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Dysfunctional Family Bonding Dysfunctionally: The Red House by Mark Haddon

Book Cover Image of The Red House by Mark HaddonDaily crises,  confrontations, misunderstandings, adolescent hormonal outbreaks, sexual tension, attempted suicide, a nervous breakdown, a dramatic brush with death, and no cell phone reception except in a tiny corner of an upstairs bedroom don’t make for a relaxing family holiday, but make The Red House by Mark Haddon, where much of what happens is happening inside someone’s head, an intriguing novel of family and identity.
Angela’s brother Richard phones Angela out of the blue after their mother’s funeral, to invite her, her under-employed husband of twenty years, Dominic, and their three kids (athletic Alex, age 17; born-again Daisy, 16; and dreamy Benjy, 8) – to spend a week’s holiday with him and his new wife, Louisa, and stepdaughter Melissa (age 16) in a rented house in the hilly countryside of Herefordshire on the Welsh border. Although resentful of Richard because of the years she spent dealing with their mother’s long, alcoholic decline while her financially successful younger brother paid the bills and kept his distance, Angela accepts his invitation –  unable to take her family on any vacation at all otherwise, much less to a more exotic locale, as she pointedly reminds Dominic, the failed family breadwinner. Five weeks from the surprising phone call, they’ve all met up at the shabby but comfortable rental house and started getting to know each other, somewhat stiffly and awkwardly.*
Sentence fragments. Many fragments. Passing thoughts, random images, partial memories, inchoate yearnings. (This was how I thought of starting out the review, but I was afraid it would sound negative, and I want readers of literary fiction to read The Red House, even though it is more like A Spot of Bother,** the author’s second novel, than his more popular first, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.)
It takes a while to get used to the poetic style of the author’s writing. (Sentence fragments. Many fragments.) You don’t always know what is being thought or who is doing the thinking at first, but this is the way the author gets the reader into the characters’ heads. People don’t think in fully-formed, coherent paragraphs, or even in full sentences, sometimes not even verbally.
Also confusing at first is the way the author uses italics instead of quotation marks to signify that a character is talking, not thinking – the opposite of the usual use of italics. I don’t know why the author decided to do this. Maybe just because most of the book would have been italicized if it had been done the usual way.
Even those who aren’t relative strangers to each other learn something about their siblings, spouses, parents, children, or themselves during the week away – some good, some bad – and have had to revise their thoughts about themselves or someone else during their time outside of usual life. Nothing is charming or particularly heartwarming (no group-hugs), but the brief period of togetherness makes their individual lives of quiet desperation a little less lonely and desperate.

*understatement of the year
**understatement of THAT year

Read a Telegraph article about author Mark Haddon here, which includes a short excerpt from near the beginning of The Red House.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

The Red House
Haddon, Mark
Doubleday
June 12, 2012
978-0-385-53577-9
272 p., $25.95, hc

Guilty English Pleasure: More Than You Know by Penny Vincenzi

English author Penny Vincenzi‘s books are like granola bars – not much more nutritious than candy, but their mini chocolate chips and tiny marshmallows or sweetened dried cranberries satisfy a candy craving, with a few nutritious oats and nuts tossed in.
None of the author’s later books have ever appealed to me as much as The Spoils of Time trilogy, a saga of the Lytton publishing family in London. (The start of the trilogy, No Angel, was the first of her books to be published in the U.S. – in 2004 – and several books later, that’s the one that’s still mentioned on the cover of this one.) But I still find her books addictive, and whip right through each new one.
In More Than You Know, fashion journalism and fashion design in the sixties (which the author had first-hand experience of) form the backdrop of the drama that plays out when headstrong career-girl Eliza Fullerton-Clark – whose shabby genteel parents are struggling to maintain their large village house, Summercourt – falls for the working-class, chip-on-his-shoulder Matt Shaw – who is well on his way to making his first fortune in property development. Money and class; marriage and career; tradition and changing times…all these make for a stormy relationship between Eliza and Matt, eventually bringing them to the brink of the vicious child custody battle alluded to at the beginning of the book.
But that’s just one of the multiple story strands that readers of More Than You Know will be following. Along with the relationship ups-and-downs of Eliza’s brother and Matt’s sister (not together), Eliza’s ex-beau Jeremy (handsome and rich, like Matt, but from Eliza’s upper-class world), and friends of Matt’s or Eliza’s, there are soaring or flattening career arcs – with Eliza caught between motherhood and her burgeoning fashion journalism career and Matt working with cutthroat competition (sometimes within his own office) – the siren call of the kinds of temptation that the swinging sixties and seventies were rife with, parenting struggles, and too many other plot threads to mention, all switching back and forth across each other.
Penny Vincenzi is a master of the sexy, literary potboiler. More Than You Know will be devoured by her fans, but it might not be the one to hook a new reader unless the London fashion scene is a big draw. I still recommend No Angel if you’re trying to decide whether you’ll like Penny Vincenzi or not.

Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.

More Than You Know (published as The Decision in the U.K.)
Vincenzi, Penny
Doubleday
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
978-0-385-52825-2
608 pp.
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Waiting on Wednesday – Letters to a Friend

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. This week’s pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

Letters to a Friend

Diana Athill

Publication Date: April 16, 2012

I’m not usually a fan of collections of letters, because letters so often contain too much mundane detail, of little interest to anyone but the author and the recipient. And because they aren’t always carefully crafted, and might not be worth publishing, but are only there to fill out the collection. HOWEVER, I will make an exception for this collection of letters written by Diana Athill, probably because I wish it were her next memoir instead. Somewhere Towards the End was so good!
Read an excerpt from the U.K. edition of the collection, titled Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend, here in the Telegraph. (I was reminded by Wikipedia just now that Diana Athill’s first memoir was titled Instead of a Letter, but the American publisher must have decided we wouldn’t get the reference, and shortened the title to Letters to a Friend.)

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Much Obliged, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (Audio)

P.G. Wodehouse‘s stories about Jeeves, the erudite and unflappable valet, and his young English master, Bertie Wooster, first started appearing in 1917, but they are still hilarious today. A few years ago, I listened to a couple of early story collections: The Inimitable Jeeves, narrated by Martin Jarvis, and Carry On, Jeeves, narrated by the late Jonathan Cecil. Each of the narrators was excellent as the voice of Bertie Wooster, the foppish, dimwitted, and conceited young bachelor who doesn’t realize just how often he relies on his imperturbable manservant not just to keep his wardrobe and the household in order, but also to keep him (Bertie) in the good graces of his rich aunts, out of the dreaded state of matrimony, and out of the farcical scrapes he’s always getting mixed up in due to his misreading of a situation.
Much Obliged, Jeeves purports to be a continuation of Bertie Wooster’s memoirs. I suppose Bertie’s oblivious, upper-class snobbery could be offensive to class-conscious listeners. But much of the humor stems from Bertie’ being so smugly self-centered that he doesn’t realize he could ever offend, except maybe unwittingly (and that would be highly unlikely, as he prides himself on his sensitivity.) Bertie relates the events of his life in such a way that we the readers understand that he’s completely clueless, while Bertie himself clearly remains clueless about being clueless.
I worried at first that a new narrator wouldn’t be able to fill the shoes of previous Wodehouse narrators (who also number among them the popular Simon Prebble) but Dinsdale Landen captured both Bertie’s exaggerated sense of entitlement and Jeeves’ stoic air of patience very well. I thought that he read a bit fast compared to other audiobook narrators, and I had to listen extra closely not to miss anything, but I got used to the fast pace. It seemed to fit the breezy, breathless nature of the Bertie’s memoir.
If you’re in the mood for something funny and frivolous, the Jeeves books are perfect. They are not educational or multicultural; there are no take-home messages, but, hey, they’re English classics, so you can feel virtuous about listening to them as you laugh.
Much Obliged, Jeeves refers frequently to events from earlier books but Bertie helpfully suggests “heaps of things” that the “old gang” (readers already familiar with the other characters mentioned in this book) can do while he catches new readers up on who the people he’s talking about are.
Much Obliged, Jeeves can be enjoyed on its own, but if you’d prefer to listen to the Totleigh Towers books in chronological order, here’s the list:
Code of the Woosters
The Mating Season
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
Much Obliged, Jeeves

Listen to an excerpt from Much Obliged, Jeeves here.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of the audiobook Much Obliged, Jeeves from AudioGO, formerly known as BBC Audiobooks America.

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YA Book Wins Both Morris and Printz Awards for 2012

http://www.johncoreywhaley.com/books/Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley is the winner of both the 2012 William C. Morris Award (for young adult book by first-time author) and Michael L. Printz Award (for excellence in literature written for young adults). John Corey Whaley has got to be one very happy author! Where Things Come Back was published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.
Four 2012 Printz Honor books were also named: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, The Returning by Christine Hinwood, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, and Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).
Susan Cooper is this year’s winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults. A well-deserved honor! (And apparently she has recently moved back to Massachusetts, so we can once again claim this English native and Oxford graduate as a Massachusetts author.) As an adult, I really enjoyed reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence aloud to my kids, especially as I remembered reading it myself back in the 70s or so. All five books in The Dark Is Rising sequence are excellent examples of quality fantasy written for young adults that adult readers can also enjoy without a qualm. I haven’t kept up with the rest of Susan Cooper’s work, except for The Boggart (also excellent) but her later books have also received high praise.
Winners of all of the 2012 American Library Association media awards were announced this morning in Dallas at the annual Midwinter Meeting. See today’s press release for the complete list of all winners.

