Tag Archives: Book Reviews

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman

my grandmotherThe best thing about this novel is that it feels like a full on quest, but takes place in one small town. The eponymous eccentric grandmother has been telling seven-year-old Elsa magical stories throughout her childhood. Grandmother created vivid worlds, called The Land of Almost Awake and Miamas, of heroes, dragons and adventures that gradually show themselves to be allegorical. Real life with Granny is full of adventure too as she and Elsa break into the zoo, wind up their officious neighbour and shoot paintballs off the balcony. There are surprises, serious social issues, and an enormous dog.

Fredrik Backman is a Swedish author, well known for the 2014 bestseller, ‘A Man Called Ove’ which also has his brilliant blend of endearing, emotive ridiculousness, with underlying depth of meaning.

Have you read either? I’d love to know what you thought. Comments please!

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Is It Just Me? by Miranda Hart

Warning: The following review lovingly parodies the style of Miranda (I suggest you do a quick YouTube if that means nothing toIs-it-just-me-hardback-jacket1 you, or just continue with the prior knowledge that you are about to be discombobulated). Please note I don’t usually speak/write like this (well not very much like this).

Well a hello to you, my dear reader chum. Are we all sitting comfortably, ready for une petite book review-let? Previously in my life I did some amusingly kooky things and then read a book by a comedian called Miranda Hart. She has a sitcom that I watched all at once when I was poorly one day. I rather like it. ‘Is It Just Me?’ runs through a plethora (good word, plethora) of lifestyle issues and potential embarrassing scenarios. Much of the book is written as a conversation between Miranda and her eighteen year old self, so, given the parallel style that I’m going for, I’m going to tell my eighteen year old self about this book. 

Hello little Eve, what a delight to see you in all your preppy blondeness, how’s things? 

Oh. My. God. You’re me from the future! What are you here to tell me? Am I in grave danger? Do I have to kill and/or save Sarah Connor? 

Erm, no I’m just here to tell you about a book you’re going to read in the future. It’s quite funny, a really good bit of light reading. The chapters are really quick to dip into and they’re themed around the hazards and awkwardness of adult life, like hobbies, beauty, dating, exercise…

You’re from the future, and you’re going to tell me about some TV tie-in stocking filler? How did you get here anyway? Did you pimp a Delorean? Have you got a TARDIS?

You watch too much TV. I’m sorry to disappoint, but this is merely a convenient narrative device. 

Oh, lame. And I bet you watch too much TV too.

Point taken. Anyway, sit back and relax, little E, for now I shall tell you what I like and disliked about this book. 

Things I Thought Were Charming and Utterly Enjoyable, Please and Thank You Very Much, About Miranda Hart’s Gleeful Bookington

  1. The way she uses lists. There was a good amount of lists and they’re great for a quick skip through in a tea break. 
  2. The way she gives her lists over-long titles. Such fun.
  3. It ends really quite touchingly and inspiringly on a ‘follow your dreams’ sort of note.

Things I Enjoyed a Little Less Than I’d Enjoy a Jolly Ramble in the Home Counties Followed by a Pack of Jammie Dodgers and a Nice Sit Down 

  1. She abbreviates her term of endearment ‘My dear reader chum’ to MDRC, which my brain refused to read as anything other than ‘My Democratic Republic of Congo’.
  2. Eight pages are the transcript of an imagined conversation WITH HER DOG. (Caps for emphasis, classic Miranda style.)
  3. Some of the points were a bit generic and some of the anecdotes have been re-enacted in the sitcom, which I am already well acquainted with. New content much preferred, please and thank you. 

Is that it now, old Eve? Can you stop yabbering on about some book and tell me a bit about our future? What do we do? Has the five year plan been achieved with the degree and the job? 

Five year plan? My goodness, you’re like a nerdy Stalin. I think if I told you it might ruin things, butterfly effect and all, and besides, things work out. 

Well if you’re just going to be all mysterious, can you leave me alone so I can get on with my revision? 

That’s one thing, I will say – you should probably chill out – don’t work so hard! 

If I don’t work this hard, how would you be where we are today? 

What – drinking a cup of tea and amusing myself by writing fripperations on the Internet? I think we’d be all right. Do put some effort in to English though, that one will come in handy. Nice pashmina by the way. 

