Tuesday’s Reviews – The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

books, marriage, meh, multiverse, romance

This is one of those books that I’d seen all over Instagram but never thought I’d read. Call me a snob if you wish but I’m always a bit wary of books that have been endorsed by Richard and Judy. I mean they don’t have a great track record of picking out the literary greats. It also just seemed like the sort of romantic-comedy kind of shit that I try and avoid. I don’t wish to insult anyone who loves a piece of chick lit but I can’t put up with the cliches and the idealism that is central to the plot. It’s all very dreamy and not very realistic. Still, when happening upon a Kindle deal I bought the eBook and, later, decided to buy a cheap copy of the audiobook. I guess I still didn’t have any real plans to read/listen to it any time soon but it was comforting to know it was there if I ever needed an easy read. Then, without any warning, I became obsessed with Audible so when I finished Norse Mythology last week I was desperate to start another one. I randomly picked this out of the ones I have mostly because it was the shortest but also because I like having a copy of the book to go alongside it. So I still wasn’t exactly going into this full of anticipation and excitement. I was hardly open-minded but I figured it couldn’t possibly be the worst thing I’d ever read. Especially considering some of the shit I had to read at university.

The multiverse theory creates a, literally, endless supply of narrative possibilities. I mean when you accept that there exists an infinite number of parallel universes then you have so much more room to play with. I am, personally, kept awake at night that, in all probability, there is a least one timeline in which Bradley Cooper is a double Oscar winner. It’s a terrifying thought. It is an idea that has fascinated storytellers for years and Laura Barnett is just the latest to utilise the multiple timeline gimmick for her debut novel. She is essentially pulling a Sliding Doors but, ingeniously, amps up the drama by adding a third timeline for shits and giggles.There’s also more than a hint of One Day in there because why borrow something from one well-known source when you can just keep piling allusions on top of it?

The Versions of Us revolves around the lives of Eva and Jim two students who are both attending Cambridge university in the late 1950s. One afternoon Eva is hurriedly making her way to a tutorial to hand in her essay on TS Eliot. It is this moment that causes her future to split off into, in this case, 3 separate timelines. In the first, her bike gets a puncture and Jim is on hand to fix it for her. The pair fall in love, get married and settle into post-university life. In the second, the bike remains in tact, the pair miss their chance and head towards alternative partners. In the final instalment, the pair fall in love until an unforeseen circumstance forces Eva to let her love go. The novel then splits between the 3 strands as their lives move on and the pair age.

Now, I admit that I found the premise kind interesting in the same way that anyone would. As human beings we can’t help but wonder “what if?” We’re always wondering how different our lives would have been if one tiny little detail had changed. So it seemed like an interesting concept and Laura Barnett does quite well at executing it. She picks key moments in her protagonists lives and shows them from the perspective of each timeline. The perspective swaps between Eva and Jim at every change. Barnett juggles her three strands quite well and keeps fairly good control over whats going on.

However, I found the whole switching around thing a huge faff quite early on. I understand why we need to see things from both Eva and Jim’s perspective but the constant switching of voices and timelines just got supremely irritating. The constant jumping also works against the narrative because, although the short chapters are easy to get through, it doesn’t allow much time to get to know anybody. We see such tiny snippets of the characters’ lives that we get bombarded with information without any real room to breathe. The novel ends up feeling unsettled and kind of shallow. We’re just jumping from one brief moment to the next and not really getting a sense of a full life. At least One Day felt slightly less rushed because it was only dealing with 2 lives and not 6.

I think Barnett’s debut is a very confident one and I didn’t really dislike her writing. What I did dislike was the basic concept, which is a problem. It doesn’t feel substantial and just falls into cliches from the opening page. You can guess the kind of problems that will end up filtering into the lives of both Eva and Jim and guess what trajectory their future will take. I also find that the different timelines are all very simplified. I wish there had been greater differences between them all. It’s all very neat for the structure to have characters die at the same time and in the same way in each version but it doesn’t feel very realistic. I needed more difference between the 3. Also, it really relies too heavily on the concept of soul-mates and destiny for my liking. I’ve never been a big believer of one person having that one person who is perfect for them but, despite not giving us any real reason to explain why, The Versions of Us expects us to believe that no matter what Jim and Eva are destined to love each other in one way or another. It feels kind of childish to me.

