Friday, 21 March 2014

The Fault in Our Stars- John Green

I'm so glad a friend recommended this book to me. It is, quite simply, great.
The story follows Hazel, a sixteen year old girl living with terminal cancer. She refuses to let cancer be 'who she is,' whilst also knowing it will consume her sometime way too soon. From the worries Hazel feels about how her parents will cope after her death, to her annoyances at the way they smother her, the narrative is realistic, down to earth and heartwarming. When Augustus arrives, the reader is plunged into an unlikely and ill-fated romance, a story of two teenagers trying to live as normally as possible in the face of such hideous realities. I loved the way the kids are moody, sarcastic, into weird things, that they sometimes hate their parents, that they do sweet and deep things for each other. I loved that Hazel feels irritated at the way people see dead children as angels, rather than as being the normal people they were.

The book was funny, witty and wonderful, as well as being guttingly heart breaking. I managed to hold it together until around page 250 where I was finally found in bed huddled under a blanket, frantically wiping away the tears streaming down my face.

The Fault in Our Stars is a must read for anyone who loves teenage literature, raw honesty in the face of tragedy, and a good unadulterated cry. 

***** 5/5

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

A Song of Ice and Fire, Book One: A Game of Thrones, George R.R Martin.

After handing in my uni work I was desperate to read something good. 

Cue happy reader sighing noise- this was the first and only thing I truly enjoyed reading in the entire semester. At 800 pages, I thought it might be a bit of a slog but as it turns out the length was a joy, allowing me to be engulfed in the world for longer. I could remember enough of the TV show to know that it stayed very true to the book, but not too much that I could remember every detail of what was going to happen whilst reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that I knew all the characters already, and got to know them better through the descriptions in the book. Martin is an excellent storyteller, an expert at battle scenes, dialogue, place descriptions and feeding information little by little. 
As with the TV show, each chapter follows a different main character, allowing the reader to keep up with what's happening on all fronts, and sometimes even seeing a situation from two different perspectives. 
I was glad I'd seen the show first, as it meant I didn't get confused between the many, many characters. But that might be simply due to my pea brain.
Game of Thrones was the best book I've read in a long time, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the next one.

5/5 *****

Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Blast of MA Book Reviews

It's been a while.

Although I'm annoyed with my absence on this blog, I have to say it's not through lack of reading that I haven't posted anything. In fact, I've read so much since I last posted on here that you could argue my lack of writing about reading is due to too much reading.
Since rejoining my MA course it's been a whirlwind of reading and writing, with barely enough time to keep up with my ramblings, let alone my rambling reviews. What's more, there were a number of novels I am yet to finish, which bugs me almost to the point of not being able to admit it. As a rule I never, ever leave a book unfinished, but some of the stuff I had to read was... to put it plainly... long and boring.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my mini reviews of books/parts of books read since September.  

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut 

The reason we read this book on the module was because of its distinct crossing of genres. Slaughterhouse Five is an account of one man's experience during the second world war, with a side serving of sci-fi. The story jumps from one place in time to another, with the assumption that we are following the protagonist Billy Pilgrim's thought process in his unstable later years. 
The narrative goes out of its way to be wordy and weird at times, which is not a favourite thing of mine in literature. There were times when I wasn't sure what was going on. Having said that I still found the novel refreshing and different, especially the parts about the years that Billy spent on the planet Tralfamadore after being abducted for experimentation by aliens.  This off-the-wall fantastical plot was a refreshing change from the usual war fiction. 
The book has some beautiful ideas and passages in it, my particular favourite being when a part of a war film is watched backwards, thus creating a story of planes putting out fires, people going from miserable to happy, and bombs being locked away for good. Lovely.

