Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Big Brother’ by Lionel Shriver


Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 384 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In Lionel Shriver’s last novel, So Much For That, she poked a big fat stick at the American healthcare system and highlighted all the things that were wrong with it. In her latest book, Big Brother, she picks up another stick, but this time she pokes it at the American diet to show how obesity — and an unhealthy obsession with food — can ruin lives.

Big, fat brother

The story is narrated by forty-something Pandora, a successful entrepreneur, who is married with two step-children. When she goes to the airport to collect Edison, her brother, a famous jazz musician whom she has not seen for more than four years, she does not recognise him because he’s packed on so much weight.

During his visit it becomes increasingly clear that Edison has a real problem with food — but no one is prepared to tackle him about the subject, not even Pandora’s health-obsessed, cycling-freak of a husband, Fletcher, who can’t stand watching the man stuff his face with food at every opportunity.

Eventually, things come to a head as Edison outstays his welcome and breaks a precious piece of furniture — by sitting on it. That’s when Pandora puts her own marriage on the line by offering to help her big — in all senses of the word — brother lose weight by setting him up in his own cottage nearby, living with him and managing his food and fitness regime 24/7 as a kind of personal trainer cum food Nazi. But the question is: can he shift all 223 pounds in a year?

Issues-based novel

Unsurprisingly for a Lionel Shriver novel, Big Brother is an issues-based story. Not only does it highlight the health problems — diabetes, stroke, fluid retention and so on — associated with obesity, but it explores the social and psychological problems arising from being seriously overweight — and it does so in an intelligent, thought-provoking and informed way.

And while the characters are wonderfully realised — Edison is painfully egotistical, Pandora is convincingly torn between her brother and her own family, Fletcher is annoying in a morally smug “I only eat brown rice and broccoli” kind of way — there’s not much light relief (sorry, another pun) in this book. I found myself becoming weighed (oops) down by the unrelenting nature of it all. But perhaps that’s a strength too, because Shriver explores the issue from all possible angles, providing plenty of food for thought (oops, I did it again).

At its most basic level, Big Brother is a story about sibling love — and rivalry — told in Shriver’s typically searing take-no-prisoners style. It’s filled with tension, brims with anger and packs a powerful punch — although the twist at the end makes it feel less like a punch and more like a raspberry being blown in your face. Still, if you’re looking for something meaty to get your teeth into… I’ll stop now, shall I?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2010

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when everyone shares their best reads of 2010.

I’ve read so many wonderful books this year that I’ve narrowed it down by only including novels, as opposed to novellas or non-fiction titles.

Here’s my list (in alphabetical order by book title — click on the book’s title to see my review in full:



Beijing Coma

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.


‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke (2010)

The Canal might be a book about boredom, but there’s little or no risk of evoking that emotional state in the reader. This is a novel pulsing with ideas and theories (and lots of facts about London, if you’re that way inclined), and one that’s likely to tell you more about the human condition than any textbook possibly could.


‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett (2003)

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence.


‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue (2010)

The novel, which is Donoghue’s seventh, is an extraordinarily atmospheric read. I use the term ‘atmospheric’ to describe the feelings it evokes in the reader and the ways in which those feelings linger for days afterwards. I found myself not so much reeling in its wake but feeling as if something had shifted inside of me, so that I could no longer perceive the world in the same way.


‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter (2009)

I think the funniest thing about the book (and admittedly the first half is more hilarious than the second half) is the way in which it pokes fun at Britain’s upper-classes. Their eccentricities, the ways in which they run their households and conduct their lives all come in for more than their fair share of ribbing.


‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett (2008)

I have not read anything quite as haunting as this strangely beautiful book. It’s a novel that is full of contradictions: it brims with sexual tension, and yet contains no sex; it is filled with death, and yet no one is murdered; it’s repetitious to the point of being dull, and yet features some of the most exciting and heart-hammering scenes you will ever read.

