Book review: Orange Is the New Black – Piper Kerman (memoir, ****)

“Don’t make any friends,” Piper Kerman’s lawyer warns her just before she enters prison for a one-year stint on a drug-money charge.

Indeed, at the outset of Orange Is the New Black – and especially if you’ve seen the TV adaptation – it’s easy to anticipate that rich-girl TV producer Kerman will find nothing in common with her hardscrabble fellow convicts.

I’d read so many wildly-differing reviews of this book (some glowing, but most negative) that it had ultimately fallen off my to-read list. But I started listening to it as an audio book on a whim and was surprised at how much I loved it.

Orange is not without its horrors – Kerman is shuffled through some penitentiaries that seem designed to drain away your will to live – but it’s actually a much gentler, light-hearted read than the premise might suggest. There’s little violence or hazing; most of what Kerman finds insufferable about prison is the loss of dignity and overbearing system of oft-nonsensical rules.

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Book review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark (fiction, ***)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel so immediately charming that you can see instantly why it’s a classic. The audio book is read with aplomb by Miriam Margolyes (petition for Miriam Margolyes to read all audio books starts here), and so it’s easy to be enraptured in Prime’s witty idiosyncrasies.

Set at an Edinburgh private school in the 1930s, the titular Miss Brodie – teacher to a group of young girls who become her somewhat reluctant protégés – is a fantastic character: gloriously self-absorbed and hilariously pretentious. The school’s curriculum is rather left in the dust, as Miss Brodie instead lectures on art and music and adventure – and, of course, how wonderful the Fascist dictators on the continent are.

The story of young students and their magnetic teacher is now a well-trodden one, so I was surprised at how fresh this one felt, even in 2014. The wit of Muriel Spark is razor-sharp and her observations of adolescence and pre-adolescence are beautifully, uncomfortably accurate. She brings to life a funny, poignant world of pre-teen girls, where the obsession with sex is all-consuming – even though the young characters scarcely know what sex is (only that it’s terribly easy to get “swept away” and end up pregnant).

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Book review: Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell (non-fiction, ***)

I thought the “do something for a year and then write a book about it” trend in publishing was a fairly new thing, but apparently not. Just call George Orwell ‘Diablo Cody’, ‘cause here it is: his “I’ll just pretend to be poor for a while and write a book about it” book.

This is perhaps underselling Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a classic for good reason. Indeed, Orwell writes lucidly of life as a dishwasher in Paris and being ‘on the road’ as a tramp around London, vividly capturing the wretchedness of starvation and overwork.

I wondered, when I picked up Down and Out, if it would still be relevant some 80 years after its publication, but in fact, I found it remarkably resonant. Some aspects of Orwell’s experiences are wholly alien (casual wards for tramps to spend the night – ???), but working round-the-clock at a menial job or sleeping rough are still depressingly intrinsic to life now. Though I found Down and Out very depressing, it did give me a lot to think about.

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Book review: The Pregnancy Project – Gaby Rodriguez (non-fiction, ***)

What do you say about that girl in your high school class who gets pregnant? She’s a slut, right? She’s stupid. She’s ruined her life. And, oh yeah, you kinda knew it was coming.

Gaby Rodriguez knew the type of things people say about pregnant teenagers better than most – her mom got pregnant at 14; her siblings, almost without exception, became parents as teenagers; and even their children are now continuing the cycle.

This seemingly-endless cycle forms the backdrop to a unique school project – one that, as it turned out, would court massive media attention. Rodriguez, a straight-A student, a leadership volunteer, and an all-around ‘good girl’, decided to fake a pregnancy of her own and see how the people around her reacted.

The reaction? In short: she’s a slut, she’s stupid, she’s ruined her life, and they knew it would happen.

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Book review: Pity the Billionaire – Thomas Frank (non-fiction, ***)

In Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank seeks to unravel the peculiar mystery of how the 2008 financial crash paved the way for the Tea Party and the resurgence of the Republicans in the US.

The answer is many-layered, but it mainly lies in rhetoric that lumps together big business and big government indiscriminately, an erroneous tendency to conflate the interests of small businesses with the interests of big corporates (even though they’re wildly different), plus some rather outrageous pilfering of the branding and tactics used by leftist activists.

There’s so much interesting material in this book that it’s a shame it didn’t hold my interest more. I’ve read (or tried to read) three of Thomas Frank’s books now and I’m becoming wise to his weaknesses as a writer. His ‘poli-sci nerd’ creds may be his strength as a commentator, but it means his books tend to be rambling and unfocused. Billionaire is a lot more readable than One Market Under God (which seemed to me more like an Masters thesis than a book for general audiences), but it’s lacking the easy panache of a more journalistic read like Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia.

Plus: while I found Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? retained a sense of long-term relevance, Billionaire already feels a bit stale, even though it was only published a couple of years ago.

I’d recommend reading What’s the Matter With Kansas? (and, indeed, the aforementioned Griftopia) before this one.

