The Guest List – Review

On an island off the windswept Irish coast, guests gather for the wedding of the year – the marriage of Jules Keegan and Will Slater.
 
Old friends.
Past grudges.
 
Happy families.
Hidden jealousies.
 
Thirteen guests.
One body.
 
The wedding cake has barely been cut when one of the guests is found dead. And as a storm unleashes its fury on the island, everyone is trapped.

All have a secret. All have a motive.
One guest won’t leave this wedding alive . . .

I’m only managing to keep up with my attempt to post twice a month because this year’s a leap year – oops. But on the plus side, I’m finally posting another full review! I haven’t actually written one of these since August (!) and it feels fantastic to wield my metaphorical pen once more. Lucy Foley has written another murder mystery, and I clearly recall reading her previous book, The Hunting Party, in a day, and gushing about how brilliant it was. I read The Guest List in a day as well, but unfortunately, despite its clever twists and turns, I found that everything tied together a little too neatly by the book’s conclusion. What a conclusion it was – the murderer isn’t revealed until the final few pages – and neither is the victim! Now there’s a twist if ever I saw one.

Before I say anything else about the conclusion, though, I must return to the beginning. The set up was once again familiar, old friends and family members gathering, with one of their number ending up dead, and the timing shifting from Now to the day of the wedding, the day before the wedding and back. There are more POVs here than in Foley’s previous work – including the best man Johnno, the bride’s half-sister and bridesmaid Olivia, the wedding planner Aoife and the MC’s plus one, Hannah, among others. Although each POV character was clearly introduced and well drawn with their various foibles and dark secrets, some of the other characters – particularly the raucous ex-private school ushers – were difficult to tell apart, or simply filled the role expected of them, such as the groom’s overbearing and perpetually disappointed father. As is the case with most books told through multiple points of view there were some perspectives I preferred reading to others – some if only for how horrible the character was!

The blurb is very accurate when it says everyone has a secret, and a motive. Although I was surprised when the victim was revealed I also wasn’t, at the same time – it could be argued they deserved this fate for what they had done, both to characters whose eyes we see through in the novel and to those who are only mentioned. That being said, I found that not all of the motives for murder were entirely believable, and some of the connections between characters felt forced, as though Foley just had to get one more twist in there. Initially I thought these connections were smartly done but as I write this review and think over the book as a whole, I feel that some were more contrived than clever.

I’m not sure whether I preferred this to The Hunting Party – I’m certainly not raving about it as I did with that book and yet, I think if I were to re-read it I wouldn’t give it such high praise. Both books were enjoyable, and very easy to read, gripping with their continual twists and turns – I definitely enjoyed them both, and would recommend them as a fun read for a rainy afternoon. I must look at The Guest List through a critical lens as a reviewer though – and although it was a thrill ride, I will not queueing up for another go. The re-readability of murder mysteries once you know who the killer is is a discussion for another day, but while the mounting sense of dread and the stormy atmosphere were executed well, some aspects of the plot and connections between various characters defied belief. I don’t doubt that this will be another hit for Foley, and I look forward to reading her next whodunnit – although perhaps this time with more trepidation than excitement.

Notes from the Trenches – One Month Later

A small selection of the books I have yet to read…

I haven’t bought any new books since 4th January – but today, one month later, I broke my resolution. I bought two new books. Part of me is very disappointed in myself, but I’m mostly just happy to lift my self-imposed book buying ban – and I think my reasoning for doing so is sound.

It got to a point where I had ten books left to read (not counting one given to me by a dear friend which will feature on this blog soon in my next ‘Come At Me, Books!’ challenge). Most of these books were about Soviet Russia – the Gulag, the Great Terror, the Iron Curtain – and while I find the topic fascinating, the prospect of reading these books back to back was alarming. Ranging from almost 1000 pages to around 300, most of these books were very long, and considering their subject matter I knew it would be more of a hard slog than a fun reading experience. Reading should not be a slog or a chore – it should be fun and exciting, and I should look forward to reading rather than simply trying to tick books off of my TBR list. With all of this in mind, today I bought two much shorter, and arguably lighter books – Not Working by Lisa Owens and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I needed shorter books, specifically fiction, as a matter of literary urgency.

