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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 2 June 2007
I enjoyed reading this book almost straight after reading another by Mason 'The Drowning People'. The three characters - Jake, Julian and Adrienne are caught up by one other character Maggie (Julian's sister). The plot coils around their different and often intertwining relationships with Maggie.

The book takes us from the beginning of their lives in a part called 'Me', following this it is 'Then' and finally 'Us'. 'Then' was the hardest section for me to read as each chapter is narrated from the point of view of three characters. Other ones have a chapter per character, which is much easier.

The writing is excellent, even once I know what has happened to Maggie (you know from the blurb she has died) I still felt compelled to read on and discover what would happen years later on in their lives. The ending had a sense of completion to it whereby even though you are wondering about the next few years in their lives you feel that the plot has gone full circle.

Good narrative and dialogue with believable characters. For me it was just as good as 'The Drowning People' but I do think for those that didn't enjoy the narrator of James in that, then this one could be better.
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on 26 September 2004
What's with all the ludicrous comparisons here? Philip Roth? W. Somerset Maugham? Evelyn Waugh?! For God's sake, give me a break. On the strength of this novel, I'd say Mason's lucky to be in print at all. Wonderful premise, tremendously disappointing execution. Where's the psychological depth? Where's the characterization? Where are the motivations for what any of these characters do? "Us" takes what could have been a subtle and sophisticated exploration of the consequences of bullying and turns it into a lame plot, strung together with silly coincidences, decorated with a few references to Hobbes. The saddest part is that Mason can actually write - as his previous novel showed - not to mention the fact that buried in here are what could have been a few really great short stories: Julian's discovery of his father's affair, and his exploitation of it; the tale of the missing betting ticket; Jake's rise to fame in the art world. All wonderful little tales, all completely out of place here. "Us" smacks of three-book-deal syndrome: a writer under contract, having to get SOMETHING out. Let's hope the third one's better. Come on, Richard. We know you're better than this!
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on 15 November 2004
More than just the setting suggests an inheritance from Waugh in this intelligent, witty novel about a group of Oxford students who get caught in an intricate web of emotion and deception. When the passions eventually get out of hand, the surviving three characters are scarred for life. Mason achieves what few authors can do; he walks a fine line between wit and emotional depth, investing his characters with a life of their own that we can genuinely care about, while wittily playing on the stereotypes that the characters fall into once their life has taken the wrong turn. There has seldom been a funnier take on the pretentiousness of contemporary art and the self-importance of reality television; and like the best comedy, the funniest moments are heart-wrenching at the same time. When a character discovers his father's true feelings for him in a coincidental encounter in a restaurant, I wanted to turn away and spare both of us the embarrassment, but could not take the eyes of the page or stop laughing about the trenchant, oh-so-right observations. The gap between the youthful aspirations when the friends arrive at university, and the wasted, self-indulgent and self-pitying lives they lead years later, is highlighted by the clever structure that juxtaposes voices and ruffles up the chronology. The novel is an investigation into what happens in those precious years in between adolescence and adulthood when everything seems possible, yet within hours an entire life can tragically turn into a farce. A beautiful achievement, and a must-read for anyone who still remembers what life was like before reality set in.
