Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny


standard deviation by katherine heineyIt’s not often that I feel so unstrongly about a book that I don’t know what to write. But that’s where I am with Standard Deviation.

Graham is an executive who lives in New York. He is married to Audra, but was once married to Elspeth. Audra is an uber-extrovert with no filter, Elspeth icy and reserved. Graham is somewhere in-between. When Elspeth comes back into this life he muses a lot on the nature of his relationships with the two women.

Later on the focus shifts more to his feelings for his young son who has Asperger’s and a passionate interest in origami. He worries that he will never make friends or feel secure in social settings. But when his son joins an origami club, it is suddenly he who belongs and his parents who feel excluded.

And so it goes on. There some amusing vignettes that are moderately thought-provoking. Where am I on the introvert-extrovert continuum? I never knew origami was so complicated. Would Graham really be attracted to two such different women when in real life people tend to recreate the same kind of relationship, for better or for worse, over and over again?

The structure of the book is slightly odd. It reads more like a series of connected stories. In fact what it feels most like is a TV sitcom, one where each episode has its arc and then everything goes back to pretty much where it was. The children are a little older, the annoying neighbour may have been written out, but the characters are fundamentally unaltered by events of the recent past.

It also has a lot of set-piece scenes which are similar – particularly the ones that involve a group of ill-matched people sitting down for a meal. Again, this is something that happens in TV (pretty much every episode of Gavin and Stacey was premised on the two families meeting for a party on a flimsy pretext) but this book is different from a TV comedy is that it’s not that funny. It’s more wry smile than belly laugh.

A novel needs narrative drive. Standard Deviation is well written, engaging and with some sharp observation but I’m afraid it dragged for me.

I received a copy of Standard Deviation from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Standard Deviation on Goodreads

Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

neurotribes by steve silbermanNeurotribes opens with a question – why is autism suddenly so visible? From popular culture to the children of the author’s contacts in Silicon Valley, he keeps hearing about autism. He sets out to discover why.

His quest takes in the history of our understanding of autism, the reasons for the increase in the diagnosis and the changing experiences and treatment of autistic people.

Neurotribes is written with the pace of a thriller, and vividly brings to life academic rivalries, tabloid panics and science fiction fandom. Interspersed are the stories of the people the author has encountered along the way – autistic people, their families and carers, clinicians and writers, and even movie stars.

Parts of the book are very dark, including the accounts of institutionalisation of people dismissed as ‘feeble-minded’ and the horrors of Nazism. It is a timely reminder that Hitler was not an aberration but a man who exploited ideas which were widely articulated in Europe and the US at the time.

A running theme through the book is the tension between those who think that autistic people need to be ‘cured’ and those who think that society benefits from the strengths of autistic people and should accommodate their particular needs. The book ends on a positive note as it discusses the self-advocacy movement and profiles autistic people who have found their own ways to live fulfilling lives.

I found Neurotribes a fascinating and moving read.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Neurotribes on Goodreads

For a different perspective on this book, read Calmgrove’s review

Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 is launched

Adverbially Challenged 2I am very pleased to be included in the latest Adverbially Challenged anthology, which is published on Thursday 30 March.

I don’t normally write flash fiction, although I enjoy reading it, but I couldn’t resist this challenge – to write a story of 100 words containing as many adverbs as possible.

Every writing workshop or ‘how to write’ manual or blog will tell you not to use adverbs, for good reason. Beginner authors invariably (see what I did there?) overuse them. I blame primary school teachers (sorry, Mrs Fry). We are encouraged to use adverbs in sentences as children to develop our language skills and our understanding. For many of us, the habit sticks.

I’m a big fan of breaking the rules as a writing exercise. (One idea I have had in the back of my mind for years is to try and write a story that subverts all of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing.) Breaking the rules forces you to think creatively. In this case – when are adverbs effective in fiction?

I tried to use them to counter expectations. No one needs to know that someone is smiling ‘happily’, but what if they’re smiling ‘icily’? I haven’t seen an advance copy of the book, so I’m looking forward to seeing how other writers interpreted the challenge and will write about it in a later post.

Profits from sales of the anthology will be donated to First Story. The charity brings talented professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities. They work with teachers and students to develop their creativity and communication skills.

It’s great to think that this anthology will help another generation of children learn how (not) to use adverbs!

Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 is edited by Christopher Fielden and was the idea of Mike Scott Thomson, who wrote the introduction to the book. Chris features many more writing challenges on his website, all for charity. I enjoyed writing mine, so why not have a go?

You can buy Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.

Family Money by Nina Bawden

family money by nina bawdenA London property bubble, impoverished hospitals, worries about care in old age – this novel, published in 1991, feels oddly topical.

Family Money is the story of recently widowed Fanny (her name perhaps the one thing that dates it). Returning from an evening out, she becomes involved in a violent incident. She is injured and has little memory of what has occurred.

Her children, solicitous of her (or perhaps her half-a-million-pound house) try to make plans for her. Fanny, however, has ideas of her own, as well as a mutual fascination with an enigmatic young man living on the canal at the end of her garden which only grows as her memory returns.

