Monday, 31 December 2012

Book #37

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
This is the story of Rahel and Estha, twins growing up among the banana vats and peppercorns of their blind grandmother’s factory, and amid scenes of political turbulence in Kerala. Armed only with the innocence of youth, they fashion a childhood in the shade of the wreck that is their family: their lonely, lovely mother, their beloved Uncle Chacko (pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher) and their sworn enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun, incumbent grand-aunt).

This is a story of many different parts and pieces, intertwining through time, and coming together as one all-embracing moral lesson. Most of all, though, it focuses on how the small things in life contribute to this bigger picture.

Roy has written this novel in non-sequential narrative; flashbacks, sidetracks, and memories are splayed all over the pages as though the story is being recounted by an old relative who will digress as soon as one thought triggers another in their mind. This made the story quaint, interesting, and fresh. It also effectively meant that the ending of the story is told merely halfway through. The beauty of Roy's storytelling, however, is that entire story wasn't told; we were given the bare facts, but not the small things that mattered most to the story.

The story is written mostly from the point of view of the young twins, and Roy does this in a beautiful way. She capitalises words, runs words together (my favourite being Rahel's description of the Bar Nowl), and repeats sentences throughout the novel to emphasise a point. It was a very, very unique style.

I was particularly interested to read of the different social structures in India at this time. The family we met with were of a higher class, and so tried their best to speak English and sent their son to study at Oxford. Class segregation was an apparent theme of the novel, and it was great to meet the characters who rigorously upheld their superiority to others, whilst they lived alongside those with a more rebellious, unconventional nature, who don't believe this way of doing things is correct. The caste system dictates the differences in the way each class is to be treated, and shocked me greatly. Although this was originally devised to 'organise society', the living conditions of the lowest class are subhuman.

The entire novel centres around societal norms, and in particular the Love Laws - laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much. We are introduced to the love laws at the beginning of the novel, and they seem so incredibly ridiculous at this stage. Who should say what the love laws are? Can't we love whoever we like? For as long as we like? As much as we like? But the harrowing thing is that by the end of the novel, we realise: no, we can't. The Love Laws define everything.

I would entirely recommend this novel, particularly to those who are interested in reading Indian literature. It is completely melancholy without being depressing, rich, beautiful, and even olfactory. I very much doubt I would read this again, but I know in my heart it's one I will never forget.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Book #36

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
Nine-year-old Bruno knows nothing of the Final Solution and the Holocaust. He is oblivious to the appalling cruelties being inflicted on the people of Europe by his country. All he knows is that he has been moved from a comfortable home in Berlin to a house in a desolate area where there is nothing to do and no one to play with. Until he meets Shmuel, a boy who lives a strange parallel existence on the other side of the adjoining wire fence and who, like the other people there, wears a uniform of striped pyjamas.
This is an incredible story, and one I would definitely recommend to all. The Final Solution through the eyes of a naive, non-Jewish nine-year-old is something I've certainly never experienced. This is a topic which has been written about so broadly that this new slant was quite exotic to me. Boyne's juxtaposition of evil and innocence was perfect, and seemed to shine an even darker light on this awful time.

Bruno's narration is wonderful in many ways, particularly in its simplicity. It's very easy to see him slowly begin to realise that something isn't quite right with his new home, or the people in striped pyjamas outside his window. You see him ask questions, but then pretending he didn't hear the answer, or avoiding certain topics of conversation entirely. Some dialogue in the novel is missed out completely because it was over Bruno's head, and he didn't understand it enough to repeat to us.

With that being said, and although I loved the book, there are some glaring plot holes which I imagine would irritate many. Bruno thinks Hitler is referred to as 'the Fury' and Auschwitz 'Out-With'. Bruno can only speak German, so why he would relate both phrases in English, I have no real clue. He doesn't know what 'Heil Hitler' means, and believes it's a way of greeting someone. With a father ranked so highly in the regime, surely Bruno would know who Hitler was? He would certainly understand the word heil, being a German speaker. On the point of his father's role, surely Bruno would know what a Jew was? Can you believe that a section of fence in Auschwitz was perpetually unpatrolled and even had a space at the bottom small enough to crawl through? And no one tried to escape through this hole? I realise this is all very meticulous of me, but come on.

The ending was raw and horrific, and has stayed with me since finishing the novel last night. I wasn't expecting it at all, and its power completely devastated me. There is no glimmer of hope after the last page, nothing to reassure the reader, and I think this is a good thing. Why should there be?

Friday, 14 December 2012

Book #35

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The shocking thing about the girls was how nearly normal they seemed when their mother let them out for the one and only date of their lives. Twenty years on, their enigmatic personalities are embalmed in the memories of the boys who worshipped them and who now recall their shared adolescence: the brassiere draped over a crucifix belonging to the promiscuous Lux; the sisters' breathtaking appearance on the night of the dance; and the sultry, sleepy street across which they watched a family disintegrate and fragile lives disappear.

This is by all means a strange wee book which I struggled to understand straight away. The blurb advises the novel details the story of five sisters, each one of them killing themselves within the space of a year. It sounds spectacular, but it really isn’t what you’d expect it to be.