I may have failed to keep my third resolution, but I’m sticking to the others – witness my two blog posts last month, as well as the fact I only bought two books, one of which I plan to begin reading today. Both of them look very entertaining, and are very different to another few weeks in the Soviet state. What I found particularly interesting about purchasing these books was that it took me a long time to find them – I looked at a lot of books before finally choosing them, and not just because I wanted to have a good browse. Nothing seemed to grab me, and even some that did I ended up putting back, to be added to my TBR for later. Has my self-imposed ban made me more sceptical about which books I choose to spend money on? Who knows. All I can say at the moment is I look forward to reading some books set in the present rather than the past.

Notes from the Trenches – Day 18

Books read: 5
Books to read: 21
Currently reading: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow, Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson

It has been just over two weeks since I started my resolution to read all the books I currently own before buying anything new, and so far it’s been more challenging than I imagined.

The very idea of not being able to buy books, especially if there are deals on, or if I were to find a book I’d like to read in a charity shop… it’s sort of scary, and I realise that sounds dramatic. I am so determined to stick to this resolution that I have been deliberately avoiding bookshops in order to resist temptation, but instead of buying books I find that something strange is occurring. I’m not sure if this is just a problem I have, or if this is how capitalism works, but in place of buying books I find myself tempted to buy other things, things I wouldn’t normally buy (at least, not at that price). For example, I buy the majority of my clothes from charity shops, but yesterday I found myself trying on a cardigan that cost just over £20 – and that was it on sale. I’m glad it didn’t look right on and I didn’t buy it – as well as my reading resolutions, I’ve done several clearouts of my wardrobe recently and I want to wear the clothes I already own, not just buy more for the sake of buying something. Its the same with my jewellery – I tend to wear the same few necklaces and sets of earrings time and again, yet the other day I found myself drawn to a necklace for no other reason than that it was an unusual design, and it was on sale. I did not need it. I did not buy it.

All of this is not to say I am frivolous with my money, and having to rein myself in is difficult, but I’m no skinflint either. I have three main things I spend money on – food, things in charity shops (mostly books), and books from bookshops – and I honestly spend the most on books. 99.9% of the time when I walk into a bookshop I leave with a purchase, if not two or three. Perhaps that’s why I’m sort of trying to compensate with other items – and then I stop myself because I know I don’t need them. But I do need books. Hence why this resolution is so difficult. But I already have books, hence the resolution. I am reading them. I am enjoying them, for the most part. Is there just something to the act of buying books, that feeling of ‘I have lots of books at home, butI’m going to buy these anyway, who’s going to stop me?’ – or is that just the whole retail therapy thing, that rush of endorphines and dopamine when you buy something new and exciting? Is that why I have so many unread books on my shelves in the first place? Am I addicted to books?!

I was not expecting this book themed ‘New Year’s Resolution’ to turn into a therapy session. Oh dear. I quoted him when I started this blog and I’ll quote him again:

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” 
― Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

Reading Resolutions

A new year, and a new decade. It feels like it’s been that long since I posted here!

Unfortunately, during my time at Moniack Mhor I received a phone call from the hospital with my scan results (the scan had happened after the hospital stay I mentioned in my last post) and since then various medical appointments – and work – have kept me busy and exhausted, hence the lack of posts on this blog. One of the ongoing issues I have is severe iron deficiency anemia, which means I am incredibly tired pretty much all the time, no matter how much sleep I get. I’m hoping to combat that and my other medical issues this year – but more importantly as far as this blog goes, I fully intend to get back into writing proper reviews. Last year I read just over one hundred and sixty books – I’m not going to try and beat that, but I do hope to write more reviews than I did last year.

That is a very apt segue into some reading resolutions I’ve made for myself, which are as follows:

. Do my best to keep this blog up to date, posting once a month or more.

. Don’t buy books I’m interested in, find other books to read in the meantime, then find when getting to the original books find my interest has waned. In other words – only buy books I plan to read soon.

. Perhaps the most important one – as of just now, my TBR is nineteen books long, and I know I have a bunch of other books I haven’t added to this which friends have recommended to me/I have been given as gifts/I’ve been challenged to read (‘Come At Me, Books!’ will make a triumphant return very soon, watch this space)!

I WILL NOT BUY ANY MORE BOOKS UNTIL I HAVE READ THE ONES I ALREADY OWN.

Someone will need to hold me accountable for that last one.

Someone.

Anyone.

Please.

