My primary school was a tiny place, one so small that it had no play area to speak of. It did, however, look on to a vast park that was–and still is–a favourite landing place for the city’s hot air balloons. If I’m up early enough, I often see them scudding along overhead before sinking into slumber in the park. But as much as I associate that park with the homecoming of balloons, I do remember an event that was quite the opposite. When I was perhaps four or five, my school held a balloon release event (this seemed marvellous at the time, when I had not yet been conditioned by years of eco-friendly children’s television programming to consider things like the environment). We attached messages to our balloons, and then released our colourful galleons, letting them drift away to conquer new lands (and perhaps meet their doom around a power line or two). There is something so very evocative about balloons. To me, at least, they represent a journey of sorts. Perhaps one of loss; perhaps one of escape; perhaps one of letting go. All of these are evident in Ciara Geraghty’s Lifesaving for Beginners, a rich and nuanced novel of grief and self-discovery.
The book opens with a literal collision of past and present: a car accident involving Kat, a reclusive and pseudonymous bestselling author, and a woman who, though tragically killed at the scene, proves to be an integral link to a past that Kat has been avoiding since her teen years. Kat, in what everyone around her dubs as a miracle, walks away unscathed, but finds herself sinking into an existential malaise: she finds herself pushing away her partner Thomas as he tries to draw closer to her, is unable to commit to work on her contracted novel, and experiences nothing short of terror at the thought of her impending fortieth birthday.
Each of these concerns has something in common: they all represent change and growth, things of which Kat is desperately afraid. As the book progresses and we learn of how she is connected with the woman who dies in the car crash, we realise that Kat still has past demons with which she has not yet come to terms. It’s little wonder that she’s struggling to deal with the idea of those around her moving on to new stages in their lives when she’s still dealing with the issues brought about by an event that occurred during her teenage years. For example, her brother Ed, a young man with Down’s Syndrome, now has a job and a girlfriend, both of which Kat, who is used to playing a sort of carer role towards her brother, continually attempts to undermine: she begs for Ed to come and visit her, asking him over for teen sleepover-style nights of movie watching and junk food bingeing. When her partner Thomas suggests that they move in together, Kat rebuffs him, petulantly complaining that she likes her house and the way that things are. Her editor’s conviction that it’s time for Kat to reveal her true identity is also a source of terror: there’s something safe and escapable about remaining pseudonymous and isolated.
But there’s one change in particular that seems to trigger the greatest reaction in Kat, and that’s her best friend Minnie’s newly announced pregnancy. The dynamics between Kat and Minnie are heartbreaking at best: Minnie is a high-achieving, charismatic woman who has recently married and is now expecting a baby. Kat, meanwhile, continues to cling to her friend in a way that’s desperately unhealthy, and continues to try to insert herself into a relationship where she is no longer plays the same role. When we learn about Kat’s past and how Minnie is one of the few who knows of it, we begin to understand just why Kat is the way that she is.
Although Kat is the true protagonist of the novel, the book is told through dual viewpoints: Kat’s, and that of Milo, a young boy whose mother was killed in the same crash from which Kat was lucky enough to walk away. Milo’s voice provides a warm, honest counterpoint to Kat’s, which is steeped in self-deception and evasiveness, and his viewpoint helps to round out Kat’s character as the novel unfolds and we see how these seemingly unrelated characters are connected. The two viewpoints complement each other beautifully, with Milo’s grief highlighting the way in which Kat has repressed her own grief; and his own growth and maturity highlighting Kat’s lack of the same.
When the two do meet, Milo is in a way a catalyst for Kat’s development and finally realised ability to let go of the past and to move on with her life; curiously, Kat also provides Milo with renewed hope for his own relationships and a new perspective regarding the way that life continues to move on even after the death of a loved one. Between Milo’s Lifesaving for Beginners classes and his wide-eyed reaction as he watches a balloon slip from the hand of a young boy, we see just how important it is to find a balance between holding on and letting go.
At turns moving and humorous, and full of beautifully drawn and complex characters, Lifesaving for Beginners is a delightful read, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to acquaint myself with Ciara Geraghty’s work. I suspect that Kat and Milo’s stories will continue to resonate with me each time I watch the balloons drift past my window in the pastel light of the early morning.(less)
Well, hello there, deja vu. It was only a few weeks ago that I was reviewing Louise Limerick's Lucinda's Whirlwind, a novel about a career-minded aunt called in as a last-minute caretaker after her sister has jet-set off overseas, and here I am reviewing a book that covers some very similar ground. Mysterious how these things work, isn't it?
Disclaimer: protagonist Geneva Jordan and I didn't quite get off on the right foot. Proclaiming yourself to be a diva in your opening line isn't necessarily a good way to make friends. Nor is continuing your divaish ways around people who aren't getting paid to hang around you. In fact, even as the heart-swelling strings play on through the final act, Geneva never really eschews her love-me-I'm-famous ways. I should have been the one downing her doubles. Now, I get the over-the-top humour and amusingly inflated narcissism that's at play here, but it didn't ring true to me. There's something missing in Landvik's comic voice and timing that feels off somehow. I think it's that everything here is so bold and brash and overstated--which I suppose is that you'd expect from a protagonist who's a Broadway star, but which meant that all I heard in my head for several hundred pages was Fran Drescher.
Anyway, Geneva might be a star, but she's one who's starting to fade: middle age has hit, and neither her employer nor her sort-of love interest are quite as into Geneva as they once were. So when Geneva's sister Ann calls to ask her to babysit while Ann and her husband take a much-needed break in Italy, Geneva grudgingly agrees. It would be your classic fish-out-of-water story, particularly given that Geneva's nephew is a young boy with Down syndrome and requires special care and attention, but Geneva slips into the surrogate parent role with vim. Her laissez faire approach to child-rearing seems to work fairly well with her nephew, and her relationship with him and the close-knit community of Deep Lake, Minnesota. It's all jokes, ice-cream for dinner, and church gatherings, and you get a sense that Landvik's heart is very much in the Midwest.
The novel largely follows a fairly predictable route: a love triangle involving the local postie from Deep Lake and Geneva's womanising ex-beau and a tear-jerker subplot about her nephew and one of his friends, and the ending won't surprise you in the least. What saves the book is the "Great Mysterious" of the title, a name that refers to a question-and-answer book Geneva and her sister put together when they were young girls, and which is filled with deep questions about various aspects of life--and their various family members' responses to those questions. It's quite a lovely idea, and in a lot of the ways it carries an otherwise unremarkable novel.
But Geneva's brassiness and her bizarre life decisions--these seem motivated not by her character, but by the demands of the plot--really undermine any sense of poignancy or depth that might be lurking in these pages. Geneva's the kind of person who'd laugh at a funeral, but the way that this book is written has a similarly awkward feel to it as well. The weird, braying humour often seems out of place, and every now and then we'll get quite a serious scene that feels like it doesn't gel with the rest of the book. An example is the scene where Geneva's nephew, to her terrible discomfort and fear, tries to climb into bed with her for solace. It's quite a powerful scene, but it just feels wrong somehow.
I think whether you enjoy this one will have a lot to do with whether you connect with Geneva and can tolerate the pretty frightful love triangle that permeates the book (oh, poor postie man, how you suffer for your love). For me, this one felt drawn out and mawkish, and I didn't feel it went much beyond a paint-by-numbers approach. Oh, and don't let that cover mislead you: this book is firmly set during the present.(less)
Ah, here I am once again feeling a touch embittered about the fact that I've been misled entirely by a book's cover. I know, I know, don't judge a book and all that, but honestly, if we weren't supposed to do so, then we wouldn't have covers, would we?
I've had Lucinda's Whirlwind sitting in my to-read pile for a while now, largely because literary fiction is what I gravitate towards when I'm desperate for a bookish palate cleanser, an urge that often overcomes me when I've overdosed on zippy but soulless "romps", that kindly book cover quote euphemism for "trash". Smeary, out-of-focus covers blanched in yellow and red and garnished with non-confrontational text are, of course, a shorthand for "here be a Booker contender", which is why this one went straight into my literary pile.
But oh, cover gods, how you mock me. This book is not at all what you told me that it was, and as a result, I'm a tad affronted. It's like that time that I went to Dish on St Kilda Road and ordered a smoked salmon salad, only to be served what was a wafer of salmon atop a single piece of spinach. Tasty enough, but rather lacking in the advertised salad bit. And Lucinda's Whirlwind is rather the same: fresh and appealing, but not at all what I expected to stab my literary fork into.
The titular Lucinda is a blunt-speaking, socially withdrawn woman who is comforted by structure and routine: had she been born a few decades later it's likely that an autistic spectrum diagnosis might have cropped up. She's the veritable opposite of her sister Jayne, a soft-spoken woman who's allowed her husband Brian to be her mouthpiece for all of her adult life, and whose home-life is a muddle of children (including a blow-in from down the road) and pets. However, when Jayne announces that she's left for America to undertake the trip their recently deceased mother had always longed to, Lucinda is plunged into a situation that is very much at odds with her personality.
With Jayne's husband Brian off on a work trip--one that ends up unexpectedly prolonged--and Jayne incommunicado, Lucinda is called in as temporary household matriarch, a role that brings with it all manner of painful spontaneity. Lucinda is distinctly uncomfortable to begin with, and as we learn about the curious dynamics between her and Brian, we begin to see why: is this the life that Lucinda might have led had things turned out differently? But almost immediately we see how dramatically different such a possible future might have been had Lucinda been in Jayne's place. Rather than demurring to Brian's chauvinist pronouncements and becoming caught up in a tragic flurry of domesticity, Lucinda outsources anything she doesn't want to have to deal with, and turns her attention instead only to those things that interest her.
Surprisingly, these include the relationships she slowly builds with Kieran, a young boy with Down's Syndrome, and with Wesley, the black-clad, anaemic looking kid who has claimed the couch as his new residence after his parents' divorce. And although Lucinda is famous for her social ineptitude, she's cuttingly incisive when she points out that her nephew might spend less time accruing "friends" on Facebook and instead spend time with Wesley, who is living virtually unacknowledged in the house:
"How many friends do you have?" "Four hundred and fifty-six." "David!" Lucinda exclaimed. "You can't possibly have that many friends!" "But I do. You should go on it sometime, Aunty Loopy. Everyone's on Facebook these days." "Wesley's not on it," Lucinda protested. "He's in your living room on your couch," she said in a meaningful tone. "Yeah," David reflected, a slight furrow appearing on his freckled brow. "Wes used to be on Facebook, but he only ever had three friends."
Jayne, for her part, is finally striking out on her own in America, and making a delightful hash of things along the way. We cringe along as she struggles to calculate how much to tip a cab driver, looks the wrong way before crossing a road, and ill-advisedly takes an iron to a thin silk shirt. That Jayne struggles with these seemingly basic skills shows just how much she's relied on Brian to be her mouthpiece and decision-maker over the years, as well as just how necessary this trip is for her. Her mother's death has been a precipitating event for her, one that's caused her to reconsider the person she's become and the dreams she's deferred for so long.
Although I identified more with Lucinda, Jayne's struggle resonated with me a good deal: I know a woman who is very much like Jayne, a woman whose voice has been elided over the years to nothing more than a literal echo of her husband's words. She'll parrot whatever he says, push him forward to speak on her behalf, and defer any question or decision to him. Her world has shrunk to the family home, her conversation to nothing more than a remark about the weather. And yet this is a woman who moved overseas during her early twenties to study at university (this was unusual at the time), and who subsequently worked full-time in a demanding job while her husband looked after the children. When I asked how she had come to be the person she is today, I was told that it was possibly due to a family feud she'd become embroiled in, after which the person she was fighting with had passed away.
Death, it seems, does change people.
