3 reviews from Jan 2011: Hornby, Jensen & Gaiman

Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby

I don’t know how he does it, but there’s something about a Nick Hornby book that so hooks me, that I feel part of the story – I can always identify with some of the characters.

Juliet Naked is the story of a lost rock star, a completist fan and his partner.  Annie and Duncan have reached that point in their lives where their shared love of the reclusive US rock star Tucker Crowe isn’t enough any longer.  Duncan, one of the world’s foremost Croweologists is obsessed by the man, his music, his lyrics, his concerts; Annie’s interest is waning – she needs more than this from life – a baby is at the top of the list.  Meanwhile Tucker had walked out of a tour some years ago, leaving the world of rock’n’roll to his fans. He has been living quietly since, raising a brood of alienated children all by different mothers.  Ever the commitment-phobe, he is gradually realising that his latest relationship with the mother of his six year old kid Jackson won’t last either.

The release of the demo sessions from Crowe’s best album ‘Juliet’ as ‘Juliet, Naked’ that is the catalyst for change in all of their lives.  Duncan raves about it, Annie hates it preferring the honed final version, and unusually for her she posts a review on the net and Tucker reads it and emails her.  This schism is driving a wedge ever further between Duncan and Annie and when Duncan is unfaithful they split; anyway Annie is becoming rather entranced by her growing virtual relationship with Crowe, who will come into both their lives in reality soon…

Hornby’s big themes of lives wasted, mid-life crises, that families require work, and obsession are worked out in his characteristic fluent and witty style with some moments of pathos thrown in.  He is sympathetic to all of them, yet doesn’t let them get away with it, they have to suffer the consequences of their actions.  He knows them, understands their needs and obsessions (as I felt do I!),  and this makes for an engaging and satisfying read with all ends tied up neatly.  As a companion piece to the wonderful High Fidelity, if you liked that you’ll certainly enjoy Juliet, Naked which could be seen as the next chapters in the lives of Rob and Laura. The main characters here being that bit older and needing to do that last bit of growing up with their mid-life crises, make this a wistful and bittersweet book which may be of less interest to bright young things, but will surely resonate with more mature music fans!   (8.5/10) 

Source: Own copy.  Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked (Viking, 2009), penguin paperback, 256 pages.

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My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen

No Liz Jensen book is ever like any other by her, or anyone else for that matter. The three I’ve now read were all quirky in different ways, and great fun to read.  Dirty Little Book, as I shall call it for short, combines a historical setting in 19thC fin de siècle Copenhagen with Wellsian time travel to London’s new millennium and would be considered steampunk if it wasn’t for the central romance at the heart of the story.

Charlotte is a part-time prostitute, but is always on the lookout for better opportunities for herself and her lump of a sidekick Fru Schleswig, (whom everyone seems to think is her mother).  She gets them a job cleaning the house of the widow Krak, whose husband has disappeared under mysterious circumstances.  The widow is desperate to marry the Pastor, but Professor Krak’s body has not been found, and there are strange goings-on in the basement where Charlotte is not allowed to go.  Charlotte ‘gets to know’ the Pastor for leverage, but eventually she decides she has to brave the basement – where she discovers the Professor and his time/wormhole machine and she and her limpet Fru Schleswig are whizzed into twenty-first century London docklands, where she discovers not only a whole host of ex-pat 19thC Danes all happily living new lives, full of wondrous labour-saving gadgets (Fru Schleswig adores vacuum cleaners), but she meets a twenty-first century bloke – Fergus and falls properly in love for the first time.   But that’s not the end of her adventure as Fergus and Charlotte end up getting separated in time again and must find their way back together.

I really enjoyed this witty and slightly saucy adventure; like the best farces, it moves apace and is full of energy.  Charlotte is a very likeable and spunky (!) heroine, Fergus is a dear, and Fru Schleswig is a hilarious lardy creation. Although it has the time-travel and steampunky edge to it, it isn’t science-fiction – it’s a Cinderella story with a difference!  (9/10)

Source: Own copy.  Liz Jensen, My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (Bloomsbury, 2006) paperback 320 pages.

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This book has won the top awards for children’s fiction going – the US Newbery, the UK Carnegie, plus a Hugo for SF/Fantasy amongst many other awards and nominations. The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s first full length novel for children since Coraline, (which I loved and reviewed here). Would it live up to my expectations and the hype, as it had been sitting on my bedside pile for long enough…?

The story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family were all murdered one night in the first few pages of the book.   He was just a toddler then, but somehow evaded the killer by toddling into the adjacent graveyard, where a pair of kindly ghosts adopt him and give him his name. They bring him up with the help of the mysterious Silas who becomes his mentor – a rather vampirical character; all the other spectral inhabitants of the graveyard help out of course.  Young ‘Bod’, as they call him, gets a rather fantastical education from all of these phantoms, many of whom died centuries ago.  As he grows up he has many adventures in the graveyard with the ghosts, also venturing into some of the other portals within. As he nears adolescence though, he yearns to find out what lies outside – but the murderer is still looking for him.  Bod has to find the perfect balance and manage not to draw attention to himself, but he is a caring boy and when he stands up for a bullied child he puts himself in danger …

I’d defy older children and frankly anyone else not to enjoy this book.  The various adventures of Bod as he grows up read like short stories, with the linked background and threat of murder all the way through. Gaiman wrote with Kipling’s Jungle Book as inspiration for the tale of an orphan brought up by non-humans, and then puts his own macabre and spooky twists on the orphan’s tale.   The Graveyard itself has a ‘Highgate Cemetery’ feel to it with its old stones and its very own Egyptian Avenue – Highgate enthusiast Audrey Niffenegger took Gaiman on the tour.

What I liked about the graveyard was that during the daytime it is a haven, a tranquil place for reflection, yet one where you wouldn’t be surprised to find children happily playing among the headstones.  Step outside the consecrated ground into the big, bad world beyond though, and its powers and inhabitants can no longer help you. This is where one of the other great characters in the book was helpful – Liza Hempstock, a young witch who died in the ducking stool was buried outside, and has a wonderful devil may care attitude, but Bod befriends her and she comes to his aid.

Gaiman’s imagination is fantastic, and aided by Chris Riddell’s wonderfully quirky illustrations (I’m a huge fan of Riddell), this book leapt off the page.  Also published in a YA/adult crossover edition with illustrations by Dave McKean too. The Graveyard Book is much less of a horror story than Coraline, this book is more of a coming of age tale, and has positively wistful moments too – I loved it. (9/10)

Source: Own copy (with the Riddell illustrations).  Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (Bloomsbury, 2009) paperback 304 pages.

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