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Category Archives: reviewing

A review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Standard Deviation

 

I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny. I didn’t read them with any pre-conceived ideas – in fact, both were from NetGalley and I knew very little about them – it’s possibly only a similarity of my own thinking, but they seem like a match to me.

Eleanor Oliphant is a massive success; a debut novel that started a bidding war and won The Costa First Novel prize. Widely acclaimed and apparently a prime example of feel good “Up Lit” I feel entirely at odds with popular opinion as I loathed it.

Eleanor is a lonely thirty-something who works in an office and adheres to a strict routine she feels safe with. There is unspecified trauma in her background. She’s an oddball, a figure of ridicule at work, out of step with her colleagues and apparently all of modern society. She’s a cartoon character: LOL she’s so weird cos she gets things wrong! Don’t worry though, she’s going to undergo an ugly duckling to swan transformation via a wax, a haircut, a make-over and some new clothes. The characterisation throughout is wafer thin and the plotting seemed incredibly obvious. Eleanor develops a crush on a lead singer in a band at the same time as meeting Raymond, a man seemingly not at all put off by the things that every other person in the book is. Everything is telegraphed well ahead. The voice adopted is a one-note bright, play it for laughs (never mind the trauma) voice.

The idea of this being a mood-lifting “up” style of novel only works if we can ignore rape, murder, fire, crushing loneliness and abuse. The representation of trauma and (possibly) additional needs is woeful.

Standard Deviation, another debut novel, is about Graham, whose inner voice we are privy to, his younger wife, Audra, and their son Matthew. Matthew is an 11 year old with Aspergers and is described in a wonderfully relatable way and is genuinely funny. There’s a warmth that comes through in this novel, and an authenticity that is lacking in Eleanor Oliphant.

“The terrible twos seemed to have a magical stretching ability when it came to Matthew. They went on for years. Eruptions over milk served in anything other than the Buzz Lightyear sippy cup, over music that was too “tinkly”, over carpet that was too scratchy, over people who stood too close, over the smell of sunblock, the prospect of butter on biscuits, the sight of cheetahs in an animal documentary. The littlest thing could set Matthew off, and there seemed to be no way of calling him back from the land of the tantrum – in an instant, he would be flat on the floor, back arched, legs rigid, mouth a wide open circle of angry scream. They would do anything to prevent it. Graham could remember scotch-taping the last banana in the fruit bowl back into a banana peel so Matthew could eat it monkey-style. Graham’s hands had been shaking with desperation.”

Audra is an excellent (over-loud, over-chatty, gossipy) character who is a great foil to Graham (and his ex wife who seems the opposite of her) and is the stand-out star of the book. I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected to and really am quite puzzled why it doesn’t seem to have garnered more praise. Especially considering how feted that blooming Oliphant book is.

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Don’t be a twunt.