Bawden takes an unflinching look at her characters with their assumptions and their self-justification. They are privileged but they are also needy. She is not afraid to mock them but there is compassion too, and a warm, understated humour.

Fanny negotiates her physical weakness and her erratic memory with dignity and irony. She looks back with a clear eye at the life she has led and the trials she may face.

Superficially this is a domestic tale of the moneyed upper-middle classes. It would be easy to ask, who cares? But this apparently simple story, lightly told, is beautifully structured.

It asks questions about age, class, morality, mortality, friendship and love, all in less than 300 pages of crisp, cool prose. And there’s a nice little twist at the end.

View Family Money on Goodreads

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

excellent womenPeople have been telling me to read Barbara Pym ever since my English teacher first recommended her, but I didn’t till now, put off by the subject matter.

Excellent Women has the most unpromising of heroines – not only that despised creature, a spinster, but a vicar’s daughter as well. She is living in dowdy post-war Britain, eking out a small income in a flat with a shared bathroom, living on plain food. She passes her time in working for a charity for distressed gentlewomen and making herself indispensable to the local church.

And yet Mildred – or Miss Lathbury as she is mostly known – is a little more complex than that. She is a shrewd observer of character with a sharp sense of humour ‘I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person’.

Mildred’s predictable life is changed by the arrival of the Napiers in the downstairs flat. Helena Napier has a career as an anthropologist. Rockingham is a handsome Naval officer (though he spent the War in Italy organising the Admiral’s cocktail parties and being charming to Wrens). Helena goes to meetings and even pubs with other men. Rockingham likes to cook. They both have a disconcerting tendency to say what they think, without consideration of others. They are both glamorous and disturbing to Mildred, overturning, as they do, the assumptions of her upbringing.

Mildred finds herself embroiled in the Napiers’ dramas at the same time as an attractive widow arrives in the parish and disturbs its delicate balance of roles and obligations.

There is a pleasing ambiguity to Mildred’s character – she is a vicar’s daughter, but she has moved to London after their deaths. She worked in Censorship during the war. Many other women in that position took the opportunity to break with their past as they lived independently and earned their own income. But Mildred has, in a sense, recreated her family by making the local vicar and his sister her closest friends.

Mildred remains, even when the plot is resolved, elusive. She is stoical, self aware and full of barbed humour. Is she, as a single woman who makes herself indispensable to others, to be pitied, admired or envied? Does she like to be always close to the drama but detached, able to walk away unscathed, or is she scarred by heartbreak? Will she choose to change her life?

The novel beautifully evokes post-war London. The grimness of Mildred’s daily routine is not due to poverty but to the after-effects of the war. There is a kind of equality in the bleakness. Even the Napiers have to negotiate arrangements for the sharing of toilet roll and are limited to rationed food. The rules of engagement between the classes and between men and women are in flux.

Mildred too is a character of her time. We learn little about her sexuality. What, if anything, does she long for? There is little sense that she seeks, or experiences, pleasure. A planned holiday is, it seems neither anticipated nor much enjoyed when it arrives. It is just there to be got through. But what we might once have called repressed, now might seem refreshing. Mildred doesn’t expect life to be awesome with multiple exclamation marks. Or to advertise the fact. She just gets on with it.

View Excellent Women on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Try my review of The Maiden Dinosaur by Janet McNeill


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

before the fallIn The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis explains how psychologists Kahneman and Frederickson demonstrated the peak-end rule – that when we remember an experience we give undue prominence to how it ends. And that’s why I’m probably going to be more critical of this book than it deserves.

Scott is a not-quite-successful artist spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard when he is offered a lift back to New York on the private plane of an acquaintance. She is married to the plane’s owner, who runs a right-wing cable network. Also travelling are their two children, their friend, a hedge fund billionaire and his wife, and the crew and security staff.

The plane crashes over the water, and only Scott and four-year-old JJ survive. The rest of the book follows the story of Scott after the crash interspersed with flashbacks to the stories of the other characters immediately before the flight. Scott has to come to terms with his own experience, his new found celebrity, and the ongoing investigation. Meanwhile we try and get a sense of what might have happened in the past to lead to this horrific event.

The endings to the two stories are also intercut: the revelation about the last moments of the plane and a denouement in the present for Scott. The problem for me is that it becomes clear what has happened to the plane some time earlier, both because of the way the story is structured and through some over-zealous seeding. I kept hoping it was ingenious misdirection and there would be some other, more brilliant revelation that I hadn’t even thought of, but there wasn’t. Or that perhaps the ‘who’ was obvious, but the ‘why’ surprisingly complex, but that wasn’t it either.

So we find out (or have confirmed) whodunnit just as there is a more interesting story developing in the present, but then the narrative breaks away to the past, to give you the back story of the crash (which is just exposition now) and your eyes are skimming and it’s not raising the tension, it’s just slowing things down, and then you get back to the present drama and it’s all a bit rushed and confused and then it’s the end. And you suspect it’s the author who’s in a hurry, rather than the characters.

