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Friday, 26 August 2016

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

First of all, just an apology for taking so long to review this one. It has been a hectic three weeks, as I have just moved into my first home. As you can probably guess, this is a long process of settling in, and as of yet I haven't had as much time to sit down and read as I used to have.
As for Birdsong itself, I picked this up because I had previously read it in high school, but couldn't really remember it terribly well. I remembered snatches of it, and have found reviews to be generally positive, so I found myself wondering if I would enjoy it the second time around.


Birdsong follows Stephen Wraysford, a strange and intense young Englishman, in the years of the First World War and those immediately preceding it. The narrative starts with his passionate and scandalous affair with the wife of his host whilst visiting France on business. Following that are the years spent in the front line of the Western front and his growing apathy towards the war effort. Additionally, there are sections set in the late 1970s, with Stephen's granddaughter attempting to piece together his life whilst also trying to deal with her complicated affair with a married man.
Re-reading Birdsong, I realised why I could only remember parts of this book. It is somewhat uneven in tone and quality. The narrative can be roughly divided into three strands, all of which have their own separate issues. The first is the pre-war section, with the focus on Stephen's affair. This is by far the best part of the novel, with an engaging and intense affair between two very suppressed, unhappy people. The second strand is the 1915-1918 period, which I found to be mostly positive, but not as engaging as the pre-war strand. While the mood is appropriately grim and deeply uncomfortable, I found it made less impact than it possibly could have done, because while the slaughter of trench warfare is very well expressed, it's difficult to keep track of the cast of characters when almost none of the average soldiers get character development beyond being given a name. While the sheer amount of bloodshed and the awful living conditions are impressive and sobering to read about, it lessens the impact when it's happening to a cast of cardboard cutouts. The third strand is the 1970s section about Stephen's granddaughter Elizabeth, and honestly it's a complete waste of space. If there is a particular era of films that I remember disliking from my university studies, I found that they all seem to have been made in the 1970s. There's something about that decade that lends itself to ennui and a conscious level of detachment, and it's really quite grating to me. In terms of the plot itself, it's only really relevant in its penultimate chapter, where you get some closure in regards to what happened to Stephen after the war. As for the rest of it, it follows a woman who has by all standards a wholly uninteresting life. Sure, she's having an affair with a married man, but compared to her grandfather's affair it comes off as boring, because no-one seems to want to upset the status quo. Her quest to piece together Stephen's life could have made a good story by itself, but here we know far more about what she's researching than she does for pretty much the entirety of her plot. It was an exercise in wordcount padding.

A powerful novel let down somewhat by some poor characterisation and an entirely useless and irritating plot strand set in the 1970s. While still powerful, it does hit harder when you give people more character than just a name before sending them to be mowed down by machine-guns. The less said about the 70s sections the better really. 3.5/5

Next review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Mort by Terry Pratchett

I had been looking forward to Mort out of all the Discworld novels, because then I would finally meet Death properly. I haven't watched all of the Discworld screen adaptations, but I vividly remember my best friend putting the adaptation of Soul Music on and I was intrigued by what I saw of Death and his strange family. How much of that was down to the perfect casting of Christopher Lee I don't know, but from the moment I actually read some of Pratchett's work, I was most looking forward to reading about Death. It was what made the eye-searingly ugly front covers bearable at any rate. 


