Monday, 31 May 2010

update May 2010

# of books read in May: 9
Cumulative total: 26

1. The Blessing (Nancy Mitford)
2. The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)
3. The Hours (Michael Cunningham)
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)
5. Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
6. En passant (Raymond Queneau)
7. The Story of God (Robert Winston)
8. Ye Gods! Travels in Greece (Jill Dudley)
9. The Man in the High Castle (Philip K Dick)
10. La Chine Classique (Ivan P Kamenarovic)
11. White Teeth (Zadie Smith)
12. The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively)
13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
14. Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
15. Rebuilding Coventry (Sue Townsend)
16. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
17. The Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella)
18. French Kissing (Catherine Sanderson)
19. Icons of England (various authors; edited by Bill Bryson)
20. Shirley (Charlotte Brontë)
21. Women's Hour Short Stories
22. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
23. Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)
24. Reviving Ophelia (Mary Pipher)
25. Nightingale Wood (Stella Gibbons)
26. The Orange Girl (Jostein Gaarder)

Friday, 28 May 2010

French Kissing (Catherine Sanderson)

--The blurb--
"Name: Sally Marshall
Status: Single mother
Age: 32
Nationality: Ten years in France, yet still English through and through. I like: Living in Paris, playing with my daughter Lila (four-years-old), the company of good friends, the smell of baking bread . . .

So reads Sally's ad, posted on a French online dating site called Rendez-Vous. Sally left Nicolas, her French boyfriend of ten years and Lila's father, after she discovered that he was having an affair with his secretary. Six months have now passed, and although most of the time she feels like she's just dashing around like a headless chicken, she's beginning to bounce back. But making a new start is fraught with complications. As she meets freshly-single Frédéric for a drink, spends the night with charmer Manu and runs away from expat Marcus, she wonders: can she find a way to reconcile motherhood with single womanhood? To what extent can she keep Lila and her love life separate? And is she truly ready to turn her back on Nicolas?"

--The review--
The recent explosion of expatriate (and specifically French expatriate) literature has proved very popular with the British public and with expats themselves: authors such as Stephen Clarke can easily pack out book signings and sell millions just by breathing. Adding to this band of such writers is Catherine Sanderson, who made her name with the book Petite Anglaise. While it's easy to see how Brits with limited knowledge of France would lap this stuff up, how does it stand up with people who actually live here?

Without referring specifically to expatriate literature, it strikes me as being a little sad that so much chick-lit seems to involve empty-headed women being unable to keep a man and thus being perpetually in the middle of some sort of romantic crisis. While this irritation on my part could perhaps be put down to the fact that I've been lucky, it also smacks of a lack of creativity; Sanderson is no exception to this. I understand that conflict is often a crucial element in a story's momentum, but there must surely be other ways of achieving this effect in writing.

This is not to say that Sanderson is not successful elsewhere in her writing; French Kissing, despite the dodgy title, is entertaining, and the author uses detail cunningly in order to really provide an accurate picture of day-to-day life in France. In spite of the author/character's assertion of often being mistaken for a native speaker of French (I cannot emphasise enough how rare and therefore how lacking in credibility this is; people who get mistaken for native speakers don't get their grammatical genders confused, for one thing), French Kissing is undoubtedly a good easy read that also delivers the satisfaction of accurately portraying day-to-day life in this country.

However, for less artifice, better writing, more original stories and more believable characters, I'd recommend Tatiana de Rosnay (who, by the way, is actually French), even though chick lit and expatriate literature are quite clearly here to stay on British bookshelves.

Other works by Catherine Sanderson
Petite Anglaise (2008)

Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Orange Girl (Jostein Gaarder)

--The blurb--
"At fifteen, Georg comes upon a letter written to him by his dying father, to be read when he is old enough. Their two voices make a fascinating dialogue as Georg gets to know the father he can barely remember and is challenged by him to answer some profound questions."

