Books Read in 2015 – 5. A Room Swept White – Sophie Hannah

Genre: Chick-lit, Detective

Narrative Style; A mixture of first and third person with extracts from books and Unknownarticles. 

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2010

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fliss Benson is sent a card with sixteen numbers on it. She has no idea what they mean. On the same day, she is put in charge of a documentary about miscarriages of justice – specifically women who are thought to have killed their children. Then one of the main focuses of the documentary, Helen Yardley, is found murdered and in her pocket is a card very like the one that Fliss received. 

The premise of this novel was intriguing and emotive. Women who are accused of killing their children often provoke extreme reactions in people and I was curious to see how the subject would be handled. Unfortunately, Hannah allows the narrative to be muddled by too many different narratives and ideas. At first, I thought that the novel would be about Sids and the likelihood of that happening in more than one child from the same family but Hannah throws in high levels of blood salt, babies that appear to have been shaken and babies that reacted adversely to immunisation. To me, this muddied whatever point she was trying to make (and in actual fact, I’m not sure what that point might have been) to the point of incomprehension.

Of course, for all this to work, there had to be an evil doctor. Judith Duffy has given evidence in a number of cases and in Helen Yardley’s case claims that it would be virtually impossible for two babies in the same family to have Sids. This was clearly based on the real life doctor who said that the chances were one in 73 million. Of course, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out, this is erroneous and Hannah does quite a good job of showing us why the doctor was wrong. At least, at the beginning. About half way through, she changes tack and we are meant to view Duffy with some sympathy. And we are also supposed to believe that she becomes friends with one of the women that she helped to jail. This stretched my disbelief to the very limit.

Perhaps the most annoying element of this novel was Fliss Benson. The only narrator to have annoyed me more is Ana from Fifty Shades of Grey. Fliss is a bundle of insecurities, always doubting herself and bursting into tears. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all female protagonists should be strong or good role models or anything as crass as that but she really was annoying. I wanted to slap her, I really did.

At the beginning of the novel, she is promoted to creative director of the company she works for for no readily apparent reason except that the old creative director Laurie Natrass has found a new job. It is as if Hannah couldn’t imagine a woman being successful except at the whim of a powerful man. Of course, Fliss is in love with Laurie despite the fact that he is exceptionally unloveable which causes a lot of mooning and moaning which I could really have done without.

The most successful elements were definitely the third person descriptions of the police investigation and I know I would have enjoyed this more if it had been a straightforward police procedural. And if I’d been convinced by the ending. In fact, I found the last third of the book really difficult to finish. I only did finish it because I wanted the closure even while I knew it was going to annoy me. It is a while since I’ve been so relieved to finish a book.

Books Read in 2014 – 35. Plain Truth – Jodi Picoult

Genre: Chick Lit, Morality

Narrative Style: Third Person chapters alternating with first person

Rating 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2000

Synopsis: A dead baby is found in a barn on an Amish farm. At first, none of the women will even admit to being pregnant. And then there is the mystery of how the baby died. Ellie Hathaway is the streetwise attorney who becomes far too involved in her client’s life. 

I picked this up because I wanted something that would be easy to read while I was marking exams, something that would help me switch off at the end of a day of reading accounts that can’t decide what tense to be in. I certainly didn’t want to be struggling through some heavy piece of literary fiction. This had belonged to my mother (for all you wondering why I would even have a Jodi Picout book on my shelves) and when she died at the start of the year, it made its way onto my shelf. I was also curious. A few years ago I was loaned Change of Heart by a Picoult nut and while I thought it was okay, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I wanted to give her another try.

I must admit that the storyline drew me in quite quickly. Once it became apparent that the eldest daughter of the household, Katie, was the baby’s mother and that she denied giving birth, never mind killing the baby, then my interest was piqued. Picoult had also clearly researched her subject matter thoroughly as the picture given of Amish life was full of detail and seemed (to me anyway) realistic. I was ready to say I was wrong and that this was a very good book.

However, as I read on, things started to jar for me. The first thing was the mention of the ghost of Katie’s little sister. Which was fine when it seemed it was a figment of Katie’s imagination but it soon became apparent that not only could other people see this ghost but Picoult herself seemed to believe in its existence. I find this sort of spirituality quite troubling and it didn’t seem to fit with Katie’s character at all. It did mean, however, that there could be an utterly sickeningly corny image at the end of the book which I personally found completely unnecessary.

Picoult described the Amish as a group of people that lived for the community and the good of the group and who frowned on individuality. And there are some obvious advantages to this way of thinking but also disadvantages. In the novel, two characters have been shunned and had to leave because of decisions that they made and this is given as a possible motivation for the murder of the baby – and indeed, in a round about way, it does have to do with the baby’s death. Some of the difficulties this leads to are described in the beginning. However, by the end of the novel, through the decisions that Katie makes, Picoult seems to be privileging this form of living, as Katie decides to return to the fold, rather than follow her own heart. It may be that I find it too hard to fit in with any groups to be able to understand this sort of thinking but it does seem that at the start of the novel, this way of thinking is criticized but by the end, it is seen as some sort of salvation.

