What I Thought Of… THE UPGRADE by Paul Carr

Ever since September 5th, 2006, I’ve unashamedly been a fan of luxury hotels.

I know the exact date because it’s the day I arrived in Orlando, Florida, to start working for one of the largest hotel chains in the world. That night was also the first one I spent in such a hotel, the same one I was about to start working in as a front desk agent. Before my visa expired eighteen months later, me and my employee discount had stayed in four and five-star hotels in Washington D.C., Miami, New Orleans and – my favorite – Times Square in New York City. Thanks to the fact that two of my Orlando besties continued to work for the company, I’ve since added more New York, San Francisco, Madrid, Valencia and elsewhere in Orlando to my Frighteningly Cheap Stays in Luxury Hotels list.

(Yes, I am quite pleased with myself about it, thanks for asking.)

Ah, (the terrace of our hotel in) Valencia. I still miss you. 

Not only do I, as part of an employee’s party, still get a great rate, but as we’re all former front desk agents, we know how to stay in luxury hotels. We know what to ask for, what not to ask for and who to do the asking of.

Case in point: during my Just Arrived stay in the, ahem, “Duck and Tuna” back in September 2006 (as chronicled in Mousetrapped), I ended up with a bill for $300 for international calls I stupidly made from my room. Even more stupidly I paid for them, not knowing that all the agents were empowered to “spend” a couple hundred dollars per guest per day resolving problems – or, groan, “opportunities” – and that over the next year, I’d casually swipe thousands of dollars worth of phone charges off my guests’ bills. All they had to do was complain to me about how the telephone rate card wasn’t very clear and I’d take care of it, no questions asked.

So I was intrigued when a couple of weeks back during my weekly search for the “3” in a Waterstone’s 3 for 2, I happened upon The Upgrade: A Cautionary Tale of Life With No Reservations by Paul Carr. Carr had traded in a fixed abode for a life spent living in luxury hotels, making the most of last minute deals, seasonal rate fluctuations and free upgrades, tricks he’d learned – in part – while growing up with hotelier parents. I thought it might be a kind of Hotel Babylon as told from a guest’s point of view and I smelled a potentially outrageously suitable Christmas present for my hospitality friends. But even though it had a whole paragraph about RevPAR, The Upgrade turned out to be something else entirely…

“Bored, broke and struggling to survive in one of the most expensive cities on earth, Paul Carr comes to the surprising realization that it would actually be cheaper to live in a luxury hotel in Manhattan than in his tiny one-bedroom apartment. Inspired by that possibility, he decides to sell most of his possessions, abandon his old life and spend a year living entirely without commitments, as a modern-day nomad. Thanks to Paul’s ability to talk his way into increasingly ridiculous situations, what begins as a one-year experiment soon becomes a permanent lifestyle – a life lived in luxury hotels and mountain-top villas. A life of fast cars, Hollywood actresses and Icelandic rock stars. Of 6,000-mile booty calls, of partying with 800 female hairdressers dressed only in bedsheets, and of nearly dying at the hands of Spanish drug dealers. And, most bizarrely of all, a life that still costs less than his surviving on cold pizza in his old apartment. Yet, as word of Paul’s exploits starts to spread – first online, then through a national newspaper column and eventually a book deal – he finds himself forced constantly to up the stakes in order to keep things interesting. With his behavior spiraling to dangerous – and sometimes criminal – levels, he is forced to ask the question: is there such a thing as too much freedom?”

The book starts off as advertised: Carr figures out that if he sticks to a budget, he can live in luxury hotels for less than he currently does in a one bed apartment in London. But only a few pages in he figures out that he doesn’t need a budget – outside of his room rates, anyway – if all his food and drink is free and served at parties he’s wormed his way into. This Plan B for Booze also takes care of his social life and his job, as he’s wrangled a gig writing columns about the tech industry that apparently only requires his presence at tech industry parties. But as Carr’s nights become increasingly alcohol-soaked, the subsequent hangovers are lasting longer and longer and soon he finds that more than his liver is at stake.

The Upgrade isn’t for the fainthearted, the easily offended or teetotalers. Girls, we also have to push through the beginning where we exist only as sexual objects who talk about hair care products and “like cushions.” But it’s worth it. There were enough check-in tales to satisfy the former front desk agent in me, I laughed out loud on plenty of occasions and I really like Carr’s writing style. Also by the end of it I quite liked him, which was a surprise considering that at the beginning of the book I was doing a lot of eye-rolling.

