A Week at the Airport – Alain de Botton

A Week at the Airport

Alain de Botton

£8.99

Profile Books

Judging by the popularity of the T Mobile advert set in Heathrow, and how Love, Actually starts and finishes with Hugh Grant’s musings in that same (I assume) airport, I’m hardly alone in finding these transportation hubs fascinating. There’s just something about watching people you’ll probably never see again, flying to destinations you’ve never heard of, to do something you’ll never know about. This interest may have led to a minor obsession with attributing random stories to strangers in airports (and on other forms of public transport. People of the UK beware, you’re having new lives created for you). It has also meant that I’ve been interested in reading Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport for some time. So a recent plane flight to New York, flying out of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (in which the book is set) was the perfect motivation to finally get it downloaded.

Shortly after BA’s shiny new terminal opened, Alain de Botton was given unrestricted access to this area of Heathrow as its official ‘Writer in Residence’. Although this was apparently paid for by BAA, reviews suggest that de Botton only undertook the assignment on the basis that his writing couldn’t be censored (though there is really nothing here they’d have wanted to remove, anyway). This short book (it’s just 112 pages. Or, in Kindle terms, your percentage of book read seems to increase with every other click of a page-turning button) focuses on the airport staff, pilots and the passengers on their fleeting (though it might not always seem that way) visits to the terminal. It covers what happens to baggage after check-in, the side of immigration most of us will never see and many other aspects of an airport that would have otherwise passed me – and others, I’m sure – by completely.

This book was my first introduction to Alain de Botton and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Perhaps quite stupidly, de Botton being known for his philosophical style, I wasn’t expecting the book to be quite so, well, philosophical. As such, towards the beginning I wasn’t quite sure whether I liked the book or not. It was certainly interesting, but was I enjoying it? But as he became more involved in Heathrow, I became more involved in his book. Increasing numbers of stories about people crept in – similar to those ones I go and make up myself, except I’m pretty sure most of these were actually true. Then there were the interviews with a variety of employees as well as passengers. Observations such as his changed preconceptions of the people that haunt Executive lounges. This was exactly what I’d been hoping for from the book, and by the end I was completely gripped. I should also point out that my inability to delve straight into the book was more a matter of expectation and personal taste, as opposed to a reflection on the quality of the book itself.

That said, considering the oh-so-short (almost too short) length of the book, some parts seemed unnecessarily wordy. I like a good description, but (although this blog suggests otherwise) am also from the school of ‘two words can have as big an impact as five’ and I did occasionally – especially towards the beginning – find some of the descriptions a little superfluous. However this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book, and it certainly wouldn’t stop me recommending it to others.

I also feel like I may have missed out a bit on the quality and detail of the photographs by reading the Kindle version. To be expected, of course, but if I’d realised quite how many there were then I’d probably have considered buying the ‘real’ version instead.

Overall though, I really enjoyed this book, and found myself thoroughly absorbed by the world of Heathrow’s Terminal 5. It certainly added an extra dimension to my time in the departure lounge there. A recommended read for anyone hitting the airports over the coming bank holidays and for those who join me in attributing stories to strangers sharing transport with you. I know I’m not the only one. A read you can fly away with (…sorry).

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PopCo – Scarlett Thomas

PopCo

Scarlett Thomas

£8.99

Canongate

So I could rattle on for hours about how much I love my Kindle. About how it’s easy to continue reading on the Tube with just one hand, still able to desperately cling on to whatever poll space is available with the other. How I can read five different books at once and carry them all around for the weight of less that one (extremely useful when flying EasyJet). How it doesn’t feel any less ‘real’ than reading a paper book. But one of the best things – as I’m sure I mentioned briefly in my review of Moustrapped – is how it can lead to exciting new discoveries you’d probably never have picked up in a bookstore.

My PopCo purchase was, actually, one of my first Kindle paid-for purchases (after I downloaded all the free classics that we all know we should read, but…). I only came accross is thanks to Amazon’s genius ’12 days of Christmas’ – for 12 days, a certain number of books were available to download for just £1. Well what’s £1 for filling up your spangly new Kindle? I don’t think I even read the PopCo blurb, but the cover looked pretty, so I downloaded it (come on, it is a rather lovely cover). And while most impulse purchases end up in regret and waste (that £4.50 Bulmers I only drank half of last weekend before I ‘got bored’ of it, for example), this was £1 spent far better than I ever imagined it could be.

