20 Books of Summer 2016 – how did you do?

Well, that’s it – 20 Books of Summer is officially over!

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Did I do it? Just about. I’m two thirds of the way through book 20, so I’m calling this one a win!

It’s been a hectic summer and it has flown by and if the reviews weren’t so plentiful at least the reading was great. I picked 20 really fantastic books this year and that made my challenge much, much easier. I didn’t really read any that I didn’t enjoy and while I had some issues with My Lover’s Lover, Sister and Blue Nights, I’m still glad I read them.

On the plus side, I really loved quite a few of my summer books. Stand outs were MJ Hyland’s mesmerizing This Is How and the heartwarming charm of The Republic of Love by Carol Shields. A quick search has told me that I have a couple more of her novels in the 746, so I can’t wait to read those. Honourable mentions should also go to A Crime in the Neighbourhood, The Keep and The Age of Innocence, all of which were great and I’m glad I made one swap, as Belinda McKeon’s Solace was a quiet gem.

So how did you all do? I know a few people finished all 20 a few weeks ago, which is fantastic, but as long as we all had fun, that’s the main thing.

I’d really like to thank you all – all 82 you! – for taking part and making it a great summer challenge. I was overwhelmed by how many of you got involved. A particular shout out must go to our Australian friends, for taking part in 20 Books of Summer during the midst of their winter – although often their temperatures were better than mine in Northern Ireland!

Every year I say I’m never going to do this challenge again, and then summer rolls around and I go for it. We’ll see how it goes next year, but if I do it again, I will have to do some serious planning!

So, what’s up next for the 746? Well, I have A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf lined up next for Heaven Ali’s Woolfalong and I also hope to take part in Jacqui Wine’s Reading Rhys – a week devoted to the work of Jean Rhys starting next Monday and I have Wide Sargasso Sea lined up for that.

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I also have a bit of a back log of recent Irish books to review which will keep me pretty busy, but there are some gems in this little pile that I’m really looking forward to!

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I’m also tantalizingly close to getting the TBR into the 500s – only 10 to go, so I hope to do that by the end of the year.

But the main thing I hope to do over the coming months is catch up with reading and commenting on all your fabulous blogs. I’ve been so very slack and I am looking forward to reconnecting with you all.

Thanks again for all the support and I hope you all had a great summer.

x

No 617 Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

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Marisha Pessl’s debut novel was published amid a storm of hype – publishing bidding wars, support from Jonathan Franzen, that famous head shot and articles in The New York Times, and all before it hit the shelves. It is a heavy burden of expectation for any book, but Special Topics in Calamity Physics almost fulfils it. Almost.

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The novel is the first-person narrative of Blue Van Meer, a precocious and bright teenager who since her lepidopterist mother’s death has travelled with her father Gareth, an academic on the move, taking up visiting professorships in schools around the country. Brilliant and arrogant as he is, he is devoted to Blue and her intellectual stimulation and they travel across the country Paper Moon style, discussing books, poetry, theatre and film which leaves Blue almost pathologically bookish.

It was always Dad and me, the way it was always George and Martha, Butch and Sundance, Fred and Ginger, Mary and Percy Bysshe.

For her final year of high school, they settle in a private bohemian college in North Carolina where

We have the highest number of graduates in the country who go on to be revolutionary performance artists

Here Blue encounters a group of elite students, the Bluebloods and their charismatic and mysterious Film Studies teacher Hannah Schneider with whom she is immediately captivated.

Most extraordinary though was the air of a Chateau Marmont bungalow about her, as sense of RKO, which I’d never before witnessed in a person

Blue is surprised when Hannah invites her to join their elite little group and begins to question Hannah’s interest in her, but a mysterious death and an even more mysterious suicide, means that this coming-of-age high school novel shifts gears and turns into a full on detective thriller.

If this sounds a bit like The Secret History, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, well, it is probably meant too as this is a novel about literary borrowing and literary conventions. The book is presented as a syllabus, with each chapter named after a great work of literature (Othello, Madame Bovary) and it finishes with a ‘final exam’. The narrative is peppered with literary quotes and references, many real, but some made up.