I also find myself quibbling at certain historical aspects that don’t seem quite right. Some anachronisms that just didn’t sit well with me. Although this kind of feels beside the point, it’s these little details that make the overall feel of this book sloppy. Still, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the stories and I did find it easy to carry on to the next chapter. Although, this could have more to do with the short chapter lengths. I do have to say, after reading a GoodReads review moaning about the ending, that I liked the way the stories all ended abruptly. There shouldn’t be any real ending because that’s not life. I could have done with more detail and greater attention to detail but The Versions of Us is a good read for what it tries to do. Whether it should have tried it subject to debate but the end result isn’t terrible.

Tuesday’s Reviews – The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

books, marriage, race, review, women

The Woman Next Door5_star_rating_system_4_stars1 Thanks to the bible, we are constantly being asked to “love thy neighbour” but in some cases it’s super hard. I, for one, have the pleasure of living next door to a family who make it incredibly tricky to like them. Their constant and loud arguments, weirdly obsessive gardening habits and super barky dog are just a handful of the reasons why they’re firmly situated in my general acquaintances column. In her novel The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso deals with two next door neighbours who can’t stand each other. The pair spend their days bickering and attempting to antagonise each other. They disagree on subjects just for the sake of it and look down on the other for their perceptions of the other’s character. It is a rivalry that goes back years and, thanks to an unexpected turn of events, it is something they will have to face head on.

Though the two women in their 80s seemingly have a lot in common, Hortensia James and Marion Agostino couldn’t be more different. Hortensia is a textile designer who came to live in Cape Town by way of Barbados and London. Marion is an ex-architect and has spent most of her life in South Africa. Marion, a white lady, has difficulty fitting into a post-apartheid society whilst Hortensia finds herself the only black homeowner in a distinctly white district. Marion is a widow who spent her days raising more children than she knew how to love while Hortensia’s husband is dying and she mourns the children she was unable to have. Hortensia made a great name and a tidy nest-egg for herself while Marion’s husband left her with nothing more than a pile of debts. So, it’s safe to say that there is plenty for each of the women to envy about the other.

However, as the novel moves on, we learn that their coldness runs deeper than it seems and the pair are both hiding painful histories. They have become hard because life has left them in that position. Hortensia has been forced to put on a front thanks to other people’s preconceptions of her; ideas that have followed her throughout her life. For her part, Marion was never able to get over the fact she sacrificed her professional dream for her family. Both women have settled into lives that are unfufilling in their own way. It is only after Hortensia’s husband dies and an accident brings the pair under the same roof that they begin to be honest with each other.

Omotoso’s story deals with many huge topics over its relatively small number of pages. Most prominent, of course, is race and the political history of South Africa. The racial tensions that still reside after apartheid are obvious for all to see even if people refuse to acknowledge it. Marion is a throwback to a different time and can’t understand why her children despair of her. Still, when Hortensia refers to her as a racist Marion is quick to correct her. As her relationship with Hortensia changes, Marion is forced to come face-to-face with the realities of prejudice that has plagued South Africa for too long. Omotoso deftly handles the socio-political themes by camouflaging them within the women’s personal journey. As the two women slowly reconcile it highlights the broader idea of racial reconciliation.

Although, the issue of race is only one small part of the novel and Omotoso shows in-depth understanding of marriage, family and human psychology. While giving time to the issue of black and white in terms of race, she assures us that human beings are rarely that binary. The women at the heart of this novel have their negatives and their positives. They are neither wholly good nor bad. The image we portray is rarely the real one and everyone, no matter their background, is hiding all sorts of secrets. Marion and Hortensia are not the easiest characters to love but, by the novel’s end, you will have fallen for their charms… even if they are deeply hidden away.

