Checking Out- Nick Spalding

I’ve reviewed a couple of Nick Spalding title before, and this review will be much the same. I didn’t actually know anything about this title before I started reading it- I hadn’t so much as read the blurb- but I knew how much I’d enjoyed Bricking It, and how interesting I found the ideas behind Mad Loveso I was happy to give it a go.  From the first few pages I was reminded of this author’s ability to make just about anything humorous.  I think it’s his frank, matter-of-fact way of phrasing that helps achieve this effect. Having sad this, it’s vital to point out that Spalding still manages to convey some incredibly important messages, in spite of- and perhaps thanks to- this comedy.

What’s really interesting about Checking Out is Spalding’s exploration of life under extreme circumstances, covering from self discovery to interpersonal relationships and just about everything inbetween. Nathan has just found out he’s going to die, which puts the entirety of his life into perspective and helps him to reconsider what’s important. He doesn’t know how long he has to live- it could happen at any moment- and this is what makes the narrative so great, especially because Nathan doesn’t necessarily take the most predictable route of completing everything he’s ever dreamed of. In fact, his extraordinary story is really quite ordinary- in some ways.

Not only does Nathan discover truths about himself, experiencing some of his most embarrassing moments in the period following his diagnosis, he also understands a little more about how others perceive him. What’s refreshing is that this is not simply a narrative about romantic love, and I’m not entirely sure Nathan’s relationship with Alison could necessarily be described as romantic, Spalding also covers Nathan’s relationship with his mother in light of his diagnosis, and it was these parts I found the most interesting and touching.

From embarrassing experiences with Donkey’s to an inability to stop saying potato, it’s fair to say that Nathan has some troubles throughout this narrative. However, what I think is most important is that he doesn’t allow his brain tumour to become the most troublesome, and uses it to help him live, rather than accepting his death.

Checking Out is fantastic for anyone looking for a book with the perfect balance of intelligent humour and important messages. This very same narrative could have easily been doom and gloom, but Spalding’s own personality and unique writing style saves it from this, which makes it accessible to just about anyone.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine- Gail Honeyman

I’d been wanting to read this book for a while, but university finals had made me feel guilty for reading anything that I wasn’t going to be examined on. In fact, I was so desperate for someone to read Honeyman’s debut novel that I bought it for a friend as a birthday gift- if I couldn’t read it, she would! I’d heard so much positive feedback about the book and I was certain I would love it.

I actually received my copy of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  as a birthday gift, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into it. I was sure it would make my commute to and from work (I’m a real adult now!) just that little bit more bearable.

I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed. From the moment I opened the book, I found it difficult to put it down, urging the traffic jam to just last that little bit longer. Honeyman’s ability to craft characters struck me instantly and I was fully invested in who Eleanor Oliphant was and what she might become. In truth, it was definitely Honeyman’s character creation that kept me interested, as opposed to the narrative itself. I suppose you might argue that the two go hand in hand, but it was what might happen to the protagonist and how she was going to change that I was most interested in.

You might even say that Eleanor is the narrative. All the events, or lack thereof, are a part of her life, and create her life. There is an overwhelming sense of nothingness across the pages, which is really haunting, emphasised further through Eleanor’s lack of recognition that the way she lives her life is not normal. Because of this intense emptiness, it was impossible to guess where the book was going to end up. It was quite obvious that Eleanor was troubled, but I didn’t imagine that it would take such a dark turn.

However, what was most impressive was Honeyman’s ability to portray Eleanor’s experience this darkness with the same nonchalance and resignation as she did the rest of her life. At no point does Oliphant show a shadow of self pity,  which is what makes the novel so bittersweet. To see a character so accepting of what life throws at them is both beautiful and heart-wrenching.  The whole time I found myself wanting to grab her by the shoulders and tell her how amazing she is. At times she is bone-chillingly matter of fact, and apparently arrogant, but these qualities are entirely evened out when you have the insight of Eleanor’s internal dialogue and how she behaves and feels behind closed doors.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  is incredibly powerful, and made me think about all the Eleanors I’ve ever met in my life, though I didn’t really realise it until the end. So many people simply get through each day without really existing and, while it’s so easy to judge them, branding them eccentric or a little bit odd, it’s impossible to know how that person feels when they’re alone.  It all works out for Eleanor but, heartbreakingly, this isn’t the case for everyone in her situation.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  to anyone looking for a page-turner that makes you really care. If you’re looking for a book that makes you feel all the emotions, you’ll find it in this novel, and will probably be a more thoughtful person when you’re finished with it.

