Review of ‘Another Night, Another Day’ by Sarah Rayner

Another Night, Another Day coverThanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for the ARC of this book.

Wow is this book depressing! Admittedly, it ends with ‘a glimmer of hope’, as the final section is titled; but, as they say on the Kermode and Mayo film review, “there’s a whole lot of Shawshank to get through before the redemption”.

I knew nothing about Sarah Rayner’s books before starting this one; I had assumed from the covers that they would be somewhat fluffy chick-lit featuring mature women. I could not have been more off the mark. This book is in fact a sympathetic and insightful examination of depression and mental illness, the different ways in which ordinary people experience these and the ways in which they can be treated.

The book follows the stories of three people:

  • Abby, the mother of a severely autistic boy, who is going through a divorce while still living with her husband, is about to lose her house and receives very little support caring for her very demanding son.
  • Karen, a widow whose husband died a couple of years before the novel is set and whose father is in the late stages of dementia.
  • Michael, a florist whose business is going under.

The three main protagonists are dealing with long-term, seemingly insurmountable real-life problems which throughout the first section of the book get worse and worse until they finally all crack and end up in a private psychiatric clinic together.

I liked that in the early part of the book, before the characters meet, the sections following each character were kept short so that we did not need to spend too long dwelling in the misery of each character and also because I wasn’t as interested in the sections featuring Michael. I thought the women’s problems revolving around their personal lives were more interesting than Michael’s business and financial woes.

I didn’t really like Michael; he was aggressive whereas the women were more worn down by life. I felt like the bad things which happened to him were more of his own making due to his lack of financial responsibility, whereas Abby and Karen’s problems were out of their control. Maybe, this is a reflection of the fact that as a society we hold men to higher standards regarding mental health, or maybe he just was not as sympathetic and relatable a character.

I felt that it took a bit long to get to the point in the book where the three characters’ stories inter-linked and I found the story much more compelling once I got into the middle section set in the psychiatric clinic. It was interesting to read about the different techniques the therapists use to treat depression.

If I had not chosen to review this book via NetGalley, I probably would have stopped reading on the first page when I realised it was written in the present tense. I detest this recent fashion, more and more books are being written in the present tense. Sometimes it works, such as in The Hunger Games – where there is severe peril and a driving plot, but most of the time the present tense is just really jarring and unnecessary. I assume this book is written in the present tense because in the prologue there is a flash forward indicating that someone from the group therapy sessions dies and Rayner wanted to avoid any foreshadowing or hints through hindsight which might have occurred by writing in the past tense, but I don’t think it is necessary. I guessed very early on which character would die and I was correct; I was not at all fooled by the fake-out suggesting Michael has died, so I don’t think this added any tension to the story.

This book covers an interesting topic; depression is probably a bit overlooked in fiction. Rayner uses the books as a platform to make important observations about the effects of budget cuts on public healthcare facilities and patients, and how mental illness can affect all sorts of normal people at any time of their life. She does a very good job of making mental illness an approachable subject. However, I personally found the subject matter and the unrelentingly realism just too depressing and, although there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it just wasn’t the most enjoyable type of book to read in one’s spare time. Having said that, I think it might help someone suffering with depression to read this book as it contains very relatable characters going through a similar experience.

Review of ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ by Jay Asher

ImageI wanted to read this book after hearing it reviewed on the Enthusiasticast podcast. They raved about it and I thought it sounded like an interesting concept.

The premise of the book is that a teenager, Hannah, commits suicide and leaves behind a box of cassette tapes for thirteen people to listen to. The thirteen people appear to be people who have wronged her in some way and it is the culmination of these wrongs which have led to her suicide. She instructs them to listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next person on the list.

Initially I thought this was an interesting insight into how our actions, no matter how small, can affect other people. It is a lesson to teenagers to think more about what they say and do and how it might impact on people around them. However, towards the end of the book I began to really dislike the Hannah’s character. The more her story revealed itself, the more selfish and self-centred she appeared to be. Her tapes are explaining to people how their actions have affected her, but what about her actions? What about the poor people who have to listen to how they have contributed no matter how slightly to their classmate’s death? What about her parents and the other innocent people who have had to deal with her suicide? In the end her actions are much worse than anything that is done to her.

