Review: The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin

“All you have to do is believe and let go, and you’ll have all the proof you need”. 

Genre: General adult fiction, mystery, LGBTQ+, #ownvoices

Similar to: No one writes like Armistead Maupin

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Tales of the City

Publication date: 14th September 2000


How much do I love Armistead Maupin as an author? *Stretches arms apart until something pops in my shoulder* thiiiiis much!💙💚💛💜 

I’ve mentioned a few times about his excellent Tales of the City series, which were the first books I ever read with gay/trans characters living essentially normal lives (well, as much as you can when you all live together in an amazing old house with an incredible landlady who gives a free joint to all her new tenants). The books are absolutely years ahead of their time and have a special place in my heart. So when I learnt that Armistead Maupin had written other books outside of the series I was intrigued – especially when I learnt that The Night Listener had been made into a film with none other than Robin Williams! Plus it fitted a #ReadHarder category so I decided to give it a whirl.

In a similar way to Tales of The City, The Night Listener is weirdly prescient for a book written in the 90’s. It’s a Roman à clef (oooh, fancy! It means novel with a key, where a book is about real life but there’s a fictional element and the key is the link between the two) based around a writer, Gabriel Noone. Noone has his own late-night slot on the radio where he recites his stories. He receives the draft autobiography of one of his young fans, Peter, who claims to have suffered horrendous sexual abuse as a child and has now developed AIDS. Noone contacts Peter and they begin a paternalistic, touching long distance telephone relationship but as time goes on Noone begins to suspect that Peter might not be who he says he is…

I really loved reading this book. The “mystery” element is woven into such a touching and elegant storyline that it ceases to be the main thrust of the narrative – this book is far more about relationships (particularly father/son), family, the secrets we keep to protect others and love in all it’s many forms. 

For a book with so many layers (and some pretty dark subject matter) I didn’t expect humour – but there’s a lightness to his writing that Maupin seamlessly weaves into the narrative. The inclusion of the minutiae of everyday life, the petty worries, the awkward family meals – even the pun in the name Noone (he’s suffering from writer’s block – he thinks he’s no-one in the literary world anymore) all give some light relief and a sense of normality to what could be a very depressing book. It helps that this is an #ownvoices novel – I don’t think anyone else could write about the jealousy they felt when they realised their terminally ill partner might not die imminently and could possibly live without him with such honesty and emotion.

I found The Night Listener was hugely compelling. I loved all of the characters and the way that they related to each other was just so sweet and funny and touching that it gave me all the feels. It was nice to see some Tales of the City characters pop up too – like greeting old friends. I like to know that they’re all ok (I’m aware of how mad this sounds). 

As the story progressed, elements of doubt started to seep in about Peter and the veracity of his story. For much of the novel I really wasn’t sure of what to think – it helped that early on Gabriel announced that he was liable to embellish stories about his own life, so was somewhat of an unreliable narrator. This kept me engaged, especially as the book got darker as it went on. For the most part though it remained fairly light – like a cozy mystery but with huge emotional depth that dealt with difficult, scary themes. 

For a book released in the year 2000 the topics it deals with still feel extremely relevant today. Remember, this was a time before social media, the internet was in it’s infancy and photoshop involved snipping your ex out of a photo with a pair of scissors. So to write about having an honest persona in a digital relationship makes the book incredibly relevant today. Thankfully, the thing that does date it is the treatment available to AIDS sufferers – obviously this has improved dramatically in recent years ☺.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Night Listener. I loved the emotion of the writing, the topics that it covered, the humour and the sadness and everything in between. The mystery element was intriguing and related well to the overarching themes of love in all it’s many forms, paternity, and the preparation for a death that might not be so imminent. 

Rating: Four “Roberta blows” out of five.

Beautifully written, cleverly constructed and relatable in a way that a book written 18 years ago really shouldn’t be, this is a brilliant story about human emotion – with a mystery thrown in for good measure. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #21 Read a mystery by a person of colour or an LGBTQ+ author

 

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Review: After the Party by Cressida Connolly

“Had it not been for my weakness, someone who is now dead could still be alive. That is what I believed and consequently lived with every day in prison”

Genre: General adult fiction

Similar to: A cross between Beryl Bainbridge and Mein Kampf – like Lolita but with fascism instead of paedophilia

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of mid-century historical fiction

Publication date: 7th June 2018

No, dearest reader – I haven’t entirely lost the plot by describing this book as a cross between Beryl Bainbridge and Hitler. It is not my fault that the tagline for After the Party is so utterly misleading that it makes it sound like a murder mystery, when in actual fact it’s about Nazi sympathisers during the war. 

