Thursday, 31 March 2011

Anne of the Island, L. M. Montgomery

Anne of the Island is the third book in L. M. Montgomery's classic series about the imaginative redhead, and in many ways the end of "part one" of Anne's story. This is the book about Anne Shirley's college years, the last book about Anne the girl and the beginning of Anne the woman. It is also the last part of the story in which the community of Avonlea features prominently, and even now, despite the book's title, a good half of the the book's events don't even take place on Prince Edward Island, but in Kingsport, which is based upon Halifax, Nova Scotia. Even when the story is in Avonlea, I found it wasn't quite the Avonlea I knew.

 As a child, the only Anne books I owned were the first two: Green Gables and Avonlea, which I read over and over again. My mother had an old copy of Anne of the Island, so I was quite familiar with it, but less so. It comes as a shock that the community that seems more vivid than my own hometown in my memories, should be as I imagine it for such a brief time in the series - only two books out of the eight. Some characters have moved away, such as Reverend Allan and his wife - did they really appear so briefly? I knew them so well! Rachel Lynde, the town gossip, is still around but now living at Green Gables itself! Although this was due to happen at the end of Avonlea, it seems strange for her not to be down the road, but in the house itself, helping to bring up the twins. Anne's "bosom friend" Diana is engaged to be married, and for the first time, Anne has to face the death of her own school friend, Ruby Gillis, the bright, flirtatious girl who was always a little shallow and tiresome, but who made up a four with Anne, Diana and Jane Andrews on many an occasion. "Everything is changing - or going to change," said Diana sadly. "I have a feeling that things will never be the same again."

Not that there is much time to be melancholy, with Anne's whirlwind life at Redmond College, full of fun and friendships. She is reunited with two girls from Queen's Academy, Priscilla and Stella (who, alas, I can't really tell apart) and befriends the outrageous but adorable, frivolous and fun-loving Philippa Gordon. After a year living in boarding-houses, the girls rent a cottage of their own, a cute little house called Patty's Place, in a road full of grand mansions. Many pleasures of this book come from the simple domesticity of four girls and Phil's young-at-heart aunt Jamesina "Jimsie" making their house a home, and there is a lovely chapter in which Anne gets to visit the little yellow house where she was born.

And as well as her female friends, Anne - no longer the skinny ginger kid, - receives proposal after proposal, each less romantic than the last, before she is swept off her feet by the story-book hero Royal Gardner, who seems to be the man of her dreams. Personally, I can't stand the man. He is too suave, too smooth, and knows all the right things to say to an idealistic soul which has been nurtured on romantic literature, but he has no personality. All his grand gestures come across as studied and fake, and it comes as a great relief when Anne comes to her senses. But it's not until it appears to be too late that Anne realises what everyone else has known for years, to whom her heart really belongs.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Hothouse Flower, Lucinda Riley

Hothouse Flower is another Richard and Judy Book Club choice, and the seemingly obligatory "green one" with a cover design of hedges and a door, gate or archway, which tells two stories from two eras which turn out to be linked, probably by an old family in a huge English country house. A few years ago we had Kate Morton's The House at Riverton and in the autumn was Rachel Hore's A Place of Secrets. I found myself wondering why Richard and Judy seemed to choose someone else's version of the same story - at least, the same framing story. Like in A Place of Secrets, Hothouse Flower starts in the modern day, when a newly widowed woman - this time a concert pianist called Julia - retreats to Norfolk, where she grew up descended from staff at an old house, Wharton Park. There, she meets a kind and handsome young man and discovers an old diary.

I took a while to get into Hothouse Flower, as it all felt very familar. I clearly found it quite slow at the beginning as I was ruthlessly picky about the style, noticing run-on sentences and finding the dialogue quite unnatural. It wasn't until we were sent back in time, through the discovery of the diary of Lord Harry Crawford of Wharton Park, that I got immersed in the story itself. We're taken back in time to upper-class society in 1939, young debutantes preparing for "the Season" and looking for husbands, against the clashing backdrop of oncoming war. We follow the courtship and marriage of Harry Crawford and Olivia Drew-Norris, but the couple can barely get to know each other before Harry is whisked off to fight in the Second World War.

We don't get to see much of the War itself, instead, after an interlude concentrating on Julia's twenty first century romance with the current Lord of Wharton Park, the book skips forward to 1945, when Harry is released from being a prisoner of war in Thailand. Riley doesn't dwell on Harry and the other men's suffering, but instead shows their effects on Harry afterwards, as he recovers from serious illness. There are gorgeous descriptions of ife in Bangkok in the aftermath of the war, and through Harry's affair with a hotel employee, Lidia, Riley explores the conflicts that can occur between love and duty. With Rachel Hore's novel, my one complaint was that everything was resolved too easily, with too many tidy coincidences tying up the loose ends. Lucinda Riley does avoids this trap, with her plots getting messy, seemingly with no good ending. I found it somewhat uncomfortable reading at times, with the troubling suspicion that the author wanted to take the side of the adulterous couple, that sexual love should rule at the cost of everything else. Then, back in the 21st century, Julia finds herself in a situation that seems to have no happy ending. The plot gradually draws together the strands of past and present, with plenty of twists in the tale, echoes of past in present, before the two stories become parts of a whole.

