Still Alice, by Lisa Genova. A multimedia review.

Still_Alice_coverSynopsis in brief:
Here’s a book with a heart, and a brain. It is the story of a middle-aged woman, a university professor and leader in the field of linguistics, who at the peak of her career is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers. We’re able to go right inside Alice’s thoughts to experience the world as she does as the familiar reference points that provide security and purpose slowly ebb away. We’re also privy to the emotions of her family as they struggle to deal with what is essentially her departure from the world. It is frightening at times, always sobering, yet never patronising. It is simply an honest, quiet exploration of what it means to be conscious, not just alive.

Prepare your tissues, call for silence, you will need it in order to hear your heart breaking.

Your sample of passages, made misty and nostalgic with the help of Instagram:

Alice, an academic, a woman whose whole life has been shaped and defined by her intellect, contemplates what she will miss most, when it is finally taken from her.

Alice, an academic, a woman whose whole life has been shaped and defined by her intellect, contemplates what she will miss most, when it is finally taken from her. (p.118)

A poignant passage where Alice considers the moment that her brain is dissected in a laboratory for scientific research, a process she is not unfamiliar with in her own line of work.  Yet for the first time it holds a different, much more profound, significance for her.

A poignant passage where Alice considers the moment that her brain is dissected in a laboratory for scientific research, a process she is not unfamiliar with in her own line of work. Yet for the first time it holds a different, much more profound, significance for her. (p.134)

A mother and daughter hold on to what little time they have left.  Hear that?  Yep, that was your heart getting a little crack in it.  This passage inspired the song choice for this review!

A mother and daughter hold on to what little time they have left. Hear that? Yep, that was your heart getting a little crack in it. This passage inspired the song choice for this review! (p.230)

And now, for the poetic accompaniment. Stanley Kunitz, take it away:

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that’s late,
it is my song that’s flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
and it’s done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Finally, the song which in my humble opinion, encapsulates the sentiments at the heart of Still Alice:

Steve Earle, “I Don’t Want to Lose You Yet”:

Bonus information, just ‘cos.
This book was originally self-published, but has since gone on to sell hundreds of thousands (?), millions (?) of copies. It has won dozens of awards, sat at #5 on the NY Times Best Seller list, and has been translated into 25 languages. And to think this gal started out selling the book from the trunk of her car. Wow. Lisa Genova rocks (Read more about her here)

Happy reading everyone!

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A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks

A Possible Life: A Novel in Five PartsA Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there such a thing as a soul? If not, what makes us so certain than the lives we lead and the identities we inhabit are even relevant? Do you ever wonder, for example, what would have happened if you’d taken that road, instead of this one? And is it possible to know which one, of all the dozens of decisions we make every day, will be the one whose significance will echo on down for generations to come?

These are the melancholy questions that permeate Sebastian Faulks’ new book, “A Possible Life”. I call it a book, so that I can get on and review it – leaving the literati to bicker about whether it qualifies as a novel or not. Because on the surface, it doesn’t. The five separate stories have no apparent links to each other apart from their shared spine.

The first story is set in 1938 and revolves around Geoffrey Talbot, a fairly underwhelming middle-class fellow who, in an unlikely series of events, finds himself behind the wire in a concentration camp in Poland.

The second story maps out the life of Billy, a Dickensian sort of character raised in a poorhouse who succeeds in life through sheer force of will and entrepreneurial spirit.

The third story is set in the future and belongs to Elena, an Italian scientist whose life’s work has culminated in the irrefutable evidence that our sense of consciousness is merely a specific location in the brain whose cyclical processes aid in the reproduction of matter. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “soul”. In fact, everything about human behaviour and emotion can be scientifically explained.

Fourth we meet Jeanne, living at the other end of the spectrum in early 1800s in France. Her story is less about her own life than the people she devotes herself to in her work as a servant.

The final story and the one that hammers the book for six, is that of American folk singer/songwriter Anya King. It is told from the perspective of the man who loved her and lost her, and whose entire life afterwards was insignificant to the point of almost physical anguish.