***Spoilers from this point***

To top it all, we find out that, Clay, the character from whose point of view we are experiencing the tapes, has done nothing bad to Hannah. In fact he loves her and, had she given him more of a chance, could probably have helped her out of the depression which led to her suicide. She was not alone and she is inflicting the horrible content of these tapes, which include her part in not stopping both a rape and a drunk-driving incident which results in a classmate’s death, on this sweet boy who wants nothing but good things for her. She just seems like a monumentally selfish person and once you realise that, it’s actually hard to feel any sympathy for her.

This book should have been an insightful morality tale to teach teenagers the importance of considering others in their actions but it falls flat because it tries to include too many shocking horrible events which overshadow and undermine this basic message.

Also the basic concept is fundamentally flawed. No one uses cassette tapes any more, Asher even needs to include a silly section where Clay has to steal a Walkman in order to listen to them. Why not just set it in the 80’s when tapes would have made sense, or make it an mp3 player the recipients have to pass on? I was willing to overlook this at the beginning of the book when the story was intriguing and there was a mystery over what Clay had done to Hannah to make him be included on the tapes, but once the plot started to flail I felt less forgiving.

An interesting idea which could have been better executed.

List 1: Books that made me cry

One thing that I enjoy almost as much as reading books is writing lists, so I’ve decided I’ll periodically share some book related lists with you.

List Number One – Thirteen books that made me cry

It’s amazing how good it can make you feel having a good old sob to a great book! (Except when you’re reading on public transport!)

If a book can make me cry, then that means I’m totally invested in it and it usually goes straight to the top of my ‘best books’ list! Weirdly, that doesn’t apply to films – I’ll cry at any old film no matter how rubbish it is!

  1. ‘July’ by Karen Roberts
  2. ‘Just Listen’ by Sarah Dessen
  3. ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  4. ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger
  5. ‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zuzak
  6. ‘The Amber Spyglass’ by Philip Pullman
  7. ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ by Jodi Picoult
  8. ‘Bel Canto’ by Ann Patchett
  9. ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold
  10. ‘Noughts and Crosses’ by Malorie Blackman
  11. ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan
  12. ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks
  13. ‘Wonder’ by R J Palacio

I’d love to hear what books made you cry!

Review of ‘The Family Fang’ by Kevin Wilson

ImageKevin Wilson has a fresh, quirky and original voice. This is an enjoyable and easy read with a bittersweet storyline and interesting, flawed characters. The novel explores the question of what is more important art or family? The conclusion drawn is both sad and uplifting and makes this a very original read.

Buster and Annie are a brother and sister in their 20’s both struggling to overcome their peculiar upbringing and escape the shadow of their eccentric parents. Their journey is funny, sad, moving and inspiring.

I would highly recommend this novel, it manages to balance a thought-provoking and clever idea with a light, satirical writing style. I’ll definitely look out for any novels Wilson writes in the future.

N.B. Despite the slightly deceptive title, this book doesn’t have anything to do with vampires!

Review of ‘Solo’ by William Boyd

Solo coverThanks to NetGalley and Vintage Books for the ARC of this book.

Warning – this review contains spoilers.

William Boyd is one of my absolute favourite authors but I have not read any of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books before. So I was looking forward to reading this book with a bit of trepidation. I wanted to like it because it is William Boyd and it marks his return to Africa, where some of his best books are set; but I was worried it may take an out-dated position on gender politics which would annoy me.

Initially Boyd makes a very small attempt to invert Bond’s sexist world outlook by unexpectedly making his African liaison, Blessing, a highly educated woman; however, this is very quickly undermined a few pages later when this beautiful, clever woman half Bond’s age is luring him into her bedroom pretending she is scared of lizards in order to get him into bed.

At that point I decided I would just have to go with it. What did I expect from a Bond novel? Strong, brilliant, chaste female characters who were able to resist Bond’s manly charms and be an important player in their own right? No. So I decided I would overlook the book’s gender politics and judge it on other criteria; plot, pacing, writing-style etc.

On to that…

I found the book a bit slow to start with. For example, I really did not need to read about what type of car Bond was test-driving (although I presume this kind of detail is inherited from Fleming’s original stories); I just wanted the plot to get going. However, once Bond arrives in Africa, the pace definitely picks up. Bond has to try to stop a civil war single-handedly and encounters starving villages, battles, creepy soldiers and a fatally ill General along the way.

