Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Book #5

Four Women by Sam Kieth
Bev, Donna, Marion and Cindy set out driving to a wedding together..only they never make it. While driving through the desert, their car breaks down - and from that point, they end up taking an entirelt different kind of journey. A journey to hell and back, that cause them to question their friendship, their lives and themselves.
This graphic novel is a very quick read, but certainly plants some serious questions in the reader's mind. I finished the book in the space of half an hour last night, and it has stayed with me all day.

The story focuses on these four women and how each of them deals with the matter of sexual assault. Kieth is essentially plunging the reader into this situation, asking them to observe, and then asking what they would do had they been in the car.

I did find some parts completely unrealistic, and I felt his portrayal of the sexual abuse from a woman's point of view fell short by a long way. It was quite difficult to believe, and uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. The characterisation was poor, with the characters seeming extremely underdeveloped. I'd have liked to have heard more of how the women came to be friends, and especially how Cindy, the teenager, came to be a member of the group.

My previous reviews of graphic novels have always stated that I am no expert in this genre, and I'm certainly not. I am a dunce when it comes to the artwork involved in these types of literature, however I didn't like the artwork here. The women looked macabre at times, almost like gargoyles, and this created a surreal edge, making the women even more unrealistic in my eyes.

Despite the above, I liked that Kieth was forcing the reader to think. The story wasn't about the assault as such; it was about sacrifice, guilt, friendship, love, and denial. Mostly, it was a tool to help us think of our own moral codes, and how we would have behaved in place of one of the women. It prompted some very interesting thought debates in my own mind.

Although I feel Kieth's intention was perhaps a lot more meaningful than the result, this was definitely something I enjoyed, although more for the underlying message than the actual plot. I'd recommend this to someone who is looking to pass half an hour, and to have a bit of a ponder at the same time.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Book #4

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson
Salander is plotting her revenge - against the man who tried to kill her, and against the government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. But it is not going to be a straightforward campaign. After taking a bullet to the head, Salander is under close supervision in Intensive Care, and is set to face trial for three murders and one attempted murder on her eventual release. With the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his researchers at Millennium magazine, Salander must not only prove her innocence, but identify and denounce the corrupt politicians that have allowed the vulnerable to become victims of abuse and violence. Once a victim herself, Salander is now ready to fight back. 

This review will only deal with the first 270 pages of this novel, as that is as much as I could stomach of this nonsense. Those of you who follow my reviews regularly will know that I very rarely give up on a book. I believe posting a review of something you have only half-finished is cheating. Nonetheless, I tried very hard to get to the end of this, particularly as it's the finale of a trilogy, but I struggled. It's awful. I had faith; I was waiting for the exciting part to come, but it never did.

The story begins exactly where The Girl Who Played with Fire left off. We begin as though it's not a new book, but a new chapter. Time, place, nor situation has moved on in the slightest; we are at a standstill. I was devastated to open this book and find myself not propelled forward in time as I had expected, but in the same quandary as before - bored, exhausted, and confused.

I had mentioned in my review of the second book in the trilogy that Larsson likes to regale us with boring little details. Jesus Joney macaroni, he really goes for it here. My eyes were crossing, I was daydreaming about work, and on one occasion I put the book down and started tidying my room. On a positive note, I was struggling to sleep one night, and reading a few paragraphs helped matters considerably. At times I wondered whether to cut my losses and dig out my old university notes (statistics, maybe, in French), for some lighter, more exciting, reading.

There are far too many characters involved in this tale. Larsson seems to introduce them to help move the plot along and orchestrate twists, but it doesn't allow for any empathy to be garnered for one single person. The huge cast confused me, and meant I had no idea whose dialogue I was reading, nor what they had contributed in previous chapters, or even novels. The Swedish names are quite similar, and are difficult to remember, which made matters worse (I realise this doesn't make me sound very diverse, but it's so very true). Larsson insisted on giving us the entire life story of even the most minor of characters. Yawn, yawn, yawn. Each time a connection is made to unravel the conspiracy, approximately thirty new characters are introduced to complicate matters even further. A friend said this actually continues even as far as the final fifty pages; this contributed greatly to my decision to abandon ship (and all hope).

Hundreds of pages are devoted to the Swedish government's peaks and troughs, rules and regulations, and history in general. We are honoured with asterisks that relate to pages at the back of the book which go into even more detail of Swedish politics and police system, if you have the time to spare for that sort of thing, and have a fetish for the insanely dull. The majority of this was going completely over my head, mostly due to my limited interest in politics (Swedish or otherwise), but mostly due to my unquenchable boredom with the plot.

