With a Zero at its Heart by Charles Lambert

with a zero at its heart charles lambertWith a Zero at its Heart is a book with 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of 120 words each. This might sound like a gimmick, but it didn’t read that way.

Each chapter tells the life of the narrator through its theme, like ‘cinema or what the centaur meant’, ‘money or brown sauce sandwiches’, and ‘language or death and cucumbers’. Each paragraph is one memory, one fragment of something from his life; the first paragraphs are earlier in his life and then they move towards his present. As you read, the broader stories become more apparent – about dealing with his parents’ death, writing, and growing up and finding himself and his sexuality. It’s quiet, and fragmented, but the feelings are whole and strong. It’s tender, melancholy and playful all at once.

You could read this book in one sitting, but I didn’t. I think it needs to be read slowly, in the way you would read a short story collection or poetry. It needs space to breathe and to allow the fragments to settle and the whole to emerge. I’ve only read it once so far, but I think it’s one of those books where there’ll always be new things to discover when you go back to it.

The writing is absolutely beautiful; understated in the best way. It’s full of little true things and punch-the-air-yes phrases and imagery. I hadn’t even heard of Lambert before this came along, but I will definitely be checking out his other work if this is the way he writes (any suggestions of where to start are welcome!).

I’ve got no idea if this is fiction, non-fiction, or a bit of both (I’m guessing both), but it doesn’t matter really. One of the best books I’ve read this year (so good, I nominated it for the Not The Booker before I’d even finished it).

I won a free copy from The Friday Project with no expectation of review. It came signed, eep!

zero at its heart signed

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The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

I really like this cover

I really like this cover

Translated from French by Melanie Florence

This is a fictionalised account of the life of Hélène Jégado – a notorious serial poisoner in 1800s France – from her birth to death.

I was expecting something dark in a serious way, but it’s more of a black comedy. There are two men from Normandy that keep popping up in every town Hélène does who gradually suffer more and more ridiculous misfortune. Some of Hélène’s kills are also pretty farcical – particularly when she’s cooking and working in the brothel. The style of humour reminded me of The 100-Year-Old Man by Jonas Jonasson, so if you weren’t keen on that then you probably won’t like this.

For the majority of the book, Hélène moves from house to house, getting a job as a cook, poisoning people with her little cakes and soupes aux herbes, then moving to another house, getting a job as cook, poisoning people, etc. It meant that a lot of the book felt repetitive as the houses and their occupants just weren’t different enough from each other. It felt less repetitive when she worked in the brothel and with the nuns, because those situations were different enough to stand out (particularly with the nuns – she is prevented from being the cook so cannot kill, so sets about destroying their possessions and cutting holes in their habits in rather revealing places). The end section, after she is caught, also flowed a bit better for me, mainly because it was different.

I think what also contributed to the repetitiveness was that she has no real motive for killing who she kills – she just kills whoever she comes across – and then makes no attempt to cover it up. Having a killer who just kills for killing’s sake is fine, but, as there’s not enough time to get to know the secondary characters before they’re dead, it consequently became a little flat without a kind of richness of plot or character.

There were some great descriptive bits of 1800s Brittany, and the conflict between the superstitious Bretons and the religious French was interesting, particularly the darker side of the Bretons’ superstitions, like the statue of Our-Lady-of-Hatred (a Virgin Mary with a painted-on skeleton body and wrinkles) where people go to pray for misfortune to come to others. Hélène herself is obsessed with the Ankou (death’s worker), and believes she is doing the Ankou’s work (her only real motive through the book).

A dark black comedy that felt too repetitive and little flat for a good chunk of the book. But you might like it if you liked the humour in The 100-Year-Old Man.

The Poisoning Angel is published on 14th July 2014.

I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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June Reads

At the end of last year, I said I would do monthly wrap-ups of what I’m reading, review it half-way through, then try and fill in some of my reading ‘gaps’. But, I’ve decided I want to do something else instead – tackle my TBR. I moved my books around and put all my unread books on one shelf. This shelf looks at me with a combination of shame and excitement. What I want to do is get that shelf read, and never have more than 15 unread books. Because of that, I’m going to have to put the ‘gap-filling’ aim on hold for now, as I can’t get new books to fill those gaps before I’ve read the ones I’ve got. For the next six months, I’ll being reading the unread, alongside review books and book club books (which I’m not allowed to buy!). I’ll put a TBR number at the end of every wrap-up.

Anyway, onto my June reading…Not so much read this month because I was ill, but still a couple of crackers in there.

twin truths Shelan RodgerTwin Truths by Shelan Rodger (Novel)

An easy-read which was okay, but not great. Full review here.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Novel)

the brief and wondrous life of oscar waoI loved this book. It’s about Oscar, an overweight, nerdy, and not at all macho Dominican who’s having a painful adolescence. It’s also about his family, the history of the Dominican Republic and its dictator, fukus and zafas (curses and good luck), culture, and expressions of ‘manliness’. There’s so much to think about in it, but it’s also just great to read. The best book I read this month by a mile. Go read it. (Incidentally, although I already owned it, I read this for a Writers of Colour book club on Goodreads, which you can find here if you fancy joining to help diversify your reading.)

who are you elizabeth forbesWho Are You? by Elizabeth Forbes (Novel)

Another quick read, but this time a much darker one. The twists are pretty obvious, but it was enjoyable as an easy read (in as much as you can ‘enjoy’ violence if you know what I mean). Full review here.