On the whole Lucinda's Whirlwind is a quick and undemanding book, and with its warmth and humour and awkward familial shenanigans, I'm sure it'll appeal to the casual chick lit/contemporary mainstream reader. However, I couldn't help but feel that it's somehow incomplete. The time spent in Brian's view-point, for example, seems extraneous, and dilutes the contrast between Lucinda and Jayne. Both sisters' narratives also feel vague and unfocused, with their vines of their stories sending out shoots and creepers all over the place, but never really deciding in which direction they want to grow. There's not enough plot here for the book to sit comfortably within the boundaries of chick lit, but not enough depth and interior focus for it to work as a literary novel. Perhaps it was that after being tricked by the cover I, rather like a traveller who has mistakenly jumped on the wrong train, spent the whole time searching for the story that I thought I'd be getting, but I came away feeling not entirely satisfied. Or perhaps it was that despite the oft-referenced whirlwind, not enough happens to actually stir things up: what is someone meant to make of the proverbial settling dust when the dust has been stationary the whole time?(less)
Earlier this year I read Stephen May’s Life! Death! Prizes! (review) a title that refers to protagonist Billy’s nickname for those trashy magazines they stock by the counters of supermarkets and newsagents, the ones filled with stories about bizarre diseases, disturbingly weird relationships and twins separated at birth, and which are typically sealed with plastic in order to hold in the free package of two minute noodles being used to lure in a shopper who’s on the fence about picking up the magazine…or a giant Freddo instead.
Billy, whose life has been derailed after the death of his mother, comments: “Every day I find stories sadder and more stupid than ours. It’s good. It helps. It means that I can tell myself that I’m lucky.”
And having read a couple of chick lit novels in a row, I’m beginning to wonder if this is exactly what this genre is all about. The last few I’ve read haven’t been about high-flying advertising execs stomping around town and causing hilarious havoc (that particular subset of chick lit is apparently extinct), but rather they’ve been about middling individuals living lives that can only make ours look, well, quite pleasant in comparison. Boasting as they do hideous mothers-in-law, cheating husbands, horrid children, public sex scandals, and inevitable job losses (this particular book contains all of these elements), they’re books that you’re meant to identify with by not identifying with them. You put them down and think, “well, thank bloody goodness my life’s nothing like that.”
The problem is that it’s an approach that does distance you from the book, and certainly from the characters, many of whom will elicit a shudder or at least a grimace when they sashay on to the page.
Debby Holt’s Recipe for Scandal suffers from this problem threefold in that it follows the lives of three woman, and three generations, of a family: those of Alberta Granger, and of Alberta’s mother and daughter. Despite being fairly close on the family tree, the three have relatively little to do with each other, so they sort of float around disconnectedly until a Certain Big Event causes them to reflect on their relationships with each other, and on their other personal and romantic relationships. The thing is, the event in question doesn’t occur until a good third of the way through the book, and the material preceding it feels aimless and without direction, focusing on dinner parties and a lengthy running list of characters who don’t actually end up playing that much of a role in the book.
At a talk I attended the other night, author and former radio host Ramona Koval mentioned reading Madame Bovary for a second time as an adult, and realising that when she’d first read it as a teenager, she’d missed something important: the opening chapter focused on Charles Bovary for a reason, and was meant to prime the reader to develop a certain picture of Charles that should be held in mind throughout the book. Authors use certain structures in order to communicate certain things to an audience, she said.
And yet, this doesn’t seem to hold true for Recipe for Scandal. The book just feels messy and diluted: there’s so much going on, and certainly at the beginning of the book, so much of it is inconsequential. Even the title is misleading, and along with the first chapter seems to suggest that we’re in for some sort of foodie shenanigans. Not so. Not at all. (Well, there’s one dessert-throwing incident, but that’s it.) So even though we do get plenty of over-the-top, tabloid-worthy drama, rather than feeling that, phew, at least my family’s shenanigans aren’t going to land them on the front page of the newspaper, I was so uninvested that I just shrugged it all off–of course, this might also have had something to do with the fact that the Certain Big Event is just so embarrassingly cliched.
Anyway, throughout the book I just couldn’t help but feel that things would have been improved if the focus had been on just one, or at most two, of the three women who take up most of the page time. Alberta is most certainly our protagonist, and the occasional jumps to see what her mother Philippa or daughter Hannah’s up to feel like they detract from rather than add to the story. The point of the book is that people often don’t see what’s going on under their noses, and don’t necessarily see their relationships as they truly are, and I felt that Holt missed an opportunity by pursuing these other points of view rather than showing them to us through Alberta’s eyes.
One element that I did enjoy, however, was Alberta’s difficult relationship with her long-term partner Tony, particularly after a potential new love interest arrives on the scene. I know it all sounds horribly overdone when stated like this, but Holt takes things in a direction that’s quite unexpected, and I found the way she resolved all of this worth slogging through the extraneous stuff about Hannah and Philippa and the cheating so-and-sos in their lives (it is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in a chick lit novel is in need of a woman on the side). Holt gives us an interesting take on a romantic relationship: one that was established years ago not out of passion and love but rather as a sort of mutually beneficial agreement. Obviously this all sounds very clinical, but throughout the book Alberta starts to reflect on what this relationship means to her, and whether she’s been erroneous in labelling her relationship as some sort of “agreement” rather than one of love.
Still, in all, I found Recipe for Scandal pretty much a paint-by-numbers sort of book, and one that’s not helped by the bloating of its many, many subplots and superfluous point-of-view characters. That said, I enjoyed the way that Holt mixed things up with Alberta and Tony’s relationship, and I have to say that yes, this one from time to time did indeed make me feel grateful that my strange and often embarrassing family at least isn’t fodder for newspaper journalists–there’s little chance of them turning up in a glossy magazine stapled to a packet of two minute noodles*.
*Yes, this sentence is deliberately ambiguous.(less)
“[Ada] admired great big women. When she was small, she had coveted their authority, their beauty, and their significance. Then she got some for her own damn self.”
A Nashville, Tennessee native, Ada Howard has spent her entire life internalising the narratives that surround the large black women in her community: these are the women that run the church, the committees, and who are looked upon as strong and powerful. And though Ada knows that some of her own weight gain is to do with having to juggle her family commitments and her long work hours at the KidPlay daycare centre, she knows that it’s partly to do with the fact that she has always wanted to become one of these women whom she so respects and admires.
But when Ada receives an invitation to her twenty-five year college reunion, and with it an invitation of sorts from her old college days flame, she begins to reconsider things. At fifty, she’s already lost her three sisters, and she sees her mortality looming large in her ailing mother’s eyes. And so she becomes determined to change her body–and her life with it–for the better. But weight loss in a culture and community that values and looks up to large women is not simply a matter of calories in, calories out: it’s a social and political decision as well.
Ada fears that by losing weight she’ll be buying into a foreign concept of beauty and thumbing her nose at the community she so treasures. She fears that she’ll be undermining the authority and status that she and those around her have worked so hard to achieve. In one scene, for example, Ada frets over only ordering a small salad and a glass of water when dining out at a fancy restaurant: ordering up big, you see, is a way of proving to the world that she has the means to do so. And then there are her concerns over whether her husband Preach, who loves larger women, will continue to love her when there’s less of her to love.
But as Ada slowly changes her habits and personal narratives relating to food, she learns that the diet is only a small part of the change she’s longing to effect. Her new habits are about focusing on herself, affording herself time and care enough that she’s in a better frame of mind to be able to achieve the things she wants to. By sleeping more, drinking less, and getting out and about, her outlook changes, and despite her concerns, she becomes stronger than ever. It’s not merely the weight loss that’s causing this change, however; it’s all part of a larger shift in ideology.
“Ada had treasured the seclusion fat afforded,” we hear towards the end of her journey. “And Ada had enjoyed using her body as a hard-to-read symbol. Ada was ready to be done with all that. Her body was not a metaphor or an aide-memoire. It was her body.”
Throughout, Randall offers a thoughtful examination on the role and power of the body, and how identity can be so readily shaped by physicality and the associations made with it. She also reflects on the changing cultural attitudes towards food and dining habits, looking often to “skinny old folk” for their take on the shifts they’ve seen in their lifetimes. “Get back to your food roots. Peanuts and sweet potatoes are the mama and daddy of soul food,” preaches an old woman in the supermarket when Ada reaches for a low-fat, low-taste snack. “I don’t know why you young people insist on thinking of fried chicken and Kool-Aid and God knows what else as soul food.”
The book does, however, at times vacillate uncomfortably between novel and diet manual. The chapters are headed things such as “Don’t Stay off the Wagon When You Fall off the Wagon” and, perhaps as unsubtly as it’s possible to get, “Identify and Learn from Iconic Diet Books”, and characters frequently pop up out of nowhere to cheer Ada on her way to the weight loss finish line. There’s a good deal about diet types, diet aids, and cooking meals to suit different metabolic types, and these often nudge the book over towards the diet handbook side of things.
Given its positioning of itself as a cheerleader for weight loss and change, it’s little surprise that the book is unassailably upbeat and optimistic. But it’s sometimes so much so that it fails to capitalise on the complexity that Randall offers up every now and then, and there are moments where you can almost imagine a group waving attagirl! pom poms in the background–these occur mostly at the very end of the book. In particular there’s the jaw dropping sermon delivered by Ada’s preacher husband about, erm, not having entered Eden often enough of late, and his subsequent impassioned demands that everyone show their partner some love, as well as the fact that when Ada approaches her friends about her concerns about her marriage, they all but bow at her feet in validating the love that she and Preach share. It’s heart-warming, but sometimes sweeter than the high fructose corn syrup that Ada is trying so hard to avoid.
Although I’m not going to pretend to be anything but an Aussie white girl whose understanding of black culture in the American south is superficial at best, I did appreciate the food for thought (if you’ll pardon the pun) relating to how food and body shape influence perception of self in this community. On the whole, forays into the diet book realm aside, this one’s a winner: Randall’s exposition is sharp and cutting, her dialogue witty and zingy–if occasionally too sparing with the speech identifiers–and the sheer determination of Ada as she sets herself towards becoming more in touch with who she wants to be is admirable. (less)
My husband has a friend who appears to have internalised every word of The Game, and to rather nauseating effect. This guy owns not one, but several cream-coloured suits, wears brimmed hats inside, breaks out in French (and/or karate poses) whenever his girl-dar starts beeping, begins every sentence with “I”, and has very creatively reinterpreted the term monogamy. And for some utterly unfathomable reason, the lonely masochists of the fairer sex–and no few of his own–flock in his direction.
This guy is the embodiment of the question that since time immemorial baffled sociologists and laypeople alike: what is it about obnoxiousness, arrogance and self-obsession that is apparently so appealing to the tragic moths who fling themselves into this emotionally devoid flame, knowing, surely, that they’ll get burnt?
Roger Fox, the subtly named playboy in Robert Manni’s The Guys’ Guy’s Guide to Love, has all the answers, it seems, and when his friend Max Halliday seems to be suffering in the love stakes, takes the latter under his wing in order to school him in the ways of your overachieving Lothario. Under Roger’s tutelage, Max learns how to best cast his net into the world of online dating, where women flit in schools of romantic desperation; how to shortcut his way from introductions to the bedroom through the simple act of commenting on someone’s hair or handbag; and how to hone his pick-up skills so that, in a thumbing of the nose at John Nash’s game theory, he is able to pick first the best of the lot before moving on to the less-than-exemplary as his sex drive requires.
Max, although initially reticent about this dating-by-numbers approach to things, finds himself steadily drawn into the wanton and hedonistic ways of Roger–especially after being offered a position as a relationship columnist in a new magazine designed to help empower women. Nice guy Max decides to use his insider knowledge of Roger’s morally wayward ways to warn the magazine’s readership about the sharks cruising amongst those fish in the dating sea. His column, however, resonates with New York’s single women, and Max is suddenly thrust into a spotlight of adoration that tests his own moral mettle. Roger, meanwhile, is beginning to realise that there may be more to life than soulless one night stands and endless Tom Collins cocktails.
Set against a backdrop of the cut-throat advertising world and the Big Apple’s dating scene, The Guys’ Guy’s Guide to Love seeks to marry Mad Men with Sex and the City, with endless bad behaviour in both the business and dating worlds. Its characters are driven to conquer both boardrooms and bedrooms with equal fervour, and competitors and love interests are put to bed with calculating coldness that would make even Don Draper flinch. But the novel ultimately falls short of its mark with a plot that becomes convoluted due to the deeply interlinked nature of its subplots and characters, and characters that in their flamboyance consign themselves to cliche. The downward spirals of Max and Roger and their subsequent epiphanies quite often feel tedious, with Max especially failing to appeal. He’s a largely drab character who acts as a springboard for the shenanigans of the others, the sort of central pivot that links the other characters together, but is unmemorable himself. However, Max is somehow both unremarkable and awful: he laughs at Roger’s misogynistic jokes and is in his own way as much of a playboy as the friend whose behaviour he condemns, but without the levity that makes Roger bearable. And honestly, the happy ending that eventually befalls him frustrated me to no end. I loathe the idea of a woman in waiting in a modern novel, especially in one like this that attempts to paint women as all about agency and empowerment.