--The review--
Gaarder appears to possess, in all of his books, an effortless capacity to blend the haunting with the thought-provoking, the ordinary with the extraordinary, and the inspiring with the sad. The Orange Girl is no exception to this, introducing children to the rudiments of philosophical thought and deeper contemplation through the medium of a highly readable story.

Regular readers of Gaarder's work will find that a few things grate: those familiar with Sophie's World may find that the "Are you sitting comfortably..." beginning lacks hugely in originality, and, more generally, that the novella's ending is on the side of cliché. On a more personal note, the use of existing brand names in fiction is something that annoys me greatly, and the annoyance was not lessened here. Nevertheless, there are many positives to be found in this story: the characters are few, but simply and vividly drawn, while the story is simultaneously touching and compelling in its mystery and sadness. Anyone who has ever suffered a bereavement will find that this strikes a chord, and as a novella it stands as a useful precursor to Gaarder's longer and more harrowing Through A Glass Darkly, with both exploring many of the same themes, albeit through different prisms.

The story is essentially one long chapter, but it is easy and intriguing to read, flowing well. Gaarder successfully lulls the reader into a genuine sense of security and awakening: the cogs turn in your mind as you read, but slowly and without taxation. The effects linger gently, and despite the story's slight element of predictability, it is a pleasing and worthwhile read for adults as well as children. Carrying a great sense of simultaneous personal and universal history, it is a reminder to us all to never forget our origins, and to remember always that even our own parents were once young too.

Other works by Jostein Gaarder
The Frog Castle (1988)
The Solitaire Mystery (1990)
Sophie's World (1991)
The Christmas Mystery (1992)
Through A Glass Darkly (1993)
Hello? Is There Anybody There? (1996)
Vita Brevis (1996)
Maya (1999)
The Ringmaster's Daughter (2001)
Checkmate (2006)
The Yellow Dwarves (2006)
The Castle In The Pyrenees (2008)

Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves of Adolescent Girls (Mary Pipher)

--The blurb--
"At adolescence, says Mary Pipher, "girls become 'female impersonators' who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces." Many lose spark, interest, and even IQ points as a "girl-poisoning" society forces a choice between being shunned for staying true to oneself and struggling to stay within a narrow definition of female. Pipher's alarming tales of a generation swamped by pain may be partly informed by her role as a therapist who sees troubled children and teens, but her sketch of a tougher, more menacing world for girls often hits the mark. She offers some prescriptions for changing society and helping girls resist."

--The review--
The parenting section of bookshops is becoming increasingly significant, along with other 'soft subjects' such as the self-help genre, as people everywhere turn to various gurus in the help that someone will tell them with authority how best to manage this whole 'life' thing. You might therefore think that the market for such books is saturated, but even though there are certainly plenty of manuals from which to choose, many of them are too general and lack focus, even if they ostensibly appear to have a specific topic. However, Mary Pipher has perhaps broken down with her mainstream psychology effort, Reviving Ophelia. The title is intriguing and will also appeal to Shakespeare enthusiasts, although the rest of the title (Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls), while initially sounding a bit happy-clappy, clarifies the issue and hones its focus for those looking for a parenting manual, or for those such as youth workers who are looking to understand those on the receiving end of their work a little better. This gives us the first point, then: Pipher seizes an interdisciplinary approach, reaching out not only to parents but also to anyone seeking to understand teenage girls.

The research from Pipher's work as an accredited and qualified psychologist is serious, but increases its appeal to a more populist market by splicing the research with anecdotes, speaking in accessible language, and keeping the book's length limited. Even though it does not cover everything that it is possible to cover (and how could it, without confining itself to the dusty halls of university libraries to be read by only few?), the scope is successfully adventurous and wide, discussing depression, families, general development, eating disorders, substance abuse, sex, violence, and more. Pipher is patient and explains well, enabling the reader to understand and explore their own relationships and personality as it was when teenaged, as well as better comprehend those of others.

Despite me wanting to see topics in the book that weren't covered, such as more unusual relationships beyond girls' relationships with their parents and boyfriends, the book is pleasing and makes me want a follow-up, as well as an equivalent for understanding teenage boys.

