Friday, 24 August 2012

Book #22

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry the troubled and bitter Rasheed, who is thirty years her senior. Nearly two decades later, in a climate of growing unrest, tragedy strikes fifteen-year-old Laila, who must leave her home and join Mariam's unhappy household. Laila and Mariam are to find consolation in each other, their friendship to grow as deep as the bond between sisters, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter. With the passing of time comes Taliban rule over Afghanistan, the streets of Kabul loud with the sound of gunfire and bombs, life a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear, the women's endurance tested beyond their worst imaginings. Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with a startling heroism. In the end it is love that triumphs over death and destruction.

This book is nothing less than a masterpiece. It tells the tale of Afghanistan through the Civil war era, moving into the rule of the Taliban, and I had heard the story was brutal, depressing, and filled with doom and destruction. It really was all of those things, of course it was, but there was a stronger message prevailing throughout the entire story - the power of hope, love, and human spirit.

The subject matter was engrossing. I'll admit I have very limited knowledge of Middle Eastern culture, and this was a real eye-opener. Afghanistan is a place I've heard of so often since 2001, but have known very little about. I would hazard a guess that I’m not the only one. Reading of their wars, religion, classes and gender disparities was absolutely captivating to me, and I became very ashamed very quickly of my lack of knowledge. It is difficult to absorb the fact that some of the scenes in the book which shocked me a great deal are really just 'the norm' over there. It's a sickening thought.

Our two strong protagonists, Mariam and Laila, are born fifteen years apart, but find themselves both married to the same scumbag due to a series of tragedies. The way these women come together to help each other through some horrific ordeals is inspiring to a huge degree. Their lives turn into an incredibly emotional journey, and Hosseini's writing is so magical that he picks you up and brings you along on the journey with them. I was SO emotionally invested in both of these women. I loved them, and I cried like a baby at their hardships.

The characterisation is absolutely perfect. Not only was I head over heels in love with Mariam and Laila, keeping my fingers crossed for them and hoping them through each page, Hosseini managed to get right into my stomach and generate one of the largest balls of contempt I have ever had for a fictional character. Rasheed, Mariam and Laila's husband, is without a doubt one of the most abhorrent characters I have ever come across. I hated him as soon as I was introduced to him, and (without spoiling anything) I cried with relief at retribution time.

Hosseini really shows us here how much a human being can endure. Mariam and Laila take so many blows (both physical and emotional) and they survive, they press on despite the pain and loss - a true fight against the odds, and the power of having hope in hopeless times. It's a gorgeous message, but one I couldn't possibly attempt to describe without pointing you towards the book. It is wonderful.

I would urge anyone to read this book; I even began to do so before I had finished. It is a beautiful, heart-breaking, and haunting account of life in a place very few of us are familiar with. It is not easy to read - I was breaking my heart on several occasions - but it is worth every single tear. It is absolutely terrific and I am sure it will become a classic. Please, please, please (if you trust my literary judgement) source a copy of this and have your heart blown away.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Book #21

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Frank, no ordinary sixteen-year-old, lives with his father outsIde a remote Scottish village. Their life is, to say the least, unconventional. Frank's mother abandoned them years ago: his elder brother Eric is confined to a psychiatric hospital; and his father measures out his eccentricities on an imperial scale. Frank has turned to strange acts of violence to vent his frustrations. In the bizarre daily rituals there is some solace. But when news comes of Eric's escape from the hospital Frank has to prepare the ground for his brother's inevitable return - an event that explodes the mysteries of the past and changes Frank utterly.

I must admit, I absolutely love a good, successful Scottish writer. I must also admit that I have never been a particularly huge fan of Iain Banks - in fact, I have attempted this book probably three times, and this is the first time I have managed to finish it. It wasn't that I disliked it on my previous tries; I found it suitably strange and interesting enough. I would just always end up abandoning it for something else. Maybe it's a question of maturity; I loved it this time.

The story is told by our protagonist, Frank Cauldhame, who is a sixteen year old sociopath. He is very clever, very resourceful, very imaginative, and also incredibly disturbed. He tells us the story of his life in little snippets surrounded by tales of the present. The story of his life is an unsettling one; he tells us of the three young children he murdered when he himself was a young child, then tells us "it was just a phase I was going through"; he tells us of his brother's upsetting experience which drove him insane, and led him to burning dogs and forcing children to eat worms and maggots; he describes his shamanistic lifestyle, his horrific rituals and ceremonies, and his worrying belief in the reliability of these.

