Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

High school kids Jude and Teddy spend their time in their small Vermont town hanging out, stealing and getting high. On New Year's Eve 1987, the pair pass out in the snow after a night of drugs, drink and parties. Teddy never wakes up.

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Shortly before his death Teddy lost his virginity to Eliza, who was visiting for the night from New York, where her mother is dating Jude's father. Eliza also gave Teddy cocaine, which may have been the key ingredient in the mixture of substances that killed him. All of this happens in the opening of Henderson's novel, which deals with the fall-out from Teddy's death.

Jude travels to New York to tell Teddy's brother, Johnny, the news. He moves in with his estranged father and gradually becomes involved in the 'straight edge' punk scene, which rejects stimulants of any kind. Meanwhile Johnny, who is exploring Buddhism, decides that the right thing to do would be to marry Eliza and raise his brother's child.

It is this chaotic situation that Henderson gradually brings to order. The punks form a kind of family, their own families having disintegrated at the hands of their hippy parents. Jude's father deals drugs and his mother makes a living blowing glass bongs. Johnny's mother skipped town shortly before Teddy's death, fearing that her lies about Teddy's father's identity were about to be exposed. Nobody in the book seems grown up but at least the children have an excuse.

Without parental guidance, all kinds of values take their place. Buddhism, straight edge punk ideals and the camaraderie of life in a touring band are all explored as potential codes for living. In the end, the kids will grow into their identities, regardless of what they choose.

Henderson has an eye for detail and creates an authentic mid-1980s New York that is grubby and crime ridden but also filled with an unusual sense of community. A key scene in the novel takes place at the Tompkins Square Park riot in August 1988, in which heavy-handed policing turned a rally into a battle.

She's equally able to draw the contrast between New York and sleepy Lintonberg, Vermont. The characters shuttle between the two - usually from one of Jude's parents to the other - seeking to escape one and find refuge in the other. The city represents hope for excitement but also danger; the small town means boredom but sometimes safety. Conversely, the city means anonymity, while the small town can be a place where mistakes are hard to live down.

These aren't pleasant characters - at least I didn't find them that way - and that can make this book a difficult read. Like real people, the cast of this book are rough-edged and can be inconsistent, selfish, confused and irrational. Spending a lot of time inside their heads can be an uncomfortable experience.

That's not a criticism. If anything, it's to Henderson's credit that she has resisted sentiment and stuck to the story. Ten Thousand Saints is a very good novel but not necessarily an enjoyable one.

All That I Am by Anna Funder (Shane's book 32, 2011)

Anna Funder's first book, Stasiland, was a non-fiction work that explored life in East Germany during the Cold War. Her new book is a novel but one based very closely on real events. [amtap book:isbn=0670920398]

All That I Am tells the story a group of German activists during the 1930s as they try to warn the world of the threat from Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.Ruth Becker is living in Australia and coming to the end of her life. She receives a parcel containing a notebook that belonged to the left-wing playwright Ernst Toller. Funder's narrative switches between Becker, remembering in the present, and Toller, in his hotel room in 1939 working on his autobiography.

Becker is based on Ruth Blatt, who Funder met in Australia, and her story includes many real people, such as Ruth's husband Hans Wesemann, her cousin Dora Fabian and Toller.

Fabian is the centre of the novel. She's a strange character and a slightly unrealistic one, though it's worth remembering that our two narrators adored her and we see her through their eyes. She seems a little too perfect to me but it's believable that Becker and Toller saw her that way.

At first the group are in Germany working in opposition to Hitler but it soon becomes too dangerous and they flee to London. As refugees, they attempt to continue their work but discover that the British establishment is reluctant to help and that Hitler's forces are not afraid to operate abroad.

It's a horrifying story and one that illuminates a period about which I knew little. Funder has been criticised for taking liberties with the truth but it's important to remember that this is a novel. The background is real as are many of the characters but the precise events here should not assumed to be true. From the little I've read, Funder's version of Dora's fate, for example, differs considerably from what the available evidence suggests.

I don't think it's worth paying too much attention to that criticism. Funder has written a moving story about an immensely courageous people whose voices were ignored at the time and have largely been lost in history. She has brought them vividly to life.

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas (Shane's book 28, 2011)

Not long after the success of Thomas's The End of Mr Y, PopCo appeared in the shops, complete with a similar looking cover. I assumed it was her next novel but in fact PopCo was published first. [amtap book:isbn=184767335X]

That shows once you start to read it. PopCo is less sophisticated than Mr Y and Thomas either has trouble marshalling her material or has simply not yet developed a sense of how to balance a novel.

The End of Mr Y was essentially a fantasy novel, albeit one that took place in a world that is recognisably our own. PopCo, which dabbles in cryptography, mathematics and virtual worlds, is a novel about science.

Its heroine, Alice Butler, works for an international toy company, PopCo. She develops spy kits for children. Butler's grandmother was a mathematician who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and her grandfather solved a centuries-old code pointing to hidden treasure but refused to tell anyone where the treasure was.

After a team-building weekend at a remote country house, Butler and a few of her colleagues are asked to stay behind to work on a special project. The team is expected to develop the ultimate product for teenage girls. As Butler works she becomes disillusioned with her job and grows increasingly uncomfortable with the ways that her company markets its products to children.

Though it shares some themes with Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, PopCo is not in the same class. It reminded me more of Harry Potter. Like Harry, Butler has no parents. Her mother died when she was a child and her father disappeared. The country house in which Butler finds herself is not exactly Hogwarts but there she meets a gang of quirky friends, they take lessons together with a range of teachers and a kind of mystery develops.

