Sunday, 30 December 2012

This Is How You Lose Her

I adored this book, and felt genuinely sad when I reached the final pages. Love, loss and regret are the strands which pull it all together, and the consequences of the decisions and mistakes we make are at its heart.

Although its stories focus on Dominican communities in the US, the pain and experiences its characters face are universal and what make it so compelling a read. Díaz's touch is subtle and he hints at the layers his characters possess without detailing them. Take Yunior, for instance; he clearly has a fascinating back story and has achieved great things in his life in the US. Our focus, however, is on his peccadilloes, his attitude and treatment of the women in his life, and how these mistakes leave him alone.

Although the treatment of some female characters by males leaves a lot to be desired, strong females do emerge. Miss Lora, for example, stood out for her differences and independence; Otravida, Otravez was also a welcome break from the male dominated voices that fill the pages of this novel.

Most of the tales focus around love and carnal relationships, but what really gives this book its soul are the stories which serve as background to why Yunior has become the character we see, and fallen into the ways he's observed and disliked in others. Yunior and Rafa as boys and their relationship with their parents was touching. Family moulds us, and all could share the frustrations of willing a happy ending for Rafa while also cursing his behaviour towards his mother.

The format of this novel lent itself very well to a commuting read. The structure of several stories, jumping across time but all linked together, made it easy to follow and dip into; Díaz's compelling dialogue, meanwhile, swallows you up and takes you away, making you wish for more. I'd definitely recommend this to help pass those tedious train hours.

(Available in paperback, hardback, audio and Kindle from Amazon)

You Had Me At Hello

Mhairi McFarlane's witty chick lit came to me when I was in a bad place. Struck by festive norovirus, this was an easy read to christen the Kindle I got for my birthday. Chick lit is something I used to regard as a guilty pleasure but as I've read more it's become slightly too predictable to retain its charm for me. Still, it was 99p on Amazon and came with lots of good reviews.

The good bits first: McFarlane's style is punchy and fun. She didn't resort to creating Bridget-Jones-had-she-been-born-in-the-80s. That pleased me. Rachel, the lead character, had a proper job but had become rather less ambitious over time as adult life became stagnant. This quarter life crisis theme is something I could definitely relate to. However, I found her clinging to her relationship with the slightly rubbish boyfriend odd, and it was one of the things that troubled me about this tale. If Ben, the supposed true love of her life, had been so right for her, would she really have stuck at it with her unsympathetic, bossy boyfriend throughout university, as she lived out those experiences that shape and define your adult person? I suspect not.

Another sore point; the friends. It's not McFarlane's fault. The friendship circle of diverse, ker-azeeee friends has been a cornerstone of the genre since Helen Fielding created Shazza and co. But, similarly to all supporting casts in chick lit, they are always two dimensional, and serve to juxtapose the leading character's experiences with the reality of the green grass of another life. The character and marital woes of Caroline are a case in point.

Finally, without wanting to ruin things, the ending. This really, really jarred for me. The main reason was, the character of Ben's wife. Without wanting to spoil things for potential readers, it was clear from the minute he announced their marriage to Rachel that Olivia, the wife, was a disposable character. Her sole purpose in the tale was to be a roadbump. When Rachel met her, I so desperately hoped this not to be true. Alas, McFarlane went for the obvious and created a character so cardboard that you didn't care what Ben saw in her, why he had married her, why he had put aside the memory of lost love for her. You were just flicking through the pages, waiting for Olivia's fatal error that would see her off and clear the path for Rachel.

This lost love theme seemed to be appropriately bittersweet towards the end. Elizabeth Noble handled it well in her The Way We Were; yes, first love is powerful. But it's been lost for a reason, and we could learn more from moving on. Sadly, McFarlane (SPOILER ALERT) went for the obvious, soap ending, which after the build up, just annoyed me. I couldn't suspend my disbelief any longer, and I felt cheated.

I don't want to dwell on the negatives. McFarlane delivered a fun, sparky and easy read and I was interested to see how events panned out for the characters. Her use of flashback, dipping in and out of the past to progress the tale, was not distracting and I thought a skillful way to develop the plot. All hallmarks of a good writer. I just think it didn't do her obvious talent justice to wind up in such a bubblegum, standard way. A couple of hours with Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz will show you that the grown up thing to do is to give up Dermot Mulroney to his bride and move on. If it hasn't happened yet, it ain't going to happen.

I did enjoy this book. I flew through the pages and it did provide a great bit of escapism while I was under the weather. A solid Tube read, which would've got a higher rating had it ended a few pages earlier. Or perhaps chick lit just isn't for me any more...

Image taken from (

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Search for the Great Rush Hour Read

For city dwellers, the commute is a painful fact of life. It doesn't bare thinking about the sheer number of hours I spend and have spent pressed and contorted around perfect strangers, all in the name of paying the rent. That's not even mentioning the Commuter Rage, that unique and uncontrollable sense of injustice when that tourist doesn't remove their backpack, or that banker shoves you silly to steal the seat that's rightfully yours.

The one thing that gets me through is a lifelong passion of mine; the Good Book. Those 45 minutes on the District Line are my perfect window to escape to another place, far away from the condensation, sniffing noses and all-to-close armpits of my fellow Tubemates. But how easy is it to find?

I've come to realise that the Good Commute Book is not necessarily one that's going to win the Nobel Prize. The ideal train read is one that fills you with joy at the extra chapters you can absorb when your train judders to a halt and the driver announces an unexpected delay. It's the one that makes you gasp, dash for your bag and pray you haven't left behind your travelcard as you realise you'd completely failed to notice your stop as a good bit snuck up on you. The truly great Commute Book will take you from that dingy carriage and lift you up, take you away and deliver you somewhere else entirely for the duration of your journey.

What it can't be is a text like treacle. A book that cannot be easily read will leave me with wandering eyes, a tome permanently ajar while I stare blankly out the window. A bad Tube read, one that's turgid and lacks flow or ease will see my arm reach out for that loose copy of the Metro to remind myself of just how miserable these recession-ruled times are. A book that's too clever for it's own good, written purely for academics to profess its greatness, will require too much attention in a time period where your eyes may be partly on the book, partly on signs of movement from your seated Tubemates that the rush hour holy grail will soon be yours.

So, here it is. This is my quest for my next favourite Rush Hour Read. Let the good reads begin, and the bad ones be quietly removed from my Kindle.