At the beginning of the novel, Banks sets the scene perfectly for a gothic horror. Father and son living alone on an isolated island, poles scattered around sacrificing the decaying heads of animals, and the notion that murders have taken place on the island courtesy of Frank himself. Perfect.

Frank is sadistic, cruel, and affectless, but he can be very self-deprecating, sardonic, and educated in a strangely loveable way. He comes across at times as a very sensitive child who struggles to connect with others his own age and who is very much an outsider. The island he lives on seems very symbolic of this, shutting Frank off from the mainland quite considerably.

I enjoyed the Factory itself as a symbol of fate for not only each of the characters in the novel, but for all of us. I particularly enjoyed a sentence on the final page which read: 
Each of us, in our own personal Factory, may believe we have stumbled down one corridor, and that our fate is sealed and certain (dream or nightmare, humdrum or bizarre, good or bad), but a word, a glance, a slip - anything can change that, alter it entirely, and our marble hall becomes a gutter, or our rat-maze a golden path.
The Factory really is a wonderful tool for Banks to make his readers think. We read of Frank torturing the wasps as a mechanism of knowledge to tell him what to do next, or to advise him that something good or bad is on its way. We, as readers, find this torture of wasps entirely wicked. But how many of us have swatted, killed, maimed or poisoned a wasp, or any another insect? In this case, can we judge? Banks really drives us here to question our own morals and, admittedly, self-delusions.

It is difficult to stomach in places, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it for those with a weak disposition. Frank describes in detail his torture and killings of small animals and children. It is sick, twisted, and reprehensible, but entirely delicious at the same time. It's definitely not for everyone, but I would absolutely recommend you pick this up and give it a try. I am going to read some more Banks in the near future.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Book #20

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Mr Jones of Manor Farm is so lazy and drunken that one day he forgets to feed his livestock. The ensuing rebellion under the leadership of the pigs Napoleon and Snowball leads to the animals taking over the farm. Vowing to eliminate the terrible inequities of the farmyard, the renamed Animal Farm is organised to benefit all who walk on four legs. But as time passes, the ideals of the rebellion are corrupted, then forgotten. And something new and unexpected emerges.

Animal Farm is one of the books everyone was forced to read in school. Although this tends to give people an intense hatred for it (“Ah, yeah, read it school, hated it,”), I think it's a good thing to read this at a younger age. Don't get me wrong, I have finished it today and enjoyed it entirely (at the grand old age of twenty-five); I just think the message Orwell gives about power is an important one, particularly for younger people.

Although the allegories to the Russian Revolution, communism, Stalin, and the USSR do not escape me here, I cannot pretend to be well-versed in any type of political affair, and wouldn't like to comment in case I make a bit of an arse of myself. I do, however, enjoy the messages Orwell gives here with regards to governments changing the rules and/or moving the goalposts, the lower classes being taken advantage of, and how powerful people (or powerful pigs) can corrupt socialism as they see fit.

Orwell shows us the merits of communism and allows us, in the beginning, to support the animals' revolution. Then we are shown that communism really can only work in a selfless world. The pigs begin to discover human comforts, change the rules, and work the animals (the lower classes) to the bone before advising them that although all animals are equal, some animals are more equal than others. 

I have to mention my favourite part of the book. It's been my favourite since the first time I read it (I was maybe sixteen), and remains my favourite part ever since. It may be a spoiler. One of the rules of the farm is that no animal should ever drink alcohol. However, the pigs find a stash of whisky one night, and the leader, Napoleon, ends up doing a lap of the farm with the farmer's bowler hat on. The next morning it is announced he is dying and alcohol is now banned. By the afternoon he feels better and announces the farm will start growing barley. I lose my breath laughing every single time.

The book is packed full of symbolism, but my favourite symbol is Moses the raven who seems to symbolise religion, or the church. He tells the animals of a great place behind the clouds called Sugarcandy Mountain, where they will all go when they die. He eloquently describes the endless sugar and linseed cake which can be had. Although some animals buy into this, and some animals don't, Orwell seems to use Moses to show how the oppressed can be soothed by religion, or something to believe in.

This is a wonderful novel. You don't have to have great knowledge of modern history to understand the message: this can apply at any time, anywhere. I really believe, alongside 1984, Orwell has created a timeless masterpiece with Animal Farm. It's a short and easy read, but leaves you with an abundance of things to reflect on. It is said so often, and you will see this come up as soon as you type Animal Farm into Google, but this really is a book you must read before you die.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Book #19

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Fifteen-year-old Alex and his three friends start an evening's mayhem by hitting an old man, tearing up his books and stripping him of his money and clothes. Or rather Alex and his three droogs tolchock an old veck, razrez his books, pull off his outer platties and take a malenky bit of cutter. For Alex's confessions are written in 'nadsat' - the teenage argot of a not-too-distant future. Because of his delinquent excesses, Alex is jailed and made subject to 'Ludovico's Technique', a chilling experiment in Reclamation Treatment.

