Category Archives: Book reviews

Nick Hornby – State of the Union

State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts by Nick Hornby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There were a couple of good moments of stinging observation (though, only two weeks after I finished it I have forgotten what they were…), but otherwise I found this to be a bit flat and strangely unconvincing. The dialogue seemed too deliberate and unreal somehow, and I found the characters pretty unsympathetic (weirdly, as I have been though a similar experience to them).

A solid, OK read, but nothing remarkable.

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Klara and the Sun -Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am starting to think that the whole AI thing has been done to death so when I read the blurb on the back I was potentially worried. However, whilst this book isn’t groundbreaking it is an interesting and very readable story, with human behaviour viewed through the AI narrator. It is fresh and compelling, though also frustrating, with so much left unexplained, appearing just on the periphery of Klara’s vision, such as the communities the Father now lives in, and the increasingly segregated and violent world they seem to be living in (and what happened to Rosa? Will this be another novel? and what of the technology Rick invented? Will this be used by a future Resistance movement?). I guess I am always most interested in the social and political aspects of stories so I was craving more of that. But leaving things unexplained, and writing with an understated, light touch seems to be in vogue at the moment (the last novel I read before this one was China Room) and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Don’t read on if you don’t want spoilers. I found the ending really upsetting, and in some ways a bit difficult to understand. I could understand that she had outlived her usefulness to that family, but to create a sentient being, and such a clever and useful one at that, and then just dump her at the end, is inexplicably wasteful. Could she not have been sent to another family, or performed some useful work? Also, why did they hold her in such high regard, and indulge her with her plans to ‘help Josie’ without explanation? This also doesn’t quite convince, especially when at the end of the book she seems to be abandoned.

So…. plenty of unanswered questions, but still a very good read.

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China Room -Sunjeev Sahota

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I initially found Mehar’s story compelling and the modern story dull, so I skipped through and read Mehar’s story to the end, then went back and read the other, enjoying it a lot more as a result. However, I may have missed something in doing so as it felt that, although linked in terms of family and themes, the two stories weren’t as interwoven as I expected.

Still, that doesn’t diminish this beautifully written book of quiet heartbreak which has more to it than just the storylines.

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Record of a Spaceborn Few -Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t realise this was part of a trilogy until after I’d read it and it stands alone perfectly well. I found it to be that wonderful, often elusive, combination: easy to read but also thought provoking with depth and scope.

There are ideas and themes here of cultural and personal identity, of links to the past, of how to organise a society for the greatest good, and there are engaging personal stories woven in.

I highly recommend it and will be seeking out the other two books.

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Woman on the Edge of Time

By Marge Piercy

Wow, I can’t believe I have made it to 42 years old and never read this before!

A gripping, readable, thought-provoking book that I know will live on in my mind long after I’ve finished reading it. It’s that rare gem, easy to read and digest but also textured, ambiguous and complicated.

The hardest parts were all the ones in Connie’s own time, where I was angry and frustrated by the injustice of it all. This really is a masterful depiction and critique of it. Through her experience we get to see just how an individual can be crushed by inequalities of gender, race, and social class. Though she herself is not blameless there is no question that she would have turned out differently and behaved differently in Luciente’s time.

The brutality of the psychiatric treatment on her and the other inmates (there is one character who is essentially in there to be ‘cured’ of being gay), is particularly nasty, but unfortunately accurate in that these things did happen (and in some places still do). That makes its contrast with the future world of Luciente particularly stark. In this future world they haven’t sought to ‘cure’ anything, they have worked out better ways of managing it.

As she visits this future world the book has Connie constantly reacting and questioning just as we, the readers, would which is a clever storytelling device and the reader accompanies her through a process of understanding and learning.

I know others really disliked the ending, but I loved it. I could feel her growth as a character and her new awareness and strength. And yes, it is deliberately ambiguous, and all the better for it.

The things I loved most about Luciente’s world:

  • The natural way everyone is per or person. It is very easy to get used to and shows us a glimpse of just how rational and easy a genderless language can be.
  • People’s differences are respected and celebrated and space is given for them to explore themselves and choose their own name
  • The link with nature is restored
  • Healthy balances in production and consumption seem to have been largely achieved, although with plenty of ongoing tensions and debates
  • Parenting seems a lot more sensible, giving children the chance to think and speak and develop, to choose their own path, and it recognises something that I think our current culture likes to ignore -that children ‘mature’ a lot quicker than we think, and that they understand a lot more than we like to acknowledge.
  • There is an implicit acknowledgment that to allow individuals true freedom there needs to be a managed, functioning collective society behind it. This is a truth universally ignored, so it was liberating to see it realised fully here.
  • Their approach to death is wonderful. Just to let everyone talk and reminisce and then to move on, seeing it as part of the cycle of everything.
  • Decisions are reached collaboratively and through debate, and power is shared. Luciente fully acknowledges that it’s exhausting, but it is too important to be devolved to just a handful of people.