Extra tip: Read the interview with Honeyman at the end of the novel, it was incredibly interesting to see what inspired her to write this wonderful story.

 

 

 

Everything I Know About Love- Dolly Alderton

In the past three months or so I have really got into podcasts. I especially love to listen to them when I’m in the gym as I find they are more effective at distracting from the pain than music. One of my favourite podcasts has been The High Low by Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes. I almost feel like I’m part of their cool girl gang as I listen in on their chats. This meant that I was incredibly excited for the release of Dolly’s book, Everything I Know About Love as I knew she would be just as open, friendly and down to earth as she is on the podcast.

 

From the very first pages, I couldn’t get enough- though part of that might just be because I’m a bit nosy… But I just loved the instant warmth that Dolly offers to her readers, which is only heightened through the fact that she holds no detail of a story untold, no matter how embarrassing it may be. However, what I find most amazing about Everything I Know About Love  is how Dolly Alderton manages to be so honest and open, without being self-deprecating: she simply tells her story, as objectively as one might be able to tell their own story. She doesn’t rely on self-mockery to protect herself, but rather appears to accept everything that happens as part and parcel of growing up and becoming the woman she is today.

I loved the ongoing narrative of Dolly and her friend Farly, as I felt that it truly represented a relationship with a childhood friend- though they might not be directly involved with every event in your life, they are very much still there in the background. I loved the chapters-between-chapters in which she shares her favourite recipes and bullet points why one should/ not have a boyfriend because they really just felt like a friend opening up to you and sharing their been-there-done-that tips.

Everything I Know About Love is also incredibly positive in the way that it does not end with a fairytale resolution, but rather a very real situation that almost everyone could identify with, even if they have managed to find their fairytale. But again, what makes this great is that Dolly doesn’t seem bitter, or embarrassed or upset about this situation, she just tells it and accepts it, a more refreshing and hopeful outlook than we are so commonly faced with in the modern day media. This book tells us that it is perfectly healthy to still be growing and working on yourself, no matter your age, and that no one should settle for less than they are happy with.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Everything I Know About Love , whether or not you are already a fan of Dolly’s. The whole way through I felt that it was just a celebration of growing up and learning more about yourself as you go through life, which made the entire read a completely positive experience from start to finish- a possible explanation for the fact that I read it in just two days!

Chanson Douce- Leila Slimani

The English translation of this award-winning French novel was recently released and everyone has been going crazy for it, so I just had to give it a go. I had heard it described as the next Gone Girl and I loved that book, so my hopes were high. As a final year French student, and a true believer that translations never entirely do a book justice, I decided to read the original French (definitely not just a way of convincing myself that reading this counted as work).

 

The very first sentence of Chanson Douce, or Lullaby as it has been translated into English, is “Le bébé est mort.” (The baby is dead.) and if that isn’t enough to make you want to get to the end of this book, then I don’t know what would be. how has this baby died? Why? Who killed him? Why? So. Many. Questions. And the great thing about the novel is that we never really have all of them answered, yet we keep reading, hoping that we will be able to gather enough evidence to satisfy our curiosity. Keep reading I did, as I managed to devour all 227 pages in under 24 hours- and I have no regrets.

 

Slimani does a fantastic job at interchanging between perspectives, in the way that we are never quite sure who we should be identifying with. Yes, it is clear to see who is acting inappropriately, and who we should perhaps dislike in the very moment, but we are never quite sure if we should trust our own judgement. I was constantly questioning whether there was more to the characters than was being let on, and was using information to devise possible scenarios, but I kept finding that I was wrong and that what I had previously predicted, wasn’t necessarily the case. Even the characters you do feel sympathy for are flawed, which I think presents quite an interesting picture of humanity.

The author uses very easy to follow syntax and language for the post part, which definitely contributes to how easy the book is to read. There is plenty of punctuation, which adds to the drama, delaying the narrative and increasing the reader’s desperation to find out what is exactly going to happen.

I think her technique of beginning with the end is fantastic, as it immediately creates a feeling of investment, and I’m not sure the narrative would have had the same effect if the ending was not disclosed this early. On the subject of chronology, I also appreciated the appearance of flashbacks- some of which are obvious and have a clear purpose- some of which are not explicitly flashbacks until the narrative conclusion.

