Saturday, 30 March 2013

Book #26 Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey

Length of Time In Possession : Roughly 3 years

I want to start by saying that 'The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall' is one of my favourite books of all time, easily top 3. I wrote my dissertation on it in university. However, when it came to the Bronte sisters I had only read the 'Big Three' (Eyre, Heights, Tenant) leaving three of Charlotte's novels remaining and one of Anne's.

As Anne is my favourite Bronte and I have issues with Charlotte, I went with her first. Agnes Grey is the story of a poor vicar's daughter who decides to try her hand at being a governess. The petted youngest daughter, her family don't think she'll be able to cut it, a story none too dissimilar from Anne's own life. It is clear that Anne drew on her life experience to write this novel.

The eponymous hero teaches first Tom and Mary-Ann and then Rosalie and Matilda; all are uppity spoiled brats who scorn her with indulgent parents who foist the blame for their children's behaviour on to Agnes. It is known that Anne did not have great experiences of her own with teaching, both as a governess and when she was at school.

Agnes Grey unfortunately was quite dull, though it hurts me to say it. The prose was rather essayist than novelist, and there is little character development or growth. The romance too has little depth and she and her suitor hardly have much time to connect.

It is her other novel Tenant, which truly lifts the lid on her life as a governess, as it is said that given she had a sheltered life at Haworth much of the debauchery shown in Tenant came from her witnessing less than salubrious lifestyles during her time in service.

By contrast Agnes Grey is rather ordinary and rather staid and I was most disappointed

Verdict   : 5/10

Destination : ebook storage

Book #25 The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared

Length Of Time In Possession : 2 weeks

In this recent massive bestseller, the '100 yr old' in question is Allan Karlsson, who deciding he can't be bothered with the organised cake and reporters for his birthday, legs it out a window in his slippers and goes on an adventure. I read this book for my book club in which we cross compared it to the Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce with which it shares a lot of similarities.

To say that if you liked the Rachel Joyce you'll like this would be untrue as I preferred Harold Fry to this - a sweet touching and in no way overdone story of an ordinary British man, the Jonasson is overblown and often silly. Described in the blurb as 'picaresque' Allan Karlsson is the rogue to Harold Fry's ordinary guy next door. But he's not really a loveable rogue - he's often quite annoying.

The book is a piece of whimsy but from the very outset when he steals a suitcase it's ludicrous, as he travels on his haphazard journey, and various things befall him, he always remains just one step ahead of the police and every disaster turns out ok, and the man quite literally gets away with murder. It gets repetitive. It wears thin.

As we flashback through his life it turns out he was involved in several important historical moments meeting various figures like Franco, Mao and Truman. Somehow the books fantastical qualities start to lose their early charm as they go on and become aggressively annoying.

I was disappointed overall in this book. I found it asinine.

Verdict : 6/10

Destination : Charity shop 

Book #24 The Stand by Stephen King

The Stand

Length Of Time In Possession Before Being Read : 2 years and 2 months

Upon reading The Stand, I had already read the following Stephen King books : Different Seasons, The Green Mile, Dolores Claiborne, and the first three (and a half) novels in The Dark Tower saga which I gave up on during Wizard and Glass. Generally speaking, I have been nonplussed by Stephen King's popularity over the years, but The Stand, because of its widely held reputation as the best of King's gargantuan output, has been on my "to read" list for some time.

In The Stand, a superflu decimates the US population, leaving a small percentage of people alive. These survivors begin to dream of two people : Mother Abigail, the eldest person left alive, a woman of strong religious conviction and Randall Flagg, a man "whose name is Legion" and is coincidentally also the destructive antagonist of The Dark Tower Saga. In a classic choice between good and evil, the survivors have to decide whether they will seek the path to Mother Abigail and her group in Colorado or follow Randall Flagg, joining his new society in Las Vegas.      

Since The Stand was first published in 1978, and re-released and re-set in 1990; (I had the 1990 version) post apocalyptic stories, which involve a virus of some kind decimating the population have become very popular. I've read several over the last few years.

