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Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The image of Pinhead from the Hellraiser films is an iconic one, to say the least. So, while I don't particularly have the temperament necessary to enjoy most horror films, when I found the book that the Hellraiser films were inspired by I couldn't pass up the opportunity of reading them. And was it worth it? Well there are certainly worse things to pass the time with.


The Hellbound Heart is certainly a quick read, clocking in at only 128 pages. To be honest, that's all that the story really warrants, considering the simplicity of the material. The gist of the story is that a man named Frank discovers the solution to a puzzle-box that is rumoured to grant whoever solves it with pleasure beyond their wildest imaginings. What happens instead is that he is pulled into a parallel world by creatures called Cenobites, who provide him with moments of great pleasure amongst moments of torture and pain. The other main character of the story is Julia, Frank's sister-in-law, as she finds what is left of Frank and attempts to bring him back to the real world through the gift of blood. It's a short, but creepy little book. To be honest, there's not much to really add other than a quick summation of the plot. The characters aren't especially sympathetic, but then part of the fun is watching their selfishness and arrogance bring their doom upon them. It's not fantastic, but it does it's job quite well, bringing entertainment and visceral gore by the bucket-load along with some pretty nifty suspense. Perfect for a horror film then.

I'd elaborate, but there's not much to say really. A quick read that delivers what it set out to do and is very entertaining along the way. Perfect popcorn reading on a dark and stormy night. 3.5/5

Next review: Pamela by Samuel Richardson.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

The reason I picked up this book is incredibly shallow. I liked the title. There was really no other real reason: I read the title, thought the premise was interesting and so I bought it. I'd never heard of it or the author before, so I had no clue what I was in for. It was an interesting experience, to be sure.


The premise is an interesting one to be sure: a murder investigation is going on as the story alternates between the characters involved now and what they were like during primary and secondary education. For me, the idea of previous ideas about people, especially those that you knew as a child, affecting your present day interactions with them was really interesting. The experience overall has even made me reconsider how I view people that I went to school with. The main way that I can explain this is through the characters of Robbie and Martin. At the beginning, I hated Robbie. He was every bully in primary and high school that picked on me because I cared about learning concentrated in one person; but as the novel progressed, you find out that he acts like he does because he's trying to live up to the images of his father and elder brothers, all of them criminals of the worst kind and all of them considering him to be not worth the effort. By the end, Robbie was my favourite, because underneath he was this insecure guy who wanted to belong with someone. Then you have Martin, who actually reminds me a lot of myself. At the beginning, he's the conscientious boy who thinks that by being a nice guy life will be good to him. After school has ended, he's bitter and contemptuous of those who have bullied him for being smart, an attitude that I can understand perfectly. But in the modern day storyline, he's still treating his old schoolmates as he would have twenty years before, at the end of high school, after the majority of them have moved on and become different people, some for the better and others not. It made me think about my own attitude; there are still people that I would be terrified to meet in the street, even after three years have passed since high school, because my opinion of them is solely defined by how they bullied me. There are people that I haven't seen since primary school, whom I regard with utter contempt because of their attitudes, and although it seems an elementary thing, I had never considered what these people would actually be like if I met them now, as an adult. In some ways it's a humbling and disquieting feeling, but in other ways it's quite liberating; for years I have struggled to get close to people, simply because I never knew if I could trust them fully. I have been getting better, but the consideration that change is given here has made me think that there shouldn't be any real reason that I should be scared of people after finding out that they were mean as a child. It's a good feeling. Those two characters are only examples of the similarly stellar characterisation that carries the entirety of the novel.
As you can tell, I really like this book, even though I wasn't all that impressed at first. I probably should mention a couple of things about the writing that may well put people off reading it that I noticed along the way. First of all is the language used in dialogue: considering that the setting is in Scotland, there is the use of dialect to denote strong accents; this can be a tad confusing at times, especially with the slang, but a glossary is provided at the back, so this is catered to within the text (or at least it was in my edition). The other thing that I noticed was the use of the present tense. Personally I had no issues with it other that a little confusion at first, but I have seen quite a few people complain about it, so I thought it a good idea to mention it.

Overall, a slow starter that won me over completely with its complex characters and their individual development as people. Also probably the only murder mystery that has made me reconsider myself as an individual. 5/5

Next review: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman

I'm still not quite sure what made me pick up this title. Historical fiction hasn't really turned up on my reading lists all that much, despite the fact that I do enjoy history a great deal. I suppose the setting might have been something to do with it: a harem in Constantinople in 1599. Not your standard setting for fiction set in Elizabethan times, to be sure. In any case, regardless of whatever reason I have for picking it up, was The Aviary Gate worth the intrigue? 


The Aviary Gate is the story of two women separated by 400 years. In 1599, there is Celia Lamprey, a English woman who is sold to the harem of the Ottoman Sultan after she is presumed dead. In the present day, there is Elizabeth Stavely, a student researching Celia's life as part of her thesis. I personally don't think that the two separate narratives really worked together. Don't get me wrong, they're both very good, very well-written story-lines; I just don't think they quite mesh together properly. Let me elaborate. In the Celia story-line, the focus is very much on intrigue and mystery, as Celia tries to figure out who poisoned the chief black eunuch, Hassan Aga, and how it could be linked to the English ambassadors outside the palace; the focus occasionally switches to Paul Pindar, an English merchant who was Celia's betrothed, as he tries to ascertain whether his lost love is in the Sultan's harem and if she is how he can rescue her from it. All in all, quite exciting stuff. You then have the modern story-line, which is completely different in tone. The main thrust in Elizabeth's story-line is her trying to escape and recover from an unhealthy relationship with one of the lecturers at the university she attends, as opposed to much actual research; this necessitates a slower tone, as you're looking at a person's internal growth and change, as opposed to the more frenetic pace needed for stories about political intrigue. As I said before, both are well-written stories, I just don't think that they really belong together, considering that they do use wildly different tones and paces; though I did like both stories, I thought that the modern day story lost out somewhat, as it seemed less interesting when compared to the more exotic and exciting Constantinople of 1599. 
As for characters, I must reiterate that the modern story suffers for being added on to the historical story, as the modern characters are nowhere near as interesting as the historical ones. The only ones of any real importance are Elizabeth and Marius, because they are the main character and the cause of her emotional growth respectively. Elizabeth is quite irritating at times, as she is quite weak-willed and responds to a relationship that is causing nothing but uncertainty and heartache for her, but is overall a nice character. Marius is your stereotypical unhealthy love interest, charming but ultimately selfish and inconsiderate. The real stars of the book are the characters in the historical plot-line. The main characters of note are probably Celia, Safiye and another character who I can't discuss without focusing on their role in the central mystery of the plot. Celia is what I would consider a model woman by Elizabethan standards: prim, proper, quite shocked by the customs of the harem and still devoted to the memory of the love that she can't reach whilst in the harem. Safiye is probably my favourite character in the entire novel, simply because of how cunning and crafty she is. Safiye is the Valide Sultan, the Ottoman equivalent of the Queen Mother, who makes it her business to know the goings-on of every woman in the harem, so that her position of power can stay secure for as long as possible; she is an example of the most fascinating part of the historical setting, namely how an individual can use slavery as a career opportunity by marrying into or creating alliances with important members of the Ottoman court. It is a little unsavoury by today's terms considering that this is essentially prostitution as well as slavery, but very interesting nonetheless. 

Overall, an interesting and well-written book, but the fact that two very different story-lines are included as one narrative drastically weakens what could have been a completely absorbing and intriguing novel. 3.5/5 

Next review: A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre. 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

To be honest, I'm not sure what made me pick this book up. Obviously I remembered the huge hype that there was when the film adaptation came out, so I was in two minds about The Time Traveler's Wife when I picked it up second hand. On the one hand, often there's something prompting the hype meaning that it's probably pretty good, but on the other hand hype is very bad for raising impossibly high expectations, thus causing disappointment when the book doesn't live up to the hype. But, considering that it's been years since the hype died down, I decided that this would be a safe time to take a look. 