The doorbell rang. I was terrified and immediately imagined all kinds of wicked Bible salesmen and bloodthirsty misfits (see O’Connor, The Complete Stories, 1971)

These Tourette’s like bibliographical references are amusing at first, but have a tendency to bog down the story. As a means to show Blue’s Salingeresque bookish, self-aware nature and the influence of her father’s intellectualism on her life, they do serve a purpose, but at times they are shoe-horned in with a certain lack of subtlety.

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Marisha Pessl

 

However, the source of a lot of the pleasure that is derived from Special Topics, is that very literary knowingness which brings the reader – feeding our pride in our own ability to recognise her references. The literary net spread wide across all the characters, from Blue’s dull potential suitor who is like ‘a 12-line poem of repetition and rhyme’ to the gas station attendant with a King Lear obsession.

In the writing itself, there is also much to justify the hype. Pessl’s prose is energetic and often dazzling, veering off in marvellous directions, sometimes sweeping the reader along and sometimes leaving you gasping in its wake. Undoubtedly, she has great descriptive flair. A pair of red-haired twins ‘resembled two oily portraits of King Henry VIII, each painted by a different artist’ while Blue’s headmaster

smiled encouragingly, but I doubt it meant much; he seemed to hand out smiles like a guy in a chicken costume distributing coupons for a free lunch

Others though, miss the mark. A character ‘bites his nails into thumbtacks’ which seems clever but doesn’t actually stand up to scrutiny and often the characterisation can feel like it lacks a depth despite all the surface charm.

As more and more alliteration, metaphor and imagery is piled on, this book can often be tiring to read, but it kicks into gear in the final third as it morphs into a real page-turner of a mystery when Blue turns detective to try to unravel the death of Hannah Schneider. The turn of events is unexpected but it is clear that everything up to this point has been a laying of ground work, a perfectly paced and smartly structured work of fiction, whose clues have been there all along if we had just paid attention. The brave ending, which is both resolved and open ended explores the isolation and pain of adolescence – that time when things we thought we knew and could take for granted are less solid than we believed.

Underneath the literary illusions and clever narrative structure, there is a really solid and substantial novel here. Your enjoyment of it will entirely depend on your reaction to the writing style. The book ends with a true or false final exam for the reader which suggests that everything we have read is open to interpretation, and that in life, the reader, like Blue, can never be sure of the real truth, because a definitive truth rarely exists.

And the idea that none of us can truly know anything at all – not the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves – is a thought they’d rather be shot in the arm with their own semi-automatic rifle than face head on. Personally I think there is something terrific about not knowing, relinquishing man’s feeble attempt to control. When you throw up your hands, say ‘Who knows?’ you get on with the sheer gift of being alive’

This is probably the right approach to take with Special Topics in Calamity Physics, to just accept the sheer gift of it. While it can at times be too clever for its own good, it has at heart a love of fiction as a transformative power, a belief in knowledge and learning, and a massive amount of ambition.

Read on: Kindle

20 Books of Summer: 13/20

Number Read: 130

Number Remaining: 616

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Mini Summer Reviews!

 

The summer is slipping away from me and although I’m reading LOADS, my reviewing has stalled. I have been very busy in work trying to get everything in place for leaving my current job, and this has left me incapable of doing much in the evenings bar drinking some wine and watching some telly.

 

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So, here I am again with a few mini-reviews to get be up to date with my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

