The Meaning of Life by Joanna Nadin

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The Meaning of Life by Joanna Nadin

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Category: Teens
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: Fictional diary of 15-year-old Rachel Riley, 3rd in the series which began with My So-Called Life and followed with The Life of Riley. Some amusing incidents and observations on Rachel's boringly normal family don't make up for lack of originality and a thinly-stretched, predictable story-line. May appeal to those who believe belonging to the Labour Party is left-wing and edgy.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 272 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0192728333

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4 July: Teen-diary type book arrived. Sighed at the unimaginative title and read the blurb at the back. The sharpest, funniest diarist since Adrian Mole. Sounds promising, though hard act to follow. Joanna Nadin is a former political speech writer and advisor to the Prime Minister. Sounds less promising, due to political speeches not usually being a laugh a minute. Intentionally anyway. Vowed not to let personal prejudice interfere with the vital work of a Bookbag reviewer. Donned objective hat and perused first page.

Hmm. Realised this is a sequel to My So-Called Life. Was that on the telly? Checked and found it was originally a US teen series, so even the title wasn't original. Turned back to novel, and read for a few minutes. Didn't laugh. Occasionally smiled wryly. Thought about own diary kept at that age. More mention of dieting in mine, and fewer long words. Got impression this was written for parents more than teens. Became increasingly irritated by 15-year-old diarist Rachel Riley's voice, which sounded like a 35-year old political speechwriter, very knowing and slappable. Tried to adjust prejudices again and think from 15-year-old viewpoint. Challenging, due to my advanced age.

5 July: Slowly ploughed through Chapter 2 (entitled February). Why is reading this like watching paint dry? Tried once again to think about teen point-of-view. Some funny-ish bits. However, if Rachel's life is so tragically normal, why is it peopled with cardboard-cut-out, stereotypical wacky characters? Wondered briefly if should read previous Rachel Riley diaries to be fair to the author. The thought passed. Rolled eyes at political references and abandoned diary for the day.

7 July: Chapter 3. Entitled March. Wondered why diarist mentions St Patrick's Day and St David's Day. Space-filling? Surely not. Rachel has no idea, apparently, which boy she will hook up with. Peeked at end of last chapter. Yes, I was right, but (grrr) not in this volume. The thin plot is being stretched out to the next sequel (sigh). Felt guilty about reading the last few pages out of sequence. Bad, bad reviewer.

10 July: Chapter 4. Entitled – um - April. Quite amused by this chapter, due to comical misadventures of Riley family on holiday in France. Pats self on back for persevering. Resolved to give up reviewing using this clichéd, diary format.

The reader may have gathered I really didn't like this book. I suspect I would have enjoyed it much more if I was a young teen, but I don't think I'd have loved it. I felt very much that it was written for adults more than for teens. This tipping-a-wink attitude (we-have-been-there-and-now-so-are-our-daughters, how adorably ironic) gave Rachel Riley an inauthentic teen voice and may both irritate and alienate her teen audience. I actually do enjoy the diary format, but it needs a very talented and original writer to bring it to life. It needs wit and irony and a genuinely engaging story-line. I couldn't find it here. What I found were stereotyped characters, predictable and frequently implausible plotting and details which seemed, well, just too familiar. Could a council really break the stencil of their anti-poo dog sign, and give this as a believable reason for not putting up more signs? Could any doctor really confuse purple Crayola for meningitis, for weeks? Could Wainwright & Hogg (Rachel's father's workplace) be an amusing homage to The Office's Wernham & Hogg?

There are enjoyable moments – the disaster-laden family trip to France, Rachel's chaotic weekend at Glastonbury, her pre-exam revision prevarication, an occasional pithy observation. However, it often felt as if the plot was being stretched out thinly so that Nadin can write the fourth book in the sequence. So much felt derivative and tired – but perhaps that is inevitable from a writer that makes much of her living as a Labour Party speech writer? I struggled to finish this book, and whooped when I did.

Thanks to Oxford Children's Books for providing The Bookbag with a copy of this teen-angst-diary.

Further reading suggestion: If you like this book, you might also enjoy the first episode of this series, My So-called Life: The Tragically Normal Diary of Rachel Riley (actually the title of a popular teen TV series many years before Nadin commandeered it for the Rachel Riley diary series) or for another teen diary, try Zoe and Chloe: Out to Lunch by Sue Limb.

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Karen Hughes said:

I actually couldn’t disagree more with this review.

For a start, I think it’s unfair the reviewer says this one is more for adults than teenagers. Teenagers DO love Joanna Nadin’s books – she’s been nominated for the upcoming Queen of Teen award, which is voted for by teens!

I enjoyed this book the most so far in the series, and thought the plot was interesting and engaging. It’s very funny, brilliantly observed and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I also laughed out loud all the way through. Perhaps the reviewer would have enjoyed it more if they’d read the previous two books in the series and was more familiar with the characters and their personalities?

I actually can’t wait for the next volume to find out what’s going to happen next, and am dying to know which boy Rachel gets together with in the end!

Ruth replied:

Thanks to Karen for taking the time to comment on my review. I really appreciate it.

She raises a number of points and I want to address them. I tried my best to review this book as fairly as I could, and have made some positive comments about the author's writing skills. I am sure Joanna Nadin has a following amongst teens - I still think they deserve better! When I said I felt that the book was more for adults than teens, I mean that Nadin seems to be continually tipping a wink at her adult readership, rather than speaking with an authentic teen voice. The novel is easy to read and contemporary (if dull) so is bound to appeal to some teens, and I am sure as a teen I would have loved the mildly risque themes. That doesn't make it a good book, though. The glowing praise for Nadin's writing I see on Amazon mainly appears to come from less sophisticated readers.

The thought of having to read the two earlier books, as Karen suggests, is making me go weak at the knees (not in a nice way), especially if The Meaning of Life is the best in the series. I feel I understood Nadin's characters - stereotypes are pretty easy to read, as are derivative plotlines and story details.

It's great Karen enjoyed this book. If this makes her laugh out loud, her mirth would be uncontrollable if she reads Jacqueline Wilson's The Story of Tracy Beaker or the groundbreaking mother of teen angst diaries, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend. For utter anarchy and hilarious badly spelled scribblings, check out The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans, illustrated by Ronald Searle (as any fule kno).

Hopefully, reading those and their sequels will fill the time until the fourth instalment of the painfully thinly-stretched diary of Rachel Riley, My (Not So) Simple Life is published in March next year. As for Rachel's future beau, if it's not Jack, I'll eat my review copy of The Meaning of Life. I tried to give it away on Freecycle after finishing my review but there were no takers......