So, you probably know what the novel's about, but this is my turn to talk, so I'll tell you anyway. This is the love story between Clare and Henry. Of course, it isn't that simple, it never is in fiction. The main complication in this relationship is that Henry has a genetic condition that means that he will, often in times of stress, travel back or forwards in time. This is actually quite well implemented, especially when the two first start dating; Henry has never met her before, whereas Clare is well aware of who he is because she has seen several of his future selves throughout her childhood. The time travel itself brings up a lot of questions about the nature of fate and whether the future is already determined or whether we can use free will to affect the past or the future. It can get kind of depressing, but the sheer amount of optimism in Henry and Clare's relationship negates that for the most part. Regarding that, I have to praise the book for its focus on a long-term couple and for making the relationship so...human. What I mean by that last point is that it feels utterly true to life, with flawed characters leading out lives with decisions that aren't necessarily the right ones and having to get one with the consequences. It's a refreshing change from insta-romances and affairs that progress without a hitch (or ones which are plagued with nothing but misery). 
The characters are similarly human. There's Henry, who is a bookish girl's dream (probably on purpose) as he's intelligent and cultured, but at the same time prone to depression, losing his temper and alcoholism. Clare is patient and creative, but gets more and more prone to irritation as the number and length of Henry's absences increase throughout their married life. There are other characters who appear at various times in their lives, such as Gomez, a liberal lawyer with an unrequited crush on Clare; Ben, an AIDS sufferer friend of Henry's and Ingrid, an angry ex-girlfriend. 
To be honest, I'm not sure what else to say, considering that this is quite widely known. The only other thing that I can think of to say is that if you haven't read this yet and want to, I would recommend keeping tissues nearby when you get towards the end; it's the closest I've gotten to bawling in a long while. 

In this case, the hype was well-founded. This is a well-written, genuinely touching love story and I would happily recommend it. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Until my boyfriend mentioned it to me, I had never heard of The Midwich Cuckoos before, a lack of knowledge that positively horrified him. So when I found a copy of it at a used book sale, I thought I might as well check it out, as it had an interesting premise. So was it any good? Certainly if you're looking for something unsettling.

The premise of The Midwich Cuckoos is a simple enough one. One day, a small inconsequential English village just stops as an area of two miles in every direction, with the village in the middle, causes all those within that area falls unconscious. When the area disappears, everything seems to go back to normal, until every woman able to have children who were in the village that day falls pregnant at the same time, including virgins. If that weren't weird enough, the children all look identical to one another and appear to be able to influence people around them with just a thought. I absolutely love this premise. What I like in particular is the reaction to the mass pregnancy, simply because it's a relic of another time. This was published in 1957, when there was a huge emphasis on women's virginity being intact when she marries. The automatic reaction in this case would be that these women are quite loose, but the fact that everyone has to band together in order for this reaction to be avoided is utterly fascinating for me. The other part of the pregnancy section which comes up quite a bit is the idea that the women in the village aren't the childrens' mothers, but rather that they were hosts through which the children could be born. That kind of idea is horrific for me. Don't get me wrong, I'd like children some day, but the idea that I had gotten pregnant without intending to is a terrifying prospect in itself; if I knew that said baby wasn't actually mine, I can't even begin to think what I'd do. In comparison, the fact that these children seem to be demon spawn seems less terrifying. Not that the Children aren't creepy, I just think that it's easier to get scared of a prospect that seems vaguely possible and/or you can see it happening to you. But yeah, overall a very eerie plot.
The actual characters themselves are kind of bland in comparison. Like with Philip K. Dick, there's more emphasis on story than very deep characters. I think the only one that really escapes this is Gordon Zellaby, who is a philosopher, I presume, who manages to be very complex and sympathetic, although his monologues can be annoying at times. The Children also escape this, but I hesitate to say that it's because they're particularly multi-layered as opposed to being really inhuman and uncanny.

This creates a creepy atmosphere really well and plays on real human fears, making this quite an eerie read. It's quite intellectual, much like The Man in the High Castle, but I think the character of Zellaby and the moral quandary that crops up towards the end justifies it to a certain degree. A book that I would recommend, as I can see this staying with me for a while yet to come. 4/5

Next review: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

I at least had some expectations of Mr Pratchett's work coming into this, having read The Colour of Magic a little while ago. It wasn't the spectacular I was expecting from my friends' descriptions, but there was definitely a lot to enjoy. So how does The Light Fantastic measure up? Well, things have definitely improved since his last effort. Oh, and just so you know, this review will contain some spoilers for the ending of The Colour of Magic, not that I think people will care much, seeing as I must be one of the few people who has only just started reading Discworld.

The Light Fantastic carries on from where The Colour of Magic left off, with Rincewind plunging over the edge of the Disc to what can be assumed to be certain doom. Except that it isn't. Instead of dying in the vacuum of space, he finds himself falling to the base of a tree. It turns out that the great spell lodged in Rincewind's head has saved him in order that he still be around to say it. The reason for this is that the turtle upon whose back the Disc is situated has its current course directed towards a star, generally not a healthy place for a world to be; in order to prevent the Disc from being destroyed the eight great spells of the Octavo must be recited at exactly the right time. So Rincewind must journey back to the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork in order to recite all eight spells in time. At the same time he also has to avoid the schemes and plots of Trymon, a wizard that wants the glory of saving the world for himself. This more focused storyline definitely works better than the odd jumping around that there was in The Colour of Magic, as it means that we get much more of an understanding of character and time span as well as there being more of an incentive to continue reading. My one real complaint about The Light Fantastic is that it occasionally introduces characters that either aren't all that necessary (Lackjaw the dwarfish jeweller) or are interesting but are only there for a few scenes and then never seen again (Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan).
In regards to characters, my comments from my review of The Colour of Magic still stand for Rincewind, Twoflower and the Luggage; although I will add that my soft spot for the Luggage may have grown. The three main characters that are introduced are Cohen the Barbarian, Bethan and the aforementioned Trymon. Cohen the Barbarian is, as far as I can gather, supposed to mock Conan, although considering I still have yet to read any Conan the Barbarian, I say that with some uncertainty. In any case, he is presented as the Disc's greatest hero who has managed to continue working as a hero well into old age. As such, he is formidable in battle, but occasionally has to pause while he tries to recover from putting his back out. He's quite likeable and pretty much the only intentionally competent fighter in the book. Second is Bethan who is essentially the sane one out of them all; saved from being a human sacrifice, she's initially resentful of the group for having interrupted an important ceremony in her culture, but she quickly decides that since she's in the role of rescued damsel, she might as well put her all into it. Finally there's Trymon, a character that I'm all too glad to wish defeat on, simply because he irritates me; he seems to be based on those bosses that attempt to sound business-savvy by changing policies that worked just fine as they were and by promoting things like 'synergy'. I sincerely hope that my wrath is understandable.

Overall, a definite improvement over The Colour of Magic, but I think that there is still a lot of room for it to get better. I look forward to eventually reading the next instalment of the series. 3.5/5

Next review: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

As a Fantasy and Science Fiction fan, I feel somewhat guilty that this is essentially my first foray into what you could consider to be one of the Science Fiction greats, Philip K. Dick. I suppose that up until recently, their collective reputation sort of scared me away a bit. But when The Man in the High Castle turned up at a book give-away last year at University, I decided that because of my implied increase in maturity as a University student I would do well to read some classic Science Fiction. So, can I consider this to be a book worth grabbing on a cold morning on my way to the bus stop? Maybe, maybe not, I'm not quite decided yet; at the very least I can tell you that it was interesting. 

The set-up is a simple but intriguing one: what would the world be like if the Allied Powers hadn't won the Second World War? In this re-imagining of history, America has been split into Japanese and German territories, the genocide of undesirables has continued unabated to the point that Africa has been wiped out entirely, Italy seems to have been largely forgotten and Nazi Germany is now technologically advanced enough to start colonising space. The last point I find utterly ludicrous, especially since the implication is that this takes place before 1970. The other points hold up for the most part. The story follows several different plot-lines as it examines the lives of several people living in San Francisco as controlled by the Japanese, and through these different individuals this new society is examined in contrast to our own. Now this complete change in philosophy and values in this new society is what I find most interesting about this book; the value of discretion and formality in the Japanese controlled society, the tensions between Japan and the nutters still focused on racial purity in Germany, and particularly the odd mix of freedom of speech and censorship. That last point is where the eponymous Man in the High Castle comes in: this is a nickname for an author who wrote a book called 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy', which details how life would be if the Axis hadn't won World War Two. As well as providing a nice bit of metafiction, it details the differences between the new superpowers of this world; while the Japanese have released it to the public without comment, Nazi Germany is utterly livid about the book, banning it in their territories and even going so far as to send assassins after the author, ignoring the fact that both of these things would serve to make the book more infamous and desirable. But then I suppose these are the Nazis we're talking about, so not exactly the most rational of groups. In any case, this new society is very interesting to be sure, but there is one thing that I'm a little puzzled about: the widespread use of I Ching. Okay, that's not quite accurate. I can understand the use of the I Ching in Japanese territory, seeing as they would have appropriated it from China. What I'm confused about is the ridiculous accuracy of the answers that it produces. While I have never used I Ching before, I am familiar with other methods of divination, mainly tarot cards, and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that you do not usually get answers quite that accurate; in any one spread or session of divination there will be certain points where you see connections to whatever your situation is, but there will also be about as many if not more points where you will not understand what possible connection there could be to your question. Furthermore, those times that you do see a connection, well humans are sense-making animals, so there is probably a lot of work going on in your own head. So maybe I Ching is vague enough to let people make their own connections to reality and I'm just being picky? That would be a nice thought, if only the answers they come up with weren't so scarily plot relevant; there is one moment where the I Ching tells a Japanese trade official that his client is actually a spy, a fact that we don't have confirmed for several more chapters. Apart from that point that still boggles the mind, the set-up is definitely a strong one. 
The characters are unfortunately not as well crafted. While the characters were all distinct from one another, I had no real desire to really get to know them particularly well. It just felt like the characters were simply methods of moving from set piece to set piece, in order to look more deeply at society. I would probably talk on this more, but to be honest I can't help but be overcome by apathy whenever I think of these characters. 

