Book Review: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

Everyone’s talking about this book, and it has to be said that I’m not the sort of person who reads the books that everyone is talking about (case in point, ’50 Shades of Nonsense’). However, I saw the author in person a few months ago and, you know, he was kinda hot, so I gave in to the hype and decided to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed.

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This is the US edition that I picked up on holiday.

I cannot remember the last time that I was so absorbed in a book that I actually switched off my Netflix. I was so desperate to see how the book ended that I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday night/Monday morning (knowing full well I would suffer at work the next day) just inhaling the book. That I am a slow reader is a fact. That I finished this 640 page novel in one busy weekend is another fact. This is such an effortless read, the pages simply turn themselves.

If you’re not one of those people talking about this book, then let me give you a bit of background information. The book was first published in France in 2012 and has since sold over 2 million copies, been translated into over 30 languages and has also won some literary prizes in France. Plus, the writer is only now 28 years old and looks like this:

I have come across uglier writers.

I have come across uglier writers. (c) Jeremy Spierer

Anyhow, back to the book. Marcus Goldman is our lazy but likeable protagonist who has achieved continuous success throughout his life, due to the very simple fact that he only competes in situations where he’s guaranteed to win, against people who he knows to be weaker than he is (and the one time he saw that he was not going to win a race, he chose to deliberately break his leg rather than allow the illusion of “Marcus the Magnificent” to be tarnished):

In order to be magnificent, all that was needed was to distort the way others perceived me; in the end, everything was a question of appearances.’

The book opens in New York in the spring of 2008 where Marcus is experiencing severe writer’s block. His publishers are on his case and are threatening to sue if he doesn’t deliver the follow up to his wildly successful debut. In search of inspiration, Marcus goes to New Hampshire to visit his old college professor and mentor, Harry Quebert, a novelist still famous for a single book he wrote in the 70s. This trip doesn’t work for Marcus’s creativity so he goes back to New York, resigned to the fact that his career is now over.

Except, a few weeks later,  he receives an urgent call from his agent urging him to switch on the TV. Harry’s in trouble and is all over the news: The body of a 15 year old girl who went missing 33 years ago has been found buried in his back yard. Buried with her is the original manuscript of Harry’s famous novel, The Origin of Evil. Maybe, now, Marcus has something to write about. Harry is quickly arrested and admits to having had an affair with the young girl. The national media hang him out to dry – not only is he a murderer, but a paedophile to boot. There is one thing though: Harry swears to Marcus that he did not kill Nola Kellergan, in fact, she was the love of his life. Marcus, eager to clear his friend’s name, heads back to New Hampshire to start his own investigation into what really happened on August 30, 1975, the day Nola went missing, the day the little town of Somerset, New Hampshire lost its innocence.

SAM_3959On the surface, Somerset is a quaint little New England town, but as the investigation progresses, one has to wonder if, perhaps, Somerset hadn’t lost its innocence long before Nola went missing. Marcus stays in Harry’s house receiving threatening mail as he continues to uncover the truth about the affair, writing his surefire bestseller as he goes along. This novel is as much about publishing and the writing process as it is about the Kellergan murder (very self-reflexive, metafictional stuff). There’s an interesting cast of characters here, a couple of which were slightly exaggerated and caricaturish, but that didn’t stop me laughing out loud at the (often dark) humour exhibited in their conversations. There’s the chauffeur with a distorted face, the pastor with the Harley motorbike and, of course, the seemingly unknowable Nola Kellergen herself, the object of Harry’s obsession. I was often struck by how young Nola came across. She would accuse Harry of being ‘mean’ to her and once said of God, “If you believe in Him, I will too.” On these occasions I found it difficult to understand why Harry was so consumed by her, why ‘once she had entered [his] life, the world could no longer turn properly without her.’ How could an academic have a relationship with someone so naive and childlike? But then we are told by a Somerset local:

 ‘That girl was madly in love with Harry. What she felt for him was something I had never felt myself, or I couldn’t remember ever having felt, for my own wife. And it was at that moment that I realised, thanks to a fifteen-year-old girl, that I had probably never been in love. That lots of people have never been in love. That they make do with good intentions; that they hide away in the comfort of a crummy existence and shy away from that amazing feeling that is probably the only thing that justifies being alive.’

