Transworld Summer Reading Challenge Review #3: Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld

Prep is the story of a few years in the life of an insecure teenager navigating the pitfalls of the privileged community of Ault, an elite New England boarding school. Lee Fiora is just 14 when she arrives at the school and hampered by a combination of bitchy cliques and her own self-consciousness, she struggles to find a place where she belongs and deal with her feelings for the most popular boy in the year, Cross Sugarman.

Ridiculous names aside, you know going in that there are only three ways the unpopular girl lusting after the high school heartthrob can end. They get it together and she becomes incredibly popular, they get it together and it ends badly or they never get it together. I ruled out the first thanks to the book’s general tone, but to avoid spoilers I won’t tell you which of the other two it comes to.

Lee is extremely well-drawn, so naturally she’s deeply annoying. Frankly if most of us look back at our behaviour during our teenage years we’d probably find ourselves to be pretty irritating as well. She comments once that a particular friend “liked her before she became likeable” and it’s a very shrewd observation. Her self-absorption is inevitable and irksome, and her moments of introspection are on-the-money cringe inducing. Scenes with her parents, where their Indiana suburban simplicity is thrown into sharp relief against the rich, untouchable parents shepherding their Boston born and bred offspring around campus are particularly sharply observed.

To a certain extent, Prep is done a disservice by its book jacket, screaming with references to Salinger and The Secret History. While I could possibly accept a (limited) comparison to the latter in the way that Lee is the awkward outsider in the Richard role, I think trying to make Fiora into Caulfield is a huge error. And that’s not a criticism; Prep is much more enjoyable when you accept it for what it is and don’t try to pigeonhole it. I have a bit of a loathing for “if you like this, then…” recommendations, anyway. Authors aren’t cookie cutters and even within a particular genre there’s huge variation.

As a penetrating yet amusing take on teenage alienation it’s a worthwhile read that, if nothing else, ought to generate a few uncomfortable moments of self-aware reminiscence.

Find out more about the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. Please note that opinions are my own and unbiased; I am not required to give the books a positive review.

Transworld Summer Reading Challenge Review #2: Amberville – Tim Davys

Eric Bear has a problem. Gangster Nicholas Dove has given him the task of removing the dove’s name from the infamous Death List, a task that might be impossible since no-one seems to know if the Death List even exists. If he fails, his beloved wife Emma Rabbit will be torn asunder by the dove’s gorilla goons, so he turns to the old crowd – simple Tom-Tom Crow, sly Snake Marek and sadistic Sam Gazelle – for help.

Oh, and they’re all stuffed animals.

I have to admit, I struggled a bit with Amberville. On the surface of it, it sounded a little off-beat, clever, unusual – a fantasy universe in the same vein as Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime Division series or Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. I even loved the cover with its stuffed animal take on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (with Emma Rabbit as Jo Hopper, of course). But actually the stuffed animal world seemed at times a little gimmicky, although the reason for its use as a warped mirror held up against our own world became more obvious as the story progressed.

It’s really the second half of Amberville that makes it, but it’s very hard to talk about it without revealing rather too much about the twisty plot. Each animal representative deliberately plays to stereotype; for example, Eric Bear is your everyman, Sam Gazelle a “mincing” (yes, really) male prostitute, Archdeacon Odenrick is a penguin, in black and white clerical gear. To some extent this means a bit of predictability, but to give ‘Tim Davys’ – it’s a pseudonym for ‘a Swedish author’ apparently – credit, the plot still packs a few surprises. However, the underlying themes of life and death, good and evil, religion and afterlife are well-trodden indeed, and Amberville holds few revelations here. It is perhaps the kind of book that appeals most to those that already agree with its thesis on morality; for me it felt a bit tired.

But if the moral didn’t do it for me, Amberville certainly gets points for originality of setting, and the kind of gleeful, haunting darkness that drips through it. Despite being carried out by stuffed animals, there’s nothing funny or less unsettling about scenes of torture, madness and betrayal, and they certainly stay with you. If you can ignore (or embrace) the underlying theme, there’s always the sneaky mystery story and detailed setting to enjoy instead.

