Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Book #50 Empire Of The Sun by JG Ballard

Empire Of The Sun

Empire Of The Sun is the story of a little British boy named Jamie who is forced to grow up and become Jim, when he is interred in a prison camp in China by the Japanese during World War Two.
In the camp he runs wild, whilst those around him try and help him as best they can.

The prose is excellent and the imagery evocative of pre-War China and a certain social class at a certain time, and it engaged me from the beginning, but there were other ways in which I was left puzzled by it. 

I was surprised when at the back an interview with J. G Ballard revealed that he was not in fact separated from his parents but interred alongside them and that he chose to write this semi-autobiographical novel as if he was not with them because he felt completely estranged from them from their internment onwards. They could no longer take care of him, and were in a position were they held no authority, and so his entire relationship with them crumbled.

Heartbreaking as this is; this then made some sense of what is by far the silliest and most implausible section of the book, when separated from his parents, Jim meanders around Shanghai alone, riding his bike around and living in other people's houses before hooking up with two American seamen. To hear that this part was a fictional element came as no surprise.

The books strength lies in his journey to the camp, and his experiences there and at various stops along the way which, stark and bleak, feel like truth.

The other interesting element here is Jim's apparent disconnect from events, as atrocity unfolds around him Jim seems to become anaesthetised having adjusted to this war and this life that he leads now, were stealing from the starving and from the dead is not just necessary but normal.

In some ways this makes him an unsympathetic character and in others this emphasises the true price of war.

As a whole it was a thought provoking novel, I read it as it was the favourite of an old friend, but I somehow didn't become completely absorbed in it or become wowed by it, in the same way for example that I was wowed by fellow war memoir The Things They Carried.

It is however, a book destined to be, as the series it comes from suggests, a perennial classic. 


Saturday, 27 December 2014

Book #49 Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven

Station Eleven begins with the death, onstage, of the actor Arthur Leander during a performance of King Lear. He died of a heart attack, but pretty soon almost everyone who attended that performance is dead too. There has been an outbreak of "Georgia Flu" which has caused a catastrophic loss of life on a global scale.

The novel flashes forward to Year Twenty (post flu) and Kirsten, who was on stage in King Lear that night, and is now part of The Traveling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel from one settlement to another entertaining survivors.

Station Eleven has seen a lot of high praise, of the 80+ reviews on Amazon UK, 50+ have given it 5 stars, and really, you can consider me baffled about this, really you can.

Potentially my apathy towards this book has something to do with the sheer number of books of this sort out there, I've read quite a lot of this type in the last few years, which if they don't have a flu virus at the centre, have zombies instead. There wasn't really a yawning gap in this market, at all.

It is reminiscent of both The Stand with its sinister religious aspect and Warm Bodies seeing as one large settlement lives in an airport. One of the most cringeworthy moments comes when a character directly references Justin Cronin's novel The Passage, which did the apocalypse so well, I thought. So, my point is it's derivative, and unoriginal. Yet a lot of the reviews say the opposite and rave about this "bleak new world" she paints.

But most of what I disliked about this book came down to the choices she made regarding her characters, and their generally implausibility both as people and in their story journeys.

A very large section of the novel focuses in on Arthur Leander, an egotistical, obnoxious smugster and the tale of how famed changed him so much he alienated his friends as he ran through various wives and so on.

But Arthur dies at the start of the book and so has no connection to what came after. This is to show the total shift from the old world to the new, I think, but it doesn't work and is forced  and so we get these swathes of information about his affair and his dinner party and his ugly divorces.
Yes, there could be a comparison between Arthur and King Lear, but it's a different story - the two don't gel, it's a separate novel melded into another.   

An extremely forced connection between the past narrative of Arthur and Year Twenty narrative of Kirsten is forged through her possession of the comic Station Eleven which was the brainchild of his first wife. Then several other characters from all areas of the globe, with some connection to Arthur who happen to all be alive for a start,  have all ended up in North America meeting each other along the way.  This feels like a failed attempt to give the book some level of emotional depth, but there's zero subtlety, all it provoked in me was a feeling of both annoyance and disbelief. You couldn't forget it was a story.

