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Ellen Allen Writes

Avid reader. Wild swimmer. Indie Author of The Sham. Collector of writing titbits (http://www.ellenallen.co) and all things bookish...

When Breath Becomes Air; over-hyped and way too sentimental

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi, Abraham Verghese

I had been wanting to read Paul Kalanithi's memoir for a while, having read a rave review in the New York Times; he was an esteemed neurosurgeon, diagnosed with terminal cancer in his 30s, who wrote this memoir before his death. The reviews said it provided interesting answers to the question, "what makes a life worth living". It's well-written and clearly, Kalanithi was very talented as both a surgeon and a writer, but I found the book way too worthy and over the top (possibly because it's geared towards US audiences when us Brits tend to be a little less sentimental in our tastes, even about death...) and it just left me with more questions than answers.

The Girls; superb teen angst with a splash of murder

The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

I first came across author Emma Cline in the Paris Review of Books in summer 2013 when I found her story Marion. The opening had me hooked;


"Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways. Dogs lay belly-up and heaving in the shade. It was cooler in the hills, where Marion’s family lived. Everyone who stayed at their ranch was some relative, Marion said, blood or otherwise, and she called everyone brother or sister."


I presume this is the short story that got her the writing contract for The Girls, because it's based on the same premise - at the end of the 60s, teenager Evie Boyd becomes drawn into a gang of girls and towards their cult leader in LA. It obviously has the backdrop of the Manson murders in mind, highly fashionable at the moment (anyone seen The Invitation? It was a quiet, unsettling movie from 2015 that also has sinister LA cult behaviour as a backdrop).


The Girls is really wonderfully written. It didn't feel like it had quite the same artistic punch as the short story, but it was pretty spectacularly done all the same. Highly recommended, if you want to be taken back to how agonisingly awful if was to be a teenager (Cline really nails it) amidst some very chilling characters indeed.

The Luminaries; sooo long but worth it

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton

My god, I made it. Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning first novel is not for the faint-hearted. It is long. And I mean long. It’s also historical fiction, which really isn’t my bag, but ten minutes in, I was hooked. It’s set in New Zealand in 1866 and follows a group of men in a small frontier gold town and the two women who weave through all their stories. It’s intricate, with a kind of detail that doesn’t allow for any loss of concentration. It has death, swindling, and superstition all wrapped up in a veneer of social respectability. Worth delving into if you don’t have a life.

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Source: http://ellenallen.co/2016/04/17/the-luminaries-sooo-long-but-worth-it

The Interestings; vivid, evocative and really bloody good

The Interestings: A Novel - Meg Wolitzer

I hadn’t heard of Meg Wolitzer but when I read some of the reviews in The New York Times and The Telegraph, I discovered she is much-loved and regarded, in some circles, as highly as Jonathan Franzen and Hilary Mantel. So her story about six friends over the course of their lives  – The Interestings – seemed too good to resist. And by the time my Scribd trial had ended, half way through the book, these characters had so pervaded my head that I simply had to hunt down the book in any form possible, just to find out what they were up to.


The NY Times review described it as a book about ideas and that’s true. But each of the characters are so well drawn – gay, straight, male, female – that it really does what all great books do; it nails the daily feelings about love, envy and lust and makes you analyse your own feelings in relation to the characters and your own experiences. Just wonderful. What’s more, because it follows the characters from their teens to middle age, it’s a great book to read in January when most people are assessing their New Year’s resolutions and where they are in the world in relation to where they want to be. It made me laugh and made me cry; something that books rarely do at the same time. A brilliant book to start the year.


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Source: http://ellenallen.co/2016/01/22/the-interestings-vivid-evocative-and-really-bloody-good

Middlesex; riveting book about gender but still way too long

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (who wrote The Virgin Suicides) is a really interesting book about gender; what it really means to be male or female, whether our choices are hard-wired and how we assume our gender over time. It’s also a book about the genetic outcomes from the choices that people make when they have families. That sounds weighty but it isn’t really. It’s very well written and quite timely (written in 2002) considering the increased profile of transgender individuals and how lots of women are now talking about how they don’t define themselves as one gender or another (here or here). I just thought it was a bit too long.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/12/31/middlesex-riveting-book-about-gender-but-still-too-long

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared; a long-winded unfunny dose of Forrest Gump

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson

So I get that The Hundred-Year-Old Man by Jonas Jonasson is meant to be a satire on politics and politicians throughout the 20th century and I get that some people find it hilarious but I thought it was boring, long-winded and not very funny. The premise is brilliant; a guy celebrating his hundredth birthday climbs out of the window of his old people’s home and boards a bus, stealing a suitcase from a local thug on a whim. He gets chased, lots of people die elaborately in a way that ensures he doesn’t get framed and he meets many of the major players from the twentieth century (Stalin, Truman, Mao etc.). Only read it if you want another dose of a very long-winded Forrest Gump.