Each story is satisfyingly complete, which, although I swear I don’t want to be drawn into the debate, is an argument in favour of “A Possible Life” as a novel. Short stories, as a rule, don’t lay out a life in its entirety so you can examine it piece by piece. In fact, more often, you’ll drop in on a short story right in the middle of the action only to be left to fill in the gaps when the narrative just as suddenly drops you in mid-air. In Faulks’ book, in contrast, each of his independent stories are offered up whole. They are, in effect, biographies of lives with all the significant forks and intersections laid bare for scrutiny.

Taken individually, the stories reveal intricate tapestries whose threads you can trace from here, all the way over there. Take Geoffrey Talbot as an example. He might never have found himself disposing of bodies into a burning chute had he not slunk off for a beer in the pub that fateful night when he was meant to be mapping out attack routes in a training exercise with a fellow officer.

Geoffrey survived the war but was a broken man afterwards, unable to permit himself the joy of companionship, much less love. As an old man, alone, lonely, he cannot seem to reconcile why it is that he fought so hard to preserve his life. Through the hell of the war and the torment of peace, he placed one foot in front of the other with all the effort he could muster, but never once stopped to ask himself ‘Why?’. As if there is no logic to it he says:

“I have been violently loyal to myself.”

The stories also throw a torch on the randomness of life. The things that boil down to nothing more than chance, circumstance, bad timing. When opportunities arise in Billy’s life, for example, he is wide-eyed mentally and prepared physically, thanks only to his brutally unforgiving childhood. That hardship would not have been his destiny, had it not been for the Crimean war that stole his father’s livelihood and sent them broke.

Billy’s story is intriguing enough on its own but what resonates is his final statement, that all he’d ever wanted to do in life was work hard enough that his own children would never have to know what ‘the grinding of stones’ feels like. It is as though Billy is asserting that the only way to understand life and all its unlikely chances is to bend with it, but not to break:

“being sure you [keep] your mind so empty that you [have] no thoughts at all. That’s what I’ve done for [my kids], that’s my gift to them and to all their children ever after, so don’t talk to me about being hard.”

And what Faulks’ book would be complete without a fair dose of irony? The stories of Elena the scientist, and Jeanette the unquestioning Christian, are juxtaposed perfectly for this purpose. Elena has sought to understand her life, and all the matters to do with existence, by filtering every human emotion through a scientific lens. And yet, for all of that, no amount of rationalisation of her feelings towards Bruno can numb the raw physical reaction when he abandons her.

“His absence was a wound that never ceased to seep and throb. It was absurd, she told herself. What mattered was the love they felt; whether or not they were in the same room was of no significance. It would not be long before, as physical mass, they were both decomposing underground; so what did it matter if meanwhile their bodies were in different places? [..] So much did she rely on her rational brain to guide her life that she was angry when it failed her now, when no process of reason could stop her wound from aching.”

Jeanette, on the other hand, is genuinely confused by the motivations of the people around her. She knows that the things in life that can be explained exist in plain sight, whereas what is not known is the domain of God. Hers is not to question, but with a bit of luck and certainly faith, to get on with the business of living. She is simplistic, but not, as the narrator tells us “ignorant” at all:

“Clemence and Marcel had shown her that people change and are not the same all their lives. Madame Lagarde taught her that sometimes they cannot change.”

Wherein you find yourself wondering: Who is happier, Elena or Jeanette?

The twin issues of love and loss are probably the most enduring themes underlying all the stories, but it is never more stark than in that of singer-songwriter Anya King’s. Many other issues besides the most grimly depressing are explored as well; from the idea of the self as multiple stage-actors to the contention that it is possible to love two people, if not equally then concurrently.

But it is the exploration of what it means to love someone so wholly and unreservedly that you would walk away if they asked you to, that really packs a punch in this story. Anya is not an ordinary woman; in fact, she is so vivid that it is incredible to think that I cannot just dial her up on iTunes and download one of her albums. I came to know her songs as intimately as if they were a soundtrack for the entire book; a quirk that is undoubtedly intentional on Faulks’ part.