No 620 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’ Farrell

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I wanted so much to love My Lover’s Lover as I’ve been so impressed with O’Farrell’s other books. Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me. It starts well enough – Lily (a strangely vacant character) moves into a flat with the charismatic Marcus and the moody Aidan and begins a relationship with Marcus with almost ridiculous haste. Very soon, she is haunted by the ‘ghost’ of Marcus’ ex Sinead, whose room she has taken and whom Marcus refers to as ‘no longer with us. References to Hitchcock would suggest this is a tale of the dead taking retribution on the one who has taken their place, and the first half of the book is creepy and interesting. Things fall apart though as Lily, and the reader, discover that Sinead is in fact alive and well but devastated by the break-up of her relationship with Marcus. The novel then shifts focus to explore what happened between Sinead and Marcus before seemingly running out of steam by the end. My main problem with My Lover’s Lover is that the characters were so insubstantial. Lily doesn’t register much of anything, and Aidan remains on the periphery throughout. For a man that two obviously smart young women fall for without hesitation – Marcus is actually a bit of a shit, if you’ll pardon my language. Unpleasant, unpredictable and unfaithful, it’s amazing that he manages to hang on to one girl let alone too. Add to that, the supernatural aspects of the book, which I found most intriguing, are presented and then never explained. As an exploration of how our past relationships can affect our current emotions, the ghost is a potent symbol, but it is jettisoned halfway through this rather disappointing book.

Read on: Book
20 Books of Summer: 9/20
Number Read: 127
Number Remaining: 619

No 619 – The Keep by Jennifer Egan

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Given that I expected so much from My Lover’s Lover and felt disappointed, it was great to follow it with a book about which I expected little, but enjoyed a great deal. The Keep is a clever, well-structured tale within a tale that confounds expectation at every turn. It opens with Danny, a feckless Wi-Fi addicted 30-something New Yorker, arriving at a European castle to work for his cousin Howie. Howie plans to turn the castle into a boutique hotel where people come to turn off their devices and turn on their imaginations. The castle contains a mythical keep, inhabited by an old woman who claims ownership and refuses to leave it. With incredible stylistic skill, Egan also introduces Ray to the story. Ray is in jail, attending a creative writing course and writing the story of Danny, Howie, the castle and its keep, to try and impress Holly, his teacher. Either one of these stories would have been interesting enough, but that Egan manages to interweave the two and have them mirror, blend and bounce off one another, is quite a skill. The reader is at all times reminded of the authorial voice, but is never jolted out of either story. This is a stunning piece of metafiction and through the imagery of trap doors, reflections, pools and caves, Egan reminds us that we can only come to know ourselves and heal ourselves through the power of our imagination. The Keep is clever and stylised and also immersive and moving. One of my favourites of the summer.

Read on: iBooks
20 Books of Summer: 10/20
Number Read: 128
Number Remaining: 618

No 618 – Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

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Apple Tree Yard is another case of me hearing the hype about the latest exciting thriller, feeling the need to buy it immediately and then never getting around to reading it. By the time you find out that a book is getting a BBC adaptation, you know you are coming a little too late to the party. Apple Tree Yard is an interesting courtroom drama, well-structured and well- paced, but something about it left me a little cold. Dr Yvonne Carmichael is a successful 52 year old woman, with a good career as a geneticist, a loving husband and two grown up children. One day, while giving evidence to a select committee in the Houses of Parliament, she meets a man, chats to him briefly and ends up having sex with him in a public place without knowing his name. We then find out that Yvonne and her mystery man are in the dock in the Old Bailey, accused of murder and Doughty examines, as you would a court case, the decisions and acts that brought a seemingly normal woman to this point. Yvonne narrates her story as a letter to her lover, looking back over their relationship, her relationship with her husband and the chain of events that led them to more destruction than they could have imagined. Apple Tree Yard is a novel about stories – the stories we tell ourselves to justify our behaviour, the stories we invent to make ourselves appear more successful or attractive and then ultimately, the story that is told to a jury – all open to interpretation. It is also about manipulation and the far reaching consequences that can have. As a courtroom drama, it’s very successful and it was refreshing to read a book about the sex life of a middle aged woman that was clear eyed and unpatronising. However, as with My Lover’s Lover, I couldn’t quite understand Yvonne’s attraction to her lover, who came across as shifty and dangerous from the start. However, this is a chilling novel that explores the lies we can tell ourselves to justify what we have done.