The narrative flicks back and forth between 1975 and 2008, slowly piecing the facts together. Or at least what we believe to be facts. There are so many twists and turns in this novel so be warned that as soon as you’re convinced of one thing, several chapters later you will learn something new that weakens your conviction. This is your classic whodunnit at its best. There are 31 chapters in this book, and Dicker has very cleverly started off with chapter 31, making the reader work their way down to chapter 1 where we finally find out:

The million dollar question

The million dollar question

The last chapter is filled with pleasing revelations that allow everything to finally lock into place. It is only then that you’re able to let out the breath that you didn’t even realise you were holding.

I, personally, didn’t understand why everyone made such a big deal about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘. I’ll admit that I haven’t read it, but I did recently watch the film on a rainy Netflix weekend and was left perplexed as the end credits rolled: the big twist in this blockbuster thriller is that the girl who everyone thought was dead had actually escaped in the boot of a car? Really?! That was Larsson’s great achievement? If critics have time to commend Larsson, then the same (actually, more) credit is due to Dicker. His story is much more layered, more intriguing and a hell of a lot more clever. Fact.

The British critics haven’t been very nice about this book (pretty brutal, actually), and I don’t think they’re being fair to Dicker. I do imagine that some of the elegance of the prose was lost in translation so, yes, there were one or two occasions when I felt the writing felt a bit basic (descriptive passages in particular), where the dialogue didn’t ring quite true, but did this detract from my overall enjoyment of the book? Not at all. I was, honestly, gripped. I sighed through my weekend engagements, my eyes lingering longingly on the book nestled in my bag, made my excuses to leave early and kept reading as I changed lines on the tube, unapologetically bumping into people as I walked. I just HAD to to know what would happen next, I had to finish it. And was then sad when I did. In the words of Harry Quebert:

The ending of a good book

The ending of a good book

The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly plotted murder mystery, cleverly constructed. Though it might not be as literary as the French claimed it was, it ultimately does not matter because it’s a bloody good read.

Book Review: The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

By his own admission Eric Nye is an asshole, ‘and not loyal to anyone, not even [him]self.’ He’s what you’d get if American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and Mad Men‘s Don Draper gave birth to a man-child. “Chief Idea Officer” at Tate, a New York City ad agency, the bonus on top of Eric’s already six figure salary is dependent on him firing 50% of his staff – a task that he carries out with “HR Lady”, relishes and draws out for his own entertainment.

‘We pretend with each other in big, long sighs that it was difficult work, very hard, we would go out afterwards and have a nice meal and get shitfaced and take limos home and expense it because of how difficult it was.’

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SO; all appears to have been going as well as could be expected in the life of Eric Nye until “Intern” entered his life. After an almost one night stand, Eric finds that despite the fact he can’t remember her name, she’s now interning at his agency. Intern soon begins to stalk him, turning up wherever he may be to the point where Eric starts to question who’s stalking whom. For no logical reason, he can’t seem to get her out of his head, leading to his slow unravelling… Another chance encounter leads to a complaint against him being filed with HR, but there’s something about Eric that makes it very difficult to believe everything he’s telling you.  Is the intern to have a cathartic effect on him?

Eric is a darkly fascinating character. A guy who says things like ‘For no reason I consider hitting on birch-like juice girl but I fear there is too high a chance she will say yes‘, and ‘I sit in a deck chair and face away from the beach; something about the ceaseless idiocy of one wave after another strikes me as profoundly imaginative‘, and who dismisses a beautiful view of the New York skyline as it’s ‘trying too hard.’ That he’s a jackass is no question, but he’s a hilarious jackass. Or at least I thought so. Even when he’s making certain staff members jump hoops, knowing full well he’s about to fire them, you can’t help but laugh because his cruel indifference knows no bounds (especially because at the office, when he’s not firing people, he does absolutely nothing).