Chanson Douce definitely brings up some really interesting questions with regards to motherhood and parental guilt, which ( even though I am not a mother myself) I believe that many women could identify with: is hiring a nanny the right thing? Should I go back to work?

I really don’t want to give away too much because this narrative is based on mystery- but I don’t think I saw the explanation of the ending coming, and that is what is important. I love a book that keeps me on my toes. I cannot speak for the English translation, but if it conveys even half of the mystery of the French, I cannot recommend it enough.

Robert des noms propres- Amelie Nothomb

There is no denying that this short novel throws you right into the narrative from the very start. Any hope you might have for Lucette is quickly whipped away, with two deaths complete in under thirty pages.  However, this does not even necessarily tell the reader anything about the rest of the novel- except that it is going to be intense.

The title of the novel doesn’t give anything away, either, with no allusion to it until the very end. However, what the reader is made clear of is Plectrude’s importance. The reader is made to focus on every tiny detail about her, from her speech (from the moment she is learning), to her physical appearance (even when this is not in its best form) and it is these small details that allow us to understand more about the story- even when it might seem that very little has been offered to us in terms of narrative or character development. Focussing on these small details results in an ‘Oh, I see how this is making sense’ scenario towards the end of the novel.

It is interesting that Clémence’s husband plays such a quiet role in this novel. On the rare occasion that we hear his opinion, it is quickly undermined by his wife, highlighting the importance of women in this novel, and potentially foreboding Clémence’s fate-changing tendency that we later see. This is clever, considering that she appears to be so kind and accommodating elsewhere in the novel.

Nothing is more unexpected than the very end of the narrative. In fact, even just a few pages before the end the characters’ fate changes, which means the reader should never relax or be complacent in their predictions. It is the first time that Nothomb references herself as the narrator, which means the final event feels a little glued on, and does not seem to flow properly with the direction of the rest of the narrative. Having said that, it certainly adds to how shocking the event is.

In contrast with the intensity of the subject of Robert des noms propres, Nothomb’s writing style is very relaxed, and incredibly easy to read. She favours the matter-of-fact over convolution which, one might argue, contributes to the intensity of the subject in hand.

I would definitely recommend Robert des noms propresfor the very reason that it is sure to keep you on your toes. Even when you think you have predicted the outcome, you discover you are wrong, and it is this that keeps you turning the pages. This engaging yet unpredictable narrative, combined with the simple writing style makes this a quick, yet satisfying, read.

Oliver Twist- Charles Dickens

Now, we all know the story of Oliver Twist, so I cannot pretend that this week’s review will be anything ground-breaking. However, I must admit that this is the first time that I have actually sat down to read the Dickens novel. I am unsure (and a little embarrassed) how, as a literature student (aged 21), and Dickens lover, I have managed to overlook this novel until now. Better late than never, I suppose…

Oliver Twist is classic Dickens- hearty and thorough writing, that absolutely brings the characters to life. He does this through both explicit character description, and allowing each character to display their own personality through their speech, accent and dialect. As a result of this, it is really easy to remember who is who, even though there are, relatively, quite a few characters. I love that Dickens situates his narratives so firmly in their location, constantly mentioning the geography, which allows the reader to really follow the narrative, on both a plot and geographical level.

I must admit that I was expecting to feel more sympathetic for Oliver than Dickens necessarily guides a reader to be, which actually makes for an interesting read. Also, in not pitying Oliver at every moment, it allowed me to be more perceptive of other characters and the action in general.

As with the majority of Dickens’ works, Oliver Twist is a very dark novel, and I can almost imagine the Victorian-style lighting under which all of this action is taking place, which makes the sense of threat and fear all the more apparent. What’s more, though Oliver Twist may be one of Dickens’ shorter works, it is by no means any rich in detail and action- in fact, there is something to be taken from every page.

Even though I was already familiar with the general narrative, I was not aware of the small Dickensian details and nuances of Oliver Twist, and reading this novel was an absolute pleasure of the occasion to do just that. If you are looking to get into Dickens, or Victorian literature as a whole, Oliver Twist is the perfect place to begin!

Winter’s Fairytale- Maxine Morrey

It is fair to say that final year of university is taking its toll. It is intense, and I am feeling more stressed than I had ever imagined, so I decided that anything I would be reading for pleasure needed to be lighthearted and cheerful. Given that Christmas is approaching, though it can be hardly tell from the confines of the library, I decided that Winter’s Fairytale could be precisely the type of book I could do with reading!

