Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas Fiction Review Catch-Up: Jonathan Dee, A.S.A. Harrison & John Niven

I am falling terribly behind on my reviews. So, in order to get caught up a bit more on the backlog, I’ll be combining some reviews into thematic posts (of sorts). This one takes a look at three non-SFF novels I’ve read recently.


DeeJ-AThousandPardonsJonathan Dee, A Thousand Pardons (Corsair)

Ben and Helen Armstead have reached breaking point and it takes one afternoon – and a single act of recklessness – for Ben to deal the final blow to their marriage, spectacularly demolishing everything they built together.

Helen and her teenage daughter Sara leave for Manhattan where Helen takes a job in PR – her first in many years – and discovers she has a gift for spinning crises into second chances. But can she apply her professional talent to her personal life?

I rather enjoyed this. It was a quick read, but not perfect. The novel starts out with the sudden, spectacular dissolution of Helen’s marriage to Ben, who is quite the narcissist experiencing quite the midlife crisis and breakdown. The first part of the novel follows Helen as she makes her way to New York, and stumbles into a PR job. She has a knack for coaxing out appropriate, believable apologies out of her clients. For a short time, she is able to enjoy this success. Then the novel brings Ben back into the narrative, and we get a more even-handed impression of the two characters – while I had enjoyed reading about Helen, and it did take a little while before reorienting myself for Ben’s side of the story, the novel benefited from them both being central. Dee’s prose is fluid, and I rattled through this novel at quite the pace. At times, though, things moved perhaps a little too fast – Helen’s advancement in the PR business jumps ahead slightly, and Dee doesn’t give much time over to Helen and Sara’s new lives in the big city. I think the author could have spent some more time exploring what each of the characters was going through.

Nevertheless, A Thousand Pardons is an enjoyable novel about a marriage in ruins and a family in crisis; about the limits and joys of self-invention; and about the peculiar seduction of self-destruction. It is also the tale of redemption and forgiveness, of sorts, and the enduring connection families can feel with each other, despite some of the most difficult of circumstances. It’s not a bad introduction to Dee’s fiction, and I enjoyed it enough to convince me to pick up The Privileges at some point in the not-too-distant future.


HarrisonASA-TheSilentWifeUKPBA.S.A. Harrison, The Silent Wife (Headline)

Todd Gilbert and Jodie Brett are in a bad place in their relationship. They’ve been together for twenty-eight years, and with no children to worry about there has been little to disrupt their affluent Chicago lifestyle. But there has also been little to hold it together, and beneath the surface lie ever-widening cracks. HE is a committed cheater. SHE lives and breathes denial. HE exists in dual worlds. SHE likes to settle scores. HE decides to play for keeps. SHE has nothing left to lose. When it becomes clear that their precarious world could disintegrate at any moment, Jodie knows she stands to lose everything. It’s only now she will discover just how much she’s truly capable of...

Oh, how I wanted to love this book. For months, it seems, I’ve seen so much praise and a constant trickle of links for great and gushing reviews on Twitter. The book itself is covered in eye-catching blurbs from prominent authors, reviewers, and so forth. So how was it? Well… Politely? It wasn’t for me. Bluntly honest? I was bored. Throughout. I didn’t like either of the main characters. He is a douche, a lecherous cheater, who seems to only appreciate what his wife does for him and the fact that she’s attractive. She is fastidious to a fault, ordered and lacking any impulsiveness and rather bland:

“Meticulous planning has its merits. Life at its best proceeds in a stately manner, with events scheduled and engagements in place weeks if not months ahead. Scrambling for a last-minute date is something she rarely has to do, and she finds it demeaning.”

Now, I understand that both of the characters were probably meant to come across as either a complete ass (him) or quietly in denial about everything (her), but damn it doesn’t make for interesting reading. The synopsis above is not the whole synopsis. I cut the following:

“A chilling psychological thriller portraying the disintegration of a relationship down to the deadliest point when murdering your husband suddenly makes perfect sense.”

I found this as chilling as tepid tap water. That being said, in terms of prose and construction, The Silent Wife is very competent. The author’s prose are very well constructed, which is really the only reason I kept reading. That bit about the novel being a “chilling psychological thriller”? I was waiting for that to happen right up until I turned the final page. Maddeningly bland. This was the biggest let down of the year, I was left wondering if what I bought and read was the same book everyone else had been talking about…


NivenJ-StraightWhiteMaleJohn Niven, Straight White Male (William Heinemann)

Kennedy Marr is a novelist from the old school. Irish, acerbic, and a borderline alcoholic and sex-addict, his mantra is drink hard, write hard and try to screw every woman you meet.

He’s writing film scripts in LA, fucking, drinking and insulting his way through Californian society, but also suffering from writers block and unpaid taxes. Then a solution presents itself – Marr is to be the unlikely recipient of the W.F. Bingham Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Modern Literature, an award worth half a million pounds. But it does not come without a price: he must spend a year teaching at the English university where his ex-wife and estranged daughter now reside.

As Kennedy acclimatises to the sleepy campus, inspiring revulsion and worship in equal measure, he’s forced to reconsider his precarious lifestyle. Incredible as it may seem, there might actually be a father and a teacher lurking inside this “preening, narcissistic, priapic, sociopath”. Or is there.

This was a very pleasant surprise. There was a bit of a rocky start – the first couple of chapters painted an awful picture of the protagonist, and I worried that I’d always struggle to engage with him. However, Niven very quickly surprised. Straight White Male ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year.

Kennedy, our protagonist, starts off as one ugliest protagonists I’ve read about. He’s kind of awful: spoiled, wasteful, a drunkard, lewd, a sex addict with an unhealthy disrespect for women (sleeping with someone in the cloak room at his wedding, juggling multiple porn platforms at once)… He’s a complete narcissist. He’s not a pleasant guide for a lot of the opening chapters, which did make me wonder if I wanted to continue reading. Everyone else Kennedy interacts with is as well-written as this asshole, which made me stick with it, and eventually we learn why Kennedy is the way he is, and see his character develop. Niven can definitely write, and write very well, which kept me coming back. So, if you aren’t a fan of anti-hero protagonists, I’d recommend still sticking with the book, as it gets very good.

I really liked the way Kennedy gets to say and do all the things I bet many people living and working in or with Hollywood would love to say to all the self-important, pompous “artistes” with inflated senses of their own genius... He doesn’t shy away from opining on their flaws (or shouting  them at prima donna, uneducated actors). His internal and external commentary is often very funny. He’s also honest about why he does certain things. Kennedy is also not sparing on his frustrations with the publishing industry, either.

“Busy jumping from rewrite to polish to dialogue pass because, of course, all this was easier (and much more remunerative) than spreading his intestines across the page for two fucking years writing a novel. Because the only things he wanted to write about he couldn’t. He wasn't blocked so much as... finished. The novel? That was a man’s business. He was done with it. Not that anyone knew that yet of course.”

What was most interesting, however, is how Niven slowly unveiled the tragic story of Kennedy’s sister, and how that has effected his behaviour. A lot of what he does, in the end, seems like avoidance and alcohol-fuelled coping and distraction. After the story shifts to the UK, things move quite a bit faster, too, which was a little disappointing. I would have liked some more… well, everything, really. Rather than reading that as an indictment of the novel, consider it my way of saying I wish it had been longer, because it was so good. Which it was.

Straight White Male is a very good novel on some of the many neuroses and coping mechanisms to which men can turn. Funny, irreverent, touching, and well-written, this is definitely recommended.

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