Let me make this clear. This is not a book that appeals to our emotions. For me at least, this was a purely intellectual read, with the characters being ultimately superfluous to the set-up and the theoretical look at society in the years after World War Two. I would recommend it if you're looking for an interesting hypothesis to argue over and/or you're feeling emotionally drained after another book. 3.5/5 

Next review: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I've given in to peer pressure with this one. My best friend and my boyfriend are both huge Terry Pratchett fans, and as such have been bugging me to read his Discworld series for as long as about eight years (in the case of my best friend). Wow, I just realised how long I've been putting this off for. No wonder she was getting tired of nagging. In any case, I figured that I might as well start at the beginning, so that I wouldn't get caught by continuity problems, hence my decision to borrow The Colour of Magic from the boyfriend; he even threw in The Light Fantastic, which was nice of him. So, has the hype been deserved? Mostly, yes.

The Colour of Magic follows the adventures of an inept and cowardly wizard named Rincewind as he finds himself having to chaperone Ankh-Morpork's first tourist, Twoflower. There are a couple problems with the plot in this book; don't get me wrong, it's entertaining and funny, but not without issues. The first thing that I noticed was that the flow was rather jumpy. The overall plot is split into four basic sections: Twoflower's arrival in Ankh-Morpork, their detour through the Temple of Bel-Shamharoth, an adventure involving dragons and what they find at the edge of the Discworld. That's fair enough, shows a natural progression through their world. My problem was that it felt more like four separate novellas or short stories that happened to involve the same protagonists and were in sequential order. The only real thing that connects the stories other than the protagonists is the colour octarine, a fluorescent greenish-purple, the eponymous colour of magic that only wizards can see. The other main problem that I had with the plot is the knowledge that various details of it are ret-conned in future instalments of the series, which I was warned about. To be honest, that bothers me less, seeing as this was the first of the series, so there were presumably various elements about the world-building that needed a little fine-tuning. Overall though, these are very enjoyable stories with a lot to recommend them, namely the protagonists.
The main characters that I'll be touching on are Rincewind, Twoflower and Twoflower's sentient luggage. Rincewind is a wonderfully pathetic main character: he's a wizard who only knows one spell and it's one that he dare not enchant. He is as cowardly as they come, only walking into adventures because he was forced to. He could be a little bit dull at times though, which is probably why Pratchett paired him up with Twoflower here. Twoflower is quite possibly insane. He comes to Ankh-Morpork as a tourist from a land where gold is extremely common and has thus lost a great deal of it's value. Because of this, he walks around giving out huge gold coins all willy-nilly, making him a quick target for thieves. He also has a nasty habit of wanting to witness horribly dangerous things like bar brawls and charging dragons, dragging Rincewind along with him. Twoflower would probably start to grate very quickly if he were on his own, but when he's contrasted with Rincewind, it makes a nice character dynamic. The final main character to mention is the Luggage. The Luggage is probably my favourite character, if only for the possibilities that it brings to the story. The material that the Luggage is made of is a specific kind of wood that will follow their owner no matter what circumstances he should find himself in. It also has a habit of eating people. Basically it's a murderous, walking bag of holding, a phrase that I never thought I would write down and it makes me want to cackle at the sheer brilliance of it. I suppose I should also mention Death, who makes a few short appearances here. I'm looking forward to reading more about him, as he sounds like a riot. That and he also speaks with Christopher Lee's voice in my head, which is quite fun.

Overall, a great introduction to the Disc. I'm looking forward to reading more of this series, especially since there's a cliffhanger ending to this one. This isn't perfect though, so I'm hoping that the books improve as they go along. 3.5/5

Next review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A note about updates this month

As some of you will no doubt already know, NaNoWriMo starts today. NaNoWriMo, for those currently baffled by that last sentence, is short for National Novel Writing Month, a challenge where people aim to write a 50k word novel during the month of November. This is my first year taking part. Hence I shall probably not be reading quite as much as I would normally do (which is variable anyway, but I digress). So for those of you eagerly awaiting a new review (very few, I know) they will be much scarcer this month. Sorry about that.

In any case, wish me luck!

Signing off,
Nisa.

Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy

The main reason I picked this book out off the second hand book stall is that I'd heard that this had been made into a film starring Dustin Hoffman, an actor I adore after seeing him in Rainman. But does reading this make me actually want to watch Midnight Cowboy? Not especially.

If I'm honest, I was utterly underwhelmed by this novel. Midnight Cowboy follows a young Texan named Joe Buck, who decides that he's going to make his fortune in New York as a gigolo; when he arrives, however, he finds that he isn't really cut out for success as a hustler, quickly becoming homeless and falling in with crippled con-man Ratso Rizzo. The story itself is interesting enough, I can't really complain there. No, my main complaint is the use of Joe as the point-of-view character: simply put, I don't particularly like him. He is a person that I can imagine being irritated with extremely quickly in real life, for various reasons. Firstly, he is very slow; that may be a mean thing to point out, but it is a main character trait of his and it's one that really slowed down the narrative for me, as it meant that nothing actually happens to move him forward. Secondly, his stupidity means that he is manipulated by pretty much everyone that he meets in this narrative. I know that this is meant to show how tough you have to be to survive on the streets, as it were, but when you compare Joe to Ratso it just seems that Joe is incredibly weak-minded and malleable; every decision he makes is either something he drifted into by chance or influenced by smarter or more persuasive people around him, up until the end, where it soon makes no real difference. This leads me on to the third reason that I wasn't fond of Joe as the main protagonist: considering quite how naive and stupid he is, choosing to be a hustler seems like an uncharacteristically cynical/nonsensical move on his part especially considering that he already has a steady job; I would imagine that prostituting yourself would only be an option if 1) you were desperate for money and couldn't get it any other way or 2) you had gotten so jaded that prostitution really didn't seem that big a step. Joe has neither of those excuses, which is incredibly frustrating; he just gets the idea in his head that he can earn loads of money as a hustler without any effort on his part. Basically that one stupid move has essentially removed whatever capability Joe has for being sympathetic, for me at least, as I couldn't help but feel that he kind of deserved a lot of what he got for being an idiot.
There were two things that I think saved it from being a total waste of my time though. The first is Ratso, who I think would have made a much more interesting main character, but then that's my opinion. The idea of him being played by Dustin Hoffman is the one thing that still makes me consider watching the film adaptation. The other thing that saved this book from utter condemnation is the ending, where Joe and Ratso have a few moments of really touching camaraderie, which seemed oddly absent considering that this is supposedly a book with friendship as a main theme.

I may have moaned about this a heck of a lot, but in all honesty this is mainly because I wanted this book to be really good, and there are elements that work well or show a lot of potential, but it's written in such a way that it just left me feeling...well...'meh'. There's no other way I can really put it. 2.5/5

Next review: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

I have absolutely no clue what I was in for when I started reading Invisible Monsters. I assumed that it would be fairly decent, seeing as I enjoyed Fight Club hugely, but I still had no clue what this book would be like. By the end of the review, you might have just an inkling why.

Regarding the story, there's not much that I can really tell you for fear of giving something away. This is one of those books where there are several twists, one for pretty much every single member of the cast. What I can tell you is that this is a story about the narrator, a model whose life is changed forever when her jaw is shot off, turning her into the eponymous 'Invisible Monster' of the title. Having seen pictures of what people surmise she looks like, I can understand the sentiment. This is also a story about Brandy Alexander, a transgender who is one operation away from becoming a woman and is looking to totally reinvent herself. These two go on a road trip of sorts, in order to reinvent themselves. As I've mentioned, there are several twists in the course of the book. The main question is, are they good twists? Yes, I'd say that they are. Considering that the book's narrative hops back and forth along the chronology of the book's events, the twists are hinted at very subtly in the relevant sections, so that when the moment comes when something is revealed it takes you by surprise, yet seems very natural at the same time.
When I first started reading this, my first impression was that this book would be one of those books that draws you in with the train-wreck appeal: it's horrific, but you can't help but watch it happen. To an extent I still think that that is true. These characters are not nice. They may become incredibly sympathetic, but they certainly aren't nice. Probably the most sympathetic of the characters is Brandy, but unfortunately I can't really say anything unless I give away some really big spoilers. Suffice to say that there is much more beneath the surface than the pill-popping transgender that everyone seems to be drawn to. The narrator is quite interesting too, being possibly the least likeable character on the roster. For me, there's something quite fascinating about someone who is so unapologetically shallow and selfish. There's a certain justification for why she is like she is, but she never uses it as an excuse, which is quite refreshing really.
If there's one thing that I wasn't expecting, it would probably be the ending. Having had a very cynical book thus far, with seriously damaged and unlikeable characters, the ending had a strangely hopeful tone to it. It was unexpected, but at the same time it just felt right.