Mort follows a young man named Mort, oddly enough, who finds himself starting a very strange apprenticeship. After being sent to the job market by a father desperate to find him a trade to flourish in, Mort is chosen by Death to be his apprentice, to help usher the souls of the dead into the afterlife and possibly be company for his adopted human daughter, Ysabel. On his first night solo, however, Mort finds that he cannot bring himself to kill a young princess, leaving her alive in a world that is determined to believe that she is dead. 
I know that I'm only four books into the series at the moment, but Mort is definitely my favourite so far. As expected, the humour is brilliant, with a nice sprinkling of some appropriately black humour considering the subject matter, and the highlights are as always the little side notes that Pratchett throws out throughout the narrative. I got some odd looks on the bus, which is always a sign of quality for me anyway. 
The main character Mort was perhaps a little on the generic side for me, but there was an interesting transition from awkward teenager who is all knees and elbows to a would-be personification of Death (I'm not sure whether the anthropomorphic part of the title fits in his case) that felt both natural and appropriately eerie, which I wasn't expecting. I would have like to see more of Ysabel, because there's something incredibly endearing about a teenage girl who has maybe had one too many sweets trying so hard to emulate all the willowy tragic romantic heroines that she's read about in her father's library. My favourites by far though were Death and, much to my surprise, Albert. Death I was expecting to like, because there's something wonderful about the anthropomorphic personification of Death trying to understand what life is like. It's fantastic to see him experimenting with things that humans are supposed to like and being left more confused than ever because there seems to be no purpose to them. Albert though. I love Albert's moment in the spotlight when he returns to the world of the living, remembers what life and power feels like, and promptly falls back into the life of a crotchety, petty tyrant. It's brilliant and ridiculous and faintly rubbish even when he is causing chaos at the Unseen University. I am really looking forward to seeing those two again in later books. 
The plot is perhaps a little weaker, with the stakes feeling a bit underwhelming right until the end. I mean, it's one human life compared to quite a few that are snuffed out over the course of the narrative. But then I suppose teenage crushes don't necessarily take the pressures of fate into consideration, so it does sort of work. 

Mort is an absolute gem of a novel. I got to see a lot more glimpses of the Disc further afield than Pratchett has strayed before, which makes me excited for later books. I met Death, the character I had been most looking forward to seeing in action and my expectations were more than sufficiently met. And the plot, while perhaps a bit weak at points, is very engaging and even touching at times. I'd definitely recommend it. 4.5/5 

Next review: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Rose Madder by Stephen King

Rose Madder isn't a Stephen King novel that gets talked about much, especially when you consider how much attention some of his work does get. Honestly, until I found this again on my shelf, I had kind of forgotten that it even existed, let alone what the book was actually about. I think the only thing that I sort of remembered was reading that King himself was kind of disappointed with Rose Madder. So I guess I was curious to see how it would pan out.


Rose Madder follows Rosie, a woman who decides to leave her physically abusive husband Norman after a 14 year loveless marriage that has already caused her to miscarry once. Armed only with a few hundred dollars that she took from their joint account, she journeys to a new city, where she slowly starts to regain friendship, independence, self-respect and even a little romance. But her newfound happiness may be short-lived, because Norman isn't the type of man who can handle the thought that Rosie not only left him, but took his money in the same move. And even he may pale in comparison to the danger that Rosie lets in herself without even realising.
I can definitely see why King refers to Rose Madder as a "stiff, trying-too-hard" novel. I don't know if this is the best way to describe it, but I would say that there was a real sense that Rose Madder was deliberately constructed, at least in comparison to some of King's other novels. With King, I always got the sense that the bulk of his stories come out in one lump, with some tidying up done after the first draft. You know, making sure that characters act in ways that make sense or highlighting thematic links, that kind of thing. In comparison, Rose Madder felt more like the IKEA version of King: competently constructed, but hardly his best work.
Whilst I'm talking about how the novel doesn't work, I should probably mention the supernatural element. So it's a painting that Rosie finds, from which we get the novel's title, and it is somehow the most stiff and awkward part of the narrative, and yet the flimsiest as well. It is when the painting comes to the fore that you really start to notice how obvious the construction is, because it's this clumsy mish-mash of Greek mythology references that really don't mesh well with the modern (at the time of writing anyway) American feel of the novel as a whole. It's all the more noticeable when you're like me and read a LOT of Greek myths as a child, and you get the references. So yeah, while the Ancient Greek angle could have worked quite well, it needed to pick a particular myth and expand on it instead of cherry-picking. As it is, we have a weird mix of Theseus and the Minotaur, the River of Lethe, Persephone in the Underworld, and a blending of the Furies with the Cretan Bull, all of which have very different tones and themes. So that's the stiff part, now for the flimsy. While King's books rarely explain the supernatural elements in great detail, it's usually understandable from a thematic point of view. He had devil surrogates in The Stand and Needful Things representing ways that people can stray from the path if they don't pay attention, and the eldritch monsters from Hearts in Atlantis were a nice metaphor for the loss and fear experienced if we grow up too quickly. Here, there is no theme that the whole painting marries with. Sure, the image of the bull works nicely as a metaphor for her brutish husband, but the rest of the painting could do with a bit more explaining. Maybe the woman in the painting is her, maybe it isn't. It's never really explained and it just makes the climax confusing and conflicting with Rosie's story as an abused woman. Because while I can accept Rosie regaining confidence and beating her husband through wiles, I find the whole "suppressed rage" thing that comes up towards the end to be unsatisfying. It doesn't fit the character arc if she sinks to her husband's level.
One thing that I will concede works well is Norman's sections. I have found some reviewers who consider him to be a bit of a one-note villain and I can see why (the corrupt cop who is happy to dish out police brutality is also a domestic abuser, really?), but the sections that followed him in his search for his errant wife were by far the most vivid and creepy of the novel. There is a line of reasoning in his inner monologue that is utterly awful, but makes him feel so much more immediate as a villain. Honestly, I think that Rose Madder could have been so much stronger if it had done away with the supernatural stuff and just focused on the cat and mouse game between runaway wife and abusive husband. It might not necessarily be the most original novel without the supernatural element, but a more solid and even-toned read perhaps.