I was initially quite bored with the plot, and having read this as a younger person remembered barely enjoying it on my previous attempt. Eugenides tells us of the lives of the people in the town, describes the surroundings and talks of insects and trees frequently. Months passed, nothing happened. This was all very dull to me, until I realised Eugenides was doing this on purpose. Life in this town is so devastatingly unremarkable that the girls' suicides seem so spectacular and exciting. The dullness contributes to their depression, and becomes a factor pushing them towards their final acts. The girls are shown as leading ordinary, fairly boring lives just like the rest of us. Eugenides tries to cut through the wall separating normalcy and tragedy by showing us that even the most everyday mundane features of life can contribute to disasters such as these.

My favourite thing about this novel is the narrator's voice; first person plural. It's absolutely perfect for the tone of the novel, and conveys exactly how much the Lisbon girls were loved as mysterious entities from afar. I particularly adored the fact that the reader never truly knows quite how many boys contribute to the 'we'. It allows us to be dragged in with them and experience the same emotions they do, mostly confusion. The best part, however, is that throughout the novel we think the narrators are a group of schoolboys, when in actual fact they are all now grown men reminiscing. It's quite chilling to think of, but why wouldn't such a tragedy have such an impact?

I liked that the boys collected items to add to their memories, labelling them 'Exhibit #47' and so on. What was particularly sobering was that these artefacts began to stiffen, rust, fade, disintegrate, and go missing. I felt this was somewhat reflective of the boys' memories of the sisters. The boys express their despair at having all of these small trinkets, but still being unable to piece together the girls' reasons for suicide. The longer this takes, the more their memories fade and their collection grows dusty. Perhaps here Eugenides is saying that the impact on these boys wasn't a punch to the stomach, but a gradual accumulation of hurt, another stone on their shoulders each day. And the question has to be asked: which is worse?

This isn't the story of the Lisbons, but rather the story of the boys and how the sisters, and their deaths, affected them through their schooldays all the way up to middle age. This isn't your average run of the mill story on suicide which you can describe to your friends as, "Oh, beautiful and sad, I cried!" This book is asking why we feel the need to pretend to be happy constantly. This has to be concentrated on at length. It's about how suicide affects people, communities, and families. It's about the fact that even the smallest issue can drive someone to despair. Suicide is not to be glamourised, and Eugenides does not do this with The Virgin Suicides.

This is a gorgeous, but strange and macabre novel. I would only recommend this to those who would like a thought-provoking read; it absolutely is not what it looks like.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Book #34

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

When Father goes away with two strangers one evening, the lives of Roberta, Peter and Phyllis are shattered. They and their mother have to move from their comfortable London home to go and live in a simple country cottage, where Mother writes books to make ends meet. However, they soon come to love the railway that runs near their cottage, and they make a habit of waving to the Old Gentleman who rides on it. They befriend the porter, Perks, and through him learn railway lore and much else. They have many adventures, and when they save a train from disaster, they are helped by the Old Gentleman to solve the mystery of their father's disappearance, and the family is happily reunited.

There really is nothing better than a quaint little children's classic. The Railway Children ticks all the Victorian boxes for me; well-mannered, polite, creative, and intelligent little children getting themselves into adventures and consistently coming out the other end as heroes. It's wonderful; especially when you compare these wee scamps to the kids we are confronted with today.

This book was first published in the early 1900s, and I think that's what I love about it most. The children's home has no electricity whatsoever, and they are absolutely fascinated by their railway and the ways in which the trains work. It is honestly adorable.

The novel's great mystery is why the children’s' father was taken away mysteriously one night, forcing them to subsequently move from their elegant mansion to a smaller home in the country. I realise this is a children's novel, but it doesn't take a genius to work out where he is (after we're told he isn't dead, that is). I remember even as a ten year old I had it all worked out; but I was ten in 1997, and it was a big bad world even then. Perhaps if I was ten in 1907 I wouldn't have realised Daddy had gone to prison.

As an older cynic, I felt this time that the children’s' little adventures seemed slightly far-fetched. They saved a baby (and a dog) from a burning boat, ripped up their red petticoats and waved them at a train so it wouldn't crash, helped a Russian immigrant find his wife and family, and saved a poor boy that was stupid enough to run into a railway tunnel and break his leg. They just seemed too brilliant for words. When I was younger, I thought this was wonderful and that they must be excellent people, but the stories were so far-fetched it became quite unbelievable. I will say, though, that without Nesbit characterising them as having such lovely little attitudes, the plot would have failed entirely.

Despite the above, I loved Nesbit's writing, particularly what she was hinting at. Without condescending in the slightest, she teaches lessons about absent parents, the wrongly accused, justice, charity, and the benefits of playing the hero. We see the adult world from a distance, but it's still a bit too close for comfort.

