‘A Girl’s Guide to Moving On’ by Debbie Macomber – Book Review

AGGTMO

Big thanks to NetGalley for my advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Chick lit really isn’t my thing. This preface should be seen as a lens through which to read the following comments. Fans of Ms Macomber, please don’t hate me.

I was browsing NetGalley one day, feeling rather blue from my previous read, the bulk of which I read with misty eyes and thumping heart. I needed the literary equivalent of a bottle of wine and a foot rub.

The pitch promised a ‘powerful and uplifting novel’ from a bestselling author I’d never heard of. The story of Leanne and daughter-in-law Nichole would apparently make me feel empowered and prove the power of love, friendship, and New York Times best-seller lists.

Once upon a time, Nichole was married to Leanne’s son, Jake, who is a lying cheat just like his father. At some point prior to the first page of A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, Leanne and Nichole both divorced their horrible husbands, moved into snazzy little flats across the hall from each other, and devised rules and plans to help them regain their life and their happiness.

They both meet new men. Complications ensue. The exes are horrid. Time goes on and the exes are less horrid. The new men think their women don’t love them. It rains. They all kiss and make up. The end.

Debbie Macomber seemed to be writing by numbers. There was a lack of characterisation and any personal development seemed beyond plausibility. For example, Jake receives a talking to by Nichole’s new burly truck driver boyfriend and not only does Jake accept Rocco’s views, but also immediately changes his mind, his ways, and his personal hero.

Initially I was convinced the author needed to take herself to a workshop on showing not telling but, to her credit, the writing seemed to improve as the story advanced and I did feel slightly empathic for the plight mirrored in the lives of both Nicole and Leanne.

A Girl’s Guide to Moving On is beige and mildly pleasant; it is so overtly predictable that I regressed to the days when I nicked my mums Mills & Boon just to read the sexy bits. But even the raunchy scenes were MIA here, leaving me high and dry and unrewarded for ploughing through all that sporadic pashing.

Perhaps I’m being unfair – I’d just finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and with my heart in tatters, I sought solace in something lighter. Be careful what you wish for – this was so light, its flimsy words practically blew off the page in wake of my exasperated sigh.

‘It isn’t only that you’re good for my dad,’ Kaylene said, growing thoughtful. ‘You’re good for me, too. You’re teaching me how to be a woman.’

I mean, really?

Sorry Debs, I didn’t buy it. I’ve heard some of your other work is fabulous in the chick lit world but this was far from my cup of tea.

 

 

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‘The Orange Girl’ by Jostein Gaarder – Review

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I once had a really horrible boyfriend, (actually, I’ve had several), and while he busied himself with Crown lager and transforming into Mr Hyde I would bury myself in ‘Sophie’s World’, a book lent to me by a kind aunty with impeccable timing. The solace I found among those pages initiated a quest to read more of the Norwegian writer’s stories, much like my later obsession with Paolo Coelho or Juliet Marillier.

But Jostein Gaarder’s offerings are a bit hit and miss. The curse of being a seasoned authorial fan lies in the comparison of ‘other’ works to the big, wonderful ‘one’ that finds its way onto the shelf in more than one edition. ‘Sophie’s World’, Gaarder’s most famous YA novel on the history of philosophy, is an epic work that began my love affair with the ideas of ancient and modern thinkers. On this pedestal is also ‘The Solitaire Mystery’, a fantastical adventure story about a son and his father on an expedition with a living, dancing deck of cards.

‘The Christmas Mystery’ however was a diluted version of ‘The Solitaire Mystery’ and sits in my mind next to ‘Maya’, an Indonesian journey that entertains the spiritual search for meaning. I’m afraid that ‘The Orange Girl’ also belongs in this second category: Gaarder’s prose is so beautiful, and the lovely turn of phrase never fails to surround me with magic and delight. But the story that pours from a letter written to a teenage boy by his deceased father lacks much in the way of plot or intrigue.

The missive from Jan to the narrator was hidden for years in an old pram and now that it’s been found, we sit with Georg as he reads his father’s words and provides for us a commentary about his family, his life, and his interests. Attempting to convey nostalgia, ‘The Orange Girl’ tells the love story of the boy’s parents and the saddening circumstances that pulled Jan from his wife and young son.

This is a sweet novella about a man who posthumously desires that his son should know him. It smacks with sentiment, but my reaction was not so much ‘oh, life is so precious!’ but rather ‘this is lovely, but so what?’ (I feel so dirty being harsh to the man who wrote the book that still saves me from Plato’s allegory of the cave.)

‘The Orange Girl’ is a character led story, which is all well and good but it needed to have more to drive it forward in order to sustain my attention and distract me from nasty, beer-guzzling bogans.

A sentimental 3 stars.

