Sunday, 31 January 2010

Book #07

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland

The story of one family piecing itself back together after a tragic highschool shooting, Hey Nostradamus! is Douglas Coupland's most soulful, piercing and searching novel yet. Pregnant and secretly married, Cheryl Anway scribbles her last will and testament -- and erie premonition -- on a school binder shortly before a rampaging trio of misfit classmates gun her down in a high school cafeteria. Overrun with paranoia, teenage angst and religious zeal in the ensuing massacre's wake, this sleepy Vancouver neighbourhood declares its saints, brands its demons and finally moves on. But for a handful of people still reeling from that horrific day, life remains perpetually derailed. Four dramatically different characters tell their stories in their own words: Cheryl, who calmly narrates her own death; Jason, the boy no one knew was her husband, still marooned ten years later by his loss; Heather, the woman trying to love the shattered Jason; and Jason's father Reg, a cruelly religious man no one suspects is still worth loving. Each wrestles with God, self-defeat and a crippling inability to hold on to those they love. Coupland's most surprising and soulful novel yet, rich with his trademark cultural acuity and dark humour, Hey Nostradamus! ties themes of alienation, violence and misguided faith into a fateful and unforgettable knot from which four people must untangle their lives.

I loved this. I read it in a day, I literally could not put it down.

I particularly liked the book because it was written from four different people's perspectives, over varying periods of time. Each character experienced such large quantities of growth throughout the novel that it was quite overwhelming at times. I was also impressed with how demographically different each of the narrators were, yet Coupland was able to make them come across with intense believability.

The book hinted at how one person's actions can have an effect on other people's lives and actions. The book had no real climax, nor an ending which could be described as satisfactory. In any other book, this would frustrate me, but here Coupland is trying to communicate that life's like this. We never really know how things end.

I loved the recurring themes of religion and piety that the novel held, and I also enjoyed Coupland's hints that many pious people tend to get their ideas and opinions on spirituality mixed up. This could be quite controversial, but Coupland handles it in a gentle way.

The book ends up so beautifully tied together that you can't help but feel satisfied upon completing it. It gives thought to the value of life and the mystery of death, and for this reason I found it entirely compelling. I'm really excited about reading my next Coupland book!

7 / 66 books. 11% done!

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Book #06

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

When we first meet 14-year-old Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. This was before milk carton photos and public service announcements, she tells us; back in 1973, when Susie mysteriously disappeared, people still believed these things didn't happen. In the sweet, untroubled voice of a precocious teenage girl, Susie relates the awful events of her death and her own adjustment to the strange new place she finds herself. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. With love, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie watches her family as they cope with their grief, her father embarks on a search for the killer, her sister undertakes a feat of amazing daring, her little brother builds a fort in her honor and begin the difficult process of healing. In the hands of a brilliant novelist, this story of seemingly unbearable tragedy is transformed into a suspenseful and touching story about family, memory, love, heaven, and living.

I've read this book countless times before, and I wanted to have it fresh in my mind before the film is released, so I can have a relentless moan if they change or bastardise anything in the slightest.

The Lovely Bones is widely criticised for being grammatically poor, lacking in plot and presenting the reader with overly stereotyped characters, not to mention for being a Richard & Judy housewife novel. All of these things would normally lead me to despise a book, but for some reason I fell in love with this one eight years ago, and again each time I've read it since.

Susie's viewpoint from heaven gives the book an odd kind of feel, but I found myself comfortable and believing it wholeheartedly.

One of my favourite things about the book is that it isn't the Who Killed Susie? mystery that it could've been. Susie tells us almost immediately who her murderer was, and I found that refreshing. It led to the book being more about character than plot, showing us each character's basic and raw emotions, and I liked that too.

I did dislike, however, the ending where Susie falls back to Earth. Yes, I've been carried along listening to a story told by a dead girl watching her family from heaven. I can accept that. The part where she returns to Earth, however, was a huge disappointment to me, and completely unbelievable. Sebold had doused the story in reality as much as possible, and then this? Come on.

I do like to think of myself as a bit of a book snob, the kind of person who won't be disturbed by a Richard & Judy housewife book with glaringly obvious sentimental plot devices. However, this isn't really the case, and I ended up crying like a wee lassie on various occasions.

