Category Archives: Popcorn fodder

Review: Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

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So having read Gone Girl, I thought I might have stumbled onto a whole new love of popular crime fiction. Brilliant, I cried to myself from the rainy little caravan I’ve been holed up in all week. I finally get Holiday Reading! I can finally finish an episode of Miss Marple! And buoyed up with all this enthusiasm, I dived into Before I Go to Sleep, whose cover with the creepy eye has been staring at me from every WH Smith kiosk for the last year, promising me an intelligent, deeply disturbing thriller. Plus now every other thriller writer is being touted as the new SJ Watson, so there must be something in it, I thought.

Nu-uh. Friends, you might pretend to agree with him, but the Emperor is parading around with no clothes on, and he’s reading one shitty novel.

Christine awakes every morning with no memory of the last 20 years, the house she wakes up in, or her husband Ben. All she has is her journal as a link through her days. But it seems as through Ben might be lying to her and her secretive doctor is also shaky on the facts. So who can she believe?

Great, right? Clever! Read the ‘Book Group Questions’ at the back and you think ‘Yes! This is a book with some THEMES!’ Memory: check. Identity: check. Sexual power and control: check. Writing our experiences: check.

But spectacularly, it doesn’t actually deliver any of these. The idea that you could have the very experiences that make you You taken away from you, manipulated and moulded, is a highly disturbing one. For the reader to have to trace the ‘real’ narrative through her diary each day is an exciting possibility. But this bloody woman (and it turns out she wanted to be a writer, conveniently, why does nobody ever run a successful plumbing business or work in data entry?) is writing her own personal journal – the lifeline to her identity – as though it were some kind of novel already. It doesn’t read like a journal in even the most basic way. There is no immediacy to the narration of her days. And for a crime novel, which hinges on the detail, there was a lot left unsolved or unattended to.

At the time of writing, I have no way of checking whether the ebook I downloaded was inadvertently an early draft that somebody uploaded by mistake. She remembers a party where she sees some guy called Keith whom she one kissed. When she comes to, she can still taste his saliva. A. Gross, that saliva is 27 years old. B. you weren’t even kissing him. A half decent copyedit would surely have picked that up? Many of the sentences are flabby and stupid for a novelist never mind a women trying to cram as much urgent information onto the page as possible before she loses it. How much of the following sentence was really necessary?

Instead, as if fearing that any movement at all might result in my limbs betraying me, I stood perfectly still in front of the mirror, every muscle in my body tensed.

If you answered ZERO, well done, I guess nobody stumbles across your secret amnesiac journal!

There are sealed envelopes and hidden photographs galore, which would be fine except so much she discovers is put down to some ill-defined impulse. Memories and flashbacks come to her fully formed, exactly like a flashback in a TV drama but nothing like memory is actually experienced.

A memory flashed through me, tearing me suddenly back into the past. Everything was slightly out of focus and had a haze around it, and the images were so bright I almost wanted to look away. I saw myself, walking through these same corridors…

AAARGH! You haven’t described a memory, you’ve described a flashback from a straight to TV memory trauma movie! In fact the only part that rings true is the diary her old doctor shows her from her most severe period of amnesia,where she could only retain a memory of a few seconds and repeatedly writes ‘I am awake for the first time’. Sadly, this is directly lifted from the real life case of Clive Wearing, and I saw that documentary where they read from his diary too.

It is this total disregard for how memory actually operates, despite being a book that hinges on it, that so deeply disappointed me in this novel. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read, for example. The end is predictable after a point, but you still want to get to it (NOTE: I slightly changed my assessment of this when i got to the end and found it was the worst and most unbelievable bit of this terrible improbable dirge of a thriller). But being a good idea poorly executed in some ways makes it worse. And it almost put me off me whole crime genre. For a book this mediocre to have had so many prizes thrown at it – how shit do the rest of them have to be?

One other thing. Why does she never, not once, SPOILER ALERT try not to fall asleep?

Rating:
In a tweet: You’ll wish YOU had terrible anterograde amnesia!

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Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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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.

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

What is any ocean but a multitude of drops? Cloud Atlas the movie

Words cannot express how excited I am about this.

I was blown away by Cloud Atlas when I first read it – it’s my favourite David Mitchell novel – and by the looks of this trailer I think the adaptation may well do it all kinds of justice. I like that it looks like they’ve embraced the slightly schlocky aspects of each of the genres, rather than trying to make it consistent throughout. That, cats and kittens, is what’s so good about David Mitchell!

One thing: Tom Hanks I am pretty sure you are too old and white to play Zachry, but I’ll probably end up letting you off.

