Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Category: Authors W (page 1 of 9)

Two capsule YA reviews

I’ve rather a backlog of books to talk about, so here are capsule reviews of two strong YA novels I read during the past couple of months:

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

we-all-looked-up-9781471124556_hrThe world is going to end in ten chapters (weeks?) time when an asteroid called Ardor will crash into the Earth. If you’re a teenager, what are you going to do? There may be no future, so you’re going to live those last weeks to the utmost and attend a huge party at the end of it all – aren’t you?

Four senior High School students, Peter, Eliza, Andy and Anita – characterised as “the athlete, the outcast, the slacker and the over-achiever”, tell the interlocking story of these last weeks. Friendships will be made, broken and maybe mended; relationships, families and society too. What they all need though, is someone to love, to be with when the end comes.

It’s perhaps inevitable that there will be pairing up (after many false starts) and that the four protagonists are stereotypes. It takes the secondary characters – namely Andy’s mate Bobo and Peter’s younger sister Misery to gee things up on the action front. It does take  a long while to get going though and in the last quarter everything happens rather fast.  There are some nice touches though, especially near the start when Peter is talking to his teacher after class, and Mr. McArthur says:

The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world.

This was an interesting novel, that nearly carried it off – but not quite for me. (7.5/10)

* * * * *

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

The-rest-of-us-just-live--002A new book by Ness is always worth reading and this summer’s offering is a thoughtful novel that sits on the boundaries between paranormal fantasy and normal life for a small group of friends about to graduate from High School in a small town in Washington state.  The first chapter is prefaced thus:

Chapter The First, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate.

There are strange blue lights in the sky, the deer are acting like zombies, but then it gets straight down to normal life for Mikey, his sister Mel, best friend Jared and object of his affections Henna (who doesn’t realise and is attracted to new boy). Mikey’s family is dysfunctional – cheerful alcoholic father, mom running for state senator, and Mel a recovering anorexic. Mikey himself had counselling for anxiety – things are getting back to a sort of normal again…

And that, I think, was the problem. They could absolutely deal with Mel getting so sick. But I don’t think they could quite deal with her getting better. I did about eight hundred hours of anxious research on the internet and tried to tell them that almost ninety percent of anorexics do recover, but as time passed, they seemed to start resenting the healthy daughter just sitting there, the one that they’d sacrificed so much for, no longer needing the sacrifice, if she’d ever really needed it in the first place. (She did. We could have lost her. I could have lost her. And then what?)

It’s hard being normal for Mikey, in a world that’s so abnormal, where everyone seems to act like a superhero. Who are the real superheroes? This is the question at the heart of the novel – a slow burner – but thought-provoking in its gentle way. I enjoyed this a lot.  For a fantastic and much fuller review – do read Eric’s take on this book – here. (8.5/10)

* * * * *

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach – Simon & Schuster, March 2015. Review copy. Paperback, 384 pages. Buy at Amazon UK

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness – Walker Books, August 2015. Own copy. Hardback, 352 pages. Buy at Amazon UK

Shiny Linkiness

I reviewed loads of new fiction titles for Issue 7 of Shiny New Books, so I think it’s time to give some of them a plug. Do pop over to read the full reviews – we’d appreciate it, and love it when you leave comments too (same goes for here of course).

Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

two_years_eight_month_and_twentyeight_nights_0I haven’t read any Rushdie for a while, so had my fingers crossed with this book. No need, I enjoyed it a lot, although it turned to be more a philosophical fantasy than I was expecting.  Entering the world of the jinn was fascinating, and Rushdie’s modern take on the 1001 nights was fun although the little digressions keep you on your toes to re-find the main story sometimes.

Rushdie at his most playful, and restrained in length too. Definitely a thinking person’s fairy tale.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

* * * * *

Not on Fire, but Burning by Greg Hrbek

hrbekHrbek has written one other novel, The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly, which I had to order once I’d read this book.