The Slap

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The Slap is by no means a perfect novel — sometimes the writing feels forced, especially when sketching in the back story for individual characters, and I suspect the numerous music references are going to date it quickly — but its ambition, its scope and the sheer force of the story-telling more than makes up for this. It’s a very bold book, full of sex, drugs, middle-aged angst and a lot of crude language.


‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver (2010)

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.


‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean (2006)

What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.


‘This is How’ by MJ Hyland (2010)

This Is How is far from a cheery read. Despite the loathsome character at its heart, it’s strangely compelling. It’s dark, disturbing and filled with pathos, but it is exactly this kind of exploration of a fragile mind that everyone should read, not because it offers condemnation, but because it does the opposite: illuminates and educates.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver


Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 464 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Author Lionel Shriver never shies away from exploring big moral questions in her writing. In her Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) she examined the nature versus nurture debate and posed one of the most alarming questions it is possible to pose: should a mother be blamed if her son murders his fellow classmates?

In The Post-Birthday World (2007) she looked at domestic security versus a life of adventure, and asked whether it was possible to lead a happier life by choosing passion over love.

In So Much For That, her latest novel due for UK release next week, she asks the biggest question of them all: how much money is one life worth? If you had the chance to lead a different, more fulfilling, life, even if it meant you wouldn’t earn much money, would you take it? Or, to put it more bluntly, if you were to get sick, how much would you be prepared to pay for medical treatment, even if you weren’t quite sure the medical treatment would work?

The story begins with Shepherd Knacker, a hardworking family man, announcing that he has an adventure in store for Glynis, his wife of 26 years, and Zach, his 16-year-old son. With almost a million dollars in his bank account (created by selling his handyman business and his house several years earlier), he’s just bought them all one-way air tickets to a tropical island off the coast of Africa. Here, free from the trappings of modern day America, the family will live in relative comfort — and obscurity — for the rest of their lives.

But sadly, this life-long dream cannot be fulfilled. Glynis has an announcement of her own: she has an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer.

The book, which is set largely in New York in 2005, follows the ups and downs of Glynis’ treatment and the ensuing outfall amongst family and friends, while Shep’s million dollar bank account shrinks to the point of no return. But Shriver is clever, and weaves two other stories, which also explore the moral question of a life’s worth, into the narrative — and to hammer the point home even more heavily, she has the Terry Schiavo case, in which lawyers argue whether Ms Schiavo, who lies in a persistent vegetative state, should be disconnected from her life support system, playing out in the background.

The first strand involves Shep’s best friend, Jackson, a man who rails against big government and spends most of his time ranting and raving about all the taxes he has to pay. Happily married to Carol, he has two children: Flicka, a feisty intelligent teenager, who was born with a rare genetic disorder (familial dysautonomia) which requires constant medical attention, and a younger daughter, Heather, who is put on a sugar-based placebo in order to “not feel left out”. As if his coping with his daughter’s illness is not enough, midway through the story, Jackson himself, falls prey to a botched operation for which he must pay in more ways than one.

The second strand involves the care of Shep’s elderly father, who is no longer able to look after himself. Despite the fact he’s lead a productive life, paid his taxes and owns his own home, the government won’t foot the bill for his assisted care. It is up to Shep to fund the shortfall. Given he’s also paying for his wife’s cancer treatment, his cash-strapped sister’s fuel bills and his adult daughter’s rent, is it any wonder he’s hurtling towards bankruptcy?

This might all sound like depressing stuff. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the book is just a thinly veiled excuse for Shriver to have a pop at the American medical and taxation system. But to interpret So Much For That as mere polemic is to miss the point. Yes, there are times when the dialogue reads like political venting, but there’s a bigger picture to focus on here (it’s important to note that the novel is set before the credit crunch, Obama’s presidency and his current health care bill reforms).

Just as Helen Garner’s Spare Room looked at the impact of cancer on a friendship, So Much For That looks at cancer’s impact on a marriage. And it examines how the trappings of modern life, with its heavy emphasis on consumerism and property ownership, counts for almost nothing when your health — and your life — is at stake.

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.