The novel also struggles under the weight of its own efforts to enlighten and proselytise, flitting from the witty repartee that is Manni’s strength to dense thickets of backstory that feel awkward and imposing rather than illuminating as they are presumably meant to be. The lengthy explanations of the various characters’ motivations and their reasons for pursuing particular paths feel gratuitous, and I think that the novel would be better for their excision.
Take this passage about Serena, for example:
“…she’d harboured a basic distrust of men, and as a result, had never married. Now she longed for an opportunity to find a loving partner who’d want her just as she was without making her change or do things his way. Maybe when the time was right, she’d want a child.”
Or this about Roger:
“Roger remained locked outside, lacking emotion or joy beyond the fleeting elation from [sex]…Somewhere, deep down, Roger was aware of his inability to be open to love, and he desperately wanted that to change. But for now, love was elusive–a way of forgetting.”
Or this about Max:
“…He loved sex, but in his heart, he was a serial monogamist. Falling in love with the right woman had always been his goal. Unlike Roger, Max viewed emotional intimacy as a prelude to sex. He had to feel an underlying connection with a woman….And despite his newfound celebrity and a parade of one-night stands, Max was lonely.”
These passages are lobbed in amongst the light-hearted banter like grenades of finger-wagging, and they undermine the sharp critique that Manni is aiming for. The same applies to Max’s column, the awkwardly titled “Guy’s Guy’s Guide to Love” for which the novel is named, each issue of which is reprinted in full in the text, but is honestly rather dull and preachy. With passages like these, the novel begins to feel almost like a self-help novel whose various “be the woman you want to be!” manifestos are divided by scene breaks in the form of sex scenes.
There’s potential here, but Max and Roger become so alike in the end that there’s no male character for whom we want to cheer, and the result is something the borders uneasily on the misogynistic. I felt that the novel would have benefited with a good bit of paring back so that Manni’s dialogue and obvious insider knowledge of the advertising industry could stand on their own–these elements are quite illuminating enough without the added layer of forced elucidation.
This one wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but it was interesting to see a chick lit style novel written from the male perspective, and I expect that others might enjoy this no-holds-barred take on love and romance in NYC.(less)
A couple of years ago, at a wedding (a crazy wedding at that), I was chatting to a couple of Aussies who had relocated to San Francisco in order to seek investment for their tech start-up. Or, more accurately, they’d relocated near San Francisco, because apparently the rent there is so high that it’s liable to give you a nose bleed. And I thought Melbourne was bad.
Anyway, having heard this little anecdote, I wasn’t surprised to read about poor (literally and figuratively) San Fran native and private investigator Izzy Spellman deciding to squat in her brother’s downstairs apartment. It’s crime that pays, after all, not solving crimes.
Things aren’t looking up for Izzy. Not only does she have to endure twelve weeks of court-ordered therapy after a misunderstanding about the differences between stalking and friendliness, but she’s lost her job and her flat, has to play chauffeur to her 84-year-old lawyer, and is stuck playing go-between in the ongoing battle between her snarky teen sister and her best friend Henry (whom she’s definitely not in love with. Probably.). She’s also being blackmailed by someone forcing her to wash her father’s car and visit the Museum of Modern Art. Dastardly.
To say that Izzy Spellman courts chaos is an understatement. Izzy and disaster are seen together roughly as often as garlic and bad breath. And given the delis Izzy frequents, well, you know where this is heading. Anyway, amidst all this family drama, and there’s a heck of a lot of family drama–enough that Izzy has an extra twelve weeks of therapy slapped on to her sentencing–there’s also a mystery. Or several. A routine investigation of a maybe-cheating spouse turns into something more elaborate when Izzy realises that there’s a politician’s reputation on the line, and Izzy finds herself caught up in all manner of ludicrous shenanigans as she tries to get to the bottom of the investigation while also attempting to solve the much more problematic issues of the zany Spellman family.
Revenge of the Spellmans is the third in Lisa Lutz’s Izzy Spellman series, but stands quite readily on its own. It’s a zany, silly ride, and the mystery side of things takes a back seat (a back seat so far back that it might as well be in a limo) to the unending dysfunction of the Spellmans themselves. But that’s not a bad thing at all. Their mishaps are endlessly comic, and there are a lot of laughs, although I have to say that at some 350 pages, the book did begin to feel a little long, and could have done with some trimming. There are some design issues in the edition I read as well: the font is achingly small and narrow, making it a tough read, and the constant footnoted asides and referenced appendices disrupted flow of the book rather than adding to it.
Still, I always get a bit of a kick out of seeing a family that’s more dysfunctional than my own, and I plan to go back and read the others in this very, very silly series.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, things turned out a little better for those tech start-up guys than for Izzy, whose rental situation doesn’t exactly improve by the end of the book. Those start up guys? They sold their app to Disney for a cool sum involving many, many zeroes.
When my phone was stolen on the subway in Buenos Aires I awarded myself some travel cred points. After all, I’ve travelled through all sorts of dodgy places unscathed (except for a terrible bout of food poisoning in Vietnam and a weird foot infection in Malaysia), so it was about time I had a woe-is-me travel experience to make myself appear well-travelled and worldly.
My phone wasn’t a fancy one, and I was due for a replacement, but I realised quite quickly what I had lost: my watch, my alarm clock, and hundreds and hundreds of contacts. And although my husband hooked me up with a temporary replacement, it wasn’t right. It wasn’t my phone.
In fact, it was his mother’s phone, so it was full of strange contacts (most of them called Mei, oddly enough), and frequently received paranoid email forwards from her Malaysian friends. (FWD: Don’t use the ATM or someone will follow you home and kidnap your children! FWD: Don’t eat at this restaurant in KL because its meat comes from dogs! FWD: If you don’t forward this to ten people you will never have a grandson!) So when I read about poor Poppy Wyatt having her mobile phone stolen in the opening pages of Sophie Kinsella’s I’ve Got Your Number I could immediate sympathise. And when mobile phone junkie Poppy immediately begins hitting up strangers for a quick go at their phone, I could feel her pain. And when she resorts to scrabbling about in bins in the hopes of finding some sort of communication device, well, I could understand. Addiction is a terrible thing. But while my replacement telephone only offers up advice about herbal remedies for colon cancer or dire warnings about life factors that might decrease your likelihood of having a male grandchild, Poppy’s new phone, which she does indeed find during the aforementioned bin-scrounging, brings with it actual intrigue. And also a spunky man.
The phone, you see, turns out to have belonged to the PA of Sam Roxton, fancy-pants businessman and rather eligible bachelor. And since Poppy has no intention of giving up her social lifeline, she inadvertently becomes Sam’s stand-in PA. Everyone’s happy, or at least for a bit. It’s not long before their perfunctory texts and business-like emails begin to become quite…friendly. Not to mention the fact that Poppy, who quite likes stomping all over personal boundaries, begins meddling in Sam’s email account, sending out company-wide emails that result in poor Sam being signed up for fun-runs, charity trips to South America and awful reunions with old school chums he’s been assiduously avoiding.
But Poppy’s gradual touch-typed intrusion into Sam’s life isn’t one-sided. Soon enough, Poppy finds herself being awaiting Sam’s texts and emails and hanging on to their every text-based encounter. But this is a no-no for one key reason: Poppy is getting married in a week’s time. To the, er, man of her dreams. Right. Right?
I’ve Got Your Number is exactly the frivolously light read I was expecting, and no one can accuse Kinsella of not being entertaining. The ridiculous situations in which Poppy finds herself (and usually as the result of her own boundary over-stepping) make for plenty of laughs and giggles, and the narrative rattles along at a merry place. There’s nothing at all subtle about the plot and the way that things eventually play out, but there’s a keenness to Kinsella’s of social observations that’s hard to miss and which adds a welcome layer to the book.
The use of a hapless, clueless protagonist allows a wide-eyed, innocent explication of the competitiveness and territoriality of the business world, not to mention family and class politics, the latter which is now so often demarcated through certain markers of learnedness. Poppy’s well-meaning but bumbling demeanour can be frustrating at times, but at the same time it allows for plenty of opportunities to illustrate inequalities, assumptions and questionable norms–it’s an approach that’s certainly been well-trodden in the comedic world.
The use of the mobile phone as the central part of our social worlds is also fascinating: Poppy’s phone is key in sharing news, and building and maintaining relationships, and it’s interesting to see how much we’ve come to rely on technology as a way of communicating on the fly, and how our communication habits have changed accordingly. The phone as a record of communication (eg of Poppy’s texts and emails) is also touched on–and is something that resonated with me, as I was strangely saddened when I realised that along with my phone I’d lost the very first text that my husband had ever sent me.
The idea of privacy is teased out in a number of ways in the book, and Kinsella’s illustration of how the boundaries of our private lives have become increasingly blurred is quite insightful. Sam, for example, is mortified that Poppy has been reading his emails, but Poppy quite rightly points out that much of what she’s read is public information that can be easily found on the internet. The frustration of “private” telephone numbers in a a public world is also touched on, and the appalled reaction of various characters about the idea of sharing a phone offers food for thought as well. The very fact that so much of someone’s life is stored on a piece of technology that can be so easily be passed on to someone else is quite sobering, and I won’t deny that the thought of someone in Buenos Aires surfing through the electronic artefacts of my life gives me the heebies.
In terms of the romance, I have to admit that I quite liked the odd mix of the brusque Sam and the over-sharing Poppy, and of course, Sam’s character is made all the more desirable by the comparison of him with Poppy’s dolt of a fiance, while Poppy looks all the more pleasant when compared with Sam’s vicious ex. The push-and-pull between the two is nicely done, with each challenging the other to confront their demons (yes, the book’s title does have a double meaning). Sam frequently pushes Poppy to believe in herself and put herself first, while Poppy endlessly points out that Sam needs to reach out to others.
It’s not all smooth sailing: the initial set-up of the book feels off, and sometimes Kinsella pushes the comedic elements too far (not to mention that I loathed those annoying little footnotes pepped throughout), but in all, I found this a fun introduction to work of this best-selling author. Not to mention a handy reminder to sync my hand-me-down phone with my Google account. (less)
I’ve always wondered about the idea of born-again virginity: it’s a concept that makes me cock my head, pug-like, from side to side as I try to figure out exactly how it works. Reconstructive surgery, promise rings and a very loose definition of the truth, one imagines. Still, whatever the go, it’s working for Jack Carter, a romance novelist who believes wholeheartedly in saving himself for the one (first marriage and myriad subsequent partners aside). Rather than putting himself out there (or in there, as the case may be), his focus is on knocking Nora Roberts from the top of the romance totem pole, and learning all there is to know about true lurve. You know, the stuff with the submissive virgin and the alpha male with a sensitive side hidden so deep that Long John Silver would struggle to find it.
Still, although living vicariously through his characters (and attending the odd abstainers anonymous meeting) has proven successful in keeping Jack’s baser instincts at bay, his new flatmate Molly Desire isn’t helping matters. Molly’s list of lovers runs longer than the list of credits on a James Cameron film, and she has no qualms about adding to it–given another few years, Molly’s list could be a film in its own right. But not only is Molly muscling in on Jack’s space, but she’s also got her eyes on his career. Unlike James, Molly doesn’t need to hide behind market-appropriate pseudonym, and nor does she have any dreamy ideas about love and romance. This girl makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a series of paint swatches from Dulux.
Needless to say, Molly is the antithesis of all of Jack’s moony daydreaming, and his attention is elsewhere, such as on whatever chaste, virginal type (not the born-again kind; the intact-hymen kind) is willing to let him take her out to dinner (it’s his job to pay, of course) as part of that dating-and-then-marriage ritual he’s longed so wildly to be a part of. But there’s something about Molly and her frankness that Jack just can’t ignore: perhaps it’s that, unlike his present girlfriend, she doesn’t expect him to open car doors for her, and hasn’t picked out the exact five carat Tiffany’s engagement ring she expects to receive within the year. And then, of course, there’s the fact that one of the consequences of Molly’s indiscriminate sexual activities is pregnancy…and for an intrepid romance novelist, pregnancy is the ultimate happily-ever-after.