This is a book that does all the right things with characters and how they evolve throughout the story-line. The jumping about in the chronology was interesting and made for well-timed plot twists. Overall, a fantastic book that I would recommend readily. 5/5

Next review: Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

This is going to be one of those reviews where I kind of wish that I could say more about what I've read than I actually will do. I want to say that I have a lot to talk about here, but I have a feeling that I may struggle.

Child of All Nations focuses on Kully, a 9-year-old German girl, in the years leading up to World War II. Her father is a writer who can't stay in Germany because he has written anti-German/anti-Nazi pieces, thus forcing him and his family to travel around Europe, only staying in one country for as long as their visas last for. That is pretty much the plot in its entirety. Their brief stays in any one country is characterised by this basic chain of events: enter new country, stay in fancy hotel, run out of money, father leaves Kully and her mother to earn money, rinse and repeat. This process is shown through what are essentially anecdotes of Kully's experiences. As plots go, I've read many that were more engaging. Fittingly enough, the ending is very open-ended and kind of fades out instead of ending on a clear resolution; especially apt considering that this was written in 1938, the year before the war started. For me, I wasn't overly fond of the plot itself; the repetitiveness started grating quite quickly, for one reason: the father.
So, why is the focus of my irritation embodied by the father? The stupid moves that he just keeps doing that make things intensely difficult for him and his family. Let's be clear here: Kully's family has no money. So where does the father get them to stay? In a fancy hotel. How do they travel? First class. What does he end up doing most of the time that we as readers see him? Drinking near constantly and lending other people money that he doesn't have, instead of writing and actually earning money. It just grates on me that Kully and her mother have to travel and live in uncertainty because of this irresponsible twit, especially in moments like when Kully's mother finds a house to rent and a lifestyle that will actually conserve money. I appreciate that he's been forced into that situation by an incredibly intolerant government, but there's still a limit on how much slack I can give him before I feel the urge to smack him. The other main characters, Kully and her mother are more tolerable. Her mother is especially sympathetic, as she has to cope with bringing up her child away from an education and a stable home, along with the knowledge that every time her husband leaves to earn money she and Kully have to stay at the hotel, essentially as insurance. As for Kully, she is pleasant enough; I mentioned this in my review of Room, but I'll say it again: I'm not fond of child narrators. To be fair, Kully is older than Jack was, making this slightly less frustrating, but I would again have been much more interested in hearing the story from the mother's point of view, as there was so much more character depth hinted at with her. If I'm totally honest, the main thing making me finish this was a sort of curiosity, as opposed to actual emotional attachment, which disappoints me.

At first I was looking forward to reading this, as the concept seemed really interesting and ripe with potential plot-lines. In my mind, that potential was kind of wasted, as nothing seems to have changed by the end. I don't want to finish reading a book feeling like the experience as a whole has been largely futile. 3/5

Next review: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse is a name that has cropped up many a time since I started this blog, while I was browsing through books that I could potentially review in the future. Specifically his books Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, two apparent classics of modern Europe. If I were to start his works, those would be the two most obvious titles to read, right? Instead I started with Beneath the Wheel, mainly because that was the book that turned up on my University reading list. Is it a good place to start? I think so. 

Beneath the Wheel follows an adolescent boy named Hans Giebernath, who is quite special compared to the rest of the population of the small German town he lives in. While the majority are only basically educated and happy to settle for apprenticeships at 14, he possesses a keen intelligence and a desire to do well. Because of this, he is entered into the world of academia, where his father and teachers from home hope that he will go on to become an academic or a priest, someone who will contribute greatly towards the state. We follow Hans as he goes through his first year away at school, eventually culminating in a nervous break-down as he tries and fails to reconcile his desire to succeed with his desire to become more like his friend, the outgoing poet Heilner. For me, it boiled down to a critique of competitive education systems and the limits that young people were subjected to if their education didn't succeed. Indeed, my favourite part of the book was the part that looked at how Hans coped with leaving the world of academia. While it's obvious from earlier chapters just how damaging the constant pressure of his school work and the high standards that he had inadvertently set for himself in his teachers' and father's eyes, it is also clear that he has no concept of a future for himself other than that of academia; the amount of special treatment that he has been given because of his intelligence has skewed his perspective, so that he regards the hard-working but otherwise unremarkable people of his home-town with arrogance and disdain. I thought that this focus on the way that he tries to cope with his new situation was pitch perfect, and at times extremely unflattering for the protagonist, despite how sympathetic he and his situation are to the reader. 
Regarding characters, since I've mentioned Hans already, considering that the plot is so inextricably bound up with his character, I think that the only other characters that warrant mentioning are Heilner, Herr Giebernath and Master Flaig. Heilner is Hans' classmate at the academy, and his only 'friend' throughout the course of the book. I wasn't all that fond of him, if I'm quite honest; that's not to say that he isn't a well-written character, and there are things that I like about him. What I like is that Heilner doesn't just learn things for the sake of learning them like the rest of the boys: he reads their Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts to experience the beauty of language, not to learn the grammar by rote until all life is sucked from the texts; that is something that I can respect. But overall, I just got the feeling that Heilner is not a very nice person. I mean, his relationship with Hans seems to be one where Heilner dictates absolutely everything; he constantly offloads his problems on to Hans, most of them based on his notion that a poet should be full of deep and melancholy thoughts, but when Hans tries to study in order to keep his grades up Heilner gets all moody about it. He can't seem to grasp the concept that not everyone will share his disregard for grades, and when you pair this one-sided relationship with his oddly wide streak of malice, it makes for discomforting reading at times. I can almost forgive Herr Giebernath after talking about Heilner, although he too has a share of the blame regarding Hans' downward spiral. Being a basically unremarkable man, Herr Giebernath wants nothing more than for his son to do well, putting extra pressure on Hans to succeed. By the time that Hans has had his nervous breakdown, Herr Giebernath has no idea what went wrong; he doesn't want to upset his son, but it becomes more and more obvious that he is severely disappointed and angry at what must seem a waste of time. I guess I can kind of sympathise with him, as he does honestly want his son to do well, but the lack of communication and attempts to understand him mean that he often acts in ways that are to Hans' detriment instead. Finally, regarding Master Flaig...well, he's kind of a tough character to understand. He seems to have Hans' best interests at heart, but he doesn't actually try and intervene when he thinks that Hans is being worked too hard. So I suppose that he's more likeable than the majority of the supporting cast, but only because he has at least a slight understanding of what is actually best for Hans, despite the fact that he almost never acts on his opinions. 
I think the only thing really left to discuss is the writing itself. It's gorgeous. I take my hat off to the translator, Michael Roloff, as he did a cracking job. Probably the most impressive thing is how evocative the language used is, especially when setting is being described. Just take a read of this part from the section where Hans is asked to help Master Flaig make cider: 
"This fragrance really was the best part of the year, for it is the very essence of ripeness and harvest. It is good to suck it into your lungs with winter so near since it makes you grateful and brings back a host of memories: of the gentle May rains, summer downpours, cool morning dew in autumn, tender spring sun, blazing hot summer afternoons, the whites and rose-red blossoms and the ripe red-brown glow of fruit trees before the harvest - everything beautiful and joyful that happens in the course of a year." 
To be honest with you, I don't think that I could really add anything to that; the writing speaks for itself.

Overall, this was a thoughtful, evocative read with complex characters and a tragic consideration of youth and potential wasted. 5/5

Next review: Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

After a couple of days break from reading and this short play that I finished in a couple hours, I'd say that I'm well and truly recovered from The Divine Comedy. Interesting as it was, it was rather exhausting. So, now to review Spring Awakening, and I'm not quite sure where to begin precisely because I've never reviewed a play before. Personally, I'd prefer to see a stage production before reviewing this, but as far as I know the main version of this that gets performed is the rock opera version, which might be a tad too modern for the subject matter in all honesty. In any case, please be gentle in your criticisms if I bungle this horribly.

