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  1. Once upon a time, Ali Smith and I were besties. I loved her books, she loved my reviews of them and we smiled at each other at book festivals. Those were the days. Then, Ali Smith wrote The Accidental. This had a rollicking riff of an opening chapter-ette. It was like the Trainspotting Choose Life riff. It rocked. And somebody said to Ali Smith - you are a fantastic writer and you should do more of that. So she did. Now someone needs to tell her that she is good, but not that good. Her writing is not strong enough to carry a plotless book, despite more than one attempt at it. First and foremost, she is a storyteller. So in Autumn, we have a short collection of ideas; a girl who befriends her neighbour, then she visits the neighbour as he grows old and she finds him a bit of an embarrassment. There are references to Brexit - so perhaps we see Mr Gluck, the neighbour, as a bit like Europe. Basically good but people just want to move on. Hmmm. And once this metaphor lodges, you can't shift it. There's no story, no character development. Just a lot of lists and riffs. As the end approaches, very slowly for a book with so few pages, it starts to dawn on the reader that there is no big idea that is going to tie it all together. It just ends, as suddenly and pointlessly as it began. There are plenty of cultural references along the way - a TV show that is Bargain Hunt in all but name, the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop phone number, Jo Cox getting murdered, but none of it seems to be taking us anywhere. I know some people have raved about this book but I really cannot see it myself. I see Ali Smith's next novel is called Winter. Maybe it offers even slimmer pickings than Autumn.
  2. Public Library is sold as a collection of stories. To this reader, at least, it felt more like a collection of essays. That is, there seemed to be little fictional drive. The broad format seems to be: I was doing A. I found B. This reminded me of C. I continued doing A. The essays all seem to have some kind of booky or literary angle that sometimes feels rather contrived. And in between each story/essay, there is a passage in italics, usually quoting famous people offering a personal reflection on their erstwhile use of public libraries. This often, but not always, involves the formative experience of progressing from the children’s library to the adult one. It’s fair enough, I remember the experience myself, but it’s not necessarily something I want to pay money to read. As for the essays themselves, there is little warmth to them. The voice is flat and the first person narrator is generally (a possibly fictional representation of) Ali Smith. So, for example, we have Ali Smith keeping shop in her father’s independent electrical store in Inverness; or we have Ali Smith querying a credit card bill, or Ali Smith on a train. The playfulness of her earlier novels; the wit of her earlier stories is missing. Reading the collection is a pretty joyless experience – which is a shame when its purpose seems to be to celebrate the concept of the public library. At the end, there’s little that was memorable. If I am honest, it’s really only the preamble where Ali Smith and a companion walk past a club in London called Library and go in asking for books. It’s a bit of a cheap gag – and it would have been obvious from the pavement that the building was a club and not a real library – but it did create a single image of humour from the contrived misunderstanding. My top tip would be to go back into Ali Smith’s back catalogue, but leave this collection on the library shelf. For me, at least, it was a project that didn’t work. **000
  3. I had expected to be writing a gushing review exhorting people to read a great novel from one of Scotland’s liveliest writers. I have loved almost everything Ali Smith has written. Alas, How To Be Both has not hit the mark. Basically, it is two novellas, stitched together. In one of them, we find a 15th century Italian girl, dressed as a boy in order to pass herself off as a painter, working on frescoes for the local Duke. This girl, who adopts the name of Francescho, spends time exploring her sexuality in brothels, consorting with a pickpocket, and demanding more money. Oh, and she is dead. Possibly. From time to time, we are reminded that Francescho is in purgatorio, but mostly we find ourselves reading a straight autobiographical narrative, chopped up into little pieces and scattered into a random order. The narrative is written in a preudo-mediaeval voice interspersed with modern colloquialisms such as “Just saying”. Sentences themselves are fragmented and drift off into the ether. It is very confusing. Then, abruptly, the story finishes and we find modern teenager, George (really Georgia), remembering a holiday to Italy with her mother shortly before the mother died. They saw the frescos that Francescho had painted and wondered about the life of this painter. Cutting between present day grief, greatly exacerbated by the heavy handed school counsellor, and happier past memories, it feels choppy. There is a story of growth and loss; there is a sexual ambiguity; an awakening of an adult from the chrysalis of childhood. The gimmick is that you can read either story first. The Kindle edition prints the entire text twice – first 15th Century-Current, then Current-15th Century. You can read whichever version you wish. Not that I imagine it would be a very different experience since the stories seem only very loosely connected. Perhaps we are supposed to wonder whether the 15th Century narrative was just made up by George. Certainly it never felt quite authentic as a mediaeval narrative. And although the George narrative felt more real, it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Normally Ali Smith’s writing is clear and unambiguous, drawing beauty from human life rather than from arty language. However, this seems to have been abandoned for How To Be Both where much is opaque. It is especially difficult to tell what is happening at any given point in the Francescho narrative as it seems to be so half formed and to wriggle about so much. I’m not quite sure what Ali Smith was trying to do here. Her short fiction is excellent and her novels are playful and innovative. Perhaps this is trying to be both but it isn’t succeeding. ***00
  4. The Reading Group I belong to recently tackled The Accidental by Ali Smith after reading rave reviews from the international press. It is the only book that came close to vying with Paul Theroux's Millroy the Magician for the title of Most Disliked Book. We are a diverse group of women, eclectic in our choice of books. Did we have our minds switched off and fail to grasp the signs of greatness so clear to the critics - including the Judges of the Whitbread Novel Prize 2005. Or was this a case of reviewer's hype and the Emperor's New Clothes? Has any member of this BGO read either of them? Views from other readers would be welcome.