Read on: Kindle
20 Books of Summer: 11/20
Number Read: 129
Number Remaining: 617

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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This last year has felt like a bit of a golden age for the female rock autobiography. From Patti Smith’s M Train to Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, there is no shortage of musical memoirs at the moment, with Viv Albertine, Chrissie Hynde and Brix Smith Start all releasing books. Carrie Brownstein in the founder member of Sleater-Kinney one of the break out Riot Grrrl bands to come out of that 1990s scene. Now a respected actor and screenwriter (Portlandia, Transparent), Brownstein documents her life growing up in the suburbs of Seattle through the early days of Sleater-Kinney to the ultimate breakup of the band while on tour in Europe. Brownstein had a troubled childhood, her mother had anorexia and left, while her father came out as gay while she was in her teens. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl captures perfectly how performance came to be both an escape and an identity for a young woman trying to make sense of a confusing world a create an identity of her own. Brownstein writes in a clean, downbeat manner, always willing to share her own embarrassments as much as her successes. She explores her relationship with band mate Corin Tucker with insight and clarity and her feminist voice demands to be heard. Fans of her later work in television may be disappointed but Brownstein is clever to end the book when the band ends, self-imploding just as things were going well. This could have been a frothy, girls on the road melodrama of a book, but by avoiding the high drama, Brownstein insightfully explores a life lived the only way it could be.

Read On: Book borrowed from my very accommodating husband
20 Books of Summer: 12/20

So, I’m back on track – 8 books to go in 6 more weeks, which I really hope I can manage. I may do a swap as I have now tried to start Moon Tiger on several occasions and it is not grabbing me at all, but I may give it one more go.

How is everyone else getting along? Can you believe there are only 6 weeks of summer left?

 

No 621 This Is How by MJ Hyland

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MJ Hyland’s third novel, This Is How, opens as the narrator, 23-year-old Patrick Oxtoby, arrives at the seaside boarding house he has just moved to, shortly after his fiancée has broken off their engagement.

I put my bags down on the doorstep and knock three times. I don’t bang hard like a copper, but it’s not as though I’m ashamed to be knocking either

This examination of everything that he does is a central feature of Patrick’s fascinating character and drives the rest of this stunning, visceral novel, which follows Patrick from jilted boyfriend to convicted prisoner in jail, charged with the worst of crimes.

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As the novel begins, Patrick is hoping to start a new life, in a new place. He has taken a room in a boarding house and has a new job lined up as a car mechanic. His fiancée Sarah has left him because he can’t express his emotions but according to Patrick, ‘the thing is, I didn’t have that many’. His internal reaction to the ending of the relationship subsumes those emotions into imagined violence,

“I wanted,” thinks Patrick, replaying the scene in his mind, “to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words… I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘you broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine’. It was something I’d never say… I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much.”

It’s an ominous thought and many more like it surface in Patrick’s head as he tries to leave his past behind. He takes seaside walks, starts a new job and tries to find himself a new girlfriend, but through his dispassionate internal monologue, his dependency on alcohol and his obsessive checking of his tool kit, it becomes apparent that the end of his relationship is only one of many problems.

According to Patrick’s father, he was born without ‘that knack for happiness’. Only feeling able to express his wish to be a mechanic to his beloved grandmother, he responds to her death by digging a hole in the ground and screaming in to it. His coping mechanisms don’t improve as he gets older and he has a complete inability to know what to say or do in any given situation. His need for precision and his painful self-awareness seem like a way for him to control a world that appears unstable and confusing.

I want this and I don’t want this, and there’s a feeling in me like I’m sorry for the way I’ve been to her and there’s a feeling that I’ve no notion what I’ll do next. Today, tomorrow or the next day. I don’t know where I’ll go, or what I want to do, a feeling like there’s nothing I’ve got to look forward to.

He is unable to participate in daily small talk, always questioning the motives of those around him. He has a precarious relationship with his landlady Bridget and struggles to communicate with his fellow lodgers Welkin and Findall.

Where Patrick thinks he has little emotion, he is actually being overwhelmed by it. His body expresses the pain he cannot through excruciating head and neck pain, vomiting to expunge tension and uncontrollable sobbing. He speaks without hearing his own voice and questions what he has said and what he has heard. The slightest things cause him great frustration, and an unexpected visit from his mother elicits an emotional reaction that he once again erupts in violence.

I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my tool kit. I put the pillow on the floor and put a towel over it and bash good and hard.”