The Ruins of Us, Keija Parssinen

The main character Rosalie is a persona I recognised as having met during my time living in Saudi Arabia. The story follows the American after her life has been turned upside down by the revelation that her Saudi husband of many years has secretly taken another wife. 
The story rang true with me in terms of the comfort, security and riches associated with marrying a Saudi and living in the Kingdom, as well as the price that a westerner pays to have these things.
I was particularly impressed by the realistic portrayal of how the husband Abdullah justifies himself, as well as his belief that over the years Rosalie has become too 'Saudi' for him. 
Rosalie  struggles with what exactly is the right course of action to take. By marrying a Saudi man did she give up her right to disagree with the possibility of him taking a second wife? And of course she is concerned about the endless issues relating to divorce and leaving the country, such as whether she can take her children with her, and whether she could live with herself if they could never then see their Dad again.
The two children, Mariam and Faisal, displayed two different sides of how it might be for children in Saudi who have a western parent. Mariam, aged fourteen, hates the restrictions placed on her and conducts small acts of rebellion such as getting into trouble at school for refusing to wear her headscarf. She also writes a blog detailing her life- using the Internet as an outlet in a way that previous Saudi generations have not been able to. Sixteen year old Faisal on the other hand resents his western Mum and longs to be more 'Saudi.' In my opinion this worked up to a point, but as Faisal went down a slippery slope towards extremism, so too, for me, did the credibility of the plot. The pinnacle of the story was nothing short of a farce: unbelievable, unrealistic and reinforcing the ridiculous idea that people should be wary of bringing up children in Saudi Arabia for fear that they will become terrorists. 
Despite the disappointing ending, The Ruins of Us was still a good read and the best insight into Saudi life that I have come across so far.   

American Chick in Saudi Arabia, Jean Sasson
An autobiographical work about a woman in Saudi. This novel was short, obvious, at times badly written, and boring. Don't bother. 

Short Stories:

The American Embassy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A woman waits in line at the American embassy in Nigeria, thinking back to the horrific events that have led up to her being there. 
The Arrangers of Marriage, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
A Nigerian woman attempts to settle into life in America with her newly wed stranger-doctor-husband.

Adichie writes compelling, hard-hitting and honest stories about life for Nigerians both in and out of the country.

The Necklace, Guy de Maupassant
A classic short story about a couple's life-long quest to pay back a friend for an expensive necklace borrowed and lost. The story has a good moral and makes you think about the danger surrounding money, society and greed.

The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde
I always love Wilde, and this sweet and moral tale didn't disappoint.  

Desiree's Baby and A Respectable Woman, Kate Chopin
Interesting stories of marriage, misunderstanding and communication or lack thereof.  

Kindling and The Bath, Raymond Carver
I have to say I'm still not a fan of Carver, but read these in order to try to understand better how to use subtext in a short story. I find he really 'under says' things, leaving the reader to guess too much. Also, the stories were fairly uneventful.

Indian Camp, Ernest Hemingway
An easy read about a doctor taking his young son up the river to watch him help a native American woman give birth. Interesting and surprising.

Unfinished Reads (aka the list that bugs):

Visions of Cody, Jack Kerouac 
I would sum up this book with the words 'self-indulgent drivel.' In its day the novel was highly praised for being 'out there,' and 'groundbreaking' mainly because of the real taped transcript of the two main characters talking. Sure, it was ahead of its time (well done for that) but I don't see why it should be deemed so today. Anyone could tape themselves chatting shit. The story lacked, well, story and was, quite frankly, annoying. I read as much as I could before the tutorial and afterwards saw no point in torturing myself further.  

Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph, Frances Sheridan
A fairly interesting diary entry type classical read about a rich young society woman looking for love, but the word-count-to-how- -interesting-the-story-is ratio was not in the books favour. 

The Women's Room, Marilyn French
The story follows a group of women in 70's America, with their individual suburban and marital struggles. It's an OK story but 527 pages is far too many for something that doesn't compel you forwards.

Escape! from an Arab Marriage, Cassandra  
Coming in as the worst thing I tried to read, this racist account of a stupid woman who married a Saudi man in America and then regretted it, was absolutely diabolical. Missing the first clue in the fact that the author didn't even give themselves a surname, I bought this book to help with research for my piece. Yuk.  

Added to these titles I also read countless essays, chapters of text books and extracts of novels, including some truly monumental crap. But I wouldn't dream of boring you with all that. 

PS my module submission is over on my Story Stuff blog if you happen to be interested. You can read it here.


Sunday, 29 September 2013

Is It Just Me? Miranda Hart

Being a big fan of all things Miranda, I was very excited about this book. The reader is taken on a light-hearted journey through some of life's more difficult everyday situations such as Christmas, the Office and Taking up Hobbies. If you know Miranda at all then you'll find her mannerisms and 'Mirandaism's' just jump out at you from the page, as if she were telling you the story in person. She takes on a very personal writer-reader approach, breaking that 'fourth wall' continually by talking directly to you. The tone is very familiar and  makes you feel as though the two of you might be new best friends (I really think this could happen if I only had the chance to meet her...)
I must say I like the style very much. 