I guess you could… follow me on twitter: @njmwrites

Book review: The Secret Rooms – Catherine Bailey (non-fiction, ****)

This is a story about impulse buying borrowing and how sometimes a 10-second-sell really delivers:

I was browsing the Regional History section of my local library (I know, what a life I lead; full of danger and intrigue at every juncture) and I found this book titled, The Secret Rooms. I thought, “I love secret rooms!” Then I read the blurb, setting up the mystery of why a set of rooms in a mouldering country estate were sealed upon the death of the lord of the manor, and I thought, “Ohmygod, what happened? I need to know what happened!”

And guess what? This story of impulse borrowing has a happy ending, because reading The Secret Rooms turned out to be just as satisfying as I’d hoped. Now onto the story of the book itself…

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Book review: The Third Man – Graham Greene (fiction, ***)

The hardest thing about reviewing The Third Man is to judge it on its own terms. I was initially drawn to the novel for its setting of postwar Vienna – a ‘smashed city’ that has been divided among the Allies, none of whom are getting on terribly well.

Does Graham Greene find anything particularly profound to say about postwar Vienna? Well, no. It’s just a grubby, uneasy backdrop for a grubby, uneasy tale of crime – which is all Greene sets out to accomplish, after all.

The result is a brisk, compelling story about black market racketeering, with a twist I didn’t see coming and a requisite (though not quite believable) shootout to finish. Add in a genuinely funny subplot about the protagonist being mistaken for a famous literary author and the whole thing becomes eminently readable.

‘Readable’ is not the most glowing of compliments you can give to a novel. Did I wish it had more depth of emotion, more literary cachet, more challenging viewpoints, more female characters? Of course. Is it fair to ask those things of a popular novel published in 1949? No.

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Book review: The Summer Without Men – Siri Hustvedt (fiction, **)

The Summer Without Men is a sleepy-yet-frustrating read that I’m about 90% sure is pretentious tosh (and about 10% sure I’m just too dumb to ‘get’).

I’ll say this for her, Siri Hustvedt seems like she’d be a great dinner party guest. Summer is full of pithy social and philosophical digressions. In fact, it might better be titled “Siri Hustvedt Rants About Stuff”. The novel’s story is mostly incidental: middle-aged New Yorker Mia goes to spend the summer in the Midwest after a nervous breakdown that follows her husband leaving her for another woman.

Mia’s interactions with the various women she meets – and yes, all the principal characters are women; something that might be ~radical if this were 1965 – are occasionally interesting, but not enough to sustain even this slight novel. The whole thing just feels unfocused. The few bits of plotting are either overcooked (a subplot about teenage bullying gets stupidly, unconvincingly melodramatic) or left to unravel (what happened to Mia’s diary of sexual encounters? Was “Mr Nobody” supposed to be a manifestation of her craziness? I guess we’ll never know!).

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Book review: Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery – Robert Kolker (non-fiction, ****)

“I can’t believe they’re doing all this for a whore,” comments a TV cameraman to the author of Lost Girls.

‘Whore’, it is clear, ranks significantly below ‘human being’. The quoted cameraman is tasked with covering a memorial service held for the victims of the Long Island serial killer. The serial killer in question is the latest in a long run of killers who have managed to stay beneath the radar largely because they targeted prostitutes (and not, y’know, actual people).

In Lost Girls, Robert Kolker seeks to breathe life into the stories of five of these non-people whose bodies were found dumped on a stretch of shoreline in New York in 2011. He renders these women’s lives – full of ambition and dreams and, yes, often poverty and abuse – with a deft, thoughtful touch.

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Book review: The Three – Sarah Lotz (fiction, ***)

It is perhaps gruesomely fortuitous that The Three was published so soon after the media storm surrounding MH370. It certainly proves that the public fascination (nay, hysteria) surrounding plane crashes that is depicted by Sarah Lotz is far from fictional in origin.

In Lotz’s novel, four planes crash in a single day, leaving just three survivors, all children. The Three charts the aftermath of this catastrophe and the fates of the survivors, bringing together a diverse set of themes – from evangelical Christian ideas of the Rapture to online romance and Hikikomori (Japanese recluses) – and adding a dash of the supernatural.

The Three is structured using reminisces from a huge cast of characters – from the emergency services people first on the scene, to the relatives left to pick up the pieces. And what’s wonderful about The Three is how well Lotz is able to breathe life into such a variety of characters (a Japanese teenager, a Texan prostitute, a plummy Brit actor, etc.). This novel is a masterclass in quick, deft characterization.

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Book review: Reconstructing Amelia – Kimberly McCreight (fiction, ***)

There’s inherent drama at the heart of Reconstructing Amelia, as a mother attempts to understand why her teenage daughter Amelia was killed and how the incident was framed as a suicide. She does this largely by sifting through Amelia’s texts and online correspondence.

I was immediately drawn to the novel’s central, squirm-inducing idea: that of your mother (or other loved ones) sorting through your things after your death, learning your secrets. And, for the mother, the process of reconciling the person your daughter actually was – rather than who you thought she was – is fascinating. To quote Sally Draper in the latest season of Mad Men, “I am so many people.” We are all so many people. And how might our loved ones come to understand our many facets after we die?