This book is a very firm favourite of mine, and I consider each time I read it to be a sheer treat. It's one that almost everyone will have heard of, but hardly anyone has read. Many will have seen the Kubrick film adaptation, of course, but you can't beat the book.

The language Burgess uses to narrate the novel - Nadsat, the teenage slang of a dystopian future - will certainly put people off reading this. It's not too hard to get used to, though, and I find it an absolute joy. I loved being able to understand the language, and also to work out the origins of some of the words. Burgess takes words from the Bible, Shakespeare, the Russian language, and even Cockney rhyming slang. It is wonderful if you are a lover of words, but I'm quite unsure as to whether every reader of this book will respond to Nadsat in this way. Nevertheless, I found it absolutely amazing.

Violence is at the centre of the entire novel, with Burgess describing a variety of crimes to us in a vivid and lengthy fashion. It's nothing less than delicious. However, although Alex and his droogs concentrate fully on crime and violence, the novel does not condone this in any way. This is not about glorifying their misdeeds; Burgess explores the idea of free will, and whether it is better that a man chooses to be good rather than being scientifically conditioned to be a pillar of the community.

I liked many of the points Burgess makes in the novel, but one in particular sticks out for me. The idea of crime and criminals is normally centred around lack of education and/or culture. Alex is an extremely cultured individual with an interest in classical music. Burgess is saying here that being cultured and educated does not a good person make.

I could go on and on about this book all night, but how much can one say about an infamous novel that hasn't already been said? This is a challenging book, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't prepared to persevere. It is undoubtedly worth it, though, and I really would urge frequent readers, or lovers of words, to pick this up.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Book #18

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

After the death of her parents, Mary is brought back from India as a forlorn and unwanted child, to live in her uncle's great lonely house on the moors. Then one day she discovers the key to a secret garden and, like magic, her life begins to brighten in so many ways.

There is nothing I find more humbling and heart-warming than reading an old childhood favourite. I don't think I've read this for fifteen years or so, and it was a wonderful experience. The Secret Garden really is such a deserving classic, and I have absolutely nothing but praise for it.

One of the greatest things about this novel is that it is completely and utterly filled with secrets: the garden itself, Colin's existence, the locked rooms in Misselthwaite Manor, and the servants all sworn to secrecy on various matters. Then, as each of these secrets are disclosed over the course of the novel, situations improve, people feel better, and the general atmosphere becomes a great deal more pleasant. It gives the impression that secrets are better out in the open, and I think that is a wonderful message to send.

Another great part of this novel, and possibly my favourite aspect, is that our two foul, selfish little ten-year-olds become wonderful, loving, caring and quite simply delightful human beings by the end of the novel. This is all down to friendship, love, and trust, and is something simply inspiring to watch pan out. Also, it is interesting to note that both Mary and Colin are not cruel, selfish children at heart; they are this way due to isolation. As soon as they find each other, and see each other as friends, they begin to improve and become their own true people. The idea that one only needs some companionship to help bring oneself out of sheer despair is absolutely gorgeous, and very true.

This book was initially published over one hundred years ago, but I found really interesting the commentary on what makes a child healthy. Colin was a sickly boy, with absolutely no strength or desire to be outdoors. With some encouragement from a couple of friends, lots of fresh air, and lots of capering around his secret garden, he was able to become strong and healthy. My personal opinion is that children these days are becoming less healthy, less disciplined, and much fatter: why not unplug their computers and send them for a wee dance around a garden? It worked for Colin, although I don't think Misselthwaite Manor had a PS3 to distract him.

With Colin in mind, the novel also said a lot about hypochondria, and how people may not be as ill as they think they are. Colin would only lie inert, thinking about his weak back and how he would surely die soon. He felt incredibly like a victim, and very sorry for himself. As soon as he had activities to distract him from these thoughts, he felt a hell of a lot better and by the end of the novel there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. I think this applies not only in illness, but in all of life's little perceived problems: when you finally take the plunge, no matter the outcome, you will feel better for it.

