"It's not that I don't like people. It's just that when I'm in the company of others - even my nearest and dearest - there always comes a moment when I'd rather be reading a book" Maureen Corrigan
I've sort of lost the motivation for reading this month. I've started, and given up on, quite a few books, and mostly found myself listening to Desert Island Discs while walking to and from work, or cooking my dinner. Maybe it's a February thing, several folk have said they've struggled to concentrate recently - I've still not finished this month's Curtis Brown Book Group pick, which isn't like me at all. Anyway, a round up of February's reads:
32. Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. 4/5
Ah, Poirot. After feeling the need for a lot of comfort books last month, I turned again to a favourite author this month. Styles introduces us to Poirot and his sidekicks Japp and Hastings in rather spectacular style. Christie's debut novel, set in 1916, sees Captain Hastings on leave from the army and recuperating from a minor injury at Styles Court, a country estate owned by family friends. When the matriarch of the house is murdered and the family begins to fall apart, Poirot (who has recently moved to England as a Belgian refugee) is called in to solve the crime. It's a fairly easygoing romp, an excellent introduction to the well loved series with a rather good twist at the end. I was surprised that I'd somehow never read this classic. Thoroughly enjoyable.
33. Marian Keyes, The Woman Who Stole My Life. 2/5.
When this came through the post as part of my Curtis Brown Book Group welcome pack, I was really looking forward to devouring it. Having enjoyed another of Keyes' novels recently, albeit one that is part of a series, I had really high hopes for this standalone novel which has had rave reviews. However... I was disappointed. It started off promisingly, with the introduction of our lead character, Stella, who develops the life changing Guillain-Barre syndrome and finds herself suddenly paralysed. As the weeks in hospital pass, Stella begins to form a friendship with her neurologist, Mannix Taylor. The book has a really odd structure - it's sort of three books in one - spoiler alert - the "present", the "past" and the "book in a book". While this helps the narrative move along, and creates a bit of mystery, I found myself guessing what was coming up due to clues earlier on, which spoilt it for me a bit.
The other thing that really spoilt it was, if I'm honest - I couldn't stand any of the characters. Stella, the lead, was wishy washy. Her husband was an arrogant arse. Her kids were unbearable. Most frustratingly - Mannix Taylor should have been struck off the medical register at about fifteen points in the novel. I also got really, really frustrated with how unpleasantly Keyes describes the nurses - a little point, but it really jarred and was borderline offensive. I feel a bit like Keyes had tried to write a 'lighter' novel with this one, but for me it flew way past the mark.
34. Sue Townsend, The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year. 3/5.
I'm not sure that reading this straight after another book entitled "The Woman Who..." but after starting this a couple of years ago and leaving it on a train several chapters in, I spotted it in a charity shop I thought I'd give it another go. It tells the tale of Eva, who goes to bed on the day that her twins go to university, and refuses to get out of it again. She's not mad - she's just exhausted. Her obnoxious family don't appreciate her, her husband has been having an affair, and she hates her job. As far as key themes go - it's certainly one which a lot of people will identify with.
I'd been expecting this to be a funny and wry look at mental health and 'normality' so I was surprised when it began to get into a slightly surreal plot. I spent a lot of the book wondering where it was going to 'go'. I'm not sure that's a good thing. What could have been a really interesting exploration ended up being a little bit of a farce - the most interesting parts were the tiny subplots involving the conspiracy theorists who take up residence in her front garden, and her friendship with Alexander, a Rastafarian White Van Man who she hires to get rid of all of her furniture. Speaking of Alexander - the other thing I wasn't a fan of was that he was one of only two characters in the book who were bearable, the other being an elderly man who was horribly disfigured in a plane crash during World War Two.
It passed the time, but I wouldn't rush to recommend it to anyone.
35. J K Rowling, The Casual Vacancy. 4/5.
Having spotted The Casual Vacancy on my Sunday night TV schedule, I thought it'd be a good idea to give it a read first - it has been on my 'list' for a long time. Inevitably publishing anything off the back of Harry Potter was going to be a struggle (hence, I presume, the Robert Galbraith scandal) and this book has ended up a little bit like literary marmite.
When Barry Fairbrother, member of the Pagford Parish Council, dies suddenly, a 'casual vacancy' is created on the council. It becomes apparent how much one man is held in high regard by his neighbours, and without his input, competition for power emerges. Existing councillors begin to question themselves and their allegiances, and prospective candidates begin plotting.
At the heart of The Casual Vacancy are some really dark themes. Drug addiction, child abuse (physical and neglect), bullying, depression, alcoholism - all are portrayed so casually that I was almost impressed when I'd finished the book. It wasn't hard hitting as such, it was so well written that it took me a while to really realise how subtly the characterisation had occurred. The contrast between the 'rich' Pagford old town and the 'poor' Fields council estate was slightly overegged (although a family member who is a social worker in the West Country, where it's set, assures me it's pretty realistic), but the snobberies and casual racism thrown about by both sides was very realistic and well written. I really enjoyed the multi character nature too, particularly how well drawn the teenagers were. Arguably they were the most pleasant and enlightened folk in the whole town - unusual to read a novel where teens are portrayed in a positive light. Dark, brutal and thought-provoking - worth reading.