Friday, 27 September 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

***SBRs 3rd Best Read for 2013***

Publication date:  14th August 2012
Published by:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson

My synopsis:
Bernadette Fox is wife to Elgin Branch, a high-profile computer genius working at Microsoft and mother to Bee, a smart and sensitive 15 year old girl.  She is a former award-winning architect and a genius herself.  She does however have a problem with people.  They make her anxious and she tries to avoid them at all costs. She even resorts to wearing a scarf and sunglasses (which seems like a way to make a person more conspicuous, especially in a city such as Seattle).   Her allusive behaviour alienates her from the other mothers at her daughter’s school, and she relies on a virtual personal assistant, based in India, to carry out any jobs that require interaction with others.

Bernadette goes missing two days before Christmas and her daughter Bee is determined to discover where she has gone.  Elgin is no help and so Bee does some investigative work – accessing and reading email correspondence and notes belonging to her mother in an attempt to piece together the mystery.

It would seem the trouble started when Bee brought her school report home and showed her parents that she achieved top grades in all subjects (That's what happens when 2 geniuses procreate.).  She reminded them that they promised she could have what she wanted if she achieved this.  She announces that she wants a family trip to Antarctica.  To her surprise her parents both agree.  Travelling to Antarctica would mean interacting directly with people and  Bernadette is not sure how she will be able to do this but she delegates the job of arranging the trip to her virtual PA.

My review:
The story-telling of this book is not like anything I have come across before.  Much of it is told through the correspondence that Bernadette has with those close to her (revealed when read by Bee).  Each written communication is followed up with a story from Bee about the events that occurred on the particular day of the correspondence, thus filling in the gaps.  There is also a section that looks back into Bernadette’s past (before she and Elgin moved to Seattle).  Collectively this gives the reader insight into Bernadette’s character as well as clarification of the events leading to her disappearance.  It turns out she is an extraordinary woman. 
The uniqueness of this book had me engrossed from the start and it became more and more interesting as it unravelled.  I could not put it down and stayed up all night to finish it.  At first I was not particularly sympathetic towards this family of geniuses living a life of privilege.  I was unimpressed with Bernadette’s use of a PA from India to whom she pays a pittance.  But as the story unfolds I came to realise that the virtual PA was a crutch for Bernadette to lean on and (besides her daughter) the closest thing to a confidante.  I warmed to her as I read about the way she was treated by the other mothers at Bee’s school, and also how torn she was between not disappointing her daughter and facing her fear (which increases as the trip to Antarctica approaches).

I can imagine that the portrayal of the mothers at Bee’s school, and their dislike of Bernadette for her refusal to interact with them, to be a perceptive one.  It was clear that their objection was not so much due to her unwillingness to participate, but because not doing so meant her personal life was a door that remained closed to them.  (By doing so she robbed them of a continuous source of juicy gossip.)  They became obsessed in their need to criticise and vilify her.  [Incidentally, I had criticised JK Rowling in her novel The Casual Vacancy for her lack of subtlety in her portrayal of the small-minded gossips of Pagford.  This novel shows how it should be done. For one thing, the characters are flawed but unlike those in The Casual Vacancy they have redeeming qualities]

Bernadette’s anxiety about dealing with people, if extreme, is not entirely irrational.  There are examples of how her interactions with others prove disastrous and things spiral out of control to the point where her mental health is called into question. The root of her problem is outlined in one of the letters she received from a former colleague and old friend. She is a creative type whose creativity has been stifled over many years.  The title Where'd you go... isn't just in the literal sense of Bernadette disappearing, it also poses the question what happened to the Bernadette she used to be before she moved to Seattle.

Clearly this is fiction but even so I must say I was surprised by the mention of real life brands in this book (especially surrounding Microsoft).  Not everything implied about brands, products and real people portrays them in a particularly positive or flattering light. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a witty, perceptive and clever portrayal of an absurd side of 21st century living.  I enjoyed it so much it is one of my favourites (if not my favourite) for 2013.  