 

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesMaybe it was the fact that it was a retelling of the Iliad, but I wasn’t expecting this book to be quite so trashy. I don’t mean in a bad way. It has been described as Homeric fan fiction, which is probably a bit unfair, but the exploration of Achilles and Patroclus’s burgeoning attraction and love has a distinct whiff of YA about it. Historic romance, is probably the best way to describe it, and if you’re on board with that then you’ll not be disappointed by The Song of Achilles.

The premise of the novel, which took Miller 10 years to write, came from her fascination at Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death. While I think the upshot of the scholarship about the Iliad is that you’ll never know whether Achilles and Patroclus were in a homosexual relationship as we would understand it today – given the various homoerotic practices in Greek armies of the day, and also the tradition of married men indulging in boys with no apparent censure – Miller gives their love full rein in her version of events.

Her writing of the infatuation is beautiful and lyrical, if bordering on the teenage poetry: ‘He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine.’ But against the backdrop of one of the most legendary wars of all time, the romance starts to wear a little thin. I started to find the moments that Patroclus has to himself, learning to tend to the wounded, or his relationship with Briseis (although you can see that coming a mile off – I guess the downside of reworking a classic legend is that its plot twists aren’t exactly unexpected) a relief from the constant tortured adoration of Achilles. Take this example of when Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon as part of a defence of his wounded pride:

I watch him leave. My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before. My rage towards him is as hot as blood. I will never forgive him. I imagine tearing down our tent, smashing the lyre, stabbing myself in the stomach and bleeding to death. I want to see his face broken with grief and regret. I want to shatter the cold mask of stone that has slipped down over the boy I knew.

Patroclus’s fury was a welcome relief from the adoration, but it is also an example of the very teenage passions that course through the novel’s veins – and it’s still all about Achilles.

And this was the major downside for me in this book: Miller has committed to a retelling of the relationship, not the war, through Patroclus’s eyes, and so things that you would expect to be part of a fully fleshed out character’s story –the fighting, his relationship with the other men, his feelings about the politics – all this is sidelined if not downright neglected; everything is refracted through the lens of his love for Achilles. Maybe I’m just not enough of a romantic, but I don’t believe that’s actually how relationships work – even epic ones – and it’s that that gives it its slightly angsty, YA feel. That said, it is an eminently devourable read, and I definitely wasn’t above shedding a tear at the end – it is definitely good angsty YA.

It did make me question whether the book would have won the Orange Prize for a similar telling of a modern-day relationship, and I suspect it wouldn’t. Once you remove the glamour of the ‘untellable story, retold’ angle, it becomes just another tortured romance (see The Forgotten Waltz for another shortlisted romance that was much more interestingly written, but without the benefit of famous characters). But as the ‘original’ tortured romance, it manages to sidestep accusations of unoriginality and instead becomes a ‘modern retelling of a classic’. Nifty.

Rating: 

In a tweet: Beautiful men, feeling beautiful feelings, in beautiful bronze. Also a war happens.

Review: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Shallow it may be, but I bought this book months ago solely on the merits of its cover. It looked impressive enough on the shelf to languish there without actually getting around to reading it, but with the furore surrounding its inclusion on the ‘readable’ Man Booker prize list (more on that later), it has bounded its way up the pile.

Set in the 19th century, the novel follows the life of Jaffy Brown – a street urchin growing up in Bermondsey – after a miraculous encounter with an escaped tiger belonging to Jamrach. Part circus master, part curio-and-pet-shop owner, Jamrach invites Jaffy to work in his menagerie, and in doing so sets the course of Jaffy’s life, from London to adventure on the high seas.

Birch’s brilliantly conjures a world in which men still quest after mysteries and monsters are still possible. In many respects, this is a mesmerising adventure story. Elsewhere I’ve heard it compared to Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies and even Dickens. I don’t read enough nautical fiction to know whether that part of the novel does it justice, but it rang true for me without becoming incomprehensible (as I’m afraid a lot of nautical terminology does after a while…).

But without giving too much away, we are denied the satisfaction of your average adventure yarn as the novel instead seems to hinge on that dividing line between accident and fate, impossibility and unknowability, and how our lives take the courses that they do.

One thing that did fascinate me was the title. I was expecting more from the enigmatic Jamrach, but he is a largely absent figure despite giving his name to the novel. The only way I could justify it to myself was in drawing a parallel between the random characters and experiences we encounter in our lives that define us, and the variety of animals and paraphernalia that comprised his shop. But I wonder whether that isn’t a little heavy handed, and if so, it rather throws away what could have been a fascinating and more developed character. I don’t know – I’d be interested to know if anyone had any other insights.

There was something about this novel that left me a little hungry: Tim, Skip and Jamrach all seemed as though they had more to offer. But, as with Dickens’ London teeming with life, it is the mark of a well-constructed fictional world, that we are sad to see it go.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Adventure, loss and (self-)discovery on the high seas.