Thursday, 22 November 2012

Book #96 The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars

In The Fault In Our Stars, terminally ill teenager Hazel is forced to go to a support group for young people with cancer by her mother in the hope she'll make friends. Step forward Isaac and Augustus, a boy losing his sight and a boy who has lost his leg respectively.

Hazel and Augustus begin a romantic relationship, which is heartwarming and thoroughly believable. Though suffering from cancer the two become consumed with the need to decipher the secrets of (fictional) novel "An Imperial Affliction" by reclusive author Peter Van Houten, and having the answers to their question becomes a mission and distraction for them.

Earlier this year I read Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" and questioned whether or not I had passed a certain age threshold when it came to identifying with teenage issues. The Fault In Our Stars was very different however; heartwarming without being sentimental or cloying, at times darkly humorous and refreshingly lacking in cliches or self help jargon, The Fault In Our Stars though about teenagers is not necessarily exclusively a teenage novel.   

The best thing about this book was its honesty and believability in the face of terminal illness and death, which leads me to wonder about the author's personal experience in this area. That which I liked least was its "Americanised prose" a tonal quality/style which seems to pervade contemporary American novels, making their inner voice sound the same. British novels don't do this, or at least I don't feel they do, perhaps Americans feel they do, and this is a problem both sides of the Atlantic!

Though this is a very accessible novel for all ages, I particularly recommend it to 14-20 year old reader for whom I think this novel will earn a special place in their hearts. Certainly a cut above most novels in this age bracket. Put Twilight down and read this! 8/10

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Book #95 The Testament Of Mary by Colm Toibin

The Testament Of Mary

It is an unintentional coincidence that I read The Testament Of Mary so soon after having read the also Biblical era set The Red Tent, about Jacob's daughter Dinah. For me there was plenty of contrast between the two and not much of it good.

I had mixed feelings about The Testament Of Mary, above all it's a good concept, how often has Mary's reaction to the events which befell her son Jesus been placed under the microscope in literature? Personally, I can't think of any examples, so points for originality.

It is well crafted, the excellent turn of phrase and the quality of prose, beginning as Mary, post crucifixion lives in semi exile and captivity watched over by followers of her son, who seem more like oppressors than guardians. Jesus is gone and Mary looks back on various points along the road which led her there.

The central difficulty with the Testament Of Mary is how slight it is, surely there's more, a lot more to her testament than this extremely short summary, which ultimately covers Lazarus, the Wedding at Cana and The Passion, as events and very little else.

In comparison to the Red Tent in which the life of Dinah's mother and aunts before Dinah herself was born is covered in great detail, it just seemed to me that masses of amounts of material and scope about the young Mary, her family, her meeting Joseph, Jesus childhood and birth  which is not present would have been a great addition to this piece, and would have improved by way of there being a greater longevity of readership the ability for it to have a profound resonance with the reader.

Like so many other works of this sort, I'm thinking particularly of the Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, emphasis is placed on the fact that the version of events presented to us via The Bible may not be what actually happened.   I am tired of this non-revelation as though it must be startling for readers to consider. Although it is interesting that Mary seems to see all Jesus followers as misfits and lunatics, and is scared that Jesus himself is out of control and manic.

My personal issue with the novel was the sourness of Mary as a character her internal dialogue is very vitriolic and the former followers of Jesus are anathema to her and she to them. You may say this is only to be expected the woman has lost her son to a cause she apparently does not care for, but the "Our Lady" I grew up with, the Mary of the "Hail Mary" does not feel like this woman (again I know this is part of the point) she does not seem to possess the air of peacefulness, or compassion or meditative air one would hope for.

Ultimately, a bitterness which proves depressing pervades the testimony despite its advanced literary qualities, which in the end did not endear me to the book 6.5/10

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Book #94 The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Red Tent

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a novel which caught my eye in a bookshop many moons ago, listed in the back of my mind as a 'To Read' and never actually came to read it until roughly 12 years later, as a result of it slipping in and out of recall.

The novel is the story of Dinah, the only daughter born to the famous Jacob of many sons of the Bible (and the musical), his four wives, all apparently siblings and Dinah's entire life story from when her father met her mothers to her eventual death.

Though Dinah is a Biblical character, not much was known about her, apart from one main biblical story around which Diamant weaves the most dramatic section of narrative, so in general Diamant was free to build the picture of Dinah she chose.