With a title like Mounting Desire, the fact that this book’s just a wee bit naughty isn’t much of a surprise. In fact, most everything published by Little Black Dress is all about pastiche, double entendre and the sort of kinky stuff that Harlequin wouldn’t touch with a long leather whip. In fact, the novel’s an unapologetic take-off of the category romance genre, and quite happily subverts all the traditional themes and elements found in these novels. There’s the precocious child, whose skills lie not in tests and exams, but rather in her ability to act out everything from the sealed section of Cosmo. There’s the dithery senior citizen mother, but rather than sipping martinis and watching Dynasty, she’s all about seducing the only eligible codger at her nursing home. There’s the sister who should be happily married, but who’s instead thinking about resorting to electro-shock therapy to give her love life back its spark. And then, of course, there’s Jack, who’s doing all the right things to woo his virgin, only everything he does is so terribly, hilariously wrong.
There are, as you’ve no doubt realised by now, all manner of disparate narratives going on, and some, invariably, are more effective than others. The large number of POV characters does make the novel feel a little slow-moving at times, but these secondary scenes are largely rescued by Killham’s endlessly humorous approach. However, the one thing that continues to bother me is whether there’s meant to be any chemistry between Jack and Molly, because the ending is very much a pragmatic one. I do wonder whether this is partly a tongue-in-cheek parody of the typical romance ending, where hero and heroine suddenly set aside their differences, marry in the garden, and announce the next day that they’re expecting twins, but even so, goodness, all I can say is that I rather hope that Jack’s novels are better plotted than his life.
In all, this one’s a chortle-inducing read that takes no prisoners in its efforts to skewer the category romance scene and upend any enduring notions readers might have about old-fashioned true love. It’s also not for the easily offended, so if you find frank discussions of sex and sexuality squirm-inducing, you may want to head of to Mills & Boon instead.(less)
The more I review, the more I realise how important a book’s cover is. Not simply because I’m the kind of reader who equates a beautiful cover with a...moreThe more I review, the more I realise how important a book’s cover is. Not simply because I’m the kind of reader who equates a beautiful cover with a brilliant read (I’ve been burnt a few times for succumbing to that particular lure), but because a cover is such an integral part of branding. Particular cover designs are associated with particular types of books, and heavily influence a reader’s expectations. When a cover fails to effectively communicate what the book is about, the reader suffers from a disconnect in terms of the product they thought they were buying, and the one actually purchased.
This is my long-winded way of saying that although Kelly Hunter’s Single Girl Abroad looks for all the world like a chick-lit novel, it’s not at all. Though in tone it features some of the elements of a chick-lit, structurally it’s a contemporary romance. More bewilderingly, as I found out halfway through the book, it’s actually a two-in-one. Despite the blurb breezily and blithely describing Aussie Madeline Delacourte as a lass who’s “having the time of her life in Singapore…young free, and absolutely single…rich-as-rich-can-be [want wanting] for nothing, especially not an annoyingly complicated relationship”, the book has nothing to do with Singapore Slings and the Raffles Hotel, and everything to do with our heroine committing to a monogamous relationship with a view to marriage.
The Moriarty family appears to be something akin to the Australian equivalent of the Jackson Five, only without the behind-the-scenes drama...more(3.5 stars)
The Moriarty family appears to be something akin to the Australian equivalent of the Jackson Five, only without the behind-the-scenes drama–there’s some serious talent on offer here. Liane (see our reviews) and Jacqueline Moriarty have long been entertaining readers, and with her debut Free-Falling, Nicola Moriarty offers up a trifecta for these talented siblings. (My recommendation: if you swing by the family home, bottle some of their drinking water, as it’s clearly laced with a chemical known as Rather Awesome Indeed.)
Sometimes it’s only when someone is lost to us altogether that we realise what an impact they have had on those around them, and how far their influence stretches. Andy McGavin, for example, was a son, a brother, a friend and a lover, and his sudden death sees his loved ones attempting to manage their loss and grief in hugely varied ways. His fiancee Belinda finds herself a drunken, chocolate-eating mess who begins to see Andy everywhere she turns; his uptight mother Evelyn discovers a penchant for shop-lifting and sky diving; and his twin brother James sets about attempting to live out the dreams that Andy never had a chance to fulfil himself.
If chick lit can be characterised in part by a city setting and a protagonist with a high-flying job in media and communications, then it loo...more2.5 stars
If chick lit can be characterised in part by a city setting and a protagonist with a high-flying job in media and communications, then it looks as though there are changes underfoot. Of late has emerged a new subgenre, titled descriptively enough, rural lit. The key themes remain: friendship, love, self-reflection and growth, but the settings and trappings are vastly different.
Margareta Osborn cheekily contrasts the urban chick lit with its rural counterpart in her debut Bella’s Run, which takes place in equal parts in rural Queensland, Victoria’s Gippsland region, and Melbourne (which admittedly doesn’t quite have the cosmopolitan appeal of London and New York, but, hey, we’re a small country), and examines the pulls and draws of each for protagonist Bella O’Hara.
Cassia Tallow should have been a brilliant surgeon. But her disinclination to rock the boat means that instead, seven years after passing he...more2.5 stars.
Cassia Tallow should have been a brilliant surgeon. But her disinclination to rock the boat means that instead, seven years after passing her university exams with flying colours, she spends her days managing the family home. Though Cassia loves her children, it’s impossible not to feel some resentment as she watches her plodding GP husband struggle to oversee even the most simple of cases at his mediocre small-town clinic. Particularly when her husband Edward refuses to let her have anything more to do with his work than act as a glorified secretary. But it’s the 1930s, and Cassia is fighting against social expectations all the way.
The plot, though buoyed by some interesting tidbits about the reporting and tv journalism worlds, struggles under the weight of the various players an...moreThe plot, though buoyed by some interesting tidbits about the reporting and tv journalism worlds, struggles under the weight of the various players and the heavy-handed way in which they’re all linked together. Kevin Bacon has fewer degrees of separation than these guys. But perhaps what stops the book from really working is the fact that Daniels never really has a black moment. Sure, things begin to go downhill, but then everything starts to work out, but just sort of because. Daniels isn’t the one working her way back up to the top; rather, everything else around her begins to fall into place so that this happens. Unfortunately, this makes for an anticlimactic ending in what is otherwise a reasonable read.
They say that looks can be deceiving, and in the case of Erynn Mangum’s Miss Match, this is certainly true. At first glance the novel suggests a pithy...moreThey say that looks can be deceiving, and in the case of Erynn Mangum’s Miss Match, this is certainly true. At first glance the novel suggests a pithy chick-lit with a plot strongly oriented around romance and match-making. But perhaps the cover designer should have considered adding a jazzy little banner saying “contains real Bible extracts!” I’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door who were more subtle in spreading the word than this book is.
Hallmark-esque conclusion and title notwithstanding, Dolci di Love is more bitter-sweet than saccharine, and there’s an undercurrent of loss and wistf...moreHallmark-esque conclusion and title notwithstanding, Dolci di Love is more bitter-sweet than saccharine, and there’s an undercurrent of loss and wistfulness that affords a satisfying depth to what might otherwise be passed off as another light-hearted romp through the appealing idyll of Tuscany.
Looking back over my recent chick-lit reviews, there seems to be a direct correlation between the presence of a mystery in its pages and the number of...moreLooking back over my recent chick-lit reviews, there seems to be a direct correlation between the presence of a mystery in its pages and the number of stars I end up awarding it. The airy chic-lit seems to pair so perfectly with a the quirky cozy mystery, so much so that one suspects there’s a hint of fraternal twinship going on. This is the first of Jennifer Rowe’s books I’ve read since her pseudonymous Rowan of Rin days (oh, Emily Rodda, you were the delight of silent reading time in Grade 3), and either Rowe writes just as well for adults as she does for kids, or my sensibilities haven’t changed much. (Let’s go with the former, shall we?)
Twenty-nine year old Alice Love’s surname suits her perfectly: she has a heart so large it could feature in an Edgar Allen Poe short story (in a good...moreTwenty-nine year old Alice Love’s surname suits her perfectly: she has a heart so large it could feature in an Edgar Allen Poe short story (in a good way, of course), feels nothing but glorious, unabashed adoration for her new husband Nick, sees potential lurking in every corner of the once-gorgeous home they bought for a song but for which others might only have paid a verse, does what she can to indulge in the finer things in life (one suspects that Pink champagne and Cadbury Roses are Alice’s idea of a top-notch present, and no doubt she leaves the Turkish Delight ones for poor Nick), and is growing in her belly a wee little lass or lad referred to affectionately as The Sultana. Alice delights in mulling over all of the things that her future will bring to her, and if she were the sort of person who drank loose leaf tea, she’d be reading the dregs in the bottom of her chipped, colourful Target mug.
But Alice isn’t at all who she thinks she is. In fact, the Alice we first meet is in fact the Alice of ten years ago: the real Alice’s memory of the past decade has been wiped clean by a nasty knock on the head sustained during a rigorous bout on the treadmill (exercise will do that to you, 29-year-old Alice would no doubt say, happily slurping her coffee through a heat-squidgy Tim Tam). With her memory gone, Alice suddenly finds herself living the life of a complete stranger, and with no idea how she got there. Fun-loving Alice with her boyfriend jeans, mismatching crockery, and laissez-faire approach to virtually everything in life has been replaced by a stern and leathery Alice who boasts a sharp bob, the calendar of a socialite trying to make up for a much-publicised misdemeanour by turning into a social saint, and a house full of Smeg and Bang and Olufsen gadgets. Expensive European gizmos aren’t the only things inhabiting Alice’s newly pristine house, however: somewhere along the way The Sultana not only celebrated her tenth birthday, but gained two siblings, too (my goodness, how you’ve grown! thinks the dazed and confused Alice). But other things have changed, too, and Alice finds herself facing an empty bed at night, and finds that she is now estranged from her beloved sister Elisabeth. But with her new perspective on life, will Alice find a way of turning things around?
What Alice Forgot is part of my mum’s extensive chick-lit collection, which I raided whilst visiting over the Christmas break, and I picked it up after having read and very much enjoyed The Last Anniversary by the same author (see my review). Moriarty is a relative newcomer to the literary scene, but seems to be an author willing to experiment with a genre that can so easily fall prey to formulaic approaches, and happily indulges in all manner of narrative risk-taking. While some of these efforts are more successful than others, Moriarty’s ability to hang her narrative on characters who are utterly believable and terribly (sobbingly!) sympathetic allows her to get away with some literary flights of fancy that wouldn’t otherwise work.
What Alice Forgot, for example, braids not only three different perspectives written in substantially different formats–a straight narrative for Alice, a confessional style format for her sister Elisabeth, and a blog format for Frannie, Alice’s grandmother–but also contrasts two parallel narratives occurring a decade apart. It’s a fairly complex approach to take, and admittedly one that isn’t always successful, with Elisabeth’s entries, which depict her struggle to conceive for IVF, becoming sometimes repetitious and distant, and Frannie’s feeling rather disconnected from the main plot, but Moriarty’s skill with character and her generally excellent pacing skills ensuring that the reader continues on her merry way despite the disparate narrative threads. Of the alternative points of view, however the entries from Elisabeth’s perspectives are by far the stronger, offering a sobering and realistic portrayal of the ups and downs involved in infertility, and the painful accompanying social positioning, and indeed, social stigma. Frannie’s blog posts, on the other hand, seem designed to add levity to what is at times a challenging narrative: as in her earlier work, Moriarty engages with some dark and difficult themes in a way that can be brutally realistic, and one can’t help but wonder whether Frannie’s entries are an afterthought to bring the overall tone back over to chick-lit rather than more general women’s fiction.