Illuminating and fascinating in equal measure, the book is broken into readable chapters, and yet manages to remain interesting and appealing to the popular market without being patronising. A book that girls and women can dip into throughout their lives for comfort, thought and advice, and all without getting (too) schmaltzy, Pipher's book deserves a place on any female's bookshelf.

Other works by Mary Pipher
Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World (2010)
The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (2008)
Writing To Change The World (2006)
Letters To A Young Therapist (2005)
The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter The American Community (2003)
Another Country: Navigating The Emotional Terrain of Our Elders (1999)
Hunger Pains: The Modern Woman's Tragic Quest For Thinness (1997)

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)

--The blurb--
"At the heart of Joseph Heller's bestselling novel, first published in 1961, is a satirical indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it. It is the tale of the dangerously sane Captain Yossarian, who spends his time in Italy plotting to survive."

--The review--
Within the parameters of your average classic novel, you could argue that this book doesn't even feature: it is untraditional in its approach, inflammatory, confusing and bewildering, making it a real baptism of fire for anyone reading it, whether this is their first foray into classic literature or otherwise. Even though it is (perhaps indisputably by now) firmly situated in the modern classics hall of fame, this is definitely not a book for everyone. You could even call it a "Marmite book" - you either love it or you hate it from the very first taste.

The fact that there is virtually no middle ground of opinion relating to Heller's 1961 opus means that it is maybe unsurprising to feel that it owes plenty to Proust. Initially overwhelming, it meanders unashamedly, and rather than following any conventional narrative strand, the majority of the space is spent describing people and atmospheres rather than situations and events. When more orthodox episodes do feature in a way that relates to plot, then, they are rendered all the more striking by the type of writing that surrounds them. Heller holds the dubious distinction of being harrowing and hilarious in equal measure, and by this I mean the good kind of hilarious - not the kind that raises a mild chuckle, or sets off a small connection in your brain that says "Ah, I see what you did there", but the genuine and original kind of hilarity that can make you burst out laughing in front of whoever you are with at the time. Equally, in the harrowing stakes, Heller doesn't do things by halves, with the horror he describes popping off the page and making your jaw drop. This is certainly not just your average WWII novel. Eloquent and vivid, the author is capable of creating images that stay with the reader forever.

The novel is saturated in wry sarcasm and black humour, satirising the situation of being at war, and yet simultaneously, you get the feeling that Heller isn't joking about the ways in which young men frequently play dice with their lives. The ending is as absurd as you would expect, but seeming somehow so fitting. Repetition is a strong feature of Catch-22, and it's easy to see why some readers may become frustrated with the novel's style and with its highly farcical nature. However, if you pursue it, and like it, you just might find that it's one of the best books that you've ever read.

Other works by Joseph Heller
Something Happened (1974)
Good As Gold (1979)
God Knows (1984)
Picture This (1988)
Closing Time (1994)
Portrait of an Artist, As An Old Man (2000; published posthumously)

Woman's Hour Book of Short Stories (ed. Pat McLoughlin)

--The blurb--
"The Woman's Hour Book of Short Stories brings together eighteen of the best stories by women writers featured on Radio 4's Woman's Hour. Their theme is 'aspects of love' in the broadest sense, the first innocent awakenings of desire rubbing shoulders with a more mature, sometimes harrowing, kind of love."

--The review--
While female and feminist causes and organisations can perhaps, at times, become objects of ridicule and negative stereotype, there is certainly plenty of positivity to still be found in a female-centric approach. One of these rays of light comes in the Woman's Hour collections of short stories, of which this one (ISBN 0563209054) is the second of three. One could argue that the attraction to short stories has waned (surprising given the nation's apparently decreasing attention span) due to the decrease of serialisation in newspapers and magazines and the greater attraction towards longer, drossier novel series, as well as an increase in the affordability of televisions and DVDs, which pull the public away from the printed word altogether. However, all is certainly not lost for this particular sector of literature: Roald Dahl is perhaps the most famed short story writer for adults, and there is plenty in this marvellous compendium to delight and amuse readers, reminding us that there is still a mass of talent to enjoy and discover.

