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.  


Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

It's taken me approximately two months to read this book, hence my quietness on this blog space. The book is 974 pages long (wowser), although I only found that out just now because the copy I had on my kindle didn't tell me the page count or what page I was on, which was a little weird.
The setting for the Pillars of the Earth is the building of cathedrals in the twelfth century. At first I thought this sounded boring, but the whole cathedral thing is only really the backdrop for all the lying, murdering, treachery, cunning and intrigue. And actually it was quite interesting to learn about how cathedrals were built, even though a lot of the time I didn't understand the lingo.
The first chapter dives straight into the action, leaving you with a sense of mystery and of a story to unravel. After this initial chapter, however, I found it moved a bit slowly and wasn't convinced for probably the first 100 pages or so that I was going to like it. Then, following some rape, destruction and general development of character relationships (good and bad), I became utterly entranced. Once I was in its grip, I couldn't put the thing down. The story spans about 50 years and Follett gives the overall picture whilst also honing in significantly on the most important parts. The detail of some of the things he described was quite amazing. During one fight I was actually holding my breath, as if I was watching a film instead of reading. The way Follett describes things allows you to see every exactly in your minds eye, as it happens, and to understand how the characters feel.
Prior Philip, one of the main characters, gave me lots of profound things to think about. He is innately good, and I very much enjoyed the two-ing and fro-ing between him and others in the never ending battle between good and evil. I also liked the strong female characters in the story. You've gotta love a good witch, haven't you?

I will now share with you one of my favourite quotes from the book. I liked it mainly becuase it reminded me so much of the attitude here in Saudi.
Prior Philip is considering just letting God decide whether the cathedral will be built in Shiring or Kingsbridge, rather than fighting his corner. But he knows that isn't how it works.  
He knew that would not do, of course. Having faith in God did not mean sitting back and doing nothing. It meant believing that you would find success if you did your best honestly and energetically.
His opinion is in direct contrast to the Saudi mentality. Inshallah here means, 'I will do nothing about this but if it's meant to happen then it will.'
No, people, no.  

If you're up for an adventure, and have enough time on your hands for it, then I highly recommend this book. And there's a sequel World Without End, so the fun doesn't have to stop there!