Arthur is the main problem here, I found that I thought that had the entire narrative belonged to Kirsten with a shaky recollection of some man who once gave her the treasured comic, it would have worked,  but such an emphasis upon the dead mans narrative made no sense. It also might have worked better if Arthur had lived - for a famous actor to have been forced to survive in a world where fame has lost all meaning.

The cherry on top of the ice cream that's already melted here is a character called Jayveen, who is the first character we meet. I say "character" but his entire existence is an exposition device and nothing else.

At one point he's a paramedic, another a paparazzi, then he's graduated to an entertainment journalist all at extremely convenient times for the current stage of the plot.        

His ONLY FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD is an ER doctor who luckily promised to call him if ever one of these virus scares TURNED OUT TO BE THE REAL THING.  And then....then he vanishes into a mist, reappearing to reveal he ended up setting out alone after  wasting a whole load of his time answering the question What Will Happen To Wheelchair Users In The Event Of An Apocalypse? Answer : They'll realise that they are a burden to the rest of society and politely do everyone a favour by committing suicide. We'll eventually meet him again briefly when he's completely settled somewhere with barely any connective journey in between.  

This book simply is not very good, where has all the praise come from? What on earth am I missing here? If you've read this and disagree, feel free to argue. But seriously, read The Stand, read Warm Bodies, read World War Z, read The Passage, watch Series 1 of Survivors. Don't read this.



Book #48 Lila by Marilynne Robinson


Lila by Marilynne Robinson is a continuation of the lives of the characters introduced in previous novels Gilead and Home.

Gilead was told from the point of view of John Ames an elderly preacher with a young wife and son, who is writing a letter to his son, who won't remember him; when their peace is interrupted by the return of Ames' wayward godson, Jack.  

Home ran concurrently in the story timeline to Gilead. As Ames writes his letter, Glory Boughton, Jack's sister, moves home to take care of her ailing father, but also as a last resort, having failed to spread her wings.

Home made me cry several times but Lila is on another level altogether and is simply one of the saddest books I've ever read in my life, from the very outset.

Lila  the events of which occur several years prior to Gilead illuminates the backstory of John Ames young wife, how she came to marry him, and where she came from originally.

It is a tragic story of poverty and identity and loneliness, cleverly told, because it reads as a kind of internal cognitive dissonance brought to prose, and there's a naturalness to it. Lila is in the present, she is living in Gilead, and getting to know John, but her mind is continuously slipping into thoughts of Doll, the closest thing she had to a mother, the woman who saved her, the woman who abandoned her. The two lives could not have been more different, the homeless waif and the preachers wife leading Lila to a split sense of self.

The story becomes more heartbreaking still when post her marriage to Ames, the two repeatedly fail to connect, he is desperate to know her and understand her, and she is desperate to conceal her awful truths lest he never look at her the same way again. At the same time, it made me worry terribly for what became of Lila in the future without the steadying presence of Ames. 

Lila is not a long book but it is a beautiful if melancholic one, and that is really something I've come to expect from Marilynne Robinson.  I don't think that it is necessary to have read the two previous books as such but I think it would significantly enhance the reading experience if you did.

One to remember.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Book #47 We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I think it's fair to say that I have read far less books this year then I would have normally by this time of year. But, it's also pretty fair to say that on the whole I've read very few books I didn't enjoy which is an improvement upon previous years.

'We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves' follows this years pattern. Shortlisted for this years Booker Prize, for my part I was completely seduced by the attention grabbing title, it was always pretty much a certainty I was going to give it a try. And I thought it was great.

Told from the point of view of Rosemary Cooke who begins her story in the middle before concluding it around present day, she once had two siblings : Fern and Lowell. Fern disappeared when she was 5, to be barely spoken of again. Lowell ran away in his teens, and she hasn't seen him since either.