I can’t forgive him though for one check-in tale he told where he asked to see the rooms first, which is one of the most annoying things you can do to a front desk agent. It’s up there with talking on your phone while you check in, stepping up to the desk with a blank look on your face (tip: lots of things happen at the front desk – you have tell me what you’re there for, e.g. “I’d like to check in”) and acting like being two doors away from the rest of your party instead of just one is not only going to ruin your holiday but your entire life from here on out. And what’s the number rule for getting free stuff? Don’t piss off the front desk agents.

Carr himself points out the greatest draw of this book: you mightn’t be able to drop everything to go live permanently in hotels around the world, but you can take something from his misadventures. It might be a check-in tip, a bit of perspective or even the motivation to set off on your own hospitality-related adventure, but it will be something.

Something and a really good read. Recommended.

Click here to purchase The Upgrade from The Book Depository.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

What I Thought Of: SEX ON THE MOON by Ben Mezrich

Every once in a while you hear a little snippet of a story and you think to yourself, I wish someone would write a book about that. I bet it’d be really interesting. Luckily for me, my wishes always seem to come true. For instance back in my virology-obsessed days I kept coming across casual throwaway references to HeLa, an immortal cell line cultivated from a woman’s cervical cancer cells back in the fifties that had since been used in everything from the creation of polio vaccine to AIDS research. I wondered who this woman was and how her cells had come to play such a crucial role in the health of humanity as a whole. Imagine my glee when I heard about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which turned out not only to satisfy my curiosity but became one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books.

Now, it’s happened again – with Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich, which is about one of the most audacious (and stupid) heists in American history: a bid to steal and sell lunar rocks from NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, orchestrated by an intern.

“Thad Roberts, a fellow in a prestigious NASA programme had an idea – a romantic, albeit crazy, idea. He wanted to give his girlfriend the moon. Literally. Thad convinced his girlfriend and another female accomplice, both NASA interns, to break into an impenetrable laboratory at NASA’s headquarters – past security checkpoints, and electronically locked door with cipher security codes and camera-lined hallways – and help him steal the most precious objects in the world: Apollo moon rocks from every moon landing in history. Was Thad Roberts – undeniably gifted, picked for one of the most competitive scientific posts imaginable – really what he seemed? And what does one do with an item so valuable that it’s illegal even to own? Based on meticulous research into thousands of pages of court records, FBI transcripts and documents, and scores of interviews with the people involved, Mezrich – with his signature high-velocity swagger – has reconstructed the madcap story of genius, love, and duplicity all centred on a heist that reads like a Hollywood thrill ride.”

I was pre-disposed to loving this book. Reason number one: it’s by Ben Mezrich, author of The Accidental Billionaires which I really enjoyed. Reason number two: I’m a NASA nut. I couldn’t wait to find out about these lucky “co-ops” at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, the undergrads who get to intern at the space agency, and where they got to go and what they got to do while they were there.

And I think that’s the problem, because while I enjoyed Sex on the Moon, I spent almost all of it being utterly infuriated.

Thad Roberts had opportunities that I couldn’t even dream of. He got to work in the Lunar Sample Lab, the special facility that houses the moon rock the Apollo missions brought back to earth (if I was offered the opportunity to go anywhere at all on earth for one hour, that’d by my pick after the original Mission Control), and when news of the heist breaks, Roberts has just climbed out of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where NASA’s astronauts practice working in zero gravity in the largest swimming pool in the United States. He actually has a chance of becoming an astronaut himself.

And what does it do with all this opportunity? He uses it to steal the most precious materials on earth, moon rocks, samples actually collected by hand by Apollo astronauts, and tries to offload them over the internet so he can make a buck.

For a girl who was giddy for a week over a Kennedy Space Centre annual pass, this ridiculousness was hard to take.

Sex on the Moon is very sympathetic, and I couldn’t stomach the whole “he’s just a nice guy who did something impulsive and stupid” defense. Robert’s heist was as meticulously executed as Ethan Hunt’s trip to get the NOC list from Langley in Mission Impossible – this wasn’t a prank, it was a crime.