In addition to this arresting question, Kimberly McCreight creates a rich backdrop to her story, with secret societies, hazing rituals and burgeoning sexuality all forming a part of the novel. The result is a mystery with (just about) enough surprises to keep my attention. But I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that McCreight never manages to plumb the depths of her premise. All that inherent drama – but without anything new or insightful to say about it.

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Book review: A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh (fiction, ***)

Atmospheric and richly detailed, A Lovely Way To Burn starts out as an immersive thriller set in the beginning days of a sickness epidemic called “the sweats” that’s wiping out thousands of London’s population. Our protagonist, however, is more than a little distracted from what’s going on – by the fact that her boyfriend’s just been murdered and no one seems to care.

Louise Welsh beautifully evokes London in the height of summertime as a petri dish of squirming humanity. Her eye for scenery and detail is excellent: the little moments that pass us by in life are, here, elegantly captured and examined for meaning. The protagonist, Stevie, who works as a TV shopping host, also makes for a promising centre point to the novel: by far my favourite scenes are the descriptions of Stevie selling toasters on TV at 6 a.m. with softcore porn abandon.

However, I found the resulting novel disappointing. It’s somehow simultaneously too ambitious and yet too narrow in scope. The mystery of who murdered Stevie’s boyfriend feels too rote, too obviously constructed. The best parts of Welsh’s writing are the organic details, but they end up buried beneath a paint-by-numbers whodunit.

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Book review: Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control – Dominic Streatfeild (non-fiction, ****)

This was one of those meaty, satisfying non-fiction reads that it’s nonetheless hard to say too much about. It was… good? I… enjoyed it? I… will probably have forgotten it by next month?

Brainwash explores various avenues of mind control from the past century: from state-sponsored experimentation with ‘truth drugs’ to academic explorations of sensory deprivation tanks that cause participants to begin hallucinating within hours.

Inevitably, some chapters are better than others (the ‘messages hidden in rock records’ chapter is mostly bobbins), but Dominic Streatfeild keeps a good handle on his material, always taking things back to personal stories. (This is basically a masterclass on how to structure a non-fiction book. Lesser authors should take note.)

Although it’s a genuinely engaging read, I do think Brainwash is over-long and there’s still a little bit of fat that could have been trimmed from the book. Plus, the publisher pulls the classic bait-and-switch, sneakily reducing the font size to make this look like 100,000 words when it’s actually much longer. But I can’t complain too much.

One to read on a long journey. Preferably on an e-reader with the font size jacked up.

Book review: Blueprints for Building Better Girls – Elissa Schappell (short stories, ***)

Stylistically, Blueprints for Building Better Girls is right up my alley: it serves up punchy, character-driven short stories about women that are told with humour and grit.

Although the stories tread familiar themes – women wronged (benignly, maliciously) by the men in their lives; women with eating disorders; women pushed to the side of their own lives by the demands of family – I was surprised at how memorable I found many of them.

These are character studies more than plotty works, but in many cases, the contents of the story spools out far beyond its 5,000-word boundaries. For instance, I’m still thinking about the first story of the collection, which matches ‘the school slut’ with the fat loser punchbag of a boy – with only one of those characters able to transcend their label. (Hint: It’s not the girl. It’s never the girl.)

I enjoyed these stories and a couple of them may even stick with me long-term, but nonetheless my overriding feeling was one of: “yeah, and…?” When you’re picking story themes, it’s a fine line between familiar and safe, and Blueprints errs too far on the side of ‘safe’, if you ask me. Do I need to read another story about dissatisfied young mothers? Or another story where the ‘twist’ is that the protagonist has been raped?

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Book review: The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh (fiction, ***)

With its languorous descriptions of a rustic village in Mallorca, The Lemon Grove is a novel that effortlessly whisks you away to a sunny day spent abroad (even if you’re reading it on a miserable wet day in England). The sticky heat of Helen Walsh’s setting is compounded by emotional heat, as the middle-aged protagonist, Jenn, struggles with her growing attraction to her stepdaughter’s teenage boyfriend, Nathan.

This holiday-romance-with-a-disturbing-twist is described alternately in terms of breathless abandon and suffocating disquiet. Walsh handles the fine line between erotica and literature deftly (the sex scenes aren’t the purposely unsexy type usually found in literary fiction, but they’re also not the soft-focus liaisons of the romance genre).

Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel that the central relationship was quite enough to fill a whole novel. There’s a thriller element to the story – an encroaching sense of dread; a narrative peppered with Things That Will Become Relevant – but there’s ultimately not enough drama to earn the badge of ‘thriller’.

Walsh tries to pad out the story with a few subplots and mysteries, most of which I found frankly banal. Jenn agonizes over the fact that she didn’t get her kicks while she was young enough to do so. (Yawn.) Jenn’s husband is being messed around by New Business types at work. (Yaaawn.) Talk about #firstworldproblems: all of the concerns in this book are so middle class that my eyes were rolling out of my head by the end.

Add in the fact that the novel ends with an unconvincing crisis (Jenn’s stepdaughter is lost in a storm, OHNOES!!!!) and a lazy, dot-dot-dot conclusion, and I became a bit tired of the whole thing. Read it on holiday for its great resort-town observations, but don’t expect anything too thrilling.