At after work drinks I was introduced to a friend of a friend. My pal gave a brief preamble saying we both write fiction and left us to chat. The guy said, “Oh right, you’ve had some stuff published, I’ve got stories that need publishing, where should I send them?”
I asked him what kind of fiction he wrote, what journals he read, who his favourite authors are. He told me he doesn’t read other people’s stories as they aren’t of interest, he doesn’t read literary publications, he just wanted to know the best places to send to and wondered if I’d make him a list as he didn’t want to waste his time.
I told him to check out Duotrope. I felt awkward, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to get into just how arrogant I thought his attitude. It has stuck with me though and I wanted to address it here. His sense that those journals would be lucky to get their hands on his words was strong. Even if he’s an amazing writer (which I really doubt) the attitude that people should read him but he will not offer the same courtesy, stinks. 
I’m a writer who loves reading, is there really any other type? I read widely online and the high standard of many literary ‘zines stuns me. I subscribe to a few journals, to keep in print they need support, if you ever hope that a print magazine will want to take your words and other people pay to read them, you could buy that magazine yourself occasionally, right?
I try to keep up with blogs and read the stories that Facebook & Twitter pals link to. I give a cheer out every now and again. I’m not insincere though – I don’t go down a list going likelikelikelike. I’m not desperately trying to schmooze people, if I like or link it’s because I mean it. 
Last year Matt Bell gave an interview in Ploughshares  in which he said:
“I think the big mistake most writers make is thinking that becoming involved in your community is something you do after your book is published. Instead, I urge writers to become involved as early as possible, in a genuine, non-book-related way. It’s always a little off-putting when a person suddenly becomes interested in book review venues only once they have their own book. In a similar way, it seems false to only be interested in independent bookstores when you’re trying to get your own book stocked. The better solution is, as a part of your daily work as a writer, support the communities you wish to be a part of, by reading books, writing reviews, promoting other writers or bookstores or whatever in your social networking. It’s a small but old truth, but the more you give, the more you will receive. And this isn’t any kind of slimy networking. This is every writer’s responsibility, and the writers who create the most buzz for the good work of others will find that same energy waiting for them, when their own excellent book finally comes out.”
I love that.
I try to do my bit, small as it is. I critique for some writer pals – I’m happy to do that, glad that they respect my writing enough they think I can help. I belong to a really good (tiny) online group and we flash together, offer thoughts on each other’s longer fiction. I’m lucky that if I need someone to look at a piece of mine I can turn to a few truly amazing writers and ask. 
I’m proud to be a first reader for PANK. They are an awesome journal and it’s an education reading the submissions they receive. (By the way they were recently mentioned in The New York Times – that’s how fucking cool PANK is. If you’d like to support them they are having a Spring Funds Drive and would really appreciate any help.) 
I often get asked to review. I’ve spoken about my wariness before; as I’ve got older I feel I have more respect for other folks endeavours and less inclination to put anyone down. If I hate a book I prefer not to mention it. If I like a book I’ll happily say so here on my blog, on Facebook, at work and so on. My bookseller recommendations are genuine. I LOVE to talk about great fiction, I’m thrilled to see a customer buy a book that I think highly of. When I was young I was hugely opinionated and very sure of myself. I would happily give my thoughts on anything and everything, but now I’m older I realize how little I know, how subjective everything is. I enjoy reading other people’s thoughts but my own often seem flimsy. I find it easier reviewing books by people I don’t know, preferably “names” so I can tell myself they won’t be affected by what I think. It’s the debut collections and novels that worry me. I don’t want to cause offence. With age has come an excruciating politeness. It’s not ideal for a reviewer to feel that way. I am sent heaps of books I think are ok. No better than that. I read many story submissions that are ok. I want to be dazzled but it’s a rare occurrence. One can’t simply review a book and say, “This is okay,” it wouldn’t tell anyone anything, and yet I keep feeling that’s all I have to offer. I’m trying though to be the best and most honest reviewer I can be and to say what I mean without being a rude bitch.


I get to do cool stuff at the bookshop. I support good writing via recommendations, readings, reviews, displays and promotions. I think I put a little back into the world I want to be part of.  
Sadly I’ve been getting increasingly fucked off with the bad manners some writers have. It’s bad enough at work dealing with the occasional deluded writer (the self-published man who wanted me to order in his £20 hardback, 1 in a series of twelve self-published novels he’d written in the last two years, for example) but it’s part of the job I am paid to do. I’ve lost count, however, of the number of times I’ve been approached as a writer by another writer. We become friendly online or in person. Then, oh, their book is published, or due to be, and they wonder if I can get it into Waterstones? Can I review it? Can I organise an event? Then when I’m no longer any use to them they vanish. I try not to take it personally, I know how hard it is to get published, to get sales, publicity, etcetera and I really do want to help promote good words. It’s not wrong to ask if I can review and so on, but it is wrong to pretend to give a shit about me personally if you don’t. It’s really fucking rude. Please do consider when approaching someone, a nonprofessional, if your intention is simply to get them to do a particular thing for you. If so, why not ask directly? I’d much prefer to be asked “Can you review my book?” and offered a copy than be schmoozed for a while. The fact is I often give my review/critique/whatever for free. It’s a goodwill thing. If you are paying for my reviews/critiques you have every right to expect it to be a transaction but if ostensibly we’re writer chums and you ask for a favour and then disappear please know that I think you’re a twunt. 


I’ve been feeling embarrassed about the fact I have sometimes felt I’m making genuine friendships, y’know, I’m a writer, they’re a writer, we’ve got stuff in common. We chat, email etc,  I take things at face value; we seem to be getting on then, erm, we’re getting on, right? When I’ve ordered the book in, reviewed it, time passes and I think, hmm, whatever happened to so and so? And it hits, the realisation that, shit, it was another one of those networky things. I feel foolish at best and genuinely upset at worst. 
Oh, and if you bad mouth someone to me and then I see you Twittering all over them I not only feel uncomfortable, I also assume if you do it to them you’ll do it to me too. Ugh. 