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/12/31/the-hundred-year-old-man-who-climbed-out-of-the-window-and-disappeared-a-long-winded-unfunny-dose-of-forrest-gump

Slade House; a bit bonkers, quite scary and oh so well written

Slade House: A Novel - David Mitchell

I found Slade House by chance on netgalley and didn’t know what to expect (I haven’t read any of David Mitchell’s other books) but once I opened it for a sneak peak, I had to finish it quickly. It was really good; a bit bonkers, quite scary, and oh so well written.


The book starts in 1979 and then each chapter jumps forward 9 years, for a sinister and completely crazy reason that has to do with mind tricks, time warps, telepathy and the notion of living forever. I can’t really explain it properly without sounding nuts myself so suffice to say, it’s an interesting diversion and something very different.


I don’t like books that change points of view throughout but this one is much less noticeable because each chapter is set in exactly the same place geographically so it doesn’t jar and most of the characters in each chapter have a connection to the main character in the last so it follows on coherently. More to the point, each chapter is so bloody well written that you feel as if you’re standing in the pub with them in exactly the period he’s describing. Apparently it’s a companion piece to his much-lauded The Bone Clocks so looks like that’s next up on the list… A stunning novella.

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/10/21/slade-house-a-bit-bonkers-quite-scary-and-oh-so-well-written

My Heart and Other Black Holes; a great YA issues novel

My Heart and Other Black Holes - Jasmine Warga

There are lots of brilliant YA books about suicide (All The Bright Places, Thirteen Reasons Why, Wintergirls, etc) – if a book about suicide can be called brilliant – and My Heart and Other Black Holes is (almost) just as good.


In the same vein as All The Bright Places, the two main characters (Aysel and Roman) meet while contemplating suicide. It’s a great study in how to write a successful YA book – it follows all the basic rules. 1) Make a countdown (they plan to kill themselves in a month). 2) Give them serious, well-thought-out reasons to die. 3) And create a full-blown basic attraction between the two main characters. The writing is a bit generic but well done, full of warmth and you do root for them (even though I ultimately felt they weren’t as memorable as some of the other characters from the other books in this genre).


My only gripe would be about how the big reveal relies on us not knowing the reason why Aysel wants to kill herself. In an age where everyone googles everyone else to find out everything about them, it feels a bit weak that the main characters wouldn’t have had that conversation before they actually do. The author does address it – “I’m pretty sure that a basic google search would have given him an inkling. There aren’t many Turkish people in Langston, let alone Kentucky” – but it still didn’t ring too true. I also felt the ending was sewn up a little too neatly for my adult tastes. That said, it’s a very solid YA read.

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/10/13/my-heart-and-other-black-holes-a-great-ya-issues-novel

Enduring Love; a huge letdown

Enduring Love - Ian McEwan

I’m a tremendous fan of Ian McEwan’s books (particularly On Chesil Beach and The Comfort of Strangers) but this was a huge letdown. It has a wonderful plot; a couple are on a picnic on a very windy day when they see a hot air balloon that is in trouble. A young boy is stuck inside the basket, his grandfather has fallen out and everyone in the vicinity desperately tries to grab hold before the balloon blows away…


I’m rather partial to literary books but this one felt like it was trying too hard. It came across as a bit pompous in tone, which I couldn’t remember or hadn’t noticed in his other books. It was distracting. The book was strongest when discussing the breakdown of the couple’s relationship (McEwan is really wonderful at nailing human emotions and antagonism between people) but it didn’t deliver on the fear factor that he has really conveyed in his other work.


I very rarely say this but watch the film instead. It’s much better.