Find out more about the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. Please note that opinions are my own and unbiased; I am not required to give the books a positive review.

Transworld Summer Reading Challenge Review #1: Bryant and May on the Loose – Christopher Fowler

It goes against the grain to pick a book from the middle of a series for me. I’ve read all 30-something Discworld books in order, I tackled Fleming’s Bond series chronologically; basically, I like to follow the development of a series from the beginning, logically. But with Bryant & May On the Loose I was plunged some seven books in to a series for which the next book – Bryant & May Off the Rails –  has already been released.

And that was just fine, as it turned out. References to earlier plot lines were swiftly explained without too much exposition for the latecomer, but with enough to feel quickly acquainted with the battery of faintly bizarre characters. The Bryant and May series centres on the eponymous detectives who make up the core of the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

Something of a law unto themselves and perpetually falling foul of the Met because of it, the PCU brings together a motley but talented crew of detectives and forensic types who investigate the kinds of crimes the other departments can’t solve. In this book, there isn’t even supposed to be a PCU; they’ve been officially suspended, pending investigation which seems to be inevitably heading towards formal disbanding. Just as it seems there’s nothing left for the team but to find new jobs (and, in Bryant’s case, shuffle inexporably towards a lonely death from old age and lack of stimulation), a headless corpse turns up which leads them into a race against time to solve a murder, prevent chaos striking a huge development project and possibly even save their careers.

Of Bryant and May it is Bryant, an eccentric, highly intelligent officer with an encyclopaedic knowledge of London and it’s convoluted history, that is the more striking. May is his sensible fall guy, against whom he bounces his ideas and who keeps him on the path of what passes for sanity in Bryant’s world.  The rest of the team is a mixture of sensible, likeable types  – the almost disappointingly realistic ones – and the slightly odd; Jack Renfield, for example, who’s trying to simultaneously shake off a reputation for being widely disliked and the Dracula jokes that follow his name about.

The strongest highlights of Bryant & May On the Loose are the fascinating points of London history and the clever pacing. Although you’re essentially given plenty of the detail that’s usually revealed at the end from the start, the intricately wound plot leaves plenty of room for guessing – and, indeed, second-guessing – and leaves just enough unsaid to keep the reader turning pages eagerly. Fowler is also far too skilled to suffer from the excessive exposition problem that occasionally surfaces in mysteries based on a long-buried secret; he works the historical detail into the plot in digestible chunks.

Although I’m not raving with excitement over the book, I couldn’t point out a specific criticism to level at it; a few things occasionally slightly grated(some uncomfortably unlikely dialogue, the odd overdose of eccentricity), but nothing that would stop me going on to read others in the series, which I now fully intend to do. All in all, it’s an enjoyably quirky, admirably pacy and interesting mystery, which is just fine by me.

Find out more about the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. Please note that opinions are my own and unbiased; I am not required to give the books a positive review.

I’m taking part in the Transworld Dan Brown Summer Reading Challenge

…without actually reading any Dan Brown.

Transworld Publishers have done a nifty piece of blogger outreach by inviting anyone interested in reviewing some of their books to either get involved on their blog or, if they don’t have one (or don’t want to use it for the reviews), writing Amazon reviews. There’s no pressure to write a positive review, they just want word of mouth out there about their books, and you can choose which four you want from a list of 15 and they’ll be sent to you.

It’s all explained rather better on Transworld’s Between the Lines blog, where you can also leave them a comment to get involved if you’d like to.

The four books I’ve chosen are listed below, so I’m looking forward to receiving the first (once it’s read and reviewed, I get the next one). Since reading is the most relaxing thing to do apart from sleep between Ramona’s feeds and I mentally review every book I read anyway, this is perfect for me.

Bryant & May on the Loose by Christopher Fowler (review now published)

Amberville by Tim Davys (review now published)

E Squared by Matt Beaumont

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (review now published)