Spring Awakening follows a group of 14 year old students as they experience the effects of puberty and the first stirrings of sexuality, hence the title. That in itself would be interesting subject matter, but the setting complicates matters somewhat. Spring Awakening is set in Germany in the 1890s, a time where the transitional period known as being a teenager wasn't acknowledged and where awakening sexuality was viewed as a problem at best. So really, these kids have little to no chance getting out of this play unharmed. I personally really liked the way that the setting limited how these teens can express themselves and their sexuality, although its significance in today's society is certainly less than the impact it had at the time of publication.
So, as this play is essentially an ensemble piece, the most important part of the play would be the characters and their mini plot-lines that mix together to disastrous results. I suppose the main character would be Melchior, although he as a character by himself is less interesting than how he interacts with the other characters' plot-lines; in comparison to the majority of characters, he's well-adjusted, happy with who he is and a free thinker who questions the system around him relentlessly. His best friend, Moritz, goes to him as a confidant, in both sexual and everyday matters; in his case, Moritz's parents are pressuring him to do well academically, but the beginnings of puberty are making it harder to concentrate on keeping his failing grades up than it would be normally. There's Wendla, a teen whose mother insists on treating her like a little girl, for instance insisting, despite Wendla's age, that babies arrive via stork; add an ill advised sexual relationship with Melchior to that utter lack of knowledge and you can probably guess where that story-line goes. Those are the main three characters, with both Moritz and Wendla's seperate story-lines culminating in such a way that disaster is brought upon Melchior for his involvement. They aren't the only characters who go through a spring awakening, but they don't really add anything to the overall story arc. There's Ilse, who decided that school wasn't for her and thus dropped out to become a painter's model. There's Martha, whose parents beat her for silly things like decorating her nightdress with ribbons. And then there's Hans, who is probably my favourite character and probably has the two most shocking scenes (for the time it was written anyway) in the entire play: firstly masturbating to a classical nude whilst re-enacting the murder of Desdemona (I have to applaud him for creativity, even if the image makes me break out into hysterical giggling) and secondly an onstage kiss with his friend Ernst. Overall, the characters are very entertaining, with the teen characters nicely curious and the adults providing a suitably limiting atmosphere. My one complaints about the teen characters would be the dialogue. Now I'm not sure whether this is just a matter of translation or whether this is present in the original German, but to me the teens don't sound like teens. The majority of the characters are supposed to be about 14, but unless it weren't specifically stated, I would have thought that they were about 18-19, only a little younger than me. Maybe it was a culture thing or something, seeing as our current concept of children has only been a comparatively recent development in human society, but despite how hard I try to accept that explanation, there are several lines that just remind me of university discussions. Try this line of Melchior's, as he's discussing Faust, specifically the scene where Faust seduces Gretchen:
"Let's face it, Goethe's masterpiece does not reach it's zenith in that sad little episode. But the way people go on about it - you'd think the whole world revolved around penis and vagina." 
What 14-year-old boys do you know who would talk like that? None, that's how many. To be honest, most of the people I can remember when they were 14 would dissolve into fits of giggles the moment anything sex-related was mentioned, so a line like that just seems wrong coming out of a 14-year-old mouth. From college/university student and older? Now you're entering the realms of possibility.

Despite the problems I have with the overly mature language and diction that the teen characters possess, I did really enjoy this play and I would quite happily agree to viewing a performance of this, should I find one. 4/5

Next review: Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Well, where to begin with this one? I'm not sure whether I'll be able to fully express my thoughts about The Divine Comedy for a few reasons. Firstly, it's a huge narrative to get through, so I'd be here all day trying to exhaust all the things that I could possibly say about it. Secondly, it's a classic piece of literature, so there's a certain amount of respect that I feel is its due. Thirdly, because it's medieval literature, there are a few instances of values dissonance, especially regarding the inevitable religious aspects. But, I shall try my darnedest to express my overall impressions.

The Divine Comedy, at its most basic level, is a story about Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, ultimately culminating in beholding God. That on its own is far too simple a story to review, and is rather misleading as well. Having finally reached the end of The Divine Comedy, my understanding of it is that this is more an essay on religious and political virtues and how people are either rewarded or punished in the afterlife depending on how they lived in comparison to this code of ethics. In particular, it is an essay on Dante's views of religious and political standards that people should live by, hence why there are lots of people that Dante disliked in Hell. The overarching idea that is put forward is that of how a union of the Catholic Church and a God-ordained monarchy will bring virtue back into a world that is being defined more and more by materialism and excess. I think he may have been hoping for a bit much: when in the final circle of Heaven, his lady love and heavenly guide, Beatrice, states that there are only a few places left to fill, implying that the Rapture was imminent, as was this mysterious union of Church and State; fast forward about 700 years and, in Europe and the Americas certainly, we've gone in the complete opposite direction. A classic example of why making prophecies about when the world will end doesn't tend to work. While the overall set of principles that Dante wants mankind to follow are understandable enough, there is a slightly uncomfortable bias towards Judeo-Christian morality, which, while not unexpected given when it was written, makes for awkward reading from a modern perspective. The biggest example would be Dante's opinion on the fate of the prophet Muhammad: he's been sent to the ninth valley of the eighth circle of Hell. Similarly, homosexuals and other 'deviants' are sent to Hell. Considering the time that this was written, I wasn't expecting anything less, but that doesn't make it any less discomforting.
The other main point that comes to mind for discussion would probably be the writing. It is very very good, the translation conveying most of the ideas succinctly and clearly. At times it's difficult to follow the references to contemporary culture of the time, which is where the notes were a huge help. There is one thing that I will mention, that may seem overly picky, but it does bother me somewhat. For me, I found Inferno more interesting than Purgatorio or Paradiso, simply because the description is more vivid and the figures met there are more engaging; I can't be the only one who noticed this either, considering how closely Dante is associated with the Inferno (occasionally being confused with Faust as well, to my annoyance) and how little Purgatorio and Paradiso are depicted in comparison. I suppose for me, there was more variety in the kinds of things were going on in Hell, mainly in the form of highly ironic punishments, which is carried forward a little in Purgatorio although more with a mind to purge souls as opposed to punishing them; when Paradiso started though, everything became extremely homogenous, with the cantos focusing entirely on happy contented souls singing God's praises, with the occasional debate about doctrine or condemnations of the Popes of the time. Don't get me wrong, it's pretty imagery, but there's not really enough to sustain itself for 33 cantos.

This is another of those books that I'm glad I read, but I don't imagine I will be revisiting it in years to come. 3.5/5

Next review: Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Obviously I'm a little late in reviewing this, seeing as most of the hype occurred over a year ago with the Booker Prize 2010. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what I was expecting of Room, and now that I've finished it I'm still not quite sure what to think.

The story concerns a young boy called Jack who lives with his Ma in an 11x11' room. We as the audience know that there's something very wrong about the situation, but to Jack it's his entire world. For me, this set-up poses certain issues that don't particularly work for me. First is the whole confinement thing: considering the similarities between this and the case of Josef Fritzl, I found this a tad uncomfortable, like the author was trying to profit from the situation; that probably wasn't the intention, but it certainly feels that way at times. Second is the use of Jack as the narrator. Don't get me wrong, I think Donoghue nails the voice of a 5-year-old; I just don't think that the mind-set of children are particularly interesting to see events from. Personally, I was more interested in Ma's perspective on the situation, with a focus on how she's adapted to being confined, especially as it's compounded by the pressures of motherhood.
On the other hand, while I wasn't fond of the similarities that the book bore to the Fritzl case, it did make for engaging reading. From the second part onwards I was gripped, desperate to know how it would end. Now that it's ended though? It feels like watching programmes about true crime: you're gripped while you watch it, then pretty much forget it when it's all over.

This is a bit of an odd one to summarise, but I'll give it my best shot. Overall, I think that this is a good book. I think that it's a book that I would recommend  reading, but only once; if you're looking for a read with more staying power, I'd look elsewhere. 3.5/5

Next review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

An unexpected absence

Hi guys, this is just a note to let you know that my computer decided quite by chance to have the mother of all fits and break on me, so I shan't be able to post reviews for a little while yet. If you're wondering why I have internet access, my housemate is letting me borrow her laptop. As for progress, I've finished and written a review for Emma Donoghue's Room, but will not be posting it just yet as that is probably taking the laptop owner's generosity a bit too far considering the time I'll need to copy it up. So, until another time, when I have no more stupid computer worries like I do at this very instant.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Horns by Joe Hill

I had huge expectations for this. Not, as many will automatically think, because he's Stephen King's son; I've never understood why we insist on judging people by the actions or talents of their relatives. I had huge expectations for this because I absolutely loved his previous work: Heart-Shaped Box kept me on the edge of my seat (so to speak) throughout the entire narrative and his short story Pop Art is one of the most poignant pieces of fiction I've ever read. So when Horns came out, I knew that I would eventually get round to reading it. Does it match up? Oh yes, definitely. 

