Book Review: The Parrots by Alexandra Schulman

I know you should never judge a book by its cover, but that’s what first attracted me to The Parrots. That, and it being written by Alexandra Schulman, editor of Vogue magazine.

It took me a little while to get into this book. The writing style is different to what I’m used to, and there are quite a few characters to keep track of. However, the foreword, set in July, ends in suspense, and the following chapters take us back to the previous September, where we trace the events leading up to that moment. Although the plot didn’t exactly have me hooked, that opening cliff-hanger did its job, and I was intrigued enough to keep reading.

The rest of the storyline centres around a married couple both embarking on their own predictable affairs, and it somehow feels like the characters aren’t quite fully developed for the reader to really get immersed in their lives.

WIN_20150903_201454Overall, the plot seemed to jump around a bit from place to place and character to character, and I feel that if I would enjoy this more if I were to read it a second time. After almost reaching the end of the book, I was struggling to find any connection between that first cliff-hanger chapter and any other events, so couldn’t hazard a guess at the ending, which I guess is a good thing.

The tag line on the cover ‘outsiders see things others don’t’ implies there’ll be more to this story than there actually is. I can only assume that the outsiders referred to are Antonella and Teo, the Italian children of an old school friend of Katherine’s (the leading lady) who visit London, but if that’s the case I would like to have seen more mystery surrounding these two. Similarly, I can kind of get the imagery of the parrots referred to in the title (in that they don’t quite belong in their surroundings, like Antonella and Teo) but I think so much more could have been made of this to tie the whole book together.

The concluding chapters bringing us back into July are fairly short, and I would have liked to see more pages dedicated to the climax the entire story has been working towards. The ending was slightly disappointing. It was never going to end well for any of the characters, but in a storyline filled with deceit, I thought it would end with more of a bang.

The other thing I wasn’t keen on throughout this book is the constant references to Twitter, Netflix, Instagram and the like, presumably to ensure the reader knows that this novel is bang up to date, but I felt that these were unnecessary, and puts a definite date stamp on the novel, preventing it from being a timeless classic like so many great books are.

I’m conscious that this sounds like a negative review, but that’s not my intention as I actually did enjoy reading this, and I’m a huge fan of the author’s work at Vogue. The detail and background given to the characters is genuinely interesting, and if anything, the book could have done with being longer in order to draw on this more.

Book Review: ‘The Understudy’ by David Nicholls

The Understudy is the story of down-on-his-luck actor Stephen McQueen (not that one) as he struggles to find that big break that will catapult him into stardom, just like heart throb Josh Harper who Stephen is the understudy for in theatre production Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.

With an acting career that has so far involved playing a dead guy and a singing squirrel, Stephen knows that this play could be his chance to shine, not only for himself, but to impress daughter Sophie who he is trying to build a relationship with after his divorce.

WIN_20150815_105314Things start to look up when Josh invites Stephen to his celebrity filled birthday bash, but when it turns out that he’s only there to serve drinks, Stephen inadvertently gets drunk on a cocktail of left-over drinks and antibiotics, accidentally steals a best actor award, oh, and falls in love with Josh’s wife. Continue reading

Book Review: ‘Man at the Helm’ by Nina Stibbe

Nina Stibbe has got to be one of the most naturally funny writers around. If you’ve read Love, Nina, the author’s collection of letters home during her time working as a nanny for LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, you’ll love her first novel Man at the Helm.WIN_20150712_170626

With the same honest, write-what-you’re-thinking style, Man at the Helm is an account of a single parent family moving to an English village in the ’70s where the locals say things like ‘you’re more than welcome’, which, as we discover, actually means you’re not welcome at all.

Through the eyes of Lizzie Vogel, a small girl with a very grown up attitude, we follow her and her slightly elder sister attempting to find a new ‘helmsman’, in order to make their family more acceptable to this close-knit village where a divorcee who is ‘temperamentally unsuited to housework’ does not belong.

Terrified of becoming wards of court due to a mother who, after the breakdown of her marriage (which involved and incident with a pan of cold eggs), becomes a menace, a drunk and a playwright, Lizzie and her sister try to remedy the situation by writing letters to some of the male suitors of the village (most of whom are already married). As a result, the girls’ mother endures many awkward encounters, pregnancy, and almost financial ruin.

The child-like over-description and simplicity of logic from Lizzie is refreshing, for example, believing her parents won’t split because they have plenty in common: ‘they looked alike, both adored toast, they had the same walk (heel down first), loved Iris Murdoch and had a habitual little cough as if they were saying ‘Come in’ very quickly.’ Through moments like this, we experience the trials and tribulations of a family adjusting to unusual circumstances and trying to be accepted, through the innocent eyes of a ten year old girl.

It’s hard to tell whether some of the events recounted by our protagonist actually happen, or whether they are the work of a child’s imagination and tendency to exaggerate the facts, but either way, this book had me laughing out loud on almost every page.

Add a little brother who claims to go deaf when his eyes are shut, and a charismatic pony who can’t look out of upstairs windows into the mix, and you’ve got an hilarious, honest novel about not-so-perfect family life, but where everyone pulls together, through thick and thin.

I can’t help but think that Nina Stibbe must be a lot like her character Lizzie, as the writing style and Lizzie’s expression of thoughts echo those of the author’s letters in Love, Nina. This is an author who would definitely be on my list of people to have round the dinner table, and I’m sure we wouldn’t be past the first course before I’d fallen off my chair with laughter.