The first story is one that especially sticks in the mind, detailing a young woman's crush on a celebrity of the period. Its attention to detail means that it is engaging, and the story's premises are equally transferable to modern readers (that's if the fact that the book was published in 1990 renders it no longer 'modern'). Ruth Rendell's work is always enjoyable, although Alice Walker's contribution was disappointing. The best tale to grace this collection, however, is perhaps written by one of the oldest contributors: Celia Dale, aged seventy-eight at the time of the book's release, illumines the book's contents with her sinister and Dahl-esque "Coming South", which is exquisite in the conciseness of its craft and has the potential to take any first-time reader's breath away, making one wonder why this author is so little-known despite having published more than ten books between the 1940s and 1980s. Readers are therefore reminded in perusing such a selection of the enormous potential that there is for the discovery of talent within such pages that is new to us and which might therefore open a whole new world to us.

As a result of reading this extremely polished and high-quality collection, I am incited to acquire more short story collections. Variety is, after all, the spice of life, and it is thanks to such compendia that our lives as readers are fuller.

Other Woman's Hour collections
Woman's Hour: Joyce Grenfell to Sharon Osbourne - Celebrating Sixty Years of Women's Lives (non-fiction; 2006)
Woman's Hour Christmas Collection (2001)
BBC Woman's Hour Book of Health (non-fiction; 1998)
Woman's Hour Poetry: The 50th Anniversary Collection (1996)
The Woman's Hour Book of Women's Humour: The Century's Funniest Female Writing (1993)
The Woman's Hour 50th Anniversary Short Story Collection (1996)
Woman's Hour: 50 Years of British Women (1996)
The Woman's Hour Book (1981)
The BBC Woman's Hour Book (1957)
The Book of Woman's Hour (1953)
*several Woman's Hour Short Story collections are also available on audio cassette.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Nightingale Wood (Stella Gibbons)

--The blurb--
"There's a beautiful poor maiden, an irate, miserly father (in-law), two unlovely sisters (in-law), and a not-so-charming prince who makes our heroine a suggestion that's really not quite proper..."

--The review--
In rereleasing Nightingale Wood with trendy new illustrations and getting Sophie Dahl to write an introduction to the novel, it seems that the publishers are doing everything they can to spruce up Gibbons' oeuvre. While most well-known for classic Cold Comfort Farm, Gibbons was fairly prolific in her lifetime, putting out poetry as well as novels. So is Nightingale Wood any good?

A modern twist on the Cinderella story, Gibbons builds the scenario well with her powers of observation and description. She is sharp and detailed, and even if we don't feel much rapport with the characters, we are drawn in. The burgeoning relationship between sister-in-law Tina and the family chauffeur is amusing, even if it all feels slightly bittersweet by the end, and Gibbons is very much in control, manipulating the reader into the suspense of the will-they-won't-they seesaw between Violet and Victor. Wryly comic and hugely readable, Gibbons takes readers on a journey through the twists and turns of high society. Conflict is created with dexterity and the resolutions offered are mostly of the satisfying variety.

The setting with which we are presented in Nightingale Wood provides light relief compared to the perhaps danker setting of Cold Comfort Farm and its sequel. Some may find it difficult to find the humour in Gibbons' works due to the amount of time that has elapsed since their original release or due to cultural or generational differences, but in true British style, the humour is there: you just have to go digging for it. For more obvious comedy from a similar period, you may wish to look to the works of Nancy Mitford, but to my mind, it is still apparent that Stella Gibbons' novels are largely hidden gems that still have a lot to offer any discerning bookshelf.