I honestly believe this novel to be a true modern classic. The new outlook on life, death, and the inbetween is something to be considered, and possibly cherished. Sebold's ability to write so beautifully about something so horrific is definitely commendable. It's thought-provoking, original, and it's one I believe everyone should try at least once.

6 / 66 books. 9% done!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Book #05

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

Survivor, genius, perfumer, killer: this is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He is abandoned on the filthy streets of Paris as a child, but grows up to discover he has an extraordinary gift: a sense of smell more powerful than any other human's. Soon, he is creating the most sublime fragrances in all the city. Yet there is one odor he cannot capture. It is exquisite, magical: the scent of a young virgin. And to get it he must kill. And kill. And kill.

I found this book enchanting, I was entirely captivated by the whole thing. The writing was rich in general, thoroughly descriptive and full of detail. At times Süskind assigns entire pages to the description of a single task or object, with a complete lack of tedium.

I particularly loved Süskind's obvious research into the art of perfumery, and the pregnant depictions that came from it.

I found Grenouille a bit difficult to relate to at first - he was born with a sense of smell superior to other human beings, and yet having no personal odour himself. However, as I progressed further through the book I found myself sympathising with him more and more and almost perversely hoping that his insane obsessions with scent would come to fruitation. The main reason for this, I believe, was Süskind's continuous portrayals of Grenouille working intensely to achieve his goals, which I believe everyone can relate to in some way.

The book made me laugh in many places, particularly during the descriptions of Grenouille himself - an ugly, hunchbacked little creature, who shuffled through towns, sniffing at air and objects as if it were an involuntary reaction.

Although I'm finding it quite difficult to express my opinions of the novel, I would absolutely recommend this to anyone who likes a challenge, it's work ploughing through for the freakish celebration in its final moments. I thought it was wonderful.

5 / 66 books. 8% done!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Book #04

The Servants by M. M. Smith

Eleven-year-old Mark is bored. He spends his days on the Brighton sea-front, practicing on his skate-board. His mother is too ill to leave the house, and his stepfather is determined that Mark shouldn't disturb her. So when the old lady who lives in the flat downstairs introduces him to rock cakes and offers to show him a secret, he's happy to indulge her. The old lady takes a large, old-fashioned key and leads Mark down a dusty corridor to a heavy door. Beyond the door is a world completely alien to Mark's understanding. For behind the old lady's tiny apartment, the house's original servants' quarters are still entirely intact, although derelict. Mark finds himself strangely drawn to this window onto the past, and when, the next time he visits, the old lady falls asleep, he steals the key and goes to visit the servants' quarters alone. And suddenly Mark's life takes a bizarre turn, as the past seems to collide with the present, dreams invade reality and truths become apparent to this hitherto unperceiving boy.

I didn't realise when I picked this up that it was actually a young adult novel. I was expecting a ghost story with a bit more depth, and didn't really enjoy the book. I wouldn't recommend it to adults, but perhaps for the intended audience this book would be okay.

I was disappointed as I was expecting (and was in the mood for) a gripping ghost story, but instead was presented with a coming-of-age novel. I could have dealt with that had I not run into a severe lack of character development. The servants, whom the book is named after, rarely featured, and because of this I felt extremely frustrated once I had finished the novel as there were so many things that had gone unanswered.

One thing I loved about the book was the pandemonium in the servant's quarters mirroring the mother's developing cancer, but the book was less about the ghosts of servants past and more about how much the main character hated his stepfather.

I don't like saying this, but I feel like this was a waste of time for me. The plot had so much going for it in the beginning, but in the end didn't deliver. A shame.

4 / 66 books. 6% done!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Book #03

Perfect Match by Jodi Picoult

Assistant DA Nina Frost prosecutes child molesters, and in the course of her everyday work she endures the frustration of seeing too many criminals slip through the system and walk free. So when she realises that her son Nathaniel has been sexually abused and is so traumatised that he has stopped speaking she takes justice into her own hands.

Nina Frost may have killed the man who hurt her son, but has she destroyed her family in the process? And whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

I was slightly indifferent about reading this as I'm not a huge fan of Jodi Picoult. I find her books to be quite simple, straight-forward and all following the same basic pattern. Despite her best efforts to make them as complex and topsy-turvy as possible, it's usually quite easy to divine what's going to happen next. There's always some sort of moral dilemma that the main protagonist has to work their way out of. This was the case with this effort as well, but I had forgotten Picoult's ability to draw you in as a reader and render the book impossible to put down.

