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Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby: Review

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The fast-paced, hyper-theatrical exuberance of Baz Lurhman’s style is like filmic Marmite. His first film, Strictly Ballroom was the perfect vehicle for his vision, a small-budget project made large with over-the-top performances and a cartoon-like quality that was funny, fresh and endearing. Since then, as Lurhman’s budgets have increased, the exuberance has grown and grown, while the endearment factor has relatively diminished, dipping to absolute zero in his last outing – the execrable epic that was Australia.

His version of The Great Gatsby crashes into our cinemas on a similar wave of hype to that which pre-empted Australia, but there’s no denying that Lurhman is the perfect director to take on a remake of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and maybe finally do it justice. After all, it’s a book that might have been the architectural blueprint for Lurhman’s house of cinematic cards.

In one of the director’s regular nods to the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz, as opening credits for this Gatsby unfold they morph from black and white to colour. There’s a sepia pallour to the opening scenes too, until the action shifts to Gatsby’s parties, and the colour explodes, over-the-rainbow style. There’s the quality of a colourised black and white photograph to the film, giving it an odd retro feeling that along with some disconcerting 3D effects, bring us into the hyper-jazz age action. Fatty Arbuckle or Clara Bow might pop out from behind one of the lush shrubs on Gatsby’s grounds, and you wouldn’t blink an eye. Lurhman plays around with 3D in a painterly way too. Words and numbers are etched on the screen and then dissemble and float towards you, snowflakes fall and dance right in front of your glasses.

The Great Gatsby is a story about male consumption, whether it is of fast cars, big houses, booze, or most importantly, women. It’s about the haves and the have-nots, and at its heart is a man who once had nothing, but now has it all, and still wants more. Gatsby’s reaching for the stars, and at the zenith is Daisy Buchanan, the woman he desires above all things but can’t own, because she belongs to another man.

Lurhman’s cartoonish style lends itself perfectly to the tale. It’s amped up so high that the tragedy of the have-nots, Myrtle and George Wilson – who represent the dull, eternal grindstone that is the underbelly of the American dream – gets lost in broad comedy and Grand Guignol performance from Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke, respectively. But that’s okay, because this Gatsby is not about the underbelly; it’s about the surface. It’s about possessions and possessiveness, and at its heart is a character putting on one hell of a show, like a swan that’s paddling crazily beneath the water.

This film is exactly that – one hell of a show, paddling hard. And it’s a very enjoyable show too. The casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is Lurhman’s trump card. He’s an actor of such depth that he can bring heart and emotion to the most frivolous of scenes, and even though he has to say “old sport” about 3,000 times, he wipes the floor with everyone else on the set, bar maybe the sharp-eyed Joel Edgerton as the Gatsby’s nemesis, Tom Buchanan.

Apart from her costumes, the usually brilliant Carey Mulligan is a disappointment. But then again, Daisy is little more than a cipher for all the selfish dreams the men in this story cradle. She has little to do but look stunningly beautiful, bored, wistful, or cry tears that look like diamonds running down her perfect cheeks. The edgy Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker completely outshines Mulligan.

The one character that appears in every scene is, of course, the narrator, Nick Carraway, as played by Tobey Maguire. His performance annoyed the woman sitting next to me, but I found him to be pitch perfect, in that you completely forgot he was there, even when his face was peering out at you in 3D. Tom Buchanan says to Nick early in the film, “I know you like to watch, and that’s fine with me,” and that’s fine with us too. He’s the human filter through which this story of a crowd of vaudeville performers can somehow be grounded in reality.

In the end, although it leaves us with a message about the meaning of life and all that jazz, you forget it instantly. The Great Gatsby is about spectacle. You exit the cinema remembering the costumes and the frenetic dancing more than any underlying serious theme. Fitzgerald might be turning in his grave – The Great Gatsby is supposed to be a Great American Novel after all – but as Lurhman proves, he deserves this kind of treatment.

