A break from the stresses of life: Not Working – by Lisa Owens

Fictional Memoir, Romance

It’s three weeks into the term and I’m itching to read something other than a textbook or assigned reading. Usually it’s the tv show de jour that gets in the way of my reading, but for the first time ever, it’s sleep – or rather, school work – that’s stopping me. I need to escape, to be whisked away to another world, another life. But every time I pick up a book, my eyes glaze over as I struggle to stay focused. Even when reading, I can’t escape. I know these are just the tell-tale signs of a book rut, but I don’t see a way out!

That is, until I spot the cheery, bright blue cover in the library practically screaming out for me to pick it up. The title, too, draws me in: ‘Not Working’. Sounds perfect for me – almost eerily so. I turn to the blurb and find that, whilst it seems targeted to a slightly older demographic, I’m nonetheless intrigued and eager to at least give it a go – what do I have to lose, right? The other book I picked up was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I wasn’t about to start on that any time soon (or at least not during term time).

I soon discovered Not Working was the kind of book I could pick up, enjoy, put down and not feel especially drawn to pick it up later. It was, as I’d hoped for, an easy read, a welcome escape, but I didn’t feel invested in the story. As suggested by the blurb, I struggled to relate to the protagonist: Claire, a woman in her late twenties, early thirties who’s just left her job to search for her true calling – whatever that may be. It turns out she really has no idea, and considers careers as offbeat as authoring blue plaques and screenwriting – despite having never previously shown an interest in either. Meanwhile, her neurosurgeon boyfriend continues to work hard; although he supports her completely in her ‘journey’, she nonetheless resents being in his shadow – always ‘Luke’s girlfriend’, she longs to be a person in her own right, someone making a real difference in the world.

Whilst I found it hard to empathise with Claire’s problems, I loved reading about her nonetheless. I increasingly found her voice soothing, like chatting with an old friend: she’s honest, funny, self-deprecating. Unlike so many ‘finding yourself’ books, Not Working features absolutely no meditation, yoga or travel to exotic lands. Claire doesn’t take herself too seriously and it makes for an easy, enjoyable read. She’s an average person – average looks, average intelligence, average character. But whilst that may sound unappealing, that’s exactly what makes her so endearing – she represents so many women who’ve felt inadequate or lacking in purpose. Suffering a quarter-life crisis she searches hopelessly for a job that may not exist: the perfect job for her, tailor-fitted for her talents and desires.

Although incredibly easy to read, especially as the chapters themselves are split up into short sections, Not Working is long and slow up until the last quarter. The writing can be monotonous and uninteresting which, although perhaps accurately depicts Claire’s life, is not especially entertaining to read. And whilst the end is riveting, it leaves much frustratingly unresolved! I have so many questions that I won’t delineate for fear of spoiling, but I can confidently say I was left unsatisfied by this book.

Still, I enjoyed this book immensely; it was exactly what I needed. If you’re looking for the next literary canon book, perhaps this isn’t for you. However, if you love books like Bridget Jones’ Diary you’ll definitely enjoy Not Working.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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A Unique Perspective: Nutshell – by Ian McEwan

Crime Fiction, Fictional Memoir

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

Intrigued yet?

When I first heard about the plot, I was skeptical. Although I have faith in McEwan’s writing (the esteemed author has written from various perspectives), a book narrated by a foetus sounded tiresome. However, after hearing the author himself speak about and read from his book at an event, there was no question that I wanted to read it (especially my signed copy!).

A foetus is just beginning to develop his first thoughts when he becomes aware that his mother and her lover (who he later discovers is his uncle) are plotting to kill his father. The book is heavily based on Hamlet, from names (Trudy for Gertrude; Claude for Claudius) to the plot itself, and sometimes even quotes:

Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

Nutshell: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand.”

Admittedly, if I hadn’t been told of this ‘influence’, I wouldn’t have recognised it – I haven’t read Hamlet. I also can’t say whether this is effective as a retelling, or if my lack of knowledge about Hamlet affected my experience. After doing some (limited) research, however, I could certainly see the resemblance.


Perhaps surprisingly, the least realistic aspect of this book isn’t the supreme intelligence of the narrator, but in fact the conspirators’ passionate – murderous, even – anger and resentment towards the offspring’s father. It is never explained why they, and in particular Trudy, feel so much hatred for him. Progressively through the book, I was confused about where the mother’s loyalties lay.

The deficit in character analysis (due to the narrator’s circumstances), which is such a crucial element in McEwan’s novels, lets the book down somewhat. Maybe as a result of this, the characters are largely caricatures – not credible, relatable, real. I only hope this is intended, portraying the foetus’ ignorance and inexperience with people.

Although McEwan’ distinctive rhetoric – including his dry humour – is apparent in the foetus’ voice, this is (for the most part) a welcome aspect. The narrator is not believable, but this does not take away from the book’s narrative or overall realism. Sometimes, however, long rants with seemingly tenuous links to the storyline crop up from nowhere, and it’s clear that these are merely opportunities for the opinionated author to express his strong personal views. An example is when he rants about self-sheltered university students and their destructive politically correct ways. I appreciate that an author’s book is their place to do what they want (including communicating beliefs), but this only works if it is appropriate and not dropped in at random.