Through the misfortune of reading a book which came first but proves similar to recent things, many areas of the plot feel samey, like tropes of what is expected from this kind of novel. Loss, confusion, banding together with fellow previously unknown survivors who become involved with each other, set backs on the journey, rebuilding a community. Yet this is unfair because King got there first, so others have imitated this, this and Day Of The Triffids. However, some writers have bettered this type of story, a particular example is Justin Cronin's The Passage.

For me, as is my general experience with King as a writer, I found the prose flat and felt no emotional connection to any of the imperiled characters which is a difficulty when it comes to enjoying a book. The Stand is 1,320 pages long which is a challenge for any reader, and it took me two weeks. But, it wasn't until page 700 that I engaged with the novel and started to get excited by what was happening.

In those first 700 pages there's a lot of inaction in terms of any kind of "Stand" between the two sides, just lots of council meetings and re-establishing law and order and government and utilities and stuff. Practical and honest, yet inactive: hardly a fight between good and evil. Flagg and Abigail for that they represent the polar opposites of morality are largely absent for massive chunks of the narrative.

In the second half things ramp up a bit, but the actual "Stand" between the parties ultimately amounts to a single showdown at which only a handful of the Colorado group are present. For all those pages it's a bit anticlimactical.

Though I generally dislike the tone he strikes with his prose, Stephen King does occasionally have his moments as a writer. I particularly liked these quotes :
"There is really nothing so comforting to the beaten of spirit or the broken of skull, than a good strong dose of 'Thy Will Be Done"
"God was a gamesman - If He had been a mortal, He would have been at home hunkering over a checkerboard on the porch of Pop Mann's general store back in Hemingford Home. He played red to black, white to black. She thought that for Him, the game was more than worth the candle, the game was the candle. He would prevail in His own good time. But not necessarily this year or in the next thousand....and she would not overestimate the dark man's craft or cozening. If he was neon gas, then she was the tiny dark dust particle a great raincloud forms about over the parched land. Only another private soldier - long past retirement age, it was true! - in the service of the Lord."    

However, controversially I don't concur this is his best book. Though I've only read seven (and a half) The Gunslinger, the first Dark Tower novel,  is a brilliant book, a true 10/10, only disappointment is that the novels which follow in no way live up to it. I will never read the entirety of the man's output, I don't like him enough, but I also have Under The Dome on To Be Read at the moment, but of those I have read The Gunslinger is the best one.

Verdict : 7/10

Destination : ebook storage

Friday, 15 March 2013

Book #23 We Bought A Zoo by Benjamin Mee

We Bought A Zoo

Length Of Time In Possession : 1 year

I bought 'We Bought A Zoo' after seeing the 2011 film adaptation by Cameron Crowe starring Matt Damon. Inevitably whenever I see a film adaptation first my thoughts on the book end up becoming a cross comparison of the two.

When Mee's family realised that Dartmoor Zoo was for sale, their curiosity led them to enquire as a collective into purchasing it. After jumping through many hoops, they acquired the park, and 'We Bought A Zoo' chronicles the period between buying a run down zoo and preparing it for visitors.

In the midst of this, Mee's wife Katherine became terminally ill with cancer, and so the book also covers the emotional issues regarding illness and death occurring at an incredibly busy time in their lives.

The thing is, when they made the film, they transplanted it to America, which feels like a betrayal of a very British story. As well as this, the 'Benjamin Mee' in the film is already widowed when the film begins, and his mother who lived on the site with them does not feature.

To erase these pivotal figures from the narrative, as well as the process of the loss of Katherine feels again like a betrayal of the Mee's story.

Aside from the changes the film has made, the memoir is a very likeable, touching, easy read, with a unique against the odds story to tell, marking it out from other grief or project building memoirs for sale.

