Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Book #57

How I Became Stupid by Martin Page

Twenty-five-year-old Parisian Antoine is sick. The disease? Intelligence. Desperate to find a cure for his overactive brain, Antoine considers alcoholism, suicide, and lobotomy, but none seems quite right for his special needs. A new job, though, is just the ticket. Accepting a position in his high-school friend's brokerage firm, Antoine finds the burdens of consciousness gradually slipping away.

I am hugely attracted to books set in France, especially when they are written by French authors. This is what happens when you are a Francophile. Unfortunately, being a Francophile also leads me down garden paths and allows me to dip myself into some seriously underwhelming novels. This is one of these novels.

The idea is interesting, but that is where it stops. The characters start off interesting - such as Antoine's friend who can speak only in rhyme - but they are only ever introduced; no one is developed or given any personality at all. This includes Antoine, our protagonist.

The last chapter is simply ridiculous, giving us the beginning of a rather indie love story and then ending abruptly.

Please don't go near this.

57 / 66 books. 86% done!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Book #56

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (or the Murder at Road Hill House) by Kate Summerscale

In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land.

At the time, the detective was a relatively new invention; there were only eight detectives in all of England and rarely were they called out of London, but this crime was so shocking, as Kate Summerscale relates in her scintillating new book, that Scotland Yard sent its best man to investigate, Inspector Jonathan Whicher.

I had been so excited about reading this that I fast-tracked it to the top of my book-queue, which was quite against my normal book-reading rules. I was a wee bit disappointed, though. Don't believe the hype.

It started off wonderfully well, describing the inmates of Road Hill House and the nature of the crime. I hadn't realised it was a true story, so it began to take on a more gruesome edge once I had worked this out. It started off reading as a fictional novel, which I thought was a nice touch. However, everything slowly descended into a, frankly quite boring, research paper. It really felt to me like Summerscale just needed somewhere to dump all of her research, even the tiniest, most inconsequential little details about the case.

Summerscale mostly spent the novel quoting books which had been influenced by the crime and the subsequent investigation. Not only did she do this, but she laid out the plots of these almost in their entirety, particularly The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. When you have these books sitting on your desk waiting for you to read them, getting a simplified plot synopsis of them every few pages can be quite frustrating, not to mention spoilertastic.

Mr. Whicher, as the book's namesake, was barely given a voice. I had been looking forward to reading about this infamous case that brought the famous Scotland Yard detective down, but Summerscale did nothing to bring him to life. She guesses at his personal life, and he's never given any sort of human element.

The book barely mentioned the actual crime in the middle section, rather focusing on what everyone was up to now that they had left Road Hill House. I could have done without hearing about William's wonderful research on sealife creatures, because really, who cares? It was extremely irrelevant to say the least.

In hindsight, it seems that Summerscale aimed to write solely about the Road Hill murder, but instead found her research on that topic alone to be quite insubstantial, so instead she decided to pad out the book with silly little details such as the origin of words like "red herring" and "sleuth". I'd recommend the first third of the book, as finding out about the crime fascinated me, but after that I'd give up. Nothing of the remotest interest is given, and it is an overall flop, in my humble opinion.

56 / 66 books. 85% done!

Monday, 16 August 2010

Book #55

Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson

It is winter, somewhere in the United Kingdom, and an eight-year-old boy is removed from his home and family in the middle of the night. He learns that he is the victim of an extraordinary experiment. In an attempt to reform society, the government has divided the population into four groups, each representing a different personality type. The land, too, has been divided into quarters. Borders have been established, reinforced by concrete walls, armed guards and rolls of razor wire. Plunged headlong into this brave new world, the boy tries to make the best of things, unaware that ahead of him lies a truly explosive moment, a revelation that will challenge everything he believes in and will, in the end, put his very life in jeopardy.

I read Thomson's The Five Gates of Hell back in January and really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to getting my teeth into this one. Unfortunately, I've been left feeling extremely disappointed.

It was an interesting premise to begin with - the United Kingdom being divided into four countries, and people being herded into different areas depending on their personality. I think Thomson could have done a lot with this idea, but for me it fell flat quite quickly. Although the book was set in a dystopian, alternate future, very little was given in order to deem this world plausible even in the slightest.

The main character is very two-dimensional, at times almost inhuman. He barely seems to register the ordeals he experiences, and he seems to have the emotional range of a teaspoon.

Towards the end of the novel, Thomson introduces a somewhat supernatural aspect that seems to do nothing but point to the possibility that our author was struggling to come up with a suitable ending, or was faltering in his ability to continue the tale. This plot twist does absolutely nothing to add to the novel's already poor believability, and just made me feel a bit uncomfortable and awkward.

I really wouldn't recommend this; I was looking for it to be an exciting political thriller that also delves deep into the intricacy of human nature and relationships, but instead I got a dull story of a man's decline. Also, the ending was weak and I was left feeling as though I had wasted my time. It's a shame, because I had really enjoyed The Five Gates of Hell. I'm hoping to try another of Thomson's novels in the near future, and hopefully I'll be able to reestablish my respect for his writing.

55 / 66 books. 83% done!

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Book #54

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is a timeless tale of a teenager struggling with society and himself. Holden Caulfield is a teenager who hates his own life. He believes that every single person in the world is phony. One day, he decides to leave school. His life changes when he decides to go to New York for three days.

(The above blurb does nothing to really explain the book. I think this is why there is no blurb on the back cover of the actual novel - I Googled the above description. There is no real way of finding out about this book other than actually reading it.)