Set around twenty years into the future, Not on Fire, but Burning starts with a stunning visual prologue in which the Golden Gate Bridge is destroyed, and San Francisco is irradiated – (we’re never sure by whom or what). It then settles into a disturbing story in which the USA is segregating Muslims and one brave old army veteran decides to adopt a Muslim kid from one of the camps – to do his bit for liberalism and making amends. He doesn’t realise that the twelve-year-old boy, Karim, who comes to live with him is already radicalised.  When a fight is engineered between white kid Dorian next door and Karim, it starts off a whole chain reaction of events.

This was a really thought-provoking novel that imagines possible futures that we hope will never happen.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

* * * * *

Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel

kauthar-195x300 (1)Meike’s third novel Kauthar is another tale of radicalisation. It is about a white British girl who converts to Islam, marries and Iraqi doctor, following him out there after 9/11 only to find that life there has a different set of rules and expectations that will try her devoutness. In emotional turmoil, she turns to God, but the distorted answers she finds set her on an extreme path.

Full of strong imagery, we flip between Lydia as a child, who is desperate to be a gymnast and the devout Kauthar she becomes. Told in the present tense, it is very immediate and we are really taken into Kauthar’s mind. As in Meike’s first novel Magda we are helped to understand, without condoning her behaviour.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

* * * * *

The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

wilckenIt’s the late 1940s, or early 1950s. A psychiatrist takes a phone call to be told his ex-wife has died. A while later, he’s called on as a police surgeon to section a man in custody in a seedy apartment. Not thinking straight he does as asked, but later regrets this and sets out to find out more about the man.

The Reflection has all the hallmarks of a classic noir novel: a narrator in crisis, a psychological drama, a femme fatale (or two), a whole string of coincidences that are anything but and a sense that everything is being stage-managed to turn the protagonist into one of his patients, which he must resist, whatever the cost. The main character was a little boring but, The Reflection is an interesting exercise in which nothing is actually in black and white, less noir, more grey.

Read the full review here: My Shiny Review

Shiny Linkiness

SNB logo tinyI’m back to school today, so scheduled this one in advance. A post of Shiny linkness to my fiction reviews in the recent Extra Shiny issue of Shiny New Books.

Do head over to see the full reviews, and feel free to comment here or there. Thank you.

* * * * *

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley


A multi-layered tale of a humble telegraphist,  a bluestocking scientist and a Japanese watchmaker, set in Victorian London under siege from the Fenians. Despite its vestiges of Victorian steampunk fantasy, at its heart The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a thriller, a remarkably effective one that draws you into its world from the beginning.

It’s hard to believe that this novel is a debut. It is so polished that you will genuinely believe that a clockwork octopus is alive too.   (9/10)

Click here to read the full review.

* * * * *

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

Last-Pilot-cover-RGB-667x1024Behind every test pilot or astronaut is everyone they leave behind each time they set off.  Set during the beginning years of the space race in the 1960s, this amazing debut novel tells of one such human story, that of a fictional family set amongst the real life test pilots and astronauts, and their story blends seamlessly into that of history.

This book moved and excited me in equal measure, and will definitely feature around the top of my year end best of list. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

* * * * *

All Sorts of Possible by Rupert Wallis

all sort of possibleThis YA novel begins with a sinkhole – Daniel survives falling into the sinkhole, but falls further ending up at the bottom with no way out except to follow the water. He scratches the word ‘Help’ onto a cave wall. ‘Please,’ he says – and finds the way out. He is the miracle boy – the one who survived. His father though, is in an induced coma, he may not recover.

Daniel discovers that his ordeal has given him a psychic energy that when another receptive person seeks him out and helps focus it.  Surely it could be used for good, but when gangster Mason gets his hands on Daniel, things get rather nasty…

A different kind of paranormal teen novel, I enjoyed this blend of psychics and sinkholes!  (8/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Trapped in Genteel Poverty…

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Paying guestWhen we chose the second title for the Shiny Book Club, we wanted something totally different to the first (The Bees, which I reviewed here). It had to fit our criteria of being a Shiny New Book available in paperback in the UK. The obvious choice was Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, which came out in paperback in early summer.  (Note: It’ll be out in September in the US, so you can join in the Shiny Book Club discussion which will run until the next issue in October).  I’d bought the hardback last year, and very much enjoyed reading it, although holding it open (I don’t care to crack spines), made my wrist ache in bed!

