Middlesex; riveting book about gender but still too long

middlesexMy rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (who wrote The Virgin Suicides) is a really interesting book about gender; what it really means to be male or female, whether our choices are hard-wired and how we assume our gender over time. It’s also a book about the genetic outcomes from the choices that people make when they have families. That sounds weighty but it isn’t really. It’s very well written and quite timely (written in 2002) considering the increased profile of transgender individuals and how lots of women are now talking about how they don’t define themselves as one gender or another (here or here). I just thought it was a bit too long.

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared; a long-winded unfunny dose of Forrest Gump


hundred year old manMy rating: 1 stars (out of 5)

So I get that The Hundred-Year-Old Man by Jonas Jonasson is meant to be a satire on politics and politicians throughout the 20th century and I get that some people find it hilarious but I thought it was boring, long-winded and not very funny. The premise is brilliant; a guy celebrating his hundredth birthday climbs out of the window of his old people’s home and boards a bus, stealing a suitcase from a local thug on a whim. He gets chased, lots of people die elaborately in a way that ensures he doesn’t get framed and he meets many of the major players from the twentieth century (Stalin, Truman, Mao etc.). Only read it if you want another dose of a very long-winded Forrest Gump.

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Enduring Love; a huge letdown

enduring loveMy rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

I’m a tremendous fan of Ian McEwan’s books (particularly On Chesil Beach and The Comfort of Strangers) but this was a huge letdown. It has a wonderful plot; a couple are on a picnic on a very windy day when they see a hot air balloon that is in trouble. A young boy is stuck inside the basket, his grandfather has fallen out and everyone in the vicinity desperately tries to grab hold before the balloon blows away…

I’m rather partial to literary books but this one felt like it was trying too hard. It came across as a bit pompous in tone, which I couldn’t remember or hadn’t noticed in his other books. It was distracting. The book was strongest when discussing the breakdown of the couple’s relationship (McEwan is really wonderful at nailing human emotions and antagonism between people) but it didn’t deliver on the fear factor that he has really conveyed in his other work.

I very rarely say this but watch the film instead. It’s much better.

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Everything I Never Told You; a solid but not earth-shattering debut

everything i never told youMy rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

I’ve read a lot of books lately that involve a missing person (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, The Girl on the Train) but Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is actually less about how the girl in question, Lydia, has disappeared and focuses more on the family she has left behind. It’s well written and hooked me from the beginning, but it lacked the punchiness of Beside Ourselves (which uses such wonderful language) or the strong narrative of Girl on the Train (with its complicated characters and wonderfully unreliable narrator).

Everything I Never Told You is as much about raising children successfully as anything else. The questions it asks are profound and relevant, notably how far parents should live vicariously through their kids, pushing them towards things they didn’t have or couldn’t do as children themselves. It touches on how far we are shaped by being different (they are the only mixed race family in the neighbourhood in 1970s Ohio) and how we yearn to fit in, and the complicated decisions we make as a result. It’s her first novel – I look forward to reading her second – and a solid, but not earth-shattering debut.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; terribly good and terribly sad

completely beside ourselvesMy rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

When I started reading this book about a family member, Fern, who has evidently gone missing or died, I really liked how it didn’t start with how she had disappeared or when. The narrator, Rosemary, is Fern’s sister and she begins the story half-way through (running us through events that happen after Fern’s disappearance). I thought this was a really smart approach; a very unique and powerful way of letting us learn about her family and investing in them, before the inevitable bombshell. As it turns out, it’s actually a necessary plot device or else the story wouldn’t have worked so well (it would be a big spoiler to say why…).Continue Reading

And The Mountains Echoed; a different kind of story, full of pathos

mountains echoedMy rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

I found And The Mountains Echoed on my kindle when I was stuck waiting to pass through the Channel Tunnel last month and I’d got through 60% of it by the time I got home. (It was an interesting parallel – reading about  people who are being displaced by war while passing through an area full of people who have been displaced by war. So many people looking for a better life…) I don’t normally like books that change the protagonist throughout and this was no exception; I sighed every time I had to refocus into a new character with a completely different perspective. That said, it’s a lovely book, providing insights into an Afghanistan we don’t normally hear about; normal life under decades of upheaval. The stories are touching although I wasn’t as riveted as I had been with The Kite Runner.

Hosseini is a great writer. One of the characters, Idris, meets a little girl called Roshi in a hospital in Afghanistan who has suffered a terrible injury at the hands of her uncle and has nothing. He’s sickened by how much he’s spending on a new home cinema in his house in the US and feels sure he could do something for her instead. The few pages where he returns home to his family and readjusts into American life are so powerful… the way he convinces himself that he deserves the cinema, how hard he has worked, how far away she is, how he cannot really help… devastatingly full of pathos.

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Jennifer Niven’s “All The Bright Places”; a life affirming book about death


allthebrightplacesMy rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

All The Bright Places is about a girl, “who learns to live from a boy who intends to die”. It reminded me of the idea that everyone sits on the same “mental illness” line and we fluctuate up and down it – towards sanity and insanity – at various points in our lives, at times feeling fine and at others, a little more shaky (maybe it’s from the book Going Sane by Adam Phillips?). And so it is with Violet and Finch, two depressed teenagers, who meet each other on the bell tower of their school as both are considering jumping off. It’s reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. Finch guides Violet off the ledge and saves her reputation at school by claiming she saved his life and not the other way around. In return, he takes the opportunity to make her his partner in a class project (he’s known as “Freak”, she’s the popular kid) and so this wonderful book begins.Continue Reading