Rose Madder is the first of Stephen King's books that I find myself not recommending. It's disappointing, because there is a very solid basis for a great book in Norman's increasingly deranged hunt for his wife, but there are just so many things that don't work that I can't really say that it's a necessity to read. A large part of that is a supernatural element in the eponymous painting, because the mish-mash of Greek mythology references and uncertain origins do not marry well and just leads to a tonally confused ending. I suppose entertaining enough if you're looking to complete reading King's works, but by no means one of his best. 3/5

Next review: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

I picked up Empress Orchid for one kind of shallow reason. I know practically nothing about pre-Communism China, and this seemed like an interesting way to dip into some history that I have been intrigued by for some time without getting bogged down in text-books of varying dryness.


Born into an impoverished family of aristocratic blood, Orchid decides to compete to be one of the Emperor's wives when the alternatives are to marry her cousin or become homeless. Winning a place as one of Emperor Hsien Feng's concubines only proves to be the beginning of her troubles though, as it soon becomes apparent that being one of his wives is to be part of a treacherous race to be the first to bear the Emperor a son. And those who are favourites today can easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I vaguely remember hearing about the woman who this novel is about, Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi. What I do remember was basically that she essentially ruled China via her son during the final years of the Qing dynasty, and that she was something of a person to be reckoned with. I remember my teacher telling us about her with more than a little admiration. So it was nice to learn about her life in more detail, if perhaps a bit embellished. I'm happy to say that Anchee Min's depiction of her is utterly absorbing, and I am more than a little interested to read other books that she's written. Certainly, if you're after a book that has both tragedy and courtly intrigue up to the hilt, then Empress Orchid is definitely one to consider. The ways that the concubines in particular fight amongst one another is probably my favourite aspect of the novel, because it can be utterly devastating in its effect whilst still being so much subtler and unassuming in appearance.
Orchid herself is also very well written. I can't tell for sure how accurate her depiction is compared to what we know about her from historical records, but I certainly found her to be an engaging protagonist. Developing an iron will in order to flourish in an environment that she is incredibly unhappy in, she is fascinating if not always entirely likeable. Likewise, the people that she interacts with, like her fellow Empress Nuharoo and her personal eunuch servant An-te-hai, are a varying mix of fascinating and repulsing. Nuharoo in particular is brilliantly written, if only to see how easily she hides her spoiled and jealous nature.
The one thing that bothers me is the ending. It doesn't so much finish as screech to a halt once the word count is filled. I know that this is the first in a duology, but I still feel that the ending of Empress Orchid could have been handled with at least a little more grace than it is.