The story follows Ignatius Perrish, aka Ig, a young man grieving after the murder of his girlfriend, Merrin, a year before. Unfortunately, popular opinion thinks that he did it, despite the fact that the evidence was never conclusive. One morning, after getting spectacularly drunk, he wakes up to find that he's grown horns. If that's not weird enough, no-one seems to find it odd or scary; instead, the horns seem to make people confess their deepest, darkest secrets and desires, that they would normally not do to keep face. With it, Ig decides to find out who actually killed his girlfriend. Actually, that might be slightly misleading. Ig actually finds out who the killer is about 1/5 of the way through. The rest is spent piecing together what happened in the days leading up to the murder through the perspectives of the people involved. This is where I think the book excels. In his investigations, Ig comes to know things about the people that he thought he knew well that completely changes his opinion of them. In the majority of cases, it makes for quite chilling reading, generally involving people he thought cared about him secretly resenting and despising him. In other cases, it's more pitiful: a woman rendered so miserable by the taunts of others that she's considered suicide, a man consumed by guilt over something he thinks he should have stopped amongst others. It's a deeply uncomfortable look at how people would like to act and how those without clearer moral compasses act on those impulses. 
One of the themes which turns up in the course of the book is religion: specifically the effect of 'sinful' behaviour on others and the indifference of God to human plight. I found the position taken on them rather surprising, although in a pleasant way. Regarding 'sin', Hill seemed to draw a line between two different types of sin: the kind that doesn't affect anyone but the sinner and can be beneficial in the long run, and the kind that affects many people in a seriously negative way. The latter is easy to get examples of, Merrin's rape and murder being the most obvious. The former is a little more difficult to explain: one example is when Ig gets a policeman to follow his urge to give his ostensibly homophobic partner a blow-job; when we see them later in the book, they're now partners in both a professional and romantic sense. Many others involved leaving dead-end jobs and relationships which wouldn't necessarily be viewed positively by the community; it was nice to see Hill arguing that sometimes giving into urges is a good thing, not something to be ashamed of. The other theme I mentioned was the indifference of God and the perceived futility of praying to him; considering the importance of religion to the vast majority of Americans, I was absolutely stunned that the idea even came up. I'm quite glad it did, to be honest. While I do have several friends who are Christian, my boyfriend being one of them, I have never understood what kind of benevolent God would allow the kinds of horrific things that people do to each other to happen. I have also never understood the sentiment that all the suffering will be worth it in whatever afterlife there may be. This is, of course, merely my opinion, but I'm sort of glad that it's considered seriously in the story. 
The only other thing I want to mention in this review is probably the main character, Ig. He's one of the few 'every-man' protagonists that has been my favourite throughout. Most characters aiming to be average tend to go a bit too far on either end of the scale; either they're still too perfect and their flaws are only apparent by other characters telling us about them, or they're too average and just blend into the background whilst the secondary characters outshine them. For me, Ig was as realistic as any person I've met in real life: he's a good person at heart, but has several moments where he lets his temper get the better of him or he seriously considers giving up, like a real person. I think if Ig hadn't been the main character, I wouldn't have read this as compulsively as I did. 

Overall? I adored it. The plot was interesting, the characters were engaging and the way that Hill illustrated how little we can know someone was absolutely chilling. 5/5 

Next review: Room by Emma Donoghue. 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

So, this is the first book in a while that hasn't had anything to do with any of my university courses. This is one of those spur-of-the-moment purchases that I got at a second-hand book stall (where a large portion of my TBR list originated) and I was rather looking forward to reading this. Why? Partially it's a strange sentimental thing as it's been patiently waiting for a while now and the other, main, reason is that I do like Hugh Laurie (not so much House considering the ridiculous ease with which he now cures every patient that stumbles his way, more the occasional episode of Jeeves and Wooster that I happen to find). So has it lived up to my self-induced hype?

The story concerns a British gun-for-hire Thomas Lang, who, when offered a large sum of money to assassinate an American industrialist, decides that the better thing to do would be to warn him instead. This leads to him getting involved in a convoluted scheme regarding the creation and selling of weapons, hence the title. Sounds great, right? Having finished it, I have one, rather large, problem with the book as a whole, and it revolves around Thomas, our protagonist and narrator. I am assuming that everyone reading this has daydreamed at one time or another, and a vast majority of those daydreams are likely to involve you in what you would perceive as a more glamorous and/or exciting lifestyle (for example: warrior/soldier, astronaut, fire-fighter, lover of [insert name of unattainable crush] etc). For me, Thomas Lang sounded like what Hugh Laurie would imagine himself to be if he were a spy; Thomas is articulate, witty, irreverent, has a very British sense of humour and just a dash of self-loathing, all traits that Hugh Laurie himself has shown time and time again. For me, it's rather off-putting when the similarities between character and creator are so blatant; not that I'm saying that the effort isn't there. Thomas and the book as a whole is very well put together, with the various different strands coming together just at the right time. I just don't think that essentially putting himself into the narrative, as the main character to boot, was an especially good move.
What I would definitely count in the book's favour though is the skill with which Laurie writes. He is a very readable person, and for me the book just flew along, with enough fabulous one-liners and quirky descriptions to keep me happy; this line in particular, when Thomas and his sort-of love interest are walking on Hampstead Heath at night, would have to be my favourite:
"Swallows flitted here and there, darting in and out of the trees and bushes like furtive homosexuals, while the furtive homosexuals flitted here and there, pretty much like swallows." 
So while I may have issues with some of the characterisation, I think that Mr Laurie has this plot and style lark down a treat.

This has been a bit of a short review, but then for me the characterisation was the only thing that really bothered me about this book. Overall, it's fairly inconsequential, good for passing an enjoyable evening or two, but nothing that will stay with you long after you've finished. A good book for a holiday perhaps. 3.5/5

Next review: Horns by Joe Hill.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Stranded by Esther Tusquets

Warning: There may well be more spoilers for The Same Sea As Every Summer and Love is a Solitary Game as this is the third in her (really) loose trilogy.

I'm sure you're all sick to death of hearing about her, but today I'm reviewing Esther Tusquets' novel Stranded; as far as I know this is the last one of her books that has been translated into English, if that's any consolation. So, this novel starts with Elia, a different Elia from Love is a Solitary Game as far as I could gather, as she reels from her husband questioning the love that has been the basis for pretty much her entire life. As she tries to cope, she goes to the seaside town with her best friend Eva, Eva's husband Pablo who has reached his mid-life crisis and Clara, a severely disturbed girl who has been taken in by Eva. With an assortment of unstable personalities like that, things can only go wrong. They don't go wrong all at once though, which I wasn't really expecting considering what the blurb gives away; this is another slow burner, meaning that the blurb gives away events that happen over halfway into the narrative. 
Now, you'll notice that one of the characters that turns up is Clara. Now, this is our link to The Same Sea As Every Summer and Love is a Solitary Game: Clara presumably moves on from Elia and gets involved with Eva and her family and friends. Well, moving on is perhaps an optimistic assessment, considering that she's gone from a young woman who is, admittedly, rather timid but otherwise perfectly normal to a young woman who is totally dependent on the approval and love of Eva. On the one hand, this is a good development for her, as the reader finally gets to see more of her character; on the other, she is fairly loopy now, so what the reader really sees is how the events of the previous two books, amongst other things, have unhinged her. But, Clara is not the only character whose view-point we see events through. Firstly, there's Elia, who has based all her happiness on her husband, only for him to ask "Has it occurred to you that we might not love each other any more?". There's Eva, whose purpose has seemingly always been to help other people and to control people's lives in order for them to be happy, but who is beginning to tire of being the only responsible one. Finally, there's Pablo who has gotten to a point in his life where he realises that his life is hugely different to the one he envisioned he would have when he was younger. These are all deeply flawed characters and so easy to relate to: one of them reminds me of myself at times, another reminds me of my best friend and so on and so forth. It looks at universal issues that people go through, and the way in which people always think that no-one understands them despite this. Writing this now, I think I'm beginning to appreciate this more now than I did when I was actually reading it, which probably reflects the slow, thoughtful pace that Tusquets has down pat. 

Overall, another novel of Tusquets' that I really love. It's a slow, thoughtful journey that I think people need to take in this overly fast, self-centred culture that we have now. 4/5

Next review: The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

Signing off,
Nisa. 