It is beautifully done. In many ways The Red Tent is a very female very feminist novel, The Red Tent itself being the place the women retreated to from the general family camp whilst they bled at the new moon. There is a huge focus on sexual awakening, menstruation, womanhood and the entry into womanhood, and fertility in general. The story follows the Biblical emphasis on the woman providing her husbands legacy, providing him with sons, the joy of being able to do this and the heartbreak of being unable.

The book also looks at the secrets of women, their private conversations, feelings, superstitions and rituals, kept sacred from the men in the privacy of the Red Tent, and childbirth itself too, a private process of pain, fear and delight dealt with only by women.      

In many ways the barriers between men and women's lives are now broken down, and so it is interesting to see this separation of the two, the clear lines between the female world and the male, down to the stories the two genders pass on, the heritage they feel is worth telling. It is another time and in many ways another world.

The prose is very beautiful and I connected with it straight away and had read the book in hours, it was poetic and had a hypnotic quality, you really felt like you could picture the characters and their surroundings, the atmosphere was great.

Dinah's story is in many ways sad, reflecting the difficult lot of women at the time, the loss of which many, though of course not all, modern women can be thankful for,  but it is also somehow sad to see that this private culture and camaraderie between women, also broken with the passage of time.

I really enjoyed this book, and read it in one day within a seven hour period. When a book grabs you like this, and doesn't let go, you know it's quite special and this book is surely, particularly for women worth the read 9/10  

Monday, 12 November 2012

Book #93 Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You

In the last two years I have become more and more interested in theoretical physics, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You is the fifth such book I've read in the last 2 years. Marcus Chown is really good at making difficult topics accessible.

This book has such topic headings as "The Schizophrenic Atom", "The Death Of Space And Time" and "The Force Of Gravity Does Not Exist"

It's mind boggling, challenging and entertaining, yes, it's also frustrating because the information is so complicated, but it's not impossible to retain, and there are some really mind broadening details contained within. I do think that it is a book that will bear re-reading again.

It is comforting to know that these issues baffle Scientists as much as they baffle the lay reader, though I did have several light bulb moments, that answered questions which I had puzzled over before. 8/10  

Book #92 Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter is the first of a sequence of books about Miami serial killer Dexter Morgan, upon which the US series "Dexter" is based. I have seen the first season of Dexter and read the book on that basis. This isn't something I generally like doing (in this order) because if you see someone else's interpretation of a novel before you read it, it is liable to stick with you and effect your feelings about the book during the reading. This happened with Darkly Dreaming Dexter which is why I always try to read the book first. 

I really enjoyed the first season of Dexter and so I thought I'd enjoy it equally in written form, I've often wished that The Wire or Breaking Bad textually rich series original to the small screen had novelisations so suited are they to a literary form that they are visual novels.

Dexter Morgan isn't any old serial killer hiding in the shadows, Dexter is the adopted son of a cop, who works in the forensic department of the local police, he has a girlfriend, named Rita, a sister named Debra, also a cop in the same force, and a Code, the Code given to him by his father Harry, who recognised that Dexter had a dark desire in him, a Dark Passenger, which couldn't be tamed, but might be controlled.

Harry, a jaded cop who has seen too many people get away with murder, or be too lightly sentenced, instills in Dexter that he can kill, but he must only ever kill bad people.
So that's the premise, and it's a good, original, one. The writing quality is solidly good, I particularly liked the opening paragraphs beginning with :

Moon. Glorious Moon. Full fat, reddish, moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land, and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.  
Dexter may be a killer, but his voice is often a poetic one. What is amusing and perhaps disturbing is that there is a feature on the Kindle which shows which sections of the novel have been most highlighted. All Darkly, Dreaming Dexter's most highlighted are insights into the disconnect from normality experienced by the sociopath, so clearly there is a readership out there identifying with the character!  I liked some of these asides, also used as voice over "If I had feelings I'd have them for Deb". Somehow Dexter does have feelings, he just doesn't realise it himself

To begin with the novel more or less follows the series, but a huge deviation occurs at the midway point when, though the outcome is roughly the same, the road it takes to that outcome massively differs from on screen. Having had both versions, dare I say it that the series brought us to the conclusion in a much more believable way.