Jack, or ‘Freddy’ as Anya affectionately calls him, tells of their affair looking back from the vantage point of his 60 years. His love for Anya has never faded, in fact, over time it appears magnified beside everything else. With echoes of Frank from the pages of “On Green Dolphin Street”, Jack says:

“It pained my heart to think of what I’d lost, but I didn’t go with the feeling. Sometimes with these powerful emotions, you’re crushed. You just flail around and hope for the pain to stop, for some bastard to stop stabbing you in the guts. Other times if you’re lucky, you can kind of skate along the rim, look into the precipice and it’s almost like you have a choice – to plunge in or turn your head away.”

The great emotive impulse at stake here has to do with sacrifice; what are you willing to forego, in order to pursue what you know you must do in life? Or the flip-side of that coin: what are you willing to sacrifice in order to allow the person you love to pursue what you know they must do in life. Whether it is a creative calling, the greater good, or just doing the right thing. What are you willing to endure towards that end? This is Jack’s dilemma, and the reason Anya, fully conscious yet far more vulnerable than she ever lets on, loves him all the more.

This is not a simple book to be done with. It is, as others have already said, like a symphony which continues to resonate long after the final notes have been played. Or an album that you need to listen to again and again. I kept pondering the title “A Possible Life”; and for that matter, the titles of Anya’s songs – “You Next Time”. “Another Life”. “No Turning Back”. And of course “Hold Me”. I felt certain they were all clues to a riddle I was going to be able to solve if I just looked hard enough.

Certainly there are links between the stories, both implied and literal: Jack rents an apartment in London which just so happens to be Billy’s old workhouse. The Madonna that Elena treasures as a child is the very same figurine that Jeanette holds in her hands two centuries earlier. And we recognise that the old farm house where Jeanette lives most her life is the same place where Geoffrey is betrayed years later.

At first, these discoveries are exhilarating; a promise that everything in the universe is connected in some way. A unique purpose or reason exists after all! But as soon as you start digging deeper, you hit dead ends. The trail goes cold. Proof irrefutable, that even though we may inhabit the same spaces from time to time, and in minute ways we certainly influence one other, in the end we are separate beings. The why’s and wherefores, the what if’s and maybe’s, will never be entirely resolved.

In this way, Jack’s parting sentiment, referencing in more ways than one the characters that have gone before him, serves as a kind of poignant summary for the whole book:

“I stood among the throng of people waiting patiently to cross and tried to mingle with them, to disappear into a greater mass of human life, hoping I might lose my pain, my sense of self, in that tireless commotion.”

To the critics and reviewers out there who seem hell-bent on deciding whether this book is a novel or a collection of short stories, as though anything that defies categorisation is unworthy of ‘real consideration’, I feel sorry for you. While you were busy trying to stick your labels on non-adhesive surfaces, you just missed one of the most moving pieces of literature I have read in a very long time.

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Full disclosure: I received my copy of “A Possible Life” from Random House. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review – gotta work on that!

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles
The Song of Achilles is the literary equivalent of a cover song. The original version, an epic poem set during the Trojan war, was penned by Homer somewhere around the 8th Century BC and is titled The Iliad. As cover stories go, it was always going to be a tough interpretation to pull off at all, let alone well. The Iliad, so I’ve learned, is one of the oldest, most respected, and much loved works of Western Literature; in attempting to retell it, Madeline Miller risked doing what Limp Bizkit did to The Who’s classic 70s hit “Behind Blue Eyes”.

There are certainly some who believe she failed just as miserably in her efforts as those synthetic nasties who can’t spell. Daniel Mendelsohn’s review, for example, reads like a catalogue of insults Ms Miller directed at him personally. Clearly, for some, if you ‘aint got the guitar solo, you ‘aint got nuthin’. Then there are those, like me, whose knowledge of classic literature is derived almost entirely from the vast vessel that is Hollywood’s spin on every great story ever told. This would no doubt be a scandal to aforementioned Daniel, but sadly, not all of us are either a) so fortunate to receive a private school education b) geeky or time-rich enough to have borrowed such books from the library of our own accord or c) confident enough that a 5 year degree studying the classics at University would result in a job that actually put bread on the table.

