Friday, 28 January 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins


Having failed dismally to enjoy any English Victorian literature when I first gave it a go during my teenage years (the Brontes, Dickens, Shelley – I tried a few and gave up on all of them apart from Hardy) I labelled most writing of that time as boring, flowery and very long.

I eased my way into Victorian novels with Cranford last year which inspired me enough to give The Woman in White a try. Would my 16 year old self have enjoyed The Woman in White? Heck knows but I certainly enjoyed it today.

The novel more or less opens with a young man who encounters a mysterious woman dressed in white on the road to London, after helping this woman reach her destination, the man becomes embroiled in one very complex mystery.

As The Woman in White is classed as a 'Victorian sensation novel' there is romance, stolen identity's, strange foreigners, a secret society and an asylum. Its all good and intriguing stuff. As the novel is told by different narrators, all telling just part of the story, the reader is close to the mystery and has to solve it themselves by slotting all the narrators accounts together.

There are parts which rely purely on coincidence and can be a little far fetched but that's all part of the fun and the story is fast paced with injections of humour. That's not to say that it's all fun however. The plight and the treatment of women during that time is described well as is the shear ease of committing a person to a lunatic asylum.

One aspect of this book which did surprise me was the familiarity I had with Sarah Waters Fingersmith, even one of the plot elements. After reading this it is not hard to see how Waters drew inspiration from Victorian literature of this type.

I'm not ready to go out and try and read Dickens again but I will crack on with Jane Eyre soon.

I read The Woman in White as part of a read-along hosted by Allie over at A Literary Odyssey. Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink


The Reader is the story of Michael Berg. The main protagonist who looks back at a relationship he had at 15 years old with an older woman; Hanna Schmitz. The affair took place over a Summer and ended as abruptly as it began when Hanna disappears leaving no forwarding address.

Deeply effected by this in the years following, Michael, now a law student, comes into contact with Hanna in a unexpected way when he follows her trial for atrocities she committed during the Second World War.

The prose in The Reader is quite sparse, relatively simple and very easy to read. The novel almost hides the fact that the story and themes are far heavier than the prose style and the short length suggests.

The novel looks at Nazi guilt within later generations. How would it feel if your parents, grandparents were there and yet did nothing? Or, even worse, participated in the terrible acts? It is a question that Michael and his fellow students spend a lot of time thinking about. Michael also has to come to terms with the fact that, as in the case of Hanna, not all war criminals are born evil, yet they are evil when they 'go along with it'. This is brought forth with frightening clarity when Hanna questions her judge with 'what would YOU have done?'

I loved the main themes of the book and found them extremely thought provoking and I think this would make a brilliant book club read. However what let the novel down slightly were the actual characters. At just over 200 pages the novel has to fit in huge themes and quite a lot of sex so unfortunately the characters suffered slightly because of this. I never really understood Hanna, she didn't come alive even when seen through Michael's eyes and she was more of an instrument to make a point rather than a three dimensional person with a voice.

The central point of the story is that there are some crimes that are so horrific that a person simply cannot atone for them. This is a powerful message and it really struck a cord with me.

I have a few reservations about The Reader overall, it's certainly not a book I am going to forget in a hurry.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Monday, 24 January 2011

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn


The News Where You Are is one of those books that is not bad at all, it won't blow anyone away either and could be described as a gentle, inoffensive read.

The main character is Frank; a news presenter who has been in the business for 20 years. He is famous for his bad one-liners which he pays someone to write for him earning himself a bit of a fan base among students. When his old mentor Phil dies in a strange accident Frank, in his humdrum way, grieves for his friend while tracking down relatives of a man, Michael, who died alone.

Frank is one of the good people and so is his wife and daughter and so is almost everyone else in the novel. The themes of loss and change involving buildings, memories and people are very prevalent that they were almost forced onto the reader but unfortunately these themes did not quite satisfy me.

Overall this was an enjoyable enough read filled with likeable characters and plenty of humorous moments. This is not a novel filled with plot, instead it focuses on some colourful characters and Franks musings about the past and renewal.