Other works by Stella Gibbons (selection)
Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
The Rich House (1941)
The Bachelor (1944)
The Matchmaker (1949)
The Swiss Summer (1951)
Here Be Dragons (1956)
The Weather At Tregulla (1962)
The Wolves Were In The Sledge (1964)

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Shirley (Charlotte Brontë)

--The blurb--
"Set in the industrializing England of the Napoleonic wars and Luddite revolts of 1811-12, Shirley is the story of two contrasting heroines. One is the shy Caroline Helstone, who is trapped in the oppressive atmosphere of a Yorkshire rectory and whose bare life symbolizes the plight of single women in the nineteenth century. The other is the vivacious Shirley Keeldar, who inherits a local estate and whose wealth liberates her from convention."
--The review--
One of the reasons I chose to cease the study of literature beyond undergraduate level was due to a cartel of overzealous lecturers who spent more time reading alleged contextual detail and authorial motive into works that I did not consider to be there, rather than concentrating on language, character, imagery and plot. While this arises simply on the basis of whether you are an extrinsic reader (who likes speculating on peripheral detail) or an intrinsic one (the opposite), it is still nevertheless a relief to find when reading Shirley that even though there is social commentary and context for the extrinsic camp to analyse if they should wish, the novel is also incredibly rich in visual and emotional tapestry, thus providing plenty of enjoyment all round.

The unrequited love experienced by Caroline Helstone is expressed excellently by Brontë; any young girl who has ever loved and not been loved in return will find a small piece of themselves in these pages. It is perhaps partly due to this that despite the book being entitled Shirley, it is in fact Caroline who feels more like the main character to us; it is also this human, "real life" element that perhaps makes Charlotte's work more accessible than that of her sister Emily. But the author's talents are not restricted to unrequited love, with her mastery of description (physical, emotional, and anything else) proving prevalent throughout the novel. Chapter 18 is particularly revolutionary, due to its use of extended metaphor and its pantheistic nature. It questions the authority of the Bible and inequality between the sexes, too, and yet Brontë is highly modest about her work (or perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek), as she recommends skipping this part in a note to the reader at the start of the chapter.

The novel is a little on the slow side to begin with, but soon picks up pace and ultimately means that Shirley is worth pursuing, even if this is more for its characters and descriptions than for its plot (gems hidden in the narrative are not inlaid in a constant stream, to say the least). The slowness in the novel's commencement is unfortunately reversed towards its end, where it feels like the author is rushing to finish the story, with any satisfaction given to the reader being only a subsidiary priority. Mastery in construction, then, is perhaps not the name of the game here: Shirley is worth reading - but primarily for the feast with which it provides the senses.

Other works by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre (1847)
Villette (1853)
The Professor (1857 - posthumous)
Emma Brown (2003 - posthumous)

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)

--The blurb--
"In a dreary seaside town in England, Annie loves Duncan - or thinks she does, because she always has. Duncan loves Annie, but then, all of a sudden, he doesn't anymore. So Annie stops loving Duncan, and starts getting her own life. She sparks an e-mail correspondence with Tucker Crowe, a reclusive Dylanesque singer- songwriter who stopped making music twenty-two years ago, and who is also Duncan's greatest obsession. A surprising connection is forged between two lonely people who are looking for more out of what they've got. Tucker's been languishing (and he's unnervingly aware of it), living in rural Pennsylvania with what he sees as his one hope for redemption amid a life of emotional, familial, and artistic ruin - his young son, Jackson. But then there's also the material he's about to release to the world, an acoustic, stripped-down version of his greatest album, Juliet, titled Juliet, Naked. And he's just been summoned across the Atlantic with Jackson to face his multitude of ex-wives and children (both just discovered and formerly neglected), in the same country where his intriguing new Internet friend resides. What happens when a washed-up musician looks for another chance? And miles away, a restless, childless woman looks for a change?"

--The review--
Nick Hornby's work can always be relied upon to be enjoyable, but as I have pointed out in previous reviews of his novels, he keeps readers on their toes by dicing between different situations and characters to ensure that he does not end up having his writings typecast. In short, his readers are warned to expect the unexpected.