A very quick synopsis of the basic plot. It’s 1922 and Frances Wray lives in genteel poverty with her mother in Champion Hill, the posh bit of Camberwell, South London. Her two brothers were killed in WWI. After that her father died, leaving them short of cash, they had to let their servants go, and Frances has taken on all aspects of running the house, being careful to keep up appearances for her mother’s sake. However, austerity is not enough, and reluctantly they decide to take in lodgers. Enter a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, who will take the upstairs rooms (excepting Frances’ bedroom). They will have to share the outside lav though.  After their visit to view, Frances is discussing them with her mother:

‘One good thing, I suppose, about their being so young: they’ve only his parents to compare us with. They won’t know that we really haven’t a clue what we’re doing. So long as we act the part of landladies with enough gusto, then landladies is what we will be.’
Her mother looked pained. ‘How baldly you put it! you might be Mrs Seaview, of Worthing.’
‘Well, there’s no shame in being a landlady; not these days. I for one aim to enjoy landladying.’
‘If you would only stop saying the word.’

And so it is that upper middle class Frances and her mother, become landladies to a working class couple on their way up. Quite a reversal.

Frances initially finds it difficult having a man in the house again, with his ‘jaunty whistling’ and ‘loud masculine sneezes’.  Len also has a habit of going out into the yard for a fag late in the evening, and stopping to talk to Frances on his way back through the kitchen.  He asks her about the garden and volunteers to help, telling her about his guvnor’s garden:

‘He even has cucumbers in a frame. Beauties, they are – this long!’ He held his hands apart, to show her. ‘Ever thought of cucumbers, Miss Wray?’
‘Growing them, I mean?’
Was there some sort of innuendo there? She could hardly believe that there was. But his gaze was lively, as it had been the night before, and , just as something about his manner then had discomposed her, so, now, she had the feeling that he was poking fun at her, perhaps attempting to make her blush.

Everyone settles down; Lilian puts her personal touch on their rooms with shawls and ornaments; Len goes out to work. Lilian gives Frances the rent money, and Mrs Wray gets hopeful about it:

‘I did just wonder, Frances, whether we mightn’t be able to afford a servant again.’

It is clear that there are tensions in Lil and Len’s relationship. This is obvious to Frances, who had begun to strike up a friendship with her lodger.  Then, one day, Frances lets out her big secret – she’d had a relationship with another woman, Chrissy, and was found out as the two of them had planned to set up home together. Far from scaring off Lilian, it switches something on in her and the pair become intimate, starting a secret affair.  Things soon come to a head though. It’s deeply stressful for all concerned in every which way. What happens next?  There are shocks and twists aplenty, but I’m not going to get more spoilery here. If you have read the book though, the discussion at Shiny Book Club does go into detail.

I thought that Waters nailed the situation of Frances and her mother in their enforced austerity perfectly. Mrs Wray was obviously perpetually mortified by it, and hated the idea that anyone might spot Frances cleaning the front doorstep or the like. Frances is hemmed in by it all, but throws herself into the chores to escape from her mother, except on those days she has trips into London to see her old flame Christina which is her only real relief from drudgery and the spinster life she has had to settle for.

Lilian at first appears flighty with Frances the dominant one, but as the novel progresses there is rather a role reversal. Frances falls so hard for Lilian it unnerves her, whereas Lilian gets strength from her large supportive family (who never find out all the secrets). Frances has been hardened by what happened before and regrets losing Christina, she thinks she’ll never find another lover and can’t believe it when Lilian reciprocates.  Their secret relationship is so intense and claustrophobic. At the beginning of the novel I really felt for Frances; I know she couldn’t help it, but the pressure she put on Lilian made me feel less for her and more for her partner in crime.

Topping just  over 560 pages in hardback, I did find this novel hard to put down, reading it in three long sessions. Once you get towards the closing stages, there is no way you’ll want to stop reading if you don’t have to, it’s so intense and gripping.  It feels very real in its post-WWI world (as The Night Watch did with WWII). It’s the 1920s, but there’s not a flapper in sight, this is suburban South London (and believe me it doesn’t change much!)

