Wednesday, 19 September 2007

All Families Are Psychotic - Douglas Coupland

"Irresistably hilarious, unique and wonderful" Independent On Sunday.

In a cheap motel an hour from Cape Canaveral, Janet Drummond takes her medication, and does a rapid tally of the whereabouts of her children. Wade has spent the night in jail; suicidal Bryan is due to arrive at any moment with his vowel free girlfrien Shw; and there is Sarah, "a bolt of lightning frozen in midflash" -here in Orlando to be the star of Friday's shuttle mission. With Janet's ex-husband and trophy wife also in town, Janet spends a moment contemplating her family, and where it all went wrong. Or did it?

"All families are psychotic, Wade, everybody has basically the same family - it's just reconfigured slightly different from one to the next. Meet my in-laws one of these nights." Wise words from Norm, the smuggler during a covert meeting in Disneyworld. Sound intriguing? It certainly is! This novel is a real rollercoaster, as well as smuggling you will find kidnapping, shootings, drugs, adultery and Aids. But I don't want to give too much away.
Wade is the eldest Drummond son, a loveable bad boy trying to come good with his new pregnant and bible-bashing wife. He shares a close relationship with his sister, Sarah, who was a thalidomide baby born with only one arm, their father Ted's favourite and the reason for the family reunion. Bryan is pretty useless and his dislikable girlfriend Shw is pregnant and planning to sell their baby. Ted is probably the reason for the Drummond family being psychotic, having been abusive to every member apart from Sarah.
Their mother, Janet is the real star of the book, and I felt real tenderness towards her, especially towards the latter part of the book, when through a series of flashbacks we learn her sad story. " She considered herself one of the surviving members of a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances or doing the right thing- to care about caring."
Despite this she throws herself into the farcical crime road trip the family find themselves on, and proves herself to be nothing like the 60's soap opera Mom she considered herself to be. I adored the relationship she formed with the ruthless and amoral Florian, laugh out loud funny.
The family hurt one-another, lie, cheat and belittle, yet they also save one another, and psychotic or not, they are a joy to meet. Dougals Coupland has certainly written a winner.
“People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people's family. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” How true.
This novel is reportedly to be made into a film by R.E.M's Michael Stipe. I can't wait.
"heart-breakingly bitter-sweet...This book will make you want to phone your own psychotic family and tell them how much you love them" Daily Telegraph.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Year the Gypsies Came - Linzi Glass

"In the spring of 1966, there was no one living with us, and the tension between my parents was left to grow like untended weeds. It was then that the gypsies came."
"They came to us that spring and cast a spell over us. They changed our lives forever.
Emily Iris looks forward to the times her parents welcome house guests to their family's unhappy home on the edge of Johannesbur. For a while, for as long as the visitors are there, her father and mother will put their quarrels aside and be like a real family.
One spring, a family of wanderers- an Australian couple and their two boys- come to stay. But the arrival of these "gypsies" starts a chain of events that will shatter Emily's hopes of a happy family life and change them all forever.

Emily is a twelve year old tomboy, living with her perfect older sister Sarah, her self-obssessed mother and her distracted father. She enjoys a close relationship with Sarah, and the pair are kind and loving towards one another in the face of discord between their dysfunctional parents.
Their father, Bob, invites a family of Australian travellers to stay, a family every bit as, if not more dysfunctional than themselves. Emily befriends the younger son, Streak, whilst Sarah helps Otis, a backward teenage boy. The result is tragedy.
This book is classified as young people's fiction, yet the pervasive and underlying horror makes it disconcerting for even adult readers. Despite, or maybe because of this, I absolutely adored it.
Set in South Africa in a time when aparteid was still the norm, Linzi Glass paints a picture of a lonely child on the brink of adolesence.
Emily's relationship with Buza, their Zulu night watchman, lends a flavour of the setting to the novel, as he tells her African folk tales. Buza is Emily's confidant and surrogate parent, and the relationship between the two, makes for emotional and beautiful reading.
The gypsies themselves are a lot more difficult to like. Streak and Otis have never been to school, much to Streak's dismay, and he envies Emily her lifestyle. There is something increasingly menacing about Jock, the boys' father. Streak begins to confide in Emily about what goes on behind the closed doors of their trailer, and Peg, their mother provides an inkling as to what is wrong with Otis.
I wouldn't like to give away too much of the plot, I can only say that I found myself weeping uncontrollably by the end, and thought about this book and it's rich characters long after I finished it.

Carry Me Down - M.J Hyland

"Instantly likeable" The Times.

John Egan has a gift. He can tell when people are lying. Hoping that this talent will bring him fame, he has written to the Guiness Vook of Records. But while he waits for a letter in return, his obsession with the truth begins to threaten his already fragile family.