Hyland brings us right inside Patrick’s head. The story is told with great detail, but few descriptive pointers. Like Patrick, we are unsure of what his employer or his landlady think of him. Are Welkin and Findall bullying him or is their behaviour just an attempt at banter? The book is set in the 1960s, but even that takes time to establish. The reader experiences the world through Patrick’s inner thoughts and we are groping for signposts and indicators just as he is. This shared dissociation means that we may not like Patrick, but we can certainly understand how he feels.

Like when you lose something really important, leave it on a bus seat or something stupid like that. You know? That fear and shame that goes through you like poison…Well, I get that feeling of shame after doing something stupid, I get it hundreds of times a day.

The tension builds to an inexplicable and ruinous act of violence that Patrick can neither accept nor defend. This is How focuses on how lives can be changed in an instant, how one decision, one emotional reaction, can change the course of lives. The second half of the novel follows Patrick as he is tried and sentenced for his crime and adapts to life in prison.

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Image: Shutterstock

 

Hyland depicts the trial with precision and immediacy, rendering the self-denial, fear and dull bureaucratic detail with a keen eye. In prison, forced into the close human contact that he has so far avoided for most of his life, Patrick adapts to this world that has the manageable rules he could never find in the outside. He finds himself able to form relationships, with his cell-mate and a psychiatrist and in a heart-breaking admission he admits;

I’m sometimes happier in here…life’s shrinking to a size that suits me.

As his world shrinks to the size of a prison cell, Patrick comes to understand himself better than he ever could before and if his self-awareness has limits, it is we, the readers who come to fully understand him. It is to Hyland’s credit that Patrick remains an empathetic character throughout and as he grows in to himself in prison, we are presented with a haunting and tragic reminder of the man he might have otherwise become.

This is How is an absorbing and complex novel. It is a portrait not of a monster, but of someone who has made monstrous choices, that even he cannot understand. Hyland does not judge Patrick, rather she presents him as fully human and her novel is shot through with the hints of what this man might have been, which gives the story real force and emotional impact. The novel is beyond characterisation – it is not a crime novel and not a thriller yet it is one of the most thrilling books I have read in a long time. Its brilliance lies in the compassion and humanity in the depiction of what could happen to any of us if the wrong choice is made.

Read on: iReader

20 Books of Summer: 8/20

Number Read: 126

Number Remaining: 620

 

 

 

Round Up Reviews – No 624 – 622

I said I wouldn’t do this, but I am going to have to.

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Circumstances have dictated that I’m going to have to do a few round up reviews, just to clear the back log! Life has been very busy these last few weeks and I have started to feel stressed about falling behind on my blogging and the fact that I am not keeping up with all your posts. I really wanted to do full review for all 20 books this summer, but I have to remind myself that I blog for FUN and my posts should be a release rather than a worry, so I’m cutting myself a bit of slack and doing a few mini-reviews just to get things up to date.

I do plan to do full reviews of a couple of recent books – This is How and Apple Tree Yard – both of which I think deserve full reviews for very different reasons, but in the meantime, here are some of the books I’ve managed to get through in these past few weeks.

No 624 A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

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I am a big fan of Helen Dunmore’s writing and A Spell of Winter doesn’t disappoint. Catherine and her brother Rob live with their grandfather in an isolated crumbling mansion in the years before World War 1. Their mother has abandoned them and their father has gone mad, so the siblings find comfort in the memories and half-truths of their home, and eventually their relationship turns incestuous. Reminiscent of a Brontë novel, it is to Dunmore’s credit that this tale does not veer into the ludicrous featuring as it does incest, abortion, madness, war and eventually murder. This is down to the beautiful prose and the sensitive characterisation – she evokes sympathy for her characters even when they are doing terrible things and as the novel ends, a glimmer of hope enters to thaw the snow.