What I like about this utopia is that they haven’t eradicated wars or desires or jealousy or disagreement or mental health problems, they have just worked out better ways to deal with them. They take time out to deal with their mental health if they need it and then come back to the community. Again, progress is not really technological (although in some ways it is , but only to serve to make things more sustainable), but it manifests in other ways.

The theme that seems to get people talking most is that of motherhood and gender identity. The book suggests that to have true equality women have to give up their sole rights to being mothers. The biological link is severed. It seems shocking at first, but I went on the journey with Connie and, like her, came to realise it was a necessary and worthwhile sacrifice.

This particular debate has such relevance for the present day. I co-parent with my ex, and we have a 50-50 split in childcare. I have never been happy with that. I’m their mother, I should have them waaaay more than 50%. Even now, 3 years in, I still feel a pang of emptiness and loss the days they are not with me. But then is this just ego? Is this just me selfishly wanting them totally to myself (I used to fantasise that my ex would just run off and leave us so I could have the children exclusively to myself, however hard it would be… but what a selfish thing to wish for, to wish for my kids to have no father and for him to have no relationship with them? I’m pleased I got over that one).

But to have true gender equality the ‘mother’ role needs to be equally open to both genders. The link to biology is broken too, so in that culture I would not be raising offspring that had anything to do with me biologically, which shouldn’t be a radical idea really, as adopted children are loved by their parents just as birth children are. In fact, it takes ego out of it. Nobody would be raising their child to be a mini me, or to keep the ‘family line’ going, concepts which I thought were old fashioned but which sadly seem to be still going on. In Luciente’s world mothers choose to be so for the joy of raising a child, and they raise the children to be admirably self sufficient, and to follow their own path, even choosing their own name when they reach maturity.

The possible drawback is, a biological child of mine may have ADHD like me or a personality like mine, so am I more likely to understand and guide them but….. Often times we bring our own baggage to these encounters, and if it’s a culture that allows for neurodivergence surely it matters less, as whoever are the mothers will be able to handle it. Interestingly I was drawn from the start towards the character of Jackrabbit, and realised throughout that per is very ADHD. We learn during the wake that one of the mothers couldn’t cope with mothering Jackrabbit and so stepped down from the role which I thought was interesting. So the impact of ADHD is still there for the individual and those around them, but is given so much more freedom. Look at the beauty and love Jackrabbit brought into the world, given the freedom to do so.

What interests me with the motherhood issue is that Connie’s objection (and it chimes with a lot of present day feminists) is that childbirth, breast feeding, being the nurturer are the only things women have for themselves, so why give up that last realm. I hear this echoed in some of my friends who object to trans people being able to call themselves female. But if by opening up that realm and sharing it, it allowed all genders to be equal then surely it’s worth it? Surely it’s a price worth paying to be able to participate as an equal in everything else? I think so and by the end of the novel so does Connie, but it is a challenging change of perspective to embrace.

(As an aside: I personally have never liked or been comfortable with the idea of a female culture, of things only women know or do or understand. I have more male friends than female ones and both my children are male, so that doesn’t leave me with much! And my identity as a woman is only important to me insomuch as society treats me differently because I am a woman and I live that experience everyday, something which only other women understand because they live it too. But I don’t see that as the foundation of an identity or a culture, I just see it as necessary solidarity whilst we bring down the patriarchy, then after that let’s do away with the whole gender thing. )

I was also interested in the fact that it remains multicultural but that the link with race is broken. I was thinking back to ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ and the debate about the Asian baby being raised by white parents. I was firmly on the side of the biological mother in that one. But there surely the problem in that situation was that the child would grow up in a world of and for white people, and would be aware that she looked different. That’s why growing up without Asian role models and culture would be such a loss to her. But if the world she inhabited and grew up in was completely racially mixed, so that there were some people who looked racially similar to her and some that didn’t, then it wouldn’t matter anymore. I think that is the utopia to be aimed for and it is so beautifully, compellingly depicted in this book.

Of course, it is not obvious whether Luciente’s world is real, or whether it’s just Connie’s hallucination. The novel makes perfect sense with either, and they are both equally plausible*. It has been deliberately written that way and I am fine with that. I don’t feel a desire to answer it one way or the other and am comfortable with the enigma. I am more interested in the utopia and the ideas it brings up.

*There are bits towards the end where it seems more like it’s in her head (though I would argue it’s no less ‘real’ for that).

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a compelling read with themes of motherhood, cultural identity and what shapes us. It was heart rending at times.

Although my book group found there to be sympathetic elements to her I thought Mrs Richardson was odious. It’s a while since I’ve read a book where I disliked someone so much!

