Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Big Move

Okay, so, I moved...

I've posted the last few reviews of the challenge as well - I made it!

I don't want to see anther book for a little while, especially as I ended up reading four books in two days, thanks to bad time management and a busy December.

Thanks to all of you, and hope to see you on Wordpress!


Thursday, 3 December 2009

U is for Updike

I have never read a book that grated on me like The Widows of Eastwick did. We got off to a bad start because I thought that the Widows of  Eastwick was the book name for the film. When I began reading it, though, I realised it was the sequel. Boy, did I know it was the sequel – constant references to the first book and how depraved it was and how they killed poor little whatshername were irritating beyond belief.

The main story revolves around the three witches of Eastwick, thirty years older and now appropriately all widows.
Alexandra is the middle in age, a large hippy living in Mexico. She’s scraping through after her husband died, leaving with next to nothing.
Jane is the oldest and richest, living with her ancient mother in law after the death of her husband. Materially cared for, but not emotionally.
Sukie is the youngest and possibly least irritating. She’s moderately rich and moderately emotionally balanced.
After ignoring each other for decades, they decide that now they’re alone, they’ll visit a few countries together. This is the cue for cringeworthy, racist speech where the ‘small Asian couple’ lose their ‘L’s completely and the Egyptians are all filthy men with no teeth and Arab headgear. As if that wasn’t quite enough, a man unfortunate enough to be mistaken for a suitor for Alexandra is internally derided as ‘faggy’ as soon as he mentions his dead partner.

It’s got a horrible tone to it, a seething mass of bitterness and hatred for everything. I think the worst thing for me was that it pretends to be a feminist novel, but it’s written by a man and has far too many lesbian-ish scenes for it to be anywhere near true feminism. I’m not exactly the world’s biggest feminist (if we’re that equal, why are we shouting about it?) but I object to a ‘feminist’ novel which includes a scene with a magic circle and ‘sky clad’ women, just so he can write about flesh and wrinkles.

It was tiresome, repetitive and boring. All the women were old, widows, elderly, alone…. The townspeople of Eastwick were suspicious, wary… In three hundred pages, about two things happen which are actually of any interest, and even these are buried under pages of dead prose which can be easily skimmed with no detriment to the plot.

Before reading this, I was interested in reading the Witches of Eastwick. After this though, I don’t want to read another Updike novel, and would strongly advise against anyone else reading one.

Next book – Slaughterhouse 5

T is for Thomas

Scarlett Thomas is probably best well known for The End of Mr Y, the black tinged page book with the striking red cover. Popco is the re-issued 2004 novel – a blue tinged paged book with a striking blue cover.
Thomas has an odd tone of voice which won’t sit well with all readers. It’s hard to describe, but is generally slightly standoffish, almost patronising. Popco has a similar tone of voice, but Thomas obviously loves language so much that you can overlook this.

Popco is the story of Alice Butler, a twenty nine year old cryptanalyst/cryptographer. She lives in a tiny London flat with her cat, and works for toy company, Popco. The book opens with a corporate excursion to Devon, which Alice travels to alone, as she doesn’t enjoy crowds. From the outset, then, she’s a loner, someone who’s happy with her own company. It’s lucky that she’s a likeable protagonist.
The location of the majority of the book is an isolated mansion in the middle of Dartmoor, designed to get the creative juices flowing amongst the bright young creative things. Alice is quickly selected for a mysterious ‘secret project’, along with a few others she’s noticed in the crowd. I don’t want to write too much about the plot, but basically she realises that she is disillusioned with Popco and the principles at it’s foundation.

There are times where the story falls away slightly, and the propaganda undertones are exposed a little more forcefully than expected, but I never felt preached to. One conversation in particular has stuck with me, and that was one around why vegans are vegans. Milk comes from cows, but cows don’t produce milk without being pregnant, or in a state of pregnancy. It’s an obvious conclusion, but one that’s left out of the children’s stories. The milk we drink comes from cows who are pregnant for the whole of their generally short lives, who don’t get to see their calves. When you look at it like that, it puts that glass of milk in a whole different light, doesn’t it?

Apart from the anti-establishment message, Alice is concerned with solving a treasure map left by her late grandfather. A cryptologist himself, he taught her everything she knows about cracking codes. This part of the book is interesting as Thomas manages to teach the reader fairly complex methods of code cracking without being too heavy or boring. I’m not that great at maths, but I managed to keep up for most of it.
A couple of chapters in the book tell the story behind the treasure map, about two lovers I immediately dubbed ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ and ‘Buttercup’ as the story seemed to be straight out of The Princess Bride. Despite this, there was enough of a difference to ignore the similarities. Usually I find intertwined stories to be a bit of a distrraction from the ‘real’plot, but in this case it worked really well.