John Egan is an unnaturally tall, awkward eleven year old living in Ireland with his parents and grandmother. As his father observes, he is an "odd mixture" of "little boy and a grown lad" and the story spans a year in John's life, from age eleven to age twelve. His ultimate ambitionis to appear in the Guiness Book of Records, with which he is obssessed. When he realises that his father is lying to him, he recognises in himself a talent that could fulfill this ambition- he is a human lie detector. He begins to keep a record of the lies he detects in his "Gol of Seil", yet becomes accomplished at lying himself.
His relationship with his mother seems unnaturally close, and his home and school life are a constant trial to him. When the family are forced to move, his world becomes increasingly difficult, and his mental state more and more precarious. His father becomes wayward and his mother depressed and together with his fixation on the truth, John helplessness spirals out of control.
I did not enjoy this as much as M.J Hyland's first novel How the Light Gets In. I found it a little slow, and felt there were undercurrents of something awful in John's past that is never explored. Although I sympathised with John, I did not feel that his character was as well constucted as that of Lou in the Hyland's debut. John's character seems somewhat autistic, yet this is never really confirmed or denied.
I was suprised that this was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, whilst How the Light Gets In was ignored.
Although I enjoyed the book, I could not really say what kept me reading and I was glad to reach the end, and move on to something else.

"Enthralling and absorbing" Observer.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards

Families have secrets they hide even from themselves...
It should have been an ordinary birth, the start of an ordinary happy family. But the night Dr David Henry delivers his wife's twins is a night that will haunt five lives forever.
For though David's son is a healthy boy, his daughter has Down's syndrome. And, in a shocking act of betrayal whose consequences only tome will reveal, he tells his wife their daughter died while secretly entrusting her care to a nurse.
As grief quietly tears apart David's family, so a little girl must make her way in the world as best she can.

I was really disappointed by the Memory Keeper's Daughter. Selected as a Richard and Judy Summer Read, and handling the subject of down's syndrome, I expected Kim Edwards to have written a poignant, sympathetic and moving novel. I certainly did not find it so. The story moves slowly, and although I realise that in the 60's and before, children with this condition were commited to nursing homes and asylums, I found it unconvincing. Dr David Henry's reasons for giving away his daughter Pheobe, were based around the fact that his own sister had a heart defect, and died prematurely, impacting on his childhood and the lives of his family. This I could just not relate to.
The bulk of the book is centred around David, his wife Nora, their son Paul and how David's act of deceit poisons the happy family they are meant to be. Paul's teenage rebellion was probably the most realistic part of the story.
I was hugely disappointed with Edwards' treatment of the subject of down's syndrome. Little is made of the struggles Caroline faces in raising Pheobe, save the fight to get her educated at mainstream school. I did however feel that her handling of the relationship between Pheobe and her boyfriend Robert was sensitive and touching.
I have a cousin with Down's syndrome, and maybe this coloured the novel for me. I would not recommend it.

A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon

" A painful, funny, humane novel; beautifully written, addictively readable" The Times.

At fifty-seven, George is settling down to a comfortable retirement, building a shed in his garden, reading historical novels, listening to a bit of light jazz. Then Katie, his unpredictable daughter, announces that she is getting remarried, to Ray. Her family is not pleased- as her brother Jamie observes, Ray has "stranglers hands". Katie can't decide if she loves Ray, or loves the way he cares for her son Jacob, and her mother Jean is a bit put out by the way the wedding planning gets in the way of her affair with one of her husband's former colleagues. And the tidy and pleasant life Jamie has created crumbles when he fails to invite his lover, Tony to the dreaded nuptials.
Unnoticed in the uproar, George discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, creator of the unforgettable Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is an absolute treat. I didn't think he could improve on that novel, yet he has really pulled it off. George is convinced he has cancer, but cannot talk about this fear with his family. He keeps his thoughts to himself, compounding his morbid fears, his imagination running away with him... "If he drank enough whisky he might be able to summon the courage to crash the car. There was a big stone gateway on the A16 this side of Stamford. He could hit it doing 90 m.p.h with no difficulty whatsoever. But what if his nerve failed? What if he were too drunk to control the car? What if someone pulled out of the drive? What if he killed them, paralysed himself and died of cancer in a wheelchair in prison?"
Some of George's inner musings are hilarious, such as his opinion on his homosexual son, Jamie..."He didn't have a problem with homosexuality per se. Men having sex with men. One could imagine, if one was in the business of imagining such things, that there were situations where it might happen, situations in which chaps were denied the normal outlets. Military camps. Long sea voyages. One didn't want to dwell on the plumbing but one could almost see it as a sporting activity. Latting off steam. High spirits. Handshake and a hot shower afterwards. It was the thought of men purchasing furniture together which disturbed him. Men snuggling. More disconcerting somehow, than shenanigans in public toilets."
At the start of the novel, George was really the only character I liked, (excluding Ray), yet the flawed family members all come good by the end of the novel, and though it is a happy ending it never verges on trite.
I loved the exchanges between Katie's son Jacob and the family, Haddon certainly has a talent for capturing the innocence and comedy of childhood.
I adored Ray's character, and Katie's taking him for granted annoyed me at times, yet this is merely testament to how utterly believable the characters are. I couldn't quite understand why the family were all so opposed to the wedding as I felt that Ray was without a doubt the most consistently lovely character.
I would recommend this book to anyone and eceryone. It is laugh out loud funny, in places shocking and horrifying (George taking his "lesion" into his own hands), and made me weep several times. This novel transcends it!

"Haddon's style is a readers bliss. He writes seamless prose. The words are melted into meaning...Haddon's gift is to make us look at ourselves when we think we're looking away, being entertained." Scotsman