The major theme in the book is, of course, redemption, and Alice’s unique position as a result of her memory loss (which has no medical basis, leaving one to wonder whether it’s simply psychosomatic; a coping device of sorts to allow her to reflect on her current position) lets her examine her past and present selves and muse not only on the vast disjunct between the two, but on how this disjunct came to occur in the first place. Young Alice is aghast at the person that she seems to have become, but as she slowly pieces together the elusive pieces of her missing decade, she begins to see how certain events and contexts have shaped her into the person she has become, and that what she truly seeks is an existence that falls between her younger and older selves. This is particularly interesting given the case of Nick, as from the early chapters it seems as though it is solely Alice’s transformation that has wrought such damage on their relationship. However, Moriarty is a thoughtful enough writer to avoid allowing such black and white situations crop up in her work, and both sides of the story slowly unfold, leaving the reader somewhat torn in their loyalties. Alice’s strained relationship with her sister Elisabeth is also movingly explored, and there are moments here that are utterly heart-wrenching. Alice’s slow reconciliation with her children, too, is quite beautiful, and the evident change in the way she engages with the “Sultana” is one that could well have never come about were it not for her accident. The fact that Alice has not only forgotten how to be a parent, but who her children are is disturbing, yes, but not as disturbing as the thought that she might well have continued indefinitely along the same painful path were it not for her accident.
Despite all this, however, I can’t help but feel that the three narrative wraps up a little too quickly and neatly–one can easily imagine a literary bow perched atop of the conclusion–and this feels at odds with Moriarty’s otherwise subtle examination of the various themes and characters. The epilogue in particular, where we fast forward to Alice’s new and improved life after her emotional transformation, feels tacked on, and the book would be stronger if it were either fleshed out substantially or removed altogether. It’s a niggling complaint, but one that affected my reading of the book as a whole.
With this and her excellent The Last Anniversary, Liane Moriarty is firmly on my must-read list, and I’ll be perusing my mum’s shelves on my next holiday to see whether there’s anything I might have inadvertently passed over. Moriarty is a chick-lit writer with verve, style, and an essential sense of character and identity, and her willingness to tackle dark and challenging themes within the fairly narrow framework of this genre is commendable. While What Alice Forgot does lag a little due to the jarring addition of some extraneous point of view characters, it’s a worthwhile read that speaks to the author’s strengths.(less)
At 37, Amelia Bradlow is reasonably content with her lot in life. Certainly, she’s not necessarily rapturously ecstatic about the way things are going, nor necessarily utterly fulfilled, but things are as they are…and as they always have been, leaving her with little to complain about. After fifteen years of marriage, she and her husband Ed have settled into a routine that’s comforting to both parties within the relationship, but frankly utterly disturbing to those snoopily peering in from without. Ed’s obsession with order and custom borders on the pathological: the only allowable restaurants are those within a three mile radius, the only safe wines to drink are those that hail from the Champagne region of France, the only possible venues to stay in are those that have been vetted years earlier and found suitable, and the only acceptable outfit for Amelia is one that replicates her look when they first met. And let’s not mention Mr Bun, Ed’s stuffed elephant companion. Ed’s extraordinary intransigence and stultifying fear of the most minute change has slowly crippled their relationship, and their relationship with others, and Amelia and Ed increasingly live as fond strangers with a bleary recollection of better times.
But when snippy Kiki (whose snicker-snack name perfectly encapsulates her spiky and unflinching personality) flounces on to the scene, all sky-high Louboutins, similarly elevated self-esteem, and a lifestyle that leaves Amelia wondering whether her own is somewhat (or perhaps entirely) lacking. Kiki’s unsubtle prodding at Amelia’s abruptly revealed achilles heel (her plummeting fertility levels), and her incisive questioning of the health of her painfully insular relationship with Ed sets Amelia off on the road of self-examination and personal growth. Armed with a new career, a new sense of purpose, and with a sudden yen for Japanese fusion cuisine and snappy hairstyles, Amelia finds herself perfectly positioned to move on. But does she want to?
I was a little underwhelmed by Maggie Alderson’s Cents and Sensibility (see my review), having found myself stumbling over the potholes evident in the well-trodden ground worked over in the novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, How to Break Your Own Heart does feature a number of similar themes and tropes, unselfconsciously trotting out the old stand-bys of the gaspingly bitchy gay best friend, the brazenly obnoxious woman of independent means, the shocking infantile partner, the brooding and massively sexualised alpha male suitor, the elderly but oh-so-naughty neighbour-confidante, and of course the whole overcoming-adversity-through-rustic-homeliness thing. However, unlike its predecessor, it incorporates these elements with rather a good deal more verve and flair, and although a good deal of suspension of disbelief is required at nearly every narrative turn, How to Break Your Own Heart is at times quite a fascinating portrayal of co-dependence, habituation, and slowly budding self-esteem.
While Amelia’s transformation from mousy housewife who appears to be suffering something akin to Stockholm Syndrome after years of Ed’s careful moulding to independent social butterfly capable of existing beyond the husband-wife binary at times invites head shaking and the odd scoff from the reader, the social context into which Alderson places all of this is both fascinating and challenging. Amelia’s relationship with Ed has been from the outset incredibly unhealthy, with starstruck Amelia leaping into the fray presumably as a way to escape the agonised family situation she has endured at home, and perhaps seeking the sort of controlling father figure that is all she knows. But what’s so frustrating for the reader is Amelia’s acknowledgement of the daily ordeal faced by her own mother, and yet her (and her mother’s and brother’s) complete inaction with regard to it. Rather than addressing the issues at hand, they have been simply allowed to fester and simmer, and inevitably crop up again in Amelia’s own home life. One can’t help but wonder that in her Tarzan-like leaping from relationship to relationship and poisonous social situation to (potentially poisonous) social situation that Amelia is simply trading one set of woes for the next without adequate time for self-reflection, and given her sudden burning need to procreate, one is rather dubious about the quality of her decision making.
While Amelia’s head-in-the-sand approach to life is at times frustrating to read, the depiction of Ed can be rather overwhelming, with his character painted in such a poor light that it’s impossible to read the scenes involving him without some choice teeth-grinding action. We’re given a hasty sketch of Ed’s desultory childhood (think stuffed elephant as a proxy for parental affection), and this is proffered as the reason for his not wanting to have children (and here I must mention his 15 year obsession with condoms–get a vasectomy, old chap!). There’s a bit of demonisation going on here that made me feel uncomfortable as a reader, and those who read my review of Cents and Sensibility will note that the same issue crops up in that novel, too. While I’m happy to lock horns with the occasional dastardly character, and will if appropriate take the most ridiculous of motivations with a grain of salt if that’s what the narrative requires, there’s a note of social conservatism throughout this novel that I find bothersome. The binaristic opposition between Ed and Amelia in terms of their procreational desires feels so painfully arbitrary, and I have to admit that I found that the fact that flighty Kiki’s resentment of children is put down to her infertility to be deeply underwhelming, as though the novel is suggesting that any woman who doesn’t want to have children is somehow morally unsound (see my review of Men I’ve Loved Before by Adele Parks for more on this issue). This conservative agenda is further pushed by the apparent need to tie up any loose ends and ensure that any singles, no matter how fleetingly narratively relevant, are paired up as best as possible, and I have to admit that this authorial match-making become a bit tiresome.
While for the most part the novel merrily chugs along its way, I would have liked to have seen some greater characterisation in terms of Kiki and her weird and esoteric friendships, as I can’t help but feel that this would have added an extra depth to the narrative as a whole. Some additional attention to some of the turning points in the novel, such as Kiki’s alleged personal crisis, which leads abruptly to Amelia’s career change, and the introduction of an old flame, might have helped things run a little more smoothly and believably, and would have reduced the reliance on coincidence and happenstance.
While I struggled with particular elements of the novel, on the whole I did find it light and engaging, and appreciated Alderson’s evident growth as an author. How to Break Your Own Heart for the most part delivers exactly what it promises: a frothy and vivacious chick lit peppered with High Street brand names, zippy dialogue, snarky but (largely) lovable characters, and the requisite pinch of existential and romantic angst–the fact that it had me considering the issues above is, for all my ranting, a positive indeed.(less)
In my review of Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary I mused on the seemingly endless chick lit spectrum, and the vast differences that can be evident between books in this genre. Maggie Alderson’s Cents and Sensibility offers rather a striking contrast to Moriarty’s light but thoughtful book. Where Moriarty sought the unusual in the typical, gave us a series of characters who feel warm and familiar, and kept her setting narrow and almost parochial, Alderson’s novel flinches away from all of this, offering instead characters who neatly fit the various cliched archetypes of this genre, a liberal sprinkling of brand names, expensive real estate and jetsetting lifestyles, and womanising alpha males in spades. Where Moriarty’s work has a dark undercurrent, Alderson’s has little undercurrent at all, being instead all about the froth and the spume: the sort of stuff you’re after if you’re planted under a beach umbrella.
Stella Montecourt-Fain believes her double-barrelled surname, with all of its connotations, to be rather a hindrance when it comes to climbing the rungs of the journalistic world. Unfortunately, despite using only the (rather apt) Fain part of her name as some sort of egalitarian plea, Stella finds herself spinning her wheels writing fluff for the luxury and celebrity pages rather than working as an on-the-ground reporter in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a result, Stella is a star pupil when it comes to world politics, but receives a failing grade when it comes to the lifestyles of the rich and famous (and no doubt has something to do with her lack of promotion to date). Of course, Stella’s poor knowledge comes into play when she finds herself wooing a chap called Jay Fisher, without having any clue as to the fact that he is in fact the very eligible, the very Forbes-wealthy, and the very tabloid-worthy Jay Fisher of Fisher family fame . Family politics and clashing lifestyle preferences abound before coming to a head and resulting in some dramatic choices and changes.
While Cents and Sensibility doesn’t promise to deliver anything more than a fun and fluffy chick-lit read, the book focuses rather more on the cents than on the sensibility side of things, resulting in what can be a truly bewildering read to those who like a little consistency when it comes to characterisation and plot. Perhaps the elements of the book most problematic here is the bizarrely ambivalent and contradictory protagonist Stella, who raves incessantly about her love of journalism and her work, rails against layabout Jay for suggesting that she take a day off, and highlights the importance of earning one’s own money, but then shows utter ignorance of the particular luxury field to which she has been assigned, spends her days lunching and gossiping, and lives in a home purchased by her father. Stella delights, apparently, in being a modern woman, yet is stunted in so many ways, and towards the end of the novel makes several decisions that feel entirely out of character and that contradict entirely her vehemently professed values. As a reader, it’s difficult not to feel frustrated by the lack of logic and cohesion here, particularly in the case of the final few chapters, which, to be honest, left me utterly flabbergasted.
Stella’s bizarre and confused ambivalence when it comes to love, relationships, career, and her own identity, may perhaps in part be attributed to her odd family upbringing, which entails a never-ending parade of step-mothers and a veritable school of step- and half-siblings. Stella’s father is, like just about every male in this book (other than the stereotypical flamboyant gay best friend), an alpha male who collects women like they’re going out of style, and then dumps them unceremoniously when they inevitably do. Perhaps its this undeniably dysfunctional background, with its suspiciously cult-like habits and rituals, that underpins Stella’s sudden capitulation to her equally awful and infantile alpha male lover. But try as I might to explain away Stella’s character and behaviour in such a way, it just doesn’t ring true. Few of the characters, including Stella’s father and Stella’s lover, extend beyond stereotypes, and Alderson habitually plays them rather painfully against each other in ways that are equally as stereotyped, resulting in long, snide exchanges, cruel jokes, and conniving plots and plans, all of which I’d happily accept in an episode of Passions, but which make a 500 page novel grind along in the rather alarming manner of a train attempting to travel on tracks of the wrong gauge.
The farcical element of the book, I’m afraid, doesn’t quite work, either. Stella references Roman Holiday, attempting to place herself in the role of the hapless journalist, and lover Jay in Audrey Hepburn’s role, but where the farce in Roman Holiday encouraged adequate suspension of disbelief, Cents and Sensibility relies on the utter obliviousness of wannabe investigative journalist Stella in order to work. Somehow it feels a little odd that a reporter who is entirely up to speed on foreign affairs and international politics can fail to realise that Jay’s interchangeable sports cars, his constant fleeing from the paparazzi, and the substantial portfolio to which he refers on many an occasion may indicate that he comes from a rather privileged background. And Jay himself is problematic, too. Given the role of the buffoon for much of the book, he is little more than a layabout rich kid, and his utterly childish, self-obsessed reaction to Stella’s desire to, oh, lead a life that extends beyond him in any way at all, strikes me as something of a warning sign. (“Me alpha male. You no work silly little job! Me no want woman with brain! You my plaything!”) Even when Jay nominally redeems himself by admitting his problems, he doesn’t really do anything to change (other than giving up his inheritance, which bodes well for the future, given that his entire experience of the workplace effectively comprises sending flowers to Stella) , and yet Stella accepts his whiningly facetious apology without question.