None of the characters are particularly likable: Glynis is spiky, bad-tempered and infuriatingly bad-mannered throughout; Jackson rants too much; Flicka is irritatingly obnoxious; and Shep, while sympathetically drawn, lets everyone treat him life a doormat and never calls anyone on their shit. But my god, they feel like real flesh-and-blood people, the kind who you probably work with or live next door to. Yes, they make mistakes, yes, they make morally dubious decisions, and yes, they fail to take responsibility for much of their actions. But I enjoyed being in their company and was sad when it all came to an end. Mind you, the book’s got a terrific conclusion that poses an entirely new set of moral questions. But I guess it wouldn’t be a Shriver novel without being fierce and intelligent, and fiercely intelligent all at the same time.

I know it probably seems uncanny to read such a brilliant novel so soon after Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, but Shriver’s So Much For That deserves just as much attention — and acclaim.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2007

Books-of-the-yearYes, it’s that time of year again, time to look back on 12 months’ worth of reading to see what stands out and to choose 10 titles as my favourite novels for 2007.

It’s been a weird year, not least because my professional life got ratcheted up a few gears in May and the pace has been fairly relentless ever since. This means my reading (and blogging) time has been seriously curtailed, but I’ve still managed to devour at least one book a week.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title):

Between Two Rivers by Nicholas Rinaldi (2005)
‘One of those rare novels that takes a simple premise — the lives of the residents in a tower block in downtown Manhattan — and turns it into something truly special, in prose that is, by turn, elegant and shocking, eerie and mesmerising.’

Digging to America by Anne Tyler (2007)
‘While there is no real storyline to speak of, Tyler is able to explore two different views of America — the insider’s and the outsider’s — with tenderness and insight.’

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
‘Amid the dark, often depressing, subject matter there are chinks of light that make the novel surprisingly witty and, in a perverse kind of way, uplifting.’

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti (2003)
‘A delicious treat, one that transports the reader back to that time when the adult world was incomprehensible and the best thing about life was riding your bicycle throughout the long, hot school holidays that lay ahead every summer.’

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (2007)
‘A remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss.’

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (2007)
‘A fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs.’

Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
‘A very cerebral book (quite clever when you consider that the lead character makes his living operating on people’s brains) until you come to the unexpected, and somewhat shocking climax, which takes the action up a gear or two.’

Strangers by Taichi Yamada (2005)
‘One of those beguiling tales told in simple, hypnotic prose.’

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2003)
‘A beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.’

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany (2007)
‘A powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but also an entertaining and enlightening one.’

What books did you fall in love with this year?

10 books, Book lists

10 books that are harrowing

10-booksWe’ve all been there. Read a book and wept buckets over it. Or emerged from the story feeling completely shattered, as if the world has slightly tilted on its axis and we’re left standing on shaky ground.

I love reading books that make me think, that take me out of my comfortable existence and leave a lasting impression. Harrowing books, ones that are slightly distressing to read for one reason or another — maybe because the characters do terrible things, lead  distressing lives or are confronted by extraordinarily heartbreaking circumstances — reveal the power of literature to move, transform and educate us in ways we may never have expected when we first cracked open the pages.

Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I truly love books, whether fiction or non-fiction, that leave me feeling slightly devastated when I get to the last page. As we all know, reading is a deeply personal experience, and sometimes it’s nice to have almost tangible evidence of the journeys we’ve experienced in our mind’s eye.

While I realise not everyone likes a harrowing read, sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit. If you want some help deciding what might be worth a try, here’s my top 10 harrowing books (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

There’s nothing like a war novel to take the reader out of their comfort zone and into an almost unimaginable world of death, horror and destruction. A Long, Long Way, shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, is an unbearably sad read about an Irish soldier caught between two wars: the Great War and the Irish War of Independence. I read most of the book with a lump in my throat. But while the scenes on the battlefield are stomach-churningingly gruesome and harrowing, this is a beautifully written book that is also deeply moving.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Like A Long, Long Way, this is another book set during the Great War, but this one is told from a German perspective. The brilliance of this book is that it does not romanticise war in any way. It shows in clear, concise language what trench warfare was really like, and how young, innocent and patriotic young men became transformed by their experiences — and not necessarily for the better. Above all, All Quiet on the Western Front exposes the utter futility and pointlessness of war. I came away from this book feeling completely bereft, distressed by the knowledge that we don’t seem to have learnt a thing. Who says history does not repeat?

‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (not reviewed on blog)

This is the true story of Belfast-born Brian Keenan’s capture by Shi’ite militiamen when he was a teacher in Beirut in the 1980s. He was kept hostage for four-and-a-half years. I read the book not long after publication, back in 1991, and I remember it having a strong, long-lasting impact on me. How one man could survive such brutal treatment for so long without going completely insane was simply beyond my comprehension.

‘Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell’ by Gitta Sereny (not reviewed on blog)

This non-fiction book is probably the most profound true story I have ever read. It changed my entire outlook on child criminals, how they should be treated and who should be held responsible. It looks at the case of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old girl who was convicted of the manslaughter of two young boys (aged 4 and 3) in 1968. Sereny, an amazingly talented journalist who has devoted most of her life to exploring the reasons why people do bad, immoral things, interviews Mary as an adult about her experiences. It is a deeply chilling, life-changing read. In my opinion it should be compulsory reading for every parent, teacher and social worker.

‘Due Preparations for the Plague’ by Janette Turner Hospital

Anyone who has a fear of flying should probably not read this novel by Australian author Janette Turner Hospital. The central focus of the story is the hijack of an Air France plane in which the terrorists keep ten hostages as a negotiating card. It’s a truly electrifying read, one that resulted in the hair on the back of my neck standing on end on more than one occasion. It certainly fed my paranoia for awhile there, and to this day I start to feel on edge whenever any plane I’m in sits on the tarmac longer than it should…

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver (not reviewed on blog)

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read this book and not felt absolutely devastated by the end? This one had such a profound effect on me when I read it in 2005 that I wasn’t able to write a review. I just didn’t know how to put into words the deep impact the storyline had had on me. It wasn’t the horrific Columbine-style school massacre that evoked such strong feelings, rather it was the whole nature versus nurture debate and whether career women can, in fact, make good mothers. Reading groups must have a field day with this one!

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (not reviewed on blog)

For a long time, I regarded The Butcher Boy as my favourite book. I think this was mainly due to the fact that up until that point (I was about 23) I had never read anything like it: there’s very limited punctuation, little separation between dialogue and thought, and the narrator, Francie Brady, is a young boy who is slightly unhinged and commits murder. I saw the movie and thought it was impressive, but it was nowhere near as harrowing as the book. As much as I admire McCabe, I don’t think he’s ever written anything to surpass the remarkable brilliance and dark, disturbing nature of novel which provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer. I still think it should have won the 1992 Booker Prize for which it was shortlisted.

‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern

I have a literary crush on the late John McGahern. This book, his first novel published in 1963, is about a young married Irish woman who discovers she has breast cancer but tries to hide it from those she loves. It is an absolutely heart-breaking read — although punctuated by humour — and it left such an impact I still think about it almost 18 months later. I was so impressed by this one, slim volume I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue.

‘Tatty’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Anyone would think the Irish have a monopoly on rotten childhoods — The Butcher Boy (see above), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down come to mind — but this one  is the first I’ve read from a female perspective. The narrator is a little girl called Tatty, who is caught in the middle of an unravelling marriage between her beloved but reckless father and her depressed, alcoholic mother. Yes, not exactly happy reading. But I loved this book and felt completely bereft when it ended, almost as if Tatty was a real person whom I was desperate to protect…

‘The Endless Steppe’ by Esther Hautzig (not reviewed on blog)

This is a real blast from the past. I read this book when I was 10. My dad brought it for me and I still remember him explaining it was a true story about one girl’s life during the Second World War. It was the true story aspect that got to me. I had recently read Anne Frank, so I guess this was a natural progression, given it’s about 10-year-old Esther Rudomin, who was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1941 with her mother and grandmother. They were shipped by cattle car to a forced-labour camp in Siberia, hence the book’s title. Sounds harrowing for a kid to read, but it taught me a lot about the Holocaust, a subject that has fascinated, enthralled and appalled me ever since.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend as a harrowing read?