  5. Rescued Thread megustaleer 25th April 2006 08:40 PM In the first 75+ pages the reader experiences being in the head of a pre-pubescent girl, a tormented adolescent boy, and a predatory middle aged man. I found none of these habitats comfortable. This book seems to me to have been written with an eye on all the literary awards going, as the reader has to do all the work to make a comprehensible story out of the disjointed clips (to borrow the camera metaphor) of narrative. Hazel 26th April 2006 08:53 AM I completely agree Meg. I am finding it hard to get into and not exactly picking it up each evening with a light heart. If it wasn't for BGO I would probably given up at my standard 100 pages mark. Hoping things will change. Mungus 26th April 2006 04:05 PM I read the book in December last year and my overall memory of it is that it was hard work and tried very hard to be meaningful. I liked the voice of the daughter though and ultimately found her to be the most sympathetic of the characters. Hazel 30th April 2006 10:40 AM I finished it last night and am looking forward to discussing it. But, I have to confess I didn't really enjoy it. There were brief flashes of good writing and engaging plot lines, but they were drowned in moments of 'trying to be clever' written diarrohea. Momo 30th April 2006 11:12 AM I have only just started reading "The Accidental" by Ali Smith (still in the middle of the fantastic novel "The Falls" by Joyce Carol Oates - but I want to join in the discussions here, so I read them both at the same time). I find it quite difficult to get into, so far, there seems to be no connection between the characters, no flow in the story. I have to go back often to see what I missed before only to find out that I didn't miss it, there just seems to be no connection. Well, we'll see how it goes. Starry 1st May 2006 08:28 AM I've just finished this book and like everyone here I can't say I enjoyed it. I really don't like the stream of consciousness style, there are no speech marks which really gets up my nose and I disliked all of the characters, though perhaps Eve was the one I disliked least I must admit this is not the sort of book I would have normally picked up, I only read it because I had pledged to myself that I would read this month's pick. Hazel 1st May 2006 10:27 AM Usually I do like it especially when it is done really well and integral to the novel, but this just seemed like it for it's own sake and really didn't add anything to my appreciation of the characters. I will give Smith one point though - it made it a little fun to get into Magnus' head - but not for long. katrina 2nd May 2006 06:22 PM I'm not really getting very far with this book at the moment, its definately lacking inspiration, and leaving it at home by mistake when I was away for the weekend really diidn't help things. I will try to pick it up and get started on it again today and hopefully have it done by the weekend donnae 4th May 2006 02:18 PM I am about 70ish pages into this...have taken an instant dislike to Michael - what an unpleasant man. I am quite enjoying this, I want to understand more about everyone, especially Eve because so far I have read very little about her. Like you Momo, I have had to re-read a couple of times just to make sure I haven't turned two pages over instead of one. Momo 4th May 2006 07:23 PM You're doing much better than me there. At page 70, I didn't even get who was who. katrina 5th May 2006 10:10 PM I've finished it!!! Gosh that was a mighty strange book there were points which I actually hated, and parts which I thought were alright, never got overly excited though. I really hated the way the type hadn't been aligned so the writing looked all rough. Came out of it wondering what the point was really, and there was far to many contemporary references for me, none of these would make sense in another country or in ten years time. Momo 6th May 2006 12:58 PM Right. At one point I thought, am I reading a novel or is this a movie theatre flyer. katrina 6th May 2006 01:39 PM I agree there where some definate chapters that i issues with, I even got out a pad and made notes with lots of underlining about things I was angry with in this book, in some places she seemed to try far too hard. Flingo 23rd May 2006 10:32 PM I've fallen asleep twice today trying to read it! Got to page 36, so looking forward to the next time I have insomnia! I agree about the writing style - even just reading the bits so far "by" the 12 year old girl - I want to strangle her for the use of i.e. in completely inappropriate places. Momo 23rd May 2006 10:54 PM I think that was mainly stating that some people, especially teenagers, love to use a certain word (or abbreviation in this case) and apply it everywhere, even when it doesn't apply. Not that I have any inclination in thinking that's so great that it makes the book more readable.