 

What to call it? The Journey Towards a Book Title

I originally came up with the concept for my new novel while cycling in Dublin (often my ideas come while biking, there’s something about the rhythm of it that makes my thoughts flow). I remembered a story I’d written for a comedy newspaper I produce every now and then for my family, about my youngest brother who as a teenager was big into Eminem. The story said that he was spotted coming out of an Abbaholics Anonymous meeting.

Suddenly I had it. I would write a book about an ABBA fanclub who reunite to go to Stockholm to see an ABBA reunion concert. I would call the book Abbaholics Anonymous.

I pitched the idea to my publishers, who liked it, and so the long and hard work of writing Abbaholics Anonymous began.

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Cut to a year and a half later, when my second draft was finished, and my editor says she wants to have a meeting. Nobody in the publishing house likes Abbaholics Anonymous as a title, she tells me over coffee. Can’t we call it something else?

I argued hard. I thought the title was comedic and would leave people in no doubt about the subject matter, but my editor argued that the book was about so much more than just an ABBA fanclub and an ABBA concert. They were just the hangers on which the full wardrobe of the novel were hung.

Eventually I had to agree. I let go of Abbaholics Anonymous (although I did keep the phrase part of the novel itself) and started casting around for a new title. It wasn’t easy. I looked through the ABBA catalogue over and over again, but nothing was jumping out.

The the publishers suggested The Day Before You Came. But I felt the song was too obscure, that only diehard ABBA fans would instantly remember it looking at the cover. I wanted it to be more instantly grabbing.

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My editor’s instincts were spot on, in one respect. ‘The Day Before You Came’ is not only ABBA’s masterpiece (to my mind), but it has a real sense of story to it. As a title it suggests a past, present and future – the hook telling the browser that something interesting is going to happen in the course of this book.

Voulez Vous? “No,” said my editor. It’s too 1970s sexual.

Thank You For The Music? “No, it sounds like an ABBA biography.”

S.O.S.? “No, it sounds like a cry for help.”

I had suggested Knowing Me Knowing You early on in the process, but we both dismissed it because it was once the catchphrase of Alan Partridge, and people automatically delivered back comedic “Ah ha!” at the end.

But then one day I was driving to Sligo, my hometown (and where the teenage sections of the novel are set) and ‘Knowing Me Knowing You’ came on the radio. I listened to the lyrics and found that they fit my story in so many ways.

It’s a book about love lost and found, friendships that have fallen by the wayside, and what happens in the aftermath of people’s lives. In it my characters get to rekindle romance and friendship 30 years after the summer they were feeltingly friends, and in a way it’s a book about knowing another person, really knowing.

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When the cover designs for the book came through, it was Knowing Me Knowing You that stood out by a mile. It was perfectly right. I saw it in a bookshop, staring out from the shelf at me the other day, and thought: Abbaholics Anonymous? What was I thinking?

 

 

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World: A Review

 

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At the beginning of Janet E. Cameron’s book, Cinnamon Toast and The End of the World, Stephen Shulevitz’s world as he knows it comes to an end. He’s reached the sudden realisation that he’s in love with his best buddy, Mark, and that he desperately wants to kiss him.

This is a ‘coming out’ novel. You know from the opening scene that Stephen will have to overcome a series of emotional obstacles before eventually coming to terms with his sexuality; that towards the end he’s going to tell Mark that he fancies him, for better or worse; and that there’s going to be some deep issues with Stephen’s parents that he’s going to have to sort out along the way. There’ll probably be a story arc featuring Stephen’s close female friend too. As with any romance novel, where the two paramours are introduced in the opening chapter and you know that on the very last page they will get together, the table is set for a three-course meal you’ve consumed several versions of before.

The desire to keep reading a novel in such a well-trodden genre is founded in questions about how the journey will unfold, and the mark of success is whether it keeps the reader questioning.

