Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Autumn Review

You may or may not have noticed, but I haven't blogged anything for a while - about 6 weeks, in fact. The whole of September I went AWOL, and the reason is that, quite simply, I'd run out of things to say. "WHAT?!" I hear friends and acquaintances cry, "YOU ran out of things to say?!" Well yes, yes I did actually - in terms of book stuff, anyway. I felt I covered everything I'd want to cover, and hadn't read anything recently that made me want to go reviewing. But recently I've been on a massive roll with some excellent reads, so I thought I'd share with you those books that I have enjoyed immensely over the summer and first weeks of autumn. So sit back, relax, and take your pick from these sumptuous books - guaranteed to help while away the impending stormy afternoons...

1. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
One for the ladies, this - it's something of a romance, charting the budding relationship between retired Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali, the Pakistani lady who runs the local village shop. The pair have always crossed paths over the years - he as a patron to her shop - but the relationship takes a decidedly intimate turn when Mrs. Ali pops round to collect the paper-round money, just as Major Pettigrew discovers his younger brother has died. After dispensing the obligatory cup of tea for comfort, Mrs Ali quietly makes her excuses and leaves, but this is only the first in several encounters that will bind them closer together. Set against the backdrop of a quintessential English village - complete with lord-of-the-manor and infuriatingly bigoted neighbours - it's a story that is comfortingly predictable, but all the more charming for it. With a subplot involving a family squabble over a pair of matching shooting guns, it is at times almost irritatingly pastoral, but the blustery persona of the Major, paired with Mrs Ali's quiet dignity, will win you over as you wonder if they'll ever get together.

2. Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
You've probably already heard of this one, because it's done pretty well in the charts and suchlike, and no wonder; it's a gripping tale of intrigue, deceit and mystery. The cold-open is one of the best I've read; within the first few pages, you know the narrator is in court, is being prosecuted, and has an accomplice of a sort. You join the proceedings just as the prosecution start to question the narrator - as yet an unnamed woman - about the enigmatic Apple Tree Yard, and it's immediately evident that this place, wherever it is, is about to be the undoing of our narrator. What you don't know is who she is, or whether to be sympathetic or not; you don't know who her accomplice in the dock is, or why they're there, and the whole book is the lead-up to this point, to this damning line of questioning. It's not exactly fast-paced, but the way in which information is leaked to you - a little fact here, a little story-filling there - is so well done that you never feel like you've got the whole story yet, and that contributes to a feeling of increased tension as you read. The whole time you're reading it, you're thinking, "yes, but...", and that crucial little word, "but", sums up the whole novel. I won't give away any more, but I will say this: just as you think you've got it sussed out, you'll get hit with a curveball that takes the breath out of you. Don't say I didn't warn you...

3. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch
If you haven't discovered the PC Peter Grant novels yet, then allow me to claim the honour of being the one to do so (although I had to be introduced to them myself). This is the follow-up to Rivers of London, about a trainee wizard apprentice in a little-known department of the Metropolitan Police, is (as a friend described it), 'like Harry Potter for grown-ups'. The aforementioned Peter Grant was, in the first novel, a lowly PC on the beat, trying to work his way up the ranks. When he discovers he can see and converse with ghosts, he attracts the attention of the mysterious Inspector Nightingale, who investigates crimes with a touch of the magical about them. I liked Rivers of London well enough, but Moon Over Soho is what caught my attention; Peter is an immensely likeable, if fallible, protagonist, and his calm acceptance of the unusual world he finds himself in is contrasted nicely with the chaos that he stumbles into. Moon Over Soho features jazz vampires, human embodiments of rivers, a fair bit of black magic and a bizarre cast of characters. From time to time it feels like you're reading your bog-standard detective novel, and then it hits you with the magic element, and that's what makes this book special; it makes the impossible world of magic seem like it might just actually be true. For anyone who still hasn't quite got over not getting their Hogwarts letter, this will you a bit of hope that you might actually be a wizard, and it's just that no one has noticed yet.

4. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
This is probably a familar name, as John Green has recently published his critically-acclaimed teenage-cancer-love story, the beautifully-titled The Fault In Our Stars. Well, I heard of The Fault In Our Stars first, and so promptly bought his earlier offering, An Abundance of Katherines (because that's the kind of thing I do). This particular story is about Colin, a child genius with a penchant for dating girls named Katherine (not Catherines, Katharines, Katies or Kates - Katherines). Having just been dumped by the nineteenth Katherine, and at the same time coming to terms with the fact that he is no longer worthy of the title 'genius', Colin is suffering an identity crisis. So what do you do when your esteem is at an all-time low? Go on a road trip with your semi-religious, overweight best friend, of course. It's not so much a coming-of-age story as it is a coming-to-terms-with-yourself tale; learning to realise that your path is not set out for you from day one. For Colin, this means realising his genius status and obsessions about Katherines are not the only things that define him, but its the way he learns it that makes the novel. There's an excellent cast of characters here - no stereotypes, just a lot of people trying to work themselves out - and it's funny in a very understated way. You may not laugh, but you'll definitely smile.

5. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman 
This is one of those odd books where you're not quite sure who it's aimed at - I suppose this would now be termed 'New Adult', a kind of sub-genre that refers to books that can be comfortably read by pretty much anyone aged 16 and up, such as The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Nighttime. In fact, Pigeon English is very similar to Curious Incident, in that it is told from the point of view of a younger child, Harrison, and so the language is that of his age group, which can be hard to follow initially. The story begins with a community mourning the death of a murdered boy and evolves as Harrison attempts to investigate the death in his own clumsy way, only vaguely aware of the dangerous line he is treading with the menacing older boys of the estate he lives on. The story manages to capture the feeling of freedom, immortality and curiosity that all children have, whilst also cloaking the novel in a feeling of dread; you find yourself genuinely worrying for Harrison as he blindly runs around, treating everything as if it is part of a game or a TV show. It's a beautiful book, amazingly well-written and thoroughly deserving of it's Man Booker Shortlist nomination in 2011, because whilst the adult in you will worry themselves sick about Harrison's escapades, the child in you will be running around with him.

6. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
When I first finished this book, I decided I didn't like it, although I wouldn't have been able to tell you why. But it's grown on me since then, even though I've only read it once, and I've now changed my mind and decided it's actually pretty damn good. Bernadette is a reclusive mother in a community full of people who expect involvement - pushy playground mothers, interfering neighbours and husbands with corporations that refer to themselves as 'families'. Naturally, she struggles, finding solace only in her 15-year old daughter, Bee. The really interesting aspect of this novel is that it is mostly told in a series of letters, articles and emails between various characters, which at first seem to be completely at odds with each other, but slowly intertwine to create a much bigger story. The title of the novel alludes to - as you might expect - the sudden disappearance of Bernadette, but there is more than one way for a person to disappear. It's funny in a cynical way, full of people you despise and judge for their small-minded ways, people you laugh at for their pettiness. Bernadette herself may well come under this banner, but as with everyone else, the more you learn, the more you understand. Admittedly, the clever concept of telling the story through correspondence does make it a bit hard to stick with at first - it's so bitty - but eventually you'll get into the swing of it and you'll be rewarded.

So there you go - a bit of something there for everyone, I think. Let me know if you do give any of these a read - I'd love to know your thoughts!

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