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Publication date:  7th May 2013

Published by: Margaret K Elderry Books

Genre: Fantasy/Horror (Children)

Oh wow!  Doll Bones has to be one of the best novels I have come across in a while and it’s for readers aged 11+.  Funny how so many of the books I have read and loved are aimed at children.  Not sure what that says about me.

Doll Bones is for children who enjoy a good scare. It is the story of 3 friends, Zach, Poppy and Alice.  They are united in their love of playing and together their creativity and imagination know no bounds.  They use action figures as the characters that feature in their stories.  I actually loved reading about their play adventures.  Poppy’s mum owns an antique doll that is made of bone china which sits in a glass cabinet in her house.  She is not supposed to touch it as it is considered to be valuable.  There is something spooky about the doll and the children find it creepy.  Sometimes Zach gets the impression it is watching him and is sure he has seen its eyes move by themselves. It features at the centre of their games as a powerful queen to be feared and respected and this helps to appease their fears (if they respect the doll it won't come after them).   

Now that the friends are 12 they are increasingly under pressure to stop playing with toys.  Zach plays basketball and fears that his friends will find out about it and make fun of him.  His father, who he has a difficult relationship with, is annoyed with him for hanging on to his toys.  One day he goes into Zach’s room and takes the toys away, throwing them in the garbage.  Zach is horrified when he finds out and tries to get them back without success.  This leaves him both sad and angry at everyone around him.  He decides to deal with it by telling Poppy and Alice that he doesn’t want to play anymore.  He argues that they are too old and need to grow up.  They are surprised by this sudden change in Zach and are disappointed in him.  
Zach distances himself from the girls and starts hanging out with boys his own age, doing stuff that boys his age are expected to do (video games etc.).  One night while in bed he hears tapping at his window.  At first he is too spooked to check it out but it persists so he has to investigate.  He looks out and sees Poppy and Alice outside beckoning him to join them.  He follows them to a secret hideout and Poppy reveals to him that she has been visited by the ghost of a little girl who has given Poppy a task she cannot refuse. Poppy’s mother’s doll was made from the bones of the little girl who died when she was about their age and she needs it to be buried with her if she is ever to rest in peace.  Poppy wants Zach and Alice to help her accomplish this. It involves travelling to a town in Ohio where the girl’s body is buried.  Although Zach doesn’t believe the ghost story, he sees this as an opportunity to get away from his father and considers not coming back.  He make a bargain with the girls to go with them if they agree to stop asking him why he does no want to play anymore or involve him in the adventures they used to make up together.  They agree and set out on their journey…

For me Doll Bones is about that pivotal point in a child’s life when they have to let go of their childhood and accept young adulthood. Zach is not ready and he feels a sense of shame because of it.  I think this is why he is so angry and does not want to tell Poppy and Alice what really happened. It's too embarrassing to speak of.  It resonated with me because I was just like Zach at 12*. 

You would be hard-pressed to find a better contemporary writer of  Children/YA fiction than Holly Black.  She is magnificent. 

*See my B-Spot blog post Grow up? for further info.

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Publication date: 30th September 2008
Published by: Harper Collins
Genre: Fantasy/Horror (Children) 

This story begins with a multiple murder of a family asleep in their beds.  The assassin's name is Jack and he wields a knife.  He fails to kill the last family member, a toddler, who while the other murders were taking place, managed to climb out of his crib, descend the stairs and crawl out the front door.  When Jack realises the crib is empty, he rushes down the stairs and out the door and is just in time to see the child entering a graveyard some distance away.

The graveyard is inhabited by ghostly residents including a couple, Mr and Mrs Owens, who find the baby.  They then see the ghost of a woman who has recently been killed and is begging them to protect her child from the man who killed her.  They agree to do so.  When Jack arrives at the graveyard there is no sign of the baby, only a strange man who convinces him that he was mistaken about seeing the child.