Verdict 8/10

Destination : Ebook storage


Book #22 Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway

Hawthorn and Child

Length of time in possession : 5 months

In Hawthorn and Child - a story of two policemen, an investigation into a criminal named Mishazzo, and the shooting of a young man, I feel that I've encountered my old friend "Emperor's New Clothes" in which a book that other people have raved about is a book which is completely lost on me, and a book which I feel is empty and hollow, masking itself as something superior.  Not just superior to other books, but superior to anyone who doesn't get it, because they mustn't be "clever enough"

What is in actual fact a linked short story collection, it is also masquerading as a novel, an incredibly short one at that. Each short story is vaguely linked to either the case or the duo, the first, 1934, starts well, introducing the duo. Other stories struggle to seem in any way relevant.

Not only is there no cohesive plot to speak of, characterization is so sparse as to barely exist.

It reminded me of Paul Auster and that's really not a compliment.

It's not remotely worth the cover price. Avoid.    

Verdict : 4/10

Destination : Ebook storage

Book #21 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl

Length of time in possession : 1 week

I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for my book club. I had noticed it on promotion before and been attracted to it, but had no room to expand my List until I had it for book club.

Gone Girl is very hard to discuss in detail if you haven't read it, because the twists and turns of the plot mean it's hard to describe either the events within or the characters without revealing spoilers, which I am not going to do.

Gone Girl is a novel about a couple, Nick and Amy whose financial circumstances have meant they have had to leave their sophisticated New York life for the small town in Missouri where Nick grew up spurred on by the illness of both Nick's parents. Nick has opened a bar with his twin, but his wife, a minor faded celebrity, is finding it hard to adjust. 

Nick gets a call from a neighbour and drives home to check his house, when he arrives the house has been ransacked, and his wife is missing.

The narrative then alternates between Nick's experience of the fallout and the diary kept by his missing wife. Can't really say more than that.

Gone Girl is intriguing and thrilling, it's well paced, and a page turner, and I always like 'two side' novels. When you're reading it you really enjoy it.

But when we sat down to discuss it at bookclub the more we discussed the book, the more the flaws we had to accuse it of, which left the novel transformed into a Swiss Cheese.

There are a lot of baffling elements and plotholes I can't delve into without posting spoilers. The one I can point and laugh at though is this idea of the group of men who lost their jobs roaming around aimlessly in a large pack, like dogs.... very odd.

The novel is consistently entertaining however , and would make an excellent beach or holiday purchase.

Verdict :  7/10

Destination : Will pass on to other readers 

Book #20 Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Beautiful Creatures

Length Of Time In Possession : 3 weeks

At the age of 31, I should be perhaps too old for books aimed at the teenage market, but there have been several franchises I have really enjoyed : Harry Potter, Twilight (for my sins), The Hunger Games Trilogy, The Chaos Walking Trilogy, and Julianna Baggott's 'Pure' series, thus far.

I rather hoped that in the Beautiful Creatures novels I would find either books which transcend age ranges like Chaos Walking or an addictive guilty pleasure like Twilight.

I found myself disappointed :

In Beautiful Creatures, small town teen Ethan, reeling from the death of his mother falls in love with an enigmatic and unusual outsider who moves to the town. So..Twilight in reverse. The object of his affection Lena Duchenne, like Edward Cullen, is hiding supernatural abilities.

Lena belongs to a family of "Casters" - witches and wizards basically, who have the power to cast spells. A heavy curse was laid upon Lena's family generations earlier, after which, unlike other Caster families when their family members come of age they don't get to choose whether they will be Dark or Light and are instead claimed by whichever side wins.

I really like the premise of this book, yet I found it slightly tedious, the prose didn't pop off the page, the dialogue was flat, and I didn't become emotionally involved in the fates of the characters. The Civil War aspects dragged the book down and could have been explained in a much quicker way.

When I start a series I usually aim to read all the books, but I was so unenamoured of the novel, that what I did was look up synopses on Wikipedia. What I found was that even with the fantasy parameters which the book lies within; the plotlines of the following books descend into utterly ludicrous tripe.

Verdict : Not for me, I'm afraid 5/10

Destination : Passed to friend's child