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Living in a false world devoid of any real interactions, Eric struggles with his ‘unalterable inability to deal with [his] unreality.’ It doesn’t appear like he’s able to stay still; restless, deeply jaded and dissatisfied with what life has to offer:

‘Waiting, I realise, isn’t the time between things, it’s the thing itself.’

There are deep echoes of American Psycho here, but if you find the endless listing of material possessions to be boring, you’re missing the point entirely. That listing is what makes American Psycho a classic. The essential difference between Nye and Bateman is that Nye is mocking himself when he reels off his material possessions, aware of some of the absurdities, whereas Bateman loved himself (interestingly, Nye experiences self-loathing) and his possessions; full stop. What struck me as being quite amusing is that Eric neither desires or needs any of these ridiculously expensive items he owns, but he buys them because he can, and often bespoke so he can prove a point.

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For all that Eric lacks in character, he makes up for with the precision of his societal observations. He mocks the Brooklyn hipsters in a way that is so scathing, so sharp; I could not have articulated it better myself:

‘Never before have I seen so many people in one place who are exactly the same: the same age, the same race, the same wardrobe, the same facial hair, the same taste in music, socioeconomic background, college experience, shoes, political beliefs, and hair; but I suppose what really unites them is the shared fantasy that they are rebels.’

He goes to an art show called “Show Us Your Tits!” which features ‘lots of photos (taken, it seems, by anyone who can push the button on a camera) of girls flashing their breasts…I can’t decide if I like this show because it’s not really art at all, it’s just stupid, or if maybe I hate this shit because it’s trying so hard not to be art and there’s nothing more arty than that.’ Haha. Every major city has these hubs; in London the equivalent is Shoreditch/ Hackney.

Underneath the layers of dark wit and narcissism is an intelligent commentary on corporate America where we are told that ‘Advertising is how corporations outsource their lies.’

‘You see, what I think is interesting about what I do is that I personally don’t believe in what I do, or should I say that I believe very strongly that technology is actually destroying us as human beings, it’s taking away the fundamental truths about our humanity and making us pay to get them back: it’s called Creating Value.’

Without spoiling too much, the example he uses was quite an eye opener for me, showing how we have learned to buy back what was fundamentally ours to begin with.

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This is a highly entertaining read that is, in parts, hilarious, and although Eric is indeed an asshole of the highest degree (as it says on the spine of the novel, he’s ‘a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.’) I couldn’t help but be taken in by his unashamed self-centredness.  And what, exactly, is the Deep Whatsis? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out.

I received my copy of The Deep Whatsis from the publisher (Other Press) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott

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‘If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her…I went into a dark room with my camera for a time, and I came out with a photograph of a woman I had never seen before.’

Meet Alex Peterson – loner, Oxford graduate, successful lawyer, and married to Rachel, a vivacious English graduate from the same college. Alex is that person ‘looking on groups from the outside….that is how [he] felt for most of [his] life…On the edge of things, apart from people, not wanting to be among them.’ One summer night, after a dinner at their old college, Rachel is found on the grounds, brutally murdered. At first, with ‘stories circulating in the room which were not [his] own’, the police suspect Alex, but he is soon cleared by a witness – Harry, Rachel’s old tutor at Oxford – and so the mystery of Rachel’s death remains a gaping hole.

What was Rachel doing out by the lake where she was killed? Why has Harry provided him with an alibi? Who is that mysterious shadowed figure seen fleeing the scene?