This is also shown in the character development of Ellie which I also found a little unsatisfying. At the beginning, she was a hard bitten attorney who liked to win so much that she had just managed to get a sex offender, she knew was guilty, off scot free. She ends up living with Katie as part of her bail conditions and as a result, begins to understand the faults in her own character. While it is apparent that Ellie had faults to understand, it all seems very easy for her and, in my mind, she doesn’t struggle enough psychologically for her change for the better to ring true.

At the end of the day, I have given this 3/5 because I did want to keep reading and I did feel sympathy for Katie but ultimately it didn’t work for me.

Books read in 2014 3. – Starter for Ten – David Nicholls

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014eclecticchallenge2014_300

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Narrative Style: First Person Narrative, Chronological Timeline

Format: Kindle

Published: 2003

Synopsis: Working class boy, Brian Jackson goes away to university and makes an utter mess of it. 107896He enrolls for University Challenge in order to impress posh girl, Alice and spends the rest of the novel chasing after her hopelessly. He also finds time to annoy his childhood friends and just about anyone else who has the misfortune to bump into him.

Rating: 3/5

I thought I’d try to get this genre out of the way near the beginning as I have very little patience with the idea of romance even when joined with the more fun genre of comedy. I’d read One Day and The Understudy which were both okay so I thought I’d give Starter for Ten a go.

I thought that I might be able to identify with Brian Jackson, a working class boy going off to university albeit in the 80s and I went in the 90s, however he was very quickly unlikeable and annoying. Of course, Nicholls’ aim was undoubtedly to show a young man’s journey from annoying little boy to mature and sensible man but Brian never seems to learn any lessons and, indeed, at the end he is still making the same stupid mistakes.

While I understand that a working class boy at university might meet a lot of people who were posher than him, most of the characters in this book seem to be stereotypes of one type or another, none of which are very pleasant. This is also true of Jackson’s working class friends from home. I don’t know if Nicholls was trying to make a point about class difference but it was somewhat lost because none of these characters seemed like real people.

The romance with Alice is supposed to be amusing and Brian’s patheticness is a little funny, I guess but mostly I just wished he would wake up and realise that she was stringing him along. Alice is contrasted with Glaswegian socialist worker Rebecca who is angry and tough (Just another stereotype) and much more Brian’s type if only he could see it. I chose this book because I thought I’d find a romance with a male protagonist less annoying. It turns out that this was not true. Reading this reminded me of reading Bridget Jones’ Diary. I wanted to shake him just about all the way through.

The University Challenge storyline is more amusing and (unsurprisingly) I found all the angsty romance a little distracting at times. I do think that there are parts of this story that could have been developed and maybe then Brian’s character would have developed a bit more. Because he viewed Alice as some sort of unattainable beauty queen, as long as he is involved with her, he will always remain a boy.

The end of the book was not a surprise. I won’t spoil it but needless to say Brian has not learned his lesson. Even though he will be starting again at a new university, he has learned nothing and there is potential for the same mistakes being made.

Finally, all the way through this book, Nicholls makes reference to great works of literature – Tender is the Night, Brideshead Revisited, Great Expectations, to name but a few. If you are going to remind people of some of the best works in the English language, it might be a good idea to write a better book. All the many references made me think was, I wish I was reading that instead of this.

Judging a book by its cover.

I’ve just started reading In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood and in the first chapter she talks about the way we make judgements about genre from book covers. In the course of this discussion, she mentioned two instances when she felt her own books had covers that did not match their content and gave readers a deceptive impression of what they were about. I think she felt a little sorry for the readers who had bought these books expecting one thing and getting another.

I had been thinking a similar thing a couple of days ago. I’d been in The Works as they had an offer on for 3 books for £5. (Rude not to and all that.) As ever, I’d found two books that I wanted (Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and Let the Right One in by John Ajvide Lindqvist) but I was struggling to find a third.

I quickly dismissed whole swathes of shelves due to their covers. There were the ones that looked vaguely like Twilight and the ones that looked like 50 Shades of Grey and then shelves full of those pastel shaded chick lit books with curly writing and sketches of skinny women on the front. To be far, I’ve not really read any of these but the sheer femininty oozing from their covers really puts me off.

I wasn’t getting very far and I realised that I was going to have take a closer look. It was then I found a small section of Murial Spark books, decked out in the same pastel covers as the chick lit books. Imagine thinking you were getting some light, modern comedy romance  – so I imagined anyway, maybe these books are deeper than they look –  and getting the darkerness of The Driver’s Seat or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It would be a bit of a shock to the system, I’m sure.

It is interesting that we make these decisions, dismissing or accepting a book before we’ve even picked it off the shelf. I told myself that in the future I would make myself look closer before dismissing things out of hand. In reality, I doubt I’ll keep to it as these processes happen somewhere below conscious thought and so aren’t really controllable. And it would obviously be a time issue if you had to scrutinise everything before making a decision. I guess, I’ll keep judging a book by its cover.