Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Book #39

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good? 

One of my favourite things to do in life is people watch. I love sneaking covert glances at complete strangers and wondering what their lives are made up of. More often than not, this happens on public transport, so this book has struck a chord.

Rachel is going through an incredibly difficult time. On her way to and from work each day, her train stops behind a row of houses. She looks in the garden of a particular one and sees a couple she believes to be the epitome of happiness. Constructing a life for them in her head, seeing them each day helps her cope with her failed marriage, her loneliness, and her turbulent alcoholism. One day she sees something that doesn't quite fit into the fantasy, and things spiral out of control as she becomes involved in a police investigation. We soon find Rachel is more closely connected to the couple than we think, however to give anything else away here would be entirely unfair to future readers.

Every character in this novel was overly loathsome in their own way. Hawkins really explores the darkness of the human character by using multiple-voice with three narrators as unreliable as each other. Although it doesn't take a Holmes intellect to solve the mystery, getting there is the real pleasure. Hawkins writing style is unsettling, we can't trust any of the characters, and we have no idea where we're going. Rachel's alcoholic blackouts make us distrust her, but her sorrow and regret strike up rhythms of sympathy

The most terrifying thing about the story is the implication that you never truly know a person. We all know people lie, people hide things, but to what degree? It's disturbing to think that those closest to you could have secrets that could question your whole perception of them.

It's a pretty standard mystery-crime-thriller-suspense novel, and although I can understand why some dislike it, I found it gripping and fascinating. Despite the twist being predictable, and the plot starting and stopping as much as the symbolic train, I enjoyed it as a study of character, of flaw, and of the illusion of trust.


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Book #38

Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy

Meet the Female Chauvinist Pig—the new brand of “empowered woman” who wears the Playboy bunny as a talisman, bares all for Girls Gone Wild, pursues casual sex as if it were a sport, and embraces “raunch culture” wherever she finds it. If male chauvinist pigs of years past thought of women as pieces of meat, Female Chauvinist Pigs of today are doing them one better, making sex objects of other women—and of themselves. They think they’re being brave, they think they’re being funny, but in Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy asks if the joke is on them. 

I thoroughly hated this book.

Levy is a journalist who has an issue with raunch; think sex industry, strippers, tits, porn. She's written this book to explain her stance on it, and the reasons why it's having a detrimental effect on women. At no point does she come across as a supporter of women, instead spending the entire essay sounding like a prudish dowager.

The only part of the book I truly engaged with was the conclusion, although it left me totally confused. Levy concludes that there's nothing wrong with a certain type of sexuality, we can strip if we want, we can watch porn if we want; the only issue is when we think of those things as normal, and stop exploring other parts of our sexuality. Slightly patronising, but a valid point. She goes on to describe sex as a status, as a commodity, and comments on the issues with it being more performance than pleasure-led. Perfect, Levy, but you left this until the end, and my problem is that the rest of your book didn't agree with the conclusion.

Comprised of interviews, it becomes quickly obvious that Levy has chosen her subjects simply to reinforce her point. Selectively cutting and pasting quotes, she effectively embarrasses and patronises her interviewees in order to wave her archaic ideals in our face. Positioning herself as some sort of prototype of perfection; never yielding to the patriarchy, and never falling foul to sexual temptation. What she fails to do is make any sort of suggestion on how we, as a female community, can overcome the idea that we should bend to all men's rules of sex. Other than slag other women off, I failed to see what it was she was really trying to do.

Levy spends an introduction and six chapters completely dragging women for their choices. Whether this is the decision to pursue stripping or pornography for a career, the decision to be sexually promiscuous, the decision to be lesbian, the decision to be transsexual, the decision to work in a male-dominated environment and conform to their cultural norms, or even just the decision to paint your nails or buy an expensive pair of shoes, Levy has something to say about it.

Women who have boob jobs and paint their nails are bimbos. Strippers are uneducated airheads who are incapable of obtaining any other job. High-flying career-driven women who produce television shows involving the naked female form are male wannabes. There is no appetite for supporting women in her words, and not once does she suggest any hint of respect or empathy for any woman.