No, really. 

The book focuses on Phyllis, the dull as ditchwater wife-and-mother who just does what everyone else tells her to, never questions anything and bobs along merrily into the fun little world of Nazi sympathisers. She is introduced to the British Union of Fascists by her sisters after returning to the UK from abroad and is soon an active member. As the book progresses, we learn how the government dealt with British Union members during the war and what this means for Phyllis and her family. 

I have to say that I had a number of issues with the book but let’s start with the positive. After the Party is very cleverly written. At first, it reads like a Virago Modern Classic, all complaints about the char-woman and getting out the best crockery for high tea. Personally, I’m a huge fan of mid-century “women’s literature” (I super-duper HATE that term) so I was cozily ensconced in the middle class, middle England world. I even quite liked the sound of volunteering to help out with organising the annual family camp – I assumed it was some kind of Scouting endeavour that focused on healthy sea air and bracing walks, with a jolly good sing-song round the campfire and lights out by 10pm sharp. How very jam and Jerusalem, I thought. Lovely. 

HOWEVER…

I’m not sure exactly what gave it away (I think perhaps when the children were given badges with a “distinctive logo” of a lightening flash) that something stirred in my memory. “Hmmm, this almost sounds a bit Hitler Youth” I thought absently. 

And then they started talking about The Leader.

And his name was Oswald Mosley.

And then I got what was going on.

But – infuriatingly – Phyllis didn’t seem to have any idea of the sinister nature of what she was getting herself into. And this is where my biggest problem arose.

Cressida Connolly made the British Union of Fascists sound like Butlins for people who simply didn’t want another war. There was absolutely no discussion of what it’s members were being lectured to about, what it’s policies were; even it’s views on Hitler (who is barely mentioned). Now, I understand that women were not expected to engage with politics so having Phyllis as a main character who appeared to not have a clue about what was going on was possibly realistic HOWEVER the fact that she continued to cling to these opinions into the 1970’s suggested that she was more aware than she let on. This made me really uncomfortable as a reader – almost like Connolly was presenting an excuse for fascism without really getting into the politics of it – presumably to continue to make Phyllis a sympathetic character. I hated this omission of details as I felt like I couldn’t make my mind up about the BUF members – how much did they really know? Were they brainwashed? What did they actually stand for? I NEED ANSWERS!

In saying that, I thought that the way that Connolly dragged the reader into the world of the BUF was pretty skillful. I thought that the writing was excellent and although Phyllis was frustrating as a character I did enjoy reading about her. Later on in the book we learn about the treatment by the British government of BUF members which is something I wasn’t aware of previously and was really interesting to learn about. 

Overall, I found After the Party an uncomfortable read but one that will definitely stay with me. 

Rating: Three and a half “Adolf who?” out of five.

A frustrating main character, an insidious inclusion of fascism and the expectation that I will feel sorry for a Nazi sympathizer – but well written and definitely thought provoking. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley!

 

Review: Tetris by Box Brown

“The games people play”

Genre: Graphic Novel

Similar to: Persepolis? I don’t read that many graphic novels.

Could be enjoyed by: Nerds 😜

Publication date: 7th November 2016

Now, if I were more artistically gifted and technologically adept I would draw you a little cartoon of how much I loved this graphic novel. Sadly I have neither skill so you’ll just have to put up with text 😜.

Tetris is the story of, well…Tetris. You may (like me) have fond memories of trying to get the oddly shaped puzzle pieces to tesselate on your Nintendo Game Boy, Game Girl, Game Boy Colour or knock off “Bricks!” walkman with LCD front display that your Mum bought you off the market (that one’s probably just me). However, you might not be aware that the creation and marketing of Tetris is an incredible story of politics, collusion, deceipt, theft, murder and bizarrely – Robert Maxwell. 

Tetris the book explains the complicated story with gorgeously simple illustrations (not easy to depict considering many of the issues had to do with dodgy licensing rights). It goes right the way back to when Alexey Pajitnov, a Russian engineer, invented the game in his spare time using the primitive computer technology in his workplace. It goes on to explain how the game escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to take over the world despite illegal business deals, communist state ownership and international scandals. Honestly, I couldn’t believe how much shit had gone down.