After Bond has completed his mission in Africa, he returns to Britain and determines to get revenge on the baddies who tried to kill him in Africa. (It turns out Blessing wasn’t a pathetic woman who couldn’t resist Bond’s charms, but was actually playing him all along. Good.) He decides that he is going to have to get his revenge as a ‘solo’ off the record mission. I did not understand his reason for this decision. The three people he is after are clearly enemies of the state, MI6 would want them dead too, they have targeted one of its agents; why does it need to be a solo mission? I guess it just makes a more tense and exciting storyline and gives the book its catchy title.

Bond’s revenge mission takes him to America where he wanders around a lot, eats food, buys stuff, stakes people out and has a run in with the CIA before we finally reach the climatic shoot out. This is followed by a return to Africa and a guest appearance from Felix Leiter for some long-winded exposition about what has gone before. At the end there is some more pointless flirtation with a token beautiful woman who really did not need to be in the story at all before the book finishes with a highly unsatisfying and illogical ending where it seems one of the baddies isn’t dead after all but for some reason we don’t get to see Bond find him and kill him.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. It’s an easy read and it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it but I think the plot could have been tighter. Boyd could have cut the character of Bryce altogether and started the narrative at the point at which Bond is sent on the mission to Africa. This would have saved the slightly mundane sections at the beginning where all Bond does is flirt and test-drive cars and would have made the story more fast-paced and exciting. Also, there is no need for the inference that Kobus is still alive at the end of the book unless we are going to see Bond give him his comeuppance. This slight cliff-hanger suggests that Boyd is angling to write a sequel where we see this happen.

While the plot and pacing could be stronger, the prose is up to Boyd’s usual beautiful standard. I found myself learning new words while reading (‘bibulous’ is one that sticks in my mind), which is always exciting! He writes with meticulous detail and always seems to find the perfect way to describe things. I think I would recommend this book to fans of Boyd and, although I have not read any of Fleming’s original work, I feel this would probably satisfy his fans also.

The section of the book set in Africa stands out above the rest of the book, because Boyd is so familiar and passionate about this continent, his writing is always superb when describing scenes set there. I would also recommend ‘Brazzaville Beach’ to anyone who has not read Boyd’s earlier novels set in Africa. It is an intriguing and very enjoyable read and, unlike ‘Solo’, has a fantastic three-dimensional lead heroine.

Happy World Book Night!

ImageIt’s the fabulous World Book Night again! Such a great idea – giving books away to try to encourage more people to read and fall in love with reading. This year I have copies of ‘Gorky Park’ by Martin Cruz Smith to give away. I haven’t actually read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it as I enjoy Russian Cold War thrillers. I’m hoping it will be great; it’s quite a fat book to persuade non-readers to pick up!

I’ve received books to give away every year and it’s a lovely feeling to share your love of reading with other people. In previous years, Mike and I have gone to World Book Night parties hosted by our brilliant local bookshop Booka, but unfortunately they aren’t running anything this year because they’ve had so many fab events with great authors over the past few weeks. Never mind, it’s probably for the best as I’m off work sick today, curled up in bed feeling quite sorry for myself, so we wouldn’t have been able to go anyway. I don’t think I’ll be giving away many copies of my book today either!

I’ll post a review once I’ve read ‘Gorky Park’ and hopefully will find some deserving people to give my copies to over the next few days. Hopefully World Book Night will continue to run every year and will get the support and recognition it deserves.

Review of ‘You Deserve Nothing’ by Alexander Maksik

You deserve nothing cover
You deserve nothing cover
This is a novel about how students idolise good teachers and how influential teachers can be; when in reality they are as flawed and as fearful as their students.

I thought the plot was fairly predictable; once a teacher starts to have an affair with a pupil, there’s really only ever one direction that the novel is heading.

I enjoyed the classroom scenes where Mr Silver’s charismatic and original teaching style is demonstrated and I thought that Maksik did a good job writing in the different voices of the three narrators. However, I never really understood the teacher’s motivation for starting an affair with a student and, while the novel is an easy read, there is nothing that makes it stand out from the dozens of other books about inspiring teachers or inappropriate school relationships.