The author d├ębut novel What Was Lost has had rave reviews and I will certainly be checking that out.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Last Starfighter


The Last Starfighter is the story of Alex Rogan; an average teenager living in the middle of nowheresville USA. He spends his time doing odd jobs on his mother's trailer park bored out of his mind. His only joys in life are his girlfriend Maggie and a stand up arcade game in the park named 'Starfighter'. When Alex busts the top score on 'Starfighter' his life takes a completely unexpected turn when an alien from another world 'kidnaps' Alex and informs him that 'Starfighter' is not just a video game but a sophisticated test designed to find life forms suitable to train as real Starfighters to repel an imminent alien invasion. When a surprise attack kills all the starfighters it is up to Alex and his alien navigator 'Grig' to stop the invasion by themselves.

The book is based on the film rather than the other way around so as you can imagine it isn't going to be winning the Nobel Prize for literature however it is entertaining, exciting and easy to get through. There are some great characters and plenty of laughs as well as battles in space.

Aside from the cheesy moments and minor spelling errors I have come to expect from these kinds of books it is generally well put together. If you are a fan of science fiction or the movie then this book is a must read. If you aren't I'm not sure you'd appreciate it much.

Final verdict 3/5

Chris

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier


The Parasites in this novel refer to three siblings Maria, Niall and Celia who are born to famous parents in the theatre. Accused of being Parasites by Maria's husband, the three siblings spend the novel looking back over their childhood and lives and ponder over the insult.

Celia is the only one that shares both parents, Niall and Maria share no blood ties and yet they have the closest bond (to an incestuous level) of all the children. Maria is a successful actress who is more like the parts she happens to be playing than herself, while Niall is a typical musician drifter. Celia is the person that is put upon by her siblings and parents, never being able to chase her own dreams lest they get in the way of her duties.

The backdrop to the novel are the theatres of Paris and London (a world du Maurier would have known well due to her famous father Gerald du Maurier) and they certainly add to the glamorous and bohemian life the siblings lead. But despite the setting and the mysterious bond between the three main characters, I felt very indifferent to the whole thing.

I cannot fault the writing itself although I would have liked more suspense and mystery which I delight in du Maurier's other books. The main problem were the characters who were not rounded enough for me and I failed to connect with them or their motivations. It felt sometimes rushed and I never got underneath any of the characters skin, instead du Maurier just focused on the introductory personality tracts which was used to propel the novel along, which after a while became boring.

An interesting book but not one of du Mauriers best.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Elephant Man


In Whitechapel Road, London there is a small shop which sells saris. 127 years ago the same shop was used for a very different purpose; to exhibit a man whose body was so terribly disfigured with evil-smelling skin growths he was nicknamed 'The Elephant Man'. His real name was Joseph Carey Merrick and this book is about his life and the people who knew him.

I won't go into masses of detail surrounding Joseph as I am sure most people have heard of him, he is famous even today because of his (mercifully) rare medical condition and the tremendous suffering he went through in a largely uncaring world. His mother died when Joseph was 10 years old and his father re-married shortly after. Joseph's step-mother was cruel and impatient towards him forcing him to leave home and enter the workhouse. Eventually he began working in freak shows, exhibiting himself to the public for money. It was in this capacity that he met Sir Frederick Treves; a young surgeon from the London Hospital. Merrick left London shortly after this and went through all manner of very unpleasant experiences before he finally returned and moved into the London Hospital. Here he was cared for by the doctors and nurses before his death at the young age of 27.

The book is very informative and well put together, it is clear a lot of hard work went into it and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.. It was very interesting to read how many myths surround Joseph, one of the biggest being that his first name was John. An interesting fact is that Joseph attributed his frightful condition to his mother being scared by an elephant when she was pregnant with him. I am left with the strong impression that Joseph was a kind and gentle man, popular with those who took the trouble to know him and certainly not a man deserving of what happened to him. I am thankful he was cared for before he died.