The title 'Is it just me?' is the main focus of the book- how normal and every day events can become troublesome and embarrassing. Miranda never fails to make me laugh with her stories and her brilliant 'let's not dress it up' outlook on life. One of my favourite quotes of the book is when she's bashing all the stupid diets there are out there and subsequently writes one of her own:

Chapter One: Eat a bit less
Chapter Two: Move about a bit more
The End

There are constant thoughts on life in the book, that make you go 'I feel better about my life now,' or 'yes! That's what I've always thought!' I love her ability to hit the nail on the head. When discussing that tricky hobby section of a CV, Miranda refers to the 'holy trinity of boringly acceptable things everyone likes,' which you write because you haven't a clue what to really say. She is referring to 'swimming, reading and travelling.' This made me laugh out loud, as I think these very things are on my CV as we speak.  
Throughout the book Miranda is in conversation with her late-teenage self. They each answer questions and reveal things about each other. I really liked this way of giving an insight into what her school days were like, as well as allowing us to reflect on what our younger selves would think of technology and other things today.
Unfortunately I found that the last third or so of the book was less funny. It seemed more of a pep talk regarding not feeling bad if you don't know anything or don't do anything or if you feel intellectually and emotionally stunted. And I can't help hoping I am none of these things, at least not in the desperate way Miranda described. 
But nonetheless there were some nice life lessons, and overall the Miranda wisdom was very gratefully received. 
This book is a very easy read that will make you laugh and make you feel better about yourself as you join Miranda in celebrating all that is awkward, embarrassing and downright ridiculous about life. 


Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Shantaram- Gregory David Roberts

It's taken me the best part of four months to read this book, although I did have a sizeable interlude somewhere in the middle to re-read the first three Harry Potters. Shantaram can only be described as epic, the five parts worthy of being individual books in themselves. The story is based on real events and follows the life of Lin (Roberts' fake name) in Mumbai after escaping from an Australian Prison. Before reading this book I had barely even considered India as a potential place to visit, but now I would love to go. Roberts vividly paints a picture of the hustle and bustle of the city with all its sights and smells, as well as the beautiful sunsets and lapping shores of the coastline. But more importantly than all that, he brings the characters to life, imitating accents to perfection and excellently portraying the vast array of people. He particularly left an impression on me of the warmness and kindness of the Indian people, their sense of community and happiness in the face of poverty. 
Almost as soon as he arrives in the city Lin makes friends with Prabaker, a happy go lucky Indian tour guide who's optimistic view on the world is infectious. Together they have many adventures, allowing Lin to really experience Mumbai in all its glory, both good and bad. He spends time living in a small village where he learns to speak the local language. He lives in a slum and accidentally becomes the resident doctor, which culminates in him trying to contain a bout of cholera. He buys medication from a group of lepers, helps a dancing bear escape prison and has to fight off wild dogs to protect a young boy. There really are more adventures than you can count; more than I can now remember. And on the tourist-expat side Lin has a whole other life going on. He regularly drinks in Leopold's bar with his vast array of interesting and odd friends, including the mysterious Karla whom he is hopelessly in love with. Through her come a series of other escapades, including trying to rescue a prostitute from the clutches of the terrifying (and rarely seen) big time brothel owner Madam Zhou. 
The book goes in a different direction when Lin becomes more involved with Khader Khan, the gangster who owns pretty much everything and who everyone knows. Lin is drawn to Khader in a father-son kind of way and as a result agrees to do anything that is asked of him, from working as part of the fake passport trade to going to war. 
I have to say that the part of the book set in Afghanistan was my least favourite. Not to say it wasn't interesting, I just found it gruesome, depressing and rather long, lacking the essential page turning element of the rest of the novel.
Many critics and reviewers have said that Shantaram is too long winded, but I thought the majority was well written, compelling and necessary for the story. There is a huge philosophical influence to the narrative, with opinions on politics, love and life coming from a variety of people. Some passages were so beautiful and moving that I read them twice, even bookmarking a few to come back to later.

A couple of examples:
'I'm talking about what you're doing to yourself by hating the world. Someone told me once that if you make your heart a weapon, you always end up using it on yourself.' 

'And that was the elated moment I'd called glorious, in my mind, as I ran into the guns; that stupid waste of lifes, that friendly fire. There wasn't any glory in it, there never is. There's only courage and fear and love. And war kills them all, one by one. Glory belongs to God, of course; that's what the word really means. And you can't serve God with a gun.' 