You too. Laters. 

drink-umbrellaThat is another thing I wasn’t entirely keen on in the book. When you bring in a character from the past, there is a huge temptation to overdo the ‘isn’t modern technology hilarious, ridiculous and miraculous when you explain it to someone from the 1980s’ jokes; in the business we call it ‘defamiliarisation’. But in general, it was a bit of a laugh. My favourite sentence in it was, ‘why does a drink need an umbrella? It’s already wet!’ 

In this book, Miranda says she never thought she’d write one, because she’s ‘not much of a ‘words’ person’, but she’s managed to assemble a fair few pretty competently. 

That is all, cheery byes, much love and enthusiastic waving. 

Have you read it? Did you think it was splendorific? Tell me in the comments! 

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The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The Hundred Year Old ManCurrently 6 in the best-sellers list, I am reliably informed by Amazon that it has been in their top 100 for 247 days. I think, therefore, it is safe to conclude that this book is a popular sensation, and it definitely deserves to be widely read.

Alan Karlsson climbs out of the (ground floor) window of his room at the old people’s home to avoid his hundredth birthday party, looking for one last adventure. He certainly finds action as he is chased down by a criminal gang and the police as he goes on the run with his newly acquired accomplices, including an over-educated hot dog stand owner and an elephant called Sonya. We are also told about Allan’s remarkable life so far. Spanning the twentieth century, he unwittingly influences history and manages to meet many of the most important historical figures. Using real, publicly known people in a novel is often a brilliant device – the author can satirise and subvert expectations, based on common perceptions. The writing is amusingly dead-pan and gets funnier as the book goes on.  

There will be innumerable reviews of this best-seller, so for a change, I’m going to answer some of the handily listed ‘Reading Group Discussion Questions’ from the back.

  1. What do you think are the central themes of the book?  Age, friendship, morality, international politics (and its frequent futility/mutability), identity.
  2. Why do you think the author chose to make the main character one hundred years old? To give him a unique perspective, an excusable amorality and to explore the changing century through a single perspective.
  3. Did you enjoy the use of humour? Which moments stood out to you? Very much so! Allan comforting the ten year old Kim Jong Il; when he recruited a spy by holding up a large poster; the spoilt batch of bibles (which had to be discarded because a mischievous type-setter wrote ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ at the end); Allan drinking Harry S. Truman under the table.
  4. Was the end satisfying? I didn’t like everything that happened at the end, though things are tied up successfully and the very last page is highly pleasing indeed.

All in all, a very entertaining book. Have you read it? What do you think of it? Do you have different answers to the above questions? Let me know in the comments! 

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Silver Spooned by Thomas Clark

I don’t love Louise Mensch. In fact, if my life was a superhero comic, I’m pretty sure she would be my nemesis. Consequently, it silver spooneddelighted me that Clark’s first chapter derides her fallacious assertions. The book is a study in political falsehoods, focusing on the justification of current economic policy in the UK. It is an up to date, well researched account of problems with the government’s policies and proposals and the spin that supports them. Moreover, it provides a general explanation of the various forms of fallacious reasoning and deconstructs them with intelligence and skill.

Although the economic examples are UK-centric, the principles apply globally, and there is much to be learnt about British politics through reading this. It is up to the moment, analytic and angry in a way that stays just the right side of vitriolic. The logic is sound and the writing flows easily. The introduction was less smooth, but as soon as Clark was into his main content his confident style came through. Also, I learnt a great deal about the bedroom tax that enlivened dinner conversation this evening.

This book has a clear and vehement political standpoint, which brings me to my reservation about the text. I did a dissertation about the way language is employed in political spin; I am already interested and on side. There is something in the tone of this book, however, that may mean that the people who could benefit from it most would find it too abrasive. In a sense I am concerned Clark may be preaching to the choir,  though perhaps to some agnostics too. Even so, the choir will be for better informed for reading this text.

It is currently free on Smashwords and well worth having a look at.

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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew goes clubbingThis isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned a Persephone Books title, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. Again, they’ve chosen a perfect gem to resurrect. This cheery, comic tale, set in 1930s London, begins with shy Miss Pettigrew, ‘with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if anyone cared to look’,  calling on the glamorous Miss LaFosse. She is hoping to gain employment as a governess, but becomes swept into a world of style, society and night clubs, becoming invaluable to her hostess.