Friday, 26 August 2011

Delirium by Laura Restrepo


Delirium is one of those books where I just looked at the blurb and thought 'yes, this will be good', because the premise is really striking. A man goes on a business trip for three days and in the time that he's gone his wife goes mad, so he decides to delve into her past, to see what could have caused it. Did the book live up to the possibilities that the premise presented? I would say mostly.
Delirium's narrative structure is quite odd at first, as it switches between four different narratives. There's Aguilar, the husband, who recounts his desperate attempts to find out what happened while he was away and the effects that his wife Agustina's madness have on home life; there's Midas, a former lover of Agustina's and a drug dealer, who recounts his downfall and the inadvertent effects that he and Agustina have on each other; there's Agustina's fragmented memories of her childhood; and finally there's a third person narrative telling the story of Agustina's grandparents Nicholas and Blanca, essentially showing that madness could be hereditary. Together, these four narratives create the story of a family that is entrenched in lies and constricted by the 'necessary' behaviours of an upper class that is slowly dying out. To be honest, I think that the narrative about the grandparents could have been cut, because, despite the fact that it is interesting to read, it doesn't really add anything to the story apart from a confirmation of what the reader could figure out for himself: that Agustina's family are a bunch of screwed up people. Overall, it's a very well-written and engaging storyline.
But, of course, a good plot isn't the only thing necessary for a book to work. The characters here are similarly well-written, with such variant personalities as Agustina who oscillates between carefree sanity and various violent expressions of insanity, Midas who starts as a cocksure materialist and who eventually becomes a ruined man and Bichi, Agustina's younger brother, who is constantly berated and beaten by his father for not being enough of a man. The only two characters whose characterisation I wasn't fond of were those of Aguilar and Aunt Sofi, for very different reasons. In Aguilar's case, there really wasn't anything to make him especially interesting; this may be down to his being surrounded by other characters who are more obviously interesting, but my personal feeling is that he would still be uninteresting no matter who was in the rest of the cast. My problem with Aunt Sofi, who comes to help Aguilar care for Agustina, was that I didn't really feel that her past and present selves matched up quite right: to me the past Sofi, with her real sense of sexuality and sensuality, felt like a different character to the present Sofi, who could be any grandmother you care to think of; I know that people do change as they age, but it felt like too much change in the context.
My only real problem with this was the ending. Skip to the end if you want to avoid spoilers, should you decide to read this. My problem with the ending was that she just gets better. I can understand that she might have gotten better after a long period of therapy and whatnot, but up until she got better, she had been getting progressively worse and progressively more deranged. So to suddenly just be better seemed a bit of a cop-out to be honest.

So overall, a very strong piece of literature, but I'm still a bit annoyed by the abrupt nature of the ending. I'd still recommend it though, despite its flaws. 3.5/5

Next review: Stranded by Esther Tusquets.

Signing off, 
Nisa.  

Battles in the Desert & Other Stories by Jose Emilio Pacheco

Battles in the Desert & Other Stories is a short story collection, and one of the many Latin American books that I've had to read for university this year. This one is slightly different in that there's no magical realism in sight. Is this a good or a bad thing? I would say a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.
So, let's start with the good. The lack of magical realism gives this a grittier, more realistic edge which can be sorely lacking in novels with magical realism (anyone who has seen the film version of Like Water For Chocolate will know exactly what I mean). Instead, the stories in this collection include more references to everyday life and the culture of Mexico.
The problem with the lack of magical realism is probably the reason why magical realism is so often used: magical realism is memorable. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work may not be my cup of tea, but I certainly remember the girl who was whisked up to heaven along with her aunt's washing in One Hundred Years of Solitude; the film of Like Water For Chocolate may be very silly with its' unusually flammable/combustible surroundings, but you don't forget it. So if you're going to write something that deliberately avoids a narrative technique as eye-catching as this one, the everyday occurrences have got to be written in an engaging and sympathetic way. In this case, that was something Pacheco did not achieve. Don't get me wrong, the stories aren't badly written, I just can't really remember them. Considering that this is only the day after I finished reading this and it isn't a long book, that's really rather damning in my eyes. I think another problem that makes these stories generally unmemorable is that they all seem to be very similar to one another: they are all narrated from the points of view of pubescent or young adolescent boys, many of them concern love or at least the immature view of love that the narrators have of it and there seems to be a running criticism of Mexican politics and the gap between rich and poor throughout. The last point is a particularly annoying one for me, as I can see so much potential in it: personally, I would have loved to read stories about Mexican or Latin American politics in their literature, but these stories just seem to have tacked on the political message in the background so that it doesn't actually interfere with the plots; either make a really strong point about the politics of the day or cut out the political stuff entirely, don't just let it linger awkwardly in the background.

To be honest, this is one of those reviews where I can't really say much about it simply because it didn't leave enough of an impression. Not bad writing, but not particularly memorable either. 2.5/5

Next review: Delirium by Laura Restrepo.

Signing off, 
Nisa.  

Friday, 12 August 2011

Love is a Solitary Game by Esther Tusquets

Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Same Sea as Every Summer, as this is a kind of sequel.

So, as I said in the warning, Love is a Solitary Game is sort of a follow-up to The Same Sea as Every Summer. How are they similar? In two main ways: the love affair that the story is based around and the character of Clara.
I'll start with Clara, as I may as well get the spoilers over and done with. From the description that the reader is given of Clara, I came to the conclusion that this was the same Clara as the Clara in the other Esther Tusquet novel that I've read. In this case she's now living with her parents after her unnamed lover betrayed her at the end of The Same Sea as Every Summer. To be honest, the change of scenery hasn't done her any good.
The other similarity is the focus on the love affair between a dissatisfied housewife, named Elia, and a university student. In this case, however, Clara does not play the part of the younger lover, much as she would like to be. No, in this case the younger lover is a poet named Ricardo. To be honest, I never knew how to feel about this love affair. On the one hand, they do seem to get along well and, while the love affair is undoubtedly only a summer fling, it does seem to be largely harmonious. That is until one considers Clara's position in all this. She is quite obviously in love with Elia and quite obviously finds Ricardo utterly repulsive, despite acting as his confidante, so to consider this pairing is utterly bewildering to her. It's made even worse by Ricardo giving her a blow-by-blow account of the affair. The climactic scene at the end of the novel makes this situation dip to possibly the lowest of lows; I shan't spoil the ending, but suffice to say that it nearly made me physically ill and is thus a testament both to the absolute lack of compassion in Ricardo and Tusquet's writing ability.
Speaking of the writing, it is once again very dreamy and languid in tone which works very well in building up atmosphere, whether it be dread or something more positive. There are a lot more obviously erotic scenes in this than in The Same Sea as Every Summer, which are, thankfully, very tastefully written.

This is another fantastic effort from Tusquet, which makes me immensely glad I got them, considering their obscure nature. This was more uncomfortable than her previous novel, but no less interesting and considering the increased part afforded to Clara, I'm looking forward to reading her next, and last, entry into this loose trilogy. 4/5

Next review: Battles in the Desert and Other Stories by Jose Emilio Pacheco.

Signing off,
Nisa.

P.S.
If you're wondering why I suddenly have Internet, I'm visiting home for the weekend.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Another spell away without internet

Moving in to my new house near my university for a couple weeks, because I've got work experience up in London (in the Orion Publishing House, which I'm absolutely ecstatic about). Unfortunately, because we've only just started the actual renting part, we have no Internet. This means that I'll employ a similar system as I did while I was on holiday, writing the reviews as I finish the books that I'm on, then posting them as soon as I get an Internet connection again.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Having read One Hundred Years of Solitude last year, as I mentioned in my last review, I had some ideas or expectations of what I could find in Of Love and Other Demons. These expectations turned out to be more or less accurate, but to be honest I partly wish they hadn't been.

So the story in Of Love and Other Demons is essentially that of a girl named Sierva Maria, who is locked up in a convent after her father is convinced that she has been possessed by demons after she is bitten by a rabid dog. During her time at the convent she is left in the care of Father Cayetano Delaura, who quickly falls in love with her which leads to their ultimately tragic fate. To be honest, I found this a bit too miserable. Love affairs are thwarted everywhere, married couples end up despising one another, children are neglected or spurned completely and a girl is subjected to a horrific fate because she is different and the Church can't see that as anything other than demonic possession. It seems more like a tirade about intolerance and the dangers of religious fanaticism, instead of a story of a tragic love story. To be fair, the writing is solid and it is very quick and easy to read.
There are several characters who make a fairly important impact on the story, which surprised me considering that this is only about 140 pages long. There's Sierva Maria's parents, an apathetic man who makes a few attempts to bond with his daughter but ultimately sinks back into his solitude and an unlikeable woman who despises her daughter for looking like her father. There's Abrenuncio, the only sane man in the story, who is the only doctor content with the fact that Sierva Maria won't catch rabies. There's the Bishop, who decides that Delaura is capable of exorcism and the Abbess who is convinced that every bit of bad luck or unusual circumstances is because of Sierva Maria. The only character who failed to have a real impact on me was Sierva Maria herself; because she appears so little compared to other characters, there is very little that the reader actually finds out about her other than that she makes really powerful first impressions.

Overall, this left me feeling neutral. I neither like it nor dislike it, which is kind of what I was expecting when I began reading. I would like to like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work, but it just doesn't seem to be. 3/5

Next review: Love is a Solitary Game by Esther Tusquets.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits is one of those books that always ends up in countdowns like the "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die!", much like Lolita, so it has quite a reputation to live up to. This is made especially interesting, for me at least, when I find out in the author biography that this was Isabel Allende's d├ębut novel; I mean, it really has to be special if a novice author is the centre of all that attention. So, without any further rambling on my part, here's my review.