I loved the way that such a complicated story was told in such an unfussy, easy to understand manner. I loved the two tone simplistic line drawings and the easy to follow dialogue. I thought that the way that the novel was written belied the complicated nature of the story, mirroring Tetris itself as it’s deceptively simple style can require huge amounts of skill and concentration. 

I found the world that Tetris was created in utterly fascinating. I don’t know a huge amount about communist Russia in the 1970’s and 80’s so I was surprised to learn that the Soviets had absolutely no idea of how popular Tetris had become or how it was being marketed and sold without their permission. Ironically, if Russia hasn’t been so cut off the game would probably have been worthless as it was freely copied and shared throughout the country without license (I guess like the equivalent of a free download). 

It saddened me to learn that even though he was the creator, Alexey Pajitnov was cut out of business negotiations pretty quickly and didn’t initially receive any money from the games worldwide success – it all went to the state (obviously, that’s how communism works Lucinda) – although I was pleased to learn that he eventually worked out a way to get some recompense. I loved how laid back Pajitnov was about the whole debacle and how he went back to his ordinary job even after the game had gone global. It did make me wonder how aware he was of the success of his product, although his primary aim did seem to be making people happy.

I was amazed that such a simplistic game could cause so many problems and have such a bizzare story. I found it incredible that it came into being at all considering the technology it was created on and the fact that Tetris made any money at all when the creator himself gave away free copies that were easy to save and pass on is astounding. I really enjoyed learning about the complicated history of the game and I loved the way in which the story was told. 
Altogether now…

“Dum dum dumdum DUMDUMDUM dum dumdum DUMDUMDUM dum dumdum dum dum DUUUUUM DUUUUUM”
(That was the themetune, in case you hadn’t guessed)

Rating: Four and a half helpful cries of “put the line ones to the edges!” out of five.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #4 Read a comic written and illustrated by the same person.

 

Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

“Hello, my name is Convenience Store Woman”

Genre: General Adult Fiction, Literary Fiction

Similar to: A shorter, Japanese Eleanor Oliphant

Could be enjoyed by: Someone looking for a quick, quirky read

Publication date: 5th July 2018

I don’t know what it is about books set in Japan but there’s just something that draws me to them. I think it’s because the culture seems completely unique but at the same time there’s a lot of parallels with Britain (or at least stereotypes of Britishness) like the formality, the politeness and the implications of class (and yes, the tea drinking). I also associate a strong sense of day-glo weirdness with Japanese literature that I find completely fascinating – so I was immediately drawn to an odd little novella called Convenience Store Woman.

Keiko has never really fitted in with anyone else’s expectations of her. She is unsure of everything – how to act, how to talk and how to dress so she essentially copies others (right down to their speech patterns) in order to pass as “normal”. The world is a difficult and confusing place until she enters employment in a highly regimented convenience store, where she is told how to complete every stage of every task that is expected of her. Unfortunately, her job and single status is unacceptable to her group of friends, so she is forced to take drastic action in order to fit in.

I adored this super-cute novella. Keiko is such a likeable, quirky character and I could absolutely relate to the pressure that she felt to fit in with the expectations of society. I could also understand the struggles that she had with being an outsider and how she found solace in the regimented, ordered world of the convenience store. As an ex-employee of a corner shop I fondly remember working there, chatting to customers (usually the same people every week) even though I was usually hungover after a Friday night out (I was only 18). I enjoyed the repetitive nature of many of the tasks and the way that I was not expected to do anything too difficult, which made a great change from studying for my A Levels. I completely understood how someone like Keiko would also find this atmosphere soothing. 

I loved the way that the book explored the idea that Keiko’s friends and family assumed that she was unhappy with her life just because it wasn’t typical of someone of her age. How often do we meet someone who is single and automatically try to romantically pair them up with our other single friends? How quickly would we dismiss a shop employee as potential marriage material? Or assume that someone with a degree working in a menial job was wasting their life? Maybe there’s a lesson in there that we should all be more accepting of each other’s choices. 

I also loved the way that the book referenced different ideas about conformity. Keiko obviously doesn’t want to follow the traditional path of career/marriage/children but she does seek solace in the rules of her workplace. This made me think about whether everyone needs to live by some set of rules to be happy, or whether we all need somewhere to go where we feel like we fit in? I’m not sure but it’s certainly food for thought. 

