Friday, 28 September 2012

Book #25

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the 'Cemetery of Forgotten Books', a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles. To this library, a man brings his ten-year-old son, Daniel, one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book and from the dusty shelves pulls The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. But as Daniel grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julián Carax and to save those he left behind.

This book is absolutely nothing but a masterpiece. It snaked its way onto my list of favourites as soon as I read the words 'Cemetery of Forgotten Books'. The gloomy, gothic feel of the story does nothing but engage you into a whirlwind of suspense, and the plot itself is an itch which categorically cannot be scratched until you have come to the end of the novel.

The characterisation is astounding; although we are faced with a multitude of characters, each has their own story, each is seamless, each is beautiful, and most of all each of them has something crucial to add to the mystery. All of these factors made me recklessly invest in the characters, and bundled me up in their lives completely.

I absolutely loved the mystery of the novel. Tiny little bits of information unravelled the secrets at a flawless pace; the gloomy setting of post-war Barcelona added to the chill; Daniel uncovering different perspectives on events was simply delicious. It's a web of secrets, lies and deceit, and seeing Daniel tangled in this, then untangling himself is just wonderful. The plot reminded me of Russian dolls, revealing more and more the further you pry.

My favourite little nuance here was the way in which Daniel's life parallelled Julián's in quite an apparent way. I was almost expecting a very obvious "I am your father" moment, and was glad when this didn't arrive. At one point Daniel seems to become aware of this, and the similarities end. I like to think this is because Daniel learns from Julián's mistakes, whether conciously or not, and chooses his own path.

Is there anything better than a story about books and secrets? Not for me. This is timeless, enchanting, captivating, enthralling and absolutely fascinating. I devoured it, and I would encourage you to do the same.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Book #24

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The crew of the surviving vessel consists of a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi - a 16-year-old Indian boy.

This book is a phenomenon. There aren't many books I'd say you have to read before you die, but this one fits the criteria and more. It's not only moving and beautifully written; it comes with lessons both inspiring and educational. I have learned so much about religion, spirituality, family, zoology, theology, the strength of man, and the power of storytelling. It really was a joy.

Although the bare bones of the tale give us a shipwrecked boy on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and the details of his survival, after finishing the book you will realise this isn't really the point of the book. The point is difficult to place as it will mean something different to each person who reads it. I imagine if I read the book again (even immediately) it would mean something different to me again. The book can be perceived in different ways, and although it hasn't made me religious (as it has done for some), it certainly has had a profound effect on me, and left a lasting impression.

Martel is examining faith from all angles in Life of Pi. He makes the reader question their own beliefs and at the (extremely deliberate) anti-climactic ending, forces us to question which kind of person we are, and which kind of reality we prefer to perceive. If you think a certain way, the story can change for you at this point:
“The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn't that make life a story?”
The religious aspect of the novel was particularly interesting to me. Pi originally practices Hinduism, but loves God to such a degree, he feels he has to subscribe to more religions. He researches both Christianity and Islam, and decides to accommodate all three in his daily worship. This really struck a chord with me, as although I find religious culture and detail fascinating, I have never subscribed to any particular one. I tend to find aspects of one religion to be in line with my beliefs, where some are against my morals entirely. If I could club together my own religion using bits and pieces of others, I certainly would. Pi deciding to devote himself to three different religions really made some cogs spin in my mind.

Martel writes beautifully, and I was constantly feeling as though I was in Pi's shoes - I could almost smell the saltwater. Each turn of the page, however, reminded me that I am too weak, too lazy, too absolutely pathetic, to survive in the way Pi did. He is an extraordinary person, with steel-like will. This goes back to faith again, as Pi never relented, never doubted in his God, and kept his faith even when the easiest option was to give up completely. This makes you think; this shows you who you are. Is there a point of going through all that effort to survive if you have no home and no family to go to? What about no God? I don't think I could have gone through it. That's the kind of person I am.

This is gorgeous, inspiring and spiritual on so many levels, but also brutal, primitive and downright barbaric in places. It contrasts well. I would urge anyone to give this a try, it has so many messages for us to consider. Absolutely, without a doubt, one to read before you die; although, hopefully not on the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger in your lifeboat.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Book #23

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
 Although the Cleves generally revelled in every detail of their family history, the events of 'the terrible Mother's Day' were never, ever discussed. On that day, nine-year-old Robin Cleves, loved by all for his whims and peculiarities, was found hanging by the neck from a rope slung over a black-tupelo tree in his own garden. Eleven years later, the mystery - with its taunting traces of foul play - was no nearer a solution than it had been on the day it happened. This isn't good enough for Robin's youngest sister Harriet. Only a baby when the tragedy occurred, but now twelve-years-old and steeped in the adventurous daring of favourite writers such as Stevenson, Kipling and Conan Doyle, Harriet is ready and eager to find and punish her brother's killer.

This was bloody awful. I hated every single paragraph, yet blustered through trying to get somewhere with it. I really feel like I missed something, and I am absolutely baffled as to what it could be.

I spent far too much time on this. It is five hundred (ish) pages of eloquent sentences describing absolutely nothing. The plot drifts along aimlessly, your eyes glaze over as you think about what's for dinner, and you begin to absolutely loathe every single character. I kept reading as I was sure this dullness had to go somewhere; the novel started off with murder, so surely a fantastic climactic ending was coming? No. If I hadn't been on a Balearic beach at the time of reading the final sentence, I would have screamed in frustration. Nothing is resolved, confirmed, or denied. I'd have been better off spending two weeks reading The Hungry Caterpillar back to back. At least it’s a book with a message.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the prose. It was vivid and picturesque; just totally pointless plot-wise. Imagine someone who loves the sound of their own voice telling you a long story about their trip to Mississippi. If someone had come along and ripped out ten pages or so at random intervals throughout the book, it would have had no impact whatsoever. Although I understand now that the book is more of a study of Harriet's character than a murder mystery, it doesn’t dull the blow of my sheer disappointment, not only at the climax, but during the whole sorry affair. Those justifying the book as a 'reading experience' certainly have a point: the atmospherics and lyrical prose are wonderful, but 500 plus pages of rambling nonsense is just a bit over the top.

I felt so cheated by the plot: it whisked me miles from where I wanted to go, rather than bringing me to it. This book has now tainted The Secret History for me; a book I have been recommended many times. I doubt I will ever read it due to the way this abomination has made me feel about Tartt. It really is a shame.

Please don't go near this book: it will suffocate you.