The House At Riverton - Kate Morton
A Place of Secrets - Rachel Hore
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
Atonement - Ian McEwan

Friday, 25 March 2011

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J. K. Rowling

Isn’t it funny how your brain makes startling revelations when it’s winding down for the night? I was planning to start this review by explaining that, due to an enormous to-read pile, I couldn’t really justify rereading a seven-book series, but compromised by listening to the audio version of Harry Potter on my CD alarm clock. I’d got as far as explaining why Stephen Fry is the perfect narrator for the series, and describing him - like Hogwarts, like the series itself, as a British national institution, when suddenly it came to me: is not Stephen Fry the nearest thing we have to a muggle Dumbledore?

Maybe I drew this conclusion because Dumbledore is the nearest character within the story to a narrator, seemingly all-knowing, all-seeing and completely in control. Do I draw the connections because Fry happens to be reading the story, or are the similarities the reasons he was chosen? After all, they share many of the same qualities; both are wise and ridiculously intelligent, impossible to dislike with a comforting air to them; old-fashioned and a bit posh in a cosy, nostalgic sort of way. You feel that everything is under control in their hands. All Fry needs is the beard, the pointy hat and about another hundred years on his age.

But onto the story. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone in the USA) is where it all began, the first in a series of books which revolutionised children’s literature and got kids - and adults - discovering the wonder of books, who might not have done so otherwise. With the hype surrounding the release of the later books and then the films, it’s a bit strange to return to the beginning and read (or listen to Mr Fry reading) as if it were all new.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has a very different feel to it than the later books in the series. It is noticeably a children’s book, written in simple language, with colourful, comical characters who are sometimes more like caricatures. We discover with Harry the wizarding world, a truly magical place, brought to life by Rowling’s vivid descriptions: Harry’s surprise that people in wizard photos move - and Ron’s surprise that muggle pictures stay put at all times; the novelty of going to school in a castle with towers, dungeons, secret passageways and staircases that lead to different places on different days, the wonder of flying on a broomstick and the thrill of playing Quidditch.

In later books, the wizarding world ceases to be quite so surprising - though there is something new to discover in each volume. The description gives way to plot: a plot with so many threads and strands that I am impressed and astonished at Rowling for keeping everything under control and weaving it all together in the end. Even in The Philosopher’s Stone, when the world is not yet fully formed and characters are still taking shape, there are hints at what is to come, throwaway lines that mean nothing and are forgotten until a later installment when they gain a new significance. I stand in awe of Ms Rowling’s mastery of her story - this is a writer who knows her story inside out.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett

Samuel Vimes, Commander of the Ankh Morpork City Watch and Duke of Ankh, is sent as an ambassador to Uberwald, for its coronation of the Low King of the Dwarfs. Uberwald is a wild country, home to werewolves, vampires, dwarfs and trolls. There is unrest between traditional and more liberal, modern-thinking dwarfs which could mean war, and when Vimes arrives, it is to discover that the Scone of Stone* has been stolen. Without the Scone, there can be no coronation - no Low King - no order.
Meanwhile, Watch Sergeant Angua has also made her way to Uberwald. She is a werewolf trying to make the best of her condition, but her family are perfectly happy with eating their neighbours or anyone else who might get in their way, and they, too, want domination of Uberwald. Angua’s boyfriend Captain Carrot, second-in-command of the Watch, has handed in his resignation and set off after Angua, leaving “one of nature’s sergeants,” Fred Colon, in charge at Ankh-Morpork.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are always good comfort reads, and without a doubt my favourite sub-series is that which features the Watch. Yet, The Fifth Elephant and Jingo are not books I’ve re-read as often as the other Watch books. These two are not set entirely in Ankh Morpork, and therefore don’t have quite the same feel to them. By now, the city of Ankh Morpork is quite as much of a character as Vimes, Carrot et al, and has come to shape what I expect in a Discworld novel.

It is an absolute pleasure to read about Vimes, a very unwilling ambassador and a policeman to his core, defying convention, rubbing everyone up the wrong way and generally abusing his diplomatic immunity as an excuse to be as undiplomatic as you can imagine, getting away with it with sheer cheek and audacity. Sam Vimes prods some serious buttock.