  6. Rescued Thread For an Accidental Forum! katrina 9th May 2006 09:24 PM Hey guys, I know most people haven't really enjoyed this book but I still wanted to discuss some aspects of it before this book closes, which is looking likely to be very soon. I personally found this book far to contemporary and too rooted in this last couple of years. I don't understand how any editor/publisher expects this book to work as a work of literature or in a decades time. For example, the reference to Richard and Judy's book club (p 80), (Eve wants one of here books to be featured as a book group read) I found screamingly self-referential, its as if Smith is calling out 'PICK ME!!!!! I mentioned you!! just came across as unnecessary and awful. Actually had me underlining the notes I felt compelled to write on this. I also thought the mention of the recent murders of children (such as Molly and Damalola Taylor (sp?) was just awful, I presume their families would have been warned or asked permission that these references were featured, but to me it just seemed sickening, their names don't need to appear in fiction just to be glossed over. I can understand mentions of war as this is something that crosses time and countries, there's no need to bring individuals into this novel. Adrian 9th May 2006 09:41 PM The discussions never "close" for a particular book, and even when we eventually move on to another book, you can still post new threads or continue old ones on this or any other previous book. I'm guessing this is in response to me starting nominations for the next read. I only did so as there wasn't much discussion on The Accidental (even the nominator hasn't posted about it), so thanks for kick-starting the discussion! I haven't read The Accidental, so I can't comment on your actual post. Momo 9th May 2006 10:32 PM As I already mentioned under "First Impressions", at one point I thought, am I reading a novel or is this a movie theatre flyer. She was just quoting the plot of different movies. I didn't recognize all of them but just a few made me realize that the whole chapter seemed to be one movie after another. Couldn't believe it. What if I hadn't known any of the movies. Would I have understood what she was talking about? Well, I didn't really understand what she meant a lot of times but this one was really weird. The same with some other book plots. Is this how you write contemporary fiction, just list the plots of popular books and movies and then you have an interesting story? Obviously not. katrina 10th May 2006 05:17 PM Hey I also missed out on a lot of those film mentions, were obviously before my time, made it really annoying, and like she was showing off about all the things she could reel off in one chapter - or maybe she just needed to fill a few more pages! Definately not a book that I'll be keeping on my shelf for future reads. Momo 10th May 2006 11:15 PM I don't think they were before your time, the ones I did know were contemporary (like Love Actually, the only one I remember right now without checking back, because she was going on about that one for quite a while). judemarg 13th May 2006 11:00 AM I don't think this book is 'too contemporary', it simply is contemporary and to my mind very post-modern with its play with the printed word, for example the chapter heading 'The Middle'. All the sub-chapter following begin with The Middle. I think the part where the film plots are listed was Amber's thinking. (I think we're meant to be inside the characters minds when they're speaking aren't we?) And the point is that she was conceived in a cinema and its something that her mother (who seems to be as crackers as Amber) probably made her aware of. I dislike all the characters. I'm only up to page 178-just over half way- but have found nothing to make me feel good. Are there really men like Michael around? For an English professor or whatever he's meant to be his poetry is pretty rubbish. They have no idea of the value of money - who in their right minds buys a 12 year old a £2,000 camera? And Magnus needs a reality check. The Observer review which is printed on the front of my copy calls it sexy. Well while it is full of sex none of the sex is very sexy most of it comes across as quite sordid. I will finish it because I'm curious if Ali Smith will do the right thing and give her characters the come-uppance they deserve. It's not getting completely on my nerves either. Judith
  7. Rescued Thread katrina 9th May 2006 09:47 PM Characters incl spoilers Which characters did you like/dislike? I really liked the son Magnus, especially as early on he was the first charcter that willed me on to keep reading. Didn't approve of the sex in the church though (and I'm not particuarly religious). As a family they were so lost and so naive, I wanted to bash their heads together so many times. Why didn't Eve leave Michael? What was so attractive about Michael? Why did he feel the need to mess around? And expect to get away with it? Why were the kids so neglected when they were obviously calling out for help and attention? AND WHY DID THEY LET A STRANGER IN TO THEIR FAMILY WITH NO QUESTIONS ASKED? Oh and how could Eve accept her son was sleeping with a much older lady and not raise an eyelid? I felt they deserved what they got in the end, didn't understand why Eve left her kids with an obviously uninterested step