Sunday, 10 February 2013

Book #7

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley
Uncle Montague lives alone in a big house and his regular visits from his nephew give him the opportunity to retell some of the most frightening stories he knows. But as the stories unfold, another even more spine-tingling narrative emerges, one that is perhaps the most frightening of all. Uncle Montague's tales of terror, it transpires, are not so much works of imagination as dreadful, lurking memories. Memories of an earlier time in which Uncle Montague lived a very different life to his present solitary existence.

Once again, a children's horror novel has drawn me in and terrified me out of my wits. A disclaimer on the back advises: This is a seriously scary book - younger readers be warned! How young are we talking, here? Seriously? I am twenty-five years old and would never dream of allowing anyone of a nervous disposition to read this book, never mind a child! The stories are paralysing.

Priestley is an excellent writer. Uncle Montague's stories crop up each time his nephew, Edgar, notices a new object in his strange study, in his strange house. Uncle Montague will then relate the story behind the object to Edgar, and then leaves us in absolute wonder as to why the object ended up in that study. The plot flows along really well in this way, and I was filled with an odd hybrid of excitement and terror wondering which object's story would be recounted next.

The prose is relatively simple, being aimed at a younger audience, but I really felt it added to the charm. Bare descriptions led to stark similes, which ultimately led to me being one scared stiff wee girl. Priestley holds all of the stories together with the same strange feeling of unsettling dread; the atmosphere he creates is terrific. It's so beautifully gothic that you can't help but feel immediately uncomfortable. It's edge of the seat, looking over your shoulder writing, and it's wonderful.

The illustrations throughout the book, by David Roberts, didn't do much to help my nerves. They were utterly chilling, matching Priestley's prose perfectly, and adding to the atmosphere of the book considerably. Turning to an illustrated page was a gamble in case I squealed out loud in sheer fright.

I particularly liked that each of Uncle Montague's tales were cautionary. Never again will I wander about where I shouldn't be, speak to strangers, play hide and seek, and I will always remember to listen to those wiser than me. Things are out to get us.

Although I am very easily frightened, and a nervous individual when it comes to the supernatural, I genuinely would not recommend this book to anyone under the age of ten. The stories are genuinely frightening, albeit marvellous. It's Edgar Allen Poe for kids. If you are a suspicious individual who actually enjoys being shocked to the core, this one is for you. It's quite short, but will hold you in its grip until you are a quivering wreck.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Book #6

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.
I was fully expecting this book to break to my heart, and it absolutely did. Hosseini really evokes your emotions with his writing, as I'd learned from A Thousand Splendid Suns; he is a master storyteller. This book is both haunting and beautiful; one which stays with you.

What I loved most about the novel was the learning curve. I love reading books about different cultures, about things I have little to no knowledge of. Hosseini taught me the different social constructs of Kabul, the customs, manners, and rituals. The novel is initially set in pre-war Afghanistan, and later shows us the country once it's infested by the Taliban. It's very easy to take a step back from war if your country isn't involved; Hosseini showed me exactly how a country can fall to pieces in wartime under a regime. It's shameful how we can detach ourselves so cruelly from tragedies that don't affect us.

The narrator, Amir, isn't much of a likeable character. I'm still unsure as to why this is a good thing or not. The novel begins when he is a child; he's weak, cruel, and a coward, and he knows it. The journey the novel takes him on finally allows him to redeem himself, however it really is a long time coming, and in parts I thought he wasn't going to make it. He remained selfish even into his adult years, and I did worry he wouldn't prove himself to me. I sometimes wondered whether Hosseini liked Amir as a person.

I found the characterisation to be good, albeit interesting. The characters seemed one-dimensional to begin with; Hosseini didn't give us their stories straight away. As the book progressed, we are given more to work with, and things being to fall into place.

Hosseini's plot gives us a great deal of clich├ęs and coincidences that just seem entirely far-fetched. This seems to have attracted a lot of negative reviews for the novel in the past. I didn't mind them too much, and still managed to enjoy the story, although plot points did seem conveniently placed.

I may be in the minority, however I definitely preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns. There was a lack of female characters in The Kite Runner, and where they did appear, Hosseini didn't seem to write them as well as he could have. Each of them seemed wishy-washy and distant; miles away from the women in his next novel.

I'd definitely recommend both of Hosseini's novels to anyone. I think there's a real need to read about different cultures, and Hosseini taught me some good lessons here. The Kite Runner is all about the balance between justice and mercy, how we pick ourselves up out of the gutter of guilt and shame, and the importance of understanding both the love and hate we feel for those we consider family.

For you, a thousand times over.