PopCo begins as Alice Butler – amateur code-breaker and designer for a global toy manufacturer (PopCo) – is heading to Dartmoor for a company getaway. The story revolves around this ‘getaway’ that is extended as a selected few, including Alice, are put on a top-secret quest  to devise the Next Big Thing for teenage girls. This is interspersed with Alice’s discussions of her past – her AWOL Father and her Grandfather’s quest to break the supposedly unbreakable Voynich manuscript while her Grandmother worked at Bletchley Park, alongside general coming-of-age musings that point to a slightly rebellious streak. All this, and she can’t figure out who it is that’s sending her coded messages in Dartmoor.

The majority of the book is excellent. Alice is a character many will be able to identify with, if not for her love of codes and ability to solve them (that excludes me, anyway) then for her constant feelings of being slightly ostracised. She observes from the fringe of society and groups, always slightly uncertain of how (or if) to fit in. The family background is fascinating, too. I had to apologise to my housemate for finding his wanting to go to Bletchley Park amusing, as after reading this I became intrigued by what went on there. Also, despite the numbers talk you don’t have to be that-way inclined to ‘get’ or enjoy the book, so certainly don’t let that put you off.

However, what I enjoyed less was some of the more blunt propagana of Thomas’s views that seep into the second half. From pro-vegan/vegetarianism, to anti-corporations, by way of endorsing homeopathy, this book has some not-very-well-hidden-agendas. And while I’m all for freedom of speech and expressing viewpoints through means such as writing, the messages here are pretty in-your-face. It’s not that I disagree with her views (beside the pro-homeopathy. And I’m a proud carnivore, but I do understand the many reasons people have for giving up meat and dairy. And I’d also be fine with working for a large corporation – Big Five publishers take note). It’s just that, if I wanted to read such a frank discussion of facts (and one side of the facts at that), I’d Google them. Find some leaflets. In writing, for me soliciting ideas and beliefs work best when woven in with the story. Occasionally this was the case in PopCo – although it’s quite clear that Thomas is anti-conglomerates when she describes market research techniques such as two-way mirrors with children and having staff employed to infiltrate teen message boards, these descriptions were, undeniably, unsettling and effective. What worked less well for me were the too-frequent monologues that seemed to be implanted purely for the sake of expressing a viewpoint. These were frustrating, and felt like a sorely disappointing addition to what was, and continued to be in many parts, a really enjoyable, unique and interesting novel.

This said, I would still recommend the story. The code-breaking aspect to it was really interesting, Alice’s family history absorbing and many characters intriguing. There’s many moments of pure wit, making it easy to see how Thomas has garnered comparisons to Douglas Coupland. Also, the most overt of propaganda is, at least, contained to one section of the book, meaning your enjoyment of the entire novel is not ruined by any frustrations you might have with Thomas’s voice occasionally seeming to outshine that of her characters.

Overall, I’m glad I shelled out a whole £1 on this novel. I’d actually say that it was worth spending a reasonable amount more than that, particularly if you’re a fan of Douglas Coupland-esque reflections-on-society. Read past the preaching and you’re left with a funny, vibrant and completely absorbing book that contains a story quite unlike any other I’ve read. Little writing by numbers here.

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Rachel’s Holiday – Marian Keyes

Rachel’s Holiday

Marian Keyes

Penguin

£7.99

I’ve been wanting to write about Rachel’s Holiday for a while now. Not that it’s one of my most recent reads (making this post a little bit of a cheat). But it is one of my most reads. So I thought I’d celebrate World Book Night in my own way (after I foolishly didn’t apply to be a giver) by writing about my favourite book on the list of 25 titles that made up the million free books given out as part of this idea.

The problem is when writing about one of your All Time Favourite Books is that it’s really hard to write a review without sounding like you’re either working for the publisher (I wish). It’s certainly hard to be objective. So for this one post only I’ll ask you to look past what will almost certainly sound like gushing and don’t judge the book negatively for it – because the short and short of it is that you should really just go and read Rachel’s Holiday. But I suppose I’d better explain why, too…

Rachel’s Holiday is the second book about the wonderful and absolutely brilliant Walsh family (the first was Watermelon, and others in the series include Angels and Anybody Out There. You should probably just buy them all, to be honest). On moving to New York, Rachel gets a bit too caught up in all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that’s going on (even if the rock ‘n’ roll part is more like hanging out with a group of ‘men’ who wish they were. Nicknamed by Rachel and her friend as ‘The Real Men’ it is one of these, Luke, who becomes Rachel’s boyfriend). The drugs part is very real though. To the extent that one night a few too many pills and some very bad poetry gets mistakenly interpreted as a suicide attempt and is followed by a hospital visit for some stomach pumping. Cue, at the insistance of her parents, Rachel being whisked back to Ireland and into the Cloister’s, the Emerald answer to The Priory. But it turns out it’s not quite the relaxing detoxification (or holiday – like the title, innit) that Rachel’s expecting. The main story intertwines her experiences of the Cloisters with her New York life, particularly her relationship with Luke – and how drugs destroyed it.