With Cents and Sensibility I was all geared up for a light and fluffy chick lit involving fashion, journalism/advertising, and the standard oh-silly-you! character foibles so typical of this genre. After all, these things are par for the course in this genre, and are what makes it what it is. However, the weak, contradictory, and sometimes highly problematic, characterisation in this book, combined with the poorly motivated plotting, have a significant effect on what might otherwise have been a light, fun read. And if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself frothing a touch at the mouth at the ending.(less)
Having read rather a good deal of chick lit this year, I’ve found that these novels tend to vary widely upon where they fall upon this rather broad genre. At one end are those novels that are a step or two away from traditional romances (with a few brand names and a bit of extra snark thrown in for good measure), while at the other are those that could fit quite snugly into the mainstream, or even literary fiction, shelves. These particular novels tend to have a darker core than their zippier, more romancey cousins, and may also flirt with other genre conventions, such as that of the mystery or thriller genres. Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary is one of these latter novels: one that might be nominally chick lit, but which would be rather more comfortably placed in amongst its mainstream peers—especially if those mainstream peers are in close proximity to the mystery shelves. It’s a rather surprising novel in many ways, and is certainly one that confounds a number of genre expectations.
It has been three years since Sophie Honeywell broke up with almost-fiance Thomas Gordon, and Sophie, although not necessarily regretting the decision—Thomas, while a lovely chap and a good chef, didn’t exactly inspire in Sophie the sort of breath-stealing passion she’d rather like in her lover—is beginning to wonder whether she might have missed the boat in terms of all things love and baby-related, and her biological clock is sounding about as subtle as Munich’s glockenspiel. However, Sophie’s life is given rather a shake-up when Thomas’s Aunt Connie bequeaths, rather surprisingly, her stunning estate on the tourist haven Scribbly Bark island to her. Needless to say it’s not only Sophie who is surprised by her sudden windfall, and Sophie finds herself in the midst of some family politics more transient and unstable than that of Liberia. But the mystery of Aunt Connie’s will is not the only mystery facing Sophie and the family into which she has again been catapulted: Scribbly Bark island, it turns out, is home to a number of uber-secrets that, if they come out, could well be the island’s commercial undoing–and the undoing of the family itself.
I have to admit that, based on the light and fluffy cover, and the fact that I nicked this novel out of my mum’s notoriously beach-readish library, I was expecting something a little less challenging from The Last Anniversary. I was, however, delighted to find that I’d been led astray by outward appearances. While the novel does, of course, spend some time dwelling on the existential angst that apparently comes with being single and childless at forty, it’s far more than one women’s race against her biological clock. In addition to some of the more light-hearted fare encountered throughout the narrative, Moriarty engages a number of challenging themes, and does so thoughtfully and unflichingly. The post-natal depression experienced by the outwardly unflappable Grace, for example, is presented in a way that is raw and unrelenting but, due to Moriarty’s excellent way with character, is sympathetic at the same time. Other dark issues such as rape, betrayal, and the day-to-day emotional bullying found in some romantic relationships, are also addressed, and while not allowed quite the same amount of page space in order to be addressed in a complex, thorough manner, are treated in a way that is substantially more than superficial, and that is often eminently believable. Moriarty, however, balances these more challenging themes beautifully with the less confronting parts of the narrative, and manages to do so in a way doesn’t trivialise them in the least.
While the narrative itself follows a fairly unsurprising path, it’s not the plot that’s the star of this book. Rather, character and setting shine here. The setting of Scribbly Gum island is beautifully rendered, and Moriarty’s evident attention to milieu is augmented by a cast of characters who slot perfectly into this setting, with the two bridged together by the author’s profound understanding of Australianness. Moriarty avoids the ponderously overt approach to “doing Australian” injected with such painful determination into so many Australian novels (or worse, novels that aren’t Australian, but try to be), and instead allows her characters’ culture to shine through in a number of snippets that will have readers familiar with the plight of the aspirational classes nodding along: iced Vo-Vos, pots of tea, marble cake recipes, terrible clothing, Weight Watchers, awkward attempts at entertaining, and appallingly bad children’s literature, just to name a few, pop up in passing, but aren’t given the lavish attention some authors seem to think they require. Through a combination of the above, and of course the omnipresent family politics, the reader is given an in-depth understanding of most of the book’s characters, and given the rather substantial cast, the fact that each character (with the exception of Rose and Enigma, who tended to blur together for me, although perhaps, given the book’s twist, this was intended) is so easily distinguished from the others is testament to Moriarty’s skill with characterisation. I did, however, have some misgivings about the male characters in the book, as they did tend to feel rather less well-rounded than the females, and in the cases of characters such as Ron, Mr Egg Head, and Rose and Connie’s father, are condensed down into something approaching evil. Given the diversity of female characters in the book, and the balanced approach taken to their actions present and past (and let’s be honest, there are enough skeletons in this family’s closest to warrant a home with rather more storage space), the condemnatory approach taken towards the male characters is all the more noticeable.
While The Last Anniversary is for the most part (there are some robotic-sounding missteps with the present-tense used throughout the book) enjoyably and effectively wrought at the prose level, written in a style that veers between the fluffy and flitty to the astonishingly cruel as required, this sense of authorial control, as mentioned earlier, isn’t quite as evident at the narrative level. The mystery surrounding Scribbly Gum Island is perhaps played up a little too much, particularly given the fairly mundane (and easily guessable) truth behind it, and one can’t help but feel that the book could have been streamlined a little by reducing the emphasis on this particular plot point. Similarly, there’s some redundancy in Sophie’s quest for love and romance, and this results in a certain amount of tedium that detracts from an otherwise quick and zippy plot. I was, however, quite delighted with the eventual outcome of Sophie’s quest to go forth and multiply, as the fairly non-traditional solution felt rather more fitting with Sophie’s character than her previous mooning over married men, men with girlfriends, men with significant others, and, well, really, just about any man with a heartbeat.
The Last Anniversary was a surprise discovery for me, and one I’m rather glad I came across. While it’s not a flawless work, it’s certainly one that’s thoroughly engaging, and that will have readers caught up in the complex familial machinations of the residents of Scribbly Gum Island. Moriarty has considerable facility with characterisation, and works hard to balance the darker elements of the plot with moments of delightful levity (competitive body building for Weight Watchers members, anyone?), resulting in a read that is somehow both insouciant and thoughtful at the same time. It’s a fine outing, and Moriarty is clearly an author to watch.(less)
Given the slightly bemused look my grandmother gives many of the objects in my home (“No, gran, that’s a toaster. That’s the vase I’ve been talking about”), it’s fair to say that we’ve perhaps entered a new era of design. Or at least some sort of world in which aesthetics and function seem, rather like a skipping rope wielded by a Jump Rope for Life competitor, to cross over and then dangerously veer away again. It seems that we’re approaching a blurring of the boundaries of art, design, and fashion, and either no one’s entirely sure what to make of it, or they’d rather not let on. Indeed, there has been a lot of talk recently in Australia about the death of the critic. But according to Wendy Holden, all of this has less to do with the vanishingly small art community, and rather more to do with the fact that the very definition of art has taken a left turn somewhere at UrbanDictionary.com, and is now utterly incomprehensible. And so, with an opening scene that involves the auctioning off of a set of gold-painted false legs (a piece titled Prostheseus Unbound) for the unconscionable sum of twenty million pounds, Holden sets to work with her own critical artistic eye, and it’s one that allows few individuals of the British modern art scene to escape unscathed.
Gallery Girl, the most recent outing from the best-selling author, features an ensemble cast of art world unfortunates: we have the crass and soulless Zeb Spaw whose oeuvre extends from gold painted hospital beds to gold painted toilets to gold painted gold (okay, so perhaps not the last), and whose career is kept afloat by the fickle patroness Fuschia Klumpp, who collects artwork the way other wealthy people collect chihuahuas; Alice, the earnest gallery assistant whose love of art gets rather in the way of the fiscal side of things; the vulgar but admittedly driven art-dealer Angelica whose career ebbs and flows with her husband’s drug addictions and mental illnesses; kind portrait artist Dan who has retreated to the countryside in order to support himself and his passion; and Siobhan, a would-be abstract painter whose dreams have been put on ice by her husband, an erstwhile boy band member who wants nothing more than to relive his glory days of floppy hair and matching baggy trousers. For the sake of brevity, I’ll cut the cast list short, but do be aware that the true number of characters that you’ll come across in this book is something like a geometric progression of this lot.
Ordinarily I’d attempt a plot summary, but as noted the extraordinarily large number of wheelers and dealers in this novel makes it somewhat of a fraught affair, as does the fact that the book lacks a central protagonist, teetering instead all over the place as it offers first one character then another the main role for a few pages or so. This unfocused approach perhaps explains the length of the novel, which comes in at just under five hundred pages, making it a considerable tome given the rather narrow focus of the subject material. At her best, Holden is witty and incisive, skewering the art world rather like an entomologist might an overly garish butterfly. However, the joke does become rather played out after the first go around, and after a while, reading this novel feels like gazing at Zeb Spaw’s endless iterations of gold-sprayed stuff. While Holden has a great deal of fun hamming up the notorious excesses and pretensions of the art world, her characters become rather lost in the whole affair, and every now and then certain potentially main characters would rear their heads without explanation, leaving me to go leafing back through the book as though I was reading a choose your own adventure novel.
There are, however, moments of utter hilarity in this novel, and it’s a shame that the overall pacing is so uneven and unfocussed, as this detracts from the snort-worthy value of these scenes. Holden offers up a nihilist painter, “Zero”, whose entire body of work consists of nothing at all (and which is bought up at a handsome price by Fuchsia Klumpp for her downstairs entertaining area); the decomposing work of modernist art that makes its way into gallery attendants’ bellies rather than into a display cabinet; and all manner of groanworthy puns and linguistic callisthenics (whether you respond well to punny names such as ‘Roger Pryap’ or lines such as ‘dancing under the tsars’ will have rather a lot to do with how well you take to this book–although if you pride yourself on your sense of propriety, you may find yourself cringing at regular intervals throughout).
In all, though, while the novel has much to recommend it in terms of its clever approach to language and its ruthless depiction of the vapid, money-grubbing modern art world, Gallery Girl suffers not only from a bloated and sprawling narrative that never really heads towards any clear climax or denouement–and indeed, its conclusion lacks clarity due to the fact that it’s never entirely clear for whom we should be cheering–but also from the fact that so many of its characters are just utterly unlikeable. All of those who have come up out of the primordial soup that apparently gives rise to artsy types are frankly awful, and the few characters who seem to have evolved from a similar gene pool as the rest of us unfortunately receive limited page space. Unfortunately, even these characters are thrust into rather bewildering circumstances more for the sake of creating tension or tormenting them rather than out of any narrative need to do so, and as such the novel is besieged by cheating spouses and partners, elderly rock stars (well, as much as elderly rock stars are capable of besieging anything), gormless, wimpy women, and random walk-on characters whose presence is largely unfathomable. Moreover, there are strange “seeing of the light” moments had by a number of the characters that result in them undergoing whiplash-worthy personality changes seemingly overnight. (Well, that, or the proofreader had some fun with find and replace at some late stage of production) It’s a shame, because Holden clearly has a knack for satire, and if Gallery Girl had been given a little less canvas space, it could have been a fabulous outing from this best-selling author.(less)
Secrets are defining, shaping things: the deeds, thoughts, feelings, that we conceal say a lot not only about who we are, but about the people we will become. Shared secrets, however, are something else again, relying on each involved party’s trust in another’s equivalent desire to maintain a secret. Tasmina Perry’s fifth novel, Kiss Heaven Goodbye, explores with unbridled glee the ways in which a secret cautiously held between a group of dissimilar individuals will always exist as a fraught undercurrent, with each participant trying desperately not to think of the repercussions of a secret coming to light. Indeed, in the case of the burdensome secret Perry’s main characters have carried with them since their teens, a confession could have devastating consequences: Miles and Grace Ashford, Sasha Sinclair, and Alex Doyle have spent their turbulent lives trying to forget the body they left lying on the Ashford’s private beach…and trying to forget exactly how the body in question came to be lying there in the first place.