‘The Short Drop’ by Matthew FitzSimmons – Book Review

The Short Drop

Big thanks to NetGalley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Still finding my way around NetGalley.com, this was one of my first approved requests and boy, did I hit the jackpot. Matthew FitzSimmons first novel The Short Drop is a spellbinding and immersive thriller, rich with political intrigue and complex familial mystery.

The story opens in an all-American diner. Ex-marine Gibson Vaughn occupies a booth while searching online for a way to support an ex-wife and six year old daughter. A television newsbreak recaps the disappearance of Suzanne Lombard, Gibson’s childhood playmate and daughter of family friend, senator Benjamin Lombard. The abduction occurred almost ten years earlier, after Gibson’s infamous computer hacking stunt that exposed dodgy dealings within Lombard’s cartel. But all was not as it seemed and Vaughn’s own father ended his life after becoming implicated in the scandal.

Now, with a bad reputation keeping him jobless, he’s desperate for honest work when approached by someone from his past. A friend of his father and an insider in the political sphere, George Abe seeks Gibson’s computer skills to help track Suzanne’s abductor who, after almost a decade, has sent through evidence of involvement in the case.

The pull of sentimentality yanks Gibson into the covert investigation. Abe Consulting uncovers a long and intricate back-story before landing on the horrifying truth of what happened to Suzanne Lombard all those years ago.

FitzSimmons is not a word-waster. Tightly written and action packed, The Short Drop is accessible without being patronising. Time is a major theme and he uses it to explore the texture of grief and the complexities of human relationships. Conventional narrative works to keep a fast pace while the depth of the characters allows the reader to form alliances and race with them toward a tidy resolution.

Matthew FitzSimmons has produced a fantastic piece of crime fiction. It’s marked as the first in a series and even though it’s unclear how much more of this story could be teased out, I wouldn’t be sorry to see more of Gibson Vaughn.

5/5 Stars

 

 

 

Note: If this is typical NetGalley standard, I may never visit bookdepository again. *

 

*This is a total lie.

 

‘JPod’ by Douglas Coupland – Book Review

Jpod

Recently, a new friend introduced me to the concept of biji, a Chinese form of writing roughly translated as ‘brush notes’ or ‘jottings’. This literary genre is defined by a three-part division consisting of different styles and lacking definitive structure. I sought an example of the format and was directed toward Douglas Coupland’s ‘JPod’, an off-beat story of life in a modern Vancouver office.

Meet Ethan, a 28 year old games developer who spends his days toggling between virtual world building, nicknaming co-workers, and fetching the company snack supplies. In his down time, he helps his family dispose of drug dealers, sever ties with psychotic lovers, and feed illegal immigrants squatting in his apartment.

After a ruling from new boss Steve, Ethan and his five pod mates must overhaul their current project to accommodate a turtle modelled on a reality T.V. presenter. They decide to corrupt the game with a rogue clown demon, stopping work only to deal with incestuous sexual emergencies, lesbian cult members, and the suspicious abduction of a recently appointed superior.

Obligated to undertake a rescue mission in China, Ethan fights off the threat of a viral outbreak, and begs a cantankerous author to rescue him from an early roadside death. Here, Coupland openly inserts himself into the narrative as a character that, although grumpy and not averse to sneaky blackmail, conveniently turns up to save the day.

‘JPod’ reads like a scrapbook, shifting between witty narratives, streams of consciousness in squashed or inflated text, character constructed interviews, anagram definitions, and a lengthy chunk of the number Pi. The biji style is used as a visual representation of life with its interruptions and conflicting demands on attention. Instead of finding the strange digressions distracting, the reader bounces around a lively story full of entertaining, and somehow relevant tangents.

Coupland has created a modern tapestry, one I can only describe as an absolute circus. My usual enjoyment of a book lies in how much I miss it after the final page. And still, every morning at reading time, I wish Ethan and the gang were still going strong. It was the first of Coupland’s novels I read and it certainly won’t be the last.

5/5 Stars

(You can find more on the history of biji here).

Note: I’ve been told there is a T.V. spin-off which I’ve ordered via Amazon. Stay tuned for my thoughts!

‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov – Review

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Many books are read for the pleasure of their prose – ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Villette” spring to mind here. Those novels, far from being plot-driven, entice the audience with the delights of word choice, vivid description and an intimacy between the protagonist and his/her observer.

Lolita tries to include itself in this category but, in my opinion, drastically falls short. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed parts of the book and found the writing fascinating, if not entirely enjoyable. But after the unease about the taboo subject of underage sexual activity wore off, I found myself getting bored. It just seemed labourious: Humbert and the underage Lolita travelling aimlessly from place to place across America with no pace or magnetic narrative to spur me on.