The book is very poorly constructed in general, and such a disappointment. The best thing to compare it to is the furniture of its fellow countryman, Ikea -it  looks good on the box, but it's a load of rubbish once you open it and try your best with it for as long as you can; in the end you're left completely and utterly disappointed at the waste of your money, time and effort.

Overall, the trilogy just goes downhill. The first novel is exciting and filled with suspense. The second isn't as good as the first, loses its grip on you slightly, but still keeps you hooked. This third monstrosity is almost like the final nail in your coffin. I'd recommend reading the first novel and stopping there if you have half a brain at all.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Book #3

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is a wanted woman. Two Millennium journalists about to expose the truth about sex trafficking in Sweden are murdered, and Salander's prints are on the weapon. Her history of unpredictable and vengeful behaviour makes her an official danger to society - but no-one can find her. Mikael Blomkvist, editor-in-chief of Millennium, does not believe the police. Using all his magazine staff and resources to prove Salander's innocence, Blomkvist also uncovers her terrible past, spent in criminally corrupt institutions. Yet Salander is more avenging angel than helpless victim. She may be an expert at staying out of sight - but she has ways of tracking down her most elusive enemies.

Oh dear. We have fallen to the plight of the sequel novel. It tries so hard to trump its predecessor, and at times it seems as though it might just manage. But eventually, as is normally the case, the sequel flops into a heap and cries, tormented by the pain of never being as good as its older sibling. Poor wee thing.

This novel focuses more on Lisbeth Salander and her past. We are given explanations on why she's such a prickly cow, and a general badass. She does, however, get herself a boob job at the beginning of the book, which didn't seem right. Larsson paints her as a secure woman with a 'don't give a fuck' attitude, and I certainly hadn't realised she had insecurities in this department. The pleasure and attractiveness she felt after the operation was over was incredibly out of character as she had certainly come across to me as someone who didn't care what others, particularly men, thought of her appearance. It seemed very, very strange and out of place for an outspoken novel on misogyny and gender norms.

The problem for me with Salander's characterisation is that I like to see my characters hung drawn and quartered before me. I like to see every fear, worry, hope and dream. I need to know them; to know how they tick. Larsson doesn't give this up easily, and hasn't done two books into the series. I don't like it. I don't know this girl, have caught small glimpses of her true character, and to be honest I don't like it. I appreciate her morals, and share many of them, but I would not invite her to my birthday party.

I also developed a newfound hatred for Blomkvist. No one, and I mean no one, likes a goody goody. There were times where I wanted to physically hurt this man. He behaved like such a simpering martyr, "I am your friend, I won't tell on you." UGH.

It's definitely a page-turner with a steamrolling plot, but it's not as gripping as the previous installment. I can see how those who appreciate a good crime/mystery novel would appreciate this, but there was a lot of depth lacking for me.

Again, I like the message that the media and certain social or cultural aspects are digging into our perception of gender. Boys are strong, girls are weak; that sort of thing. Larsson weaves us into situations where we have to recognise size and appearance, whether male or female, to be minor details, and that they do not entirely shape who we are.

Larsson again gives us a great deal of minute detail, which again was absolutely dull. If you plan to read this book, please skip the part where Salander buys her new apartment, as I'm sure the entire catalogue of Ikea was named and priced in this section. We are also treated to shopping lists (I could live without seeing the name Billy's Pan Pizza every few pages), and tedious habits like having a sandwich and going to bed. This must have been central to the plot, but I completely missed the connection.

Don't get me wrong; this is a decent read, and a good one for crime or mystery lovers. If you're looking for something a bit more profound, and perhaps slightly deeper, I'd give the whole series a miss. Now for the final chapter.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Book #2

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder - and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves. 

Here’s another series which has been burning its way through my bookshelves for years after recommendations from friends. Yet again, all of these glowing reviews had made me excited to read it. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed this as a page-turner mystery novel. I'm just not sure it lived up to the hype entirely.

This book was originally written in Swedish, and the title translates to Men Who Hate Women. This is an apt title for the sadistic atrocities that occur in the pages, and it's a far more tantalising title than the, quite frankly, dull and vague The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Some of the scenes are very violent and upsetting, but are issues I feel Larsson wanted to bring to the forefront of people's minds. He attacks misogyny quite viciously and his opinions on the matter filter through his characters clearly.

The mystery was excellent as it was a locked-room murder mystery, meaning the perpetrator had to be a member of the family. I couldn't guess at all who was to blame, or how events had unfolded, and I was kept guessing for a long time. There weren’t many clues scattered through the pages, which is why the eventual conclusion astounded me.

