Tag Archives: New York

The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

I have an admission to make. I’m very geeky, I really am, and now I’m reading sci fi and watching a tv show about vampires (yes, The Vampire Diaries, I’m not even sorry) and dorking out over Tom Hiddleston aka Loki’s face (it is a lovely face) and generally speaking I am nerdy in my tastes and distractions, but I’ve just read Rules Of Civility and do you know what, I recommend it ever so much.

I first picked it up because of the cover, I freely admit

It’s got a gorgeous cover which suits the novel so entirely – it reads like a glass of prosecco tastes, if you know what I mean. It’s crisp and fizzy and handles heavy things with such lightness and dexterity that it’s a joy to read, tremendously diverting without having the solid weight of a Fitzgerald – still sparkling and intoxicating, just without that slight edge of oh-crap-there’s-a-bad-hangover-coming.

Some of my favourite main characters are the ladies (of any age) who are spirited and will stand up for themselves and have something of a sense of humour about them. Katey, this protagonist, is a fabulous creation of just this type, both observant and witty and proactive and interesting, damnit, without being insufferable. The dialogue is absolutely cracking and definitely one of the book’s strongest aspects to the point that I was sitting in my room trying some of the phrases out loud, because I am a nerd, I have totally mentioned this. It’s so strange a feeling to have such strong visuals and characters and sounds and sensations in what’s quite a svelte book. It’s suitably economic with the language while still retaining a lyrical quality, with Katey ruminating on scenes and people using quick, clever little phrases that sum up so much in so few words so skillfully that it makes me green with envy.

So, yes. It’s a great book, especially if you have an interest or fondness for 1930s New York, the 1930s in general, or those addictive tales about high society and social climbers. It’s a witty, pretty book, and has strong echoes of everything from Fitzgerald to Hemingway to Christie and wears all those influences openly without getting too deep or dark. The main way I’ve described it in the bookshop has been the glass of prosecco line because that’s the first synaesthetic reaction I got within the first chapter, but it’s also been touted as the women’s version of The Great Gatsby – it certainly isn’t that, but it’s a lovely little perspective of a fascinating point and part of American society.

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Not too hot on the cover, but great eye make-up!

All These Things I’ve Done starts off so strong I’m almost surprised, having finished it, that it’s the same book as the one I’ve put down. Somewhere along the line it veers off course of being a grim, guilty-until-proven-innocent tale of Anya and her family in a chocolate-less and coffee-banning dystopian future New York and becomes something soft-focused and audience-pleasing without being actually satisfying, given the opening.

Here’s the write-up:

Sixteen year-old Anya’s parents have been murdered because her father was the head of a notorious underworld gang. Now she is determined to keep herself and her siblings away from that world. But her father’s relatives aren’t so keen to let them go. When Anya’s violent ex-boyfriend is poisoned with contaminated chocolate – chocolate that is produced illegally by Anya’s criminal family – she is arrested for attempted murder. Disconcertingly, it is the new D.A. in town who releases her from jail, but her freedom comes with conditions. The D.A. is the father of Win, a boy at school to whom Anya feels irresistibly drawn. Win’s father won’t risk having his political ambitions jeopardised by his son seeing a member of a crime family. She is to stay away with him. Anya knows she risks her freedom and the safety of her brother and sister by seeing Win again. Neither the D.A. nor the underworld will allow it. But the feeling between them is so strong that she may be unable to resist him…

For all I want to complain about the course Zevin takes with the narrative, having it wander off into a teeny No Man’s Land where major plot points feel like they’ve been put on hiatus for no clear reason, I want to be clear – I loved the premise for this book, and still do. Anya is a pretty solid, somewhat noble character who demonstrates strength and intelligence and great affection and love for those close to her while still being clear-eyed and a great viewpoint to read from. The concept of a world where chocolate and coffee are banned, water’s pretty much as valuable as oil and paper’s rare is such a great concept it had me reeling with mental images of a dystopian Prohibition. If anything, it’s worth reading just for that.

It’s not without problems. There really could be more colouring in of the outlines Zevin sketches of the society Anya and her family are living in as the bare bones of what we’re given are tantalizing and she’s clearly a skilled enough writer to make something really bright and original with it. There’s no explanation for most of it other than the understanding the reader brings to the book about energy and water crises, and it’s really crazy trying to make sense of alcohol being around but coffee being a no-no. And why is chocolate okay in Europe but not in the US? I have so many questions, which on one hand is really frustrating as there could have been more background to this to make the setting stronger, but also it’s probably a good sign that I was engaged enough with it to want to know more.

But there’s a point where everything important about the plot just seems to go on holiday and then it flounders. It’s frustrating, so frustrating, because the plot begins to pull itself back together before the end but the momentum is such it just doesn’t correct itself in time. In fact, I thought it was a bit transparent what’s been going on, but even that didn’t annoy me because I was just so relieved we were back to what the beginning of the book had been about. The romance angle felt thin, bookended as it was between the real movements of plot as it were. It felt rushed and crammed in a bit, and Win is just not convincing at all. Anya falters here a bit too – a bit of omg boy! overcomes those familial instincts of hers, which goes against what we’ve come to expect of her.

All told, All These Things I’ve Done is a book I would definitely recommend, though it does feel like a good concept washed out. It’s more about the characters than the dystopia. I’ll definitely read the next in the series in the hope that it’ll answer some of those pesky questions, and now Zevin’s certainly on my list of authors to investigate further! I just wish it hadn’t meandered so totally from the plot and felt so detached from the setting – otherwise it’d be a great read.