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Alex is trapped in his grief and that winter, with an invitation from Harry, he returns to Oxford to try and find out what happened to Rachel. Harry sits Alex down and over the course of the novel he slowly reveals an interconnected chain of actions and decisions made years before, back in Alex and Rachel’s undergraduate years, that may have led to the murder at the centre of the narrative. And so we are transported back to 1990s Oxford where piece by piece, Rachel’s identity is put together. Moving back and forth to various times and places, and pierced with flashbacks, this is a layered text where, in a classic case of unreliable narrator, we can never really be sure if we can trust what Alex is telling us, or if what Harry is telling Alex is the whole truth.

I can completely understand why this book has been compared to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ as it’s also a story of secret cliques and magnetically alluring ringleaders. It’s a highly atmospheric novel, giving you a true sense of what Oxford is. The prose is so precise, the language so luscious, and there’s something about the way the words just trip off your tongue (I had to read it our loud at times because it was so beautiful) that make this book a remarkably accomplished debut.

The ending, however, was wanting – I was waiting for a twist that never came and it ended rather speculatively. It would have been a more satisfying read if we were given something more, but perhaps this has more to do with the fact that the book was built up to be a thriller when in actual fact it’s a contemplation on grief and uncertainty. The ending doesn’t detract from the fact that the novel is immersive, is truly a pleasure to read and is one of those rare achievements that is a literary mystery.

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The Best and Worst of Book to Movie Adaptations

Believe it or not, there are some books out there that were made into pretty damned good movies. It happens. Admittedly not very often, but it does. My top four best screen adaptations are as follows (in no particular order):

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

I was not thrilled with the casting of Tilda Swinton as Eva Khatchadourian or John C. Reilly as Franklin.  Quite possibly the most unlikely pairing I’ve ever witnessed on screen. Despite this, it was acted out brilliantly, was true to the book, and I don’t think it’s possible to have come across a more chillingly convincing Kevin.

Fight Club – Chuck Palahnuik

There’s a reason why this film has cult status. Dare I say it was a smidgen better than the book? It was visually quite amazing although reading/studying the book in university after I had watched the film, gave me a deeper appreciation of what Palahnuik was trying to do/say about masculinity and consumer culture.

American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis

In my opinion, one of the best books ever written. And although nothing can quite capture the alluring monotony of the book, I think Christian Bale did a pretty damned good job in Patrick Bateman’s shoes. He was both horrifying and funny, a difficult combination to execute well.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

This was very well done – very gritty, very real. Whoever’s idea it was to turn it into a mini series with each episode dedicated to a single character, was brilliant. With movies made from books, you’re usually always disappointed with casting and how it’s never quite how you visualised it. Not the case here – it was better! The script/actors really bought the moral complexity of the whole ‘slap’ situation to life.

And the ones that failed to live up to their books….

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

Very few people will agree with me on this. It’s not that the film was bad, but it was all so bright coloured and light hearted, doing very little to remind me that I actually cried when reading the book. Seriously, the film was like a comedy.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason – Helen Fielding

I genuinely do love to watch the Bridget Jones series whenever I need something mindless to do. The first Bridget Jones movie is great, but the second one? They successfully managed to turn Bridget into a bumbling fool slash moron. Hopping around like an idiotic penguin, there’s no way I would be seen out with her let alone anyone resembling Mark Darcy. It’s almost as though because she’s ‘fat’, she has to be an idiot, the butt of every joke. The Bridget Jones in the book is not an idiot.

One Day – David Nicholls

The failure of this film still hurts me, and I know I’m not alone here. To say I was disappointed with this movie would be an understatement. I absolutely fell in love with the book then spent the hour and 47 minutes of the film wondering why on earth they chose Ann Hathaway to play someone supposedly from Yorkshire and why the chemistry between the two main characters was lukewarm at best. And don’t get me started on that whole thing about Dexter’s letter that was never delivered being omitted from the movie. The whole thing was just infuriating.