I also like the 90s-ness of it, with some familiar cultural references. Let’s face it, I was stomping around in my Doc Martens and listening to Tori Amos at the time, just like Izzy, and also feeling like the prevalent rights and wrongs and conventions and expectations of the time were so at odds with what my own heart and head told me. Izzy was definitely my favourite character and if I’d had a mother like hers I would have done what she did too.

I won’t put in any spoilers but suffice to say the ending was hugely satisfying and had me cheering.

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The Island Home by Libby Page

The Island Home by Libby Page

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the story of a woman in her 40s returning to the Hebridean Island she run away from when she was 18.

I found all the characters likeable and sympathetic to some degree, and the landscape and community were nicely depicted. On the surface of it this book is very much my sort of thing. So why did I only think it was ‘OK’?

It’s a perfectly nice, inoffensive book but I just found that I was underwhelmed and bored. The storyline was very predictable with far too many words spent on internal dilemmas that weren’t really dilemmas.

Don’t listen to me though, as most people who have read it rave about it. I probably have my curmudgeon mode on again!

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Naoki Higashida – The Reason I Jump

This remarkable book was written by a 13 year old autistic boy, who was unable to speak and communicated by using an alphabet grid. It is presented in the format of questions, to which he has given answers.

It’s a wonderful, honest and revealing insight into his mind and his experience. There was a lot in it that I could recognise in my own son, who also loves water, and needs to play with and in it every day in some form. He makes ‘potions’, he fills containers up with water and lobs them round the garden, his baths are a thing to behold, he looks forward to his weekly swimming lessons with a passion, and at present we are at loggerheads because he simply cannot stop himself chucking things in the pond or dredging out and throwing about the ponds water. Our resident frog hasn’t been seen for a few weeks and I don’t blame him. 

Like Higashida my son also loves walking or scooting round the streets endlessly, he loves being outdoors, he is very repetitive in his choices of games, books and TV. And he loves numbers, oh yes! They are a source of constant comfort and reassurance for him. He draws and writes numbers over and over, and he can’t go to sleep unless he has a watch, a calculator and a ‘clicker’ (a hand held counter). There are those in my life that think I should try to get my son out of these behaviours but I have always suspected that they are a comfort and that I should just let him be. This book gives more insight into why.

All these behaviours I see, and I know they’re are because of his autism, but reading this book has turned that around, in a good way. It’s easy to get stuck into a pattern of seeing a behaviour and trying to work out a response, when actually the behaviour is just one small aspect of a bigger thing, and understanding that helps. I so badly want to see the world from his point of view, and hopefully one day he will be able to explain some of it to me. In the meantime, this book is my reference point. 

Of course as a parent the big, big thing for me is that I can talk calmly and gently to him a thousand times about why he shouldn’t do a certain thing, but he either doesn’t seem to listen, or he does listen and understand but does it anyway, because he can’t control it ‘in the moment’. My ADHD means I have this problem, though to a lesser extent, so I have some sympathy, but I do find it very hard to deal with, having very little patience myself. I have actually photocopied Q52, 53 &54 and put them on my notice board as a reminder for when my son and I are locked in some dispute stemming from exactly this.

Higashida writes beautifully about feeling at one with nature, because he feels more at one with primeval life, and he talks of being “outside civilisation”, which gives him a different perspective on things, particularly the destructive behaviour of so-called civilised humanity. It made me think of Greta Thunberg, who herself has Aspergers, and reflect on the huge benefits of such a perspective. If only people would listen to them!

There are also snippets of Higashida’s own creative writing, including a powerful short story at the end.

Definitely read this. It’s such an important book.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

Arthur Bryant and John May of the Met’s little-known Peculiar Crimes Unit are London’s longest-serving detectives. When a bomb claims Bryant’s life, it ends a partnership that has lasted for over half a century.

I really loved the atmosphere of London in the Blitz, and the workings of the theatre, which give this book a dark, gothic feel. Coincidentally whilst reading it I attended a webinar about art in the Blitz (based on this book, which I must get hold of), which of course fed into the atmosphere in my mind. I enjoyed the characters of Bryant and May (I think I have a bit of a crush on the young Bryant!) and the interplay of their personalities. I also enjoyed the contrast between London now and London then, which was cause for some good insights. What I liked less was the somewhat absurd murder mystery, though it did still pull me along. I stayed up late one night to finish it while simultaneously thinking both “this is bloody ridiculous” and “I need to keep reading so I know what happens.”

Elizabeth is Missing

By Emma Healey

Maud is Forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable -or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger. But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

This is a good read on so many levels, told from the point of view of the elderly Maud who has dementia. The ‘unreliable narrator’ is done beautifully here, with the reader given tantalising clues, red herrings, and distractions on the way to rooting out the truth. It is also an observant and moving portrayal of dementia, and the impact it has on Maud and her relationship with her daughter.

I really recommend it. Also, I have been told there is a TV adaptation with Glenda Jackson in, which sounds so awesome I will have to track it down!