Finally, the writing style is confusing at times, with action and commentary jumping around. Perhaps this was for effect, but if even if it wasn’t, it was manageable; it didn’t hurt my reading experience.

All in all, I enjoyed Nutshell – hooked from the first page, it is one of the better books I’ve read this year. Compared to McEwan’s other books (at least those that I’ve read), however, it wasn’t his best. The ambitious choice of narrator mostly paid off, although did make for an unusual (and sometimes lacking) read. Read if you love Hamlet and/or Shakespeare retellings, you’re looking for a ‘quirky’ book, or you’re as obsessed with Ian McEwan as I am!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

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Killer crime novel: The Cuckoo’s Calling – by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Crime Fiction

Cormoran Strike, ex-army investigator and illegitimate son of a rock star, struggles to find work. His fortunes turn when he’s asked to investigate the suspicious death of a fashion model. Although Strike is fairly certain the investigation will lead nowhere, he needs the money so takes the job. Delving into the model’s life, he is left largely unfazed by the wealth and fame, determinedly ploughing on with his search for answers.

A likeable, rough and flawed protagonist; vivid descriptions of London neighbourhoods; an enthralling ‘whodunit’ trail – The Cuckoo’s Calling has the ingredients to be an enticing murder mystery, despite my indifference to the genre. By the end, I loved the book; hooked and desperate for all to be explained. Forgive the cliché, but I couldn’t stop reading it. However, I was not so engaged from the beginning; in fact, it took me a while to read the (admittedly thick) novel.

Nonetheless, the book is easy and enjoyable to read; it ‘flows’ well. The plot is intriguing, magnetic – a common feature of crime fiction. Its characters are credible, interesting and ‘human’. The exception to this is the overblown mystery surrounding Strike’s relationship with his ex-fiancée Charlotte. Resourceful and grounded Robyn, Strike’s temporary secretary and ‘accidental’ assistant, balances the occasionally moody and impulsive protagonist, although she isn’t given much of a voice.

Overall, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a great read, especially suitable for murder mystery enthusiasts. Those who aren’t such big fans of the genre might still enjoy the skilled writing and intriguing characters.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium

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A Window into the Privileged of London: A Week in December – by Sebastian Faulks

Romance, Tragicomedy

A Week in December is a window into the lives of London’s wealthy. It’s narrated by diverse people connected, directly or through mutual friends, by a dinner party; they’re chosen by the host, socialite Sophie Topping, to reflect well on her husband, the newest Conservative MP Lance Topping. Of the list, a handful at most are not millionaires – including unsuccessful barrister Gabriel Northwood and cynical, bitter book reviewer R. Tranter. The rest are a familiar mix of obnoxious businessmen and their skinny wives, a repugnant TV magnate and a surprisingly endearing Polish footballer who is new to the country. As they go about their daily lives, they emulate the ‘spirit’ of the city, with many of them questioning (or unintentionally urging the reader to question) the lack of purpose in their existences. Although many of these people are not kind or likeable, they’re intriguing; I wanted to know what would happen, what decisions they’d make. More than anything, many of them seem like real people, reminding me of people I know or know of.

I suppose this sensation, along with my new-found cynicism of hedge-funds, is unsurprising; I’m expected to challenge our society and its materialism after finishing Faulks’ satirical, aspiring ‘state of the nation’ novel. Many of Faulks’ characters are stereotypical wealthy Londoners: egotistical, self-important and money-obsessed. I deduce that the ‘moral’ of the book is that, despite their privilege, their lives aren’t happy. No amount of money or insincere socialising can give a life substance or enjoyment. Near the end of the book, during the dinner party, minor character Roger Malpasse drunkenly berates Veals for the ruthless and underhanded practices of the Financial industry, his rant highlighting the pinnacle of Veals’ disgusting personality, demonstrated in hid unrelenting mission to bring down a major bank – and a load of African farmers with it.

At the other end of the spectrum is Hassam al-Rashid, who is a jihad-in-training and son of entrepreneur  Farooq al-Rashid (an invitee of the Topping’s party). In Hassam’s sections of the novel, he broods on the Kafir (consumerist, irreligious) world and its disgusting ways, viewing his terrorist activities as an ever-important mission from God, an escape from impiety. Although I enjoyed his character as a change from the others and an insight into a world I know nothing about, I didn’t find him wholly convincing.

Their cynical, circumspect voices work as within an orchestra to render life in London and its diversity. Many of them are realistic, interesting and even likeable, but there were also some that were unpleasant and desperately boring – in particular, Veals, who gives a shameful face to his business and, most disappointingly, doesn’t change at all during the book. I’m sure he is intended to disappoint, representing everything wrong about the rich of London and their inauthentic means of earning money, but I couldn’t help finding him plain annoying – especially his monotonous descriptions of financial deals.

At times, sentences read disjointedly due to their length and uninteresting subject content, and I wasn’t always compelled to pick the book up. However, after about half way, I started to enjoy it more as I became more hooked into the ‘plot’ (although loose). Overall, A Week in December is a good-quality, well-written book – an interesting commentary on life in London. I can’t, however, guarantee it for ‘grip’ or sustained interest. If you like The Casual Vacancy, or perhaps Ian McEwan’s books, then you’ll love it.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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