So far, so not your average chick lit. In fact, it doesn’t sound like the most uplifting story – certainly not one you’d associate with its bright pink cover and reading with a bag of Minstrels at your side. But that’s the brilliant thing about Marian Keyes – she has a gift for addressing could-be depressing, issues in a manner that’s both hilarious (laugh-out-loud moments are guaranteed) but also sensitive. I genuinely can’t think of another writer who balances the two quite so well.

Another clever aspect to this book is the way that it’s told through Rachel’s eyes. This way the reader almost goes on her journey with her, realising quite how bad her addiction was as she finally comes to terms with the fact that, while she might not have the characteristics of your typical addict (in her words: track marks on their arms, dirty hair, constantly seeming cold, did a lot of shoulder hunching, wore plastic trainers, hung around blocks of flats and, most importantly, were thin), that doesn’t mean she isn’t one. The true extent of her denial is both amusing, but also quite sad – possibly because it probably is (though I can’t say for sure) quite a realistic portrayal of addiction to any degree.

Despite having a lot of traits that could end up constituting a highly unlikable character, there’s just something about Rachel. There’s just something about this Rachel’s Holiday, to be honest. I know I’m teetering on the gushing here, but this really is an absorbing page-turner – despite its hefty size (my copy’s over 600 pages – another way in which this book is quite different to your average chick lit) this is an easy read that can be raced through in days. To me, this is a particularly perfect choice for World Book Night. Not just because I really enjoyed the book, but because I think it’s a fantastic way to change people’s misconceptions about ‘chick lit’. I can’t deny that I’ve read quite a few ‘fluffy’ books in my time, or ones that missed out on being as humorous as they could be or creating particularly absorbing characters. But that’s not what a lot of the genre is like. While it’s unlikely that Marian Keyes will ever win the Booker Prize, that doesn’t mean her writing is any less absorbing, her characters any less brilliantly created and her stories any realised than many of the ‘literary fiction’ novels you get. World Book Night as a concept went out and tried something new. So now it’s your turn. Witty, wonderful and (heart)warming, do yourself a favour on this World Book Weekend and get reading Rachel’s Holiday.

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All My Friends Are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufmann

All My Friends Are Superheroes

Andrew Kaufman

£7.99

Telegram Books

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and read a book in one sitting. Possibly since the end of my undergraduate, where I had all the time in the world to sit in pyjamas and immerse myself into a fictional world. So to be able to curl up on a Saturday and both start and finish All My Friends Are Superheroes felt quite good. Let’s just ignore its 108-page-length.

Still, it’s definitely quality over quantity with this title. In short (ha. ha): I adored it. Funny, quirky, and as adorable as all the Amazon reviews suggest, it is told from the perspective of Tom. Tom is the only non-superhero of his friends. But there’s nobody here who can fly or read minds. Most people’s strengths (or, in some cases, ‘excess strengths’ as my MA tutor would call them) are extensions of real life characteristics. There’s the ‘Stress Bunny’, who seems to absorb everyone’s worries and through the best parties. Mistress Cleanasyougo folds her clothes at the end of everyday and never leaves anything unsaid. And then there’s The Perfectionist (or Perf). Who’s also Tom’s wife. The only problem is she thinks that Tom has abandoned for six months after Perf’s ex-boyfriend, Hypno, made Tom invisible to her (and nobody else) at their wedding reception. Now she’s boarding a plane to Vancouver and Tom has only the flight to make Perf see him again.

Admittedly I did find myself wondering at times whether these people were supposed to be genuine ‘superheroes’ or just Tom’s perspective of others’ ‘excess strengths’. Though after a while, it isn’t too unclear – I don’t think – that this is a world of people with real ‘powers’ (I suppose, to some – small – degree, it could be classified as magical realist, but I wouldn’t have immediately put it in that genre. I also haven’t studied magical realism in two years so my definitions are slightly skew-whiff anyway), but the fact that many of the powers are simply extensions of characteristics we all possess highlights how unique and special every person is. And perhaps this questioning of what kind of Toronto this is is and reflections on people is exactly what Kaufmann was looking for (and maybe not). Either way, this doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable.

