Fay: A relief after the last horrendous choice, Judge Holt has made the right call. Lets start with Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. As the judge and commentators say, it is very recommendable. That’s because it’s easy to read, funny in an inoffensive way and runs with themes of the approachable variety such as mother/daughter relationships, fitting in and family dynamics. It’s also told in emails, notes and letters that are short enough to read quickly. The eccentric Bernadette, her mysterious past and her eventual disappearance is designed to keep you reading and guessing at what will happen next. But I honestly found it all a bit too contrived. The situations were so wacky and not correspondingly funny enough for me. Unlike Judge Holt, I didn’t find Bernadette’s snobbery endearing and I found it dragged at times. But still: good fun and quite entertaining. Steven?
Steven: Yeah Bernadette was fine in a nothing sort of way. Entertaining but not really up there with even a lot of books in this year’s tournament. Even Beautiful Ruins, my least favourite of the books I’ve read, was a better book. Bernadette was fun though! And there ain’t nothing wrong with that. Everything about it was entertaining and amusing in a broad way, though I never laughed (that said, I’m not a book laugher). Interestingly (or not) Semple was a producer for the final season of Arrested Development which still remains one of the funniest series of all time ever ever, but AD-like humour certainly did not make its way into the book. Each character was more or less a caricature; take Ollie the cliche spouting, optimistic PR machine or Audrey the entitled, ‘as-a-mum’ mother who is basically just a horrible person. All the beats were predictable, although Semple pulled them off with some level of aplomb, keeping the proceedings light, breezy and fun. Just not a book that will be remembered.
Fay: As for The Orphan Master’s Son, I would agree with everything they had to say. Ambitious, daring, farcical, satirical, political commentary, tick tick tick etc. My only complaint is that I don’t know enough about North Korea to determine how much is fact and how much is satire. My fault, not Adam Johnson’s. But I’d argue that the way he presents the general wackery of North Korean life is actually a credit to his skills as a writer. It could all be true, he makes the crazy sound entirely plausible. One of the highlights was Jun Do’s time on the fishing boat, presented with so much insane detail that the ridiculous became entirely conceivable. I also like the way the second half spiralled out into farce, as Kevin Guilfoile puts it: ‘Johnson is writing about a country whose leaders are constantly writing and rewriting absurdist fiction and passing it off as history’ and so (as Judge Holt says) ‘The absurdity conveys the inherent dishonesty of the North Korean regime. The official narrative is so at odds with reality that it underscores the brutal truth.’
Steven: Hey you stole your only complaint from me when I mentioned it a couple of days ago! BRAIN THIEF! But yeah I also have one other complaint: the writing could be REALLY obvious sometimes. Not often! For most of the book it was a darkly entertaining romp that I really enjoyed (though the first half was superior to the second). As Fay mentioned, the fishing ship was a highlight expressing a lot of the themes of the book about North Korea and narrative control in miniature. Actually just thinking about it now the effectiveness of that section somewhat undermined the rest, making a bunch of it seem more obvious and repetitive. And on a few occasions, Johnson hammers his point home REALLY hard, like when Jun Do’s in America and two women are discussing the fact that his name sounds like ‘John Doe’ and the significance thereof. Seriously, more clunky than that there sentence. But aside from those flaws this was a good book! I enjoyed it and stuff! Good book Johnson!