Read On: Book

20 Books of Summer: 5/20

Number Read: 123

Number Remaining: 623

 

No 623 Blue Nights by Joan Didion

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Didion’s iconic The Year of Magical Thinking, written about the sudden death of her husband John Dunne was a searing and moving meditation on loss and grief and was also a moving portrait of a man and a marriage. Blue Nights is a tragic companion piece to that book, dealing as it does with the death of Didion’s daughter Quintana only a year later. Like the twilight of its title, Blue Nights is a vague and somewhat insubstantial book. Quintana remains an elusive figure within the pages, which feature Didion musing on motherhood, parenting and old age. She fixates on other people she knows who have died young (including family friend Natasha Richardson) and worries about how she brought up her daughter. It is a fragile and tremulous piece of writing, repeating phrases like incantations that will ward off painful truths. Where The Year of Magical Thinking felt universal, Blue Nights feels almost too specific to have that same emotional depth and charge. However, when Didion writes about her own personal frailty and her fear of losing her cognitive abilities, then we see the strength and the courage that she possesses in even writing this admirable book. 

Read On: iBook

20 Books of Summer: 6/20

Number Read: 124

Number Remaining: 622

 

No 622 Sister by Rosamund Lupton

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Rosamund Lupton’s charged and well-paced thriller focuses on the bond between two different, but close sisters. New York based designer Beatrice gets a call to say her younger sister, artist Tess, has gone missing, so she returns to London to discover what has happened to her beloved sister. What follows is a novel framed as a letter from Beatrice to Tess, which drip-feeds the details of Tess’s disappearance and subsequent death to the reader with precise plotting and a strong sense of pace. Details emerge of Tess’s pregnancy and a medical trial she was participating in before her death and these are mingled confidently with insights into the grief and guilt that arises from the violent death of a family member. While I enjoyed Sister and was buoyed along by the strong plot, I had a few issues with the characterisations of Beatrice and Tess, never really feeling I was getting a sense of who they were as people, rather than types. I also found the epistolary nature of the novel to be clunky at times and the ‘twist’ (there always has to be a twist!) at the end of the novel felt really unnecessary. I think I will be in the minority with this view, but I felt the book could have been just as successful, if not more so, without it.

Read on: iBooks

20 Books of Summer: 7/20

Number Read: 125

Number Remaining: 621

 

So, have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

 

 

20 Books of Summer- an apology (and an announcement!)

It’s hard to believe, but that is the first month of 20 Books of Summer nearly over!

So, how are we all doing?

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I need to apologise to everyone taking part as I have been very slack the last few weeks and haven’t been managing to keep up with all the brilliant blogs and tweets. I haven’t even kept up with my own reviews. I’ve been doing great on the reading front though and I am way ahead of schedule.

I’ve read, but yet to review:

  • This Is How – MJ Hyland
  • Blue Nights – Joan Didion
  • A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore
  • Sister – Rosamund Lupton

I’m also half way through Apple Tree Yard and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, so that is A LOT of reviewing to catch up on. It does mean though, that I’ve read about 9 books in the first month, so I must be able to do this, right?

I may have to do a round up post with mini-reviews instead, but that would be a shame, particularly as I LOVED the MJ Hyland and am looking forward to raving about it to anyone who’ll listen!

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The main reason I haven’t been able to give 20 Books my full attention is that I have been preparing for a job interview, which I am happy to say I got! As of August, I am the Arts programmer for the brand new Seamus Heaney HomePlace Arts Centre which is opening in his hometown of Bellaghy in September 2016. I am so excited for this opportunity – it’s like the best bits of my current job, with added books! What could be better? If any of you are in Northern Ireland in the autumn, please come and visit!

Hopefully though, from here on, I’ll be able to devote a bit more time to keeping up with you all and getting my reviews up to date. I’ll get back to reading and commenting and sharing on all your great blogs, I promise!

So, how is everyone else doing? Are we swapping books? Keeping on target? Throwing in the towel?

Do let me know, even if I have been a bad challenge host so far 🙂

No 625 A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

In those days…I also loved the quickening smell of lighter fluid and charcoal on summer evenings, when every house became a campsite, the street became a river, and we ran through dark backyards to the sinuous burble of television sets.
Then my father left, and a few months after that Boyd Ellison was killed behind the Spring Hill Mall, and what happened in our neighborhood began to seem less and less like what happened in neighborhoods.