She's particularly ignorant and abusive in the chapter where she explores the LGBT communities views on sex. Her opinion is that being lesbian or trans is simply a woman hoping to become more male. She fails to use male pronouns for those who would clearly prefer this, and she turns her nose up at the idea of women having top surgery to better match their bodies to who they are. This is blatant transphobia, and I was truly sickened.

I could go on; there were many more points here which angered and offended me, but I'd like to close off my relationship with this book by making a final point. Levy is not a feminist and has spent 200 pages slut-shaming women for conforming to society's standards simply because they don't conform to hers.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Book #37

Three Tang Dynasty Poets

Pastoral, lyrical verse evoking the rural landscapes and peoples of eight-century China, from three of its finest poets.
I've never been a lover of poetry, and its meanings often escape me. This will be a short and uneducated review.

The collection is comprised of works from three of China's finest poets of the eighth-century Tang Dynasty era. The first, Wang Wei, beautifully describes nature in his poetry, and shows us blue mountains, green streams, and the peacefulness of fishermen taking sanctuary in the living world. The second, Li Po, tells us of his sorrows in being away from his wife and children for a long period of time. The third, Tu Fu, speaks of war, violence, and coming home to see his family broken by the conflict.

I liked the poems, found them beautiful, and was intrigued by the entirely different culture of eighth-century China. Despite this, I couldn't help but feel, as an ignorant Westerner, that I was missing something. Whether this is down my own lack of knowledge, or something lost in translation, I'm unsure. 

Book #36

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Veronika has everythng she could wish for - young and pretty, with plenty of attractive boyfriends, a steady job, a loving family. Yet Veronika is not happy and one winter's morning she takes an overdose of sleeping pills, only to wake up some time later in the local hospital. There she is told that her heart is now irreparably damaged and she has only a few days to live.

Having read two Coelho novels in the past (The Witch of Portobello and The Alchemist), and having loathed both of them, I moved on to this one with trepidation and a slight contempt. Unfortunately some years ago, having heard lots of good things about Coelho, I bought five of his novels, of which this is only number three, so we have a lot of trepidation and contempt to go through yet. Don't listen to other people, kids.

Veronika Decides to Die has been my favourite so far, although favourite is perhaps a strong word to use for a novel that's only slightly more palatable than the other two I've experienced.

Our wonderful narrator decides life isn't worth living because one day she'll grow old (and lose her looks - bear this in mind, we'll come to it later) and also because there are a number of problems in the world which she can't be bothered with. She swallows a load of sleeping pills, and whilst waiting for them to work, strokes her cat, waves at men out of her window, and writes a letter to a Slovenian newspaper to make them aware her suicide is because no one knows anything about Slovenia. Truly poetic. She wakes up in hospital to be advised she's caused irreparable damage to her heart, and she'll die in the next few days. So begins her journey of enlightenment as she learns (you guessed it) to love life and regret her decision to die.

The only idea I truly connected with in the novel was that within the walls of the mental hospital, the inmates could express their true desires, and behave however they felt they should. Coelho explains that the idea of normality is a social construct, so behaving in a way which is deemed to be outwith the norm (madly) is, in fact, the norm within the realms of an institution.

I had a real issue with Coelho's use of Veronika's good looks as a reason for her not to commit suicide. He almost made it sound as though living and being any less than beautiful were mutually exclusive. Characters would comment, "Oh but you're beautiful! Why would you want to die?" as though having a gorgeous face and being able to get any gormless male into bed is truly worth living for (it isn't). Even the blurb on the back of the book begins by saying, Veronika has everything she could wish for - young and pretty, with plenty of attractive boyfriends.. I'm sorry, this is absolute shit. Gee whiz, I'm pretty, better not take those sleeping pills so I can bestow my beauty on the world? Fuck off, Coelho.

My other real irritant here was Coelho writing himself into the beginning of the novel as a cameo appearance in order to make us aware he used to work in a mental institution so he really knows what he's talking about. This was nothing more than superfluous and completely unnecessary. I don't remember Ken Kesey ever doing that.