I am really ashamed to say that this is the first time I've read this book. It has really blown me away and moved high up in my list of favourites after just the initial read. I really believe that it's one that everyone should read at least once in their lifetime, and again I'm really embarrassed that I haven't done so until now.

Holden Caulfield is a wonderful character. He is troubled in many ways, and he's certainly an unreliable narrator due to the way he narrates his exact thought process, which is disjointed yet wonderful. His use of irony and sarcasm in his descriptions of simple things is hilarious, and very endearing.

Holden has everything that a teenager (or, in fact, an adult) can identify with, such as seeing everything as being a bit pointless, and seeing others as being fake (or as he'd say - 'phonies'). He has no wishes to be a popular, or even sociable, person, and it becomes clear very quickly that he is a teller of what is real. He doesn't sugarcoat a thing, picking up very quickly people's exact selfish reasons for behaving in certain ways. He is so wonderful, and real, that he's become one of my favourite literary characters in the space of a heartbeat.

The book raises a lot of questions, but doesn't go on to answer them. I think this is reflective to growing up, and moving on. Holden's life is never romanticised, you see what he is seeing and hope he can learn to see some beauty in things before too long.

Salinger describes the pain of growing up extremely well, making Holden almost resist the maturity process. He wants everything to constantly stay the same, and to be as simple as possible. He adopts this idea that the adult word consists entirely of 'phonies' (i.e. the superficial, the hypocrites, the pretentious, and the shallow) in order to make himself feel better about resisting entry into it.

The symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye was also something that I enjoyed immensely. Holden's hunting hat, in particular, was a favourite. I think because the hat was so odd, so outlandish, it became a symbol of Holden's individuality, and showed him trying his best to be different. But he is also incredibly self-conscious about the hat, and won't wear it if he thinks he'll see someone he knows. I think this is a gorgeous portrayal of how we feel growing up - wanting to be unique, but still fearing that someone will laugh.

I love this book so much. I'd recommend this to absolutely anyone, it could really change the way you see things, even just a little bit. It really is a beautiful masterpiece, it's made me happy, and it's made me so sad. If you get a chance, please read it, it honestly is wonderful.

54 / 66 books. 82% done!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Book #53

Abandoned by Anya Peters

'Abandoned' is the true story of a childhood full of secrets, abuse and a little girl who didn't belong. This inspirational story is about how one woman finally overcame her traumatic childhood and adult homelessness to find a place she could call home.

This book is a true story; I didn't realise this until I had actually started to read it. I don't normally read a great deal of non-fiction, but I enjoyed this slightly more than I imagined I would have.

Anya Peters has been through some really awful times in her life, and hats off to her for being a survivor. For these reasons, I'm going to be very careful how I criticise the novel, and keep some of my opinions to myself, in fear of sounding distasteful.

The first half is extremely difficult to read and disturbing on a lot of levels. I can read about practically anything without batting an eyelid, but child abuse is a lot different. The suffering Peters was put through by her uncle is something no one should ever have to experience, especially at such a young age. The abuse scenes are extremely vivid, and made me feel a bit sick at times. It must have been terrible. I found it shocking that Peters' aunt let the abuser back into her home after he was released - and then allowed Peters to come back and live there! That is truly disgusting behaviour.

The second half of the book is about Peters escaping an abusive relationship and her subsequent homelessness as a result of this. The relationship was mostly documented in retrospect, whereas the first half of the novel happened in real time. Then we go along with Peters as she tries in vain to pull money together and find a home.

She then discovers blogging in a library, and now we have her book!

How she ever survived, I can't even begin to imagine. Many would just have given up. But Anya Peters now has a successful blog and a novel, and she has truly risen up from the dirt.

You can check out her blog at: http://wanderingscribe.blogspot.com/

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Book #52

Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan

The only thing Shane cares about is leaving. But this time it's complicated: there's a sadistic corporate climber who thinks she's his girlfriend, a rent-subsidised affair with his landlord's wife, a dentist who won't stop crying, and a deaf woman who winds up dead. When Shane becomes a suspect, he'll have to clear the good name he's never had and doesn't particularly want: his own.

Paul Neilan dedicates this book to his parents at the beginning, saying: To my parents, who will hopefully never read this book. I can see why. It's actually quite an offensive novel, and I think it could be viewed as quite politically incorrect in so many ways. I almost don't want to recommend it for these reasons, but since I'm a rather immoral girl - read it, it's amazing.

It's so good! I spent my entire time reading it laughing, and then feeling bad for laughing. The way Shane, our narrator, describes life is absolutely hilarious, and his inner thoughts reminded me a bit of my own deep thinkings on simple life matters. He is rather cynical and spiteful of everyone and everything, which also echoes a bit on the way I personally see things.

Neilan's characters are insane. My favourite was Doug the dentist, who gets his head stuck in the bus door every time he goes on it, and freaks out at the sound of people walking on sand. All of the characters were incredibly interesting and disgusting at the same time.

I really think that Neilan's humour here is what salvages the book. The plot isn't overly brilliant; it's just Shane's observations of it that make the book worthwhile. I was a bit disappointed in the ending, too, it seemed really formulaic to me, but maybe that was something to do with the apathy of the whole thing. I've been debating this with myself, and I'm still not too sure.

It's definitely worth a read, though, if you like dark humour and laughing at grossly inappropriate things that are in no way supposed to be funny.

52 / 66 books. 79% done!