Reviews: Recommended and Steer Clear!

It’s been a long old time, not least because I’ve gone a bit blog-crazy and set up two new ones to incorporate my latest passions: running and crafting (the two don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, I know). However, I haven’t stopped reading (nor have I perfected the recipe for adding a few hours to the day, sadly); below are my must-reads and my to-avoids of 2019 so far – see if you agree…!

Must Reads:

9781784759438Tom Hanks: ‘Uncommon Type’

I adore Tom Hanks – he always comes across as humble, hilarious and witty, so when I saw he’d tapped out a book on one of his many typewriters I knew I’d have to give it a go. It’s a collection of short stories ranging from the everyday to the (literally) out of this world. They’re simple, they’re straightforward, they’re just darn lovely. What I loved about these stories was their easygoing nature; nothing took itself too seriously, it was a pleasant read at the end of the day to ease myself into rest for the night. Definitely a must-read if you want the calm and chilled story.

Deborah Rodriguez: ‘The Kabul Beauty School’

I love the ‘Coffee Shop’ books by Deborah Rodriguez, and ‘Kabul Beauty School’ has been sat on my shelf a shameful amount of time. It’s insightful, it’s funny and it’s heartbreaking, but what a wonderful way to get to know one of the perceived most dangerous areas in the world. I would never have associated Afghanistan with the need for manicures, but what Rodriguez shows you in sparkling style is how even the humble haircut can change a life for the better in the most troubled of times. She doesn’t deny the harsh realities of living in a war zone, but this is complemented with the rays of sunshine poking through the clouds. It’s a gem and an enlightening experience.

Ben Elton: ‘Blind Faith’71rxq3s2bccl

I LOVE Ben Elton; his writing is never overly-intellectualised or complicated, but it is so incredibly precise in aiming its satire right at you and making you reevaluate your entire life that it feels like I’ve been stripped and judged to my very soul. ‘Blind Faith’ is no exception: I genuinely can’t take the world seriously any more. I can’t see an ill-fitting outfit without thinking of the citizens in the book defending their right to flash everything. I can’t go on social media without reflecting on the absurdity of communitainment advice. And when the royal baby name came out? I couldn’t help but wonder if Archie Happymeal might be on the cards. Read this for a real examination of our cultural values, delivered so obviously yet subtly; it’s a masterclass in exposing people without them realising it, and Elton is certainly a magician in revealing what was there all along.

Elizabeth Gilbert: ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

Another one sat on the shelf for longer than it should have been, this wasn’t overly complex but it was thoughtful and written so as to make you reassess your life without preaching at you, which is a dandy old combination for me! It’s a treasure trove of wonderful sayings, quotes and mantras designed to help enrich your life and put a smile on your face; I challenge anyone not to come away without some form of gentle resolve for their everyday existence.

9781782118640Matt Haig: ‘How to Stop Time’

Haig’s book follows what seems like an enviable character: he doesn’t age. But the downsides become a heartbreaking journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Yes, the climax seems a little odd after such a drift-along gentle plot on the whole, but it serves the purpose to fly our characters into love, happiness and acceptance; and perhaps its readers, too.



Steer Clear:

Aidan Chambers: ‘Postcards From No-Man’s Land’51w16tpa6wl._sx326_bo1204203200_

Granted, the target audience for this is probably a lot younger than man, but as a former teacher I’ve always taken a keen interest in what teen fiction is coming out now, and as a Carnegie Medal winner it piqued my interest. Don’t get me wrong, some of it was touching and beautifully written, but for me, particularly with my ex-teacher hat on, it tried to do too much too subtly. I’m not exactly daft and I struggled with why it was ‘postcards’ when it seemed more of a reflection/diary, and I’m so glad it was spelled out Ton was a boy early on as even when rereading I couldn’t pick up on those clues. There were just too many threads being pulled at: sexuality (big disappointment: potential homosexuality quickly overshadowed by heterosexuality, this felt like it undermined itself), war, identity, death…Each issue was so vast and weighty that none got their full worth recognised; it was clumsy and clunky to get through, and not an experience I’d repeat.

Mary Renault: ‘The King Must Die’

I read this because everyone kept comparing the wonderful Madeline Miller (a la ‘Circe’ and ‘The Song of Achilles’) to her predecessor; how could I resist? Boy, I wish I had: I don’t know how I got to the end of this but it’s incredibly literal style, paired with expecting you to know things have happened when you’ve not been told, completely lost me. I’ve got another Renault on my shelf, but I’m not sure I’ll manage another dose of cold, stark history lesson, so I might give it a miss!

Review: ‘Dead Famous’ by Ben Elton

In a culture obsessed with fame and fortune, the cynically-minded revel in poking at the dark underbelly of celebrity, where scandal and secrets lie in wait for us to find. Cue Elton’s ‘Dead Famous’, a novel centring itself around the calamity that is ‘Big Brother’, a.k.a. ‘House Arrest’, and how ugly the pursuit of happiness is when tainted with misplaced ambition.