 

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A Crime in the Neighborhood is narrated by Marsha Eberhardt, now an adult, looking back on one eventful summer in Washington in 1972. Played out against the Watergate scandal and the deepening crisis in American society, this coming of age novel deftly explores a time in the Seventies when the idea of perfect family life was starting to disintegrate, alongside a fractured political world.

The ‘crime’ of the title seems to refer most directly to the murder of a local boy, Boyd Ellison, who is molested and dumped behind the local shopping mall. Marsha did not like Boyd and remembers him as a boy who was always taking more than he should and for a time, the murder elicits excitement within the local community rather than fear.

We were exhilarated. Nothing so enormous and glittering had ever happened to us before. We were jealous of Boyd Ellison not because he had been killed – of course not that, we had never felt so alive ourselves – but because he had encountered something legendary.

Berne is very good at juxtaposing these things – the horror of the murder and the sometimes incongruous response to it, and perfectly captures the reactions of a ten-year old to this kind of monumental event.

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It soon transpires that Boyd’s murder is not the main focus of the novel. That takes place in a more subtle, domestic domain, where smaller cruelties have just as devastating consequences. A month before the murder, Marsha’s father Larry has run off with his wife’s younger sister Ada leaving Marsha and her twin siblings with nothing more than a new wristwatch and the explanation that ‘it is what it is’. As Marsha’s mother tries to hold the family together and deal with her own betrayal, Marsha is left to her own devices in a neighborhood on high alert and her interest eventually turns to Mr Green, the only bachelor to live on her street and the person Marsha is convinced has killed Boyd Ellison.

Marsha is a wonderful creation – a quiet, watchful child, smart but still naïve enough to be unable to separate the implosion within her family with the crime that has shaken her neighborhood.

Although I couldn’t have explained it then, I believed that my father’s departure had deeply jarred the domestic order not just in our house, but in the neighborhood, and by extension in the country, since in those days my neighborhood was my country. My father left to find himself, and a child got lost. That’s how it struck me.

She is a fascinating yet unreliable narrator and as she collects newspaper clippings and takes notes in her Evidence book when she is ten, Berne suggests that as an adult, she is still collecting evidence, still trying to solve the mystery of why her father abandoned her and why she herself committed a crime of her own.

Sometimes things like this start small, but then they get out of control. That’s what happens. It doesn’t take long for a lousy mistake to turn into a crime

Marsha’s attempts to reconcile her love for her father with his actions are at the core of the book. Unlike her Noel Coward quoting cynical older twin siblings, Marsha feels his loss keenly and as suspicion and fear envelopes her local community, her need for a father and all that a father signifies – safety, comfort, stability – is more acutely felt. As she watches the men on her street each evening complete their neighborhood watch, her loss is palpable.

I fell in love with all of them. I dreamed of being carried by each man, pressed to each of their chests as they carried me to safety, passing me down a long line of fathers.

Ultimately though, A Crime in the Neighborhood is about judgment. How do we decide what constitutes a crime? Is it a murder? An abandonment? A false accusation? Or is it just being willing to live outside societies norms as Mr Green does?

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Berne insightfully explores the consequences of our judgements and how we must ultimately judge ourselves and our own actions. As Marsha tries to bring some sense of normality to her fractured world, her mistaken belief that everything will be right if she unmasks Boyd’s killer turns out to have dire consequences.

Looking back, it seems to me that those gallant fathers intended, by sheer physical effort, to return our neighborhood to what it had never actually been

Marsha is doing the same, trying to return her family to what it had never actually been and never could be again, so much so that even years later she notes

There I was, ten years old all over again, and he had just left me, and the world was a wide place in the dark, and right then I understood as if for the very first time that nothing in my life would ever feel safe.

A Crime in the Neighborhood is a beautifully written, vividly evocative book that perfectly captures that romance of 1970s suburbia in the manner of say Jeffrey Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides. Unlike that book, Berne’s feels rooted in reality – believable, recognisable and universal.

Read On: Kindle

20 Books of Summer: 4/20

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