The Woman Next Door is a delight to read for so many reasons. In her second novel Yewande Omotoso shows great skill to combine difficult and important topics and proves to have insight into people. Her characters feel real and their actions are always understandable. Her narrative rarely falters and flows incredibly well despite the constant flashbacks and time jumps. It never stumbles under the weight the historical significance of its setting but manages to co-exist with this tough issue. I know it took me a fucking age to finish but I can’t recommend this novel enough. It’s the most satisfied I’ve felt in literary terms for a long time.

TBT – Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Australia, marriage, review, TBT, Toni Collette, wedding

Everywhere I look it seems as though people are getting engaged. Apparently, we live in an age where women of all ages and marital statuses have a fucking Pinterest wedding board. Am I missing something? I don’t see the fuss. I’m sure when I was younger I did the whole pretend wedding thing but now I just think it’s a little bit unnecessary. A lot of money for one day? My heart-rate has gone up just fucking thinking about it. I must be one of a minority that sees Don’t Tell the Bride as the preferable way to organise your big day. No shopping for flowers, venues or the dress: fucking ideal. Hell, I’ll wear PJs if need be. 

Of course stereotypically, as a girl, I should be dreaming about weddings. There is still the overriding idea that the female of the species are obssessed with parading their love in front of family and friends by taking a fucking walk. Obviously, the film industry hasn’t helped matters with its endless supply of bridezillas telling men that all women go insane during wedding planning. I mean just look at Kate fucking Hudson giving her gender a bad reputation in the shitty and desperate “comedy” Bride Wars.

Then you have the crazy singletons who are so fucking desperate to get hitched that they make up fiances in their head and try on wedding dresses for their fake big day. When it comes to gender politics, weddings in films really aren’t helping our cause. Of course, one of the more memorable of these women is Muriel Heslop from P.J Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding. It was the role that threw Toni Collette into the spotlight and added to the stream of quirky but dark comedies that Australia was producing in the 80s and 90s. 

Muriel is a 22 year old school-drop out who’s only claim to fame in a secretarial degree her father had to bribe someone for. She is looked down on by her ‘friends’ who eventually just admit enough is enough and drop her entirely. Feeling pathetic and alone, Muriel follows the girls on their Hibiscus Island holiday after stealing her family’s wealth. Thankfully, she meets another ex-schoolmate Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths) and the pair form an alliance against Muriel’s bitchy old friends.

The two bond over their love of ABBA and manage to win the island resort’s talent competition by dressing up as Agnetha and Anni Frid and miming the words to Waterloo. Unable to face her father’s disappointment and anger, Muriel follows Rhonda to Sydney and reinvents herself. A whole new world of work, friendship and dating is opened up to her and her dream wedding looks possible for the first time ever.

Although, the film is far from a feel-good story about a girl who leaves her sleepy town and finds herself and love along the way. Muriel comes from a family of losers and layabouts. She and her siblings are constantly berated by their father. He is a philanderer and psychologically abuses his family thanks to his regrets about not winning an election years before.

Muriel has come to hate herself and lies to everyone she meets so she can become the person she feels she should be. She is a deeply unhappy person who pins her future happiness on having the perfect wedding. However, deep down, Muriel is just a lost young woman who is trying to survive in a harsh society. The film may derive humour from her missteps but Hogan has a great deal of affection for his misfit protagonist.

Muriel’s Wedding is at times funny, heartfelt and hopeful; the rest of the time it is merciless, depressing and uncomfortable. There is a certain amount of jarring between the two extremes but Hogan manages to hold the reins and finds a pretty good balance. The film isn’t always successful and has enough missteps to keep up with its heroine. However, there is the ocassional glimmer of brilliance within the broad comedy and harsh social critique. Thanks to a winning turn from Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding does turn out to be a memory you’ll treasure forever.