Currently stuck in a bit of a mental rut at the moment, so this will probably be a very simple and straight-forward sort of review. So, first of all is the plot. To be honest, there isn't much of a "plot" as such, seeing as The House of the Spirits is essentially a character study of the members of three generations of the Trueba family, who live somewhere in Latin America; to be honest I'm not entirely sure where, as it's never directly stated, combined with the fact that my geography is absolutely abysmal and thus would be unlikely to know anyway. In any case, the novel tracks the various immediate family members through financial highs and lows, love affairs both fulfilled and unrequited and through monumental shifts in government, from conservative to socialist and so on. In terms of plot, this book reminds me very strongly of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, due to various similarities such as the focus on the family saga, the strong political context, the largely pessimistic outlook on the consequences of love and the atmosphere of spirituality permeating the entire narrative. So, to be honest, there were several moments where I was seriously reminded of other Latin American magical realism books that I've read over recent years, but I didn't really mind too much as it gave the proceedings a nicely familiar feel to it despite this being my first time reading this book.
There are so many characters that turn up in this novel that I don't think I'll really get to talk about them all that much unless I allow this review to last forever. I will limit it to the more important members of the family, much as it pains me. One of the most important characters is undoubtedly the family's patriarch, Esteban Trueba; a man who has decided that his family would have all the things that he lacked growing up, making himself a fortune in order to do that. Unfortunately, having worked his way to prosperity, he allows his temper and his unwillingness to change to emotionally isolate him from the majority of his family; he's a character who is easy to sympathise with, but not easy to like due to his extremely conservative, survival-of-the-fittest mentality. His wife, Clara is easily the lynch-pin of the family, an eccentric woman who just about keeps her family from exploding into out-and-out conflict by imposing a base level of politeness for them to adopt. She's also psychic, which I'm just coming to expect from Latin American novels now. There's Blanca, Esteban and Clara's daughter, who causes the main source of conflict when she falls in love with a peasant on her father's farm, Pedro Tercero Garcia; unfortunately she is discovered mid-coitus by a colleague of her father's, leaving her pregnant and firmly in Esteban's contempt. Blanca has younger twin brothers as well, Nicolas and Jaime. Nicolas is a bit of a waste of space really; I rejoiced when Esteban made him move to the USA. Jaime, on the other hand, has to be my favourite character from The House of the Spirits. He's a very shy, studious man who dedicates his life to helping others through his occupation as a doctor; unfortunately this dedication leads not only to a despair based on his inability to save everyone in his care but also to a near total lack of social skills that prevents him from confessing his feelings to anyone. The other main character that I'd be good to mention is that of Alba, Blanca and Pedro Tercero's daughter. She takes up a great deal of focus in the last third or so of the story, as she is used mainly as a contrast between the more openly expressed desire for social equality compared to her grandfather's firm belief in the system that has always been there; this is especially evident in her choice of lover, Miguel, a guerilla who believes that change must come through violent revolution. Overall, I found the characters nicely varied and the large cast turned out to be a real blessing: while there were characters I didn't find that interesting or likeable, such as Nicolas, there were also characters that I could really sympathise with instead, like Jaime.

So overall? I really enjoyed it. There was a beautifully melancholy tone throughout and the character interactions are some of the best that I've seen in a while. I didn't absolutely love it, but it's very solid writing and a phenomenal first effort from Allende. 4/5

Next review: Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Same Sea As Every Summer by Esther Tusquets

The Same Sea As Every Summer is one of those books that I wasn't even vaguely aware of until it turned up on my university reading list. It was also one of those books that is very difficult to actually get a copy of, so when it actually got to the top of my TBR pile I was hoping that it would be worth the difficulty that finding it caused. I would say that it was definitely worth the time spent reading it, if only because I can see it staying with me for a very long time to come.

The plot is quite a simple one really. The narrator, an unnamed middle-aged housewife, who decides to move back in to her childhood home after her husband begins the newest affair in a long string, where she tries to recover the person she was before she grew up and begins an affair of her own with a university student, Clara. The plot alternates between the past and the present, interweaving the myths and fairy tales that the narrator has grown up with throughout the narrative. Along with the detailed descriptions and long rambling sentences, this gives the book a languid pace, giving the atmosphere and tone more than enough time to sink in.
The characters are a little harder to pin down, as for the most part they tend to act more as archetypes that affect the actions of the narrator rather than fully rounded characters, which adds to the fairy tale theme that I mentioned above. The narrator is a dissatisfied housewife, most accustomed to isolation from her peers and family, causing her to associate closely with characters like Ariadne and the Little Mermaid: princesses who are abandoned by their princes and left to flounder in whatever is left. The narrator's mother is similarly described in mythic terms, as a distant perfect Olympian, constantly disappointed in her daughter. Clara is an interesting character to see in hindsight, but considering the twist that was both frustrating and yet completely understandable there's only so much that I can say without spoiling the ending; what I can probably say for Clara is that she is the Beauty to the narrator's Beast (and vice versa) and is romanticized as "the most princesslike of princesses" in the narrator's view. If I'm honest, the lack of characterisation beyond the fairy tale archetypes would probably have annoyed me if it were another book, but considering the dreamy quality of the pace and the themes it actually works really well.

Overall, it's a difficult book to talk about, as not a whole lot actually happens. I hope that I've done it at least some justice in this review, as I really want to say why I like it but keep finding that it's more a feeling that I've been left with as opposed to one or more elements in the actual book. I suppose it's like a fairy tale in that respect as well, where it's just the simplicity and dream-like quality of the story that makes it stay with you. 4/5

Next review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita. A book infamous in popular culture for being a pornographic account of a paedophile and his obsession with the eponymous Lolita. It's one of those books that one has to at least try reading within their lifetime, here prompted, yet again, by university reading lists. I'll admit, I've been thinking about how to word this review throughout my reading, as it covers a subject that is, obviously, quite taboo in polite company and if my wording is even a little out then I imagine I will be attracting several angry comments; if in doing so I seem a bit overly polite or obvious about points then that's the reason why and I apologise.

So, on to the review itself. The obvious place to begin would be the book's unsavoury subject and the main perpetrator of it. Our narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a tricky protagonist to define for one main reason: he's incredibly unsympathetic, due to the nature of what he does to Lolita and the kind of thoughts he has regarding young girls, but at the same time he is incredibly charming and an interesting voice to read. This odd balance between distaste and being charmed does make reading this uncomfortable; for instance, there may be several pages that paint a beautiful picture of a scene in painstaking detail, before he reminds the reader quite abruptly that underneath the educated, artistic exterior there is something very wrong with him. To be fair to the book, the actual hints of sexual acts and paedophilia are buried beneath numerous academic references to works by Joyce, Proust, Freud and many others, so only a scholar/someone who reads very widely or someone with a heavily footnoted copy (including myself) will actually understand most of what would count as “pornographic”; if you don't have the qualities that would allow you to see the references for what they are, the book is surprisingly light in terms of pornographic content. If I'm discussing the theme of paedophilia, then I need to look at the subject of this obsessive lust, Humbert's “nymphet” Lolita, otherwise known as Dolores Haze. This is a trickier character to get a grip on than Humbert, simply because all the information provided about Lolita is provided to the reader by Humbert who is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator in this respect. The main example of this is that she is predominantly described in a way that highlights whatever sexuality a twelve-year-old girl is likely to possess, even going so far as to heavily imply that Lolita was the seducer in the relationship; obviously this is an uncomfortable idea to associate with a pubescent girl, but at the same time is very similar to a common defence against rape, namely that the victim wanted or encouraged it. Other than the overt sexuality which is debatable, she seems to be your average pubescent girl who is unfortunate enough to have had her childhood abruptly ended by an adult who abused his position of care.
The other main thing that I have yet to talk about is the actual writing. It is fantastic. The descriptions are incredibly evocative, the literary references are all there for a reason and tighten the various different themes or motifs, and those motifs are threaded throughout the entire narrative. There were only two points that I personally found irritating, if only because they didn't help with comprehension at all. The first thing was the insertion of various phrases in various European languages, mostly French; whatever language skills I picked up in high school and college are rather patchy, so if I hadn't had the footnotes available in my edition of the book I would have really struggled. The second annoyance was that occasionally when foreign phrases are used in dialogue, they're written phonetically in order to convey a poor accent, leading to instances where “voulez-vous boire?” is written as “woolly-woo-boo-are?”. If you could connect those two phrases together then good for you, but I imagine that the average reader is going to be as absolutely confused as I was when reading that.

A fantastically well-written account of an uncomfortable if interesting subject, I would recommend this highly. 4/5

Next review: The Same Sea As Every Summer by Esther Tusquets.