I really liked the ending of Convenience Store Woman and the way that Keiko finds a way to be true to herself. I got totally invested in her as a character so I was pleased to see that she got everything figured out in her own unique way. 

Overall I thought that this was a cute, hilarious quick read with a host of brilliant characters that also managed to ask some pretty big questions. I understand that the book has been a huge hit abroad so I hope it does well over here too. 

Rating: Four loud konnichiwas out of five.

Cute, quirky fiction with great characters and a healthy dose of hilarious Japanese weirdness. Highly recommended. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

Review: I Still Dream by James Smythe

“Hello Laura. What would you like to talk about?”

Genre: Adult Fiction, Science Fiction

Similar to: A very drawn out Isaac Asimov short story

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of sci-fi with a background or interest in computing

Publication date: 5th April 2018

Yes my friends, it’s time for yet another review where everyone LOVES the book in question but I’m totally meh about it. I swear I’m not doing this deliberately.

I Still Dream is the story of Laura Bow, the daughter of missing tech entrepreneur Daniel Bow. Struggling to cope with her teenage years, Laura builds upon the work done by her Dad to create Organon, a rudimentary chat-bot-cum-computer-generated-counsellor. As Laura grows up, she enhances Organon to become more of a personal assistant and as technology advances it becomes more important to her everyday life. Unfortunately, a similar product is developed that gets launched online with catastrophic consequences and Laura is left to choose – should she keep Organon as her own baby or use it to try to save the world?

I’m going to put this out there straight away – I was soooooo excited to get an ARC of this book because both the title and name of Organon are taken from the Kate Bush song Cloudbusting and oh my God I love Kate Bush so much I could cry. 

And at first I genuinely thought I was reading the best book ever written. I LOVED the 90’s references, the dial up internet, the vinyl copy of Hounds of Love. It took me right back to my own teenage years and was brilliantly observed, right down to the last tiny detail. However, this excitement was pretty short lived. Once I’d finished the first segment (teenage Laura) I started to lose interest in the story. I didn’t care about the technical jargon, the one dimensional relationships with boyfriends or the meandering narrative that took us wandering off down a good number of narrative culs-de-sac (yes, that is the plural of cul-de-sac – I know it looks weird). The storyline got so slow in places that it felt like wading through treacle. Then suddenly, like a learner driver trying out clutch control – WHAM! It’s ten years later!

How delightfully offputting.

The other problem with these massive leaps forwards was that the plot became slightly confused – having ten year gaps prevented it from being completely cohesive. When you add that to a storyline that weaves about like a drunk uncle on the way to the dance floor I found it very easy to get lost. There was a lot of “wait, what year is it?” and “who’s that guy?” accompanied by a frenzied bashing of the left hand side of my Kindle. 

My other main issue was that I didn’t really like the characters. Laura was kind of bland and I never quite trusted Organon. However, there was a very touching portrayal of dementia later on which I thought was handled beautifully. It’s just a shame that these lovely little vignettes were scattered throughout the text and didn’t form part of the main narrative thrust. 

I struggled with the ending of the book – to be honest I’m not sure that I understood exactly what was going on and it seemed weird to introduce a new idea right at the very end of the novel. I thought that it could have been explained much better and should have taken place earlier on, so that the concept could have been fully explored.

Overall, I was fairly ambivalent towards I Still Dream. I loved the Kate Bush references and the 90’s section but I got bored by the ebb and flow of the storyline. I thought that the concepts that the novel introduced – the idea of the machines taking over but using technology to thwart them, the concept of conscientious coding to encompass morals into sentient beings and the possibility of living on digitally after death were big, difficult themes to explore and I was disappointed that more of the novel wasn’t dedicated to expanding upon them.

Rating: Two and a half hounds of love out of five.
Oooh, I just know that something good is going to happen…except it didnt #wtfthatending #dontintroduceanewideathreepagesfromtheend.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

 

Review: Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

“Talk about families…”

Genre: General Adult Fiction

Similar to: An American Zadie Smith, but not as good

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of US comedy?

Publication date: 1st June 2017 (I am so far behind with Netgalley reviews I’m surprised they still let me use it)

Have you ever read a book with no plot? I just have, and it’s called Standard Deviation. It’s as good as you’d expect a book with no plot to be.

