Notes by Nectar

Your destiny lies in your own hands

Review: Life and Laughing

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At the beginning of 2011, a friend introduced me to Michael McIntyre. Not to him personally, but to his comedy. Of course I’d heard of him but I’d never sat down and watched his shows. She lent me two DVDs which I’m ashamed to say I kept for ages. Not because I was watching them over and over again, but because I hadn’t got round to watching them at all!

Towards the end of my week off in February, I decided I was going to watch them. I was laughing out loud. At home. Alone. 

A few months later the same friend recommended his autobiography. I’m not a huge fan of autobiographies and usually give up one-third of the way through when reading them, if I get that far at all. I also had a long list of other books I wanted to get through first!

Later in the year, another friend said he had read Life and Laughing and said it was hilarious. This is someone who had never heard of Michael McIntyre until I‘d told him about him – on the same day I watched the DVD, in fact! Yes, I’ll get to it eventually, I thought.

I was at Heathrow on Christmas Eve, waiting for my flight to Dubai. My Kindle on my iPad was fully stocked, but I didn’t feel like reading anything on it. I went to WHSmith, found Michael McIntyre’s book, and started reading it on the plane.

I was laughing from page 1, when he describes choosing his writing space and whether he should get a swivel chair or not. I think all writers put off writing for as long as possible, waiting for those perfect conditions that never exist. I could relate. I kept reading. I read almost half the book on the plane (I stopped at the sad part when I could feel my eyes tearing up) and finished it in a couple of days after landing in Dubai.

If you like Michael McIntyre, and even if you don’t, this is a must-read. Apparently it’s suitable for all ages:

2012
2012

It was my 19th book in 2011, and the last. I didn’t make it to 20, but I hope to in 2012!

 

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Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost two years. I’d been meaning to read it but hadn’t got round to it yet. When I was sorting out my books for Dubai – what would be shipped or given away – I found this behind some other books and thought it might be better not to send it in the container with all the other stuff. I’d been told that any ‘inappropriate’ books would be confiscated by customs and I didn’t want to take a chance…

This Sunday was the first Sunday in about six months where I had nothing planned. No yoga, no parents in town to have lunch with, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Being one of three books in my bookcase (I’d read the other two), I picked it up and headed to Raoul’s. I ordered my eggs and coffee and started reading.

The main character Changez is telling his story to an American stranger in Lahore. The entire story is told from Changez’s point of view – a monologue. He tells the American how he gets to America, goes to Princeton, falls in love with an American woman, gets a competitive job as an analyst, and then 9/11 happens. His relationship falls apart, he’s disillusioned with the way he’s being treated in the US, his work suffers and he decides to quit, knowing that his work visa will expire and he’ll have to return to Pakistan.

The book was so good I was almost halfway through it by the time I was done at Raoul’s – it’s not a very long book and it’s easy to read. I found the second half disappointing, though, and I hated the end. It ends abruptly and ambiguously, leaving the reader to decide for him/herself what happens. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader who likes/needs to be told the whole story, rather than having to use my brain to imagine what happens next. But isn’t that the writer’s responsibility to his or her reader?

I’m glad I read the book. I’m glad it only took me one day to read. But I wish the end had been different.

And that’s 18 of my 20 books in 2011! There’s just over six weeks left of 2011 and I’m not sure I’m going to achieve my goal… 

 

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Review: Cut Short

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The day after I’d finished reading Interpreters, I was meeting a friend at the O2 centre on Finchley Road. I was a few minutes early so I thought I’d browse in Waterstones. ‘I’m not going to buy anything,’ I told myself. Sure. Even I didn’t believe that. Ooh, there’s a new Jo Nesbo book out! Walk away, I told myself. Just walk away.

So there I was, walking away, when this woman came up to me and quietly asked, ‘Excuse me? Can I interest you in some of my books?’ I said she could and followed her to a stand where her books were displayed. I love finding new authors to read, especially when I haven’t decided what to read next…

Leigh Russell is a crime writer – her main character in Cut Short is DI Geraldine Steel. The blurb on the back cover likens her writing to Ruth Rendell, Lynda La Plante, Frances Fyfield and Barbara Vine, but that didn’t really help me as I’ve never read any of their work. ‘I told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything today,’ I told her. ‘Yes, but it’s important to keep bookshops in business.’ Yes, that’s true. Although I’m not entirely sure Waterstones needed my £6.99. ‘And ‘I’ll sign your copy for you,’ she added. Sold! To the sucker in the leather jacket!

I started reading the book that night – and was hooked.

DI Geraldine Steel moves to a new home after the break-up of her six-year relationship – she expects her new town to be quiet. But of course it’s not, because what a dull book that would be. Instead, two women are killed in the park and DI Steel and her new team have to find the killer before he strikes again. The reader knows early on who the killer is, and what he’s thinking – which I found interesting (and a little creepy). There are some interesting peripheral characters who seem irrelevant to the main plot – but this becomes clearer towards the end of the novel.