I couldn't sympathise for the main character, Nina, at all. I think this may be due to the fact that I'm not a mother myself, and I can't relate to her feelings during her ordeal in any way whatsoever. Having said that, I didn't actually like her as a person and I don't feel she represented human nature in a way that would make the reader her ally. I certainly wasn't cheering for her, I thought she was an evil bitch.

There were also a few other seemingly aimless characters introduced to us throughout the plot, and I had no interest whatsoever in their lives, either. And it's a good job I didn't, because most of these mini life-stories didn't come to any sort of satisfactory conclusion, namely Quentin Brown, the prosecutor.

I do like, however, Picoult's ability to show us things from all of the main character's point of view, rather than just from the main character's eyes. I particularly enjoyed Nathaniel's rudimentary commentary on events, I thought that was original and required in a story such as this.

I, unfortunately, won't be immediately seeking out another Jodi Picoult book to read anytime soon. I've read others in the past and her pattern of crime, court, jury's decision is becoming tiring. I also felt that in this particular novel, she was attempting to make her language as poignant as she possibly could, which came across as a bit cheap and cheesy to me.

It was an entertaining page-turner, I'd recommend it as a casual read, but it's no good for substance-seekers like myself, I'm afraid.

3 / 66 books. 5% done!

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Book #02

The Five Gates of Hell by Rupert Thomson

Moon Beach--place of the dead--where once a year the city observes the Day of the Dead. During one such celebration, two young men from different worlds become the fascinated servants of an entrepreneur of death, whose private passions are intimately entwined with his vocation.

I really enjoyed this in a strange sort of way. It was completely different, and almost a breath of fresh air.

Thomson's use of language was gorgeous. It was beautifully written - so descriptive, so vivid, and so full of wonderful imagery that I felt myself getting more emotionally involved than I usually do.

The story was set in what seemed like an alternative city with strange religious views on death and funerals, which in turn bred strange ceremonies and annual events. The main industry here was funerals, oddly enough.

My favourite things were mostly the the complex plot and the subtle intertwining of characters that Thomson had infused into the whole crazy idea. It began as a coming-of-age novel, then slowly evolved into something a bit more sinister, sexual and disturbing.

One thing that bothers me, though, is that it's almost impossible to place this book into a genre. It's a sort-of horror/thriller, but not really. It's kind-of crime, but maybe not. There's also nods towards religion with almost a touch of irony, but not quite.

I've noted down Rupert Thomson's other novels to have a look at. If he has written the rest of them as beautifully as this one, then I am definitely in for a treat.

It's only the second book of the year, but it's definitely my favourite so far!

2 / 66 books. 3% done!

Monday, 4 January 2010

Book #01

Natural Born Killers by Quentin Tarantino

Natural Born Killers is a disturbing and brilliant indictment of violence in the media and American celebrity culture. Mickey and Mallory Knox, outlaw lovers on the run, go on a killing spree of startling viciousness -- and find themselves transformed into cult celebrities by the tabloid media. The film, directed by Oliver Stone, departed significantly from Tarantino's original screenplay, so much so that Tarantino removed his name from the screenplay credits. Now available in America for the first time, the original screenplay offers fans and film buffs of all stripes the opportunity to compare Tarantino's original vision with Stone's version of the story of Mickey and Mallory.

I decided to read this because I didn't realise Tarantino had written the screenplay, nor did I realise that the director, Oliver Stone, had altered the plot in such a way that it prompted Tarantino to eventually remove his name from the credits of the screenplay.

I am certainly no movie buff, so I cannot comment on the comparison of the screenplay to the movie, but I did enjoy Tarantino's words. It's apparent that he's a bit of a rule-breaker, and loves to shock. I'm a sucker for a bit of disturbance, so it was definitely right up my street.

However, the screenplay was a mere 100 pages (or so) long, and I found myself slightly dissatisfied at the lack of substance. There wasn't much there aside from the bloody messes and declarations of love between Mickey and Mallory, so it is obvious why Oliver Stone had to pad the film out a bit.

Nevertheless, a good start to the book year! I enjoyed the violence, and it was a nice easy read to ease me into 2010.

1 / 66 books. 2% done!