So lucky me, I got to dive into Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winning novel with absolutely no baggage. It is the story of Achilles as narrated from the grave by Patroclus. These two were childhood companions in the court of King Peleus; Achilles the favoured son, destined in prophecy to become the Greatest of the Greeks, Patroclus a shamed exile from a neighbouring kingdom. Their friendship developed into a deep romantic attachment that would endure and survive despite parental interference, infidelity, politics and a decade of war. It is a love story as engrossing as anything anyone can conjure all these centuries later, and that’s not just because the bar has been set 50 Shades too low.

But love cannot compete with destiny. When Achilles is dishonoured by the arrogant Commander-in-Chief, Agamemnon, he refuses to return to the battlefield. Without Achilles, the Greeks cannot hope to win the war. In the following days and weeks the army is relentlessly pushed back towards the sea, and as their compatriots are buried in their hundreds every day, Agamemnon offers Achilles a face-saving truce. But Achilles will not concede to anything less than a full and public apology, even when Patroclus appeals to Achilles to forego his pride. Patroclus’ intercession is as much for the sake of the men as it is for Briseis, the woman over whom the fallout was caused. When it is clear that Achilles will not budge, Patroclus takes matters into his own hands, with predictably devastating consequences.

If liberties were taken by Ms Miller, they did not bruise or sully my conception of anything I already treasured, being as I am completely new to this story. It did, however, pique my interest sufficiently to wonder not only “what happened next?”, but more significantly, how this story was depicted in Homer’s original. In other words, I was drawn to the source. After squeezing every last word out of the lengthy passages on Greek Mythology in Wikipedia, and taking in the further reading recommendations offered by the ever reliable Lisa Hill, I realised there was nothing else for it. Book Depository, The Iliad = add to cart. I need to read this sucker for myself.

That’s the thing about adapting artistic works, whether it’s taking the lyrics and changing the tune, or turning a book into a film: it’s not an attempt to broadside the original so much as an opportunity to discover it anew. Sure, mistakes are made – if you can call Brad Pitt in a breast plate a mistake (certainly there’s no argument that Halle Berre’s appearance in Limp Bizkit’s video was a mistake), but what greater compliment can you give ancient texts and songs by rockers who are now in rockers, than to say – not “this was relevant” – but this is still relevant”.

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The Trouble With Fire by Fiona Kidman

The Trouble With FireThe Trouble With Fire by Fiona Kidman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dame Fiona Kidman, I salute you.

Where most people see ordinary, you see extraordinary. Where others believe nothing has happened, you reveal how the earth can be detached and reattached at a slightly altered tilt, in a single instant of a woman’s life.

A while ago you gave us A Needle in the Heart, a collection of six short stories obscurely linked, building to a crescendo that I remember now more for the chill it left me, than the actual details itself. The Trouble with Fire might ebb the same way in time, but no matter, I will take pleasure in reading them anew. It is not the minutiae that lingers so much as an aura; like a perfume whose scent you will remember even when the name escapes you.

There are 11 stories, all set in New Zealand, all feature women living so-called ‘ordinary lives’; all involve memory, and of course fire – whether literally or metaphorically. Of these stories, the reviewers appear to have given the highest praise to Silks, the story about a woman whose husband falls ill while holidaying in Vietnam. The horror and the uncertainty, the stress and the grind, the waiting and the waiting, is interspersed with her recollections of their life and marriage.

Possibly thanks to those reviewers, Silks was the short story that I had held out for the most, open ears for the pearls of wisdom that might be passed down from one generation to another. Here, I thought you might say, This is what true love looks like; or this is how you know when you know”.

I’m not sure, though. Maybe I wasn’t listening? Or perhaps, more likely, you’re just doing what you do so well; showing us that there are no rules, no tidy boxes, no generalisations. Each life is unique. Each marriage unique.

I sat up and paid attention in Extremes. The young girl in 1950s rural New Zealand who falls pregnant and is forced to travel to Australia to have an abortion. I’ve read about the ‘fallen women’ who went into homes and gave up their babies for adoption before, but I didn’t know there were alternatives, if you can call such life-threatening misadventures in upholding the moral code an “alternative”.