father when all their lives were in turmoil either. (See I was left with lots of questions! left me feeling = ) and withquite a headache. I suppose books are their to provoke reaction Mungus 10th May 2006 10:42 PM This to me was the central flaw in the whole story. We've all been brought up in families and how many of our families would have let some woman move in and take over in this way. Just rubbish! As I've said previously, I read this book a while back and felt absolutely no need to pick it up again to join in with these dicussions (I'm sure you can all understand why) so I can't offer much in the way of insight. All so forgettable. Quite why this novel has been so acclaimed is beyond me, but Ali Smith's first novel Hotel World was equally well received and IMO totally impossible to read. Momo 10th May 2006 11:13 PM The question is not really why they let a stranger into the house but how could a stranger end up getting there and they didn't think she was a stranger. Everybody thought one of the others knew her. Did they really trust each other that little. We live far away from our family and moved so much over the years that we have friends all over the world. Which means we often have guests over to stay, sometimes for a day, sometimes for a couple of weeks. We have had an exchange student stay for six months, all these kind of things people do. We have even heard the question whether we run a bed & breakfast (sometimes it feels that way). We have even accepted friends of our friends into our house when they were in the area. But never - ever - have we not been aware of where that person (or those persons) came from and how we knew them. So, the reason the stranger could get into the house like that was that there was really no communication or trust in that so-called family. I didn't see one. That's my opinion. donnae 10th May 2006 11:42 PM Why did Michael have to be the same old stereotypical University lecturer that is always having affairs with his students??? I was glad he got caught out in the end. He didn't really seem to have an awful lot going for him. I don't suppose Eve is the only woman in a relationship like this though and accepting it. She obviously saw him as an improvement on the "shop boy" Adam. I didn't pick up that Eve knew Magnus was sleeping with Amber. I thought it only happened in the loft and the church (strange?!?!) and that no-one else in the family knew it was happening. I think Astrid and Magnus were the most likeable characters, perhaps because they are younger and open to change, but then also more malleable by Amber. Amber is a very strange character. She is obviously a catalyst of some sort, (I am glad she saved Magnus) but I expected there to be a more of a link between her and the family. This would at least have made it a bit more understandable as to why she was allowed in! Was her story true about killing the child - or is that another story from a film? Why did she steal the contents of their house (if it was her)?? Did she see it as giving the family a clean slate to start with or did she want some new door knobs?? When Eve is in America, and the process seems to be being repeated, it felt as if Smith was trying to justify that if a second family could take a "stranger" in, that the situation with Amber wouldn't be so unbelievable. I wanted to know more about Eve's parents. I felt there should have more information about them or not included them. The ending felt rushed. Momo 11th May 2006 02:09 PM What ending? Hazel 11th May 2006 I think the family latched onto Amber because they were so repelled by themselves, and she was different, not a family member, and therefore easier to embrace and latch on to. I disliked everyone in this book apart from Magnus. He seemed like the only real person -the rest were characterless, stereotypical, plot devices with which the 'magic up' a story. The only feeling I have now about this book, is guilt as I sold some poor sucker it on Greenmetropolis - hope it wasn't anyone on BGO - and they enjoy it more than I did. katrina 11th May 2006 05:05 PM They knew something was going on: "When they got home, she walked straight in on Amber in the lounge with what looked like one hand on Magnus's crotch. Magnus stood up. It's all right, Amber said. He's legally of age. " So I guess they could figure out the rest, this happens just before Eve throws Amber out, so it may actually have been a factor, although I seemed to get the feeling that Eve threw her out because she realised she was loosing her family Momo 12th May 2006 01:47 PM I don't think Eve threw out Amber because she knew about Marcus. I don't think she knew at all why Amber was there and what else she did. That might have been her reason, realizing she was taken advantage of. Though I am not sure about that either. I'm not sure about a lot in the book, and that's not because it is all written a little too cleverly, more because it isn't written at all. Flingo 27th May 2006 11:14 PM I don't think I particularly liked any of the characters, although I can almost understand the attraction of Michael to his students. Meg said elsewhere that she felt uncomfortable in the characters minds, and I think thats how I felt. None of the characters felt quite plausible enough to be real and, therefore for me, were unlikeable.
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