This is certainly the case with his newest effort, entitled Juliet, Naked; we couldn't be any further away from Slam's central character, pro skater Tony Hawk, or from the top of the tower block that provides the focal scenery for A Long Way Down. The novel has a quiet air to it, and yet underneath, big things are happening - monumental shifts that change the course of the characters' lives forever, and perhaps serve as a warning to readers with its slightly moralistic (but not overt or irritating) message that we must be careful not to end up in a rut of life, not to just stay where we are because it is easier to do so. Hornby reminds us in Juliet, Naked, though perhaps less painfully than in aspects of his non-fictional 31 Songs that we only get one life.

Hornby's readers are also kept alert by the title of this latest work: the Juliet of the title is most notable by her absence, rather than by her presence (we never actually meet her), and the nakedness to which the author refers is not to do with traditional nudity at all (although this is not to say that the novel has no sexual content). It refers more to what any artist has to deal with - the fact that in creating something (a song, a painting, or - why not? - a novel) one exposes oneself rawly to the criticisms of others and also to one's own weaknesses.

In keeping with this, the novel is minimally populated, perhaps so that the characters that are there can be examined in more intensity and detail, and the characters themselves are realistically drawn, with their strengths and weaknesses being brought into full focus. Annie and Duncan's demise is perhaps inevitable, but while this is predictable, the rest of the novel is not, and it is this charting of romantic history and the combination of mundanity with Hornby's trademark tale of the unexpected that keeps us reading. The novel does get much better, though, once Hornby stops name-dropping products every five seconds: we do not gain anytthing from knowing that a character is listening to an iPod or drinking Diet Coke, and it is preferable to any reader, surely, to focus on a plot's twists and turns and on the accomplishment of a piece of writing, rather than to feel that we are all just part of a big product placement exercise.

The novel's opening is arresting and the unusual situation of it is appealing to readers. The context that Hornby provides also clears the way for valuable social commentary both on the role of the internet and on the underground music community without being overly positive or negative in either direction. While, as previously mentioned, there may well be a faintly underlying moral, Hornby's role is not didactic, but gives a greater impression of being an equal participant in the action.

The endings met by all of the characters are appropriate and are in line with their imperfect natures. Like so much of life, the story is also left somewhat unfinished; and yet, also somewhat like life, we are left satisfied with the outcome.

Other works by Nick Hornby
Fever Pitch (1992)
High Fidelity (1995)
About A Boy (1998)
How To Be Good (2001)
31 Songs (2003)
The Polysyllabic Spree (2004)
A Long Way Down (2005)
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt (2006)
Slam (2007)
Shakespeare Wrote For Money (2008)

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Icons of England (various authors; edited by Bill Bryson)

--The blurb--
"This celebration of the English countryside does not only focus on the rolling green landscapes and magnificent monuments that set England apart from the rest of the world. Many of the contributors bring their own special touch, presenting a refreshingly eclectic variety of personal icons, from pub signs to seaside piers, from cattle grids to canal boats, and from village cricket to nimbies. First published as a lavish colour coffeetable book, this new expanded paperback edition has double the original number of contributions from many celebrities including Bill Bryson, Michael Palin, Eric Clapton, Bryan Ferry, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Adie, Kevin Spacey, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Richard Mabey, Simon Jenkins, John Sergeant, Benjamin Zephaniah, Joan Bakewell, Antony Beevor, Libby Purves, Jonathan Dimbleby, and many more, and a new preface by HRH Prince Charles."

--The review--
While a light read, this is of a far higher quality than many other light reads, and this is owed in part to its format (of very short chapters, making it very easy to pick the book up and put it down as you choose), but also to the range of contributors, many of whom are used to having to reach a wide audience in an accessible manner.

The concept is unusual, focusing entirely on the English countryside rather than on a wider range of English icons (such as fish and chips), and this narrower view actually benefits rather than restricts the potential to enjoy the collection. The Devon countryside arguably takes the lion's share of the attention, but on the whole, England seems evenly represented, and the different professions and walks of life from which the contributors come adds further depth, perspective and richness to the descriptions. The authors are a well-chosen and high-quality bunch, meaning that you are only likely to be put off by a topic that doesn't interest you (in my case, cattle grids), rather than by the quality of the writing.