I laughed out loud in Preservation. I won’t give away any spoilers, suffice to say it was rather dark. Come to think of it, The Italian Boy was too, in places. Disturbing secrets and hinted scandals. But what I held precious in that story is the scene where Hilary resists Meryl’s pressure to abandon the old-fashioned dress her mother pored over for weeks, in order to wear something more in keeping with the times.

“In this setting, Hilary saw that her aunt’s old dress from the thirties wouldn’t do. And yet, thinking of last Saturday, and the afternoon she and her mother had spent together, their hands bathed in the soft fabric of the dress, she was overwhelmed by a fierce rush of loyalty. She said: ‘Well thanks, but I want to wear the dress I brought”.[p. 29]

I struggled with the depiction of various Māori characters who featured in a number of stories, whether on the periphery (as in Extremes) or playing a central role (as in Fragrance Rising). But then I realised that what sits uncomfortably with me now, was back then, simply the reality of the times. New Zealand in the 1950s, indeed right through until the late 80s, is a place not many of us would recognise anymore. All you’ve done is describe that reality accurately and honestly – such that it resonates with me on a very personal level. Aaah! I thought. This was the social and political landscape in which my Pākehā mother married my Māori father. And the earth tilts for me too.

If there’s a supreme award though, it goes to the story of Ruth Mullens and her mother Joy Keats. The fate of these women and their families, is woven through three interlinked stories and as many generations. It reminded me much of the BBC acclaimed trilogy Lost Property by Katie Hims. Rather than a child that is lost, however, in The Man From Tooley Street it is a mother. And while invariably life goes on, the loss echoes down through the generations and leaves no-one unaffected.

So hats off to you, Dame Fiona Kidman, you’ve made history personal, the mundane insightful, the tragedy universal, the dark humorous. And thus concludes another little mini-celebration of the beauty and non-ordinaryness of New Zealand women throughout history.

* The Trouble With Fire was a finalist in this year’s (2012) NZ Post Book Awards and at the time of posting has spent 12 weeks on the Best Seller list in New Zealand.

View all my reviewsThe Trouble With FireThe Trouble With Fire by Fiona Kidman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dame Fiona Kidman, I salute you.

Where most people see ordinary, you see extraordinary. Where others believe nothing has happened, you reveal how the earth can be detached and reattached at a slightly altered tilt, in a single instant of a woman’s life.

A while ago you gave us A Needle in the Heart, a collection of six short stories obscurely linked, building to a crescendo that I remember now more for the chill it left me, than the actual details itself. The Trouble with Fire might ebb the same way in time, but no matter, I will take pleasure in reading them anew. It is not the minutiae that lingers so much as an aura; like a perfume whose scent you will remember even when the name escapes you.

There are 11 stories, all set in New Zealand, all feature women living so-called ‘ordinary lives’; all involve memory, and of course fire – whether literally or metaphorically. Of these stories, the reviewers appear to have given the highest praise to Silks, the story about a woman whose husband falls ill while holidaying in Vietnam. The horror and the uncertainty, the stress and the grind, the waiting and the waiting, is interspersed with her recollections of their life and marriage.

Possibly thanks to those reviewers, Silks was the short story that I had held out for the most, open ears for the pearls of wisdom that might be passed down from one generation to another. Here, I thought you might say, This is what true love looks like; or this is how you know when you know.

I’m not sure, though. Maybe I wasn’t listening? Or perhaps, more likely, you’re just doing what you do so well; showing us that there are no rules, no tidy boxes, no generalisations. Each life is unique. Each marriage unique.

I sat up and paid attention in Extremes. The young girl in 1950s rural New Zealand who falls pregnant and is forced to travel to Australia to have an abortion. I’ve read about the ‘fallen women’ who went into homes and gave up their babies for adoption before, but I didn’t know there were alternatives, if you can call such life-threatening misadventures in upholding the moral code an “alternative”.

I laughed out loud in Preservation. I won’t give away any spoilers, suffice to say it was rather dark. Come to think of it, The Italian Boy was too, in places. Disturbing secrets and hinted scandals. But what I held precious in that story is the scene where Hilary resists Meryl’s pressure to abandon the old-fashioned dress her mother pored over for weeks, in order to wear something more in keeping with the times.

