Thursday, 28 February 2013

Review: Geek Girl, Holly Smale

Geek Girl

Holly Smale

Harper Collins Children's, 2013

[New release: 28th February 2013]

Harriet Manners knows a lot of things. She knows that a cat has 32 muscles in each ear, a "jiffy" lasts 1/100th of a second, and the average person laughs 15 times per day. What she isn't quite so sure about is why nobody at school seems to like her very much. So when she's spotted by a top model agent, Harriet grabs the chance to reinvent herself. Even if it means stealing her Best Friend's dream, incurring the wrath of her arch enemy Alexa, and repeatedly humiliating herself in front of the impossibly handsome supermodel Nick. Even if it means lying to the people she loves. 

As Harriet veers from one couture disaster to the next with the help of her overly enthusiastic father and her uber-geeky stalker, Toby, she begins to realise that the world of fashion doesn't seem to like her any more than the real world did. 

And as her old life starts to fall apart, the question is: will Harriet be able to transform herself before she ruins everything?

Geek Girl might be daftest book I have read in a while. I think this could have gone either way in the first few chapters, but as well as being a bit daft, it's also a book full of genuine warmth, and the two balanced out really well. Harriet is 15 years old and a self-proclaimed geek. When she makes this declaration at the beginning of the book, I had a fear it was going to be some kind of hipster-style, I'm-so-uncool-I'm-cool thing, but Harriet is a "geek" in a way that I could appreciate. She's awkward and socially inept and a beat away from most people around her. She doesn't have many friends, and she's smart in a I've-done-all-my-homework kind of way, and through all of this she becomes likable for her sheer self-deprecating nature. Harriet is just Harriet. She knows it's weird that she hides under tables when she gets anxious, but she can't really help it.

I appreciated Harriet precisely because she seemed very real to me, and very recognisable as a 15 year old. Perhaps it's because this is British YA, and the teenagers always seem less self-assured and more mired in normal stuff like school and home and having to catch the bus everywhere, I don't know! Her home life was actually one of the high points for me. She lives with her dad and her stepmum, and her mum has been dead almost as long as Harriet has been alive. Both her dad and Annabel are well-characterised and integral to the story, and it was nice to see a normal, nice stepmum for a change (I really liked the scene where Harriet goes to see Annabel at her offices near the end). Her dad was pretty silly at times, and very funny, and I liked his relationship with Harriet: they came across as being close, but more through their exasperation with each other and their jokes and poking fun at each other, rather than any huge declarations of emotion, which was both funny and realistic.

Even though the school/home stuff was very realistic (one of my favourite parts was probably the English teacher leaving the classroom because half of the class were reading copies of Romeo & Juliet rather than Hamlet, which seems like the kind of thing taken straight from my own under-provisioned school days), the rest of the plot seemed quite cartoony. At the beginning Harriet and her friend Nat go to the Clothes Show in Birmingham, which starts off Harriet's ill-fated modelling career. This part seemed a little bit far-fetched at times (particular the trip to Russia), but it fitted with the light, slightly silly tone of the book, so although it wasn't entirely believable it didn't stop me reading.

The focus on the friendship between Harriet and Nat was nice, and explored the fact that in some ways they were growing apart, yet they still considered themselves best friends. Toby was rather unusual, but good for some comic relief, and it was nice that the book was more concerned with Harriet's own development and realisations about family and friendships and being yourself, rather than romance (although there was a smidge of hot boy to be found). Geek Girl isn't a heavy-duty read, but a funny, light book about a girl figuring out her life and how to do the right thing, and Harriet is a unique enough protagonist to carry it to the end.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Netgalley.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Krakauer on Koalas; or Auto-Buy Authors (Top Ten Tuesday)

This week, the theme of Top Ten Tuesday (as hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) is authors whose books I would always buy/read, regardless of what it might be about.

So, in no particular order...