My unread books looking at me when I return from the book shop like…

It’s been a long time…

It has been over a month since I posted here, hence the lack of a clever (attempt at a) title. I planned to post some more mini reviews a couple of weeks ago, but on the Friday of that week (when I planned to spend the Saturday working on those reviews) I ended up being admitted to hospital. In the weeks that followed I was incredibly busy with work and have only found the time now to sit and post here. The reason for this is that I am actually on holiday – at Moniack Mhor in the Highlands! Mon and I have wanted to go on one of these week long writing retreats for ages, and a couple of months ago we said ‘why not?’ – and here we are! Mon is working on her amazing graphic novel adaptation of ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ – check out her work on Instagram at @monicaburns_art – and I’m working on a cheerful little play about two families forced to share a cramped apartment in Moscow in the 1930s. Fun times.

I brought books with me but whoops, our train terminated in Inverness. Where Leakeys a.k.a one of the most amazing bookshops ever is. So I may have bought more books to bring with me…

This is what I imagine Heaven looks like…

My book haul, on top of the one book I brought with me for research. Like an idiot.

I am having an amazing time so far, doing some research from said book pile when I’m not too busy looking out of the windows at the amazing scenery!

Sadly it’s been so long since I read those books I was going to do mini-reviews for, I feel as though it wouldn’t be wise to do them now, several weeks later. I’ll be honest, I’ve almost forgotten what happened in one of them! I hope to get back to writing book reviews soon, but in the meantime I really must take advantage of my time here to crack on with writing, and not just for this blog. I may have more updates later in the week but, if not, I’ll hopefully be back sooner rather than later with a review or two. 🙂

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It’s been exactly a month since I last uploaded a post on this blog, and I can’t entirely blame my new job as it’s not full-time! With that being said, I’ve found time over the past few weeks to read quite a few books and, in order to try and catch up, I’ll be writing brief reviews of some of them in this post – who knows, with the amount I read, this may become a regular feature when I can’t make time for writing my usual lengthy posts. I’ll review these books in no particular order (despite the picture) – all blurbs are from Goodreads.

The Good

A Man Called Ove

At first sight, Ove is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He thinks himself surrounded by idiots – neighbours who can’t reverse a trailer properly, joggers, shop assistants who talk in code, and the perpetrators of the vicious coup d’etat that ousted him as Chairman of the Residents’ Association. He will persist in making his daily inspection rounds of the local streets.

But isn’t it rare, these days, to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed? Such unswerving conviction about what the world should be, and a lifelong dedication to making it just so?

In the end, you will see, there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible…

The word-of-mouth bestseller causing a sensation across Europe, Fredrik Backman’s heartwarming debut is a funny, moving, uplifting tale of love and community that will leave you with a spring in your step – and less ready to judge on first impressions a man you might one day wish to have as your dearest friend.

This was an unexpected book for me in many ways, the first of which was that I found this copy in a charity shop, decided not to buy it as I was trying to be good, returned a couple of weeks later and it was still there. Clearly it was meant to be – I bought it and I am so glad I did. I had heard of this book before and I loved the premise, but I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did. I thought it would be a quick, lighthearted read to fit between longer and (so I thought) more complicated books but, although this book was lighthearted and had a heartwarming story overall, it was a lot darker than I expected. I loved it for that, and I look forward to reading more of Backman’s work.

The Rapture

Dilys is a devoted member of a terribly English cult: The Panacea Society, populated almost entirely by virtuous single ladies.

When she strikes up a friendship with Grace, a new recruit, God finally seems to be smiling upon her. The friends become closer as they wait for the Lord to return to their very own Garden of Eden, and Dilys feels she has found the right path at last.

But Dilys is wary of their leader’s zealotry and suspicious of those who would seem to influence her for their own ends. As her feelings for Grace bud and bloom, the Society around her begins to crumble. Faith is supplanted by doubt as both women come to question what is true and fear what is real.

Another unexpected book, in that I didn’t realise until I started reading that not only was this book set in the 1920s but it was also inspired by real events, and a real society! Although initially surprised (and admittedly a little disappointed as I’d been hoping for a creepy modern cult book – serves me right for buying the book based on the blurb alone!) I was quickly drawn into the world of the society. The writing was stylish without being overly stylised and helped to give a real flavour of the period, while the relationship between Dilys and Grace was believable and beautifully realised. A very unusual and entertaining book, and an assured debut.