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/10/06/enduring-love-a-huge-letdown

Everything I Never Told You; a solid but not earth-shattering debut

Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng

I’ve read a lot of books lately that involve a missing person (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, The Girl on the Train) butEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is actually less about how the girl in question, Lydia, has disappeared and focuses more on the family she has left behind. It’s well written and hooked me from the beginning, but it lacked the punchiness of Beside Ourselves (which uses such wonderful language) or the strong narrative of Girl on the Train (with its complicated characters and wonderfully unreliable narrator).


Everything I Never Told You is as much about raising children successfully as anything else. The questions it asks are profound and relevant, notably how far parents should live vicariously through their kids, pushing them towards things they didn’t have or couldn’t do as children themselves. It touches on how far we are shaped by being different (they are the only mixed race family in the neighbourhood in 1970s Ohio) and how we yearn to fit in, and the complicated decisions we make as a result. It’s her first novel – I look forward to reading her second – and a solid, but not earth-shattering debut.


Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Taken from my blog www.ellenallen.co 
Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/09/28/everything-i-never-told-you-a-solid-but-not-earth-shattering-debut

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; terribly good and terribly sad

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

When I started reading this book about a family member, Fern, who has evidently gone missing or died, I really liked how it didn’t start with how she had disappeared or when. The narrator, Rosemary, is Fern’s sister and she begins the story half-way through (running us through events that happen after Fern’s disappearance). I thought this was a really smart approach; a very unique and powerful way of letting us learn about her family and investing in them, before the inevitable bombshell. As it turns out, it’s actually a necessary plot device or else the story wouldn’t have worked so well (it would be a big spoiler to say why…).


I’ve seen the book everywhere of course (who hasn’t?) but I was very happy not to have known anything about it. I understand why it’s been so successful. It’s very well written. Fowler has a beautiful way with words and descriptions, particular concerning the relationship between Rosemary and Fern. It’s a very sad book about how a family falls apart after a devastating experience, but it’s also very different to other books in this genre (for reasons that become apparent a third of the way through). The blurb says that the book really makes the reader think about what it means to be “human” and it’s true. It also made me think about how it’s sometimes the small things we do and importantly, our reactions to them, that are sometimes the things that can have the biggest ramifications. It also touches on important issues concerning science and terrorism.


I think it’s a little long, but incredibly good and terribly sad. Well worth a read.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/09/22/we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves-terribly-good-and-terribly-sad

And The Mountains Echoed; different and full of pathos

And the Mountains Echoed - Khaled Hosseini

I found And The Mountains Echoed on my kindle when I was stuck waiting to pass through the Channel Tunnel last month and I’d got through 60% of it by the time I got home. I don’t normally like books that change the protagonist throughout and this was no exception; I sighed every time I had to refocus into a new character with a completely different perspective. That said, it’s a lovely book, providing insights into an Afghanistan we don’t normally hear about; normal life under decades of upheaval. The stories are touching although I wasn’t as riveted as I had been with The Kite Runner.


Hosseini is a great writer. One of the characters, Idris, meets a little girl called Roshi in a hospital in Afghanistan who has suffered a terrible injury at the hands of her uncle and has nothing. He’s sickened by how much he’s spending on a new home cinema in his house in the US and feels sure he could do something for her instead. The few pages where he returns home to his family and readjusts into American life are so powerful… the way he convinces himself that he deserves the cinema, how hard he has worked, how far away she is, how he cannot really help… devastatingly full of pathos.


Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/09/15/and-the-mountains-echoed-a-different-kind-of-story-full-of-pathos

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave; a thoughtful introduction to WW1

Stay Where You Are And Then Leave - John Boyne

John Boyne’s book, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is not meant for adults – it’s a little too simplistic – but it’s a really thoughtful introduction for a younger YA audience to World War 1. It follows little Alfie (aged 5) and how he deals with his Dad’s departure to fight on the first day of World War 1 and his realisation four years later that his Dad has actually been injured and is very sick. Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas about the friendship between two boys at a concentration camp (one the son of a Nazi officer and the other an inmate) and he shows the same thoughtfulness with difficult issues in this book. I was tearful within ten minutes of picking it up; it definitely pulls at you a little but in a gentle, inoffensive way. Definitely one to be re-read with my daughter in a couple of years time.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/08/24/stay-where-you-are-and-then-leave-a-thoughtful-intro-to-ww1

The Weight of Water; a charming, poignant ditty

The Weight of Water by Crossan, Sarah (2013) Paperback - Sarah Crossan

I picked up The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan, in my local library whilst getting some books for my daughter; I was attracted to the cover by Oliver Jeffers, a kids’ author I have long admired (if you are ever stuck for a toddler’s present, you can never go wrong with How to Catch a Star or Lost and Found – they are true gems).