 

The story might not begin well for Izzy, who has pretty much every bride’s nightmare happen to her, but her luck definitely picks up along the way. Not only does her luck in love change, the story of it happening is filled with heart-warming humour….made even better by the fact that the narrative is set in the run up to Christmas.

I would describe the atmosphere in Winter’s Fairytale as cosy- as horrible as that word might be. This is only because there is so much of a contrast between what really isn’t cosy- being gilted at the altar, getting stuck outside in the snow, and Izzy’s less than homely flat- and the safe, happy spaces that Izzy actually ends up in: Rob’s apartment, the New Year’s Eve party etc. This cosiness definitely contributes to the festive feel of this narrative!

The characters don’t have an awful lot of depth, but that doesn’t seem to matter in this story. The small amount of background information we do gain about each character isn’t all that relevant when all we want, as a reader, is for Izzy and Rob to just get together. Somehow the Christmas magic seems to more than make up for the (perhaps too) convenient resolution of problems within the narrative.

On the same lines of characters, it struck me that Rob’s family feature so heavily, yet Izzy’s really aren’t mentioned a lot. I suppose this might have been a way of highlighting her need for ‘rescuing’, but it might have been interesting to learn more about them- especially towards the end when things looked like they were working out for Izzy.

I think it’s important to mention that, though the protagonist might not have the best luck, we definitely aren’t made to pity her in a Bridget Jones kind of way. Instead, we get the impression that she is really prepared to look after herself, and that she is prepared to make it on her own if she need to. At the same time, though, we do want nothing more than for her to give up her pride.

Winter’s Fairytale is definitely a girly light-hearted light read, which is by no means a bad thing! I couldn’t wait until my bus journeys, just so that I could become a part of the heartwarming story for a little bit longer. I like that the ending is satisfying, but still leaves a little to the reader’s imagination, as it prevents it from appearing a little too obvious. This is most definitely the perfect book to read on the sofa with a hot chocolate as you begin to wind down for Christmas!

How I Lost You- Jenny Blackhurst

On first appearances, How I Lost You ticked all the right boxes: a gripping thriller with a twist.

For the first few pages, I did feel a little confused. I couldn’t quite comprehend who was narrating, and why there were different names floating about..but now I realise that this might have been intended, reflecting the confusion that Susan feels herself.

This confusion meant I didn’t quite understand whether or not I was supposed to identify with Susan, and I held her at quite a distance for the majority of the narrative. In fact, I felt quite ambivalent towards all of the characters in How I Lost You and I was never sure if all was exactly what it seemed, or if they all had ulterior motives. This is by no means a criticism. It was actually very interesting to be kept on tenterhooks as to who could be trusted and who could not.

I think Blackhurst’s use of the parallel narrative, focusing on certain events in the past, was really useful in adding extra depth to the plot in a much more sophisticated way than characters simply discussing the past. It was also quite satisfying in the way that it acted as a tool with which I could start to decode the book’s present and gauge how to react to and understand certain things that are referred to.

Though the main premise of the narrative is a constant theme, and the driving force behind everything that unfolds in the plot, there are also a number of other key themes, which I suppose reflects the real-life nature of the book. Or, at least as real-life as something like this can be….

My criticism would be that the resolution seems to unfold a little too conveniently, with everyone involved only too ready to help, and those who are guilty too easily let off. Having said this, the narrative does end on a semi-cliffhanger, and does leave a lot to be explained which, I suppose, does leave room for further problems to arrive, even if they aren’t addressed directly.

I certainly would recommend How I Lost You, particularly if you are looking for a book that doesn’t necessarily tell you how to feel from the start, and want to work things out for yourself!

The Good Samaritan- John Marrs

It’s fair to say that this book’s description does not do it justice. I imagined that it would be dark, and with that I imagined tension. However, I hadn’t quite imagined how dark or tense The Good Samaritan would be, and I was pleasantly surprised- if anything can be pleasant about such a dark subject…

For the first few pages it is difficult to imagine the action that might follow later in the plot, and it seems that Laura might actually be a good samaritan. But it doesn’t take long to realise that this isn’t true, and her worryingly sadistic tendencies become more and more apparent the more you read on. Even when you begin to learn possible explanations for Laura’s difficult-to-understand pleasures, it is hard to feel sorry for her because she is so relentless. It is not just that she doesn’t see what she is doing is wrong, she truly believes it is acceptable and justified. This is frustrating, but it is also great to read a book in which you are supposed to detest the protagonist, and that I did.