Mezrich draws Roberts as a man who idly fantasized about how one would break into NASA’s labs without any real intention of ever doing it (in my mind’s eye I saw him pressing “Send” on his e-mail advertising the rocks and then giggling nervously like a schoolgirl who’s just planted a thumb-tack on their teacher’s seat) but then suddenly finds himself pushed over the line into reality and – How did I get here? – at the keypad outside the secure lab. It wasn’t, Mezrich would have us believe, as if he meant to do it.

Yeah… Except that a few days before, Roberts had brushed a special compound on the buttons of that keypad and combined with the backlight he had with him now, he could “read” the access code. And in a motel a few miles away he and his accomplices had set up their own receiving laboratory, a room filled with enough plastic sheeting, tools and latex gloves to make a serial killer proud. And he had buyers ready. So.

And although the rocks were recovered, notebooks in which an eminent NASA scientist had recorded his life’s work never were, but this is swept aside in Sex on the Moon because, hey, Roberts doesn’t remember seeing those during all the moon rock-stealing so that’s alright. The reader is also constantly reminded that NASA had deemed the samples “trash” (they had already been used in scientific research and so couldn’t be used in further research – but they were still priceless lunar rocks) except they weren’t in a trash can, were they? They were in a secure facility that Roberts did not have legal access to, and he was well aware of the laws relating to lunar rocks. (It’s illegal to privately own as much as a particle of them.)

A quick google of what Thad Roberts is up to now confirms what I’d begun to suspect by the end of Sex of the Moon: he’s doing just fine. Unlike his former employers, the owner of the notebooks and the US taxpayers who funded the FBI operation that took him down and the federal prison that housed him during his punishment – and the multi-billion dollar Apollo program in the first place – Roberts appears to have suffered no permanent ill-effects which, of course, only compounds the reader’s annoyance. These days he’s doing TedX talks and working on quantum space theory, so at least he’s putting his brains to better use now than he did in his youth.

But back to the book. Janet Maslin of the New York Times has called Mezrich a baloney artist for the approach he takes to non-fiction, which is to jazz it up so that these tales read more like breathless novels than anything else. Mezrich interprets the facts rather than presents them, but he effectively admits that he does so that doesn’t bother me, and I enjoy his writing style.

What does bother me about Sex on the Moon is that Mezrich – like the version of Roberts he’s presented – doesn’t seem to think any real wrong-doing took place here. I was just waiting for the line, “Well.. it wasn’t like anybody died!”

I’d just about recommend this book, but I’d suspect you’d enjoy it a lot more if you’re not an armchair astronaut.

Click here to find Sex on the Moon on The Book Depository.

Click here to read all my book reviews.

Flipback Books: My Verdict

We all know that I am an unapologetic lover of books made from dead trees and that despite selling lots of e-books, I have – to date – read the sum total of two of them. One was only available in e-book and the other was too short for me to justify purchasing in print, and while I read them I had to actively push down my Kindle-induced rage.

These two exceptions aside, I buy every single book I read (when I don’t get them for free, to review) and I like my words on paper, not in computer code. This is because books themselves hold an appeal for me that is entirely separate to the experience of reading them. I like looking at them all lined up on my shelves. I just love books, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. (We all remember the Vintage Books/Jo Nesbo/mismatched cover fiasco, don’t we? Thanks again for my matching set, Vintage Books!)

So when I heard about these new “flipback” books, my first thought was “They. Are. So. CUTE!” and my second was, “I must have them.” The idea is that the books are small (about the size of an iPhone), light (they’re made from bible paper) and extremely portable, so they tick the convenience box while remaining a real, live book. Or a real dead book, to be more accurate. As the name suggests, you flip the cover up to read them top-to-bottom as opposed to left-to-right.

Personally I don’t think books as they currently exist are in any way broken and I don’t mind going on holidays with two outfits and laundry money because I’ve filled my suitcases with a stack of summer reads – in October I actually left clothes behind me in the States to make way for a haul of books from The Strand bookstore in New York and I DON’ REGRET IT ONE TINY BIT – but I acknowledge that other people might not feel the same way and flipbacks are certainly the non-Kindle solution to your holiday suitcase problem.

But there are three things I don’t like about them.