The Graveyard book tells the story of how a young boy comes to be raised by ghosts, and a guardian, Silas,  who is neither dead nor alive (although it is not clarified his characteristics suggest he is a reformed vampire).  They name the boy Nobody Owens and everyone calls him Bod.  Bod is very inquisitive (which is just as well as this saved his life in the first place), and as such he gets himself into all sorts of trouble.  It is made clear to him that he needs to stay inside the graveyard to be safe from the dangers outside.  Does he obey and remain inside the graveyard?  Of course not.  

All the while the man Jack continues to search for him in order to finish the job he was contracted to do.  It is a mystery as to why Bod's family were murdered and why it would seem someone is out to get Bod as well. Silas goes away a lot and it transpires that he is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

This is a wonderful read for children of about 8+.  Although the premise sounds scary, the plot is not (okay maybe just a little).  What I got from it was more about the importance of family and friendship and the lengths one will go to to protect the ones they love.

It is extremely well-written and I would highly recommend it for encouraging a non-reading child to do just that (get reading that is).

Sunday, 15 September 2013

You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane

Publication date: 6th December 2012

Published by: Avon

Genre: Contemporary Romance / Humour

If you are a fan of David Nicholl’s One Day, then I can (almost) guarantee that you will like You Had Me at Hello.  Not only is it similar, I would argue that McFarlane was influenced by One Day when she wrote it.  Aside from the premise, the synopsis starts with “Rachel and Ben.  Ben and Rachel…”, which is a One Day reference.  That said, this is not a fan fictional carbon copy of OD.  On the contrary, it is very much its own story while paying homage.  Also, You Had Me at Hello is as well written and equally enjoyable as Nicholl's novel.

The premise is this: boy meets girl and they become friends.  Their feelings for each other develop into something stronger but, for one reason or another, they are unwilling/unable to take the relationship to another level.

What is so great about it?

1. The Characters
Rachel is a smart and strong female character.  She is also flawed; her behaviour is sometimes questionable and we see this as she carries out her job as a journalist for the local newspaper.  Even so, she is hard not to like.

Ben is the perfect lead protagonist for a romance novel.  Aside from the obvious (the good looks, the charisma, the confidence, blah blah, blah), he comes across as a genuinely decent human being.  Not because Rachel tells us he is but because there is evidence of it throughout the novel.  His back story gives an indication as to why he is the way he is – respectful of the women in his life and honourable.

2. The approach
As much as I hate the term ‘Chick Lit’ (for one thing there is no male equivalent!), I would say this book is for female readers.  I cannot see it appealing to men (unlike One Day which I have witnessed countless men reading) because it focuses heavily on a subject (we probably have Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones' Diary to thank for) that interests women exclusively, i.e. when a woman is on the wrong side of 30 and isn’t married or engaged, nor is there any prospect of her becoming that way in the near future.  While she tries not to panic those around her look on with pity. Helen Fielding's portrayal was perceptive and amusing but ever since BJD, let's face it, there have been countless ‘Chick Lit’ novels that have approached this subject but with female characters that have come across as pathetic and desperate, not to mention vacuous*.  Like BJD, here is a novel that has approached the subject with intelligence and wit.  I would also add wisdom and objectivity.  It looks at the ignore your instincts if it doesn't feel right, so long as he is willing to put a ring on your finger say yes before it’s too late! angle, and it looks at the actually, I am not that desperate.  If It does not feel right and we are not compatible why the hell should I? I’d rather be alone angle.  Most obviously this is shown at the dinner party scene, which is even more nauseating for the 'singleton' than the one in BJD.

3. The Humour
There is a lot of humour  - some real LOL moments.  My favourite being the open air concert/picnic scene.

Verdict: This is 'Chick Lit' with intelligence and wit.

* Rosie Hopkins's Sweetshop of Dreams is a prime example.