With the book being so short, it seems wrong to write too much about it for fear of giving away too much. But all I can say that this book is a gorgeous tribute to ‘true love’ without descending into the schmaltzy or sentimental. It’s also clever and original. The perfect book for curling up with a blanket and cup of tea for an hour, All My Friends Are Superheroes comes with smiles and warmed hearts (pretty much) guaranteed.

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Silver – Norma Fox Mazer

Silver

Norma Fox Mazer

Morrow/Avon

Out of Print (available on Amazon ‘New & Used’ from £0.01)

After having washing and cooking (mostly) done for me, one of the best things about returning home is my bookshelves. The book I craved for Christmas ’00 nestles besides the prescribed reading for my undergraduate degree, mapping my literary (and not-so-literary) tastes over the past 15 years. There have been culls in that time, books lost to the attic or to the bookshelves of friends and family. But the favourites are still there. And after a huge workload last term, all I wanted over the Christmas break was something easy-to-read and familiar. Step forward one of the books from my not-quite-teenage-hood with the most bent spine and creased cover – Silver.

Determined that her daughter will have a better future than she, Sarabeth Silver’s Mum moves trailers so they are living in a new school district. A school district predominantly made up of wealthy families whose kitchens are bigger than the Silvers’ entire trailer. At the beginning of term Sarabeth is certain that she will never fit in with this pretty, well-dressed crowd. But she soon finds herself making friends with the most beautiful of them all, Grant, and her friends Asa, Jennifer and Patty. But while at first Sarabeth finds Patty hard to warm to, she soon finds out a secret that brings the two girls closer than could ever have been imagined.

Mazor addresses a huge amount of issues in this book. Many of the characters come from one-parent families, either because of divorce and separation or, in Sarabeth’s case, because her Dad was killed when she was very young. Yet while this clearly affects the characters in their own ways, it is dealt with matter-of-factly enough so that they never overshadow the main topic – child abuse. Mazor’s dealing with the latter is particularly impressive, addressing the subject directly and sensitively. Sparing the reader of potentially (and probably) inappropriate descriptions, Mazor lets Patty’s emotional reactions to the situation show all that is needed to highlight how horrific the situation is. Moreover, re-reading the book I noticed the stark contrast between Patty’s experiences and Sarabeth’s worrying about her first kiss. It really hammers home what girls of their ages should be thinking about, highlighting just how hideous what’s happening to Patty is (not that you need help in realising this of course. But it really makes it hit home). While this wasn’t a juxtaposition that struck me consciously when I read Silver for the first time, I do think it gives enough of a message to support any young girls who may be in a similar position to Patty (or know someone who is) and give them the confidence to see that was is happening is not right and give them the courage to speak up.

Perhaps more of an achievement is that, despite the depressing central subject matter, it is not so central that it makes the book depressing or heavy-going. As the narrator, Sarabeth, is not dealing with abuse directly this leaves plenty of time for discussion of regular teenage issues, from fitting in to first issues. Silver, for the most part, is about Sarabeth’s relationships, with her new friends, Mother, love interest Mark and family friends.

But what made this book for me, both when I read it as a kid and re-reading it over ten years later, are the characters. Each has their own individual quirks, sayings and – possibly more importantly – flaws that brings them alive. Of particular note are the group of girls. Despite dealing with what is essentially a very adult issue, in other situations you can tell that they’re still teenagers. They joke about one another’s first kisses, play-lasso-up escaped popcorn, have moodswings. I know I’m not quite their age any more, but I remember them feeling real to me when I read Silver the first time and they still felt credible and likeable many years later.

I also still want a Goldmobile.*

I have to admit that, for me, Silver‘s appeal is partly nostalgic. That said, although (understandably) relatively simple, the writing style is one that adults will be unlikely to find ‘too young’ or patronising. Hitting the perfect balance between sensitive and lively, Silver is a worthwhile real for anybody interested in young adult and children’s fiction or with a child aged about 11+.

*Leo owns a car on which he has gradually attached gold objects, from a door knocker to a brass modelling of the ‘Three Wise Monkeys’. How cool is that?

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