Archive | March 2013

GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

W&N

Paperback RRP £7.99

3/5

Image from gillian-flynn.com, click to go there

Many of the negative Goodreads reviews for Gone Girl exemplify the classic traits of the casual book reviewer: “I didn’t like it because the characters were meeean.”

That’s kind of the point. Twisted, obsessive characters appear to be Gillian Flynn’s forte. Neither Amy nor Nick is the good party, but I still read this book cover to cover in a matter of hours and cared about where the plot was going. Lack of empathy is no excuse for disliking this book.

I disliked it because, by the end, it was soap-opera levels of unbelievable.

I’ve given it three stars because I had a lot of fun reading it: the cliffhangers were thrills of the cheapest (best) kind, coming thick and fast; the gripping diary entries; watching Nick throw more and more shit at a very large fan. It was like a really good Nicci French novel.

And part of the problem actually lies there. The midway plot twist has been seen in a French novel (I won’t give it away but it’s one of the most well-known ones). Maybe it’s been in other places, too, but I’m not well-versed in crime novels. I called it before I’d got halfway through the first section (which might be because I REALLY like that particular Nicci French novel, but I’m not sure).

Then the book continued and I thought Oh, right. There’s more to say? OK. OK let’s hear it. And for a little while, Flynn stokes many a fire of hatred for one half of the central couple, and it’s compulsive reading. There are some fantastic lines (paraphrased: “I’m penniless and on the run. How fucking noir.”) Amy’s distaste for just about everyone is portrayed with an uncomfortable level of realism.

And then it just balloons into this great grotesque mockery of a made-for-TV film.

I refuse to believe in the sheer unprofessionalism of the police. I refuse to believe that some of the clues left scattered about would be understood quite so quickly by the person discovering them, given how said person is presented. I refuse to believe that anyone is so insane as to actually exist in the ending situation that the characters just settle into. The characters are sick, but they’re too sick. Flynn tries her best to build it gradually but it still didn’t fly with me.

I enjoyed Gone Girl a ridiculous amount. Unfortunately, that involved reading a large amount of ridiculous. Good try, but not a great one.

Waiting For Gonzo, Dave Cousins

Title: Waiting For Gonzo

Author: Dave Cousins

Publisher: OUP Oxford

Paperback/Kindle, £6.99

4/5


When it comes to writing for kids, Dave Cousins is pretty good. His debut novel 15 Days Without a Head was a Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week, was nominated for the 2013 Carnegie Medal and has been longlisted for the 2013 Branford Boase Award. With any justice, Waiting For Gonzo will gain him even more accolades.

Oz moves with his sister Meg and his mother and father to the small town of Slowleigh. Resigned to his fate, Oz decides to try and make friends through his greatest strength – joking around. He chooses a seemingly random portrait of a girl in the hallway to draw a moustache and glasses on. Unfortunately, the girl turns out to be infamous bully Isobel ‘Psycho’ Skinner. Vendetta ahoy.

As if that’s not bad enough, Oz then has to deal with the discovery that Meg is pregnant. After some initial jokes (which, for some reason, Meg finds less hilarious than intended), Oz takes it in his stride, nicknaming the unborn baby ‘Gonzo’ after the character in the Muppets. The book itself is a chatty, breezy epistolary story, written from Oz to Gonzo as he imparts earnest wisdom to the newest member of the family.

Teenage readers are notoriously difficult to please: they vary as much in terms of relationship knowledge as they do in genre preferences. Writing a book with a universal appeal across that age group is no mean feat. Cousins, however, manages it with an enviable, unique style.

He hits all the right notes. Oz has Ryan, who is THAT friend – you know, the nerdy LARPer who is sometimes a little difficult to admit to knowing. There are crushes, and the well-meaning, if cringeworthy, parental encouragement that comes with them. The cheeky humour made me laugh aloud several times (not least when Oz charmingly nicknames Ryan’s bearded grandfather ‘Grandalf’).