Luckily Cameron knows how to keep the questions popping up. She’s a talented writer, and the journey she takes us on is always pleasurable, sometimes moving, and has a lyrical literary style that separates it from the masses of ‘coming out’ fiction that litter the queer cannon. It also dares, at times, to jumble up the equation and come up with different answers, as in a later reunion scene between Stephen and his absent, drop-out Dad, Stanley, in which a lesser novelist would have given her readers warm, fuzzy emotional resolution.

Before any conclusion is reached, Stanley says: “I think this conversation has run its course.” Stephen, instead of getting his father to say he loves him, is left in confusion, and Cameron resists any urge to move Stanley centre stage again for the tying up of loose ends.

The tale is set in 1987, mostly in the small Canadian town of Riverside, where boredom rather than outright prejudice drives the violent motivations of its teenage population. Cameron clearly loves the eighties. The book is filled with playful cultural references to the era. When Stephen contemplates suicide, he does so through the filter of watching an umpteenth Friday The 13th sequel. At the inevitably excruciating prom, he dances with rebellious abandonment to Aha’s The Sun Always Shines on TV.

He may be surrounded by stalwarts of the genre – the best girlfriend (Lana) who secretly fancies him, the ambivalent but unavailable love interest, the school bullies – but its in her depiction of supporting characters, like Lana’s immigrant father, Mr. Kovalenko (“a look on his face like he’d been chewing old sardines”), and Stephen’s fleeting, sexually gluttonous girlfriend, Tina Thompson, with her “muscular tongue”, that Cameron really lights up. Stephen himself is a sharply drawn protagonist, his teenage view of the world suitably cynical, but underlined with almost poetic, acute observation.

Towards the end the inevitable happens, and as Stephen’s orientation becomes known to his peers, he becomes more and more vulnerable. Cameron isn’t afraid to shift the lighthearted tone of the first half of the novel into much darker territory, and during the penultimate, chaotic scene between Stephen and Mark, you begin to think this might not turn out the way all ‘coming out’ novels turn out, after all.

You’ll have to read the book to find out if it does, but in the meantime I’m taking bets that Cameron’s second novel will leave the ‘coming out’ genre behind. She’s simply a writer, a good one, who likes to tell a cracking story. That this story is about a gay boy finding himself is incidental.

How The President Got ABBA Tickets

There’s another story doing the rounds about Abba reuniting, with Agnetha rowing in to say she wouldn’t be adverse to doing a charity concert. In Knowing Me Knowing You, they reunite to do a concert for Unicef, and my characters all go to Stockholm for the concert of a lifetime. Writing it was like writing a dream come true for me. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was see ABBA in concert. The nearest I ever got was going to ABBA: The Movie in the Savoy Cinema in Sligo, Ireland on a rainy summer’s night, but even then my excitement was so much, I could hardly eat the whole day beforehand. (I guess that’s called the ABBA diet.)

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ABBA came to Ireland in 1979, when I wasn’t nearly old enough to go to a concert, so my parents wouldn’t hear of it. And anyway, the tickets sold out instantly and then became like gold dust. On the day they played, the then President of Ireland, Patrick Hillery, went on the most popular radio show of the time, The Gay Byrne Show, and appealed for tickets so his daughter could go to the show. She had a pair by 5pm.

My friend, John, who lived in Limerick (I didn’t know him at the time, we only met as adults) remembers this, and remembers how disgusted he was, that the President would be able to use his power to get tickets like that, and when you think about it, Mr Hillery was being very cheeky indeed.

I hope his daughter enjoyed the show. And maybe, if Bjorn, Benny Agnetha and Frida ever get back on a stage together, myself and John can go and see them play!

Review of The Red House by Mark Haddon

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Although I wasn’t a huge fan of The Curious Incident, I loved Mark Haddon’s second adult novel, A Spot of Bother. I think he is brilliant at writing the dynamics of family, the mixture of love, resentment, competition, annoyance and friendship that comes with having parents and siblings. While A Spot of Bother was quite comedic, and very moving, in its exploration of the breakdown of a parent and its effect on his wife and children, The Red House is a much darker take on family dynamics. But it’s nonetheless gripping and beautifully written.