There is so so much I'd like to say about this book, a lot of things I'd like to debate, mostly in reference to their parents and the nearly criminal level of  psychological damage their choices inflicted on their children. Unfortunately, I'm loathe to do so. A twist comes roughly a third of the way in, which makes it near impossible to review without absolutely wrecking the beginning.

This is exactly what happened to me - An Amazon review gave this away, and so I already knew. The thing was, too, that as I read it I knew that far from guessing the twist I would have made (possibly from what life experiences I bring to the book as a reader) entirely different assumptions.

Because I can't really talk about the plot, what I will say is that I found Rosemary as a character incredibly believable, even with the uniqueness of her life and the circumstances, I felt like if I'd had her life I'd be like her too. If anything there is not enough of either Lowell, or the parents, possibly because it's being narrated from Rosemary's viewpoint. If the narrator had been omniscient or if each character had taken a turn this might have been better, but this would have really changed the feel of the book and consequentially made it a different book. It's just there's a lot more I wanted to know, and hoped the mothers' journal would reveal but it didn't.

I think I expected it to be a funny book, indeed it's described as comic, but I thought it was incredibly sad. There were parts of brilliantly observed and astute points about life and family, and being a human in general. In fact, I enjoyed the writing so much, I will certainly seek out her other novels. Though the chronology of the storytelling occasionally feels fractured it wasn't really to its detriment.

Also, in the general scheme of things, the originality in terms of plot here is inarguable and it is genuinely good as a reader to have a book that you can't even slightly accuse of being a tale you might have read something like before. 


Saturday, 13 December 2014

Book #46 Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Foxglove Summer

Reviewing this book is making me super unhappy, because I liked it and really like The Folly series and The Folly concept, but I have to sum up the book and be clear about the flaws I felt as I read.

This is the 5th book thus far of the "PC Grant adventure series" (trainee magician policeman investigates crimes that have supernatural elements) it is a good episode that I ultimately feel like enjoyed, but I enjoyed it with reservation, with qualms and criticism.

Two girls have gone missing from a small country town, Peter Grant realises it's not a human kidnap, but what has taken them and why??

Firstly Aaronovitch references Soham quite early on. Openly acknowledging the similarity in the initial disappearance here does not make it any the more tasteful. That it begins with such a strikingly similar circumstance and is a fanciful story involving fairies, unicorns, and changelings just compounds the issue.

So, that's one problem, it's in poor taste.

Moving on, the second novel in this series, Moon Over Soho introduced us to the "Ethically Challenged Magician" who has barely been seen since, Book 4, Broken Homes, introduced a second mysterious bad guy "Faceless Man" who does not feature in Book 5.

In an ongoing TV series, if it was an Episode Of The Week kind of thing, this might work because the overall arc would play itself out quite quickly. In a novel series, it doesn't really work, and feels like plot threads, and by extension readers,  are just left hanging in mid-air without resolution. Foxglove Summer is like an Episode Of The Week in novel form, which doesn't much acknowledge or have any continuity from what has gone before.

Peter receives a message to say he has about a year before "it all kicks off" which, given the way the current timeline of Folly books works means about 12 more stories before we get to grips with who these bad guys are.

Dare I say it but is Ben Aaronovitch, a screenwriter beginning to write these novels with an overt eye to adaptation because the way these last 4 books have been written would work if these stories were being televised and continued on a weekly and not an annual basis, I can't quite detail why that is without spoiling both this novel and the series previous installments. 

As things stand the lack of plot continuity from installment to installment is a massive frustration as a reader. However, I will be continuing with this series because as I've said previously, I like the concept and the characters. But it's not a fantasy novel series, it's exactly as if someone took Doctor Who and made each 40 minute episode a novel, there's a semblance of an ongoing thread like "What's Bad Wolf?" or "Who's that Missy then?" but not every episode moves the overall arc onwards.

And it's annoying. The lack of Nightingale was annoying too.