The Night Watch
remains my favourite Waters novel, but I preferred The Paying Guests to the slower-burning The Little Stranger (review here). The Paying Guests pulls you into its world right from the start. It is a complex morality tale that I enjoyed reading very much.

See also Harriet’s review and Simon’s at Vulpes Libris.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Virago, paperback, 608 pages.

Incoming and plans for August!

I don’t often review my new bookish acquisitions but there have been such recent riches that I couldn’t resist. Heaven knows when I’ll actually get around to reading most of them, so I’ve also included a smaller pile of the three books I am definitely going to read this August.

New books bought – batch the first:  I made the mistake of saying I’d meet my daughter in Waterstones and look what happened!

  • I couldn’t resist Stevie Smith whom I’ve never read.
  • Satellite People is a Scandi-crime book that sounds rather different and has a Saul Bass style cover.
  • Lock in is a dystopian medical thriller – just love those.
  • Victoria rates The Mersault Investigation.
  • A novel by Steven Berkoff about an actor – looking forward to that!
  • I did read a Stewart O’Nan book pre-blog, and he’s so highly thought of – this new one is all infused with F Scott Fitzgerald.
  • Jenny Eclair is wonderful and her books are too.

New books bought – batch the second:  from Abingdon bookshops.

  • I love Rebecca Front on the TV, so have big hopes for her book of “true stories and everyday absurdities” from her life.
  • This Miriam Toews novel mentioned The Stones and Marianne Faithfull in the blurb – gotta have it.
  • A YA novel about a family of third generation settlers on the red planet
  • I loved Victoria’s Shiny review of Heather O’Neill’s novel.
  • Similarly I loved Ana’s Shiny review of this YA novel with adult appeal.
  • Curtain Call is a mystery set in a theatre – again what’s not to like?

Moving on to reading plans…

My immediate review copy TBR pile looks like this:


It contains from the top, a romp of a novel set in 1799, two thrillers, a Russian novel set in the crumbling Soviet empire, a YA novel about a mermaid,  some Steampunk, and finally in this pile – Clive James new book of essays (out soon).  Much to look forward to here.

And finally:  Three from the TBR I plan to read in August…


  • August is Women in Translation month hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. I will enjoy seeing what everyone reads, and will join in with the first Commander Adamsberg novel by Frenchwoman Fred Vargas. I also have The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck to write up after we discuss it at Book Group tomorrow.
  • My Annabel’s Shelves project – D is for?  Well,  I’ve gone for DeLillo and his first novel Americana. I figured that this was the only way I would at least attempt to read one of his books.
  • The Shiny Book Club meets to discuss The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters on August 20th – so I’d better get a wiggle on.

I’m also hoping that I can squeeze some of the above into crossing off squares on my Book Bingo card, which I will update you on soon.

PHEW! So what are your reading plans this month?

A modern take on Jeeves & Wooster

Wake up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames

wake up sirJonathan Ames is apparently a bit of a cult author in the USA as novelist, essayist, columnist, storyteller and creator of a sitcom for HBO called Bored to Death. I’d not heard of him before, but was piqued by the premise of his 2004 novel Wake up, Sir! which has recently been published in the UK and is an unashamed contemporary tribute to Wodehouse.

Alan Blair is a thirty-year-old American writer with one book under his belt and is struggling to get started with his difficult second one. He is a drinker, single, Jewish and full of neuroses, sexual, mental – you name it he suffers from it. He lives in Manhattan sponging on his beloved Aunt and ghastly Uncle, but having come into some money via an inheritance, he employs a personal valet to look after him. Said valet just happens to be called Jeeves.

…I went into the kitchen and Jeeves was there, beaming in at the precise moment that I made my entrance, which he’s very good at. He’s always appearing and disintegrating and reappearing just when the stage directions call for him.

Now I come to think of it, given the Star Trek analogy, there is a Vulcan quality to Jeeves, matching the unemotional Mr Spock always looking after Jim Kirk isn’t there?