“In this setting, Hilary saw that her aunt’s old dress from the thirties wouldn’t do. And yet, thinking of last Saturday, and the afternoon she and her mother had spent together, their hands bathed in the soft fabric of the dress, she was overwhelmed by a fierce rush of loyalty. She said: ‘Well thanks, but I want to wear the dress I brought”.[p. 29]

I struggled with the depiction of various Māori characters who featured in a number of stories, whether on the periphery (as in Extremes) or playing a central role (as in Fragrance Rising). But then I realised that what sits uncomfortably with me now, was back then, simply the reality of the times. New Zealand in the 1950s, indeed right through until the late 80s, is a place not many of us would recognise anymore. All you’ve done is describe that reality accurately and honestly – such that it resonates with me on a very personal level. Aaah! I thought. This was the social and political landscape in which my Pākehā mother married my Māori father. And the earth tilts for me too.

If there’s a supreme award though, it goes to the story of Ruth Mullens and her mother Joy Keats. The fate of these women and their families, is woven through three interlinked stories and as many generations. It reminded me much of the BBC acclaimed trilogy Lost Property by Katie Hims. Rather than a child that is lost, however, in The Man From Tooley Street it is a mother. And while invariably life goes on, the loss echoes down through the generations and leaves no-one unaffected.

So hats off to you, Dame Fiona Kidman, you’ve made history personal, the mundane insightful, the tragedy universal, the dark humorous. And thus concludes another little mini-celebration of the beauty and non-ordinaryness of New Zealand women throughout history.

* The Trouble With Fire was a finalist in this year’s (2012) NZ Post Book Awards and at the time of posting has spent 12 weeks on the Best Seller list in New Zealand.

View all my reviews

Poppadom Preach by Almas Khan

Poppadom Preach. by Almas KhanPoppadom Preach. by Almas Khan by Almas Khan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you haven’t yet discovered the pleasure of laughing out loud in a quiet room full of people variously watching TV and/or poking away on their devices, then Poppadom Preach would be a fine place to start. You’re guaranteed to have people interrogating you about what’s so funny, and equally as guaranteed not to be able to tell them without looking like a sadistic bastard.

Because Poppadom Preach, at its core, is about family violence. It’s about the scars that parents leave on their children, both physical and emotional – certainly no laughing matter. The story is told from the perspective of Dilly Shah, a first generation British-Pakistani girl who is a spitfire as bright, fearless and imaginative as she is stubborn. Raised in Bradford in the 1970s in a predominantly migrant community, she rebels (silently, for the most part) against her parents who are determined to give her and her four siblings a traditional upbringing. Dilly is one of those characters that, as a parent, you’d describe as a handful. On the surface she’s hardwork – nevermind the added complexity of the fact she is constantly traversing two languages and (often competing) cultures.

But because we’re privy to Dilly’s internal monologues you can only but feel heartache for her. She longs to feel the glow of her mother’s attention even just once. She wishes for her father’s approval, or at the very least, to live in his presence without the fear of his closed fists reigning down on anyone and everyone who defies him. The household is a powderkeg where siblings are rivals at best, outright enemies at worst. Her parents openly disdain each other and yet blindly pursue arranged marriages for their children in the same image as their own. Education for the girls is essentially a holding pen until then. Dilly’s escapades and schemes provide fertile ground for injecting humour, as do her interactions with her siblings, aunt, mother and neighbours, all who present with their own unique quirks. With the story pounding on at breakneck speed, it takes awhile before you realise that the infusion of humour in amongst so much tragedy is intensely uncomfortable.

In a good way. In a way that says: “I’m getting this. This stuff would be too painful to talk about otherwise. Nothing has been minimised, everything has been illuminated”. I can’t understand other reviewers who have given this book solid-to-excellent reviews based on the density of the subject matter but docked stars because Khan made them laugh at the same time. As if the only way to acknowledge the hardships of a brutal childhood is to beat someone else over the head with a paperback.

