet: Masterful, but not a masterpiece.

Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Ok, really, what is the deal with Wallander? The last two years have been nothing but BBC4 parties and Dragon Tattoo antidotes. Balding alcoholic policemen are the new black. With my finger on the pulse of popular culture as ever, I had only managed to catch the last 5 minutes of episodes of the Swedish version – revelations that of course meant absolutely nothing to me, although I was sad because he got stood up at the end –  and it’s taken me until now to actually pick up a book. But with all the hype, I thought there might be something to it. Must have done something to attract these lookers.

Krister Henriksson 

Seriously, Ken, why are you even in that field?

Anyhoo, I dutifully bought my copy of what I thought was the first Wallander mystery (it’s hard to tell since they churned out all the sexy new editions) and tucked in.

What the hell?

This guy is alcoholic (who isn’t?!), slightly misogynistic (fine, he’s police), a bit racist (umm…) but above all he’s BORING. This man is so dull. I thought having demons to exorcise would make him a dark and brooding figure. Look at those craggy faces up there. Each one etched with a deep, shadowy secret, surely? No. This man is just obsessed with motorways and driving around and ok, solving crime, but even then that’s interspersed with bitching about bureaucracy and making a clumsy pass at the DA. That description actually suggests a charm that the book doesn’t have. It isn’t charming in its realism or its dullness. A man has been gruesomely tortured. But it’s still DULL.

In order to alleviate the boredom, I started to underline passages I found particularly irritating.

Wallander raised his eyebrows in surprise.

As opposed to raising your eyebrows in, say, fear. Or disgust. Or joy.

I’ve got to talk to Mona, he thought. I’ve got to talk to her after all that’s happened. And I’ve got to talk to my daughter. I have to visit my father and see what I can do for him. On top of all that I really ought to catch the murderers…

REALLY? OUGHT you? I don’t care how many glasses of whisky you’ve had, nobody narrates their to-do list in the style of a poorly written children’s book.

[Maybe a SPOILER ALERT but probably not if you’ve seen any synopses, episodes or the back cover of any of the books] So Wallander’s father is obviously getting on a bit, and he’s obviously losing his marbles. He’s a bit brusque with Wallander, which obviously as a trained police officer with over 30 years of fighting crime, Kurt is inordinately poorly equipped to deal with. So instead, we hear complaints about how poor his dad’s standard of living is, and how he can’t seem to look after himself. But it is only after 200 pages of him not being able to look after himself, an episode of full blown dementia AND a visit from his sister that he realises:

…it would be best, all the same, if their father could keep on living in his own house, with regular home visits.

He doesn’t even have to go in a home! There is nothing drastic about this action! Why are you so unaware of everything that goes on around you AND YET ALSO SPECTACULARLY UNABLE TO SOLVE THE CRIME YOU’RE SUPPOSEDLY OBSESSED WITH.

Maybe it’s the pared down narration that is either characteristic of Swedish crime novels, or characteristic of the way English-speaking publishers think Swedish crime readers want their novels to sound. But it just sounded flat. The whole thing was just another bureaucratic exercise like the daily plans Wallander makes with his team.

There was just one bit, ONE BIT, where this all got turned on its head. Wallander, who holds a bit of a torch for the new DA, takes her for dinner and a stroll. They have a chat about parking tickets and her family.

‘How often do you go home?’ he asked.
‘Every other week.’
‘And your husband? The children?’
‘He comes down when he can. And the children when they feel like it.’
I love you, thought Wallander. I’m going to see Mona tonight and I’m going to tell her that I love another woman.
They said goodbye in reception.

This is the only moment in the whole novel where I thought ‘This is brilliant!’ It is. Brilliant. That is exactly how it happens. They say something totally inane but because you’ve been dreaming about kissing them for the last 2 months all you can think of is ‘TAKE ME I’M YOURS.’ It speaks to every one of us that’s had a terrible, inappropriate and totally debilitating crush on a work colleague. But sadly, that was the only ray of sunshine in an otherwise drab, rather than moody, novel.

In a tweet: All the high octane bureaucracy, grumbling and middle-aged married-man concerns you can handle. Oh, and a murder.

Review: The Black House by Peter May

Welcome to LewesI’m not a big crime reader, but The Black House has done well for itself since its release last year, getting a spot on Richard & Judy and finding itself consistently in the Top 10, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

The novel opens where another might have climaxed*. Fin McLeod (oh yes, this book is SCOTTISH) is a police detective in Edinburgh, reeling from the death of his son – troubled, plagued by nightmares, unable to work, and marriage disintegrating. But a murder on the Isle of Lewis that echoes one of Fin’s own unsolved cases calls him back to his home and a past he has tried to forget.

I read a review of this novel on BookGeeks that described it as an unconventional crime novel, but actually the Isle of Lewis functions rather like a Christie manor or Midsomer (my points of reference obviously veer towards the old lady Sunday night viewing, rather than anything grittier or darker than Jonathan Creek). Fin finds himself interviewing the very close-knit community he sought to escape, renewing old friendships, tensions and memories. The narration is interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood on the island – his friends, his girl-next-door-tentative romance with Marsaili and his parents’ early death.

It’s an atmospheric place to set a novel, and is packed with information about the culture of an island that is both part of and separate from Scotland. I had only the vaguest notion of the tradition of guga hunting that still occurs on Sula Sgeir, but the book manages to patiently explain the tradition without making you feel a research grant is being rammed down your throat (not always an easy task). As a born city-dweller, it’s hard to know whether the emphasis on Gaelic in the pubs and as a marker of belonging is a little twee, and similarly whether it’s really that likely that Fin would know everybody (it’s interesting that the local Ness bobby who becomes Fin’s hapless sidekick doesn’t seem to have nearly the insight into the local characters that the absentee Fin does, unless it’s for a bit of expositional dialogue). But local charm is a difficult thing to get right, and probably sounds a bit twee to our hackneyed ears even when it’s genuine – and with Peter May, I certainly get the impression he’s writing from his own experience.