Like ‘Chart Throb’, Elton’s writing style isn’t spectacular. However, you lose sight of this almost instantly; the black humour running throughout the book, based on observations from reality, are utterly absorbing. In a perverse way, it’s refreshing to see that people know and recognise how desperate celebrity culture makes people, and how it turns them into people they shouldn’t want to be. The repetition of buzz-words was one of my favourite comic moments: the vacuousness and inability to string coherent thoughts together in a sophisticated way highlighted the fragility, and ridiculousness, of fame. Chloe’s decision to aid Coleridge with his dramatic monologue in the big reveal was hilarious; support and motivation can officially never contain the words ‘cool’ and ‘wicked’. Which brings me to the big revealer himself.

I did not warm to Coleridge; he essentially embodied how I feel about reality television, and yet there was something stopping me from following his lead. I think, essentially, he wasn’t a plausible character: there is no one on this earth who is untouched by our warped obsessions with celebrities, so to claim total ignorance with regards to everything is either a lie or shows a very limited person. In this respect, the ‘Macbeth’ role in the final throws of the novel was very fitting: suddenly, life beca

me about using and abusing your connections for Coleridge, demonstrating that even the pillars of a community can be corrupted. Perhaps this was the point: the inevitable downfall of each and every person to their own pursuits of notoriety, no matter how small or apparently insubstantial.

I’ll admit as well, I was a bit disappointed with the reveal at the end. Without giving too much away, I expected more, because I feltlike the perpetrator was the obvious candidate. Perhaps I’ve been reading too many thrillers though; I mean, who else had such a motive for such a vile and evidently entertaining crime? But then, the plot had built up to everyone having a motive; and to be honest, I was expecting the whole situation to have been staged to show the gullibility of the public when it comes to celebrity sensations. It felt too obvious, and Coleridge’s speech made it too drawn out; gone was the spark of curiosity, to be replaced with a snoring sound and a desire to tell Coleridge to just get on with it. It made it obvious where we were being led to, and eliminated the drama; not  a positive thing when the book is centred on creating drama from obscurity (the cheese incident, anyone?).

On the whole, though, for people with a wicked (not cool) sense of humour and a desire to see the world put to rights, this is an entertaining read, which confirms that life is a giant set up, and we’re all playing our own little games.

Review: ‘Chart Throb’ – Ben Elton

A real chart-breaker - Elton's 'Chart Throb'.

A fan of X Factor? Then this book isn’t for you. Ben Elton rips the reality world apart in order to expose the underlying rot that is the foundation for a large proportion of the celebrity culture – and it was a riveting read.

The plot is essentially this – the world of X Factor and by proxy The Osbournes is parodied to the extreme, outlining the corruption that we could see but choose to ignore. We all know shows like this are massive manipulators – nowadays we know that reality TV is not just a fly on the wall, but a fly that looks suspiciously like a script-writer/director/manager all rolled into one to maintain a very carefully constructed image.

The biggest example of this is the odious Beryl Blenheim. The ‘rock chick from way back’ (a phrase I never want to hear again after this) had ruined her family to the point that they sought vengeance in the only way she would understand – a televised mental torture extravaganza. The Priscilla-Shaiana reveal was one of the cleverest bits of the entire novel, and one that I really didn’t see coming – Elton weaves the characters together in Beryl’s final scene within the novel so as to maintain the illusion of two separate identities until the last moment possible, and our realisation is linked to Beryl’s through this.

Calvin Simms, of the wittily named CALonic TV (a suggestion of purging television content there?) was as confusing as his real-life alter ego, the brilliant and arrogant Simon Cowell (SyCo TV – so purging the SyCo’s of the world now?). Personally, I love how cocky and self-assured Simon Cowell is, and Elton had clearly and successfully emulated the TV guru to present in Calvin a character who is an absolute pig-headed social genius who has created an empire based on the simple truth that the audience is never an independent judge, they’re an extension of what the director wants to happen. This is why HRH’s success is so underplayed – Calvin was never in any danger of losing when he could control popularity with the change of a costume and a disastrous song. This is why it shouldn’t be shocking that he effectively wins Emma, and yet it is, because Elton truly leads you to believe that the veil of superficiality has been lifted from his relationship issues. But no: Calvin Simm’s is all about control and conquests, something he does very effectively, from getting a shot of Rodney coming out of a car alone to getting his fired employee to sleep with him. It’s interesting that Dakota is the only one who Calvin can’t control, which prompts his relationship with Emma – she is able to be manipulated, cajoled, persuaded into love and makes no demands that can’t be met. Easy target.

Rodney is the true tragedy of the story – so desperate for fame, he embodies the neediness of the contestants to be loved, to make it in a harsh world that is only interested in headlines. His story arc is interesting in this respect – his move from the third and lesser judge to tabloid gold and then to spurned lover show that popularity comes at a price. Fame is only for the strong, and the weak are pushed to the bottom of the pile and reserved for the slow news day, or the day they are utterly humiliated on live TV – shame.

The plot itself isn’t too complex. The live shows are dealt with quickly and efficiently, showing the banality of the entire process. The biggest portion of the book is devoted to setting up the conditions to manipulate the live shows which are supposedly ‘anyone’s game’. Despite the judges lack of involvement, they are carrying an pre-determined image for each contestant – from making the clingers cry to making the mingers go mad and the blingers turn brassy, the production process is a better show of scriptwriting than most popular dramas.

The best line, in my view, is the last one, summing up our entire culture in one outrageous statistic: ‘At the current rate of expansion it is reckoned by the year 2050 everybody in the world will be either a pop star or the subject of their own reality TV show.’