Popco isn’t for everyone, but I found the story, coupled with well drawn characters and, of course, the pretty cover, came together to make a good book. I especially enjoyed the little phrases and idea Alice comes out with, such as the one where she talks about footsteps having a tune, or note, of their own.

If you’ve read and enjoyed The End of Mr Y, you’ll enjoy this too. If you like puzzle solving, you’ll like this. 

Monday, 16 November 2009

S is for Süskind

I actually learned how to create an umlaut for this review. I’ll probably forget as soon as I’ve finished, but there you go, at least I made the effort.
Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, has been around for a quarter of a century in published form. Although set in historical France, it was originally written in German, but handily translated.

The title gives a fairly accurate summary of the plot, but the book is so much more than that. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into a world of poverty and dirt, as his mother shrugs him off like she did the rest of his siblings. Unlike her previous children, Jean-Baptiste refuses to give up, and his newborn cries condemn his neglectful mother to the guillotine. This happens in the first six pages, which might give you an idea of how fast paced the novel is. From his ill fated mother through to the rest of the masters he has throughout the book, Jean-Baptiste is the Angel of Death, as all who take him in suffer a lonely or unwanted death.

Jean-Baptiste has the greatest nose in the world. He can pick out people from miles away, and unravel scents as though unwinding a scarf. Very early on, he begins to collect smells as other people collect books, gathering them together in order to make the perfect smell. While on his quest, he realises that he does not smell. He can tell what a customer has had for lunch a week earlier, but he cannot smell. This might seem to be a distinct advantage to most readers – no more money spent on deodorants or perfume in an effort to smell acceptable at all times. However, for Grenouille, it proves to be a burden as without smell he is invisible in a crowd. Worse than that, he is abhorrent face to face – people avoid him without knowing why. Grenouille manages to create his own scent, and finds more success from then on. Perhaps this is because he gains confidence due to the fact that he has a smell, rather than his application of a fake smell. Either way, he finds himself more socially accepted.

Süskind’s idea that a person’s unique smell is representative of their soul is quite interesting. I even found myself sniffing the inside of my elbows (the place where the scent comes out strongest, apparently) in an attempt to smell me. It didn’t work, and it was a good job I was at home and not out in public, quite frankly. It seems to make sense, though – everyone does have a certain smell, no matter what perfumes they use. It’s not about sweat or smelly feet, but deeper than that. Maybe what you eat or drink makes a difference. Perhaps happy people smell nicer, and so are happy as a result.

As far as his writing goes, Süskind’s prose is impressive. For a fairly heavy subject matter, the book dances along through Grenouille’s childhood and teenage years with a very light touch. He is succinct and articulate, with a pleasing tone of voice which never veers towards being patronising or boring.
His characters are impressive too – Grenouille is a murderer but he is made into a sympathetic figure because he is painted as lonely, in search of love but with the knowledge that he is too strange to be loved. He is described as a pet, a tick, a cuckoo in the nest – very rarely as human.

When Grenouille begins murdering properly, the narrator shifts to someone else, who reports on the killings. This is very clever as the reader is obviously aware that it’s Grenouille, but no-one else is. We are therefore in the position of knowing the mystery and being able to view it from the bewildered townspeople’s perspective.

I was familiar with the story as I saw the 2006 film of the same name. The story is fairly faithfully followed in the film, although understandably conversations and characters are jettisoned in favour of pacing. One of the main differences for me, though, was that Grenouille is unattractive in the book, with scars and carbuncles from slave labour and diseases adorning his face and body. In the film, he’s played by Ben Whishaw, who is not unattractive, in my opinion. I suppose that’s the difference between film and book – as his confidence grew, so did his social success. Perhaps he was not ugly, but felt so until he acquired new clothes and a scent of his own.

I’d recommend Perfume to people who enjoy an historical novel that’s a bit different. Don’t be put off if you’ve seen the film – I found the language to be easy to read and the description was kept to a minimum, allowing the reader to imagine items for themselves.

Next week – Scarlet Thomas’ Popco. It’s so pretty – I’m looking forward to reading it!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

R is for Rivas

Vermeer’s Milkmaid is a collection of short stories by Galician writer, Manuel Rivas. I had to wikipedia Galicia because, shamefacedly, I didn’t know where it was. To show off my new knowledge and enlighten those others who don’t know, it’s in Spain. North West Spain, to be exact, and according to the Great Encyclopaedia, an historical autonomous community.
Although Rivas writes in Spanish and Galician, the book I read had been translated into English, which was pretty handy. I talked about translation back in August, and I still believe that translator’s a hard job. You have to retain not only the meaning, but the style and inflection of each sentence. No pressure, then.

