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 #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.