Book Reviews: 4 British Books

Although I’ve never been to Great Britain, books by British authors have been on my shelves since I was very young.  The first ones I read to myself were from the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton, when I was in first grade; I remember that after the first few pages, I stomped off to find my mother and complain, “The quotation marks in this book are all wrong!  And they spelled color wrong!  And what’s a lorry?”  Once I understood that there are places in the world where people speak English but use different spelling and punctuation and vocabulary, I was intrigued by this parallel universe, and I’ve read several British books every year since.  The books I’ve read in the past month happen to be a spontaneous clustering of Britishness.

No, wait–does Ireland count as Britain?  I know the government is separate.  But it’s right there on the same island with Northern Ireland. [irrelevant link deleted] But it’s not on the island of Great Britain, and my mind is echoing with the shout of the Mike Myers character from two decades ago: “Here’s Scotland! Here’s Ireland! Here’s the bloody sea!!!”  Oh dear.  I hope I’m not offending anybody….  I already set up the title of my post, and I’m running out of time for writing, and I’d better just get on with my reviews….

I’m a Stranger Here Myself and Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

These two books went onto my list–the list that I give to people who ask what I want for gifts–at different times.  I didn’t realize that they are the U.S. edition and the U.K. edition of the same book!  Bill Bryson grew up in Iowa, lived in England for twenty years, then returned to the United States.  The first of his books I encountered was The Lost Continent, about traveling around the U.S. ten years after he’d moved away, and I was interested to see how an additional decade would affect his perspective.

It happened that my brother found both of these books when he was shopping for birthday gifts for me, and he sent them with a note commenting on the similarity of the cover images.  I read I’m a Stranger Here Myself, then took a break from Bryson, and then when I picked up Notes from a Big Country I was surprised that it wasn’t just the cover but the content that seemed very similar!  However, the two books do have differences beyond the punctuation and spelling:

After moving back to the U.S. in the late 1990s, Bryson wrote a regular column for a British newspaper about his experiences of American life.  Both books are collections of these columns.  I’m a Stranger Here Myself includes some additional material to explain to U.S. readers some phenomena that are familiar to British readers, such as Open University and the National Health Service, so that we understand against what he is comparing our strange American customs.  Notes from a Big Country simply makes casual references to British things.  There are some vocabulary shifts, as well–I noticed a “bathrobe” in I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and it is of course a “dressing gown” in Notes from a Big Country–and my impression is that Notes from a Big Country also includes a few columns that aren’t in the other book, so I look forward to comparing the books side by side someday when I have nothing better to do!

Both books are hilarious!  If you’re only going to read one of them, consider your level of familiarity with British vs. American culture of the late 1990s to make the best choice.

If you’ve ever been turned off Bill Bryson’s writing by his effusive use of the F-word, read these books!  Because the text was written for newspaper publication, he had to filter his language appropriately.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I loved Life After Life (reviewed here), so I was eager to read other books by this author.  Unfortunately, this one suffers from the first-novel syndrome of coming up with too many characters and too much detail about their lives, and then trying to force the book to have an overall plot by kludging in a Big Dramatic Twist that is too big and too clumsily handled to be believable.  Combined with an irritating and uneven narrative voice, a staggering ignorance of biology that makes the opening pages all wrong, unlikeable characters, and “foreshadowing” of certain events that’s so ridiculously heavy I started to think of it as fore-bludgeoning, it produces a book that kept me reading (because I like enormous webs of characters) but also kept me ranting and rolling my eyes.

Many reviewers have criticized the first chapter narrated by an embryo who somehow understands everything happening outside her mother’s body and is able to comment wryly on it, yet somehow is totally unaware of something that ought to be obvious in her environment if the Big Dramatic Twist is to make any sense at all, and somehow grows up into a preschooler and then preteen who innocently reports on things that have meaning to the adult reader yet are totally over her head.  I agree that all this is problematic, but my biggest indignation is with Ruby’s crowing, “I exist!” at the moment her father ejaculates–no, she doesn’t exist yet, no matter how pro-life you are; sperm take at least 30 minutes, usually hours or even days, to fertilize an egg!  It’s equally ridiculous for Ruby’s mother to be experiencing nausea only 18 hours later; that doesn’t happen until at least two weeks after conception!  It’s really hard to get into a book when the narrator starts out so self-important that–I mean, she doesn’t even–ow, my brain!  Let’s just move on.

The Likeness by Tana French

This is the second book by this author, and the first also deals with homicide detectives in Ireland, and they’re even the same detectives, so you might think you need to read the first book first.  In fact, that’s what my mother-out-law told me when she loaned me both books in 2011.  However, having read them in order, it’s my opinion that nobody needs to read In the Woods because it’s a terrible book–that is, although it’s very compelling and a lot of the writing is great, it ultimately betrays you by leaving one mystery totally unsolved and wrapping up the other with an inane Mad I Tell You solution, jaw-droppingly sloppy detective work, and no justice done–and the “background” it provides for the story of The Likeness is adequately summarized within the text of The Likeness; now that I’ve re-read The Likeness without having In the Woods fresh in my mind, I can tell you with certainty that everything you need to know about “what went wrong with Operation Vestal” is given to you in this second book.  So just read this one!

Cassie Maddox is a detective who previously created an alter-ego for undercover work, Lexie Madison.  Now she’s called to the scene where Lexie Madison lies murdered.  The victim looks a lot like Cassie and is carrying Lexie Madison’s identification, but who was she really, and who killed her?  Cassie becomes Lexie again to find out.

This book is more enjoyable if you think of it as a “psychological thriller novel” than if you expect a “police procedural mystery.”  Cassie is excessively entranced with the process of becoming Lexie and living her life, and this twists her sense of how to proceed with the case.  She makes some highly questionable decisions.  There are places where her reasoning doesn’t quite make sense, and places where the pacing drags and the book is just too wordy, but overall this is a page-turner that I enjoyed very much on both the first and the second reading.

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6 thoughts on “Book Reviews: 4 British Books

  1. I love all three of those authors!! Can’t wait for Bryson’s new book in January – since I’ve read all of his other books already.

    (But sidenote: that Wikipedia article you linked to is about Ireland pre-independence in 1922. Ireland is definitely NOT “British” now.) 🙂

    • Oops! I got that link from a quick search on the question, “Is Ireland British?” which you’d think would give me an article on the present rather than the past! I’ll have to do more research on this subject. It’s something I didn’t know I didn’t know until I was in the middle of writing this post!

  2. I’ve only attempted one Atkinson book (Started Early Took My Dog) and had the same kind of reactions about the number of characters and number of irrelevant life details that were mentioned; I finally gave up on the book. Then I picked up Life After Life, not making the connection that it was the same author, because I had seen so many great blog posts about it–after realizing it was the same author of Started Early Took My Dog, I got scared and put it on the shelf and haven’t started it yet! But this review of Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the second one I’ve read today that has been less than favorable about her other books, so I’m hoping that I can still enjoy Life After Life as much as everyone else seems to!

    • Life After Life has many characters as well, but they are better chosen and more coherently presented. Life After Life also has a lot of life details, but many of them turn out to be significant at connecting strands of the plot. I hope you’ll give it a chance!

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