Saturday, 25 February 2012

Book #20 Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has recently been released as a film to fairly damning reviews with respected reviewer Mark Kermode referring to it as 'Extremely Long and Incredibly Crass', I didn't really have plans to see it for this reason, but it was on offer so I picked the book up. The usual book first policy.

Oskar Schell, our nine year old protagonist has a narrative voice fairly similar to that used in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon. Oskar is incredibly intelligent but not socially skilled, with interactions that hint at Asperger's Syndrome.

Oskar is a troubled child whose father to whom he was incredibly close died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with Oskar still experiencing significant trauma in relation to that death two years later.

The second narrative concerns Thomas Schell Snr, Oskar's absent, and mute, grandfather who following the trauma of surviving being bombed in the Dresden attack of World War 2, slowly lost the ability to speak. His narrative mainly consists of letters to Oscar's father, letters he never mailed, and the short sentences he uses to communicate with others by writing them down on a pad.

Oskar discovers a key inside a vase, with a note saying Black written in red ink and from there sets out on a mission to find out what his fathers last message to him was.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is an enormously moving novel, I spent most of it feeling that feeling you get just before you cry, yet not quite crying. It is so desperately sad in so many ways, engaging, compelling, well written I think it is a beautiful, beautiful piece of literature, about trauma, grief  and loss, but about life too. 

Yet, as I read the novel, and the different ways it is laid out from pictures of locks, to buildings to backs of heads, to pages which are blank or have one sentence, it seemed to me that the novel was inherently unsuited to film and shouldn't have been touched. Because I enjoyed this book so much, I am going to avoid the film at all costs, mainly because it's critical reception has been that bad. I do not want to see a book which touched me deeply and is probably residing as my number one book of 2012 so far be butchered or destroyed.

Don't let the bad reputation around this film put you off, do read this book, a portrait of what it must be to be a 9/11 relative so accurately believable that I literally ached. 10/10

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Book #19 Catch Your Death by Louise Voss and Mark Edwards

Catch Your Death

Catch Your Death is a crime thriller by writing duo Louise Voss and Mark Edwards who met after Voss, already a published novelist empathised with his struggle as a writer following a TV documentary. Unlike other duos like PJ Tracy or Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, Voss and Edwards are neither related nor a couple, which makes them a tad unusual in collaborative fiction.

In Catch Your Death, Kate returns to the UK from a life in America after over a decade abroad . She has no plans to return and has essentially abducted her young son. You would think then that this would be the story, but it isn't, or at least it's only part of it. When Kate left all those years ago, she left behind a tragedy, and memories of an accident that make no sense. A fire at a research unit where she volunteered, a fire which killed her beloved boyfriend Stephen.

What Kate doesn't realise is that her knowledge of her days there make her a threat and subsequently a target. Whilst being hunted she pairs up with Stephen's twin Paul and the duo set out to discover what really happened to Stephen all those years ago.

Catch Your Death taps in to what I feel is this really current underlying fear within society, that the next big threat to humanity will come from bioterrorism. Across media from film to television to novels, an apocalypse created by mass but not entire human extinction really is in the zeitgeist of the moment. I'm thinking of Contagion, Survivors, and all the different variations of zombie disasters. It is a known fact that scientists across the world grow and manipulate viruses in labs, and now awareness of this is really becoming part of the collective psyche, after 30 years which have brought us AIDS, CJD, H1N1 and SARS, that a truly pandemic truly decimating illness could spread very easily throughout the global village. The subject of this novel is a viable and therefore extra scary threat.

Sampson one of the two main villains of this piece is one of the most chilling individuals I've come across in fiction. So evil that I would class him as being truly inhuman he is a man to have some serious nightmares about. His superior Gaunt is like one of these mad James Bond evil genius types, a tad over the top but fun nonetheless. 

Sometimes when you read a book the characters and events sprout your own creative imagination, and personally I would have gone down a completely different road with the character Paul. It's not a criticism more a choose your own adventure type thing. I'm not saying my storyline would have been better, just I enjoyed imagining how it would have changed it.

One of the impressive aspects of this book is the seamless authorial voice and style, without the front cover telling you so, you would not guess it was the work of two people.

I think that Catch Your Death is a great read if you are going off on holiday and want to freak yourself out on the journey, it's what this sort of thriller is perfect for. Also, it's only 99p on Kindle, and for under a pound it's really well worth it.

Book #18 Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones. Larry Ott is the town pariah, in his teens he took a girl on a date and she was never seen again. Larry Ott swore he was innocent, and nothing was ever proved, but he lives an isolated life, with no friends and is often asked to no longer frequent certain shops and even churches. He stands in the community as a murderer and he serves a life sentence of their prejudice.

Now another girl has gone missing. All fingers point to Larry Ott. Then a body is found under his porch.

Silas Jones is the local cop. It's his job to find the missing girl, his job to investigate Larry Ott. But, he was once Larry Ott's boyhood friend, at a time when white boys and black boys didn't socially mix. Like the rest of the town, Larry makes him uncomfortable and like everybody else he has backed away. Faced with a fresh investigation Silas has to confront their shared past.   