Jon Krakauer
To be fair, Krakauer has written on a range of subjects, from his earlier books about mountain climbing and the 1996 Everest disaster, to the story of Chris McCandless in Into The Wild, to his more recent books on fundamentalist Mormons and the war in Afghanistan (told through the story of Pat Tillman and the cover up of his death).

Philip Roth
Having recently read and reviewed Roth's final novel, this is more a case of wanting to read all of the novels of his I haven't read yet (at last count, I had read 14/27). [Read my review of Nemesis here.]

Armistead Maupin
I feel like I am always eagerly awaiting a new Maupin novel, and the next one (focusing on Anna Madrigal, one of his best-loved characters) is no exception.

Stephanie Perkins
I think this is a case of really gelling with an author's style and voice, and I appreciate the way Perkins writes realistic conversations and gives her characters hormones! (I guess that sounds weird, but I like that she lets her characters think about sex in a normal way.)

Erlend Loe
There are quite a few Loe novels I haven't read, because sadly I can't read Norwegian... but as soon as more are translated, I will be scrabbling for a copy! [Read my review of Doppler here.]

Siri Hustvedt
I read Sorrows of an American a couple of years ago, and ever since then I have gone back and read all of her other books, too. Absolutely wonderful novels, particularly Sorrows and What I Loved.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides comes out with a book so infrequently, but they're always a joy when he does. [Read my review of The Marriage Plot here.]

Okay, so just seven this week, which is maybe just as well!

Don't forget the blog-birthday giveaway this week - two pairs of young adult books to win!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Showcase Sunday #20

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

First of all, I should probably start with a book I forgot to include last week: the screenplay of Don't Look Now!

Don't Look Now is one of my favourite films, and technically I bought the screenplay because I've been writing about the film in an article of mine, and I thought it would be handy to have. I don't normally include my academic books here, but this one is pretty cool so I thought I'd let people have a peek. :) Has anyone read the Daphne du Maurier original? I've been told it's even creepier than the film.

I also received an ARC of Dare You To by Katie McGarry, from Harlequin UK, which I am looking forward to starting! I have requested the previous book in the series, Pushing the Limits, from the library, so hopefully I can read them in order.

And MOST EXCITINGLY OF ALL (so exciting it warrants use of the word "excitingly"):

Yoshi is totally digging Stephanie Perkins.
Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins! I have wanted to read this ever since finishing Anna and the French Kiss, which was before I started writing this blog, but I was also waiting for the paperback to be released. But last week I got my first payslip from my new teaching job, and I decided to break my book buying ban with this. Let's pretend it's 1997 and say: I'm super stoked.

Reviews posted this week:
Bunheads by Sophie Flack (5.5/10) - ballet-themed coming of age YA
Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (7/10) - an interesting portrait of Berlin in the early 1930s

I am also hosting a giveaway (ends March 9th), giving away books by Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan, Ally Carter and Ally Condie - more details here.

Thanks for stopping by!

Bibliotekit has a birthday (and a giveaway!)

It's a little over a year now since Bibliotekit began.

Source: frasiercaps

Which I think is not only call for a little sprinkling of HAPPY:

Source: monalisas-madhatters

But maybe a giveaway (or two!)

There are a handful of books on my shelves that I have enjoyed and want to pass on to two winners. I have divided them into two bundles and set up a separate giveaway for each.

Bundle 1: Matched (Matched #1) by Ally Condie and I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls #1) by Ally Carter

Bundle 2: Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson (my review of Twisted is here)

Giveaway is open internationally and ends on Saturday 9th March at 12:00am (GMT).

Giveaway 1: Matched by Ally Condie and I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter

Giveaway 2: Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

What are you waiting for?

Source: 74flawsofyesterday

Big thanks to everyone who has made this first year of book blogging so awesome, and if you want to check out some of my favourite bookish folk, I have finally updated the blogroll in the sidebar!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Review: Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood

Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood

Vintage, 1989 (1939)

'I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,' are the famous lines on the first page. This a semi-autobiographical account of Isherwood's time in 1930s Berlin.