I disagree with those reviewers. Almas Khan is an absolute talent, and when her book finished (all too abruptly) I felt like my best friend had just stood up and left the room to put the jug on (the book ends with Dilly on her way to Pakistan to get married, and the words “…but that, so they say, is another story”.) So Almas, if you are reading this, our tea is brewed, I’m ready for my next installment.

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The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Me and 36,700 other people enjoyed the dust-cover off this book. I haven’t got it in me to write a full review, because I’m feeling a little sheepish. Here’s why:

1 – It’s a love story between two terminally-ill cancer patients, and I laughed quite a lot
2 – It’s meant to be for Young Adults, but I’m 34. Does that make the book really good, or me really immature?
3 – It’s only been in bookstores for 6 months, which means I paid the full hard-back price for this book, and I never, ever buy hardbacks. They are expensive. They are heavy. They ruin the visually-pleasing height thing I have going in my paperback dominated bookcase.
4 – I was affected by the declarations of love on these pages enough to write down the quotes for future reference. Such as:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

I must admit, I’m a bit of a snob. Liking a book on the NY Time Bestseller list irks me. I would have preferred to be in the company of the 5 people that gave this book less than 3 stars (look them up, their reviews are solid).

But books are like lovers. You can’t always help who you’re attracted to.

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The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings

The DescendantsThe Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings My rating: 4 of 5 stars She’s an asshole, he’s an ignoramus. Not really what I would have said a promising start for a novel, yet somehow I became invested in their story. In fact, at certain points I couldn’t put it down and I’m sure that is entirely due to the fact Joanie was SUCH an awful excuse for a wife (not to mention mother), and Matt King a truly pitiable excuse for a husband and father. Add to the mix their two kids, one a 17 year old ex-model and recovering drug-addict and the other a very odd ten year old with a penchant for talking dirty, and the whole thing makes for a scene you don’t want to watch but can’t quite turn away from. It’s darkly humorous and deeply, deeply tragic. The book gives away all the spoilers on the back cover before you begin, so no harm in retelling it here. Joanie, a beautiful, charismatic (but completely self-obsessed and immature) woman lies in a coma after a boating accident. While her husband (head-in-a-hole workaholic) comes to terms with his wife’s inevitable death, his eldest daughter confirms the suspicions he’d long been trying to deny: his wife had been having an affair. Against a backdrop of negotiations into the sale of inherited ancestral land in Hawai’i (which has more of a role to play in the plot than you might think), the story then centers around a road-trip Matt takes with his children to find his wife’s lover and bring him, ill-advisedly or not, to her bedside before they turn off the machines.

Since the entire plot is laid out from the first instance the story is less about what actually happens and more about the way people feel about what has happened, is happening, and is about to happen. This ought to be much more difficult to do than Kaui Hart Hemmings makes it seem – I prepared myself for long, flowery, over-indulgent reflective passages and implausible internal dialogues tacked onto nauseating flash-backs. Instead, the hopes, disappointments, anger and grief of each of the characters is somehow tethered, in brief snatches, to the mundane activities of the life which continues – albeit altered – as Joanie lies in a coma. Even Joanie herself is a larger than life character despite never uttering a word, thanks to the stilted memories conjured from the divergent perspectives of her family members. In a way it reads like a coming-of-age story. But rather the teenager daughters emerging into adulthood it is Matt emerging into himself. At first I didn’t like him – he seemed like a shell of a man. He could not articulate a single decent reason why he loved his wife, with whom he clearly shared very few interests. He could recount stories about private jokes they shared, but if asked to say what it all amounted to at the end of the day all he could put his finger on, repeatedly, was the sense that he felt comfortable around Joanie. Familiar. I wanted to throw my hands up in disgust, recalling more than once the saying about familiarity and the stuff it breeds – indeed, off Joanie went and had her affair. Whether it was her only indiscretion or one of many is never discussed nor important, and I’m not for a second contending that Matt deserved such ill-treatment from his wife regardless of his own transgressions, but for goodness sake, will he finally allow himself to feel something, even if it’s only the feeling of loss? That’s the beauty of this novel. About two thirds in, very subtly, a hint of a light goes on somewhere in the darkest crevices of Matt’s brain. He still can’t articulate anything for himself, god help the man, but at least he begins to recognise not only the depth of his broken-heartedness but the reason for it too. When he leans in to Joanie, lying serene in her coma, and declares with a ferocity of love that is totally new to him “…..” (spoiler), I felt like standing up and giving him (and Kaui Hart Hemmings) a big round of applause. View all my reviews