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has rave reviews on Amazon from Philip Roth to Dennis Lehane and is rated as five stars. I feel I am almost "wrong" in not having the same effusive reaction to it as such luminaries.

It isn't that the story isn't good, the novels big moments are really great, particularly the two reveals near the end, one of which is perhaps a bit guessable. It's just that I found two elements quite poor the connective tissue, the prose between event and event I often found a bit tedious. In addition this supposedly pivotal, deep bond between Larry and Silas is ultimately a very short lived and fractured friendship when set down on page, and doesn't seem to warrant the nostalgia each has for it before the secrets of the past are revealed.

I was quite disappointed in that. But, it is a good story nonetheless 7/10   

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Book #17 The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

I had previously read and really very much enjoyed Between, Georgia and Gods In Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. I particularly recommend Gods In Alabama. I loved it. Get it now. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is the third Jackson book I've read and again takes as its setting the dark underbelly of Southern USA life.

Central character Laurel Hawthorne is happily married to husband David. She makes quilts and David is a computer programmer. They have an only child named Shelby, and live in a wealthy, gated community. But Laurel can see ghosts and is often haunted by her Uncle Marty, whose death marks a troubling episode in her childhood. One night another ghost appears, it is neighbourhood child Molly, a friend of Shelby, she has just drowned in Laurel's pool.

And so, the Hawthornes are thrown into crisis and Laurel approaches unpredictable sister Thalia for help.

This book is difficult because Thalia is extremely annoying and Laurel is selfish, and both run around behaving extremely immaturely for two grown women. I feel that Jackson ought to have focused more upon Shelby and her cousin Bet whose story was the more interesting and complex one. Additionally I found the immediate events in the days following the death of Molly a bit unrealistic. Laurel doesn't seem disturbed enough, only thinking of her own; the neighbourhood reaction, including that of Molly's parents is slight.

The end reveal surprised me, but, perhaps I'm in the minority here. I did enjoy the book, though it is far from her best, and I wouldn't recommend it, buy it for someone or read it a second time. 7/10

Book #16 John Dies At The End by David Wong

John Dies At End

I bought and read John Dies At The End because I saw the recent trailer for the forthcoming film adaptation and thought it seemed like something right up my street. Written by "David Wong", David Wong is in fact the protagonist of the novel, and this is his memoir. A style somewhat like Lemony Snicket (real name : Daniel Handler) the author of John Dies At The End is in fact Jason Pargin who is heavily involved in the running of massively popular website 

David Wong (that isn't his real name either) and his friend John (also not his real name) live in an Undisclosed location in the Midwest of America. They have a gained a reputation as experts in dealing in supernatural phenomena after becoming caught up in a series of crazy situations some years before. David has agreed to meet with a journalist named Arnie who is known for his articles on unexplained phenomena and those who believe in them. David first recounts the most recent job he and John attended making them seem very much like ghostbusters, to Arnie's healthy scepticism before telling Arnie where it all began.

The thing with this book is that it brings the crazy, it really brings the crazy. David is an unreliable narrator anyway, John is also unreliable as a witness as they both freely admit to having taken psychotropic drug "Soy Sauce" but to enjoy this novel you have to suspend all your disbelief and go with the fact that everything is happening in this story just as David tells Arnie it did.

I am very much into "world isn't everything it seems" stories anyway, but if persistent occurrences like dogs driving cars and speaking like people and hot dogs turning into mobile phones, the phenomenon by which is never explained doesn't sound like your thing don't read it. I for one, just went with it. Though at times I was frustrated by the leap from one incident to the next often neither explained nor resolved, I really enjoyed this book and entering into this warped reality experienced by David and John. It was a thrilling journey. I imagine this book will have devoted fans and people who utterly hate it and very little in between though. Personally I look forward to both the movie and forthcoming sequel "This Book Is Full Of Spiders" 9/10  

Book #15 The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus

I'm going to start by saying The Night Circus is enchanting, truly and I really think you should read it. Particularly if you enjoy books that are set in the 1800's or at the turn of the century and have that "Victorian style" to them as I do. Erin Morgenstern has pulled that literary effect off really well.

From the start, the descriptions of the circus allow your creative imagination to run wild, it only opens at night, it has monochrome tents, a massive bonfire, hot sweet treats, a contortionist covered in tattoed symbols, a wishing tree, an ice garden and other such magical displays await within each tent.

At first it is difficult to see how the circus intersects with the other story we are introduced to. Two children, Celia Bowen and an unnamed boy, are sworn into combat against each other at a young age, a battle of two mentors in a case of nature versus nurture, their task is to grow up learning the craft of magic and to become practitioners, entering into a challenge when the moment arrives.

The moment arrives with the circus. The circus becomes that arena.