After the drama that leaves Humbert the primary guardian of our young nymphet, the whole book seems to lose it’s energy. I felt like Nabokov could have removed a massive chunk from the middle of the story and still got his point across (whatever it was).

I understand why it’s notorious; it’s controversial because Humbert is disgusting. We are invited to sit in his mind and watch a pervert at work. But apart from ticking it off the bucket list, I didn’t get much out of it.

‘Villette’ by Charlotte Bronte – Brief Review

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Fast-paced this novel is not. Instead, Bronte basks in characterisation of emotion and virtue to deliver an epic novel that delves deep into the psyche of one woman, Lucy Snowe. Through the protagonist’s observations we discover who she is; the layers that make a human, the strength and fortitude reminiscent of her time and situation. We are with her as she battles oppression, sexism, xenophobia, religious quandaries and the trials of love in all it’s guises.

Read this for the writing. Oh and be prepared if you don’t know any French! My review sits at 4.5 stars, shy of 5 only due to the relentless passages in a foreign tongue that left me impatiently wondering what was going on and why.

‘An Elegant Young Man’ by Luke Carman – Review

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I chose this randomly for a reading challenge and, having finished about ten minutes ago, am feeling a little underwhelmed by the experience.

Starting with ‘Whitlam and the Whitlam Centre’, I was intrigued by the ease of writing and tight use of the everyday in painting pictures that struck a relatable chord. The stories weaved by Carman focus on a type of grey, accidental friendship that sticks in the mind even though there is no potential love lost. He presents common racist attitudes that are alarming in their accuracy, and his references to authors, titles, events and literary opinions will, no doubt, please and entertain those within or surrounding the writing industry. Or perhaps just those who love to read the classics.

However, by the penultimate ‘Rare Birds’, I was confused as to whether I was reading short fiction or an autobiography separated into small, appetiser-size chunks. Recurrent characters linked the stories, which was all well and good, but the storyteller in each is either clearly or accidentally Carman himself; I found it difficult to engage with the narrator who, several times, came across as beige in relation to the potential narrative.

‘An Elegant Young Man’ is a pleasant read but I am not sure I find it purchase-worthy.

‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling – Brief Review

the casual vacancy

You know you’ve enjoyed a book when the author manages to make it feel a whole lot shorter that the 500-page epic that’s weighed down your handbag for a week and a half.

I set out with trepidation considering not only the questionable reviews, but the pigeon-hole Ms. Rowling seems to be shunted into. However, I found The Casual Vacancy to hold surprising dramatic intrigue. It’s a novel about a small town; a story of its characters and politics, its tensions and frustrations. I found myself genuinely interested in what the people of Pagford were up against and how their choices would carry them forward.

It’s not a light and fluffy novel: some parts made me cringe and wince and read with only one eye. And at those moments it was easy to wonder whether the author was intentionally dropping in profanities to show that she can achieve something more than a YA story on wizards and magic. On the other hand, if the author was unknown and I was unfamiliar with previous work, would she still be judged in this way?

Rambling reviews aside, The Casual Vacancy is engrossing and readable. Highly recommend.

‘how to be both’ by Ali Smith – Review

how to be both

This is a difficult book to review. It exists in two halves: the stories of Francesco, the Italian renaissance painter, and George, a teenager stuck in modern-day Cambridge.

‘how to be both’ initially feels experimental and clunky and I found myself sighing inwardly at the prospect of a laborious read. However, moving through the artists narrative I found myself captivated, although I am left wondering exactly why. The journey through a painters personal history in relation to the time period was fascinating (for me as a philistine anyway) and Smith described vividly the artists life and struggle as a grieving 15th century adolescent.

The second part read more like YA with its morose undertones, identity confusion, bullying, school problems and realisation of parental fallibility. The book is completely unique in its subject threading; I would give it just short of five stars however as the final third of the book seemed to continually try proving the notion of ‘life imitating art’. Smith kept waxing philosophical, particularly through George’s mother, and I started to get frustrated with the repetition.

Overall, a fantastically individual novel that could be discussed at great length. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on school reading lists in the next couple of years.

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent – Brief Review

Burial Rites

A superbly written novel about a woman named Agnes and the final months leading to her execution. Set in Iceland in the 1820’s, Kent weaves a tale based on historical fact about the murder of two men in their beds by one man and two women, the latter including Agnes M.

Slowly the thread is pulled and the pages unravel the characters and events surrounding the murders until the reader grows not only fond of Agnes but desperate for her life to be spared. Along with the family Agnes is sent to reside with until she is beheaded, the audience grows attached to the main character and are truly distressed by the injustice of her eventual fate. Kent relies on symbolism heavily but does not complicate the pages with any unnecessary words.

An easy, solid read. Recommended.