 

Photo 14-06-2014 19 57 08Scott Pilgrim numbers 4, 5 & 6 by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Graphic novels – fiction)

These are the last three in the series. I really liked 4 & 5, but found 6 disappointing and anticlimactic. The books that have more of a focus of the secondary characters are a lot better. I wrote a review of the full series here.

the tenant of wildfell hallThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (Novel)

It’s been a while since I’ve read any books of this era but it was surprisingly easy to get into this. This isn’t as good as Jane Eyre, but didn’t deserve Charlotte’s suppression. This is the first feminist novel and is very enjoyable, despite being a bit waffly in places. Worth reading. Full review here.

Y the last man

Y the Last Man: Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn, Pia Guerra & Jose Marzan Jr. 
This series is about a sudden apocalypse/plague which instantly kills every male creature on earth, except a man called Yorick and his (male) monkey Ampersand. It’s a really interesting idea, but I’m not sure if I liked this book or not! I think, once I’ve gotten my TBR down a bit, I’ll need to read a couple more to work out what I think.

 

State of the TBR: 57 books which doesn’t include short story collections as I read those in bits. Yikes!

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

the tenant of wildfell hallThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall was very popular, though also very controversial, when it was first published. However, after Anne’s death it fell into obscurity. Her sister Charlotte (who famously wrote Jane Eyre) prevented The Tenant from being republished. Some say it was Charlotte being sisterly – trying to protect Anne’s reputation due to the controversy of her book (though she didn’t do the same for Emily). Others, however, think Charlotte wanted to promote her own book, and get Anne’s successful one out of the way, as she was always particularly critical of The Tenant. Only Charlotte knows really…but the evidence does seem more in favour of sisterly bitchiness…

Because of all that, I couldn’t help but compare The Tenant to Jane Eyre. Jane is one of my favourite books, particularly cherished because it was the first ‘grown up’ book I read, and The Tenant just couldn’t live up to that. But there was a lot in The Tenant to like.

The Tenant was one of the first feminist novels, and much of the book is about the status, constrains and general life of a woman in the Victorian era – you’re nothing without a marriage, and, once in that marriage, you’re stuck there no matter what. Essentially, The Tenant is about a woman who breaks those social rules, and suffers the social consequences, but ultimately has a happy ending (I think this is the first book in which a woman leaving an abusive husband led to a happy ending for her). The men are all extremely narcissistic, including the male narrator (for me, the ‘happy’ ending wasn’t all that happy, because I didn’t like the narrator). In fact, some of the conversations the men have with the women aren’t all that different from some I’ve had with narcissistic guys in the present. Much internal feminist ranting happened when reading this!

I think Anne was more religious than her sisters, and it comes through. Helen, the main character, is very religious, and often tries to convince her husband he is doing wrong through arguments about God. The pious characters in the novel meet happy ends, but those who do not reform do not. There’s also a strong warning against alcoholism throughout.

The reason it doesn’t reach the heights of Jane Eyre is just down to the writing – it isn’t as good. I also think Anne needed an editor. Not the one who published the hugely cut down version, but one who would tighten it up by getting rid of some of the repetition and waffle.

Perhaps not one to read as your first Bronte novel, but well worth a go, particularly if you want to see if you agree with Charlotte’s bitchiness.

[There is a version of The Tenant floating about which isn't the full text. The full version opens with "To J. Halford, Esq. Dear Halford, when we were together last..." Make sure you get that one.]

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The Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Photo 14-06-2014 19 57 08Scott Pilgrim is a six-book series in both black & white and colour editions (I had the black and white ones). It’s about Scott, a pretty immature, lazy guy in his early twenties who lives in a one-room flat with his friend Wallace and plays in his band Sex Bob-omb. He dreams about a girl on roller skates delivering parcels, and then opens the door to find her there, with the parcel. She’s Ramona Flowers – and she has seven evil exes that Scott must defeat if he’s going to stay in a relationship with her.