The first is the price, which for now I suppose can’t really be helped. All flipbacks are made by just one printer based in the Netherlands so this explains the €12.50 price tag (although not why The Book Depository can manage to sell them for €8.49.) Maybe – hopefully – that’ll change in the future, especially as they start to add more titles. (Hello? The Help? Would that not be the best flipback title ever?) But it’s a Catch-22 situation because in order for the price to be lower they’ll have to be mass produced on a larger scale, but in order for that to happen there’ll need to be a bigger demand, and in order for there to be a demand people have to rush out and buy them, which they’re dissuaded from doing now because of the high price.

The second is that while I love how the flipback looks as a physical book, it annoys me that the spine text is printed in the wrong direction. Call me crazy – I know you do – but yes, things like that annoy me. When a book is a on shelf, the text should be the right way up with the front cover to the right. On a flipback it’s only the right way up if the front cover is to the left. Maybe, again, this is related to their Dutch origins but if you want me to collect the whole set, the whole set is going to have to look cute on my bookshelves, not make me bristle with book-lover annoyance every time I see it.

Lastly, reading a flipback is easy and comfortable, but only when you get passed the first fourth or fifth of the book. At the beginning  the whole weight of the book is hanging by a page, and that just feels weird. Also I don’t believe this read-with-one-hand business. You can hold it with one hand, yes, but if you read quick there’s no point, because you’re turning the pages so quickly that it’s hardly worth your while putting down the other hand. And why are we aspiring to read with one hand? Because we can with a Kindle and the flipback is trying to compete? I hope so, because otherwise I have to ask: we’re talking about reading a book here. How lazy are you people?!

Having said all that, they do have a high novelty factor, they make a great present (they are much easier to post half way around the world than their bigger brothers) and they’re collectable. They are also so beautifully made that you can practically hear them whisper quality. As a cover junkie I particularly love how well the original cover designs have been so perfectly re-sized to fit the flipbacks, with Misery, one of my two flipback purchases, looking particularly good. But with only 12 titles available for now – and my local Waterstones only stocking four of them – I don’t think they’re quite there yet.

And I can only hope that the Guardian’s headline “Could this new book kill the Kindle?” was penned for effect and not because they actually think there’s a chance in hell the two things are related, because they’re not. It’s like asking, “Could this new spork kill the spoon?”

(Incidentally, my favorite line from that piece was, “Unlike an ordinary paperback, the book lies open without intervention on my part, due to its special spine.” This goes hand in hand – no pun intended, HA! – with the reading them with one hand thing. Again: how lazy a person do you have to be for this to be a selling point?!)

But I don’t doubt I’ll be buying more in the future though.

We all know I’m a sucker for a novelty item, especially if it’s book-related.

What do you think about them? Will you buying one? And what titles would you like to see in flipback form?

Find out more about flipback books here. The Book Depository seem to have the best deal on them and don’t forget they have free shipping worldwide.

(On a related note, I’m extremely disappointed that one of the flipback titles is A Million Little Pieces and that on the cover it’s referred to as a memoir, on its listing all the glowing reviews are pre-Smoking Gun exposé and so contain words like “memoir” and “honest”, and there is no mention of the fact that is a big stinky heap of complete and utter bullshit. A disclaimer inside the book is not enough if you’re going to act like it doesn’t exist whenever it suits you.)

Is There a Book in You? Alison Baverstock Can Help You Find Out

Once upon I told you lovely blog readers about a book called How Not To Write a Novel: 200 Mistakes To Avoid at All Costs if You Ever Want to Be Published. In my review of it I expressed my dream that, one day, whenever someone said, “You know, I think I might like to write a book…” a magical lever would depress somewhere in their nearest Amazon fulfillment centre and a copy of How Not… would be automatically sent to them as a kind of Stop sign. But this was really just a Band-Aid, something to temporarily stop yet another bad book from entering the world. Chances are, it wouldn’t even stick, or at least not stick for very long. What was really needed was a book aimed at the aspiring novelist even sooner that the “I’m going to write a book” thought, one that helped them to determine, before they ever put pen to paper, whether writing a book was indeed the job for them and, more importantly, if they had anything worth writing a book about.