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on 27 August 2004
A novel dealing with childhood bullying and its lingering, life-altering impact is probably best executed as a close study of a single character. As the title suggests, however, Daniel Mason is interested in something broader here. Three outsiders - Julian, Jake and Adrienne - come together in their first year at Oxford and, under the influence of Julian's charismatic sister, Maggie, take revenge on Jake's boarding school tormentor, the revoltingly perfect Benedict Chieveley. The most generous reading of "Us" is that Mason is attempting to dramatize an early quote from Hobbes' "Leviathan" regarding the three essential human types - tyrant, victim, bystander. When victims and bystanders play the tyrant, things can go horribly wrong. The life of man - even in sophisticated, educated, twentieth-century England - can still be "nasty, brutish and short" or, worse, long and filled with painful memories. That philosophical edge might have made "Us" a kind of low-rent, English companion piece to Donna Tartt's admittedly overrated "The Secret History", and there are moments when it leans in that direction, but nowhere near enough. The problem I have with "Us" is its lack of depth. It's a story that requires the narrator to explore the consciousness of multiple characters. Mason does this by alternating between first-person accounts headed with each character's name, much like Julian Barnes, Graham Swift and so many others have done previously. This can work if the characters themselves are interesting people, articulate and self-aware, or even dangerously, interestingly deluded. But Mason's characters are unlikable, pre-fabricated types and their short, punchy chapters with their mildly shocking content - plenty of sex, drugs, swearing, hideous rich Americans, and grotty English snobs - tend to stall at surface detail. They're far too slight; they read like Mason dashed them off as writing exercises, when what this kind of story really requires is acute, reflective analysis. Indeed, the best parts are those in which Mason articulates, rather than dramatizes, the horrific and laughable aspects of the English and American class systems and the psychological torment afforded by relationships with family and apparent friends. We're deep in Ian McEwan territory here, with this kind of plot and its psycho-sexual theme, yet Mason chooses not to bring to his novel the same kind of care and seriousness and subtlety of articulation that make McEwan's work so rich. It might have worked better had he chosen one character (Julian or Jake) and gone deep, rather than tried to cover three characters in multiple time frames, especially in a novel this short (it's 336 pages, but probably little more than 85,000 words). The characters simply never became real for me, in the sense that I never accepted them as convincing, fully realised human beings - and that's a fatal flaw in a novel that probes psychological terrain and is ultimately asking its readers to feel, more than anything, empathy. Overall, "Us" is enjoyable as a light youth thriller (though a poorly plotted one, relying far too heavily on coincidences and a childishly neat ending), but it's ultimately a fragmented and superficial novel that doesn't do justice to its scope of concern, nor to its author's obvious talent - see Mason's surprisingly competent first novel, "The Drowning People", for undeniable evidence of the latter.
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on 19 September 2005
"Us", by Richard Mason, is one of the most devastatingly beautiful books I have ever had the privilege to read. A review by the Independent stated that only two books had made the reviewer cry, Us being one of them. I confess that although I was not moved to tears, I was profoundly moved by Richard Mason's enchanting account of the seminal moments which bind a fractured trio to one another forever. "Us" is at once, funny, touching, irreverent, though provoking, and above all intensely human. It is both funny and tragic, an exploration of what it means to "play it safe", to live life fully, experiencing danger and adventure along the way. It is ultimately an account of mortality, of love and loss, of life and death. It is a stunning exploration of the human condition and a book I recommend whole-heartedly.
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on 16 July 2004
This books picks over from various ponts-of-view a turning point in the lives of three characters who were at Oxford University. They are from very different backgrounds: a public schoolboy (rather a stock figure); someone of humbler British origins, and a glamorous foreigner. At Oxford they all fall, in some cases not very explicaly, under the influence of a fourth person who never makes it to graduation. To want to pick over the whos and whats of these particular undergraduates' antics, which are not always hugely credible, you have to care about these people, or at least believe in the reality of them, and I found I didn't. The whole thing felt like a set-up from the beginning, and at times I even found myself thinking of Jeffrey Archer (especially that public schoolboy). Having said that, there is some decent writing in this book, and some care has been taken with structure so as to produce surprises. But this was not enough for me.
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on 11 August 2004
Contemporary art has had some controversial moments. Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided, featuring a cow and calf split in two and preserved in formaldehyde, comes to mind. His subsequentinstallation consisted of overflowing ash trays and discarded soft-drink containers, hastily constructed in 3 minutes.
This piece also attracted some publicity, particularly when a cleaner accidentally threw it out after a glamorous London gallery opening. Arguably, Hirst's example provides some inspiration for Jake Hitchins, a conceptual artist and central character in Richard Mason's second novel, Us. Jake becomes a
darling of the ironic and shock art world after he is a surprising favourite in Britain's latest reality-television craze, a show called Who's the Real Artist?
Plucked from obscurity by a talent scout who immediately catches on to his alcoholic chic, Jake competes against Mona, an art-school type who casts her body parts in resin, and Turkish, a semi-professional footballer who falls for
the fourth contestant, Claire - an unknown who thought that "art really helped with emotional difficulties". Jake collects dust from taxis, hotel rooms and out-of-order lifts in council buildings and laminates it as an installation, all
the while loudly proclaiming that his art "is crap". This spurs a frenzy of debate and counter-criticism in the arts media, and launches him to an unlikely version of stardom.
Mason's novel is so well written that this storyline is only the sub-plot.
From the outset, we have three characters (Jake, Julian and
Adrienne) who share a universitypast and a common grief after the death of Maggie, respectively their lover, sister and friend. Writing from each character's perspective in turn, Mason slowly pieces together the past and the always elusive and enigmatic Maggie.