Written as a connected series of six short stories the book, first published in 1939, is a brilliant evocation of the decadence and repression, glamour and sleaze of Berlin society. Isherwood shows the lives of people at threat from the rise of the Nazis: Natalia Landauer, the rich, Jewish heiress, Peter and Otto, a gay couple and the 'divinely decadent' Sally Bowles, a young English woman who was so memorably portrayed by Liza Minnelli.

Goodbye to Berlin takes place in the earlier 1930s, when Germany was in a state of transition from the Weimar Republic to Nazi rule. Christopher Isherwood, the character at the centre of all six stories (based on, but not a mirror of, the author), is an Englishman living in Berlin whilst attempting to write a novel.

Each of the stories focuses on different characters that criss-cross through Christopher's life. There is Sally, the flighty British girl who speaks terrible German and sleeps with rich men in return for money and gifts, and Peter, a rather timid man struggling to make sense of his relationship with Otto, who is young and carefree and treats Peter very badly, yet neither of them will leave the other. Later, Christopher ends up living with Otto's family, the Nowaks, in a two-room attic apartment with a broken window. Throughout, there is an atmosphere of shabby decadence. Everyone seems to be poor, living hand to mouth, yet with an almost fatalistic atmosphere lurking somewhere behind it all. Christopher is so poor at one point he moves in with the Nowaks, yet at other times he schemes with Sally to travel across Europe as the guests of one of her admirers, and he and Bernhard, a member of the prominent Jewish Landauer family, who own a large department store, tiptoe around the idea of getting out of Germany together, yet both are reluctant to admit they are serious.

Underneath all of this is the gradual encroachment of Nazism, and a threatening aura seeps through, particular in the later stories. There are protests against Jewish shop owners, and Landauer's is boycotted (Christopher defiantly goes in to buy a pair of socks anyway). In the final story, Christopher documents an overheard conversation in which two men discuss how some people have simply started to 'disappear'.

This is really a snapshot of history, a picture of Germany's capital on the verge of something monumental. The fact that it was written in 1935, and published four years later, demonstrates how German society was prior to World War II, from the perspective of someone who lived through it. A lot of the remarks made in the book are quite chilling now in their prescience. There is a lot of talk from different characters in the book about how they are living in a 'post-war' period, without realising that they are not so far from another.

"She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town." (255)

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Review: Bunheads, Sophie Flack


Sophie Flack

Atom Books, 2012 (2011)

As a dancer with the Manhattan Ballet Company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward is living her childhood dream. She gets to be up on stage in front of adoring crowds every night. And while she might not be a prima ballerina yet, she's moving up the ranks and surely if she works hard enough she can make it happen.

But devoting her whole life to ballet leaves very little time for anything else: friends, family, school have all fallen by the wayside. Hannah doesn't mind, until a chance encounter in a restaurant brings Jacob into her life. He's cute, he plays guitar and he's offering a whole future that Hannah never considered. And now she must choose between her lifelong dream or what could be the love of her life...

That whole suggestion in the blurb - "And now she must choose between her lifelong dream or what could be the love of her life" - was the second reason I nearly didn't pick up this book. (The first reason was that ballet and I are emphatically not friends, thanks to some tragic efforts on the part of my mother to make me more graceful as a child.)

Thankfully, this turned out to be a little bit more complex than who-needs-ambition-when-there's-a-hot-boy. Hannah dances in the ballet de corps at the Manhattan Ballet, but her dream is to finally get that solo that will set her on the track to becoming a first-rate ballerina. Most of the action in the book takes place within the ballet school, bouncing between rehearsals and performances and the dramas of the dressing room, where Hannah and her friends alternative between being supportive to each other, and nursing feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. The peaks and troughs of female friendship came across as very realistic.