My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

This has got to be the all time biggest book to movie FAIL. How you can just go and change the ending of a novel so that the meaning of the entire story is completely different to how the author intended, I don’t know. I have never been so infuriated by the ending of a movie as I was with this. By simply ignoring the author’s twist it’s just another story about dealing with cancer.

And just to finish off; Films that you probably didn’t know (but don’t care) were books first:

  • Charlie St. Cloud (Book called The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud by Ben Sherwood) – YAWN. Even Zack Efron’s face couldn’t save this disaster.
  • Love and Other Drugs (Book called Hard Sell by Jamie Reidy) – Half way through watching this film with my sisters, we paused, looked at one another and realised that we simply did not give a damn what happened to either Anne Hathaway or Jake Gylennhall. Filled with gratuitous nudity that was more embarrassing than titillating, this was an hour (that’s as far we could handle it) of my life I will never get back.
  • The Silver Linings Playbook (Book has the same name, written by Matthew Quick) – The most overrated film of 2012. Fact.
  • Riding In Cars With Boys (Book called Riding In Cars With Boys: Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good by Beverly Donofrio – Completely unmemorable.

Book Review: The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock

I’ve always been fascinated by the practices and the thinking behind religious cults. By how their (often flawed) logic frequently leads to broken families and disillusionment, which is why I picked up Peter Rock’s new book, ‘The Shelter Cycle’.

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The story centres around The Church Universal and Triumphant (TCUT), a religious group based in the Montana area that prepared for the End of the World in the late 80s. They believed the world would end in the spring of 1990 and so built underground shelters to house the members of their community. The group disbanded when the world (obviously) did not end, its members losing their faith when they had to go back to the same problems (and large debts incurred through the building of these bunkers) they had thought they’d be leaving behind.

The novel opens with the reader being told that a 9 year old girl has gone missing from her backyard – her little sister, also out in the backyard, was not taken. Their neighbour, Wells, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, is out searching for the missing girl. Also out searching is Francine, Wells’s heavily pregnant wife who used to belong to TCUT when she was a child. Colville, Francine’s childhood friend mysteriously shows up on their doorstep, claiming he is there to help find the girl and that a newspaper article detailing her disappearance is one of the many ‘signs’ that lead him to Francine. Reconnecting with Colville allows many of Francine’s childhood memories to come to the surface so she feels compelled to write them down – sections of which are interspersed through the novel –  and also to secretly revisit the site of the bunkers.

Colville’s secret surveillance of Francine’s house, his subsequent journey to the Montana site of the shelters (laced with touches of magical realism, or indeed hallucinations), along with other sneaky behaviour leads us to believe that he has a plan – though what this plan is remains mysterious right up until the end – and to be honest, even then I wasn’t really sure what his intent was.

The beginning of this novel is highly enjoyable – the sinister mysteriousness of a stranger appearing on the doorstep made it very atmospheric (has a feeling of eerie unease throughout), and the desire to understand Colville’s motives will keep you going.

And so comes my very big BUT: this book feels unfinished and not properly thought out. I didn’t feel that I necessarily understood what this cult was fully about after having read this story. This is partly because no explanations are given when using cult-specific terminology so it can be quite confusing at times, and whether it’s a case that I completely did not understand it, but I felt that the novel was building up to a twist/climax that never came. It’s as if it almost got there and then receded. A very unsatisfactory ending that made me feel all that reading was for nothing.

Peculiar Love: Anthropology by Dan Rhodes

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101 short ‘stories’ (or paragraphs, really) each 101 words long, each one more bizarre than the last. I’ve had this book for years and find myself dipping into it whenever I feel like laughing. Each story is narrated by an unnamed man who is experiencing one difficulty or another with a girlfriend. The stories are disturbingly hilarious and undeniably dark with a common thread of absurdity running through them. Here’s a little taster; enjoy!