This is a book that subtly underlines the romantic grandeur gained through death, the pull of charisma, and the insidious nature of the English class system. Jake's life is transformed by a neighbour's winning lottery ticket, which removes him from the clutches of neighbourhood bullies who break his arm and draw phalluses on the cast, in favour of the more sophisticated terrorism of Benedict Chieveley, at Botesdale College.
Chieveley is the stereotypical bully born of the English boarding-school system, and his favourite game is "Civilising 'Itchins". This is a more sinister version of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and lessons include repeating that "It is common to eat chips with everything", beatings in front of a gathered crowd of gormless bystanders and intercepting letters from Jake's beautician mother in Fareham which are then critiqued in Chieveley's red ink for "common" phrasing, punctuation and spelling. When this high-school bully re-emerges in Jake's later life at Oxford, Maggie concocts a plan to torment Chieveley in return for past wrongs.
One of Mason's strengths is that each chapter could stand alone as a short story. He opens well with Julian, the mediocre English teacher at a boys' school who is diverted from a school excursion to follow his father, furtively going to a rendezvous with his mistress. This is followed up well with a chapter charting Adrienne's loveless relationship with an American film producer, and her scripted role of "happy wife with husband at A-list-attended anniversary party".
Richard Mason is a writer who excels in writing punchy, suspenseful and entertainingprose. He risks treading well-worn ground with a novel about English public schools and Oxford University but succeeds on the basis of his sophisticated insight and polished narrative.
Us is an accomplished novel. It's worth buying even if you would never "waste perfectly good money" on seeing a gallery exhibition called Apocalypse that features a selection of torched and melted plastic garden furniture.
This review originally appeared in the Cranberra Times, Australia
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on 28 October 2004
US is a delight to read. A fast-paced psychological thriller, it zips through witty dialogue and clever plotlines to a surprizing climax. The book captures the rush and anguish of first love, and the destructive power of obsessive emotions. Author Richard Mason proved he could spin a good yarn with his first novel The Drowing People. This book develops much of that early promise to deliver a more thoughtful and nuanced read.
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on 1 July 2004
I haven't read Mason's first book, as most potential readers will have, so cannot offer a comparison, but I found this book heavy going. The idea of different/parallel accounts of a past event is a well-established one. I think it was first employed in "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins. It can indeed be fun to see what seemed to be categorical in a story undermined by different perspectives. But the problem in this book is its lack of forward momentum. Mason's psychologically same-ish characters (all Oxford graduates, which is a touch irritating in itself) are all hopelessly trapped in the past, or at least in the fall-out from it. This might suit the author, but as a reader I found it slowly grinding me down. It's an essentially gloomy and fatalistic way to look at things, and an odd one for a very young author to adopt (I mean, how does he know?). With interest waning, the interplay of accounts begins to seem highly contrived - which, of course, being a novel, it is.
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on 26 June 2004
Having loved Mason's first novel, 'The Drowning People', I was thrilled to learn of the release of his second. I have just finished 'Us' and can confidently say that it exceeded my already high expectations. It is better than the first!
The story is narrated in three distinctively drawn voices. While in many contemporary novels, people leading louche lives can come across as contrived, Mason's characters are sharply and subtlely drawn--all in their ways still in love with or mourning the one who is no longer with them, Maggie. And yet the literary and psychological insight Mason displays in conveying them is never forced or self-conscious. I loved and hated each of them and was compelled by their thoughts and actions in ways that few novels have affected me. Each of them also made me laugh at loud at several points throughout the narrative.
The pacing of the novel is seductively addictive. The voices (and chronologies) weave in and out of one another, so you are essentially reading three stories at once. The overall structure is highly impressive and effectively draws one's attention to the tricks memory plays on people. Details and motives differ, and as a result the ending leaves you much to contemplate in terms of how Maggie's death affected everyone. Guilt, anger, sadness and misunderstanding abound in intriguing ways.
Finally, the absence of Maggie and the memory of her create an incredibly dark and powerful pull throughout the whole novel--especially in the sections narrated by her brother Julian. Mason, I read, lost his sister when he was a child, and Julian's description of his childhood with Maggie and the family house years after her death seemed informed by real experience and was sensitively and intelligently done.
I am absolutely going to read this novel again.
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