Perry’s narrative takes a circular approach, with the opening chapter featuring the chronically disaffected and cynical entrepreneur Miles naming his sister and childhood friends as co-conspirators in the fateful crime; the novel then leaps back in time to the turning point moment in which, fearful for their reputations and futures, each decides to transform the simple (if rather disturbing) reality of a body on the beach into the rather more haunting skeleton in the closet. It’s with a flair for the dramatic and rather a zest for the scandalous that Perry then begins to trace the tumultuous lives of her characters from adolescence through to middle age, until at last we arrive again at Miles’s confession.
If I were to hold up a book as the prototypical beach read, Kiss Heaven Goodbye would be a fine contender. Perry is quite patently in her element, knowing exactly the sorts of conventions required here, and she achieves exactly what she sets out to: a witty and shrewd chicklit-style novel that revels in the debauched and the decadent. Her writing is fast-paced and confident, and she has no qualms about skewering each of her characters time and time again with the painful retribution of karmic forces. Indeed, some of her characters by the end of the book rather resemble literary shish kebobs, rent as they have been by the exigencies of substance abuse, cheating partners, blackmailing business colleagues, assassination attempts, traitorous children, and ailing parents.
The sheer, bludgeoning force of Perry’s characters’ personalities is impressive, and it’s hard not to take voyeuristic delight in watching their selfish manipulations and their monkeylike ability to shimmy up the rungs of the business and social world. The reader can’t help but be drawn in to the utterly intransigent drive to succeed exhibited by characters such as Miles and Sasha, both of whom seek to reinvent themselves as independently, tremendously successful and who are utterly callous in the choices they make in order to build their empires. Watching the impressively brutal Sasha transform from a young girl aspiring vaguely to a modelling career and a life of lazy luxury into a true behemoth of the fashion industry is both alluring and horrifying, but it’s hard to look away. But for all her ice-queen exterior, there are moments, however, where Sasha softens, and we see (if you’ll pardon my mixing of metaphors) that her skin is perhaps not as chitinous as she likes to make out. Miles, however, is by far the more cruel of the two, and it’s with a mixture of revulsion and the pity that the reader follows his dramatic rise and fall. Petulant and competitive, Miles is tremendously fascinating in part because at times he scarcely seems to be grounded in reality: a true hedonist, he cares little for the consequences of his actions, and delights in creating all manner of furore and scandal.
The brash vulgarity of Miles and Sasha is mitigated somewhat by the milder characters of Grace and Alex, both of whom take more of an internal, introspective journey throughout their lives. A musical prodigy, Alex turns down a future at the Conservatory for the chance to make it as a musician on his own, while artistic Grace seeks solace from her oppressively wealthy and, well, simply oppressive, family by travelling overseas to make the most of her skills as a photographer. This isn’t to say that the lives either of the two lead are mediocre in any way: between them we have marriages to would-be presidents of made-up South American countries (Parador, which presumably exists somewhere between Paraguay and Ecuador) and Hollywood starlets, car bombs, drug addictions and rehabilitations, sincerely disturbing love triangles, drunken mayhem in Japan, and various familial deaths, all of which this pragmatic duo seems to work through with relative ease.
No, there’s no denying that Kiss Heaven Goodbye is utterly, gloriously over the top: it’s like watching an episode of Passions while flicking between America’s Next Top Model and Jerry Springer (but a Jerry Springer aimed at the Trumps of the world). But goodness, it’s fun.
There are, however, a few missteps that detracted a little from the novel as a whole that I feel I should comment on, though: the most major of which is the sudden murder mystery revenge plot that emerges, Dr Evil-like, in the last fifty pages or so and that perhaps should have been done away with in editorial. I also felt that some of the transitions were a little rushed: large jumps in time result in major events simply being skipped over and reflected upon retrospectively rather than actually appearing in the book. And one can’t help but feel that there are perhaps a few too many affairs and parental deaths, all of which seem to occur in rather disturbing proximity.
Still, in all, Kiss Heaven Goodbye is a tremendous beach read full of determined, unwavering characters who stubbornly revel in achieving their goals no matter what karma decides to throw at them as a result of their dark past. It’s as over the top as a corset laced too tight, but like Miles and Sasha, it’s certainly not going to apologise for being the way it is.(less)
Michele Gorman’s debut Single in the City (previously released as The Expat Diaries) opens with a scene very familiar to me: the fateful ordering of a salad sandwich in Britain. Used to leafy monstrosities full of vegetably goodness bursting from thick wedges of dark rye, I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed at finding that in Oxford, three pounds (not a trifling amount when you’ve exchanged from Aussie dollars) buys two wilted pieces of white bread, two dried-out circles of cucumber possibly taken from the missus’s nightly eye mask, and a lank bit of lettuce (and, fortunately, sandwich pickles, the only thing redeeming my tragic meal). No wonder the guy behind the seemed to appraise me for an eating disorder before adding rather doubtfully, “is that all?”
Given the fact that Australia is a fairly recent offshoot of the ol’ Mother Country, that we too speak a non-rhotic variety of English (except those of us who have watched too much American TV), and that we’re exposed to all manner of Britishisms thanks to parents obsessed with quality television programming such as Keeping up Appearances, The Bill, and Heartbeat, I rather thought that I’d slot right in to British life. Unfortunately, it seems that British English and Australian English are not actually dialects of the same language: it turns out that they’re not at all mutually comprehensible. And weirdly, language barriers aside, things were similar enough that the differences seemed all the more noticeable, sort of like being thrust into an alternate dimension where everything is the same except that it rains doughnuts in the mornings. Still, my slight communication issues and general gaucheness were far less of an issue than those of Hannah Cummings, who has clearly not seen an episode of BBC TV in her life (not even Super Ted, it turns out!).
Like many major events in Hannah’s life, her arrival in London is largely attributable to a drunken whim. Having been recently sacked from her middling role as a junior PR exec (it’s cheaper and more effective to outsource such roles to India, we’re told, and, well, given the combination of Hannah’s dubious job skills and her liking of designer clothing, it’s rather hard to debate this), Hannah finds herself lost in the angsty throes of a quarter life crisis, the answer to which, of course, is a fresh start. And her move to London is about as fresh as it can get: she arrives homeless, friendless, and work permit-less. But fortunately, Hannah is no retiring wallflower, and within mere hours she has unnerved all manner of polite Brits by making eye contact on public transport, attempting to pay for small items with large notes, and walking on the wrong side of the footpath (or ‘sidewalk’, in Hannah terminology). That same night, apparently frustrated by how long it seems to be taking her to integrate into English culture, Hannah seeks out something quintessentially British: the local pub. It’s fair to say that she has rather more luck here than she does in situations where sobriety is the preferable state of mind, and it’s not long before she’s raising eyebrows amongst the hotel staff with her rather forward (American?) behaviour.
With one important cultural divide bridged, Hannah decides it’s quite possibly time to engage in other adult (ahem) activities, such as the slightly less eyebrow-raising tasks of getting a job and finding somewhere to live. Needless to say, both of these are rather more fraught than they first seem, and after a while, Hannah resigns herself to living with some unintelligible Australians (also known as Or-STRAY-uns) and to taking up a position working for the very man who, after several pints of strong beer, helped her bring America and Britain that little bit closer together. Unfortunately, the role is not quite what Hannah had mind–and neither is the man. But while she can deal with the work situation, a boyfriendless life is not for Hannah, and this needs to be rectified immediately. Fortunately, wily Hannah’s strong suit is hunting (both men and ducks, as it turns out), and there’s no shortage of hilarious situations that ensue as she doggedly searches for Mr Right, committing perhaps every faux pas in the book as she attempts to understand the subtle nuances of British culture and the not so subtle nuances of men.
Single in the City is a fun and sardonic read, and humorous situations and witty repartee abound within its pages. I must say that I’m glad that Hannah’s humour doesn’t devolve into snark: despite the truly bizarre situations in which she continually finds herself, she instead tends to poke fun at herself and pick herself up and carry on (sometimes quite literally, such as in the case of an unfortunate bicycle incident). However, there are times when the humour does seem a little forced, particularly when it comes to Hannah’s constant misunderstanding of Britishisms, which, while often amusing, does bridle after a while. Some of the dialogue, too, borders on too witty, particularly in the early parts of the book, although this evens out after a while. A slightly less successful attempt at humour is the series of footnotes designed to explain certain American phrases or items that the reader is unlikely to understand. While a few of these are gems, mostly they tend to distract from the narrative and tell the reader things we already know. (I may never have seen Cheez Doodles in person, but given the inescapable ubiquity of American culture, I have a pretty fair idea of what they’re like, and that I’ll certainly avoid them if ever I am to meet them.)
It’s a combination of the rich humour and Hannah’s social largesse that largely carry the novel, as the plot is fairly slight and not especially complex. If you have a love of situational humour, you’ll probably find yourself clutching this book to your chest as you rub your aching stomach muscles. Still, while I’m willing generally to let plot slide (I’ve read enough literary novels in my life to know that plot is something that can be happily done away with), there are some things that didn’t quite work for me here–Hannah’s sudden promulgation of love to her Mr Right is a slightly whiplash-inducing reversal, as while this character is present throughout the book, Hannah has scarcely given him a second (and strictly platonic) glance during any of their earlier meetings. It seems odd that she should suddenly declare him her One and Truly with little in the way to preface this. Moreover, while Hannah’s romantic escapades are entertaining, after watching her chase random men for a few hundred pages, it’s rather difficult not to feel frustrated by her neediness (and, increasingly, her rather painful ditziness–at times she’s about as useful as Bella from Twilight, although admittedly she does have better taste in men). Another plot issue is the fairly abrupt ending that doesn’t quite feel layered on to the rest of the narrative.
However, Gorman brings in a wonderful set of secondary characters to balance any frustrations that might be had with Hannah. While some of them border on caricatures, this isn’t too much of an issue in a book whose success hinges so firmly on its comedic appeal. Gorman draws some delightful characters in Hannah’s Australian flatmates (although as an Aussie, I do take issue with their Crocodile Dundee-esque accents), her frosty boss, and her oversharing friend Stacy, who regales the household nightly with stories of her latest exploits over the answering machine. Moreover, although it’s true that some of the comparisons between British and American culture are hammered home with all of the subtlety of a mallet pounding a steak, there are a good deal of these that are absolutely spot on, and I found myself reading sections aloud to my long-suffering boyfriend, something which is (luckily for him) a rare treat indeed. If you like your chicklit light, fluffy, and self-deprecating, and you can deal with a heroine who is scarcely able to tie her shoes but is not above a bit of crafty blackmail, you’ll find a lot to like here. (less)
When caterer Lizzie, laden down with all manner of desserts with names involving nasalised vowels and silent letters, finds herself face to face with Domino Delahaye, one half of the Dazzling Delahayes, as they’re known by the once fond but now frenzied media, she wills herself to retain a professional facade. To keep from asking the questions that have been raised by journalists, lawyers, and the incurably curious public. This is a task complicated when Domino gives her a conspiratorial grin and notes that she’s throwing a divorce party. To her credit, Lizzie manages to escape with her professionalism intact. The reader, however, has no such worries about appearing polite—after all, we’re voyeurs by nature. Who is Domino Delahaye, and what exactly has she done?