It tells the story of Kasienka, a Polish immigrant, arriving in Coventry with her mum, looking for their father. That sounds heavy, but that’s the wonder of this book; it deals with some very heavy issues – bullying, fitting in, immigration, growing up, first love – in a very light, touching and accessible way, written in – wait for it – poetry (but you don’t even notice the poetry, except how it helps to describe and punctuate Kasienka’s feelings).


Her writing skills are a real marvel; I was amazed at how she manages to fit everything in this slight book and was so surprised to find a charming, poignant, coming of age story. Lovely.


Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/08/10/the-weight-of-water-a-charming-poignant-ditty

The Mayor of Casterbridge; a depressing masterclass from Hardy

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy, Keith Wilson

I read a little Hardy when I was at university but after reading Jude the Obscure and being completely depressed, I gave him up. I like real life, but he’s always so, well, downbeat. Now with the release of Far From the Madding Crowd and having seen the stylish BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I opened the first page of The Mayor of Casterbridge and got a shock. It was a true masterclass in how to hook a reader; a man fed up with his wife and child, and very drunk, auctions them off to the highest bidder in a bar. He wakes up hours later slumped on the very same bar stool, only to realise that his wife and child did actually go with the man, in exchange for 5 pounds. Years later, he has worked his way up to become the Mayor of a town called Casterbridge, when his wife and child re-emerge. And so begins his downfall…


It was a depressing read, as I expected it to be, but at least this one had the remnants of happiness in places for some of the other characters (it’s no spoiler to know that the mayor, Henchard, meets an unhappy ending). Surprisingly, I thought the female characters were a little more drawn out than the male. I wanted to know more about what drove Henchard to do what he did and what he felt as a result. The same was true of his nemesis, Donald Farfrae, a man who we follow but never really understand in the same way as the women who love and are loved by them.


He’s obviously a very good writer and it’s a good introduction to Hardy’s work because it’s not quite so depressing and short-ish enough to know if you want to read on…


This is taken from my blog at ellenallen.co

Like this? I occasionally send out newsletters full of useful writing advice and reading titbits. If you want to receive them, click HERE to subscribe.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/07/30/the-mayor-of-casterbridge-a-depressing-masterclass-from-hardy

Sharp objects; mesmerising, malevolent and bloody brilliant

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn

There’s a point in Sharp Objects when one of the characters, the youngest daughter of three, asks her mother which of her children she loves the most; she’s trying to assuage her fears that she can’t possibly be loved the best, that the first or second born must be the preferred children. Gone Girl is Gillian Flynn’s “third child”, her third book, and the best known and loved, but it’s Sharp Objects that does it for me.


I’ve been working my way through Gillian Flynn‘s back catalogue – Gone Girl then Dark Places – but Sharp Objects is definitely my favourite. A problem with writing horror/ thriller/ suspense, is that once the book barrels towards the end, you generally know who might be the killer and the book falls flat as the author ties up all the loose ends (and thrillers generally have tons of loose ends in explaining the hows, the wheres, the whys, etc.) This didn’t. Despite it being about the manhunt for the killer of two dead girls, it wasn’t an unrealistic gorefest. It was very menacing (listening to it in the dark in my bed meant on a couple of occasions I had to actually turn on the lights because I was a bit scared). A feeling that was only heightened by feeling completely sympathetic to the central character, a broken mess of a woman, whom I really cared about.


If you love sick, twisted thrillers, then her two other plots are great in their own rights but I think this one is more taut and the most sinister. Moreover, the way she writes about this f*$cked up, small town and its inhabitants who have been stewing for too long, is just fantastic. The descriptions of feelings, the people and their behaviour, puts her right at the top of her game: “There was nothing I wanted to do more than be unconscious again, wrapped in black, gone away. I was raw. I felt swollen with potential tears, like a water balloon filled to burst. Begging for a pin prick.”


A menacing, mesmerising thriller that I relished in the dark, that I didn’t want to end.

Source: http://ellenallen.co/2015/07/28/sharp-objects-mesmerising-malevolent-and-bloody-brilliant