An estranged brother and sister, Angela and Richard, go on holidays together in rural Wales with their respective families after the death of their mother, and the story unfolds over a week staying in The Red House.

The younger characters come across as the most interesting, particularly the 16 year-old self-serving, calculating bully Melissa, and catastrophically confused Jesus-freak Daisy, who is the same age. The relationship that develops between the two, who have only met each other for the first time is much more the excruciating heart of this book than the one between Angela and Richard.

Whereas A Spot of Bother ended with a sense of resolution, by the time the book ends, the two families go their separate ways and few conclusions have been come to, except maybe for Daisy who has come to a moment of self-realisation.

Hovering over this book is the imagined ghost of Angela’s stillborn first child, Karen, and she makes for a genuinely creepy presence, even if she ends up being the glue that just may hold this disparate group of people together.

A fine read, full of wonderful literary tricks and quirks, but I’m a sucker for resolution, so it left me feeling a little frustrated. But then again, family is like that. The relationships go on, and while there may be moments of clarity, there is rarely resolution.

The Five Golden Rules of Romantic Comedy

If you want to write romantic comedy fiction or screenplays, here are five hard and fast rules you should stick to. If writings not your thing, but rom coms are, these rules will give you fun new way to look at them.

1. Different But The Same

You heard the term: opposites attract? This must always be true for the lead characters in a rom com. Yet at the same time both characters must be fundamentally the same as each other. This contradiction creates chemistry.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry is an inveterate slob who thinks that a man and a woman can’t have a friendship without sex getting in the way. Sally, on the other hand, is a pernickety neat-freak who believes that men always make sex part of the male/female relationship because they think with their dicks. Yet despite Harry and Sally’s differences, they are both philosophers at heart. It is their shared love of talking about the fundamentals of relationships that constantly binds them together. So, while there is constant conflict, there is also the harmony of likeminded souls.

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2. Circumstances Will Tear Us Apart

Not only must your rom com leads be in conflict with each other, circumstances must conspire to keep them apart until three quarters of the way into the story. These circumstances can be anything. The guy is still in love with his ex wife (Silver Linings Playbook). The girl is a major Hollywood star and the constant subject of lies and gossip that undermine her relationships (Notting Hill). The girl and the guy live so far apart they have never get the chance to actually meet (Sleepless in Seattle). The girl’s career is taking off at the expense of the guy’s (The Five Year Engagement).

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3. He Wants, She Wants

In any book or movie the lead characters must desperately want something, and to create story their wants must be thwarted in escalating ways until the end. But in a rom com the characters’ wants generally follow a timeworn pattern. One half of the romantic pairing must desperately want the other, while the other half must want something different.

Confused? Here are some examples. In my book The Forced Redundancy Film Club, Katherine, having lost her job, desperately wants to get back on her feet again so she can keep the status quo. Martin, having also lost his job, desperately wants Katherine. In Pretty Woman, Vivian desperately wants to get out of a life of prostitution so she can earn self-respect. Edward desperately wants Vivian. In Bridget Jones Diary, Bridget desperately wants the selfish Daniel Cleaver. Mark Darcy desperately wants Bridget. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s Lula Mae desperately wants to forget her miserable, poverty-stricken past by reinventing herself as the sophisticated and invulnerable Holly Golightly. Paul desperately wants Holly.

The protagonist must desperately want something other than his or her romantic interest. The romantic interest must desperately want the protagonist.