I’m not a big superhero fan, but I liked the superhero / video game vibe in Scott Pilgrim, and that all the characters acted as if the weird stuff was totally normal. My favourites in the series were the middle books – 3, 4 & 5. In those, there’s more about the secondary characters, and I didn’t find the bits purely focused on Scott so annoying. I was disappointed with the final book, though, perhaps because there was very little of the secondary characters, but also because the final showdown felt a bit anticlimactic.

scott-pilgrim3Scott Pilgrim is the least interesting and most annoying character in the series. I have no idea why Ramona goes out with him. He’s supposed to be annoying, but it meant I rarely rooted for him when I think I was supposed to. His supposed ‘growth’ through the series isn’t really that as he doesn’t actually change, and he always lands on his feet without really trying. For example, towards the end he doesn’t have anywhere to live, but his parents magic out of nowhere, pay for a flat for him, then magic back into nowhere. It’s a minor thing but it’s lazy story-telling and bugged me.

scott-pilgrim-1The artwork is ok; it didn’t jump out at me as particularly special, though I liked some of the art and panel work in number 3 during the flashback sections, and I liked the cutesy versions of the characters in Scott’s video game dreams. I did have an issue with some of the character drawing. I am terrible with faces (seriously, I sometimes can’t tell if identical twins are even related, even though they have the same face) and I found some of the characters, particularly some of the female ones, quite hard to tell apart at times. It seemed as though O’Malley had one ‘look’ and just didn’t / couldn’t adapt it enough for the number of characters he included.

All that sounds like I hated it. I didn’t – it’s an enjoyable enough series, especially in the middle, but it just didn’t live up to what I’d hoped. The film (which I saw first and liked) does a good job of condensing the series, leaving in the humour, and making Scott a bit less annoying. If you liked the film, give the books a try, but, if you didn’t, I don’t think the books will change your mind.

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Who Are You? by Elizabeth Forbes

who are you elizabeth forbesWhen Alex leaves the army, he and Juliet move into a new, large home in a leafy part of London with their 5-year-old son, Ben. Juliet is glad to finally settle down after having to move every few years, but Alex isn’t so sure. When they first got together, Alex was a fairly controlling guy, but since returning from Afghanistan he has become worse, much worse.

What makes this book work is that you get both Juliet and Alex’s points of view (in pretty much alternating chapters). Neither character is particularly likeable, and both are damaged and manipulative. Alex, suffering from severe PTSD but not willing to accept help, is violent and extremely controlling; Juliet is manipulative and sometimes triggers Alex’s PTSD on purpose. But by hearing from both of their viewpoints you can have empathy with both, particularly in the case of Alex, as his dangerous behaviour does naturally make it more difficult to see his side. I also felt the balance was pretty well struck between empathising with Alex and showing how his behaviour is not at all ok. (This book doesn’t shy away from violence – you are made to look at it square in the face.)

The twist towards the end is pretty obvious, but that does add to the sense of dread in a way – you spend a few chapters just waiting for the horrible inevitable (and internally yelling at the character in question for not seeing the inevitable too).

It’s a fast-paced, quick read, but a dark one.

Who Are You? is released 1st July 2014.

I received a free copy of Who Are You? from Cutting Edge Press in exchange for an honest review.

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Twin Truths by Shelan Rodger

twin truths Shelan RodgerTwin Truths is the story of twins Jenny and Pippa. Part 1 is told from Jenny’s perspective, part 2 from Pippa’s, and part 3 from, well, I won’t give that away! This is a novel about the nature of identity and truth, and how those things intertwine.

I love an unreliable narrator and Jenny is just that, particularly in the beginning. She lies to everyone around her about her past and why she is in Argentina, doing her best to shock them. Even when she seems sincere you can’t quite believe her, though you always get the sense she’s hiding something bad that has happened to her and/or Pippa. It’s not long before she reveals just how insecure and vulnerable she really is.

In the first part, alternate chapters are from the point of view of Jenny’s therapist, Ignacio. I did not like Ignacio. I quite enjoy reading unlikeable characters most of the time, but not when they’re written in a way that makes me think I’m supposed to root for them. There’s also a relationship between Ignacio and Jenny that is just really inappropriate – he knew she was a vulnerable woman and that he was in a position of power (even if Jenny’s false bravado made it seem otherwise). I can see what Rodger was doing with it – Ignacio’s struggle between his professional and personal identities ties in with the main theme of identity and a ‘split’ within this identity. But the inappropriateness of it was only questioned a little before it was forgotten, and it felt like I was supposed to forget it too – that it was a twisted but perfect relationship for them both. *Bias alert* I’m a psychologist so this sort of thing probably annoys me more than it would a non-therapist. It might not bug you at all. *Bias alert over*

The novel twists and turns, and the revealed ‘truth’ when Jenny and Pippa’s truths finally come together is pretty good. The minor twist in the epilogue was a twist too far for me, and I felt it slightly undermined what she was trying to do with the end. I would have preferred the book without it.

The author’s note about the inspiration behind the book was interesting, and I actually found it more engaging than the book itself, and it made me like the book more. I also think a lot about the nature of identity and how it ties to memories and narratives we tell about ourselves and others.

The chapters are very short (often just two pages) so it feels like a very quick, easy read. I preferred parts 2 and 3, because even though in many ways Jenny is the more intriguing twin, part 1 was a little repetitive in places and I just couldn’t get along with Ignacio’s chapters.

For me it was ok, not great, but interesting enough if you fancy a quick easy read with a slight edge.

I received a free copy from Cutting Edge Press in exchange for an honest review.

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