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!

 

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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: Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

“Cross my heart and hope to die”

Genre: Fiction/Mystery and Thriller

Similar to: The Girl on the Train, The Lie, Dr. Foster

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of domestic thrillers (they all seem a bit samey to me but this one is written particularly well)

Publication date: 14 May 2018

I really enjoyed Sarah Pinborough’s last book “Behind Her Eyes” (#WTFthatending) so I was excited to see her latest offering. I’m pleased to report that this novel did not disappoint. I’m a weird way, these domestic thrillers are becoming a bit of a guilty pleasure – I love the way you can speed through them because you can’t wait to see what happens next (although the non-hubs is less appreciative when I’m still reading at 2am and he wants to go to sleep). I do find that the quality within this genre is pretty variable though, so I was relieved to find that Cross Her Heart was within the upper percentile of my personal bell curve of likeability. 

Yay! 


Cross Her Heart is about a single mum, Lisa, living with her daughter Ava. They seem to have a pretty normal, happy relationship although Lisa can be a bit over protective. However, weird things start happening – familiar baby toys then up, a photo is smashed when the house is empty – and Lisa begins to panic. As she starts to link these instances together we learn more of her past until events conspire to make her history public. When the truth does out, it seems like the whole world turns against Lisa – just when she needs help the most. 

Oh, and there’s obviously a dramatic ending that you definitely don’t see coming. Obviously. 

The writing in this book is excellent, really pacey and consistent. One of my major bugbears is incongruous details – things that don’t quite add up or appear to be thrown in as a big obvious red herring and, happily, there’s none of that. As I mentioned, I’d previously read Behind Her Eyes (look, there’s a review and everything) and because of the way that book ended I couldn’t help thinking that there would be a similar theme. That took me off on a completely different – and entirely wrong – tangent (presumably deliberate) which I thought was a very subtle and very clever way of misleading your reader. Top marks, Ms Pinborough!  

I really liked all of the main characters in this book and I loved how the different relationships were portrayed. Some of the mother/teenage daughter scenes were cringily reminiscent of my own adolescence, where I was also full of irrational rage and certain that I had the most overbearing mother in the world (I didn’t – sorry Mum). I also really like the female friendships and the way that the two female characters had each others backs no matter what. However, the thing that stood out for me was the way that domestic violence and coercive control was written about – I thought Sarah Pinborough did a brilliant job of showing such an accurate portrayal. 

On the downside, there’s often a part of the storyline in thrillers where you have to suspend your disbelief for a second and I will say that I found the ending just a tiny, tiny bit unbelievable – although the author clearly recognises this and does her best to make it seem realistic. At least you won’t see it coming!

If you haven’t read this book, I would recommend that you read Behind Her Eyes first – they’re both completely stand alone novels but knowing how Sarah Pinborough writes really expanded my ideas about how her second book would end – and this absolutely added to the drama *happy face*. 

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Cross Her Heart. It’s never going to make it as classic fiction, but in a crowded marketplace this book ticks all the right boxes. I’m now a full on fan of Sarah Pinborough and can’t wait to see what she does next!


Rating: Four teenage temper tantrums out of five.

Pacey, addictive writing with realistic portrayals of women, female relationships and – amazingly – very little information about the size of their boobs. I mean, it was a struggle but I just about managed to picture the characters despite not knowing this vital information. Revelation!  


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

 

Review: The Lido by Libby Page

​​”Sometimes you need to swim outside the lanes”

Genre: General Fiction, British Fiction (I refuse to write Women’s Fiction just because it’s a story with female characters)

Similar to: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, *whispers* Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (I don’t want to jump on the NEXT BIG THING bandwagon)

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of quirky, heartwarming British literature

Publication date: 19th April 2018

Well blow me down with a feather – it’s so rare nowadays to hear the words South London in relation to anything other than knife crime/drugs/violence and yet…what do we have here? A book about COMMUNITY and FRIENDSHIP and PEOPLE BEING NICE TO EACH OTHER and it is so lovely and touching and relevant that I want to weep.

The Lido is the story of Rosemary (86), who has lived in Brixton for all of her life. She’s been a regular user of Brockwell Lido since she was a child and still goes every morning for her daily swim. When the local council announce plans to sell the facility off to redevelopers, Kate (26) is asked to cover the story for the local paper. After meeting Rosemary, Kate realises that the lido is so much more than just somewhere to exercise and her and Rosemary’s battle to save it gives them both a new purpose as well as an unlikely friendship.

I really enjoyed the overall premise of the book. I liked the idea that one of the characters (Rosemary) had lived in the area all of her life, and the way that she talked about her home really gave you a sense of what it was like to live in Brixton, how it had changed but how there was still a thriving community, just like there always had been. I thought that the time slips back to Rosemary’s younger days (including her fond memories of her husband George) worked particularly well and I loved that, as an older character, she brought so much local knowledge that really grounded the story. I found her descriptions of the lido in the 1940’s and 50’s particularly evocative and her personal account gave me an emotional connection to the building and the campaign to save it.

I thought that the author did particularly well to write such a charming, quirky book that covered some big, weighty topics. Loneliness is a key theme (both in younger and older people) and I could definitely relate to the feeling of living in a city full of people but still being cut off and isolated from the world. I loved that Rosemary was able to help Kate to integrate into the local community and that helping her to do so also gave Rosemary a new friend *thinks for the five millionth time about volunteering locally*. I also thought that issues around grief and depression were handled sensitively – we definitely need to hear more about bereavement in older people.

I really enjoyed the depiction of exercise helping people with anxiety and low self esteem. I thought it was really interesting that the author chose an individual sport like swimming but still managed to show how just taking part gave the characters so much more than a workout. I know I immediately thought about making more use of my local council pool (then I remembered how much effort it takes to prepare to swim and how disgusting the sports centre is – it’s due to be demolished and rebuilt so maybe I’ll go to the new one*)

The only drawback I have for The Lido is that it does occasionally dip its toe into the saccharine waters of the overly sentimental (see what I did there?) and there’s a romance storyline that feels a bit unnecessary and slightly detracts from the overriding theme of strong female friendship (why does a character always have to pull to evidence their newfound happiness?) but overall the pacing is good and there was enough drama to keep me entertained. 

Apart from those minor niggles, I think it goes without saying that I loved The Lido. It’s a completely feel-good read that still covered a whole bunch of difficult topics. I loved that the characters of Rosemary and Kate became friends despite the age gap and I especially liked how having an older character gave the novel a grounding and history that enhanced my emotional connection. I found the whole thing utterly charming – perfect as a gentle summery read.

Rating: Four hold-your-nose-and-jumps out of five.

Lovely, funny, sad, joyous, infuriating, heartwarming, evocative, charming, uplifting, emotional…literally ALL OF THE FEELS. The Lido is like a hug in a book.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #23 Read a book with a female protagonist over the age of 60. 

*  I definitely won’t.