As you might expect from a classic crime novel, it’s only half about the murder. It’s really more about Fin confronting his own demons and making sense of what happened to his son, a spectre which makes us feel like there is more to discover, and which – without giving too much away – does work to quite artfully misdirect us. While there is the odd niggle – a bit of convenient ‘pub dialogue’ that runs through the last 15 years of personal history, the slightly far-fetched denouement, and the increasing incredulity with which you find yourself asked to sympathise with a man who at one stage in his flashbacks is entirely unsympathetic (but then in a way that’s part of the flair of the book, that it carries it off) – on the whole this is a gripping read. I left work early to read the next chapter. On one memorable day I missed my stop because I wanted to find out what happened.

If there is anything frustrating about the novel, it is the way in which characters, most notably Fin, can sometimes behave in quite arbitrarily irrational ways. The secrets that they harbour on the island are generally convincing, but one has to worry whether Marsaili is really given her dues as a 3D character, given some of the choices that she makes and, in a sense, beholden to her set-up as the apex of a manly love triangle. Some of this does become clearer by the end, but half way through the book you are left wondering whether Peter May really knew how to write into the deeper, darker corners of the mind. By the end of the novel, I’m still not sure, but for entirely different reasons. And it’s worth reading the novel just to find out what they are.

* I feel really weird using this word to mean ‘the moment of dramatic intensity that signals a mystery/thriller’s central revelation’ because, like you (even if you won’t admit it), I have read too much softcore porn. Let’s just acknowledge that this is an unfortunate side-effect of the word and move on…*titter*.

In a tweet: Wallander meets the Wicker Man.


Review: Michel Faber – The Fire Gospel

Flamin' NoraIf you wanted to be churlish, you might accuse Canongate of slightly cheating when it comes to this novel. Clocking in at 200ish pages of large, wide margined text in hardback, this is really more of a novella, and has much more of a short story feel than something like The Crimson Petal and the White, or even Under the Skin (his first novel, which was adapted from a short story – a fact that becomes kind of apparent with a bit of a panicky, tacked on ending, even while the whole novel is still excellent). But if you didn’t get it out of the library like a sucker, you’d still have forked £12.99 out for it. It’s not very literary to mind about ‘value for money’, and of course there’s more to it than a simple word count, but still, guys, come on. There’s a limit to the number of notes I’m going to want to write down the side. I could fit another novel in there.

Anyway, that’s a minor, tight-fisted quibble, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this book also does feel a bit like an eked out short story. That in mind, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent read. Theo Griepenkerl, an Aramaic scholar with a failing love-life and a fairly unsympathetic penchant for self-pity, discovers a perfectly-preserved scroll in an Iraqi museum during a bomb blast. Eschewing the normal channels for academic discovery, Theo smuggles it back to the US to translate it himself, only to find that he has stumbled on a fifth gospel of Christ’s life. Despite the incendiary nature of the material, Theo struggles to get it published – Malchus, the gospel’s author, has an irritating classical chronicler’s tendency to write about his bowel complaints and parental disputes alongside his more incendiary revelations about Christ’s final moments. (As a past student of Medieval History I loved this touch – medieval chroniclers are all about the digestive transit and ‘nocturnal emissions’ as well as the deifying. This is pretty much the only thing I actually retained from my studies.) But he finally manages it through a niche publisher, the book becomes a bestseller, and Theo becomes an overnight sensation, albeit a controversial one. Without giving too much away, some of the revelations about Christ are less than palatable to various religious groups, and Theo soon finds himself a target as well as a celebrity.

The view of the literary world is deliberately satirical, making fun of the author’s book-tour exhaustion, bafflement at fans, and of course, the fear of the review (these particularly tickled me!). But at the same time it satirises the pseudo-religious thriller, the Da Vinci Code style protagonist who uncovers a new truth, only to have the established institutions after him and his inevitably beautiful female new ally. Theo is neither morally upstanding nor wedded to a larger idea of the ‘Truth’ – he simply wants to get his own back on his girlfriend for leaving him, and maybe make a bit of money too. He briefly meets the Dan Brown-esque sidekick in the beautiful agent’s assistant who organises him, provides him with security and of course sleeps with him, but as the plot takes a bizarre and farcical twist away from that formula, she’s powerless to follow. So Faber both makes fun of these books, the industry that produces them (he’s advised to change his name to ‘Theo Grippin’ to make it more accessible. And ‘gripping’, I guess) and the readers who demand a certain kind of satisfaction from them.

Viewed in this way, you can forgive the kind of two-dimensional figures that appear – the shallow, bitchy girlfriend, the cynical, overworked publisher, the unhinged fans and the equally unhinged religious extremists who attack him. As a reworking of the Prometheus myth, it works well – not too didactic, not too slavish to the original. It satirises the notion that world-changing discoveries are necessarily made through noble intentions, but equally shows through the media circus how this modern Promethean fire, this ‘inflammatory discovery’ ends up being a circular, confused kind of a revelation. It makes an impact, but it doesn’t necessarily change the world. That the book ends in a kind of farce is, in a way, the only course of action open to a plot which would otherwise become another religious thriller. Like Malchus’s account of Jesus’s death, the end is entirely underwhelming, but that is, after all, the point.

In a tweet: If you find yourself the translator of a hot new Fifth Gospel, never do your own publicity.