Review of ‘The Boy that Never Was’ by Karen Perry

Image‘The Boy that Never Was’ is a novel exploring the madness which can befall a parent due to grief following the death of a child and the huge consequences that decisions and actions can have no matter how small they seem at the time.

It is well-plotted and paced intelligently so that important facts are revealed slowly over the course of the book. It is both a thriller and a claustrophobic study of a personal family drama and one character’s descent into madness.

I admired the writing style and the clever story-telling and I liked the device of narrating chapters from alternating point of views. I was intrigued by the fact that the book was written by two authors and wondered whether Karen wrote Robin’s chapters and Paul wrote Harry’s.

However, while I appreciated the writing I would say that, due to the unlikeable characters and the unsettling themes of grief, guilt and loss, this is a difficult book to enjoy. I was particularly frustrated by the character of Harry who throughout the book, even before the earthquake, makes such terrible decisions and deals with situations so badly. I found it hard to feel sympathy for such a flawed character. In spite of Robin’s thoughts at the conclusion of the book, I could not help but feel that everybody would have been a lot better off if Harry had not made his discovery.

I guessed Robin’s secret early on as I doubted anyone would be so willing to forgive a husband whose neglect had led to the death of her child unless she was also harbouring some terrible guilt. However, I think there was enough misdirection that the reader was led away from the final revelation of the whole truth, particularly after Robin fails to see any significance in meeting Garrick’s family while Christmas shopping. I think it would have been a braver choice on behalf of the authors and a more believable storyline if the book had stopped before the final twist at Garrick’s house.

‘The Boy that Never Was’ is an interesting thought-provoking novel which is very readable, it is well-written and carefully structured to create a tense thriller. The characters’ motivations are clear and it is easy to understand how they are moved to make such shocking decisions and take actions with such disturbing consequences. However, I found Harry’s actions exasperating and the ultimate conclusion of the book unsatisfying. I think the selfishness of the adults in convincing themselves that their horrifying actions were in some way in the best interest of their children meant that at the conclusion of the novel everyone is so damaged that it is hard to feel hopeful for their futures and I do prefer books to end with a sense of hope and possibility.

Review of ‘Missing You’ by Harlan Coben

ImageI read EVERYTHING Harlan Coben writes! I love his style but it must be said that his books often tread the same ground and in recent years themes, characters and storylines in his books are becoming a little repetitive. Nevertheless, they are always easy to read and entertaining.

I think this is one of his better recent novels. The story feels rounded and self-contained and the lead character, Cat, is a female detective, which is a bit different.

The unbelievable co-incidences which usually drive Coben’s plots are kept to a minimum as are the other repetitive tropes (dumb goons, fight scenes and wisecracking detectives). Cat’s story feels personal and more believable than his many of his other recent narratives.

The ultimate showdown and conclusion to the book feel a little rushed, but it is an enjoyable read, which I think fans of Coben will love.

Review of ‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

Image This novel is written in an interesting style, with the main character, Yvonne, addressing her lover, Mark, as if writing one long letter (present-tense) retelling the history of their relationship, an extra-marital affair which goes very wrong.

The prologue, a flash-forward to the tense courtroom scene which comes towards the conclusion of the novel, is very tantalising and made me want to read on.

However, the main section of the book is less exciting. For me, although the plot was interesting, the characters and their relationships did not ring true.

Maybe I am a prude, but for me there was no difference between the first time Yvonne has sex with Mark in a crypt a few minutes after they first meet without even knowing each others’ names and the rape which she is victim of later in the book at the hands of her colleague George. Both men are sexual predators, one is just more suave, subtle and manipulative about the way he goes about it. How Yvonne could convince herself she was in love with Mark astonished me, they did not have any intellectual connection, only physical, she knows nothing about him. She is supposed to be an intelligent woman but throughout the novel she just appears naive, even to the extent that she is still worried about Mark’s welfare at the end of the novel when he has obviously instructed his lawyer to throw her under the bus.

I did not like her or any of the other characters. Her husband’s character was paper-thin, I got no sense that they actually cared for each other yet they stayed together even after they have both had affairs and she has been to jail.

The ending confounded me, was the last page an indication that Yvonne is a completely unreliable narrator and she did actually provoke Mark to kill George, or was it just a fantasy? By that point I didn’t care enough about this stupid careless woman to give it much thought.