I’d like to be able to read Galician, so I can make a proper observation about the translation of the stories. In this absence, I’ll just say that Rivas’ writing came across as succinct but evocative, in all sixteen stories. These were indeed, short, as the book itself struggled to reach one hundred and twenty pages.

They all represented what I would call, good short stories. There was a clear plot and all of the relevant details were revealed about characters, locations, events, with just enough guess work to make them mysterious. The majority of them centred around male characters, searching for something from a long lost love to their bodies, which they have been estranged from. Most of the stories had an element of fantasy in them, from the tarot card reader who refuses to read after drawing a bad omen card, to the three page story following a conversation about murder amongst inanimate objects, from the Television to the Ashtray to the Darkness itself.

Another mark of a good short story, or collection of, is how they affect you. I read A Perfect Day for Bananafish, by J.D. Salinger, in a creative writing class years ago, and I still think about it. Due to their nature, they usually revolve around a short, sharp event in someone’s life. In Rivas’ collection, an old man recounts the time where he got so frustrated with his lover’s yappy dog that he snuck back to her house at night and murdered it by ramming a steel spike down its throat. She knew, of course, and he never saw her again.
The stories are haunting, full of dusty images of the Civil War and sax players. They come and go in a flash, but promise to remain in my imagination for a long time to come.

I’d recommend these to people who enjoy short stories with a darker, deeper side – ones which may need careful re-reading to see all of the layers. It might help to know where Galicia is as well. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Q is for Quinn

Rory and Bruno live in the Venetian Vista gated community, in a luxurious house. They’ve spent the best part of twenty years together, since college. The Good Neighbor begins when the empty house next door gets occupants. In a coincidence (or not, as the writer wrote it that way, I suppose) the neighbours turn out to know them from college. Meg and Austin are a Baptist family with two sons – Noah and Josh. Within a few minutes, the kids have shown the adults up in the tolerance stakes, as they don’t bat an eyelid over Rory and Bruno’s obviously intimate relationship.

Predictably, Rory and Austin become close as they are the designated ‘house husbands’, cooped in over a humid autumn, with only their pools and pills for company. I was convinced that the story would end with Rory and Austin moving in together, and Meg and Bruno setting up house, as a lot is made of Bruno’s previous marriage to a woman. Although I won’t give the ending away, I will say that this doesn’t happen.

It’s quite a short book, which was handy as I’m still catching up from Pessl, but it does manage to fit a lot in. Quinn obviously enjoys writing, as it was easy to read and easy to distinguish between character voices, for the most part. The parallels between the heterosexual and homosexual couple are apparent throughout – the wage earner holds the power, both stay at home partners feel undermined, emasculated at times. Although it felt a bit forced, it was interesting that sex, as in gender, was not important.

Despite being interesting, I also felt that the concept of gay fiction is a bit strange. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but society today is comfortable with gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transsexual relationships in a way that it wasn’t twenty years ago. My opinion is that, if it’s not that big a deal, why have a section of literature dedicated to how it’s not that different to heterosexual relationships? I suppose there are people who do not agree with lifestyles away from their norm (i.e., married at 18, 2.4 children etc) but I’d like to think that they wouldn’t read this, in which case, Quinn is preaching to the choir.

There’re quite a few references to the fact that Rory is Catholic, and the other couple are Baptist. There’s an irritating conversation where Meg lectures Rory on what Christians believe, where Rory internally comments that Catholics are Christians. I found this irritating because if you believed that your faith was the correct one, a gentle correction is going to enlighten the speaker and defend your position. Instead, he grumbles about it to himself, which is surely not the Christian thing to do. It feels a little bit like the author’s waving a sign around which reads “See!! Gay people are just like ordinary people!!”.

On the other hand, there are very few ‘mainstream’ novels that I am aware of which feature a gay couple as main characters. If I was gay, I’d like that there were novels (Jay Quinn has written a dozen of these) which concerned my lifestyle, from walking the dog to having sex. I’m no prude, but the intimate moments were unexpectedly graphic. It was obvious that there may be ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, simply because another of Quinn’s books that I picked up in the library came under the ‘gay erotic fiction’ label.
Aside from this, much of the novel revolves around Austin’s voyeurism of Rory and Bruno, as he watches them in their back garden. Again, perhaps I’m being naïve but I didn’t really see why it was necessary to strip each other in the pool, in full view of everyone.  Intimacy isn’t displayed with half drowned blow jobs, in my opinion.