TRICK

My girlfriend told me she had been the victim
of nature’s cruellest trick, that although born
male she had always felt female. She said she
had started dressing in women’s clothes at
the age of seventeen, and three years later
had undergone the necessary surgery. I was
stunned, but told her that I loved her first and
foremost as a person, and that I would give her
all the emotional support she needed. She
looked horrified. She had only been joking.
She left me. She said she was going to find a
real man, not some queer little gayboy like me.

BINDING

I found my girlfriend smashing our two-year-
old’s toes with a rock. I told her to stop. ‘What
are you doing?’ I cried, above the baby’s
agonised wails.
‘You wouldn’t understand,’ she said,
winding a bandage tightly around the crushed
digits. ‘It’s a woman thing. It’ll help her get a
boyfriend.’
‘But darling, don’t you remember what the
doctor told us? It’s a boy baby.’
‘Really?’ She looked surprised. ‘Oh well.
Men look nice with small feet too. I expect
he’ll be gay, anyway. He’s got that look about
him. See?’ I had to agree that she had a point.

CHARGING

My girlfriend started charging me for sex. She
said she had to think of her future, and
anyway her friends did it so why shouldn’t
she? I didn’t mind too much because her basic
rates were very reasonable, although she
always expected tips for extras. Once, as she
was holding the banknotes I’d given her up to
the light to make sure they were real, I asked
her if she ever went with anyone else for
money. She was furious, and asked what kind
of girl I thought she was. I said one with
laughing eyes, and lovely long dark hair.

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Book Review: The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

It starts with a simple phone call – Ian and his wife, Em, are invited to come up to the country to spend a long weekend with Ollie (Ian’s best friend from university) and his wife, Daisy. What do you need to know about these two couples?  Well, according to Ian:

‘The various ways in which we’re not like Ollie and Daisy is a conversation we often have. Indeed, we’ve spent far more time talking about them than in their presence. The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkestone; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua etc.) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; […] golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate but not much.’

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Meet Ian, the narrator of this quietly chilling novel who wants to tell you what happened over the course of this long bank holiday weekend up at Badingley (the farm house).

‘As to the events of August, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over them. I’m the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he’s innocent – expects to be stopped going through customs even when he has nothing to declare. But what happened that weekend would surely have happened anyway. It’s not like I’m a rapist or a murderer. Even if I were, I would be honest with you. I’m trying to tell the story, that’s all – not to unburden myself or extenuate some offence but to set things straight.’

And so we begin to hear what transpired over the last weekend of August. Sandwiched between tales of Ollie, Ian and Daisy’s time together at university (Ollie ‘stole’ Daisy from Ian), we are offered glimpses into the mechanics of friendship and rivalry, love and lust, money and class. A weekend meant to be fun and relaxing, is fused with a palpable tension when old rivalries resurface and pulse along to build up to a startling conclusion.

What needs to be made clear is that this is very much Ian’s version of events and as he’s so very honest about wanting to be honest and perhaps not remembering certain things as they happened, he very skilfully lures the reader over to his side.

‘My memory’s pretty good on the whole…And yet Badingley, which ought to be etched on my soul, slips away at times – or refuses to come into focus, like something wrapped in tissue and shut away in a drawer. Did Ollie really say this or Daisy that? I remember a mass of things but nothing distinctly.’

What works in Ian’s favour is that through his recounting of the events that shaped his and Ollie’s friendship back in university, the reader finds it very easy to dislike Ollie. But as the narrative progresses, we slowly begin to realise that things aren’t quite what they seem. Ian slowly emerges into your classic unreliable narrator, leaving the reader constantly weary and on edge. There is a chilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel, and it’s ultimately the desire to know what exactly it is that happened over this specific weekend that keeps you going. This is a highly atmospheric and compelling novel that deserves to be read in all its uncomfortable glory. And watch the miniseries if you can (featured on ITV last year, starring Rupert Penry-Jones) – although good, it’s not as subtle as the book.