The sad thing is that this then leads me to think of other things that I might have let pass, like the fact that the cable TV mogul and the hedge fund billionaire are quite stereotypical (which may be realistic but isn’t good drama) or that the characters all come with backstories too neatly formulated to suggest they could be either perpetrator or target of the plane crash (which is good drama but not realistic). Or the fact that all the women in the story are only there because of their relationship to the male protagonists, and it feels like the author’s default setting rather than social commentary.

So here is the nice bit after the negativity. Scott is a great character. I did find myself really engaged in his story. The author has some interesting things to say about the nature of perception and reality and I really enjoyed the contrasting world-views of Scott the artist and Gus, the engineer who is called on to investigate the crash, a man on his own journey towards realising that not everything in life can be quantified. The author has a real sympathy for the vulnerable, and a sense of significance of small interactions between characters. His drawing of the relationship between Scott and JJ is particularly moving.

The aftermath of the crash, when Scott and JJ are in the water, is  gripping and beautifully written. You’re immersed in the Atlantic cold, the fog, the sense of dislocation, as you wonder, what would I do? How would I cope? How can they possibly get out of this?

I’m glad they made it. I just wish it hadn’t ended that way…

I received a copy of Before the Fall from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Before the Fall on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Try my review of The Nix by Nathan Hill.

Learning from Baby P by Sharon Shoesmith

learning-from-baby-pOver Christmas I turned on the radio halfway through an interview with Eddie Mair on Radio 4. I didn’t know who he was speaking to but she was making some important and insightful comments about child protection and more broadly, society’s conflicted attitude to children. It was only after some time that I realised Mair was speaking to Sharon Shoesmith, who was Director of Children’s Services in Haringey at the time of Peter Connelly’s death. I’m glad I didn’t know who it was because I was able to listen with an open mind. The interview made me want to read Learning from Baby P.

Peter Connelly was 17 months old when he died with horrific injuries. He was known to social workers, medical staff and police. Subsequently his mother, her boyfriend and his brother were convicted of ‘causing or allowing’ his death.

Learning from Baby P is based on Shoesmith’s PhD thesis on the political, social and cultural response to the death of Peter Connelly (initially known only as Baby P for legal reasons). While she explains the theoretical underpinnings of her work, the book is written for the general reader.

She outlines the political and practice framework in force at the time. There was a model of child protection based on ‘predict and prevent’ – a belief that we could stop children being harmed as long as the correct procedures were followed.

Shoesmith argues that this is not realistic. There is risk and there is uncertainty. Uncertainty is not quantifiable, and it frightens us. It is easy to look at a case with hindsight and see what might have been done differently, but that is not the same as saying the outcome could have been predicted or prevented.

Such a model also provides a false sense of security for social workers. If you have followed all the procedures then you have done the right thing. If anything happens you won’t be to blame. In fact, official reports suggest that social workers at Haringey Council were following procedures and yet took the fall for failings in Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Metropolitan Police.

Shoesmith asks what it was about this death in particular that led to such a public outcry. Although there is no single source for statistics on child deaths (which in itself says something about society’s priorities) the data we have indicate that there were 57 deaths by familial child homicide (non-accidental deaths) in the year Peter Connelly died. Why did this one attract such attention? Horrifying as the details were, it was unfortunately not unique.

Shoesmith considers this in a chapter which deals chronologically with the political and media fallout after the verdict in the Baby P case. We see the opportunism of then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron and the political manoeuvrings of the man we have since come to think of as that nice Ed Balls from Strictly, but who at the time was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The Sun editor at the time, Rebekah Brooks, launched a campaign and petition which succeeded in dictating government policy, including the sacking of Shoesmith and frontline staff. (Shoesmith subsequently won an appeal against the sacking.)

Police briefed against social workers and criticism was focused on Haringey Council, which Shoesmith argues was particularly vulnerable because of its identification with the Left and a previous high-profile child death, that of Victoria Climbié. Particularly disturbing is the evidence she has uncovered that Ed Balls’ department was involved in drafting supposedly independent reports and ensuring the outcome that suited their political agenda.

One thing that I was not aware of was that there has never been an inquest into Peter Connelly’s death. The decision was taken on the basis of the number of investigations that had already been carried out, but as Shoesmith states, these were about the roles of the various professionals and agencies, rather than the death itself. Nor has anyone spoken to the three people convicted. What might we have learnt if they had been interviewed? Despite all the thousands of pages that have been written, we still don’t know exactly how or why Peter Connelly died.

Cases like Peter Connelly’s are so shocking and outside most of our experience that we can’t bear to think it is happening. We want social workers to make it all go away and we are angry when they are unable to do so. Blaming individuals reassures us that there is a solution to the problem, that the failings are theirs, and that we are not responsible.

In the Eddie Mair interview, Shoesmith talks about the increasing number of children going into care. There were 50,000 when Peter Connelly died, and there are 70,000 now. If this rate of increase continues, it could be 100,000 by 2020. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? We aren’t even asking the question.

I received a copy of Learning from Baby P from the publisher.
View Learning from Baby P on Goodreads

Want to know more? You can listen to the full Eddie Mair interview with Sharon Shoesmith on BBC iPlayer