I suppose my only real criticism of the book is that it was long, and I'm not sure that really is a criticism. Why shouldn't a novel be long? You can always take a break in the middle like I did. Shantaram is not a story to be read from cover to cover on a rainy afternoon by the fire, but if you're up for the journey, it certainly has one hell of a tale to tell.

4-and-a-half out of 5

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This book had been on my kindle wish list for such a long time that I couldn't remember why I put it there in the first place. The problem with a wish list for me- much the same as buying a load of books in a shop all at once- is that I get bored of seeing the title and tend to be less inclined after a while to actually read it. So, after probably a year since I wish listed it, I decided to give Half of a Yellow Sun a whirl.

Set in Nigeria, the book follows the lives of two adult sisters both before and during the Nigeria-Biafran war of 1967-1970. It was a good lesson in history and taught me something new about a country I didn't know much about.

There was a lot of what I felt was 'setting the scene,' which didn't have me entirely gripped. The first couple of (long) chapters introduced sisters Kainene and Olanna, and gave an insight into their lives and the lives of their partners. The story at this point was mainly about rich Nigerians and even richer expats living the high life, going to parties and having intellectual discussions over brandy. And of course there was the obligatory 'house boy' Ugwu, brought in from the local village to do the house work but treated wonderfully by his nice, well educated master.
Then the action finally kicked off and things got pretty grim. What happened in Nigeria was genocide, an ethnic cleansing of the Igbo population. Pretty scary if you looked a certain way or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The moments of peril and desperation were the best parts- seeing how each person was affected by the war and how they reacted to it. Olanna had to abandon her nice house and live in poverty, amongst neighbours who were often desperate enough to do crazy things. For example, one day her cat disappeared and then later that evening a neighbour served up a unexplainable meaty soup to her family.
The sisters had a volatile relationship throughout the story; at first they simply didn't get along, but after Olanna's unforgivable act they stopped speaking entirely. The non-linear narrative skipping from the early to mid sixties and then back again, helped to add to the mystery and revelations between the sisters.
Both sisters contributed significantly to the war effort: Olanna taught children in a makeshift schoolroom, as well as attempting to keep Ugwu safe from conscription, and Kainene helped to collect and distribute rations. 

Despite all the war related turmoil, the book still wasn't a page turner for me. My main problem was that I didn't care much for the characters. I didn't feel like I knew them well and so it didn't matter particularly what happened to them. Especially some of the peripheral characters who failed to bother me at all when they met their untimely ends.

The story ended with a major question left unanswered. I'm a big fan of loose ends being tied up in novels- you invest too much time in reading to not know what happens. So as you can imagine, I am left feeling pretty cheated.


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Life of Pi is one of those books I always thought about reading but somehow never did. When the film came out it got everyone talking about it again and all I heard anyone say was how great the book was. So I decided rather than watch the film first and then be annoyed at myself, I'd better read the book.
From the moment I picked up Life of Pi, I couldn't put it down. The story begins after Pi Patel's adventure/ordeal, explaining to some extent what he did afterwards and how his life turned out in Toronto. He went to university to study religious studies and zoology: the two subjects of his childhood, and also possibly the two subjects that allowed him to survive in the Pacific Ocean. 
The next chapter goes back to Pi's early childhood, where he narrates his experiences growing up in Pondicherry, India. Son of a zoo keeper, Pi knows a lot about animals, and the stories told are fascinating. I learnt a lot about the psychology of animals. I also really liked Pi's open mindedness and commitment to various religions. There was a particularly funny part where a Catholic Priest, a Muslim Imam and a Hindu Pandit are arguing over which religion Pi belongs to and insulting each others faiths along the way. Pi has taken an interest in all three and fails to see why this is a problem.
It's hard to talk about the main part of this book without spoiling the story, so apologies if you haven't read/seen it yet! But even the book cover kind of gives it away, so I don't think I'm doing too much of a terrible thing.
 The story of how Pi survives living on the lifeboat is exciting and compelling from start to finish. Amazing really, considering the  minimal amount of dialogue. The reader is engaged by the great detail in the descriptions of what Pi does, of the relationship with Richard Parker, and of his intense thought processes and emotions.
At the end of the book I wanted to read more about what happened to him after finding dry land. But actually if you revisit the first chapter then you get just that. And so the story is a whole, a never ending circle that can be enjoyed over and over.
I really did love it, and I will definitely read it again.