Preachy, plotless and patronising, it's philosophy for gullible idiots.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Book #35

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

Swift's ferocious, landmark eighteenth-century political satire on how to solve a famine in Ireland.

This is a collection of Swift's political works, with the titular essay being the most prominent and satirical commentary of all. I struggled to connect with any of the others, and so will mention only A Modest Proposal below.

Swift describes the desolation and poverty of his own eighteenth-century Ireland, and clearly places the blame on to the English. He describes the unhelpful policies bestowed upon the country, and suggests one of his own in the most ridiculous and overblown manner. The satirical sting to the English is wildly direct, and boldly questions the morals of wealth.

The reader will quickly realise many of the points Swift raises in these essays are still prevalent today. I wonder if our current government have already discussed his economically-pleasing proposal.

Savage and shameless, this is an enjoyable political commentary. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Book #34

Danger at Thatcham Hall by Frances Eavesham

Ambitious lawyer Nelson Roberts, embittered by war, jilted by his fiancĂ©e, and trusting no one, aims to make his name solving the mysterious thefts and violence at Thatcham Hall, a country house in Victorian England. 

Olivia Martin, headstrong and talented, will stop at nothing to overcome the conventions of the day, avoid a miserable fate as a governess and fulfill dreams of a musical future. 
The pair stumble on a body. Is the farmhand’s death a simple accident, or something more sinister? Who attacked the livestock at the Hall and why are the villagers so reluctant to talk? Can Nelson and Olivia overcome their differences and join forces to unravel the web of evil that imperils the Hall? 

Having only just read (and loved) An Independent Woman by Frances Evesham, I found myself immediately buying Danger at Thatcham Hall. Although following the stories of entirely different characters, we're still treated with Lord Thatcham and Philomena as minor characters in the tale. This helps to welcome us into the fold of Thatcham Hall again, and reassures us that our much-loved characters from the previous novel are doing well, and still very much in love. Despite this, Danger at Thatcham Hall would work well as a standalone novel, however I'd absolutely recommend reading An Independent Woman first.

We're given again a strong heroine, a tortured hero, and a series of mysteries. This time, instead of unravelling the characters' past, we focus on events happening in the present. Nelson Roberts is shipped in from London to solve the crimes, and Olivia Martin, also from London, is visiting as a friend and cousin of the family. Both of these characters struggle against the social expectations of their situation, and this is something I'm always interested to read in Victorian fiction. Olivia in particular is facing a life as a spinster governess due to her lack of wealth; men generally wanted to marry women from a prosperous family, as both a means of income and also for social status.

Evesham flips the narrative from chapter to chapter to allow us an insight into both Nelson and Olivia's mindset. Where they both feel the other is untrustworthy, it's entertaining to see their feelings and ideals are far similar than both of them imagine. Their attraction to each other takes them by surprise, and we're taken along with them as they try to hide their desire for each other.

The cast of characters is delightful, as expected. Evesham weaves their backgrounds intricately into the story, and we feel close to them, regardless of hero or villain. The mysteries are baffling to all, and are solved at a perfect, delectable pace, with no strikingly obvious motives or perpetrators.

Once again, Evesham's research into the age and setting is flawless. I particularly enjoyed more of a peek into the lives of the villagers close to Thatcham Hall. Their customs and colloquialisms were strikingly different to the residents of the hall, and although they seemed socially closer to the servants, it was clear to see working in a respected establishment such as the Hall houses the servants a level above the villagers. Evesham's hints to the politics, etiquette, and even fashion of the day are so subtle, yet fascinating. I really cannot fault her attention to detail.

It's been a long time since I've been so wrapped up in a story, and I'd like to thank the author for inviting me into her world. Both An Independent Woman and Danger at Thatcham Hall have helped me escape from my own world, and have brought me hours of suspense, fun, and awe. These are an absolute imperative read for fans of Victorian fiction; I look forward to (hopefully) a third.