Best-selling Irish author Sheila O’Flanagan knows how to hook a reader, and she does so swimmingly in Stand By Me, her most recent release. Having teased us with the fragment above, she takes an extended but superbly plotted detour, introducing us to a slightly lesser version of Dazzling Domino, one who bears the rather more traditional name of Dominique, and is clad not in a carefully tailored Chanel dress, but in all the most preposterous glories of the 1980s. Dominique, however, is not just a child of the 80s—she is also the child of two painfully severe Irish Catholic parents whose disappointment in her post-school efforts in Dublin, which comprise waitressing at a burger joint and cirrhosis-inducing amounts of alcohol, is magnified to impressive proportions by her older brother’s decision to become a man of the cloth, which his parents consider a proud and newsworthy moment. Not to be outdone in terms of newsworthiness, however, Dominique decides to put her tenuous grasp of sex education to the test with Brendan, a young builder who is quite taken with this girl who shimmies about in white plastic glasses and a ceiling-grazing bouffant (or perhaps in spite of these attributes). However, as those of us familiar with Murphy’s Law well know, if something bad can happen, it will, and it’s not long before poor Dominique finds herself being punished, as her mother might point out, for her premarital shenanigans—at barely eighteen, she finds herself pregnant.
However, despite the disapproval of Dominique’s parents, who rather feel that prevention is better than cure, Brendan proposes to Dominique, or Domino, as she’s now known, and the two quickly marry. Brendan, with no shortage of plans for the future, promptly buys up the overgrown block of land on which their young bubs was conceived (a not entirely unromantic gesture, one supposes), builds a house on it, and delights in telling Domino that this is the first of many to come. And he keeps to his word: sick of working for The Man, Brendan sets out on his own, and it’s not long before he’s knee-deep in scaffolding and concrete slabs (not literally, of course–this isn’t a mafia novel). Though he has the drive, however, Brendan is somewhat lacking in terms of managing the day-to-day financial affairs of the business, and Dominique steps up, helping ensure that the red parts of the ledger don’t overwhelm the black. The combined factors of Brendan’s drive and Dominique’s pragmatism soon pay off, and it’s not long before Brendan swaps his overalls for designer suits, and Dominique her chain-store clothing for one-off pieces. The Delahayes promptly become the darlings of the social circuit, and they’re building their society contacts almost as quickly as they are enormous condominiums and vast shopping malls. But unfortunately these lofty times can’t continue indefinitely, and Domino wakes one morning to find that her husband has vanished, leaving her and her now teenaged daughter Kelly with spiralling debts and gossipy rumours.
Curiously, the back cover copy of the book implies that this is the crux of the novel, when really it is a turning point that occurs within the last hundred pages or so. Stand By Me isn’t about a wife doggedly ignoring her husband’s infidelities and creative accounting. It’s not about picking up the pieces of a crumbling marriage and running into the arms of another man. The book, for all its chicklittish humour and chortling about woeful fashions of the past, is a surprisingly graceful creation dealing in-depth with notions of responsibility, of thankfulness, of independence, of self-worth, and of the pernicious influence of external expectation. O’Flanagan deftly deals with these themes, and more, doing so largely through the contrasting positions of her characters, all of whom are surprisingly well-drawn and real. While Domino is inevitably given the greatest prominence, O’Flanagan uses her minor characters to deal with a number of sensitive issues: entitlement, infidelity, religion, just to name a few, and though I won’t spend much time on these, for the most part they are beautifully elucidated. There are a few plot points that seem a little strained, but generally the supporting characters are finely wrought and enjoyable to read, and their stories intertwine nicely with Domino’s.
While the paparazzi and society scene may see Domino as simply the two definitions of her name: one who has conquered, and one who has fallen, O’Flanagan avoids painting her protagonist in such a way. Domino is in no way the Stepford Wife she might appear to be upon first impression, but is rather the product of a number of complex, accumulating forces and experiences. In some ways she seems to be reliant on Brendan, acquiescing to him out of a sense of moral obligation–he did, after all, rescue her from the gloomy prospects of single motherhood in conservative 1980s Dublin, and looked after her during a dark period of postnatal depression. Brendan, though, has always referred to Domino as his lucky charm, and from her early intervention in the business finances to her later role as the Dazzling Mrs Delahaye, and one can’t help, even in the early pages, but wonder whether it’s Brendan who would be lost without Domino.
Indeed, the way in which Domino reacts to her husband’s betrayal is beautifully depicted: though she struggles with the sudden partial loss of her identity, and from the sheer strangeness of having suddenly broken a twenty-year habit, Domino takes a pragmatic approach to his disappearance, getting their affairs in order to the best of her ability and taking a job. While it’s not so simple as simply moving on, one can’t help but feel that Domino is enjoying at last being given the opportunity to live her own life, and to make her own decisions. After all, it’s not that she is incompetent or without drive–as she points out, she was working when she met Brendan, and she has since become well-known for her charity work–but rather that she has not been in the position to be able to do so. But one can’t help whether her pregnancy and subsequent depression, both of which were all-consuming themes of the early part of their relationship, were perhaps a signal to Brendan that she is someone to be looked after and protected, and that he has taken it upon himself to ensure that she is never in a position to have to fend for herself. In so doing, he has ensured that she is dependent on him, much as he is dependent on her. It’s quite a chilling thought, and all the more so as the novel reaches its conclusion and the reader is able to reflect on the complexity of events and influences that have resulted in Domino ending up where she is–in a small, rented house, wearing a Chanel dress from several seasons ago, throwing a divorce party–but, as Lizzie the caterer is told in those opening pages, a divorce party for someone else...(less)
It wasn’t the title of this book that made me pick it up–after all, it’s a tad generic, and having read the book, not especially relevant–but rather t...moreIt wasn’t the title of this book that made me pick it up–after all, it’s a tad generic, and having read the book, not especially relevant–but rather the name of the publisher and its quaint little logo. I’ve been known to buy books based on their publisher before, but ordinarily it’s because I’ve found that certain imprints suit my reading tastes quite will. In this case, my purchase was completely driven by aesthetics. Yes, I should be ashamed of myself.
Anyway, True Love and Other Disasters is one of many chicklit novels by NYT bestselling author Rachel Gibson. The book centres around recently widowed ex-Playboy playmate Faith, who has to her surprise and abject terror, inherited an ice hockey team. Faith, of course, knows next to nothing about ice hockey, but sets out to prove herself in a–I cringe to say it–man’s world. However, she doesn’t count on falling for the team captain, Ty Savage, who is nothing short of hostile concerning her new role.
A number of things didn’t quite work for me in this book. I found beginning with a male point of view quite jarring, to be honest, and it took me a bit of floundering before I found my reading pace. Gibson draws heavily on cliches, such as Faith’s past as a stripper, and even more heavily on the various fashion magazines and clothing labels she uses to furnish her writing. The plot is nothing special, covering the basic components of the Overcoming Adversity Through X model (where X usually equals some sort of sport, such as dance, but here equals Ice Hockey Team Leadership) in a plodding manner that is devoid of surprises. And I have to be honest and say that macho Ty grated on my nerves, despite his immensely ubiquitous ‘blue-on-blue’ eyes.
That said, there are some good moments in True Love and Other Disasters. Some of the dialogue is snappy and fun, and Faith’s mother is frankly hilarious. If you’re after a simple beach read that requires nothing more of you than the occasional turn of a page, you’ll be perfectly content sitting back, kicking off your Manolos, setting your sunglasses down on your Louis Vuitton hat bag, and giving this one a read.(less)
Mavis Cheek is an established British author of thoughtful and witty women’s fiction. And it’s fiction that’s sure to surprise. After having read a fe...moreMavis Cheek is an established British author of thoughtful and witty women’s fiction. And it’s fiction that’s sure to surprise. After having read a few pages of Yesterday’s Houses, I did spend a few moments wondering whether Jane Austen could possibly have discovered time travel. Cheek has a perfectly fitting name for the sort of fiction that she writes: it’s whimsical, pert, and at time ascerbic.
Yesterday’s Houses follows the life, and eventual transformation, of Marianne Flowers as she moves through the different houses that characterise the various stages of her life. When we first meet Marianne, she’s a young girl rather randomly attending a party to which she was invited after a passing conversation with a young man. It is here that she meets her first husband, Charles, whom she believes is alluring and liberated. The two eventually get married, and so begins Marianne’s house hopping.
Charles, it turns out, is actually rather far from being the liberated type, and although Marianne slowly begins to acknowledge this, she does very little about it, allowing herself to be dragged through myriad humiliating social situations and myriad houses with atrocious bathrooms (it seems that our Marianne’s sole goal in life is to live in a house with a lovely bathroom). While Charles is increasingly an unlikeable, pathetic character, Marianne often does surprisingly little to endear herself to the reader. While she had her moments during this early stage of the book, it was difficult not to snap that she get rid of him and get on with it.
Eventually she does, partly due to Charles’s having a rather vulgar affair with Marriane’s best friend, and in part due to Charles’s feminist mother, who argues that Marianne need not simply accept her lot in life. With this, Marianne sets off to enrol in university and feed a new-found love of books. Until, of course, she meets another man and falls quite in love with him. Similarly as with Charles, the alarm bells begin to ring immediately, and it is to the reader’s complete frustration that Marianne decides to settle down with this boorish would-be artiste whose fragile ego suffers every time Marianne makes any sort of suggestion, let alone any effort towards self-improvement.
At this point, Marianne embarks upon a literary career that her husband regards with a sort of rank dismay–particularly when she experiences some success at it. Eventually, she leaves the dolt, and moves into yet another house. And meets yet another foolish man.
While Yesterday’s Houses is for the most part a wittily written and clever book, it is difficult not to become frustrated by the character of Marianne. I had to keep reminding myself that she was a woman of a particular time, but fortunately, I think, not of my time. Even so, watching Marianne attempt to better herself time and time again, yet defer so completely and incessantly to these ridiculous men she allowed to traipse all over her as though they were poor-mannered tradesmen trekking in mud from the front yard, is a teeth-gritting endeavour at best.
Overall, I enjoyed Yesterday’s Houses, but the book does suffer from a structure that invites repetition, and from a main character whose indecision and apparently willing lack of agency does slow things down a little, making for a sometimes frustrating read.(less)
Well, hot on the heels of the last Little Black Dress book review, here’s another. My only excuse is that I’m a sucker for vibrant covers and the use...moreWell, hot on the heels of the last Little Black Dress book review, here’s another. My only excuse is that I’m a sucker for vibrant covers and the use of photoshop brushes (why yes, I do have another LBD book sitting on my shelf purchased for exactly the same reasons. Shameful, I know).
Dogs and Goddesses initially took me a moment to get my head around. Given the three different authors and a blurb that seemed to refer to three separate although vaguely intertwined stories, I was expecting to sit down to a series of novellas. Instead, Dogs and Goddesses is in fact a novel with multiple co-authors. This is a fact that’s unfortunately evident almost straight away, as the book struggles in trying to cohere the different authorial voice and characters into a workable narrative.
Dogs and Goddesses is the story of three women who meet when they attend a dog training class. Of course, this class turns out to be something quite different from a normal dog training class: rather it seems that it’s some weird meeting place for a risen goddess determined to reclaim what she considers her rightful place in the world, with the help, it seems, of a few minions. These minions being, among a couple of other unfortunate souls, the three main characters of the book. However, the three women in question have little intention of serving this goddess, ditching her instead for a few spunky men and a cafe.
The strange goddess uprising plot (unfortunately the main plot arc) is definitely the weakest component of the book, and to be honest I feel as though the book would have been much stronger had the authors gone in an entirely different direction. The book is at its best when it’s set in the mysterious cafe where the women are able to unleash their own goddess attributes, baking ‘lust cookies’ and generally having fun. This plot element reminded me somewhat of Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, and I would happily have spent more time getting acquainted with the quirky cafe rather than being dragged about as the academically deficient characters try to solve what barely counts as a mystery.
None of the romances, I’m afraid, really worked for me, either, with two of them feeling forced, and the other making the unremitting feminist in me feel just a touch disgruntled. In addition to the clunky plotting (would a woman take her perfectly behaved dog to dog training classes because she simply happened upon a leaflet? And why is a seemingly powerful goddess so easily able to be ignored?), poor characterisation that led to the various characters feeling completely interchangeable, and the uncomfortably woeful romances, there were also talking dogs. Talking dogs whose speech was rendered in an awful sans-serif font. A font that was not rendered uniformly throughout the book. And typos. Typos galore!
Dogs and Goddesses, I’m afraid, is not an especially strong book, and I expected something a lot stronger from a title co-authored by well-known author Jennifer Crusie. Books written by committee are certainly a challenge, but Dogs and Goddesses would have benefited from a clearer conceptualisation of plot and theme, which would have led to stronger characterisation and a more balanced approach.(less)