The chapters are short, which make for easy reading. It’s not the best crime novel I’ve ever read but I would read the next one to see how Geraldine Steel’s character evolves.

And that’s 17 of my 20 books in 2011!

 

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Review: Interpreters

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I’ve met Sue Eckstein a few times as she’s the editor of one of our journals. I didn’t even know she was a writer until one of my colleagues mentioned that her first novel, The Cloths of Heaven, was being published (back in 2009). I was surprised that it was a dark comedy set in West Africa in the 1990s – having grown up in Nigeria I was intrigued and bought a copy (which Sue signed when she popped into the office)… 

When I heard her second book was out, I bought it expecting it to be similar to the first (well, you do, don’t you?) but it couldn’t be more different. If I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t even think they were written by the same person. 

Interpreters is about the lives of two women: their secrets, lies, and all the things that go unspoken within families. It shows how you could be someone’s mother or daughter or grandmother and not really know the other person at all.

The chapters alternate between two characters. Julia is the main protagonist and is visiting her childhood home on an estate. While she’s there she starts remembering various events from her childhood. The second woman is a nameless character – her story is written as the transcript of an interview. She tells the story of a displaced family during World War II and her experiences during and after the war. It wasn’t until very close to the end that I realised what the link between the two characters was…

I loved the book. I didn’t want to put it down – I read it in four days. And I can’t wait for Sue’s next novel!

That’s 16 of my 20 books in 2011! Four to go…

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Review: The Help

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I’d been hearing about The Help by Kathryn Stockett for a while and intended to read it eventually, but when I saw a trailer for the movie at the cinema I thought I’d better get a move on. And I’m so glad I did.

It is the early 1960s, Skeeter is 22 years old and has returned home to racially conflicted Mississippi after graduating college. Her closest friends are married with children and her mother keeps urging (and by that I mean ‘nagging’) her to head in the same direction. But Skeeter wants to be a journalist – she’s the editor of the Women’s League newsletter and writes a housekeeping column for the local newspaper. Like many people of that time, she was brought up by a black maid called Constantine who she felt closer to than her real mother and even while she was at college, the two would exchange letters frequently. Then Constantine disappears without a word. Skeeter knows her mother has something to do with it, but when she broaches the subject her mother won’t talk about it. And none of the other maids will either.

Aibileen and Minny are friends and both are black maids. Aibileen is a wise woman, usually the voice of reason, raising her 17th white child. Minny is unpredictable and her hot temper has cost her several jobs.

These three extraordinary women come together and risk everything to write a book about black women working for white families. Because of the racial tension at the time, the three of them need to have clandestine meetings and constantly fear discovery. There are tales of hate, mistrust and abuse, but there are good ones too – about love, support, respect.

The author has been criticised for turning serious issues such as racism and the civil rights movement into light reading. But doesn’t this make the novel more accessible and make more people want to read it? Isn’t that the whole point of writing it?

It is surprising, funny, sad and engrossing – everything you could want from a book – and this one is going to stay with me for a long time… 

I need to read five more books this year if I’m going to achieve my goal of 20 books in 2011

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Review: Naked in Death

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Before I went on holiday, I couldn’t decide which books, if any, to take with me. A couple of Tweeps recommended Naked in Death by JD Robb so I decided to read something different and downloaded it to my iPad. I also took a Tarot book with me in case I felt like reading something heavier… It turns out I needn’t have worried about what to read on holiday because I ended up not reading anything! I started reading this on the flight home.

Naked in Death is not the kind of book I would have found and bought on my own. It’s a crime novel set in 2050. Crime I can deal with, but sci-fi really isn’t my thing – I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book isn’t very sci-fi-like at all – although cars do fly. In this futuristic world, only the rich can afford real coffee, guns are prohibited, books belong in museums and the death penalty has been abolished for decades. Chapter 1 was intriguing and by chapter 3 I was hooked.

A senator’s grand-daughter is murdered and Lieutenant Eve Dallas is in charge of the investigation. She has to find the killer before he strikes again – he’s threatened to murder five more women. 

While I enjoyed the suspense in the novel, I found the romance between Eve and Rourke (the very rich and sophisticated suspect in the investigation) quite unbelievable – I felt like I was reading a Mills & Boon at times and it became irritating.

The In Death series is dauntingly long. This first book was published in 1995 and the latest one published earlier this year is #33 in the series. That’s a lot of books! Will I read the next one? Yes, probably, but I think I’ll need to read a couple of other books first.

And that’s number 14 of my 20 books in 2011. Six to go…

 

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Review: The Immortals of Meluha

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Since the beginning of 2011, all I’ve heard from people I know is how *amazing* The Immortals of Meluha is. One of my cousins sent me a copy earlier this year and it sat on my bookshelf for months and months. Finally in August I got round to reading it.