Flack also captures the gruelling nature of the life of a ballet dancer very well. Hannah seems to rehearse non-stop; if she isn't rehearsing, she's on stage performing. There were quite a lot of references to dieting and behaviour that seemed to me to be firmly on the spectrum of eating disorders. One of the principal dancers eats so little, and performs so hard, that she collapses and is diagnosed with a permanent thyroid problem. Hannah routinely seems to subsist on a banana and a yoghurt a day. She talks about only recently getting her period, and when her breasts start to develop she is threatened with being kicked out of the school. I didn't find any of this particularly easy to read - the no-food thing seemed to be accepted as normal, which might fit with the world the author was trying to depict (and has lived through herself), but it was still uncomfortable to read about these young women being so hard on their own bodies.

Though there was a definite sense of realism in all of this, one aspect that didn't seem particularly real to me was the relationship with Jacob. Their first meeting is ridiculously accelerated - they're in the same bar, he sits next to her, and suddenly their life stories are out and they're halfway to being in love with each other. Someone call the insta-love police. Jacob becomes the catalyst for Hannah wondering whether she has it in her to continue with a life that consists solely of ballet, and the second half of the book is mostly Hannah oscillating between wanting a normal life, and wanting to achieve the dream she's had since being a little girl. I did appreciate that although Jacob's presence kind of forced the question, Hannah's indecision and unhappiness was built up of more things than just wanting more time to make out with a boy.

Bunheads is a compelling read, more so than I expected - it kept me turning the pages the whole way through, and the unusual premise gave some interesting insights into a completely different world. In the end, however, I found it ultimately forgettable.

Overall rating: 5.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Showcase Sunday #19

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

First of all: Bibliotekit now has its own Twitter account! Kind of like a first birthday present to the blog. :)

A few different books this week: first of all, Jojo Moyes' Me Before You, which I borrowed from my stepmum when I was visiting home last weekend.

I also downloaded a few things on the Kindle:

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
ICEHOTEL by Hanna Allen

I was intrigued by the concept of ICEHOTEL - I always thought the idea of an ice hotel was pretty cool, and this purported to be a murder mystery/thriller set in exactly that location. In the end, though, it was a DNF at about 20% of the way through, mostly because I was 20% of the way through and nothing had happened. On top of that, there was some excruciating dialogue (warning a character after one day that "if you hurt her, I'll kill you") and a heavy reliance on broad-brush stereotyping in place of actual characterisation - so an Irishman who likes Guinness, talks about his "Mam and Da'", and ends half his sentences with "that it is", and the two Southern gentlemen who call everybody "ma'am" and always remember their manners, and a bunch of drunk Danish tourists (one of whom apologises for being drunk all the time by saying, basically, "but I am from Copenhagen, so..."). Not to mention the older gay man who makes nudge-nudge-wink-wink comments about young attractive men, but actually has to be happy just tagging along after two thirty-something women, who are the only ones who'll actually be allowed to get the guy at the end.

(Rant over.)

I also wrote an article for HelloGiggles a couple of weeks ago (eep!), which I never got chance to post here, so here's the link! - The Fear In Saying 'Yes'.

Reviews this week:
Speechless by Hannah Harrington (8/10) - definitely recommended!
The Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri (4/10)

Hope everyone is having a good weekend!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Review: The Voice of the Violin, Andrea Camilleri

The Voice of the Violin (Inspector Montalbano #4)

Andrea Camilleri

Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli

Picador, 2003 (1997)

Montalbano's gruesome discovery of a naked young woman suffocated in her bed immediately sets him on a search for her killer. Among the suspects are her aging husband, a famous doctor; a shy admirer, now disappeared; an antiques-dealing lover from Bologna; and the victim's friend Anna, whose charms Montalbano cannot help but appreciate. But it is a mysterious, reclusive violinist who holds the key to this murder...