I dare say I will read the rest of the Dexter novels in time as I did enjoy it and it was well written 8/10

Friday, 9 November 2012

Books #86-91 The Anne Shirley Sequels by LM Montgomery

Anne Of Avonlea
Anne Of The Island
Anne's House Of Dreams
Anne Of Ingleside
Rainbow Valley
Rilla Of Ingleside

Seeing as I so much enjoyed Anne Of Green Gables, I thought I would read all the sequels, I haven't posted on the blog in a long time because I decided to write one big blogpost about all the books rather than 6 small ones as there isn't much to delve into about each book. Beware, for there be spoilers ahead!

Anne Of Avonlea

In Anne Of Avonlea, Anne sacrifices her chance to go to Redmond College from Queens in order to be a companion for surrogate mother Marilla, and somewhat implausibly at the age of 17 becomes the local schoolteacher. I say implausibly but all her fellow Queens students like Gilbert Blythe and Jane Andrews also become teachers, which implies historical accuracy. The book covers Anne's life between the ages of 17-19, her setting up of local conservation society A.V.I.S. and the arrival of the Keith twins who Marilla takes in the same way she once took in Anne. I was frustrated by the Keith twins, Davy as a character is a total mischief who leaps off the page,  but sister Dora barely exists as a character, and when if ever she is described is basically described as having no personality, and this continues throughout subsequent novels. Bizarrely, though she is entirely a character of fiction, I found this a bit cruel! And also from a writing point of view rather lazy, I would have appreciated some storyline for her. I also found the A.V.I.S. storylines and Anne's new adult friendships with her neighbours rather dull. 6/10

Anne Of The Island

In Anne Of The Island, Anne gets her chance to go to Redmond as Mrs Rachel Lynde becomes Marilla's companion. There she makes a new little set of female friends, moves into a house left vacant by sisters who go travelling, studies and for the first time courts a boy despite the readers annoyance that she isn't with true love Gilbert Blythe whilst Gilbert apparently courts someone else. I found I didn't take to Anne Of The Island much, I didn't like her companions, or the romance that was doomed to fail. I'm not sure why I pressed ahead with Anne's House Of Dreams but I did anyway and in the end I was glad I did. Anne is between 19-22 in this novel 6/10

Anne's House Of Dreams

Anne's House Of Dreams leaps ahead 3 years, she and Gilbert have been engaged but unable to marry until Gilbert finished medical school, so Anne spent 3 years teaching high school. This is where it gets complicated, Anne's House Of Dreams is the 4th published book, published in 1917, yet in 1936 Montgomery returned to her characters and wrote Anne Of Windy Poplars a novel covering this 3 year gap. It is the only one of the novels I have not read because I found, having read the stories to what felt like a fitting end, I didn't want to go backwards and couldn't get into it at all. I find, as I also especially found when this happened a second time that had I been a contemporary reader of the Anne novels I would have been massively irritated by this. The only reason I didn't include it in a chronological reading is because the first collection I bought didn't have it.
With regard to Anne's House Of Dreams, I really enjoyed this novel which covers Anne's first 2 years as a bride, and Gilbert's start as a popular young doctor in Glen St Mary, their having moved away from Avonlea. I loved their friendships with Captain Jim, Cornelia Bryant and Leslie Moore and especially how the Leslie Moore storyline turned out. I particularly loved this quote :
I've nothing to look forward to. Morning will come after morning - and he will not come back-he will never come back. Oh when I think I will never see him again I feel as if a great brutal hand had twisted itself among my heartstrings, and was wrenching them. Once long ago, I dreamed of love and I thought it would be beautiful and NOW it's like THIS
I do think Cornelia's story only turned out a certain way to avoid reader speculation she was a lesbian, considering how down on men she is with her humorous catchphrase "that is just like a man"

I liked how that for once Anne, for whom things have always turned out perfectly in the novels previously is finally touched by real tragedy, but, I grew annoyed by the fact that in this and subsequent novels, Marilla and Diana to whom Anne was so attached seem irrelevant and forgotten, which really doesn't seem likely for Anne. Anne only has one scene of note with Diana in the later novels, and Marilla's inevitable death through old age barely warrants a sentence. Her friendship with Leslie also seems to vanish later down the line, though Leslie's children feature. Often Anne or her children are mentioned in passing as having gone to Avonlea and that is all the reader gets. This is just frustrating for the reader who is attached to the established characters and doesn't ring true. 8/10