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4. Turmoil At Three Quarters

Two thirds the way through a rom com novel or screenplay the leads must realise together that they are each other’s perfect soulmates. Then emotional turmoil must tear them apart again. Three quarters the way thorugh Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth and Mr Darcy have put their differences aside and fallen in love. Then they learn that Elizabeth’s sister has eloped with Mr Wickham, which will certainly lead to Elizabeth’s downfall in society, making it impossible for Darcy to marry her. On an emotional turmoil point, her pride is gone, and his prejudices have been confirmed. Three quarters the way through When Harry Met Sally, Harry and Sally discover they are in love and have sex. The next morning Harry freaks out and disappears, leading Sally to conclude that she was right about his inability to commit all along. She gives up on him. Elizabeth and Darcy, Sally and Harry – each couple must find a way to overcome this final separation before finally falling into each other’s arms. This encompasses the last act of the story, and by this point both characters want the same thing – each other.

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 5. The Learning Curve

By the time the leads in a rom com fall into each others arms at the very end, either one of both of them will have learned some fundamental truth about themselves and changed for the better to secure their own happiness. Meg Ryan’s characters often have to learn the same thing about themselves in her rom coms: idealistic expectations of perfection do not lead to true happiness. Sally learns this by accepting Harry as he is. In You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen learns this by overcoming her prejudices about Joe. In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat learns that clinging on to the past is killing his chances for happiness. In Pride and Prejudice both Elizabeth and Mr Darcy learn respectively that excessive pride does not lead to happiness, and neither does pointless prejudice. They learn to accept each other as they are, and in doing so to accept themselves.

In Breakfast At Tiffany’s Holly Golightly learns to accept the vulnerable, frightened part of herself she let go off when she took on a different identity. Only in learning to love Lula Mae can she find true happiness, and therefore true love.

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If you want to write romantic comedy, it’s a good exercise to sit down with a rom com novel or film and see how these golden rules always play out before setting out your own plot. Enjoy!

 

The Cloud Atlas Connection

Formerly one half of the reclusive Wachowski Brothers, the writers and directors behind cult hits, The Matrix Trilogy and V For Vendetta, Lana Wachowski decided to come out to the world as transgender as she worked on the latest Wachowski movie, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s literary epic, Cloud Atlas. Her decision is intricately linked to the book’s underlying themes, says Brian Finnegan.

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During her sophomore year at High School, Lana Wachowski made a decision to commit suicide. One evening, after an extra-curricular drama class, she went to her local Burger King and wrote a suicide note. Then she walked to the station where she usually got the train home. She waited alone on the platform for the A Train, which she knew would not stop as it sped through the station.
Lana takes up the story: “I try not to think of anything but jumping as the train comes. Just as the platform starts to rumble suddenly I notice someone walking down the ramp. It is a skinny older man wearing overly large, 1970s, square-style glasses that remind me of the ones my grandma wears. He stares at me the way animals stare at each other. I don’t know why he looked away, all I know is because he didn’t I am still here.”
Lana told this story in a speech last October, when accepting a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Visibility Award. The award was given to her for being the first Hollywood director to come out as transgender.

Lana was formerly known as Larry, one half of the Wachowski Brothers, who came to cult global prominence with the film The Matrix in 1999. Famously, as The Matrix Trilogy evolved into one of the biggest grossing box office franchises of all time, the Wachowski’s eschewed public appearances and media interviews, preferring to stay anonymous, not because of Larry’s gender identity, but because they both became “acutely aware of the preciousness of anonymity”, which allowed them access to an “egalitarian invisibility that neither of us was willing to give up”.

12 years down the line, in anticipation of their adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling literary bestseller, Cloud Atlas, the Wachowski’s reversed this decision and gave The New Yorker magazine an access all areas invitation, which resulted in Lana coming out on the global stage.

In her HRC speech, Lana referred to an epiphany she had during a meeting with her brother and their co-director on Cloud Atlas, Tom Tykwer, trying to figure out what to do when Tom Hanks became unavailable to shoot a promo for the film, in which he plays several different parts.

“I found myself repeating a line from a character [in the film] I was very attached to, who speaks about her own decision to kind of come out,” Lana said. “She says, ‘If I had remained invisible the truth would stay hidden and I couldn’t allow that’.”
In the moment, Lana says that her whole life flashed before her eyes. Lana, who had been out for ten years to her family, understood the time had come for her to tell the world. “We’re giving up anonymity for personal reasons, for the responsibility I feel to the LGBT community,” she subsequently said.