Lastly, I loved that the children were allowed their freedom. Play in a railway station? Walk about in tunnels? Fall in a canal? Talk to strangers? Oh, go on then. It's lovely and a breath of fresh air in our scare mongered culture of 2012. Let's keep the kids indoors, though. It's scary out there, anything could happen; and nothing will hurt them if they're just sitting on their arses eating crisps.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Book #33

Fables: Storybook Love by Bill Willingham

In the Fables' world, there isn't a lot of happily-ever-after to go around. As refugees from the lands of make-believe, the Fables have been driven from their storybook realms and forced to blend in with out gritty, mundane reality. But that doesn't mean they don't have any room for romance—or the pain, betrayal and jealous rage that goes along with it. In fact, love may be blooming between two of the most hard-bitten, no-nonsense Fables around. But are they destined for happiness— or a quick and untimely death?

This may be my favourite Fables chapter yet. It was thicker and more colourful than its predecessors, and definitely kept me a bit more engaged. There were a good few sub-stories going on throughout this one, and I really enjoyed them. Jack besting Satan in a poker game, the men of Lilliput all trying to chat up Thumbelina, Sleeping Beauty still dropping into a deep slumber as soon as her finger is pricked on anything at all, and Goldilocks being a gun-toting feminist were all just little yarns that made the plot so much more exciting than the previous volumes. This is what I was looking for: insight into the fairy-tale lives of the Fables, not how they behave as humans, which is all I have been subjected to so far.

All of the small twists in the plot contributed a bit more to character background, which was something I was clamouring after in the previous volumes. We find out more about what drives the characters, what makes them tick, and why they behave in the ways they do. I particularly enjoyed the Wolf's story behind his love for Snow White. Very romantic, if a bit bizarre.

The first two installments hinted heavily at the Fables going back to the Homelands to fight and reclaim them as their own. This volume made no mention of this at all, which was disappointing, as surely this is the ultimate aim of the series? It is definitely something I would like to see, so the romantic focus of this one was slightly baffling.

I do feel Willingham points out the obvious quite frequently. He doesn't seem to trust his reader to understand what he's getting at, so instead gives his characters some awfully pointed dialogue to ensure we know exactly who is untrustworthy, clever, or strange. We aren't allowed to work it out on our own without a glaringly obvious conversation being thrown in our faces. It's almost humiliating, but as the book doesn't take too much time to get through, it doesn't matter a great deal.

Once again I am judging on plot and character devices, rather than the illustrations themselves. I have already explained in my reviews of volume one and two that I am a total comic book novice, and a dunce when it comes to illustration. 

Fables now seems to me like a fun story; something to escape with and not take too seriously. It isn't really much more than that; although I really enjoy whizzing through the colourful pages, it will never be something that engages my mind to an epic degree, but I would be more than happy to have a look at the next episode.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Book #32

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified dinery server on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation. The narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each others echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

I opened this book knowing I was going to love it. I just knew in my heart of hearts it was going to be nothing but wonderful because all I had heard were stunning adulations over Mitchell's work. Of course I was expecting to join this mob of applauding fans with praise-filled reviews and joyous cheer of my own. Unfortunately Mitchell very quickly burst this little bubble for me, brought me back to the ground with a bump, and taught me an almighty lesson I should've learned from Fifty Shades of Grey: just because everyone else likes it doesn't mean you will too.

The idea here is that Mitchell weaves six different short stories into each other, becoming the master of space and time, and interlinking each one to teach us lessons in reincarnation, the butterfly effect, and all sorts of nonsense like that. The premise is wonderful, very exciting, and somewhat new to me. The problem is that each of the six stories are incredibly weak and mediocre.

After we go through all six charades (I could go into detail, but as soon as this book removes itself from the forefront of my mind, the better), we are treated to them all again in reverse order. This is because David Mitchell is most likely a misanthropic bastard and would like us all to suffer his mundane characters all over again. I had hoped a good number of them would meet an untimely and grotesque demise, but I was disappointed. They were drab. I didn't care for any of them; anything that troubled them or possibly contributed to their misery didn't coax one tiny little feeling inside me. I cared not. Sonmi was the only one I was remotely interested in, and this faded away quickly into her second narrative. Mitchell finishes off the novel with an incredibly trite comment about us all being mere drops in the ocean of life, or something as equally fluffy and pretentious which somehow offended my intellect.

Mitchell's attempt to compose the novel in six different writing styles worked to an extent, and certainly interested me at the outset. I liked the differing ways in which voices were coming across, whether it was diary, letter, interview, or otherwise. Going through this again, backwards and unexpectedly, however, reminded me of an awful rollercoaster ride you are desperate to disembark.

I originally felt stupid for not understanding the hype behind this novel. It is certainly imaginative, challenging, and quite fresh. However, the stories were awful, the characters didn't link very well (a casual mention of something in the previous ordeal section just didn't seem sufficient), and by the time we were on our reverse journey through time and space, I had forgotten everything that had happened the first time around! All the nuances, sub-characters and plot twists meant nothing to me because it had (very dully) happened pages and pages ago. This quite obviously gets worse as you near the end of the novel; the more you delve into the novel, the more unimpressed you become.

This work of Mitchell's is certainly trendy and certainly clever, and I imagine that's the kind of thing people may go for. However, what I tend to go for in a book is something worthwhile and compelling and this simply did not fit the criteria. It was form over substance, and it just didn't work for me.