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Harper Collins, Lionel Shriver, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Post-Birthday World’ by Lionel Shriver


Fiction – paperback; Harper Collins; 600 pages; 2007.

In Lionel Shriver‘s astonishingly profound novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the American-born London-based author explored the notion of nature versus nurture. It divided readers across the world and became the quintessential book group book, if only because its content stimulated so much discussion. If a student went on a killing spree, was the mother to blame? Or had he simply been born evil?

In her long-awaited follow-up, The Post-Birthday World, Shriver treads less controversial ground but doesn’t shy away from exploring a theme that is likely to generate a similar amount of discussion: is life pre-ordained or do we need to take responsibility for our actions? Is sex or companionship more important in a relationship? And is there such a thing as a perfect partner?

In this accomplished and incredibly well plotted novel we meet Irina McGovern, a children’s book illustrator, who is an expat American living in South London. Every July 6 Irina and her long-term partner, Lawrence, meet an acquaintance, Ramsey Acton, who is a rich and famous snooker player, to celebrate his birthday. It is a once-a-year rendezvous that Irina usually tries to wriggle out of. The one year that Lawrence can’t make it due to a business trip, Irina is left to entertain Ramsey on her own. It is on this particular evening that Irina’s comfortable, if occasionally dull life, cleaves in two.

And this is where Shriver has fun exploring the what ifs. What if Irina kisses Ramsey on this night? And what if she decides to resist temptation?

The Post-Birthday World charts Irina’s life using a parallel universe structure, one in which she chooses to run off with the wild and impetuous Ramsey and the other in which she stays with her dependable, intellectual partner Lawrence. These two worlds are so diametrically opposed — the seedy on-the-road life of the professional snooker player and the closeted, safe and cerebral existence of an academic — that Irina’s decision in anything but a light one. Does she settle for Lawrence’s seeming unwillingness to experiment in bed (he won’t even kiss her) or does she seek the sexual thrills that Ramsey offers? Does she maintain the cosy homelife she shares with Lawrence — who won’t marry her —  or does she embark on a steamy affair that may ultimately end in wedlock?

Irina’s two lives are told in alternate chapters. I initially found this confusing, but once I understood the structure of the book I found that it lent each story an extra depth. This is because much of the dialogue in each “universe” is repeated, although the words don’t necessarily fall out of the same mouths. I can only imagine how much hard work went into plotting and planning this extraordinary novel.

As ever Shriver’s prose is forthright and incisive. The characterisation is superb. Irina is especially compelling, if only because she seems very human — and self-absorbed — and is never quite sure whether she should follow her head or follow her heart.

I loved the setting. The London described in these pages is one I know well (I work in South London), so I had fun spotting the familiar landmarks. And Shriver’s descriptions of snooker, a sport that is peculiarly English, are spot-on. It was a brave decision for an American to write about it, but she handles it with aplomb, even if some of the passages explaining the sport’s history seemed a little laboured.

Unfortunately, Ramsey’s dialect, a kind of contrived Cockney-speak, doesn’t always ring true — he uses words that don’t fit, such as gobshite (which is Irish) and pet (which is from the North) — that suggest Shriver, an American, hasn’t come to terms with native English, or is playing a much cleverer game in which Ramsey is not all that he appears to be. Either way, I found his idiosyncratic speech grated throughout much of the book.

Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed The Post-Birthday World, ripping through its 600 weighty pages in a little under two weeks. It’s a fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs. The ultimate moral of this book is that life is what you make of it. No more, no less.

PS> If you want to know more about snooker, can I suggest you read The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life and Times of Alex Higgins by Bill Burrows. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the sport’s most controversial characters.