Top 5 Literary Husbands

books, George RR Martin, Harry Potter, list, LOTR, marriage, romance, Tolkien

So I had every intention of writing a great and meaningful post for this week. However, my older sister royally fucked that up by getting engaged yesterday. I mean I’m happy and everything but I had to spend valuable writing time drinking champagne instead. So now it’s half 11 on Monday night and I’ve only just started writing something. It’s fucking ridiculous. I’m pretty much back to square one. That can only mean one thing: it’s time for a lazy blog post. With marriage now on my radar, I’ve decided it’s time to compile my top 5 list of male literary characters I’d be okay to settle down with. God knows it’s about time I give this some thought. Pretty much every YA-focused book vlogger I’ve ever watched seems to be editing this list on a weekly, if not daily, basis. To be fair, they’re lists mostly contain awful YA pretty boys I’ve never heard of or the awful men who wear breeches in classic novels. When will people learn, Mr Rochester and Heathcliffe are fucking creeps: not the kind of people you should aspire to marry. Anyway, just as some people don’t feel comfortable until they have their zombie apocalypse plan in place (yawn), I’m not sure I’ll be able to sleep until I sort this fucking list out. So without further ado…

Number 5: Charlie Weasley (Harry Potter)
Okay, Charlie may not be the most obvious Weasley to chose as your future spouse because we really don’t know much about him. He is the family member we learn least about and only really meet once. However, he works with fucking dragons. Anyone who can honestly say they’d prefer to marry the guy who runs a joke shop or the one who has a ponytail and works in a bank really hasn’t thought it through. Fucking. Dragons. Charlie would be the most exciting husband in the wizarding world.

Number 4: Jorah Mormont (A Song of Ice and Fire)
I have to be honest and say, this is a bit of a cheat. I probably wouldn’t actually go near the Jorah Mormont that graces the pages of George RR Martin’s novels. He’s kind of old, hairy and is something of a creep himself. Really not the greatest catch. Plus, according to Dany, he’s nothing too special to look at. So why does he get pride of place on my list? Iain fucking Glenn. Despite being nearly twice my age, the man’s a babe.

Number 3: Rob Felming (High Fidelity)
Now I’m sure I’ve mentioned before just how much I love High Fidelity. I really do: it’s a fucking great read. Rob isn’t the greatest of characters for most of the narrative but he’s a changed man by the end. That’s the Rob I’d marry. The man who has realised how messed up he was and was willing to change. After all, without the fairly selfish beginnings, Rob has a lot of things going for him. He owns a record shop, which would be awesome, and would constantly make you interesting mix-tapes to listen to. I’m stuck in a rut in terms of my music tastes so I need all the help I can get.

Number 2: Boromir (The Lord of the Rings)
I know Aragorn would be everyone’s ideal choice but he’s a bit too madly in love for my liking. Boromir gets pretty short shrift because of that whole ‘trying to steal the ring of power and save Gondor’ thing. However, he’s actually a pretty great guy if you can just get over that. He’s brave, one of the greatest warriors Gondor has ever seen and he really fucking cares about his people. That’s why the ring could seduce him so easily. Plus, he made up for it in the end by saving Merry and Pippin. Plus, dat Sean Bean doe.

Number 1: Oliver Wood (Harry Potter)
Another slight cheat here really. Ever since I first watched the first Harry Potter film I was obsessed with Oliver Wood. Sean Biggerstaff was one of the most beautiful people my 13 year old self had ever seen. I loved him and, embarassingly, I used to email pictures of him to one of my schoolfriends to prove how gorgeous he was. So fucking cringey: I was super Tumblr before it even existed. Anyway, thinking about it now though he’s probably make a good choice. He has the potential to become a Quidditch star so would have a pretty steady income. He’s driven, athletic and tenacious. Having returned to fight in the Battle of Hogwarts you know he’s as brave as any Gryffindor. He’s also Scottish according to the films, which I find never really hurts.

Us by David Nicholls

books, David Nicholls, family, marriage, review

This years Man Booker prize long list proved two things: that last years embrace of female writers was a bit of a fluke and that the judges were going to extremes to prove that they were fans of more popular literature. Or at least this felt like the most likely explanation for the inclusion of David Nicholls’ Us. Don’t get me wrong, after one false start, I liked One Day as much as the next person. However, Nicholls’ books aren’t necessarily prize worthy; they’re nice. A term that, in regards to literary works, takes on a sickeningly patronising tone most often applied to works enjoying unprecedented sales success. Then again, I have been known to be over critical so I thought I’d give his new, Booker prize longlisted novel a chance…. plus it was on offer at the time.