Well ladies, gentlemen and spammer bots, I’ve found it. It’s called Is There a Book in You? and it’s by Alison Baverstock. I highly recommend it, and I recommend you read it before you go out and buy things like On Writing or The Writers and Artists Yearbook (or even, if you’re anything like me, a new computer; I once read that Michael Connelly said the best thing for writer’s block was a new computer, and I’ve used it as my excuse ever since). It offers a reality check, not a bleak one but it is realistic, and it will help you figure out if writing is what you were meant to do, or if it’s the thing you were meant to avoid. Are you daydreaming of writing all day everyday come rain or shine, or are you daydreaming about being a writer? It helps you answer this question and as a bonus, has some fantastic writerly quotes on its pages.

Here’s the synopsis:

“For many, the desire to write is very strong. Yet how do you know whether there is a book in you? And do you have what it takes to see it through? At the heart of this book is a questionnaire that helps you discover whether there is a potential writer lurking. The book explores the topics of creativity, motivation, what to write about, the key attributes that all writers must possess to succeed, what you must know about the publishing industry and much more.”

Alison was nice enough to answer a few questions for us here on Catherine, Caffeinated.

Welcome, Alison! What prompted you to write Is There a Book in You…?

As a former publisher I had always been fascinated by the process whereby some people got a book deal and others did not, when there was so much material worth publishing available.

I was mulling over the idea of trying to theorise about the competencies and aptitudes that the author needed when the idea for this book came as a flash of inspiration: I would find ten core assets and test why they were important. I can remember when it first occurred to me (I was just preparing to give a talk on publishing in a bookshop) and scuttling across to my briefcase to note down the five or six things that immediately occurred to me! I trialled my ideas with writers, publishers, agents, and all involved with the publishing business. It was the fastest book I ever wrote, which to me is always a good sign – when things are going well I write very quickly.

What is it, in your opinion, makes so many people think they have a novel in them, when nowhere near as many say, “I know if I just had the time, I’d make a film/compose a song/sculpt a piece of art”? What do you think it is about writing books that makes so many people think they can do it?

I think most people have a story inside them, and recording it is important to them – the key issue is whether other people will want to share and read it too. I am a great believer in everyone writing – because I think writing brings with it reflection, self-knowledge and often healing – but that not every story needs to be shared; some may be of interest only to your immediate circle of family and friends, or even just to you (writing things down before you forget them can bring peace of mind).

I suppose people underestimate how difficult writing is because it is on the ‘compulsory’ part of the school curriculum, and so having been forced to do it at school, many think it is achievable by all. And then the kind of good writing studied in school flows so well that the reader is inclined to discount the associated effort, and think ‘how hard can this be?’ The process is also heavily influenced by stories of writers who break through from scribbling at home into huge sales; and this maintains the romance for others who would like to do the same thing. They show it is possible, and prompt the dreams of others.

How can you tell if the book in you is any good?

You can tell quite quickly if the work of other people is what you want to go on reading – does it hold you, does it feel vivid, do you feel carried by the story rather than spotting how it is constructed? It’s much more difficult to do that for your own work. I would advise setting work aside for a couple of months and returning to it with an objective eye; involving critical friends or paying for an expert opinion.

What is the one thing an aspiring writer can do to improve their chances of writing a good book?

Read more. There is nothing that improves your writing skills more than reading what other good writers have written. It doesn’t have to be books, it could be well crafted blogs (such as Catherine’s!) newspaper and magazines – any crafted and edited format over which trouble has been taken. The shape of effective writing will start to impose itself on your brain and have an influence on how you present your own ideas. I like to remind my students of how John McEnroe played tennis – he always walked around the lines of the court as if to impress them on his brain – and hopefully structure his response. Reading does the same for writers.

If an aspiring writer has ascertained that indeed, yes, there is a book in them and they manage to crank out 100,000 words or however many of it, what next steps should they take?

Well firstly congratulate yourself! Getting 100,000 words down is no mean achievement, and even if you do not manage to get a publishing deal, this now exists and can be refined and read by others in future.

Then think about what kind of work it is and who might like to read it (look in bookshops to see how books are categorised and where yours might sit – you do need to do this as any agent or publisher who is interested in you  will want to know what your book is like). Edit it and improve it, either on your own or with support, until it is as good as you can make it. Then get hold of a copy of the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ to find out what kind of agents and publishers might be interested. If you want to know how to manage the pitch, then can I humbly recommend ‘Marketing your book: to publishers, agents and readers. An author’s guide’ (also by me, and published by A&C Black)? And if you decide you would rather self-publish then there are lots of ways in which this can be pursued, some of which may lead to a conventional publishing deal. It’s a case of matching what you want to achieve with the resources you have available.