The Bad

Middle England

The country is changing and, up and down the land, cracks are appearing – within families and between generations. In the Midlands Benjamin Trotter is trying to help his aged father navigate a Britain that seems to have forgotten he exists, whilst in London his friend Doug doesn’t understand why his teenage daughter is eternally enraged. Meanwhile, newlyweds Sophie and Ian can find nothing to agree on except the fact that their marriage is on the rocks . . .

I wouldn’t say this book was bad necessarily, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. It was billed as a comedy but I found very little to laugh about, not simply for the political turmoil unfolding but also since I ended up caring little for any of the characters. They all irritated me in one way or another, although perhaps that’s the point? Too often this book felt like it was simply retelling events such as the London 2012 Olympics or the Brexit referendum, rather than exploring the characters’ involvement in and reactions to them. Long story short, I expected more than I got with this book, and although it was engaging and well written enough that I read all the way to the end, I wouldn’t pick up another book by Coe in a hurry.

The Ugly (despite the pretty cover)

The Incendiaries

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet in their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is drawn into a secretive cult founded by a charismatic former student with an enigmatic past. When the group commits a violent act in the name of faith, Will finds himself struggling to confront a new version of the fanaticism he’s worked so hard to escape. Haunting and intense, The Incendiaries is a fractured love story that explores what can befall those who lose what they love most.

This book. Oh boy, where to start with this book? This book irritated me beyond belief. It promised a story about fanaticism and a secretive cult at a prestigious university. That ticks lots of my boxes, and I worry about what that says about me. But this isn’t about me, this is about how this book set up expectations and promptly dashed them. Firstly, it was bogged down by its writing – being pretentious and not using speech marks while you instead use overly flowery descriptions and archaic words just to seem smart? Not cool. The pretentiousness of the writing style overshadowed the story – not that there was much of that in the end. Forget a secretive cult and instead prepare yourself for long, pointless walks and a boring, angst-ridden ‘romance’ between our two protagonists. An incredibly disappointing book – thank goodness it was the shortest of the lot!

Bunny – Review

 ‘I clap along with them, and they all smile at me as if I’m a many-headed beast who is at last letting them put bows in its tentacles, braid its mange.’

I haven’t posted a review in a long time – my excuse is that I started a new job three weeks ago, and thus haven’t had time to read as much. That, and what I have read I haven’t felt strongly enough about to review – either I disliked it but didn’t hate it, or it was OK but I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t recommend any of these recent reads.

Then Bunny came along.

‘They look as out of place in the diner as two pieces of Easter confection in the apocalypse.’

I was through in Edinburgh for the day, and only had thirty pages left of my current book at the time – The Mars Room. While I had found the book easy to read, the writing style meant I felt distant from the protagonist, and this distance was not helped by changing POVs, nor the fact the story was not as interesting as I had thought it would be. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring another book with me. Whoops, looks like I’ll have to go to a bookshop, I have no choice!

Since this trip to the bookshop was unplanned I decided that I would be sensible and good and only buy a book if it was on my current Want To Read list – bad enough that I hadn’t brought another book and needed to go to the bookshop, I really should buy something I know I’d actually read, rather than picking something up on a whim. Unfortunately, none of the titles on my list jumped out at me. I found the books, I read a couple of pages, but they just didn’t grab me. I resorted to picking up books purely based on their titles and the design of their spines, seeing if any of them would spark an interest. Bunny‘s spine stuck out, as did its cover. Then there was the blurb.

Samantha Heather Mackey couldn’t be more of an outsider in her small, highly selective MFA program at New England’s Warren University. A scholarship student who prefers the company of her dark imagination to that of most people, she is utterly repelled by the rest of her fiction writing cohort – a clique of unbearably twee rich girls who call each other ‘Bunny’, and are often found entangled in a group hug so tight they become one.

But everything changes when Samantha receives an invitation to the Bunnies’ fabled ‘Smut Salon’, and finds herself inexplicably drawn to their front door. As Samantha plunges deeper and deeper into the sinister yet saccharine world of the Bunnies, the boundary between fiction and reality begins to blur.