 

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Book Review

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Who on earth is Bernadette, and where the hell did she go? Good question; this is how the novel opens:

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This is Bee, a precocious young teenager who is the daughter of Elgin Branch, Microsoft guru; and Bernadette Fox, neurotic architectural genius. After getting top marks on her report card, Bee reminds her parents that they had said she could have anything she wants. This anything turns out to be a trip to Antarctica. And so kick off a chain of events, charted through a mixture of emails, letters, notes, instant messages and reports; that lead to the disappearance of Bernadette.

Bernadette is highly opinionated, highly antisocial (completely disconnected from the real world to the extent that she has a virtual assistant based in India who does everything for her, short of breathing), hates everything about Seattle (‘Sometimes these cars have Idaho plates. And I think, What the hell is a car from Idaho doing here? Then I remember, That’s right, we neighbour Idaho. I’ve moved to a state that neighbours Idaho. And any life that might still be left in me kind of goes poof.’), and doesn’t care that she’s disliked by all the parents from Bee’s school – a pretentious school of ‘Subaru Parents’ (trying very hard to become ‘Mercedes Parents) where the worst grade you can get is a ‘W’ – working towards excellence. Yeah, that kinda nonsense.

Everybody in this book is so incredibly self-involved it is positively hilarious. Their ability to over exaggerate every little small detail and turn it into a 3-page rant creates a novel that is pure, unapologetic satire. An example of this hilarious exaggeration is when Bernadette is telling Manjula, her virtual assistant, about the difficulties of trying to park her car downtown when forced to pick up a dodgy prescription:

‘It was the first time I’d been downtown in a year. I immediately remembered why: the pay-to-park meters. Parking in Seattle is an eight-step process…Step eight, pray to the God you don’t believe in that you have the mental wherewithal to remember what the hell it was you came downtown for in the first place. Already I wished a Chechen rebel would shoot me in the back.’

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Maria Semple has written quite a bit of comedy for TV – this is obvious when you start getting into this book. The dialogue is sharp and witty if a little forced at times in that sitcom kinda way. And though Semple does it well, I have to say that there has already been a book written in this format, that I think pushes the humour button a little more naturally than ‘Bernadette’. This book is ‘E: A Novel’ by Matt Beaumont – a brilliantly funny book if you ever have the time.

So, together with Bee, the reader pieces together fragments of information from all these random bits of correspondence, to see if we can find out where on earth Bernadette has got to. Underneath the razor-sharp wit, this book has a lot of heart and is one of those unusual ones where you genuinely don’t know what’s coming next. The twists and turns seem so random yet they work really well together. The only thing I’ll say is that the final third or so didn’t quite match up to the humour of the first two sections and so was a bit of a let down. And I won’t say anymore than that, because part of the pleasure of reading (most of) this is the unexpected way in which the story unfolds.

Another thing that’s surprising is that this book has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Though entertaining I didn’t think it was of that calibre….but then again, something shouldn’t have to be ‘serious’ in order to be considered prize worthy. Perhaps it’s the pure originality (minus the format) that has made the judges think twice.

The Book Cover Wars: UK vs. USA – Part 2

So, last week, inspired by The Millions, I compared the UK and US covers of some of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog. This week, I’ll be comparing the rest of the book covers from this blog. Fun times. As before, UK on the left, US on the right.

First up is this gem of a book by Emmanuel Carrere. What’s interesting about this book is that the UK and US publishers have each chosen to publish this book under different names: ‘Other Lives But Mine’ – UK, and ‘Lives Other Than My Own’ – US. I’m genuinely not sure which title or cover I prefer (which sorta defeats the purpose of this post). From what I understand, the US cover does have this tattered notebook printed on it, it’s not the notebook that’s the actual book. I find that a bit odd and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to say about the book either. And I (surprisingly) get the oversimplification of the main themes of this book by putting two hands holding onto each other on the cover, but think the UK cover, which depicts the devastating tsunami that is central to the story, ultimately does it better. Even if a bit flat.