We also see a vulnerable side to the sarcastic, tough-girl Angua. The Fifth Elephant contains an interesting explorations of the conflicts of a werewolf: neither human nor wolf and despised by both. Angua lives her life constantly fighting to remain decent and civilised, paying for the chickens she’s eaten in her wolf shape “because animals don’t,” and terrified that she might turn out bad, like her psychopathic brother Wolfgang.

I read the Discworld novels in no particular order, and it’s a little odd to see the first introduction of an element that I’ve got used to as a stock feature of the novels. In The Fifth Elephant, we meet for the first time the "Igors," the race of hunchbacked, scarred, henchmen who serve any self-respecting Uberwaldean household. (I suspect the Igors owe a lot to Igor Eye-gor in Young Frankenstein, and certainly all the other Igors he was based upon.) It’s strange to see Vimes getting confused by the fact that they are all called Igor, startled by an Igor appearing when he knew he had just left the room and closed the door, or it slowly dawning on Vimes that when an Igor offers to lend another Igor a hand, or swears that his heart is in the right place, he is not talking metaphorically. Later in the series, the Igors are just accepted with all their little ways alongside all the other strange residents of the Discworld.

On this reading, I found The Fifth Elephant to be a little bit heavy-handed with its theme of tradition versus progress, with Pratchett clearly favouring progress, which ends with the Low King using a metaphor of the ceremonial axe that has been in the royal family for hundreds of years… although the blade has had to be replaced a few times, and the handle, or the metalwork, until nothing is left of the original - but dare you say it is not the same axe? Still, The Fifth Elephant is a rollicking adventure, great humour and character-development. It’s not one of my favourite Discworld novels, but it is still a lot of fun.

*Yes, I do mean it that way around. Dwarf baking is notoriously solid and doubles as weaponry - or in this case, the coronation seat of the dwarfs.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Mini-reviews 2: Grace Williams Says It Loud & Feet of Clay

Another post with a few thoughts on two more books I've been reading at the same time. Like the last two, these couldn't be more different!

Grace Williams Says It Loud, Emma Henderson

I bought Grace Williams at Waterstone's bookshop on a special offer for customers who use the Orange mobile phone network. It is an account of a life inside the Briar Mental Institute, from the point of Grace, a mentally and physically disabled girl. We follow Grace through her life from before her arrival at the institute aged eleven in 1957, through to the 1980s when she is living with carers in a smaller house. Although Grace has difficulties communicating with others, leading to dismissive attitudes from outsiders and even staff, she is observant and thoughtful, and the novel focuses particularly upon her friendship and romance with Daniel. Narrated in a sometimes stream-of-consciousness style by a girl limited by her lack of speech, Grace Williams can be a little claustrophobic and jarring in the contrast between how we see Grace - from within her own head - and how others see her, as a hopeless simpleton. Grace Williams Says It Loud is a challenging and sometimes disturbing but compassionate novel from a new author.

Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett

My favourite Discworld books are by far the "Watch" sub-series. We first meet Ankh Morpork's City Watch in Guards! Guards! which takes place at a turning point in the Watch's history. At the beginning of the novel there are only three people foolish enough to police Ankh Morpork: drunken Captain Samuel Vimes, solid and thick - in every definition of the word - Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal "Nobby" Nobbs - who was "disqualified from the human race for shoving" and needs a certificate to prove that he is (probably) human. The three remaining watchman have a settled lifestyle of plodding the streets, ringing a bell and saying "All's Well!" and looking away when, in fact, all isn't well. Enter new recruit Carrot Ironfoundersson, two metres tall, who when he was sixteen had to be informed by his father, a dwarf, that he was in fact adopted. Carrot knows the rulebooks inside out and, to Vimes' dismay, thinks that the watchmen should actually be fighting crime. Carrot's arrival is the catalyst for a complete overhaul of the City Watch into a force to be reckoned with. The second book in the sub-series, Men At Arms, introduces new recruits of nearly every species (but no vampires) into the force, and by Feet of Clay it has become a vital cog in Patrician and Tyrant Lord Vetinari's well-oiled machine that is Ankh Morpork.

In brief, Feet of Clay is - to use Friends terminology - the one with the golems, the one in which Lord Vetinari is poisoned and the one that introduces Cheery Littlebottom, the first dwarf to "come out" as female. (Of course there are female dwarves, a necessary evil for the continuation of the species, but it wasn't something dwarves really talked about, except for a few delicate conversations when courting.) Feet of Clay raises questions of personhood and slavery: are golems - clay-baked workers - machines or people? If machines, they have no moral responsibilities and cannot be arrested for committing crimes, any more than a sword can be arrested. If people - then their owners/employers have some serious thinking to do! The book is full of scathing comments on social hierarchies and comparisons of human "breeding" with farming. Full of Pratchett's trademark biting satire and groan-worthy "punes, or plays on words," there is also a brilliant whodunnit, howdunnit mystery with some wicked red herrings. In my opinion, Feet of Clay is one of Pratchett's finest stories.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Mini-reviews: The Boy in the Dress & This Perfect World