Even with the assistance of Jeeves, Alan can’t stop drinking and his relations have had enough. Tough love is required – they offer him rehab or eviction. Alan has already decided to take off for a writing retreat so chooses the latter option and goes to bed worrying.

I started rubbing the bony center of my nose, which I always rub when things have gone badly. Then midway through this nose massage, I heard a slight aspiration – Jeeves, like humidity, had accumulated on my left. Jeeves, I think, is closely related to water. They say we’re all 50 percent H2O but Jeeves is probably 90 percent. Jeeves and water seep in everywhere, no stopping them, like this underground lake that starts in Long Island, I’m told, and then pops up in Connecticut. So Jeeves spilled over from his lair, the bedroom next to mine, and was now standing alongside me, like mist on a mirror.

Blair and Jeeves set off for an upstate Jewish spa town Sharon Springs and arrive only to find it mostly boarded up, the bathhouse abandoned and ruined. Alan, drunk as usual, manages to get beaten up badly after a disastrous phone call to a number in a lavatory stall! However, they discover that in Saratoga nearby, there is a proper artist and writer’s retreat called the Rose Colony, and they have a vacancy. It would be the ideal place for Alan to dry out and get on with his writing …

We’re now halfway through the book, and so far it had been an entertaining slog with not enough happening, but once we’re through the gates of the Rose Colony the pace picks up and we finally meet a bunch of characters that are just as crazy as Blair himself. Blair is communing with novelist Alan Tinkle and his whisky bottle (falling off the wagon afresh each day). Tinkle is telling him all about his particular problem of overstimulation:

“Along with heavy drinking, I do preventative masturbation four or five times a day so that I can go out in public.”

This all sounded oddly familiar. Then I reassured myself: I might have shared some of his symptoms, but that can be said for most psychiatric illnesses.

“Why do you think this has happened to you?” I asked. “Maybe you should see Oliver Sacks. It could be neurological. Like the man who thought his wife was a cocktail waitress.”

“I don’t get any sex. That’s my problem. I’m thirty-one; I haven’t had sex in nine years.”

What could I say to comfort him? Nine years was a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East. …

It soon becomes clear that sex is high on everyone’s mind at the Rose Colony. Alan himself falls for an artist called Ava, who has a magnificent nose. They eventually succumb and there is a drawn out and often cringeworthy, but occasionally hilarious, sex scene:

The robe opened up. She was naked.
I put my hand on her full, fat breast. Then I put my hand under her breast. Nobody had enjoyed weighing something as much since Archimedes.

Alan manages to get into scrape after scrape, upsetting most of the residents and staff including the enigmatic giant Dr Hibben, the colony’s director. Thank goodness for Jeeves whose ubiquity will always save the day.


Fry & Laurie as Jeeves & Wooster from the ITV adaptation

Although the character of Jeeves in this novel could have been lifted straight from Wodehouse, that of Alan Blair is, while remaining true to Bertie Wooster’s essential nature is a little different.  Like Bertie, he is the narrator of the tale, and he shares Wooster’s dandyish tendencies, and naive refusal to grow up for instance. However, he is pathetic in his alcoholism and you can’t help but feel sympathy for him in his desire to deal with his condition, which is something I have rarely felt for the buffoonish Wooster. I loved the way that Jeeves is able to insinuate himself into any situation without anyone noticing. Indeed, in another review of this book in Quadrapheme web magazine, the reviewer wonders whether Jeeves might be a figment of Blair’s imagination? Upon reflection, that seems entirely possible!  (It didn’t stop me picturing Stephen Fry as Jeeves all the way though).

I did feel that this book took far too long to get going, we don’t reach the Rose Colony, scene of most of the comedy and bawdiness, until halfway through it’s 334 pages – the Wodehouse inspired Charlie Mortdecai books (well the first two, see here) are at least as racy, consistently funny and all over inside 200 pages.  Although not actually as filthy as I’d imagined reading the publicity, I enjoyed Ames’s creation which is more polished than mere pastiche, I just wish the first half had been compressed. (8/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames (2004, pub Pushkin Press, 2015) paperback original, 334 pages.

Older posts
%d bloggers like this: