Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Book #56 The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale

The Whole Day Through

Length Of Time In Possession : around 8-12 months

This book is the third Patrick Gale I have read, following sister novels 'Notes From An Exhibition' and 'A Perfectly Good Man' both of which I greatly enjoyed.  Separated into different intervals in everyday life (such as Lunch Break, and Evensong) it covers a longer, yet not wholly specified period.

I did struggle to identify why the book should be separated out in such a way as a device to weave the plot around, having considered it I think perhaps it is there to reflect how the life of a carer is often mapped out in such a way.

Laura and Ben find themselves reacquainted after a twenty year hiatus after each comes to Winchester to look after a relative, Laura her ailing mother and Ben his vulnerable younger brother.

Restrained and elegant, The Whole Day Through is a novel about yearning and loss, how tiny coincidental acts meant that the stars kept two people who were perfect for each other apart.
The writing is as high quality as I have come to expect from him, and he may eventually come to be one of few writers whose entire output I've read.
As a reader I understood the emotions conveyed so well, and yet, I felt almost cheated, cheated on, by the ending which was highly unsatisfactory!

I understand that real life is messy, and so it many ways it is an honest story about reality: real people, real situations. Life rarely turns out the way you plan, God laughs!

And yet, Patrick Gale, REALLY? Did you HAVE TO?

Verdict : 7/10

Destination : Shelves  

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Book #55 The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Length Of Time In Possession :  1 week

I picked up The Reluctant Fundamentalist in the train station because I needed something for the journey, and at slightly over 200 pages, had half read it in a couple of hours.

Our protagonist is Changez, and in the opening sentences of the novel he offers his assistance as a local to an American tourist in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, when they sit down to dinner in a restaurant, Changez begins to fill in this American on his back story.

At 18 Changez left Pakistan to become a student at the prestigious Princeton upon graduation he gets a job at an elite firm where he is the most successful junior and from there embarks on a relationship with a white American girl. He has wholeheartedly embraced the American Dream, so why does it feel so good when he sees the Twin Towers fall?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a great idea, and by no means an unlikeable read, however, so much of its construct feels artificial. For a start, its very title practically hands you the plot, and it's not hard to figure out quite early on that his American companion is more than what he seems, and more than that, what he actually is. What feels most artificial is the dialogue itself, a one sided affair that drags on into the night, it's hard to imagine that it would actually take place. I also saw the ending a mile off.   The novel seeks to make a point, but in the end it's not a very complex or nuanced one.

The blurb on the back of the book says the woman he loves betrays him. But she doesn't. At all. Fundamentally she is mentally ill, she genuinely loves Changez, but is convinced she still loves another man who is gone and her problems thwart them.  I think she can be exonerated from any kind of deliberate "betrayal".

Despite these complaints I did actually enjoy this book so it's odd that this review is so critical, I think its because its heart and purpose are in the right place but its execution is fundamentally flawed and lacking in subtlety.

Verdict : 7/10

Destination : Charity Shop

Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs Of A Geisha

I haven't given Memoirs Of A Geisha a number because I first read it and loved it when I was either 20 or 21, so it doesn't count towards the challenge. The reason I'm reflecting on it again now is because I re-read it for book club last month.

It is the story of Chiyo, a young girl from a fishing village sold into the geisha culture by her elderly father as her mother lays dying. Her older sister Satsu fairs worse - directly sold into prostitution. Geisha are not prostitutes in traditional Western understanding terms more entertainers for wealthy men.

What I loved about it the first time round was the elegance of the prose which I found poetic and evocative - a portrait of a time, place and tradition which has all but disappeared. It has the qualities which I so like about literature in general, a sense that the existence of the novel enables the reader the time travel.

On a second read it was surprising to me that I did not empathise with Chiyo anymore after she transforms into Sayuri, I found the life of the Geisha girls shallow and repetitive and Sayuri herself an ungrateful and at times nasty character.

There are certain points I think at which the reader is meant to be cheering Sayuri on but I couldn't help but feel concern for those who had been damaged by her actions rather than rejoice in her triumphs.

I hated her ultimate vindictiveness towards a character who had always, always taken care of her and I felt her "romance" with the Chairman lacked foundation, substance or credibility.

It's a really, really odd thing to love a book on first read and feel less enamoured of it on second read and I have to say that I think it must be something to do with maturity and the way your views on life and what you see as love change as you age.

My different opinions on the events in the book have shown me how much I have changed in ten years, and that's a really odd sensation. Try it with a book you once loved and see if the book is a different book because you are a different person.

Verdict : Still a good read 8/10

Destination : Keep, maybe I'll read it again in my 40s!  