Finally, remember that a journey to publication should not be rushed, and you should not send out work until you are happy to be judged by it. The number of publishers and agents is reducing, there are vast numbers of other writers seeking a contract – and you can only make a first impression once!

Thank you, Alison!

Click here to see all Alison’s books on Amazon.com and here on Amazon.co.uk.

About Alison:

Alison Baverstock is a former publisher, author of 13 titles, a publishing industry consultant, teacher of marketing and publishing studies at Kingston University and advisor to new writers. She appeared as an expert contributor on the Richard and Judy “How To Get a Novel Published” series of programmes. Click here to find out more.

What I Thought Of… HOW I SOLD 1 MILLION E-BOOKS IN 5 MONTHS by John Locke

I’m over on Irish Publishing News today, reviewing John Locke’s book, How I Sold 1 Million E-books in 5 Months.

I had a mixed reaction to it, which is to say that while on one hand I thought, “This is a near-guaranteed way to sell millions of 99c e-books,” on the other I was thinking, “This has nothing to do with being a good writer.” You may argue that the numbers of readers you have determines the quality of your writing, but it doesn’t, and I’ll be posting more about that thought next week.

“Being a self-published author myself (and currently making a living from it) I was intrigued to find out how Locke had done it. Even more so because I’m one of his legion of Twitter followers, and have been since before he came up with his e-book selling strategy, which he says he did around October 2010. But would this book really contain the secret of selling a million books? Would it say something new or just more of the same? And was it worth the $4.99 (€3.50) price-tag or should he have priced it at 99c like he does all his other books?”

Click here to read the full review.

P.S: What did I learn from this experience? PROOFREAD YOUR GUEST POSTS BEFORE YOU SEND THEM OFF. I don’t really care about typos on my own blog (it’s just a blog people – chillax!) but it’s not the done thing to do it on other people’s. When I have a guest poster, I only skim their article before it goes live; I’m assuming they’ve checked it themselves, and anyway I’m not the best error-spotter. But Eoin of IPN and I have been error-spotting all morning on this thing – clearly I wrote it in a caffeine-free situation. YIKES!

What I Thought Of… HURRY UP AND WAIT by Isabel Ashdown

Isabel Ashdown’s first novel, Glasshopper, won her the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition, was hailed by the Observer as one of “Best Debuts of 2009” and was one of the Evening Standard‘s “Best Books of the Year.” It’s a title that’s been on my I Really Should Get Round to Read These list for a long time and while I still haven’t got round to it, I have had the pleasure of reading Ashdown’s new book, Hurry Up and Wait.

“It’s more than twenty years since Sarah Ribbons last set foot inside her old high school, a crumbling Victorian-built comprehensive on the south coast of England. Now, as she prepares for her school reunion, 39-year-old Sarah has to face up to the truth of what really happened back in the summer of 1986. 

August 1985: Sarah celebrates her fifteenth birthday in the back garden of a suburban seaside house she shares with her aging father. As she embarks on her fifth and final year at Selton High School for Girls Sarah’s main focus is on her erratic friendships with Tina and Kate; her closest allies one moment, her fiercest opponents the next as they compete for the attention of the new boy, Dante. When her father is unexpectedly taken ill, Sarah is sent to stay with Kate’s family in nearby Amber Chalks. Kate’s youthful parents welcome her into the comfort of their liberal family home, where the girls can eat off trays while watching TV in Kate’s bedroom. They’ve never been closer – until a few days into her stay, events take a sinister turn, and Sarah knows that nothing will ever be the same again.”

I’m ten years out of school – ten years this month, eek! – but I still have the odd dream/nightmare that when the sun rises, I have to push myself out of bed, pull on an itchy purple wool uniform, trudge off to my least favorite place on earth and count down the minutes until three-thirty when I can leave again. When I read books like Hurry Up and Wait (or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, or Cuckoo by Julia Crouch) that uncomfortable, crawly-skin feeling descends and I am transported right back to a time when your best friend yesterday mightn’t be the same one you have tomorrow, and you mightn’t really like either of them anyway. (It took me a few years to fully extricate myself from my marriage-of-convenience school friends and I remember, when I first made true friends purely by choice, thinking, These people are amazing! I actually would choose to spend time with them, and they don’t annoy me at all! Is this what it’s supposed to be like?!) Of course we don’t know any better, and most of us emerged unscathed from our relationships with school “friends” we don’t actually like. But what might happen if we didn’t?