A spellbinding, down-the-rabbit-hole tale of loneliness and belonging, creativity and agency, and friendship and desire, Bunny is the dazzlingly original second book from the author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

As one of the characters in Bunny says ”Well, I hope you find your book […] Maybe it will find you. Sometimes, you know, that happens’. I read the first couple of pages and I was hooked, cliche as that statement is. The writing style was darkly comic, from the description of the ‘Bunnies’ to the protagonist Samantha’s wish to destroy them: ‘They always came apart from these embraces intact and unwounded despite the ill will that poured forth from my staring eyes like so much comic-book-villain venom’. Although the book appeared to be a mix between Heathers, Mean Girls, and The Secret History, an already-been-done exploration of the darker side of a privileged university setting, I didn’t mind. I wanted to read more. This was the sort of book I needed at the moment, a book that had comedy within its darkness, a book that would (hopefully) be more entertaining than depressing, something to easily dip in and out of on my lunch break-

I’ll stop right there. I read this book (all 373 pages of it, apart from the few pages I read in the bookshop) in a day. I know it’s another cliche but I couldn’t put it down. Not because it was what I expected, but because it was the opposite. The writing style was still brilliant, and I enjoyed the characters and the plot, but around page 100… well… I don’t want to spoil this book but things take a very bizzare, unexpected twist. For the rest of the book I found myself questioning what was really happening and what was happening in Samantha’s mind. Whatever you think this twist is, I can promise you that your guess isn’t it. All I can tell you is that you’ll have to read the book to find out.

‘My words are far away. The words I need are high and floating in the sky like so many out-of-reach balloons. […] Why can’t I pull these words down from the sky?’

Bunny appears to be one thing, at first, then it quickly spirals into something far more sinister. It will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, and I will admit I did consider putting the book down when this twist occurred – but it was just so unexpected, I had to see what lay further down the rabbit hole. The book goes from making fun of pretentious creative types (The poets brace themselves for imminent, overeducated poverty […] fake poor and fashionably deranged’) to imitating their style of writing, just as Samantha is drawn into the Bunnies – one chapter where she speaks with them as a hive-mind, narrating as us, saying we did this and we did that, was particularly unnerving. I realise I’ve spent most of this review talking about how unusual this book is, how strange and disconcerting it is rather than the actual plot, but that’s only because I don’t want to spoil it for you. This book was unexpected for me in more ways than one, and I’m so glad I decided to pick it up.

“What do you think, Samantha?” Fosco asks me.

That it’s a piece of pretentious shit. That it says nothing, gives nothing. That I don’t understand it, that probably no-one does and no-one ever will. That not being understood is a privilege I can’t afford. That I can’t believe this woman got paid to come here. That I think she should apologise to trees. Spend a whole day on her knees in the forest, looking up at the trembling aspens and oaks and whatever other trees paper is made of with tears in her languid eyes and say, ‘I’m fucking sorry. I’m sorry that I think I’m so goddamned interesting when it is clear that I am not interesting. Here’s what I am: I’m a boring tree murderess.’

Some people may say this sort of thing about this book and I would honestly understand why they would, even though I personally enjoyed it. It is a bit pretentious, and it is difficult to get your head around but, unlike the vignettes and poems of the ‘Bunnies’, this is a book that I will remember for a very long time.

Chernobyl – Reading About Disaster

I have not posted on this blog for a few weeks, partly because I read two books on Chernobyl back to back before beginning to read a book about fictional events taking place at Scotland’s Secret Bunker. I had thought to do one huge post with mini reviews of all three books – but I gave up on the bunker book due to its overly simplistic narration, disjointed narrative of chapters within chapters, lack of proper characterisation (one character was not named until sixty pages in), and constant repitition of established facts. Instead of writing these mini-reviews, therefore, I’ll be briefly discussing something that came up in discussion with my dear friend Mon yesterday, when I had just finished reading Chernobyl Prayer.

Why did I do this?

Why did I deliberately read two books about the worst nuclear disaster in history back to back? I have no plans to watch the TV series. The play I’m planning to write is set in the 1930s, not the 1980s, so this doesn’t count as research. Yes, I have read another book by Alexievich and was interested to read another but… why Chernobyl? What is it about the infamous nuclear disaster that continues to horrify and fascinate, whether in fact or fiction? As mentioned, there’s a very popular series airing just now. Serhii Ploky’s book was published very recently, and won a number of awards. I understand this fascination – how could this have been allowed to happen? What actually happened when the reactor exploded? – as so many of the details have been classified for so long, and there has been so much misinformation and speculation. Chernobyl is now so much more than the name of the power plant near the city of Pripyat. The exclusion zone is the setting of horror films, violent mutant-killing video games, and you can even visit the zone as a tourist. What actually happened in 1986 is overtaken in the popular consciousness by images of mutant animals and people, horror stories of the dangers lurking within the abandoned city.