I would recommend this novel to anyone, but most of all I would recommend it to those who read it when they were younger. Re-reading books from childhood always risks corrupting your memories of the novel with your adult cynicism and judgement, but The Secret Garden absolutely does not disappoint. It is beautiful, wonderful, and has taught me so many lessons. I will definitely read this over again and again. It is truly breath-taking.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Book #17

Secret by Philippe Grimbert

Growing up in post-war Paris the sickly only child of glamorous, athletic parents, the narrator invents for himself a make-believe brother - older, stronger, and more brilliant than he can ever be. It is only when the boy begins talking to an old family friend that he comes to realise that his imaginary sibling had a real predecessor: a half-brother whose death in the concentration camps is part of a buried family secret that he was intended never to unearth.

This is a gorgeous and heartbreaking story - one I was so captivated with, I read through it in a few hours. Every single word of this book is lyrical in its own way; every page sings. It packs a seriously emotional punch, and is entirely, without a doubt, brimming with soul.

Stories centred around the holocaust and World War II always strike a chord in my heart, but this one was particularly special. I felt as though Grimbert was subtly pleading with us to never forget and never repeat; the story is 'based on' his own experiences so it makes you wonder which parts of the story really happened. This blurring of the fictional and the autobiographical encourages you to think, and to never forget. It really is a perfect and timeless novel.

The plot is based on a secret, one our narrator isn't aware of until we are almost halfway through. His naievete gives us a beautiful narrative on how he believed things to be, then slowly we are given the jarring and tragic facts of how things really are. The story being given in layers like this made me feel as though there were two different stories filled with various different secrets, and it really did move me.

I finished the book around an hour ago and the effects are still with me, although I feel that's what Grimbert wanted. The effects of this book are still haunting me, while the consequences of World War II are still haunting people worldwide. I loved the moral message here that secrets, no matter how well hidden they are, always come undone at some point.

This book has completely overwhelmed me. I have never heard anyone speak of it; I bought it on a whim in a pound shop a few years ago, and yet it has had such a real impact on me I am going to have to keep it for the rest of my life. I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone; it's so beautiful.

Book #16

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep's clothing. He's handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He's a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likeable: he only kills bad people. And his job as a blood splatter expert for the Miami police department puts him in the perfect position to identify his victims. But when a series of brutal murders bearing a striking similarity to his own style start turning up, Dexter is caught between being flattered and being frightened -- of himself or some other fiend.

Although this novel is the original source material behind the famous television series, this review will not be a comparison between the two. I have (surprisingly, given my television habits) seen the first few episodes of the series, and did enjoy them, hence the book ending up on my shelves.

I knew this would be an easy read; something simple in large print with a plot that just carries you along without any deep thinking required. I was not prepared for how dull, transparent, predictable, and incredibly one-dimensional the whole experience was.

Lindsay's characters had a lot of potential, but ended up entirely flat. I didn't like any of them, no one tugged at my heartstrings, and I was almost glad when a couple of them found themselves in life-threatening situations; I even wished some of them dead just so something, oh please anything, would break the dull plot. Lindsay could have done so much, particularly with Dexter, but kept going round in circles with the same old clich├ęs. The number of times I was reminded that Dexter was a sheer genius, but inhuman and completely and utterly incapable of feelings was just excessive. I get it, he's a killer, he loves it, hurrah, can he just kill someone now please.

The novel was written in Dexter's whining internal monologue, which began to irritate very quickly, and didn't do anything for the plot. Although I understand the potential excitement of reading a serial killer's innermost thoughts and desires, I really feel a third-person narrative would have worked wonders here. Dexter really is a boring guy; I’d have preferred his crimes to be shown to me, rather than him telling me about them and peppering the monologue with hints to his genius.

The plot was just ridiculous; there was no real mystery involved at all. Dexter (being such a genius) spent most of his time watching the police make various blunders. There was no anticipation or suspense, just a lot of smoke and mirrors. It was exceptionally simple (despite the lack of foreshadowing) to work out what was going to happen next. It was so dull. Prostitutes were getting their heads and limbs chopped off all over Miami and I was wondering where my next Viennese biscuit was coming from.

With all of the above already irking me immensely, I had the grand finale thrown at me. I mean, really. I don't want to spoil it for any of you who want to waste time reading this, but it was so extremely far-fetched that I was rolling my eyes every few minutes. It just seemed like a pull everything out of the hat at the last minute SHOCK FACTOR tactic. No, thank you. Then I was completely insulted in the epilogue by Lindsay writing in such an ambiguous way to confuse us over who ended up dying. It’s not difficult to know who dies before they actually die. I mean, really.

I will not be reading the rest of the series, and will continue trying to find a serial killer who is a bit more exciting than the inhuman dullard, Dexter.