I know I’m in danger of sounding slightly Daily Mail, and I am finding it hard to articulate what I thought of this book without coming across as homophobic or falsely tolerant. I enjoyed the writing, and the characters were largely rendered successfully. However, no-one got away with occasional broad strokes about their personalities, from their sexual preferences to their alcohol tolerance.
To summarise, the main themes of the book – love, loyalty and independence – could all easily have been covered with any combination of couples, and often is. It was refreshing to see the main couple being gay, but in 2009, I felt guilty for being surprised. Although there were irritating affectations (such as Bruno telling Meg that nine year old Josh is gay, as ‘they’ can spot ‘em young) there were incidences of charming writing, which kept me reading. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

P is for Pessl

 For P I read Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I’m disappointed in myself for this one, because I started reading it early and it still took me two weeks to read. Never fear, dear readers, I’ll catch up with the Challenge. Sometimes, though, life gets in the way, and this month has been an exceptionally busy one.
Despite this, I read for about the time I would normally read for – probably longer, as I had a couple of train journeys as well. It’s not that long, but it’s quite densely written and you can’t afford to skim sentences, as you’ll find yourself wandering around in the text, lost amongst the characters’ conversation.

Marisha Pessl (thank you, wikipedia)  was born in the late 1970s, and after her parents split the family moved to North Carolina. Apparently she had an intellectually stimulating upbringing, with her mother reading aloud to her children before bed. This is perhaps the inspiration for Special Topics in Calamity Physics, where Blue van Meer is an intellectually stimulated teenager who moves around America with her professor father. Write about what you know, I guess.

The writing, although awkward in places, does it’s best to engage the reader with a fairly unwieldy plotline. Pessl clearly loves language, and playing with sentences. She frequently anthropomorphises inanimate objects, pets, even emotions, which is usually amusing, although it got wearing after a little while. The other aspect I found interesting was her ability to make the reader react – she describes facial expressions so well that I found myself copying the character’s, using her description.

Blue is an extremely intelligent sixteen year old girl, brought up by her father after the apparent suicide of her mother, when she was very young. Her thoughts, and indeed, the book’s prose, are littered with pop culture and literary references from all eras and areas – high and low brow. It reminded me a little of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, that non fiction Philosophy textbook masquerading as an endearing (though slightly creepy) relationship story. It was quite fun to recognise references, although usually Blue explained them anyway, so don’t be daunted by this. The made up references were more confusing – writings by van Meer featured heavily, along with websites that I am more than half-tempted to look up, just to see what’s there. The other bonus with having books referenced is that you collect other books on your to read list.  The snag is when there are books you want to read which aren’t real. I just spend ten minutes looking for the Charles Manson biography “Blackbird singing in the dead of night”, only to find that it’s fabricated. I suppose that’s the mark of a good writer, or one of them, at least.

The plot revolves around Blue’s senior year at a new high school, where she meets film teacher Hannah Schneider and an elite group of seniors – the Bluebloods. They’ve all been picked by Hannah to socialise with her in a faux study group. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – a group of teenagers construct a secret society with dire consequences. Except, there weren’t, really. Although you find out at the beginning of the book that Hannah Schneider commits suicide, it’s not really until the end hundred and fifty pages that the story comes out about it. I think the book suffers from a stilted pace, as if Pessl didn’t employ an editor, but wrote everything she wanted to write before realising that nothing much had happened for three hundred pages and she needed to wrap it up.  It also reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things,  where Something Bad is going to happen for three hundred pages, and when it finally does, I’d lost interest in the Terrible Thing.

I was a bit bewildered by the third act, to be honest. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but there are a number of plot twists in the last hundred pages which left me reeling with information. Other events in the story click into place as being finally relevant, but by that time I’d either forgotten where they’d been mentioned or they felt shoehorned in at the last minute. In this way, it’s a good book to re-read, and I think it would be great for a book club, as there are so many different aspects that a good discussion would be interesting.

In the same way that Blue’s life echoes Pessl’s, the book imitates itself. The film L’Aventura features heavily, which, we are told, revolves around a missing woman who is never found. A quick imdb search reveals that this too, is a fabrication of Pessl’s. However, although Hannah does not disappear, the book is not wrapped up and there is no pertinent ending. Some people may find this frustrating, which is understandable, but I enjoyed the confidence inherent in finishing a book without closure. The book also begins with Blue introducing herself (although you don’t know her name until a fair amount of pages in) and explaining that she’s writing a journal for her grandkids. This format does not continue all the way through, but there are some nice touches, such as the ‘hand-drawn’ visual aids which are sprinkled through the chapters.

I’d be interested in reading this book again as I’m sure there are loads of things  I missed. It’s touted as the next The Time Traveler’s Wife, and my copy even has a quote from Niffenegger about how she couldn’t put it down. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to enjoy that level of popularity, but it’s still worth reading if you fancy something a little more challenging and thought-provoking.