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David Mitchell’s original novel has a theme of personal responsibility at its heart. The character Lana was speaking about is Luisa Rey (played by Halle Berry in the film). She says her line in the knowledge that telling the truth will likely lead to her own death, and the message that underpins both Mitchell’s book and the Wachowski’s adaptation of it, is about the responsibilities human beings have towards one another.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Lana’s social conscience in terms of her gender identity began to emerge while working on Cloud Atlas. A quick look at the Wachowski’s output gives a trajectory towards her coming out. “It seems that you’ve been living two lives,” Agent Smith says to Orpheus in The Matrix. It’s a film about a man is searching for a way to fuse the world he lives in, which is entirely planted in his brain by machines, with the real world. Orpheus (Keanu Reeves) constantly finds himself in between, never part of one world or the other, in search of the oracle, which will reveal to him what his destiny is.
Similarly Lana told The New Yorker a story of finding herself in a new Catholic School as a child, where girls were divided from boys in two lines. She found herself between those lines, not belonging in either, and not understanding why.

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After The Matrix Trilogy, the Wachowski’s turned their attention to writing a script for and co-producing an adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel V For Vendetta. Another dystopian film, the original inspiration for Moore’s novel came from the introduction of Section 28, which banned the “promotion of homosexuality” by local councils in Margaret Thatcher’s Britian. It is about the oppression of diversity, with a specific reference to brutal discrimination against sexual minorities. Humanity triumphs in the Wachowski’s dark film adaptation of V For Vendetta, because its hero opens society’s eyes to the price to be paid for buying into homogeneity.

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“To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human,” the character Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) says in the Wachowski’s version of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s original novel tells multiple stories, distributed over centuries and encompasses several genres. Each story has a central character who somehow links to the central characters from the other stories, and in the film version the same actors play several roles, providing extra underpinning to the linkage. Frobisher, is a feckless but talented, bisexual English composer of the Cloud Atlas Suite. In another story, set 30 years later, we meet his first love, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy). As theirs and other’s stories progress, the film becomes a treatise on humanity, on how a simple good deed can reverberate through history.

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The man in the 1970s glasses on the train station platform of Lana’s youth is part of the Cloud Atlas equation. “Every person you meet has the potential to have a major impact on the direction of your life,” Lana said in her HRC speech last October. With her decision, no only to to come out so publicly, but to address the complex politics of gender and her discomfort with a “binary gender narrative”, she wishes to have an impact on many lives.
“I am here… because there are some things you do for yourself but there are some things you do for others,” she added. “I am here because when I was young I wanted very badly to be a writer, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I couldn’t find anyone like me in the world, and it felt that my dreams were foreclosed simply because my gender was less typical than others. If I can be that person for someone else, then the sacrifice of my private civic life may have value.”

 

 

An Experiment in Love

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I love when an author hits the big time later in his or her career, like Hillary Mantel, who won the Man Booker in 2009 for Wolf Hall, and who won it again this year for its sequel, Bringing Up The Bodies. Having read both books, and loved them, I started searching Mantel’s back catalogue and came up with a piece of treasure, namely An Experiment In Love. 

Set in 1971 its the story of three girls, Carmel, Karina and Juliette who leave their bleak northern town to go to university, and halls of residence, and a whole new world of post-teenage concerns. Beautifully written, with extremely black humor, the book truly comes to sparkling life in the passages about Carmel’s childhood relationship with her angry, dominating mother. They bring to mind Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, andt the same writer’s recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

Carmel’s bleak outlook on life, underpinned by her dysfunctional relationship with her mother and her childhood friend/nemesis, Karina, is the glue that holds this book together, as the girls face anorexia, unwanted pregnancies, and a shocking denouement none of them could ever have imagined.

If you want a good. absorbing read, look no further.