When I say that Laura is relentless, I mean it wholeheartedly. Nothing and no one will get in the way of her quest to help, or rather encourage, people to die. I certainly thought that she would meet her maker at numerous points in the narrative, but it seems that when someone has so little to lose, they have no fear. For the entirety of the narrative I was sure I had figured out what was going to happen, reformulating the possibilities and getting it wrong every time. In fact, even at the end of the book, it isn’t entirely certain that she face the consequences of what she has done.

The further I read, the more The Good Samaritan held my attention, as I truly feared what might happen next. It becomes clear that Laura isn’t simply obsessed with the idea of people dying, but of being in control and having the upper hand. It seems that she has no mercy, and is even prepared to utilise her children as a tool to assert her power. This intense desperation still didn’t make me pity her, I just hated her more. The book is filled with injustice, which makes for a frustrating narrative and also pushed me to keep reading out of desperation to see justice served.

I liked that Marrs made the dual narratives intertwine as it helped to highlight the differences in how a sane person interprets the situation, and how Laura understands what is happening. However, it did this in a clever way that didn’t always simply tell two identical scenes from different perspectives, but rather added reflections and comments into each narrative to acknowledge the event.

The Good Samaritan made me question how genuine everyone working at helplines, such as the fictional End of the Line might be. Though you’d like to think that someone as dangerous as Laura would not slip through the net, it definitely made me consider that people might not work for such charities for the right reason: something I had never thought about before.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone that enjoys drama and tension. While there aren’t any mysteries to be discovered, I became so invested in the need for justice that I could barely put the book down. The Good Samaritan is one of the best books I have read in a while, and I will be sure to check out some of Marrs other works!

This Modern Love- Will Darbyshire

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, but it somehow always got overtaken on my to-read list.  However, after spotting it on my friend’s bookshelf, I decided to prioritise it.  I had no excuse not to.

I had read about This Modern Love, and was incredibly intrigued by the book’s inspiration: Darbyshire’s unluckiness in love and, when I first began reading, it was great to see that, in spite of his bad experiences, he hadn’t given up on love. Instead, Darbyshire was on a quest to learn all about the beauty of love in the rest of the world.

The introduction and various other explanations throughout the book definitely added to how heartwarming it was. It allowed me to appreciate the book as more than just a collection of different letters, and as a result of someone’s vision and hard work. What’s also great is that Darbyshire uses his online presence to create something as tangible and concrete as this book. Using his online presence and global audience, Darbyshire was able to target, and curate letters, from such a wide spectrum of people, meaning there are a variety of different viewpoints in the book. I thought the question about how technology impacted relationships, for better or for worse was important, given that this book was only possible as a result of these people using technology. The answers to this question were equally interesting, as even those who said it had a positive effect recognised its potentially damaging nature. I suppose I had never considered this before. I mean, I know that our contemporary reliance on technology is not necessarily the best thing for us as humans but, considering that it has facilitated my long-distance relationship for the past five years makes it difficult to say much bad about.

I thought it was interesting that the contents page divides the narrative simply into ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’, framing this as a story in its most simple terms, and recognising that love can have and end, sometimes on good terms and sometimes on not so good terms. Of course, Darbyshire did have control over the ‘narrative’ as he selected which letters were to be included, but he did not edit the ones he chose. I suppose, in this way, This Modern Love reminded me a little of PostSecret, except that most participants chose to disclose their names, which I think added to how heartwarming these stories were as they weren’t ashamed of the intense love they felt.

I found myself smiling constantly as I was reading. Of course, some of the letters were sad, but the majority of them were largely positive. Not only did I feel privileged to be let in on the candid love and happiness of these people, it also gave me hope that there is quite so much love in this world that is so infamously terrible at times.

The inclusion of images, as well as singular words to describe love, that punctuate the collection of letters demonstrate the many ways in which love can be expressed, yet sometimes not articulated.

I would definitely encourage anyone to read This Modern Love. There are few things more endearing than learning about why other people love each other so much, and I know that I will pick the book up again in the future. Perhaps I wouldn’t read it again from start to finish, but I will definitely flick through it when I am in need of something to make me smile.