The Voice of the Violin follows Inspector Salvo Montalbano as he investigates the murder of a beautiful woman found dead in her partially renovated home in Sicily. There are a number of different threads in the book - from Mafia involvement to corrupt police chiefs to Montalbano's rather messy personal life - but most of the action focuses on trying to figure out how Michela Licalzi met her end.

The book started out promisingly enough - the Italian setting was (for me) a novelty, and Montalbano retains all those standard hallmarks of a fictional detective: he chafes against authority, he's a bit of a maverick, he always goes the extra mile for a case, and his home life is in a bit of a state. (In this case, he is dealing with a wife who resides elsewhere - I wasn't sure why, although it's probably explained in the earlier books - and the prospect of a failed adoption.)

The first few chapters, in which Montalbano finds the body completely by chance, after hitting the victim's parked car and finding the note he leaves is never taken from the car's windscreen, were pretty interesting. The mystery was set up nicely, but I rapidly lost interest in the entire case. Most of the book is in dialogue form - there is very little description, just lots and lots of conversation, which didn't really appeal to me. It was sometimes difficult to figure out which character was speaking, and the characterisation (aside from Montalbano) was quite light, so I found I wasn't really bothered about any of the other characters. Given that there were a lot of different policeman in the story (at least half them with very similar "G" names, it seemed), it was an effort to keep track when none of them seemed to have very well-defined personalities.

The Mafia elements were interesting but largely peripheral, and the corrupt policemen storyline added some depth, but overall it wasn't enough to hold my interest. I felt like I was just watching things unfold, rather than getting involved in the story, and the ending seemed rather convenient - suddenly a character who is barely mentioned in the book comes forward and the mystery is revealed in time for a showdown between murderer and Montalbano at the end.

A pretty inoffensive crime mystery with an appealing Italian setting, but not enough action to keep me interested - I was skimming by the time I was 2/3 of the way through.

Overall rating: 4/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

The Voice of the Violin counts towards my 2013 Translation Challenge.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Review: Speechless, Hannah Harrington


Hannah Harrington

Harlequin/Mira Ink, 2013

[New release: 1st February 2013]

Everyone knows that Chelsea Knot can’t keep a secret

Until now. Because the last secret she shared turned her into a social outcast—and nearly got someone killed.

Now Chelsea has taken a vow of silence—to learn to keep her mouth shut, and to stop hurting anyone else. And if she thinks keeping secrets is hard, not speaking up when she’s ignored, ridiculed and even attacked is worse.

But there’s strength in silence, and in the new friends who are, shockingly, coming her way—people she never noticed before; a boy she might even fall for. If only her new friends can forgive what she’s done. If only she can forgive herself.

Speechless was one of those books that I pretty much devoured before I'd even realised what was happening. This came as something of a surprise, not least because the first few pages of the book convinced me solidly of one thing: Chelsea is not a nice person. She and her best friend Kristen trade gossip - and not just mild, inconsequential gossip, but mean, hurtful snippets of gossip about people they claim to be friends with - and come up with a stupid little blackmail plot largely for their own amusement. Chelsea seems a little in awe of Kristen, eager to please and agree with everything she says, but at the same time she seems more than happy to revel in her role as gossip queen and secret sharer. The following scenes did little to enamour me any further towards Chelsea. Their big New Year's party turns into a hideous mess as soon as Chelsea stumbles upon a scenario that provides such a great bit of gossip she spills it without any thought of the consequences.

Except there are consequences, and in the aftermath Chelsea takes a vow of silence after deciding that her mouth has only ever got her into trouble. It was interesting how Chelsea evolved during the course of book, from a selfish desire to get her friends back to realising that maybe they weren't the kind of friends she should have in the first place. Her developing friendships with Asha, Sam, Dexter, Lou and even Andy were portrayed really well, and I liked how Harrington focused on a positive female friendship as well as introducing a romantic relationship for Chelsea too. The romantic relationship came across as genuine and really well-written, I thought - in contrast to Chelsea's infatuation with one of the popular guys at the beginning (in which it was very much tell-don't-show), this relationship came through in much more subtle ways. Chelsea's obsession with watching him cook was funny, but it also rang true.