Reviews galore (including "Punk Fiction", "What Becomes" and "One More Year")

Posted on

(Galore is a good word, I haven’t used it for ages I don’t think. I like it. Say it aloud – “galore”, it sounds nice.)

Anyway I have a bunch of reviews online and thought I’d link to them in case anyone fancies a read.

WBQ is now available online as well as in print, and I have a few brief reviews there of (amongst others) Sana Krasikov’s “One More Year”, A.L Kennedy’s “What Becomes” and Andrew Sean Greer’s “The Story of a Marriage”. Clicky here.

The July edition of The Short Review is now live. I reviewed “Punk Fiction” for them.

Inadequacy!

The post-person delivered another book for me to review today. I always open review books hopefully, but a little nervously. Ploughing through something I hate and then having to write a review is tedious, and I resent the time it takes, but the lovely feeling that accompanies reading a fresh voice, a good writer, is brilliant. Plus, of course, I am ever so delighted by FREE books, to be paid to read fiction and give an opinion is a (mini) dream come true.

Anyway, these proofs always come with a publishers blurb which attempt to sell both the novel and the author. I have never read a blurb with such…I’m not sure, gob smacked envy? My goodness, this woman seems to have lived a life I didn’t know really could exist out of the pages of a novel. She may well be a wonderful person, so I don’t want to name her, but to give a flavour of the bio:

Ms Posh Name is 27. She is very beautiful, her lovely face adorns the blurb. She is an actress, and a prize winning classical musician, she is also a journalist who writes for all the decent newspapers one can think of. Did I mention her double first at Cambridge? Her Masters at Harvard? She is married, does a lot of charity work, and wrote this debut novel in-between filming scenes whilst on location. I have no idea what the book will be like, but cripes, sitting here, fat, old, with a cold and aches and holding my very own pity party, I just feel so inadequate.

Review of Jen Michalski – Close Encounters

A new edition of The Short Review has just gone live.

I reviewed Jen Michalski’s “Close Encounters”

Random stuff

1 – The Burroughs book that my colleague was holding when he said “Look, it’s Matt…”? Turns out it’s subtitled “A book of the dead”.

2 – I am desperately struggling to edit a story I love. I love it but know that it doesn’t work as it is. Now I have a new end visual in mind and I am working towards getting there, but it’s a bit grr. 
3 – I am getting a bit fucked off with reviewing. Instead of choosing what to read I am constantly having to read. It makes such a huge difference. Obviously there are books I am delighted to review but then there are the others. The ones I read for the bookshop, 3 or 4 a month, and they are usually not what I would choose at all. I thought it’d be a good way of opening up my reading, but no, it has just confirmed that I am right to be so picky. Plus, gah, it’s taking up so much time.
4 – Possibly hurrah news to share by the end of the month on a new publication.
5 – Summer. Hate it. Sun. Ugh. Heat. Ugh. And no, I’m not one of those who complain whatever the weather. The sun honestly makes me ill. 
6 – I have been listening to Linkin Park and Jay-Z Collision Course and LOVING it so much. I figure I should be embarrassed about it, but wow, so good. I can’t work out though if it’s just a magic mash, or if I’d like them individually. 

Reviews – what should I do?

Reviewing is taking up a fair bit of my time lately. I think I should probably spend more time writing my own stuff than writing about others, but I love reading, and when I find something brilliant I really want to share.
Anyway, I pride myself on integrity and honesty and all that good stuff.
But.
Yes, but.
I am not putting up reviews of books I don’t like.
I feel concerned for the author; they may be offended, they spent time writing the book, who the fuck am I to trample on their words?
And yet…

A lot of the books I recently read were proof copies. I read 9 proofs in the last few months, and of the 9 I thought that 1 was good. Not my kind of book, but good. I expect it to do well and I will be glad when it does. The other 8 were varying degrees of not good. From disappointing to utterly shite. Now they are appearing in the bookshop, being reviewed in the papers and online. I am feeling a wee bit disgruntled actually. There is definitely a jealousy thing going on. A “this crap is published whilst I struggle” feeling.

I read a review on a respected blog yesterday that said one was ‘a cracker’. I found it trite, obvious, dull. I was going to post a reply to that effect, but then the publisher posted, said how pleased they were with it, how hopeful they were for its success. I’d be wrong to damn it, not that I think loads of people listen to me, but…

What if that was my book? What if finally I finished my novel, and it was published, and someone influential said it was ace, and then someone else said, no, actually I though it was caca? How would I feel?

So. What do you think? Is it best just to keep my mouth shut?