Reading these two books back to back helped me to gain a clearer and less sensationalist understanding of what occurred, both in terms of the history and what actually happened, and the effect the disaster had on people living near the reactor. These stories are often shocking and horrifying, it is true, but that is because they are real. There are no cows with three heads here, instead there are soldiers being ordered to shoot all the pets citizens left behind during the evacuation, cats and dogs who eagerly approached them upon recognising human voices. There are no stories of zombies glowing with radition, instead there are clean-up workers who had to move radioactive material with their bare hands, later dying gruesome deaths from radiation sickness. Plokhy’s book is clearly written and deals with the facts yet it reads like a thriller, while the interviews Alexievich has conducted range from optimism to hopelessness to anger – but perhaps the most enduring emotion was confusion. Why did this happen? Why was this kept from us? Why did no one tell us…?

These books, and others like them which look into the truth of what happened, are incredibly important. They need to be read, to dispell the falsehoods and the overdramatic exagerrations. The real stories of the workers, teachers, scientists, young and old – they need to be remembered.

But with that being said, I’m still questioning my decision of reading these books back to back. Wasn’t one book about a nuclear disaster enough? Clearly two wasn’t either, since I then started reading about a secret nuclear bunker in Scotland. Granted, I had recentley visited the bunker, that’s where I bought the book, but my point still stands – the world is a dark and frightening place, but must the entertainment I consume, the books I choose to read to get away from the world for a bit… why must they be frightening too? It took me a long time to read Chernobyl Prayer in particular as what these people had to endure was so horrifying, and when I finished reading it I had to just sit there for around half an hour, in order to try and process what I had read. What had really happened.

Our world is sadly not one of sunshine and rainbows and unicorns, no matter how much I wish it was sometimes. I understand that not all stories end happily. But I do know that the next book I read will be of a much sunnier disposition than these.

Normal People – Review

Whatever there is between him and Marianne, nothing good has ever come of it. It has only ever caused confusion and misery for everyone.

You don’t say…

Normal People has won numerous awards, been nominated for more, and has received rave reviews. There will be a TV series based on it coming out in 2020. It has been called ‘a future classic’ by The Guardian, and ‘the best novel published this year’ by The Times.

I have absolutely no idea why.

Normal People follows the on-again-off-again relationship of Connell and Marianne from their high school years to university and beyond. I say a relationship, but they never actually seem to be together. It’s more a case of they admit they like each other, they have sex, they can’t tell anyone, they feel they’re too different to make it as a couple, they break up, they’re seeing other people, they’re sad, being a twenty-something is so difficult, they have sex again… repeat for two hundred and sixty six pages and that pretty accurately sums up the book. I considered giving up only a few pages in, when Marianne says this about watching Connell play in a football match: ‘It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him’. But I persevered, if only to see where the multi-award winning writing came in. Instead, all I found was a toxic relationship, or lack thereof, or who even cares honestly, with one-dimensional characters, a non-existent plot, wooden dialogue and confusing chronology.

We were never together.
You were seeing each other, I thought.
Casually, he replied.
Young people these days. I can’t get my head around your relationships. […] When I was in school, she said, either you were going out with someone or you weren’t.

It concerns me slightly that I identify more with the mother of one of our protagonists than the characters who are my own age, though I realise that saying that makes me sound pretentious. But that’s all the Connell and Marianne seem to do, apart from navel-gazing, never communicating clearly and constantly questioning their friendship/relationship/whatever this is. Not only are the pair of them not relatable or particularly likeable, but Connell is incredibly possessive of Marianne, to the point where he talks about her like a piece of meat – ‘Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now’ – and Marianne, apart from all her other problems, seems perfectly content to be treated that way – ‘The barman looks frankly at her breasts while she’s talking. Marianne had no idea men really did such things outside of films and TV, and the experience gives her a little thrill of femininity’. She is also very possessive, crying uncontrollably when Connell tells her he has been seeing someone else, despite the fact she has had a number of boyfriends herself and their relationship has never been clearly defined – ‘In the time they’ve been friends he had never had a girlfriend. She’s never even given much thought to the idea that he might want one’. They’re both ridiculous, self-absorbed and ultimately horrible people, and I really don’t understand why their story took over two hundred pages to tell.