The novel centres around Graham, a bland little man who has unfeasibly managed to convince two real life women to marry him (separately – he divorced his first wife then somehow gets a second). The first wife is Elspeth, a cold, precise, self possessed wraith of a woman who appears to have almost no personality. His second wife is Audra, a loud, shocking, in your face kind of person who makes “friends” everywhere she goes and will happily chat about her most intimate issues (and other peoples) with anyone that will listen. Graham ends up with both women present in his life, plus an autistic son called Matthew and a cast of Audra’s acquaintances who often end up sharing his house. They all sort of rub along….and nothing really happens. 

I’ve seen that other people found Audra hilarious but personally she grated on me. She was a bit like Janis in Friends – initially amusing but that wears off pretty quickly. I thought that a lot of her dialogue was just there for the shock value of being so inappropriate. I also hated how condescending she and Graham were, making comments about how they hoped their autistic son didn’t grow up to be like any of the men who went to his origami club and being really judgemental about Matthew’s school friends. 

I found the lack of plot in Standard Deviation quite frustrating – I was waiting for something more to happen. I liked the idea of providing a snapshot of everyday life but I really didn’t like not having a structure to the narrative. There’s one big event further on in the book but no beginning, middle and end to the story. It’s like a very dull midweek episode of Eastenders.

Overall, I didn’t like the main characters in this book and despite a host of quirky peripheral individuals I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them in enough detail to really enjoy their presence. I found the plot slow going (that’s me being kind – entirely absent is probably a better description) and most of the dialogue quite tedious. I know some people have raved about this novel but it really wasn’t for me.

Ummmm…that’s it really. So little happened that I have nothing more to say. 

Rating: Two “this is a long introduction”s out of five

One word: tedious. A plot would have been a good starting point. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

 

Review: Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn

A novella by Fairlight Moderns

Genre: Historical Fiction, magical realism

Similar to: An Eastern European Barbera Pym

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of short, kitschy, fantastical tales but with a dark side. 

Publication date: 11th July 2018

Whilst browsing through NetGalley, I came across four or five flash fiction novellas by Fairlight Moderns. I’d never heard of the publisher or any of the authors, but the books looked so cute and interesting that I chose one to read without even checking the blurb – something I never ever do. However, I’m really glad that I did because Bottled Goods is a tiny little gem of a book (with great cover art).
Set in 1970’s Romania, Alina grinds out a living as a teacher under a communist regime. Her loveless marriage and difficult mother compound the oppression of living in a dictatorship, so when Alina becomes a Person of Interest to the Secret Services it all becomes too much. After asking her Aunt for help, Alina uses the old ways to invoke the magic of her people to deal with her mother and make good her escape. Part terrifying portrayal of a communist regime, part Grimms fairytale, this pressure cooker of a novella is richly evocative of a history that is seldom talked about in mainstream literature.
 
I loved the way that Sophie Van Llewyn built the tension in this book. Although a fairly short story, Bottled Goods was so atmospheric I was completely taken in from the first few pages. The writing was brilliant; emotional but precise. Oddly, I found it reminiscent of The Bottle Factory Outing or perhaps something by Patricia Highsmith – there was something about the way that the tension was layered in with the mundanity of everyday life that was very reminiscent of those mid-century female authors. However, this book brings it’s own distinct Eastern European flavour that really worked with the almost dystopian theme – especially if your knowledge of the Eastern Block has been informed by the terrifying kids tv programmes that were shown in the 1970’s and 80’s (and which was parodied so well by The Fast Show).

I really sympathized with Alina and appreciated how the author didn’t shy away from the horrors of investigation by the Secret Service. I also enjoyed learning a little about Romanian history and culture, as it’s not a country that I’m familiar with. The book really brought home what it must have been like to try to live an ordinary life under a communist regime and the reality of not being able to speak freely (even in your own home) or trust anyone (even your family). I loved how informative it was even though some elements were clearly fantastical.

I have to say that I did find some of the chapters slightly disjointed, especially in the beginning and the ending did feel a little rushed. I can absolutely see how some parts were published seperately, as they almost felt like stand alone stories within themselves.

Although short, this is an oddly charming, terrifying, interesting little book. Brilliantly written, I’d love to hear more from Sophie Van Llewyn – and I’m definitely going to check out some more Fairlight Moderns *watches NetGalley review percentage tumbling*.

Rating: Four tripe soups out of five.

Richly evocative, fantastical and brutally authentic; you’ll devour this treasure of a novella in one sitting.

Please note that I read this book for free via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks NetGalley!