The book doesn't claim to know everything and sadly a lot of the details of Joseph's life have been lost over the years. Some very good photographs are included as well as a two page 'autobiography' believed to have been written by Joseph himself. The book also gives detail on the Victorian attitudes to freak shows and gives an insight into the operations of the workhouses of that time period.

Overall rating 4/5

Chris

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Full Dark No Stars by Stephen King


Stephen King oh how I know what to expect from you. I know I will get an easy read full of normal characters thrown into terrifying situations. I know there will be padding (lots of it) and I know that you will never blow my mind but I will be delivered a fat slice of good old entertainment. Ah Stephen you never disappoint.

Full Dark No Stars is a collection of four novellas which can be read as separate stories since they do not have a common theme or connect in any way.

Two of the stories have supernatural elements but the more terrifying stories do not. Rapists and murderers are scarier than ghosts and animated corpses (even if the corpse in question is your vengeful wife). The action that takes place in the stories is sometimes horrific, certainly dark and are just about thought provoking enough to linger on the mind. A couple of the stories cause the reader to think 'What would I do'? But even in a short Novella there is a little padding to be found. Whatever I found within this book was all that I expected.

Fans of Stephen King will not be disappointed in this collection and if you are not a fan then Full Dark No Stars will probably not be the novel that will change your mind.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale


The Blasphemer is one of those novels which starts off great but unfortunately started to fall apart for me and was completely unravelled by the end.

The main character Daniel Kennedy is a scientist and quite the aggressive atheist (think Richard Dawkins aggressive) David takes his partner and the mother of his child on a trip to the Galapagos Islands and while there, their small sea plane crashes into the sea. It is while swimming to shore in order to save his fellow passengers that David sees a vision. Was this vision a mere symptom of his fatigue and stress or a guardian angel?

While that plot line is interesting enough, running parallel to this is the story of Daniel’s great-grand father and his experiences in World War I as he prepares to go over the top on the first day of the fighting at Passchendaele.

The novel starts promisingly enough and there are some really good ideas. The World War I scenes are quite good (but not a patch on Birdsong) and I liked the whole concept of the scientist atheist coming across something he is unable to explain. There are so many good ideas and different plot threads but unfortunately they did not always gel together well enough with some plot elements not working sufficiently well.

There is a bizarre Muslim terrorist sub-plot which has no reason at all to be in the novel and is never concluded. The only Muslim character in the book is a teacher who is being trailed by the police for no reason at all and, by the polices own admission, the guy has done nothing wrong. I just found this really unnecessary and out of place.

Then there is Daniel’s work colleague Weatherby; a devout Christian with an evil streak taken to almost comical proportions (think sleazy professor who likes to sleep with his students, which has been done a million times before) and seems intent on ruining Daniels life for no reason whatsoever.

Religion and belief is a big theme in the novel and Daniel has quite a few religious debates throughout the novel with both Wetherby (who is a professor) and his best friend (who is a doctor.) But despite these three grown men having highly professional intelligent careers, the ‘debates’ never go beyond ‘well you’ve never seen Greenland so how do you KNOW that exists’. Honestly! That’s the kind of religious debate a child would have – with another child.

Finally I quite like happy endings I really do. But not when the author has to make the plot more and more convoluted within the last 40 pages in order to get there.

Well yes I have a lot of bad to say about this one (believe me;I could have gone on) but I did read to the end because the plot was interesting and I did want to see how it all ended. It wasn't as bad as I have made out in this review but two days after I have finished reading it I am unable to remember any of the novel's stronger points.

Overall it did engage me but ultimately it could have been better executed.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout


Olive Kitteridge is a 2008 novel which won its author Elizabeth Strout the pulitzer prize.

The novel is essentially a series of short stories, all of which could stand alone in their own right. The added twist is that Olive Kitteridge appears in all the stories ether as the main character or is only mentioned in passing. The effect of all these components when put together makes for not only a compelling character in Olive but also a profile of some of the residents of the small town she lives in.

Olive herself is human. She most certainly has her bad points including a very difficult relationship with her son, but she is also able to touch other people lives in a sometimes subtle or obtruce way. Olive's emotions while not always understandable are realisticly portrayed and powerful.The overall theme for me though is 'getting old sucks'.