Anne Of Ingleside     

Anne Of Ingleside is a similar situation to that of Anne Of Windy Poplars, chronologically the sixth Anne Shirley novel it wasn't published til the 1930's a long while after Rainbow Valley which was the next published book after Anne's House Of Dreams in 1919. I read the 2 books in chronological order. In Anne Of Ingleside, Anne and Gilbert have moved to a bigger house and Anne is pregnant with her last child.
The couple already have Jem, Walter, twins Anne and Diana, and Shirley (a boy) her final child is named Bertha but known by her middle name Rilla after Marilla. Each section of the novel focuses on a different child, and their various pitfalls and scrapes. Diana is gullible and seems to pick the wrong friends, Anne (Nan) lets her imagination run away with her like her mother once did. Walter is teased for liking poetry, and is frightened by other children when Anne goes into labour and so forth. There are also some stories about Anne, the long standing difficulty of Gilbert's aunt outstaying her welcome, her quilting circle and the natural ups and downs of marriage.
What is also highlighted is that though Anne was first in her class at college, she has no career of her own following marriage and children and it seemed to me that it was important for Montgomery to highlight that, that a high intellect like Anne's has gone to waste through society rules. It also by nature of its style points out the loss of individual identity for women who are uniformly referred to by their husbands name : Mrs Marshall Elliott, Mrs Alec Davies, Mrs Dr. Blythe etc. Overall I enjoyed Anne Of Ingleside as much as House Of Dreams, and think it was a completely necessary reverse insertion into the Anne Shirley saga, which the series suffered without.  8/10

Rainbow Valley

I can only imagine that in its day, in 1919 when published, Rainbow Valley was massively unpopular with fans of Anne Shirley and the Blythe family. Having left off Anne's House Of Dreams in 1917 with Jem a toddler, Jem is now 13, so it's a massive leap forward in time, leaving the readers with this huge drought of knowledge of the last 13 years of the Blythe's. Fortunately, not being a contemporary reader I had read the later published Anne Of Ingleside covering this period.  
Additionally though the novel initially makes the appearance of being about the Blythe's 80% of the focus of the novel is on the Merediths, the motherless children of the new minister, their scrapes and the general scandal and gossip they cause by being inappropriately dressed or behaved for ministers children. The novel for lack of the Blythe's doesn't come unstuck though as Jerry, Faith and Una Meredith are lovable, engaging, characters.
However, it is to be noted that things which which would have been acceptable and unremarkable language in Montgomery's day are now offensive or have taken on new and inappropriate meanings which render the book eyebrow raising or dated in this day and age, something which most of the previous novels with the exception of "Ingleside" completely side-stepped. These include :

"If you aren't good a big black man will come and put you in a big black bag and take you away" (Ingleside)

"I do like spunk"

"Faith and Una had never had a muff"

"I've been working like a nigger all day"

To Montgomery's great credit, those remarks which are racist are mildly frowned upon by other characters, but it just goes to show how much the world and the English language has changed.
Despite not really conforming to expectation Rainbow Valley is enjoyable in its own right and more so for the knowledge that I had another novel in the sequence to go anyway. 7/10

Rilla Of Ingleside   

At the beginning of Rilla Of Ingleside, we have come full circle with most of Anne and Gilbert's children now attending Redmond or Queens like their parents before them with Gilbert and Anne in their early 50's by the end. Not academically minded, Rilla, 15, intends not to follow in their footsteps and to enjoy the rest of her teens as much as possible before settling to marriage.
But these ideas of frivolousness are swept away with the outbreak of World War One which sees many of the sons of Glen St Mary join the Army and sees Rilla burdened with Home Front responsibilities, and the worry of the survival of her brothers, friends and boyfriend.
Montgomery uses Rilla of Ingleside published in the 20's to reflect on the effect of the war on Canada and its young people making it a far more serious novel. Rilla is a likeable central character and surrounding characters remain intact, though twins Nan and Di hardly feature. At the end of the novel it feels like a fitting close to the stories of the Blythe's and I don't see how Montgomery could have continued it much further, though it is good that she went back and wrote Anne Of Ingleside as neither Rainbow Valley or this novel would have worked well without it.

There are further Avonlea stories in the Chronicles Of Avonlea short stories and later The Blythes Are Quoted, but I feel like that's enough now for me, and that in many senses the source has been bled dry.

Overall 8/10