In Hurry Up and Wait, Ashdown explores that very notion through the relationships between three school friends: Sarah, Kate and Tina, the alliances and animosity within them changing like the wind. It’s acutely observed and utterly realistic – every scene, down to the cruel taunting of their teachers and Sarah’s struggle between wanting to impress her friend and not disappoint her father, rings true. Set in a small town and played out among adolescents (and therefore, characters without enough life experience to have perspective), there is also a feeling almost of claustrophobia, a sense that this is the only world there is and will ever be.

If I had one criticism it would be that due to the nature of the novel’s timeline (it starts and ends at the school reunion; the main part of the novel is set back in Sarah’s school days), the impact of the novel’s climax felt softened slightly. Ashdown does an excellent job of generating a sense of dark foreboding – the book’s tension comes from the reader knowing where Sarah is headed even though Sarah herself does not – but I felt the emotional punch at the end could have been even bigger if it wasn’t for the book’s structure.

I consider this only a minor annoyance though; it didn’t affect my reading experience. I can still say I really enjoyed the book. Recommended.

Today is the last day you can purchase Hurry Up and Wait for just £1 on Amazon’s Kindle store. Don’t miss out! 

You can follow Isabel on Twitter here or visit her website here 

Click here for all my book reviews

What I Thought Of… FAR TO GO by Alison Pick

Alison Pick, author of Far To Go, was our wonderful guest poster here on Catherine, Caffeinated earlier today. She is also the reason why I woke up this morning looking like a hay-fever sufferer who had spent the night nose-down in freshly cut grass; I was up until two o’clock this morning, finishing Far To Go and crying my eyes out. This book just broke my heart open.

“Czechoslovakia, 1939. Pavel and Anneliese Bauer, much like any other affluent Czech family, dote on their six-year-old son, Pepik, and enjoy a life of domestic comfort. Their nanny, Marta, could not adore Pepik more. But as rumors of the Nazi threat, and then German troops, reach their corner of the Sudetenland, this charmed existence is turned on its head: for all that the Bauer barely consider themselves Jewish, their lives are now in danger. Far to Go plunges us into the hearts of a family fleeing for their lives, and offered a desperate chance to save their child. Few novels have dealt with the story of the Kindertransport, and none with insight into it complex legacy of hope, secrecy and loss. A story about love, the painful choices it demands of us, and the way it endures, Far to Go is at once haunting and impossible to put down.”

This really is an astounding book and I found myself deeply affected by it. Jumping between 1939 and an initially unidentified, mysterious narrator in modern day, it tells the story of one family’s struggle to make the right decision in a time when the consequences of any action were utterly unknown, and there was only a deep sense of foreboding to rely upon. It is also, I think, about memory, and the delicate jig-saw pieces that we use to make it up. After a slow burn, its climax sneaks up on you, a sudden blow from the side, and it is utterly devastating – but not at all for the reasons you might think.

I think when we look at what happened during the Holocaust, the sheer numbers, the horrific facts, prevent us from taking it all in. It’s too big a heartache. It’s only when we experience it through the eyes of a single family do we really understand the pain, the injustice, the senselessness and the horror. Far To Go doesn’t take us to the camps and only hints at what we know is coming (the Bauers, of course, have no way of knowing, and the rumors seem too outlandish to them to be true), and it doesn’t need to. The victims it describes, the children who left their families, their foundations and their childhoods behind to board Kindertransport trains and start new lives in foreign countries with strangers who spoke a language they couldn’t understand – they are the “lucky” ones. Surely that is the most horrific fact of all.

A masterful storyteller, language used simply but beautifully, a sensitive but illuminating touch on history, characters who are still with me now, emotional impact (to say the least!) and a shocking twist: Far to Go has it all. I’m still thinking about this book, and will be for a long time.

Devastating, and devastatingly brilliant. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thanks to Headline for my copy. Click here to purchase Far To Go from Amazon.co.uk

Click here to read all my book reviews.