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Book #54 The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao

Length Of Time In Possession : 10 months (Part Of A Blogging Good Read

For a brief period when he was in kindergarten Oscar was a hit with the ladies, but that quickly died away, until he grew up to be a fat, lonely, socially outcast virgin with dreams of being Tolkien.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao examines Oscar's life from four angles, his own story, that of his sister, that of her ex boyfriend (his college roommate) and the background of his mother and how she came to the USA from the Dominican Republic.

I have never read any novel related to the Dominican Republic before so it was original and refreshing to me from that angle. On the whole it was well written but it seemed to me that the parts that were best written were the ones that were not about Oscar. His room-mate's sense of guilt, frustration and responsibility, his mother's life as the orphaned daughter in Santo Domingo, and his sisters retreat there during her adolescence were all far more interesting to me than that of Oscar, the geeky outcast whose story feels like a well worn one, covered in a variety of storytelling.     

Particularly in the stories of Oscar and his mother, I felt a sense of compassion fatigue, it seems to me that of late what it takes for a work of literature to be considered worthy of note is for the protagonists lives to be as unrelentingly bleak and dissatisfactory as possible. 

In addition, I didn't really particularly like any of the main characters, not even Oscar himself, perhaps actually, especially not Oscar. I found the motivations for his sisters ex boyfriends behaviour later on in the novel lacking in credibility and I also found the curse angle similarly lacking.

It is a good novel but it is not without faults, there is a tendency to use Spanish without giving the reader a translation, which frustrates and ultimately it was not all that memorable to me.

Verdict 8/10

Destination : Charity Shop

Book #53 To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing Of The Dog

Length Of Time In Possession : 2/3 weeks (Part of A Blogging Good Read)

To Say Nothing Of The Dog has all the hallmarks of a book that I should really love. A time travel element, a historical/academic element and a 19th Century novel element, everything about it seems designed to appeal to me and I approached it with enthusiasm.

Imagine my disappointment therefore that I spent weeks on this novel barely getting through a few pages at each attempt and stopped before page 200 or so.

In many ways I saw it as a waste of a great opportunity. Time travel has been invented and yet all anyone does with it is research Coventry Cathedral on the whim of some rich woman who is trying to rebuild it in the future, with particular emphasis on 'the bishop's bird stump' a missing artefact.

In some ways this is part of the point & its all supposed to have a kind of tongue in cheek wit to it, but instead of being amused by it, I found it asinine and at times twee. I cared neither for the characters or the outcome and exited the novel shortly after the introduction of the superbly punchable Tossie at which point I decided the degree to which it was not worth the effort was painful.

Time spent in manfully attempting to read this book has meant a real shortfall in the usual number of books I would read in September which has caused it to aggravate me even further!

Other people I imagine might enjoy this book & the book it reminded me most of was Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series of which I am not a fan but many are.

Verdict : Not for me

Destination : Charity Shop 

Book #52 And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were None

Length Of Time In Possession : 2 weeks or so

This month I participated in something called 'A Blogging Good Read' run by Alex in which 3 bloggers each choose a book and then each read all 3 and share their thoughts.

The choice of 'And Then There Were None' was not made by me, and via this choice I learned yet another lesson in the evils of book snobbery. My immediate reaction was : "An Agatha Christie? Really? Seriously? Why?" and I entered in to this novel with fundamentally low expectations and low desire. Inevitably I was forced to eat humble pie when at the end of this experiment, And Then There Were None proved to be the one of the three I most enjoyed.

In this novel,  in classic Agatha Christie style, ten people are invited to one of those old fashioned Downton Abbey type country getaways. Nobody seems to have been perturbed to have been invited to a soiree held by someone they've never heard of, but I guess those were the times amidst a certain social class. Also nobody seems to have twigged that the name of the host U N Owen might be a problem, but in order to legitimise the parameters of the mystery you kind of have to accept that this is a logical decision for these people to accept these invites and in some cases more than others, it is.

Once they arrive on the isolated island, they are all accused of the same thing, namely, that they once got away with murder, and then, as revenge for their crime, they all begin to die......

 I liked the style of this novel and I enjoyed trying to work out who was responsible for bringing them all to the island.The poem which we are introduced to before the story begins, was a nice structure to weave the story around, though I do hear it was a decidedly more offensive poem upon original publication! 

At times the deaths are too rapid in a way that starts to seem farcical, but this hyperbolic aspect by no means ruined it for me. I congratulated myself afterwards on identifying the culprit early on, but Christie's repeated use of bait and switch meant that you constantly questioned the conclusions you drew and changed your mind. I thought I  knew who it was, but not how it was, and kept looking for possible solutions

 It's very cleverly done, as a story it's quite a hard thing to pull off, but pull it off she does, the epilogue explaining how it was done is really necessary.

I can't say that I'll be rushing out and buying the entire chronicles of Hercule Poirot or anything, I think I'll be sticking to my usual genres, but I'm not sorry I read it and have already passed it on to a friend.

Verdict : 8/10
Destination : Passed to a friend.