Butler's 'classes' are the weakest sections of the book. Her teachers explain the concepts that Thomas wants us to understand. The vast information dumps drag and unfortunately they aren't limited to Butler's teachers. Her grandparents, in flashback, offer long explanations of codes and maths and her friends explain virtual worlds and vegetarianism.

The most cringe-inducing moments come when the narrator explains homeopathy and Bach flower remedies. That these bonkers ideas are given the same weight as the other concepts in the book when neither one has ever been proved scientifically is disappointing and serves to undermine the reader's faith in everything else. If Butler believes in homeopathy then I'm inclined to think she's a gullible fool. Why would I trust her judgment on anything else?

That point becomes significant when, towards the end of the book, Butler discovers anti-capitalism. It seems to be a fairly naive, shallow version of anti-capitalism. It might be possible to believe that Butler has come to see a way out of her corporate existence but Thomas doesn't really convince me that that is the case. Given Butler's belief in homeopathy, I'm more inclined to see her anti-capitalist ideas as another placebo.

It's quite a messy book. Thomas packs in lots of threads and ideas that she fails to do anything with. The homeopathy and vegetarianism stuff, for example, has no real relevance to the story. It just seems like Thomas wants to preach a little. The disappearance of Butler's father is left unresolved too, despite being referred to so many times that I was convinced it had some significance to the outcome.

Part of the problem here is that there is no great tension at the heart of the plot. Butler is a woman who realises she doesn't like her job very much. That's it. Everything else is just smoke and noise that Thomas deploys to create the impression that there is something more going on here. Unfortunately, there isn't.

PopCo is a straightforward read and though it has its moments, it's a waste of time.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Shane's book 27, 2011)

This is one of those books that could be considered to be a novel or as a series of interconnected short stories, in which certain characters drift from key roles into bit parts and back again. I lean slightly towards the former but I can imagine people making the case for it being a short story collection. It doesn't matter all that much. [amtap book:isbn=1780330960]

Most of the chapters are connected to Bennie, a record producer, or his assistant, Sasha, but there are some that centre on characters whose connection to the ongoing story is unclear, at least at first.

One chapter focuses on a young woman struggling with kleptomania, another is about a man hunting for his niece in Naples, while in a third a young girl goes on safari with her dad and his young girlfriend.

The chapters do not tell the story in chronological order but hop backwards and forwards in time, with the whole slowly coming into focus. Egan experiments with form, too, presenting one story as a slideshow, another as a magazine interview.

It’s not always successful - the interview goes on too long, for example, and the final chapter is set in a dystopian future that is somewhat clumsily realised. However, most of the chapters hit their targets perfectly. The slideshow chapter, for example, about a young girl trying to make sense of her family, is genuinely - and unexpectedly - moving.

This is unusual because it's the first book I've read that is an app. I've read plenty of ebooks by now so I'm used to the idea of a whole section of my library being virtual. A book that is a stand-alone app is a little different. It means, for one thing, the addition of features that aren't possible in another format, such as the ability to switch between the audiobook and the text version with one tap and added 'liner notes' that provide background notes and video clips related to each chapter.

The slideshow chapter, incidentally, works better in app form than on paper.

In whatever format, this is a very good book. Egan balances humour and pathos and has a sharp eye for pop cultural references too. There's a lot to enjoy here.

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey (Shane's book 13, 2011)

Though the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction is generally considered to have ended with the Second World War, this novel, published in 1948, is very much in the golden age tradition. It's a mystery that centres on a country house, features a host of upper and upper-middle class characters and, despite some devious criminality, order is restored at the end. [amtap book:isbn=0099536838]

I find golden age crime novels comforting in a funny sort of way. They are more like puzzles than novels and, as with any genre fiction, the adherence to a template offers a reassuring familiarity. The Franchise Affair is considered one of the classics of its kind so everything should have been in place for an enjoyable read.The 'affair' in question concerns Betty Kane, a young woman who, after several days missing, goes to the police and says she was held hostage and beaten by the owners of The Franchise, a remote country house. Kane describes several features of the house in remarkable detail and the case against the owners, Marion Sharpe and her mother, looks iron-clad but they protest their innocence. Marion turns to a local solicitor, Robert Blair, for help.

The solution to the mystery is arrived at fairly early on and Blair spends the rest of the book trying to find the proof he needs. The story plods along without ever being either dull or absorbing. There are no real twists, just a few gentle curves. It's all perfectly pleasant but little more.

Tey's writing serves her purpose well. She's concise, witty and her characters have a degree of individuality about them, while all feeling slightly familiar. She builds up a charming picture of sedate country life that is slowly beginning to face modernity and a busier, noisier existence.

The most interesting thing for me was the class snobbery running through the book. Tey's characters are divided into decent and not so decent types, with the more upper class ones falling into the former category. Aside from a couple of 'salt of the earth' common types, the lower class characters are generally brash or dishonest.

Marion goes to Robert, who is a family solicitor, rather than the local criminal lawyer because the latter is "not my sort". There are also suggestions that Kane's background explains her behaviour. It's all very subtle and probably subconscious onand, from this vantage point, it seems silly rather than offensive.

This is a pleasant enough book but I'm not sure that its status as a classic is merited. If you want to read a golden age classic, I'd recommend Trent's Last Case or The Moving Toyshop ahead of this.