I also loved how Speechless didn't go down some of the more predictable routes I was expecting in my mind. (For most of the book I was convinced that there was going to be some awkward love triangle or that Chelsea was going to do something to screw everything up.)

Despite starting out disliking Chelsea quite intently, by the end of the book I had completely changed my opinion of her, and I think the exploration of who was to blame was interesting - I liked that there was always the reminder that what Chelsea did was wrong, but what other people did was a lot worse. It was a little bit depressing to recognise so much of the negative behaviour in the book as the kind of thing that could quite easily have happened when I was at school (which is more than a decade ago now), but it was good to see it being dealt with, even if (as Andy says at one point) it takes a straight white girl to act as saviour.

Ultimately Speechless didn't feel like an examination of a particular issue so much as an exploration of friendship and owning your own actions, and I'd recommend it as one of the better young adult contemporaries I've read in a while!

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Netgalley.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Review: Rose By Any Other Name, Maureen McCarthy

Rose By Any Other Name

Maureen McCarthy

Allen & Unwin, 2008 (2006)

Don'tcha just hate the way you get caught up in stuff without really wanting to? You make a wrong move and before you know it you're in some weird scene that isn't you but... how do you get out of it?

Rose is all packed up. She's got a van full of petrol and a stack of CDs. She's got a surfboard in the back and a secret that won't go away. But that's okay. She also has enough attitude to light up the night sky.

Then her mother decides to come along... and Rose's road trip takes an unplanned U-turn, straight to the heart of last summer.

The cover of this book shouted two things at me: ROAD TRIP! and SURFING! (Quietly, of course, because we were in a library at the time.) Two things I am a big fan of in books. And Allen & Unwin, the Australian publisher, put out a lot of good stuff, including some really good young adult novels I've read in the last year. I was sold.

About ten pages in, I wondered if I'd made a mistake in picking this up, and this is why: Rose. Rose is perhaps the most aggravating, frustrating, bad-attitude-laden main character I've come across in a long time. Prickly and antagonistic, she's planned this whole road trip to Port Fairy to visit her dying gran, but at the last minute her mum has decided to join her, so Rose is a complete uber-bitch pretty much the whole way there - which is most of the book.

There are two lines that really stuck out for me, and might help sum up what pissed me off so much about Rose.

"Can't you just love the band without wanting to be the band? I wanted to scream at her." - This is aimed at her best friend Zoe, in one of the flashbacks to the past summer. Rose has a total boner about 'proper' music and being authentic and cool, and when Zoe gets excited about some band they go and see she's entirely mean to her for no reason.

"I'm only eighteen but I've already found what everyone else spends their lives searching for." - HOLY MACKEREL, BATMAN. Seriously. Besides which, the person she's talking about here is really not appropriate.

At the same time, though, I think McCarthy has really nailed Rose as a character. She irritated me, but she was also believable. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that all this hard-as-nails, screw-the-world stuff is just a cover up for a lot of crappy things that she's had to deal with, and by the end when she starts opening up a little bit, and starts to work things out with her mum and dad, it's quite a relief. There is a boy, but the focus here is really on Rose and her family, which I think is always interesting to see in YA novels. {Minor spoiler] I believed in Rose as a 'divorced kid', and a lot of her reactions and emotions seemed spot-on, but I was disappointed to see the all-too-common let's-all-be-a-bitch-about-the-stepmother and let's-not-talk-to-dad-for-months threads - again, while it was believable that Rose would react that way, I'd like to see a bit more variety when it comes to dealing with divorce.

The other storyline, focusing on one particular thing that Rose did the previous summer, seemed a lot less believable and just a bit weird.

Despite wanting to scream at Rose quite frequently, I enjoyed this book - a solid contemporary novel about family and life and figuring out what makes you happy.