Certainly not everybody's interests can be covered in such a book (for my part, I would have given Windsor's Long Walk and the White Cliffs of Dover their share of the spotlight), but the capacity for inspiration that the compilation holds is astounding. As well as informing the reader of England's hidden nooks and crannies, and evoking memories of places we already know, in reading this you are also likely to be reminded of other places that are known to you - and while the book is very readable and the chapters are short enough to go straight on to the next instalment, chances are you will feel too mired in memory and thought to immediately proceed. This is a testament not only to the writers' ability to move their readers but also to Bill Bryson's editing skills, making this a book to be wandered and meandered through - much like the English countryside itself.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella)

--The blurb--
"Workaholic attorney Samantha Sweeting has just done the unthinkable. She's made a mistake so huge, it'll wreck any chance of a partnership. Going into utter meltdown, she walks out of her London office, gets on a train, and ends up in the middle of nowhere. Asking for directions at a big, beautiful house, she's mistaken for an interviewee and finds herself being offered a job as housekeeper. Her employers have no idea they've hired a lawyer-and Samantha has no idea how to work the oven. She can't sew on a button, bake a potato, or get the #@%# ironing board to open. How she takes a deep breath and begins to cope-and finds love-is a story as delicious as the bread she learns to bake. But will her old life ever catch up with her? And if it does…will she want it back?"

--The review--
When an author or a work receives as much hype and acclaim as Sophie Kinsella, my immediate reaction is to proceed with caution and trepidation; if expectations are not too high, then the comedown is lessened if the outcome is disappointing. In this case, the novel was not the rollicking and hilarious laugh-a-minute-fest that we are told that Kinsella's work is. It is certainly a light read, but like many other light reads, such as those by Jodi Picoult and Dan Brown, it is riddled with flaws.

In Kinsella's case, the reputation that precedes her is almost definitely her downfall: if someone says that something is rip-roaringly funny with such pressing enthusiasm, then chances are that it won't be, and this sad self-fulfilling prophecy is embodied in The Undomestic Goddess: I didn't laugh out loud once. There wasn't even a small inward titter to be had. The forced humour was accentuated and exacerbated by the equally clunky and unnatural-sounding dialogue (which only reminded me of my efforts at written dialogue as a 14-year-old). Kinsella's dialogic skills, or lack of them, contribute to her novel's downward spiral of quality, as combined with the largely two-dimensional and unrealistic characters and the lack of originality in the novel's central moral, what readers end up with is something in dire need of unity and realism. Towards the novel's end, one also has the feeling that Kinsella doesn't know what she wants to happen as she chops and changes between potential outcomes, which, while perhaps intended to build suspense and keep readers on their toes, just ends up being irritating more than anything else.

However, in spite of all of these criticisms, there are some discernible positives in The Undomestic Goddess. Kinsella's imagery is strong and vivid, and, more crucially, like many of the other light reads mentioned above, her skills do not lie in character or humour but in plot, and this does a great deal for a novel's momentum and to keep a reader interested. Despite the author not having a background in the law, the aspects of the plot that relate to this are creative, detailed, well-sequenced, and seemingly accurate. Simultaneously, these parts also remain accessible, and more than anything provide the bulk of the novel's pace and interest. The disparity between the protagonist's legal background and her current situation is highly appealing and rekindles the success in literature of the theme of disguise.

So while Kinsella's novels are hardly likely to be classed as great literature, and while even as easy reads they have a lot of problems, there are certainly some rays of light to be found, which may well increase in number as the author's style develops into something deeper and more wide-ranging.

Other works by Sophie Kinsella
The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic/Confessions of a Shopaholic (2000)
Shopaholic Abroad/Shopaholic Takes Manhattan (2001)
Shopaholic Ties The Knot (2001)
Can You Keep A Secret? (2003)
Shopaholic and Sister (2004)
Shopaholic and Baby (2007)
Remember Me? (2008)
Twenties Girl (2009)
Mini Shopaholic (2010)