Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Book #29

Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom

"In the beginning there was a question. Will you do my eulogy?' As is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor. In truth, I was being given one..."
After reading Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, I have since sworn that Mitch Albom is one of my favourite authors. He has such a propensity to tug at your heartstrings and make you fall in love with him, his characters, and his stories.

I was a bit disappointed with Have a Little Faith. Yes, Albom gave me all of his usual  inspirational and thought-provoking nudges, but this time they didn't resonate as loudly as they normally do. Although the message certainly is touching and worthwhile, and as with all Albom novels I cried at the end, the novel seemed to me as though it were trying too hard. There were too many inspirational moments, and too much sentimentalism. I sound like the worse kind of person, but this is how I felt.

As this is a true story, and a nice one, I am loathe to be too critical, but I wanted this to ring bells and make me smile, cry, and shout from the rooftops after I turned the last page. Yes, it was a nice little read, but what worries me is that if I had read this before any of Albom's other novels; I never would have tried them all.

I have a problem with religion, in that I don't believe in it. I have an unrivalled respect for those who do, but it will just never work for me. I think this may be why I had such a problem with this book. It was entirely centred on faith, religion and spirituality. It left me with no inspirational motivation to take away with me, and in fact left me feeling quite hollow. A religious person would take more from this than I did. I just found it a quaint little story, and (although I feel terrible for saying so) a contrived Tuesdays with Morrie. 

I'm quite unsure whether I've missed a trick here, but Albom used a very curious method of punctuating his dialogue in the novel. When he himself was speaking to someone he would not use quotation marks. Everyone else was worthy of these, just not Albom himself. I couldn't quite work it out, and it just annoyed me greatly.

I am very underwhelmed and disappointed.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Book #28

The Road Dance by John MacKay
 Life in the Scottish Hebrides can be harsh - 'The Edge of the World' some call it. For the beautiful Kirsty MacLeod, the love of Murdo and their dreams of America promise an escape from the scrape of the land, the repression of the church and the inevitability of the path their lives would take.
But as the Great War looms Murdo is conscripted. The villagers hold a grand Road Dance to send their young men off to battle. As the dancers swirl and sup, the wheels of tragedy are set in motion.

I was strangely surprised to discover that everyone's favourite Scottish newsreader had written a novel. I was even more surprised to discover it was first published ten years ago and I had never caught wind of it until now. I am so glad I have; MacKay's writing is impeccable.

The book took hold of me from the very first sentence until the last. Having never visited the Scottish Hebrides, I was enthralled reading of the climate, the landscape, and the customs of the people there. MacKay creates a bleak, harsh atmosphere on the island; the wind howls, the rain pours, and the waves crash against the jaggy black rocks. This is a perfect setting for the most shocking of crimes to take place. I absolutely devoured it.

MacKay captures perfectly the feeling of war-torn Britain, even in such an out of the way place. The grief, heartache, and apprehension are all shoved into your heart and held there until the end of the novel. His writing is so descriptive that you mourn and panic with his characters as though you were an islander yourself.

Without giving too much away, the plot is fantastic. The suspense is constructed in an excellent way; each turn of the page pushes you further into the story, and mesmerises you entirely. The characters are perfect in their own little ways, and I loved reading of their community and behavioural rules. It is interesting that certain events in the novel happened only because the characters were frightened of what others would think of them. It definitely made me think about how that happens in the world today; certainly not in the same religion-based way, but absolutely in its own modern designs.

This is an excellent debut novel and has paved the way for me to read more MacKay. I would encourage anyone to pick this up, but particularly as a Scottish girl, I feel a bit more in tune with our islander neighbours, and would love to visit the town this novel was based on. Definitely one for the bucket list. Please pick this up and give it a try, I already have two people in mind who would love it. I am sure this is an untapped classic.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Book #27

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty facade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils... Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

When I first heard that Rowling was writing a new novel, my excitement was mixed with feelings of trepidation. I am a huge Harry Potter fan and couldn't really believe she could trump this magical saga. When the above blurb was released, I really couldn't see where she was going to impress me. A small town without wizards? A parish council without arguments settled by a wand being pulled out? Surely not.

I have no idea why I was so nervous about this. Rowling has continued to bowl me over for nigh on fifteen years; why did I think she was about to stop now? Well, stop she didn't, this book enthralled me. Even the thought of putting it down at all filled me with an untold fear I haven't felt about a book in a long time. This is magnificent, it's phenomenal, it's all the words you see when you look up AMAZING in a thesaurus. Yes, I am a crazy fangirl, expect nothing less than a review gushing with praise.