Overall rating: 6/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Rose By Any Other Name counts towards my Australian Women Writers 2013 Challenge.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Review: Nemesis, Philip Roth


Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

In the "stifling heat of equatorial Newark," a terrifying epidemic is raging, threatening the children of the New Jersey city with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and even death. This is the startling theme of Philip Roth’s wrenching new book: a wartime polio epidemic in the summer of 1944 and the effect it has on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark community and its children. At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful twenty-three-year-old playground director, Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges and disappointed with himself because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and on the everyday realities he faces—Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain. 

Moving between the smoldering, malodorous streets of besieged Newark and Indian Hill, a pristine children’s summer camp high in the Poconos—whose "mountain air was purified of all contaminants"—Roth depicts a decent, energetic man with the best intentions struggling in his own private war against the epidemic. Roth is tenderly exact at every point about Cantor’s passage into personal disaster, and no less exact about the condition of childhood. Through this story runs the dark questions that haunt all four of Roth’s late short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and now Nemesis: What kind of accidental choices fatally shape a life? How does the individual withstand the onslaught of circumstance?

Nemesis is classed as the final of Roth's four short novels, published between 2006 and 2010, and the final Roth novel full stop, if the reports in late 2012 are right, as Roth himself declared that he was "done". While I struggled a little with The Humbling, the earlier two novels, Everyman and Indignation, were both excellent, particularly Everyman. Nemesis, happily, falls (for me) into this second camp.

It tells the story of Bucky Cantor, who spends the summer of 1944 as director of the Chancellor Avenue playground in Weequahic, Newark, New Jersey, a largely Jewish section of the city that is being ravaged by polio. What starts with a couple of boys at the playground quickly turns into an epidemic, and Bucky starts to agonise over how he can keep the kids safe. I liked Bucky - he is gutted that he's been excluded from the army, where his two best friends are fighting in Europe, and instead he focuses all his attention on this unexpected war at home, against a virus that in 1944 has no known cure. Bucky loves the playground kids, and is dedicated to getting them involved in sports, and when he's not at the playground he's caring for his elderly grandmother, who brought him up, and missing his girlfriend Marcia, who is working at a summer camp in the Pocono Mountains.

There is a horrible sense of inevitability throughout the book, as more and more kids get ill, and a choice that Bucky makes partway through the novel has much wider ramifications, or at least it seems that way to Bucky. Roth does not offer up any kind of happy ending here, and the last section of the book concerns Bucky as a middle-aged man in 1971, meeting one of the kids from the playground, Arnie Mesnikoff, and recounting how his life turned out after that fateful summer. The book is actually narrated by Arnie (there is one clue to this, early on, before Arnie himself appears near the end), and is meant as a record of the conversations Bucky and Arnie have had on these weekly lunch meetings over twenty five years later.

The blurb suggests that these late Roth novels have dealt with themes of "choice" and "circumstance", and certainly Nemesis owes more to circumstances than to choices: though Bucky makes two big decisions in Nemesis, it is deliberately unclear whether either of these have altered the course of events in any significant way, which just adds to the agony of the story. As the final book of Roth's career, it deals with death, God, and the anguish that comes with a fundamental lack of control: not a particularly happy read, but one that sticks with you long afterwards.

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Showcase Sunday #18

Hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

This weekend I will be presenting a paper at an academic conference and spending the rest of it in Brighton hanging out with the boy. Luckily I have plenty of reading material to keep me going on all those train journeys... :)

This week I received two books for review after finally making a foray into the world of Netgalley.

Hannah Harrington - Speechless

Holly Smale - Geek Girl

Thanks to Harlequin UK/Mira INK and Harper Collins Children's!

Bibliotekit is almost a year old now, and partly to celebrate and partly to keep all my alter-egos straight (well, to stop spamming my colleagues with book reviews and you guys with teaching resources and PhD agonies), I created a separate Twitter account for the blog: @bibliotekit_kit Come say hi!

Thanks for stopping by!