The Night Circus is brilliant. Enchanting really is the best way of describing it. All the characters have that certain je ne sais quoi, that piques your interest in them and keeps it there. You never really know any of them fully, but, that's part of the point, they have a mystique and that's why they are intriguing.
I loved the relationship between Celia and Marco as it unfolds but was frustrated with the fact that they both misunderstand the nature of the task at hand, seeing it as a talent contest rather than a duel.
A duel element with their competitive mentors assuming more of an influence may have given this novel a darker edge. But again, the fact that the darker edge it does develop in another way, perhaps negates this, but I still would have liked to have seen an aspect of it, at least at the start.

I loved all the characters and the fact that the contest had far reaching and sinister overtones. I would recommend this book to anyone, and will probably buy it for friends. 10/10   

Monday, 6 February 2012

Book #14 Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove

I would start by saying that Pulitzer Prize winner Lonesome Dove is a long book. It's over 900 pages. So, in reading this book that's quite a commitment for most people. But it is incredibly worth it.

A wild, wild west story of Cowboys and Indians, there is a lot to be said for the rich detail, involving storylines and strong characterisation.

Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are retired Texas Rangers, they live on a small rundown ranch, cattle rustling and horse trading on the Mexican Border. When former colleague Jake Spoon reappears in their lives, wanted by the law, he permanently changes all their destinies by encouraging McCrae and Call to consider a move to Montana. A move which leads to the men taking the journey of their lives.

The other half of the story involves sheriff July Johnson who is on the trail of criminal Jake Spoon, and the novel also follows his journey to catch Spoon, suddenly derailed by the apparent disappearance of his wife. Both stories flow nicely, and eventually intertwine. It could be said that their intertwining proves overly coincidental, and it is a little, but it all feels fitting somehow.

Though this is a book about men, working men in groups, and the undemonstrative but deep friendships of men; the book has three women, all of whom are interesting and colourful and bring a different life to the story: Lorena a prostitute who dreams of a better life, Elmira a feckless wife and Clara hard working and straight forward. Their sections light up what can be long patches of journeying.

In addition the company kept by McCrae and Call are also interesting in their own way, fugitive Spoon, young Newt a question mark over his paternity, lovesick Dish, scout Deets and two homesick Irishmen fill this novel full of a sense of energy. They are genuinely interesting characters and it was fun to take their long journey with them. Particularly I think if you liked the film True Grit, you'll like this. 10/10  

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Book #13 The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is about a boy named Charlie and his first year of high school. During this year he sends regular letters to an anonymous and by the sounds of things random recipient, because he just needs to feel like someone's listening.

His best friend had in the previous year committed suicide, and upon joining high school Charlie becomes a hanger-on in an older group, but is still very much on the outside looking in. 

The sad thing about this book is that I am now 30, and I think I have now passed the point at which adolescent angst appeals to me, either in book form or in the movies. I read this book largely because I knew there was a forthcoming film featuring Emma Watson, and I prefer to read books first.
Having read The Perks Of Being A Wallflower I doubt I will bother with the film.

I have read many books about teenage girls and boys over the years, I spent most of my adolescence reading. There is nothing unique about The Perks Of Being A Wallflower in terms of subject matter that I haven't seen or read before. It covers the usual ground, teen relationships, sexuality, drug taking, school, family dynamics and a secret straight out of Fast Times At Ridgemont High. I also disliked the authorial voice of Charlie in his missives to the unknown correspondent. It was very childish despite his advanced academic status. I actually found myself wondering more about his recipient and whether they were interested in or profoundly irritated by his letters.

I appreciate that many first time comers to books of this type will have really loved it and identified with it, and I don't want to denigrate that experience. But, trust me fellow readers there are way better books of this type out there. 5/10

Book #12 The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene

The End Of The Affair

The End Of The Affair is a post-war novel by hugely respected 20th Century writer Graham Greene.

The novel's protagonist Maurice Bendrix is a semi-successful writer looking back upon his affair with Sarah Miles, a civil servant's wife.

Bendrix recieves a hint from Henry, his ex lover's husband that he is afraid she is unfaithful, though their relationship has passed, the jealous passion that then consumes Bendrix sees him engage a private detective to monitor Sarah's movements.

The End Of The Affair is a love story I suppose but succeeds far much more as a story of jealousy. The sections where Bendrix reflects angrily on the loss of Sarah and his hatred for anyone who has ever had her before or since are by far the best written, the most achingly human, the most identifiable.

Personally , I felt that the reflections upon faith and religion, perhaps controversial in their day, somewhat missed the mark. It could be that they have merely dated and therefore should be viewed within their historical context. I'm sure that they provided a lot of debate in the papers of the day.

I have to say that the relationship between Bendrix and Henry, though at times poignant really did push the realms of plausibility and realism on occasion.

Additionally for a book which at 160 pages is not really a book I would expect to spend more than an afternoon on, I read it with several pauses in between, it wasn't terrible compelling, even though the writing itself was very sophisticated, as one would expect.

Funny, I kept imagining Ralph Fiennes as Bendrix as that's who played him in the movie which I haven't seen. He makes a perfect imaginary Bendrix though, so I think I may try and catch the movie sometime. 8.5/10