The story centres around the lifestyles of a small town community; how their lives intertwine, the differences in social class, the differences in family life, and most of all the impact both truth and lies have on humanity. Rowling has a little bit of everything here: abuse, neglect, rape, prostitution, self-harm, betrayal, politics, social politics, drugs, homosexuality, hope, obsession and even paedophilia. It is quite the little town. But all of these things have been shrouded over; everyone is keeping secrets from everyone else. Rowling guides us around Pagford and stands with us while we probe into the minds of the characters, finding out their deepest secrets and (especially if you are a gossip hound like me) basking in the knowledge gifted. It was nothing other than wonderful; every page was a joy to me.

Barry Fairbrother dies in the first chapter of the novel, and the rest of the pages examine everyone's relationship with the man. He is the be all and end all of every event in the novel; however we are only permitted to meet him for a short few pages. A cruel twist from the very beginning as he was the only character who was portrayed without flaw - a man of kindness and generosity. Everyone else in the novel had every single wart exposed; I wondered if Rowling was commenting here on speaking ill of the dead.

Rowling shows us that even the most perfect-seeming lives have their secrets. She shows us that the most perfect of people sometimes wish they were someone else, and sometimes even pretend to be someone else. She shows us that peoples' lives are like turning over a smooth stone and seeing the horrible insects crawling all over the soil-covered underside of it all. She examines both gritty, realistic life in an impoverished area, and also shows us the small-minded prejudices of the middle class. Her social message is perfect: she doesn't aim to condescend, and romanticises nothing. She plants little nuggets of realisation throughout the entire novel. She is nothing other than a genius in my eyes.

It's not an easy book to read by any stretch of the imagination. It is full of harsh realism and the exact details of human weakness. It has, however, appealed to the kinder side of my heart. I found it very difficult when Rowling put me inside the mind of one of the more awful characters in the book. I was thinking things like, "How can you think that?" "How can you do that to someone?" and all the while I was subconsciously examining my own judgemental habits, and vowing to be a better person. Only a very skilled author can do this to a reader.

I loved the way everyone's lives weaved in and out of each other's beautifully. It is easy to imagine this happening in such a small town, but Rowling executed it brilliantly. It was very British, and very convincing.

What I will say is that Rowling is well-known for leaving her readers bereft of a character or two by the end of her stories. I was left with such a tear-soaked face I looked as though I'd dipped it in the sink. These swift, heartless-feeling moves are relevant and required in the plot. They really made me think, and again assess my own worth as a person.

There was no way I was going to be able to review this with any kind of craft. This review was always going to be another testament to Rowling's skill, and the immovable impression in my head that she is a philosophising prodigy. She's done it again, and I love her for it.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Book #26

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

It started when she was served a soft drink laced with LSD in a dangerous party game. Within months, she was hooked, trapped in a downward spiral that took her from her comfortable home and loving family to the mean streets of an unforgiving city. It was a journey that would rob her of her innocence, her youth -- and ultimately her life.

I do not have a good word to say about this book. It was absolutely woeful. I felt many things whilst reading it, but more than anything I felt insulted. I have absolutely no idea how anyone (even the target audience of young adults) can believe this book is a real diary. It is nothing other than propaganda aimed at teenagers to warn them of the dangers of drugs. This is absolutely fair, and I agree with the sentiment, but OH MY GOD give them some credit. It was sheer fearmongering; mostly ridiculous nonsense made up to scare the crap out of young kids who may come across drugs one day. LUDICROUS.

The gist of the plot is that our dear, sweet Alice goes to a party and drinks something laced with LSD. All of a sudden she is a BIG BAD JUNKIE and we get to roll along with her as she runs away, comes home to the loving arms of her parents, then runs away again to take some more drugs and cut about with the 'dopey dopers'. Then she ends up in a mental institution covered in cuts and sporting a very shit haircut due to her ripping it all out at the roots in the midst of a drugs FIT. And she dies at the end, which is quite obviously very shocking and not predictable at all.

I couldn't help but feel this book must be a massive wound to families who have suffered a loss from the effects of drugs. It was almost as though real tragedy was being blown into a cartoon money spinner.

The real author, a Beatrice Sparks, does herself absolutely no favours with her pathetic attempts to embody a teenage girl. Her writing consists of poorly conceived teen-speak, "Well, at least I'm not burned out and I'm not preg," or words being repeated for exuberant emphasis, "This evening was great great great!" She really is kidding no one. I cringed on many an occasion, and it's a wonder I made my way to the end.

This really is sheer garbage with a political and religious agenda. It is embarrassing to read.