This being said, the secondary characters aren’t any better, barely fleshed out at all apart from a name and a couple of distinguishing features, such as their hair colour or clothes they’re wearing on one particular occasion. Rooney’s style focusses a great deal on minute, precise details of mundane tasks, from washing dishes to making a cup of tea, with simple sentences and a weighty, deadpan style. This is not literary or ‘astonishing’, as The Independent called it. This is dull, dull, dull.

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

Although the simplistic prose makes the novel easy to read – I read it in just a few hours – that does not make it a satisfying read. Not only is the vocabulary simplistic but alternating points of view are combined with a confusing authorial presence, the free style and lack of punctuation in the dialogue means that characters are difficult to differentiate from one another, and the tense shifts from the past to the present constantly, for no apparent reason. This sometimes happens within a paragraph. At one moment its ‘Marianne says’, and a couple of sentences later its ‘Marianne said’ – and this confusion happens with the chronology too. In one paragraph we’re in the present, then we’re in the past for a couple of paragraphs before being back in the present again. At one point early in the novel Connell is ‘sloppy drunk but hypocritically disgusted by the drunkenness of everyone around him’ – and, to me, that paints a fairly accurate picture of this book. Its a sloppy mess that thinks of itself as high art, as being above other books when, in reality, its nothing special.

Normal People: a boring title for a boring book. If this is normality, I don’t want any part of it.

Metamorphosis – Review

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’

It has been a month now since I last wrote a review and so I thought it fitting that, when I returned to writing, I did so with a review for a book I have been meaning to read for a long time. I say a book but I really mean a short story – Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It is one of those stories that everyone knows the premise of, and it is probably Kafka’s best known work. As such, I felt rather intimidated at the prospect of reviewing it. What could I possible say about this story that hasn’t already been said in a more eloquent and scholarly way? Well, I can begin by saying that this story surprised me. Of course, waking up and finding oneself transformed into an insect would be a surprise to anyone, but it was the way in which Kafka told his story – the deft, precise prose, the minute details, the fusion of humour and horror – was what most caught my attention while reading. Perhaps this is because of the often misused and misinterpreted phrase ‘Kafkaesque’, or due to my limited knowledge of Kafka’s own biography, but I had expected the story to be complicated, perhaps even impenetrable, like so much red tape. What I found instead was a darkly comic story, sparsely told from a small premise, proving the point Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the Introduction to this collection, makes – ‘so much less [is] necessary to create a story than people [think]’. 

In his Introduction, Thirlwell also states that ‘Often, these are the funniest jokes of all – the ones that are not really funny. They are often slightly sad.’, and this is definitely true of Metamorphosis. Gregor’s transformation is grotesque and frightening but, at the same time, the image of him struggling to get out of bed on his tiny new legs, or that of his father shooing him away with the insect Gregor looking pleadingly back at him – these images are amusing in spite of their sadness. But the story’s humour begins even before Gregor attempts to get out of bed, as his immediate concern is not that he has become a giant insect, but that he has overslept.

The next train was at seven o’clock; to catch that he would need to hurry like mad and his samples weren’t even packed up, and he himself wasn’t feeling particularly fresh and active.

As the story builds throughout its fifty one pages, we see Gregor face a series of different challenges, from attempting to communicate with his family to being pelted with apples by his father, to his mother and sister attempting to move furniture from his room which he wants to keep to retain some sense of his human self. Although these situations are often comic, because the characters of Gregor’s family, the servants, and the eventual lodgers are only shown through a few details, we sympathise the most with Gregor as his situation worsens. His situation – and, indeed, the plot of Metamorphosis – is very simple, with his transformation beginning a series of interactions and inconveniences that build towards a climax, and so it is the execution, the details, that really make it gripping. From the description of Gregor’s father – ‘his father leaned against the door, the right hand thrust between two buttons of his livery coat, which was formally buttoned up’ – to his sister’s various efforts to find him food that he will enjoy, the details are small but help to paint a fuller picture of the family and their surroundings, so much so that it comes as a shock when Gregor’s formerly sympathetic sister states ‘…we must try to get rid of it. We’ve tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as humanly possible, and I don’t think anyone could reproach us in the slightest.’

Metamorphosis may be a small story, but it packs a powerful punch, and is a fantastic introduction of Kafka’s unique style. It has certainly piqued my interest in reading more of his work in the future – especially since his characters’ attempts to understand the logic of the nightmarish world in which they find themselves seems particularly relevant these days.