This is not a novel packed full of plot and I found it far more depressing than uplifting, but each chapter made me pause and think about it long after I had finished it.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor


Jon McGregor is an author which has impressed many people with his first two novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and So Many Ways to Begin.

Even the Dogs is McGregor’s third novel and begins with the body of a man called Robert being discovered in his squalid flat where he has been laid dead for days. Robert was an alcoholic who during his life had frequent visits throughout the day and night from his friends who are all drug addicts.

The novel follows an unnamed observer which darts about from Roberts’s life to those of his friends giving glimpses into their daily life’s and pasts.

Given the topic and the lives of the characters you'd expect this book to be grim, which it is. This is not an uplifting story with happy endings but rather a look at the lives of people who for whatever reason have fallen through the safety net our society is meant to provide.

The addicts featured in the novel live in a bleak world and I have no doubt that they would quite happily sell their own grandmother in exchange for drugs. Bizarrely as well these characters slightly merge into each-other as the drugs strip away the personality's that they might have been once in possession of. The characters do not resort to crime in the novel (well very little) which surprised me at first but when you read on you realise why.

The writing style is poetic but also experimental. The narrative jumps quickly from character to character and sentences stop halfway through. This sounds annoying but it really isn't, it suits the storyline and the overall effect is moving.

The subject matter along with the swearing and general misery might put people off reading this but that would be a shame as this is a realistic insight into the lives of some once ordinary people. At the very least its worth checking out some other blogger reviews.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Fathers and Sons


Fathers and Sons is considered a classic of Russian literature. Although I had never heard of him before Ivan Turgenev is up there with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as one of the most talented and influential writers of his generation.

Fathers and sons is basically a story about two generations in conflict. Russia has a history strewn with political, social and often bloody upheaval and this book focusses on a particular period in Russian history when reforms were on the rise changing the traditional relationship between peasants and wealthy landowners. A new generation of free thinkers were emerging from universities with new ideals and radical ideas for changing social norms. This creates a great deal of tension between the old school 'Aristocrats' and new school 'Nihilists' who maintain that nothing in society has any worth or value.

Arguably the main character is Yevgeny Vasil'evich Bazarov; a young nihilist student who comes to stay with a friend's family in the countryside. Before I came across Bazarov I thought I knew what cynicism was, I've been called cynical myself quite a few times, but it seems I didn't have a clue of how far someone can take it.

Bazarov thinks everything is rubbish. When I say “everything” this is no exaggeration. Love? Nonsense. Romance? A joke. Tradition? Forget it. Marriage? Waste of time. A good example is that Bazarov's ambition in life is to become a country doctor and yet he tells anyone who will listen that he doesn't believe in medicine. He holds everyone and everything in contempt, that is until he meets Anna Sergeevna Odintsova and, rather inconveniently, falls completely in love with her.

There are quite a few other characters but for the most part they are eclipsed by Bazarov's enormous ego, easily the size of any farmhouse. However for all of his somewhat hypocritical bluster Bazarov is not a fool nor a bad person, just young, misguided and suffering with a severe case of 'angry young man' syndrome. When he offends an aristocrat he is staying with Bazarov is challenged to a duel which he wins by shooting his opponent in the leg (albeit by good fortune rather than deliberately aiming) he could have killed the aristocrat with his second shot but instead chose to provide medical assistance and help him back to his house.

The book is well put together and most certainly an interesting read not just because of the colourful, believable characters but also because of the many glimpses of Russian culture, attitudes and habits the reader sees. I can honestly say I doubt I've ever learned so much from reading a work of fiction. Sadly it is not all positive; at times the story dragged on. More than once I put the book down feeling tired after reading 30 pages to suddenly discover, to my great consternation, that I had in reality only read 10 pages. For the most part not a great deal happens except conversations between characters. There are one or two moments in the book where I found I was so excited I couldn't put it down but this was rare.

Overall it was a valuable book to read and I enjoyed it. It was an excellent introduction to Russian fiction and I hope to read more of the same.

Rating 4/5

By Chris