Empress Orchid is fantastically written with some really nasty court rivalries and some impressively evoked characters. The fact that it's based on real events only makes this more interesting, and I wouldn't mind learning more about the era depicted. My only issue is that the ending is too abrupt, a move that is surprisingly clumsy compared to the elegance of the rest of the novel. 4/5

Next review: Rose Madder by Stephen King

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

It's been a while since I read anything Discworld, and considering that I have a rather stressful move looming on the horizon, I thought that now might be a good time to continue with the series, as I have enjoyed Pratchett's work in the past and I wanted something that I could relax with.


Drum Billet is a wizard who knows that he is going to die. Armed with this knowledge, he sets out to pass on his magic staff to the eighth son of an eighth son, as is traditional amongst wizard circles. It is only after the wizard has passed on the staff and departed this mortal coil that people find out that the newborn is, in fact, a baby girl. Absolutely mortified by this turn of events, the local witch Granny Weatherwax decides that the girl will grow up to be a perfectly ordinary witch. But when young Eskarina starts using magic that is decidedly unlike witchcraft, it becomes evident that she will need to be taught at the Unseen University, home to a wholly male alumni.
I knew that Equal Rites would be funny, I mean it's what Terry Pratchett was known for throughout his writing career. Even the essays that I've found of his are funny. What I had kind of forgotten was just how insightful and utterly relevant Pratchett could be. That second part might seem a bit of a weird choice of wording, but I think it's the closest I can describe it. I mean, if you boil Equal Rites down to its base themes, it isn't about magic. Sure, the magic is a big part of it, but it is ultimately part of the setting, and you could probably rewrite this plot within a different genre or universe. Ultimately, Equal Rites is about the struggle of women entering the world of academia, specifically fields that are traditionally male-dominated. I know this will sound over-the-top, but that just blows me away. I absolutely love that this is the focus that Pratchett went for, because I cannot think of any other stories like it. And considering the fact that we still get news stories about how difficult it is to attract women to study STEM subjects, there really should be more stories tackling this subject. I think that while Terry Pratchett's humour is the element that people will recommend his books for, and I reiterate that it is very good, it is his social commentary that keeps his novels memorable and relevant even after nearly 30 years.
I will mention that Equal Rites does still feel like he's working out how the Discworld works sometimes. It's an issue that I had with the first two installments of the series, but it's less noticeable here. Having heard so much enthusiasm about the witches from my fiance though, I was a little surprised to only meet Granny Weatherwax. I can only hope that he settled into the groove a little more with the next few novels, as I do want to explore more of the Discworld soon.

A very funny novel about women entering and struggling with the predominantly male world of academia. Very insightful and I would be more than happy to read more that the Discworld had to offer. 4/5

Next review: Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

There are two main reasons that I can think of why I picked up Perfume. Firstly, the idea of a man who kills in order to preserve the scent of a young virgin is kind of fascinating in a sickening way, and there is a part of me that does relish narratives like that every once in a while. Secondly, I have very little sense of smell myself and I was curious to see what a novel with smell as its primary sense would read like. I guess I wanted to see if it could be conveyed clearly even to someone with my dulled olfactory sense.