Watson wittily adopts Miss Pettigrew’s perspective:  ‘Shocked by such flighty thoughts Miss Pettigrew took her imagination severely in hand and forced it back to the practical.’ Her upbringing as a gentlewoman initially inhibits her enjoyment of Delysia LaFosse’s more louche existence: ‘Odd,’ said Miss Pettigrew conversationally, ‘the undermining effect of flowers on a woman’s common sense.’ Miss PettigrewThe transformation of her character is simply lovely: she is physically transformed by Miss LaFosse and her friend’s application of make up, curls and a velvet gown. Her personal transformation happens concurrently. She shows herself to be intelligent, sharp and free-spirited, despite her jittery inner monologue. The little details, like the way she ensures where ever she sits she can glimpse her new self in the mirror, bring this tale to life.

This is just the sort of book that everyone should read at the start of a new year: it is optimistic, funny and has a heart-warming happy ending. It reminds me of P. G Wodehouse in style and humour. Also, the illustrations are lively and really give it splendid character.

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Virolution

ImageIn my opinion, Frank Ryan’s ‘Virolution’ does exactly what a popular science book should. It brings original ideas to a broader audience in an accessible and largely interesting manner. Essentially, it explains the evidence for the role of viruses in the evolution of all species. As a non-scientist reading this, I cannot speak for the accuracy of the content, but I gave a brief précis of it people with varying levels of interest and expertise, and they all said something to the effect of: ‘well that sounds right: how could that not be the case?’. I think that is also an indictment of how clearly Ryan presents his ideas; their lucidity and logic render them instantly credible.

Unlike other books in the genre, Ryan innovatively chose to explain his thesis by leading the reader through his journey of discovery. The sections where he recounts direct speech in conversation with eminent colleagues were not entirely to my taste. I would have preferred a summary of their contributions. Aside from these sections, I found the scientific explanations enjoyable, though I was more engaged in the first half of the text than the second.

As an editor, I thought the text would benefit from closer tailoring and concision. Also, I couldn’t help but notice some incredibly long sentences that became a barrier to understanding at points. Despite this, I generally thought the quality and tone were strong and the writer’s enthusiasm for his subject was communicated wholeheartedly.

‘Virolution’ is evidently a thought-provoking contribution to the field and is certainly worth reading.

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NW

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, surprised me. I was expecting something like White Teeth or On Beauty, but the complexity and intense poetry of this created something strong and unexpected. It primarily charts the lives of best friends Leah and Keisha who grow up together on the same estate. Though it initially focuses on Leah, I preferred the later section, ‘Host’, that adopts Keisha’s perspective in brief scenes, told with the senses of memory, that bring them from childhood to adulthood. It explores whether Keisha can successfully negotiate a class transition.  She chooses a new name, Natalie, for her new life as she succeeds professionally and marries wealthy Frank, who looks like ‘he was born on a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean and raised by Ralph Lauren’. Zadie Smith’s characters are, as always, multifaceted and very authentic. I loved her description of Keisha’s teenage angst:

 ‘It did not strike Keisha Blake that such feelings of alienation are the banal fate of adolescents everywhere. She considered herself peculiarly afflicted, and it is not an exaggeration to say that she struggled to think of anyone besides perhaps James Baldwin and Jesus who had experienced the profound isolation and loneliness that she now knew to be the one and only true reality in this world.’

 The lives of two men are also introduced in this anthropological consideration of an urban landscape. Felix and Nathan have both struggled to establish functional lives after their beginnings on the Caldwell estate. Poverty, failure and distress are never far from the lives of NW’s people; there seems to be a sort of inevitable tragedy about this novel. The moment that struck me the most was when Natalie and Nathan meet for the last time in the text. She tells him, ‘It’s weird to me that you can be so vital to another person and never know it. You were so…loved’. Yet that can do little for him.

 There are moments that show Zadie Smith’s clever humour. Cultural references ground the chronology realistically, though some were rather lost on me. I struggled a little with some of the prose as semi-sentences often tailed off, as if I inherently knew what she was getting at. I’m afraid I didn’t. Unfortunately, my professional brain also initially interfered with my enjoyment; I kept thinking how difficult it would be to proofread! Once I got past my grammatical fixations, I found the creativity of form refreshing.

 NW is just right in some ways. Reading it feels like a trip to London: a city sometimes dense, stressful and un-cohesive, but ultimately it provides a chance to see a cross-section of life in glimpses. It is sometimes beautiful or brutal, but it is always vital and feels essentially real and alive. 

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