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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,

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,

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, 

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,

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,