The book tells the tale of how Shiva attained the status of a God – how he gets to Meluha, learns about their ways, and helps them fight the Suryavanshis while falling in love with Princess Sati. He’s portrayed as a weed-smoking, foul-mouthed average guy who finds it hard to accept his true destiny.

From a reader’s point of view, it’s a new take on an old story and you do want to know what happens next. However, from an editor’s point of view, the inconsistencies were just too distracting. I came across one page which had crossing-house spelled differently three times. Either hyphenate it or don’t, capitalise it or don’t, but it should be the same throughout. 

While I liked the concept of the book, I didn’t enjoy Tripathi’s style of writing at all. It is filled with cliches and I found myself cringing each time Shiva winked or tried to hit on Sati or tried to deny who he really was yet again.

The book ends on a cliffhanger – I believe the second book will be published soon – but I doubt I’ll read it. I heard a movie about the book is also being made. I always say that books are better than their movies, but I think this book might be an exception to the rule… 

So that’s 13 of my 20 books in 2011 challenge. I have some reading to do!

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Review: When God Was a Rabbit

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I’d just finished reading Freedom and wasn’t sure what to read next when a friend lent me this book by Sarah Winman. This is a novel about relationships – siblings, parents, friends – and good times, bad times – all those things that make life interesting. I’ve always said that we need to experience bad times so we can appreciate the good times when they arrive. It’s like the Wheel of Fortune tarot card.

The first half of the novel starts in 1968, where we’re introduced to Elly (at her birth) and her brother Joe (5 years older than her). Their childhood seems simple and uncomplicated on the surface, but there is a recurring theme of violence in the background – Elly’s grandparents are killed in an accident, various forms of abuse, the death of John Lennon. The second half starts in 1995 and goes through to 2001. And there’s more background violence – more abuse, the death of Princess Diana, 9/11. I found the second half quite distressing to read – perhaps because I’m more familiar with those events than the earlier ones.

Joe and Elly know all each other’s childhood secrets – and this continues as they move into adulthood. Even though they do separate and lead their own lives (one in London/Cornwall and the other in New York), they remain close. As well as having each other, they each have a best friend: Jenny Penny and Charlie. Their friendships are not conventional at all, to say the least. It’s difficult to know how much to say about them – as I don’t want to ruin it for others who might read the book!

The other characters of interest are their parents (who suddenly decide to move the family to Cornwall and open a B&B), their father’s sister Nancy (a lesbian who’s in love with their mother), their gay tenant Arthur, and his best friend Ginger.

I laughed out loud in parts and teared up in others (yes, on the bus again – still embarrassing). It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but the author’s descriptive style of writing and quirky, eccentric characters make the book worth reading. 

So that’s number 12 of my 20 books in 2011 – still on track!

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Review: Freedom

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A friend lent this to me and told me I must read it because she loved it. I didn’t ask her why. I didn’t ask her anything about the book. I just read it.

I have to say, I didn’t love it. It’s a good read, but I wouldn’t list it as one of my favourite books.

It’s a bleak tale about family life. None of the characters have any redeeming qualities, right down to Bobby the cat (who appears for only a few pages). I can’t think of one character I empathised with. And yet I kept on reading. I wanted to know what happened to these dysfunctional, despicable, materialistic characters – hoping to find a glimpse of why they turned out that way. 

Franzen mentions the word ‘freedom’ several times throughout the novel, but it made me ask myself – how many of us are really free? Free to make decisions without worrying about consequences? Emotionally free? Financially free? We all end up in prisons of our own making while training to attain ‘freedom’.

Having said all that I’m glad I read it. Franzen’s beautiful writing makes up for his loathsome characters. And I even shed a tear at the last sentence (on the bus – very embarrassing).

That’s number 11 of my 20 books in 2011. I’m still on track!

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Review: The Leopard

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(I couldn’t find a good English cover.)

By the same author as The Snowman, this book is the sixth book to feature the alcoholic detective Harry Hole. The Leopard picks up soon after The Snowman ended – it starts off in the alleys of Hong Kong, where an opium-addicted Harry is found and brought back to Norway to help investigate a series of murders involving a Leopold’s Apple: an apparently fictional spherical device which is placed in the victim’s mouth – it contains 24 sharp spikes which shoot outward when activated. The investigation takes Harry through avalanches in Norway, volcanoes in the Congo, and a new love interest, all while his father is battling cancer in hospital…

This book is as gripping as The Snowman and Harry comes across as a more complex and pensive character than he did in the previous book (I have to admit I haven’t read the others – yet). I didn’t find it as frightening as The Snowman (I could read this at night!) but there were some parts I found disturbing, particularly the descriptions of the Congo and its victims of war. There are some images I just can’t get out of my head which really have nothing to do with the main plot… It’s a very well-researched thriller.

I recommended The Snowman to my friend Kiran – you can read her review here… And I’m recommending she read this one too…

The next book in the Harry Hole series will be published in Spring 2012 – I hope to have caught up with the other four by then!

So that’s 10 books done so far in 2011 – 10 to go.
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