Dark Humor with a Twist: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog is the fourth in a sequence of quirky, quasi-mystery novels by English author Kate Atkinson (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?.) Kate Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, where the second book was set, but, according to her Web site, Started Early, Took My Dog is her “hymn to Yorkshire [England].”
Started Early, Took My Dog
follows the same style as her other novels about Jackson Brodie, a former police inspector turned reluctant private investigator, but it seemed to me as though she may be getting tired of using the popular formula. (Maybe the BBC TV show, Case Histories, has caused her to lose interest in Jackson Brodie as a fictional character or maybe she is just going on with the books for the sake of readers who want a happy ending for Brodie, or maybe she is under contract with her publisher and the money is good.)
In Started Early, Took My Dog, as in the other Jackson Brodie books, readers get bits and pieces of the actions of different characters who at first seem completely unconnected, but whose past and present lives eventually intersect, merging briefly before breaking apart. Most of the main characters in Started Early, Took My Dog are police or former police, and as in all the Jackson Brodie books, most of them have an air of world-weariness, an attitude of “I’ve seen it all while eating a sandwich,” such as might develop over years of seeing lives full of human drama reduced to dead bodies on a daily basis. Occasional flashes of joy or despair startle them out of their bleak outlook, reminding them that life still has unplumbed depths and keeping them from offing themselves.
The writing is still excellent, as always, and the humor is still strong. Started Early, Took My Dog is worth reading just for the author’s one-line descriptions of what her characters see and think. Maybe because Jackson Brodie’s love interest is offstage in Scotland for the entire book, or because I’m more of a cat person and so wasn’t charmed by Brodie’s rescued pup, Started Early, Took My Dog just didn’t charm me as much as the earlier books.
There are some spoilers in it about events in the previous books, so I recommend reading the books in order.

Other blogger’s opinions (mostly good):
B. Morrison

54 Books
International Noir Fiction
Judging Covers

Domestic Sturm und Drang: Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope became one of my favorite authors years ago when I first read The Best of Friends or maybe The Men and the Girls (since that was the first of her novels to be published in the U.S.) and then proceeded to read every Joanna Trollope novel I could get my hands on. (She also wrote historical novels under the name Caroline Harvey.) She wrote about young marrieds, or siblings, or May-December couples, or illicit romances with a kind of touched-up realism, showing readers the characters’ faults but never crossing the line into utter ugliness. And the British characters were so smart (in both the English and American senses of the word)! But starting with Friday Nights (2007) and The Other Family (2010) and now with Daughters-in-Law (2011), her characters’ faults came to seem mostly minor and forgivable and their problems too easily resolved by love or money…preferably both. (Yes, I’ve gotten older, but so has the author. Have her books gotten lighter, the more popular they became?)
It turns out that Joanna Trollope is known in England as the “Queen of the Aga Saga“, an offhand but catchy tag from a male literary critic that stuck, relegating her novels of middle-class English country life to a subset of fiction known as the “family saga“. Usually referring to long or multi-volume novels covering multiple generations, such as The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy or The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, the best family sagas eventually get made into public television miniseries, sometimes more than once. (Hey, BBC, what about Penny Vincenzi’s Lytton Family trilogy?)
A few years ago, Joanna Trollope and another popular English female author beat Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner to the punch in wondering why their best-selling domestic dramas weren’t ever even shortlisted for prestigious literary prizes — cleverly labeling the usual prize-winners “grim-lit”. This caused the literary critic who coined the phrase “Aga saga” to wonder why the bestselling novelists couldn’t be happy with the big royalty checks from their books when most literary fiction is quickly consigned to the remainder tables unless it wins recognition from a prize committee.
In Daughters-in-Law, the author examines a mother’s relationship with her three adult sons and their wives, as well as the dynamics of marriages with children. She details the crises of everyday life and the moments when choices between conflicting loyalties must be made. There were moments, reading Daughters-in-Law, when I thought the book might break out of its genre conventions and have the characters not all neatly work out their issues and messy entanglements by page 319, but if it had, the untidy ending probably would have upset more readers than it pleased.
I would recommend this one to women’s book clubs because there are plenty of characters and their motivations to discuss. A reading group guide is included in the softcover edition.

Click here for a funny riff on the family saga and chick-lit labels from a male columnist for The Independent.

Other opinions about Daughters-in-Law (mostly good):
5MinutesforBooks.com
The Hungry Bookshelf
I Prefer Reading
Pickle Me This

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