A total no-brainer. I am completely shocked that the UK book cover was ever allowed to see the light of day. Honestly one of the worst covers I’ve EVER seen. Which is a shame because the book deserves to be read. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a poorly constructed textbook for young children. The hatred I feel for this cover cannot be fully expressed through words. It honestly offends me. Which is why the US wins. But neither of them have nothing on these amazing covers I found on this website.

Because this is one of my favourite reads of last year, I find it difficult to say anything negative about it. Difficult but not impossible :). UK has opted for boy running in field whilst US have gone for blurry image of father and son playing in the ocean. I quite like the colour tone of the photograph on the UK cover (though it has very little to do with the story), so my first instinct would be to pick that edition up. But when I look very carefully at the American version, I notice things like the ‘good’ in the title to be written roughly in pencil, giving varying connotations to the word. So, at a push, the subtlety of the US cover wins over the shelf appeal of the UK.

So this is a slight anomaly because it hasn’t been published in America. So the cover on the right is the German edition (I think). As the UK cover seduced me a very long time ago, I think it’s obvious which one I’m going for. I find the cover so strikingly beautiful. And so stark and spare – exactly like Judith Hermann’s prose style. The protruding nipple on the German cover gives a Lolita-esque impression that is neither titillating nor accurate.

Although it’s a bit unfair because the UK copied the US hardback cover to produce this paperback one on the left, and the somewhat less appealing US example I’ve used here is their paperback version; I’m gonna say UK wins. The silhouette of the little girl on the country road work very well as it’s an image that haunts the characters in the book. The US one is a bit meh.

If my memory serves me right, the American version was published by Amazon Publishing (don’t even get me started) who clearly had no idea how to capture the humour of the novel so thought they’d date it and make it look like a manual. Although a bit literal, the UK cover has a nice texture to it and uses a much more interesting font.

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Both sides of the pond opted for the same cover. It’s certainly eye-catching and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t influence my decision to buy the book. But after reading these stories, I’m not sure that it necessarily has anything to do with anything. Does this matter?

A fascinating book with good, very different covers on both sides! I know that lobster has helped to sell many books here in England and I can see why – It’s very intriguing. The US cover hints at a dinner that is not as simple as the title implies. The burnt tablecloth revealing the title details underneath mimics the reading process where we discover the true nature of the narrator as the dinner progresses. The curiously curly/scratchy font also works really well. Well done to America.

thisiswhereileaveuAgain, both sides have the same cover. I don’t hate it, I don’t love it. People who read Jonathan Tropper read him because they’ve heard that he is one of the funniest authors out there, not because his book covers are amazing. I know this is being made into a film (CANNOT WAIT!! EEEK), and I dread the day when the book is reprinted with the movie cover. Those covers are NEVER appealing.

As it was the UK cover that prompted me to read this anticlimactic book, it makes sense for me to pick it over the US one. If you haven’t read the book yet then the US cover is just a girl standing in front of a house. Having said that, the woman’s legs (presumably swimming) in the water, though somewhat creepy, has absolutely nothing to do with this book. But it’s certainly more striking, and as it’s a publisher’s job to sell books, I understand why they went for it.

I’ll be reviewing this quite funny book next week (I promise). Both publishers went with the same idea but executed it in a slightly different way, and I prefer the UK version. The US one is certainly more angular, which I found strangely appealing, but the differing fonts used for title and author’s name is very irritating (also the placement of the author’s name?!?!). And unless you’ve already read the book, you wouldn’t make the reference that those blue triangles behind Bernadette’s head are actually icebergs. The UK wins by only a tiny amount because something about the cover screams chick-lit, which this book definitely isn’t.

So that’s the end of these cover comparisons. The UK won this time around – 6 to 3, so maybe these publishers know what appeals to us more than we do. But then, the US won in my last cover comparison, so perhaps there is no science behind the art.