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an intensely strange and disturbing man throughout his equally disturbing life. From the moment that he is abandoned by his mother to die beneath her fish stall, he is seen as different by those who meet him, though they couldn't necessarily be able to explain why. Whilst growing up, he realises that he has an unusually heightened sense of smell, and he develops a desire to become the world's greatest perfumer and to recreate the particularly exquisite scent of a young virgin girl. And he will do anything in order to possess that scent.
Perfume is an odd book to try and review, because while there is nothing that I can point to within the novel and say that this part is badly written or included unwisely, there is something about the work as a whole that left me a bit cold.
I suppose that I can start with what definitely did work, which was the writing itself. It is kind of unusual for me, most of the time I can point at characters, scenes or even themes that endeared me most to the book. But here, it was the style itself that really caught me. In some ways, it reminds me a little of The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele d'Annunzio, because the two have a similar way of enriching their comparatively simple narratives with grandiose sensory accompaniment. Where d'Annunzio focuses on visuals, Suskind brings this world to life through a cavalcade of different scents. I keep trying to think how to describe it and the word lush always seems to come to mind: rich and abundant, if not always (or indeed often) pleasant. It is an enthralling experience to imagine that crush of scents and definitely makes up for some of the lesser elements of the book.
I suppose that my main issue is with the main character, Grenouille. Don't misunderstand me, in his own way he is an interesting and well-written character. It was certainly refreshing to have a villain protagonist at least. I suppose my issue with him is that he is more or less a static character. While he creates conflict and has epiphanies about himself throughout the novel, I didn't feel that there was much real change in him at all. At various points in the narrative, he is compared to a tick, parasitic and infinitely patient. Neither of those key personality traits change at all, and considering that his is the perspective that the narrator sticks to for long chunks of the novel it does start to feel a little flat and one-note at times. It's not a huge issue, but I found it noticeable enough to bother me.

I found Perfume an odd book, but a mostly satisfying read. I would give it a shot simply for the lush sensory element of the writing style, although I did find myself a bit bothered by the static characterisation of the villain protagonist Grenouille. A book that I would recommend maybe reading once, but I can't see myself re-reading it any time soon. 3.5/5

Next review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Ever since starting my blog, I had heard good things about Edith Wharton. She wasn't an author that I had heard of before then despite being what one could class as a "classic" writer. Considering that the praise for her writing was immense from the blogs that I followed, I thought that it might be an idea to try out one of her books that I had seen particularly touted, The House of Mirth.


The House of Mirth follows Miss Lily Bart, a beautiful young woman who seeks to climb the ladder of her social circle amongst New York's nouveaux riche. Brought up with a strict aversion to dinginess despite her family's comparatively modest means, she aims to marry a husband who can provide her both with luxury and endless admiration. She finds herself, however, meeting a succession of obstacles born out of missteps of conduct that would be harmless enough were her peers not morally bankrupt to one extent or another.
I already mentioned that I had heard good things about Edith Wharton's books, but damn could that lady ever write. It has been a long time since a book has been well-written enough that I have been so torn between putting it down because it's too tense, and continuing reading because I need to know what happens. Admittedly, I do have a weakness for books that fall into the comedy of manners, especially those that are particularly sharp and backstabbing, but there is something particularly engaging about The House of Mirth. I believe that the key to its success is the main character, Lily Bart. She is the feminine epitome of the classic tragic hero: have a particular flaw that causes her to make a mistake great enough that she suffers a great fall and enough pride that she cannot undo the mistake once she has made it. What makes Lily interesting is that her flaw is essentially that she has scruples. At the beginning of the novel, she knows that in order to attain the wealth that she wants, she needs to act in a certain way to attract a particular rich gentleman. But she fails at the last hurdle because she finds herself unable to tolerate the idea of the vapid life that she would lead as a result, always having to keep up these lies in the process. And this continues throughout the novel: she meets an obstacle or fixes on a goal, gets most of the way there through scheming and manipulation, but is brought up short by an abhorrence towards the very underhanded tactics that can only benefit her. It's a fascinating inner struggle to watch, but certainly not an easy one to stomach at times. Towards the end, it also becomes increasingly obvious what the end has to be, but it is no less enthralling because of that .

A fascinating look at one woman's struggles with the social mores of her peers, and her incompatible needs for integrity and wealth. Fantastically written and definitely one to pick up if you have the time. 5/5

Next review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Signing off,
Nisa.