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s disturbing that a book so bleak and depressing should be so hilarious that I literally couldn’t contain my laughter. I mean, since when did stories of cold-blooded murder fall into the realm of comedy? And try telling the people around you, annoyed by your constant snorting, that the book that that’s got you in stitches is a 19th century Western narrated by a psychopathic hit-man with a violent temper, who also just happens to have this really sweet vulnerable side; you know, once you get to know him.

But that’s what makes Patrick deWitt’s book so fantastic – no two pieces (i.e. the morally repugnant side and the thigh-slapping idiocy side) fit together. Yet as a whole it somehow works. The New York Times Review sums it up perfectly:

“The Sisters Brothers” is surely gritty, as well as deadpan and often very comic. Eli Sisters tells the story in a loftily formal fashion, doggedly literal, vulgar and polite at turns, squeezing humor out of stating the obvious with flowery melodrama.”

Here’s an example:

“Where is your mother”, Charlie asked.
“Dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear that”
“Thank you. But she was always dead”.

The ridiculousness of the vignettes and plot twists are made ever-more ridiculous by the inscrutable manner in which Eli conveys them. I suppose it is this deftness which makes it somewhateasier to digest scenes like the one where Eli is provoked into a state of frenzied violence:

“My leg was stinging terribly and I was possessed with a rage. The man’s brain was painted in purple blood, bubbling foam emerging from its folds; I raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognisable as the head of a man”.

Wowsers. That wiped the smile off my face. It’s almost inconceivable that I’d manage to feel anything but repulsion for a man like Eli Sisters, much less find myself rooting for him that he’d lose weight and get the girl; feeling sorry for him because his brother still treats him like a stupid little kid; hoping that his mother would take him back with open arms. But that is indeed what happened. I don’t as a rule feel this way about all murderers and psychopaths, apparently just the ones that are thick-set, sensitive, and adept at telling a funny story with a straight face.

There areparts that are really deep, or at least feign depth. Warm, for example, provides a Cormac McCarthy-esque meditation on the emptiness of life near to the end when the romp is almost over:

“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood – weak blood, diluted – and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing”.

I couldn’t pay too much attention to these forays into philosophy, not because I didn’t agree with them – the quote above is stellar. But what I have personally taken away from “The Sisters Brothers” is not a profound reflection on the greater purpose of life, or a historically accurate depiction of the gold-rush era, or a moral debate about whether cold-blooded murderers have feelings too – so much as a gentle reminder that sometimes reading should be rollicking good fun just for the sake of it; whether it’s appropriate or not.

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Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones

Hand Me Down WorldHand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People lie. Not just to the world, but to themselves. This is the barb of truth at the end of “Hand Me Down World”, which, difficult though it may be to accept, is impossible to deny. Jones presents several witnesses on his quest to tell the story of the protagonist, whose fate seems doomed from the very first page. We hear accounts from those who apparently know this woman, or have known her intimately in the past, as well as installments from people whose paths crossed with her only briefly. We don’t hear the perspective of the woman herself until the very end, by which time we have had to reconsider everything we had previously assumed about her. We had begun by believing her to be the victim, for example, which while still the case, does not quite explain everything. And as the end draws near we begin to wonder if in fact “Ines”, which may or may not be her real name, is merely an actor on a stage. If that contention sits uncomfortably with you (she’s a woman who had her newborn baby stolen, afterall), the only alternative is to go right back to the beginning and reevaluate everything we have been told about her case from the outset. In doing so we soon realise that something is amiss – someone isn’t telling the truth. Unless there can be several truths?

Wherein lies the barb. Casting aspersions over the testimonies of those whose narratives came first makes you realise that everyone is but an actor, playing out roles in scenes of their own determination. Do we believe everything we’re told? Accept performances at face value?

This is such a clever book – once through will not be enough.

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