Larsson's characters are all very exciting and believable. Most of these were over the age of 30, so they had plenty of back-story to carry with them, and lots and lots of secrets too. I thought Blomkvist was a bit exaggerated. He was a disgraced journalist with a bit of a James Bond edge; he gets all the ladies into bed (three sexual partners in 500 pages, ladies and gentlemen), he's a bit bad ass, and he isn't afraid of what others think of him. I expected him to have a few more insecurities, and found him a bit of an exaggerated alpha-male with good-guy sprinklings. I’m not sure what Larsson was trying to achieve with him.

There was a lot of narrative around business, politics, financial scams, journalism, computers, and boring things of that ilk. I was either completely disenchanted, or quite simply confused, when all of this was thrown at me. It did nothing to help me understand what was going on, and although I do have a business degree, I didn't care, or understand, at all. This happened mostly at the beginning of the novel, but unfortunately occurred again in the last fifty pages or so, after the murder mystery had been cleared up. It was a total anti-climax.

Another incredibly dull aspect of the novel was Larsson's desire to describe everything in the smallest detail. Salander's laptop is run over at one point, and we are taken through her process of buying a new one. Make, model, specifications, configurations, and even its colour. It was enough to make my eyes bleed. Then we are given unique descriptions of everyone's clothes, particularly Salander's because Larsson didn't want us to forget she was a very different kind of girl. Every day she was wearing something black, something ripped, and something with an amazingly insolent slogan branded on to it. There were far too many unnecessary details.

All in all, it was definitely an engaging and compelling read, and I certainly was hesitant stop reading in some places. That said, I still have two of the series to get through, and I feel Larsson may expand his story and characters further, and more satisfactorily. Watch this space.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Book #1

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Coraline's often wondered what's behind the locked door in the drawing room. It reveals only a brick wall when she finally opens it, but when she tries again later, a passageway mysteriously appears. Coraline is surprised to find a flat decorated exactly like her own, but strangely different. And when she finds her "other" parents in this alternate world, they are much more interesting despite their creepy black button eyes. When they make it clear, however, that they want to make her theirs forever, Coraline begins a nightmarish game to rescue her real parents and three children imprisoned in a mirror. With only a bored-through stone and an aloof cat to help, Coraline confronts this harrowing task of escaping these monstrous creatures.

This novel's target audience is children. Probably children in their early teenage years, but children nonetheless. I am almost twenty-five and a half, and I have never been so terrified of a book in my life. The Shining doesn't even compare to this, and I wouldn't say that lightly.

I enjoyed this because it surprised me. It wasn't your average condescending children’s' novel; it was written to appeal to them, to engage with them, and to teach them subtle moral lessons, but not in a cringe worthy, obvious way. There were no lyrical descriptions of nature, no clich├ęs, just lots of scary plot. Gaiman doesn't waste words, and it really is refreshing and wonderful. I liked that it was very, very creepy; I'm a firm believer that kids can handle a bit more in novels than the usual cutesy; all lived happily ever after, nonsense.

The story isn't explained in great detail. Gaiman doesn't give us a wall of scientific reasons as to why the alternate world exists behind the locked door; it just does. He doesn't explain what type of creature the 'other mother' is; she just exists and is scary. Oh, was she scary.

Gaiman's characterisation is spot-on. Coraline is bad ass. I wanted to be her best friend, albeit her whimpering, terrified pansy of a best friend, but still. She is incredibly independent and clever, sharp-witted and curious; she refused to leave the mysterious door alone until she had solved the mystery behind it; she fights off evil all by herself (with help from a cat), and matures in a lovely way after almost drowning in the supernatural. COOL! 

The story from Coraline's perspective - a determined, but bored, pre-teen girl - was absolutely delightful. Pre-teen narratives tend to be very decisive, without nonsensical ponderings about boys, or what everyone at school thinks of them. They're standard black and white, no nonsense, it is what it is, real life reports from young minds. Coraline was no different, and I loved her for it.

The adults were also portrayed really well. They tolerated and entertained Coraline to a point, but remained wrapped up in their own little worlds, and soon were bored of the strange little girl seizing their precious time. Coraline was never shown to be exasperated by this, but seemed to grudgingly accept the fact that the grown-ups just don't understand and were entirely oblivious of her day-to-day concerns.

Best of all, however, was Gaiman's personification of the cat. Patronising, standoffish, and easily offended, but wise and loyal once his trust had been gained. Isn't that the perfect way to describe a cat?

And the setting?! Strange keys, thick mist, odd doors, ghosts in a small cupboard reminiscent of the Chokey from Matilda; I doubt I'll sleep soundly again.

Read this book. It is absolutely wonderful, dark, quirky and profound. I can actually imagine reading this as an adult is far scarier than reading it as a child. I absolutely intend to inhale everything else Gaiman has written.

I'll leave you with an impressive quote from our very own Coraline Jones:
“I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted just like that, and it didn't mean anything? What then?”