It is so refreshing to read a plotline on teenage pregnancy that circumnavigates the judgmental nastiness. Cousins certainly doesn’t ignore it – Meg mentions how sick she is of being stared at on the bus. But he shows a different side: in this case, there is our hero Oz, who accepts the situation with love and enthusiasm.

The book’s highlight is the excellent midnight heart-to-heart between Meg and Oz. This scene touches on humorous points such as Meg’s cravings (pickled gherkins), but also tackles the fear that Meg feels about giving birth, and about coping afterwards. It’s brave, and a total joy to read. Oz reads like an easy-going, mischievous boy would. I could have been spying on my younger brother’s thoughts. Perhaps more importantly, Meg sounds exactly as you would expect: she’s in emotional turmoil, pretty terrified of the whole birth business, but still makes time to be sarcastic and argumentative. That level of characterisation doesn’t come easy. Cousins is to be commended.

The book also benefits from one of the most dedicated publicity tie-ins yet. Oz loves music. His playlists help him through the misery of being stranded in Slowleigh; he gifts Ryan with a custom playlist to make him “cool”. Brilliantly, Cousins has used his musical knowledge to bring Oz’s playlist to life, and you can listen here.

Canny, punchy and laugh-out-loud, Waiting For Gonzo is a riot.

 

Fremont, Elizabeth Reeder

Title: Fremont

Author: Elizabeth Reeder

Publisher: Kohl Publishing

Paperback/Kindle, £8.99

4.5/5

 

Cover image from Kohl Publishing – click to go to the novel’s homepage

The main story explored in Elizabeth Reeder’s second novel (and Kohl Publishing’s well-selected first) is quite extraordinary by itself. Rachel Roanoke and Hal Fremont court for a day, marry, and plan to have fifty children – one named after each state. They track each birth using a carved map hung on the wall.

It’s a given that Fremont is, in part, about the tough endurance of maternal love (this review is fittingly being published on Mothers’ Day in the UK). But by no means is this book a strung-out gimmick. It is a sprawling, relentless epic. If you sit and read, the Fremont family’s mythology comes out of the page and grows around you – a steadily-enveloping oak, wrapping its trunk around a foreign body.

The sexism and expectation around traditional masculinity is thoroughly dissected. Hal’s only son, Tex, has to attempt to live up to his father’s standards. The eleven other girls – chronically ignored by their father – grow and individualise as best they can. Reeder illustrates the irony beautifully: Hal can view his daughters as one unit all he likes, but much of the novel is necessarily given over to their adventures and accidents.

With such a collection of children, you might expect Reeder to tip over into placing each one a little too neatly into a pigeonhole (“This one likes wearing pink, this one’s a tomboy,” for example). That never happens. Each child is a carefully-wrought individual. None of them are ever fully laid bare in 2D. You can find yourself leaning towards picking a favourite or despising one of them – before realising that their position in the family line-up has shaped that particular facet of them, and that they are so much more than what you see them as. Late in the book, I found myself detesting one of the youngest children for her apparently selfish actions; then, without didactics or fanfare, it became obvious that she only did what she must to stop herself going mad. Therein lies the true magic of Fremont: you must accept the beauties and curses of the whole family. They feel real.

Touches of magic realism and the sense of a deep natural power wind like gold thread through the whole thing, enhancing its charm and pull over the reader. Reeder’s imagination buoys up a narrative that would get mired down in others’ hands. Some details are genius, like baby Cole being unable to sleep unless she can see the stars.

The huge family is never still; their energy pulses through each word. There is a skilfully-created sense that any one of the children could disappear at any moment. Some of them do. And when death visits the family, you feel the loss with a keenness that might surprise you.

Fremont is a masterful, shattering examination of that special brand of madness with which only your family can infect you. At times it simmers like Jeffrey Eugenides’s Virgin Suicides; sometimes, the text feels like a lyrical, magical spell, in the fashion of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.

Read it slowly. It is a story to be savoured, cried over, and celebrated.

Hel Gurney

Writer, performer, poet, activist, on-and-off academic.

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