The Boy in the Dress, David Walliams

I've never liked Little Britain, and when I saw one of its stars had written a book with a title like The Boy in the Dress, my expectations weren't high. I was pleasantly surprised when in a quiet moment at work, I picked up Walliams' debut novel and found myself immediately charmed. I need not give too lengthy a plot synopsis - the clue is in the title! Walliams' narration is reminiscent of Roald Dahl's, full of humour and authorial asides to the reader - even a sly reference to "Small England, or whatever that show's called," and the Dahl similarities are highlighted by the illustrations by Quentin Blake. There is enough childish humour to appeal to 9- to 12-year-old boys, but not so much it alienates older readers. There is a great cast of characters, my favourite being the wonderfully overzealous corner shop owner with his cries of "three for the price of two! Eight for the price of five! Thirteen for the price of eleven!" or his offer of "buy two packets of crisps get one free." (One crisp, that is.) Yet there is a sensitivity that you wouldn't get with Roald Dahl. On my first encounter with the cross-dressing protagonist's father, I mentally compared him with Mr Wormwood of Matilda, or perhaps Harry Potter's Uncle Vernon, but as the story progresses we get to see that he's not the miserable grump that adults often are in kids' books, but a loving father who's not good with the soppy stuff, and who is heartbroken about his wife's desertion. A humorous book with a heart, for children aged around 9-12.

David Walliams has written two other books for children: Mr Stink and Billionaire Boy.

This Perfect World, Suzanne Bugler

This Perfect World is the next on the list of books selected by Richard and Judy for their Book Club. The Richard and Judy Book Club has been quite a significant event for encouraging people to read and discuss books that maybe they wouldn't otherwise. Formerly featured on their afternoon show, the Book Club has really helped to publicise such books as The Time Traveller's Wife, My Sister's Keeper, and The Lovely Bones in the UK. I've had mixed reactions to the R&J selections, adoring some and being very indifferent to others. This should be expected, really, as the books are chosen to appeal to a wide audience.

This Perfect World wasn't one of the "adores" for me. The story revolves around Laura Hamley, former school bully and centre of the "in-crowd," whose life is shaken up when she receives a phone call from the mother of Helen "Heddy" Partridge - one of her former victims. Heddy is has suffered a mental breakdown and is in hospital, and Mrs Partridge wants Laura to help her to get out. Laura is not so keen.

I find it difficult to enjoy a book if I can't like the central character, and I'll be blunt: I felt nothing but disgust and loathing for Laura. Reading This Perfect World so soon after Cookie, my own memories of being bullied were still close to the surface and Laura, and her friends were horrible. All through the book, she is reluctantly persuaded into helping Mrs Partridge, driving her to the hospital or looking after Heddy's child, but constantly Laura's thoughts are of getting rid of the "problem" of Heddy, keeping her in the past so that she doesn't have to think about her any more. We see how childhood bullies have grown into snobs and bigots, and how the playground politics seem set to influence their own children's relationships with each other. This Perfect World was a quick read which nonetheless provoked a lot of thought, but ultimately I found it bleak and depressing and I wasn't sorry to finish.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Affinity, Sarah Waters

Upper-class Margaret Prior, after recovering from a long illness, takes on a position as “Lady Visitor” to the women’s wards at Millbank Prison. There, she meets Selina Dawes, a professing medium, imprisoned for fraud and assault. Margaret becomes fascinated by Selina and as the two women grow closer, she finds herself drawn under Selina’s spell. But is Selina a clever fraud, or does she really possess unearthly powers?

AffinityI’ve read two of Sarah Waters’ novels before this one: The Little Stranger which I loved, and The Night Watch which left me cold. Although ser in the Victorian era, Affinity has a lot in common with The Little Stranger, with its eerie atmosphere and possibly – possibly not – supernatural elements. Waters’ prose is beautiful, immediately drawing me into the story, creating an atmosphere of suspense and perfectly recreating the language of the era, so that I could quite believe I was reading a contemporary of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins. The novel is written in two plot threads: the main story being presented as Margaret’s private journal of 1974, interspersed with entries from Selina’s medium’ log book from a year or two previously, which showed how she came to find herself in prison.

Much of the story takes place in Millbank prison, which is where the two women meet and interact. Waters describes the harsh, dehumanising conditions of the Prison, again, in a Dickensian manner. Margaret’s role as “Lady Visitor” is to befriend the prisoners and exert a good influence over them, to encourage them to repent of their crimes and reform their lives, yet the contrast between her and them seems too big for this to be more than wishful thinking on the part of the prison authorities. Margaret’s first encounter with Selina highlights the seemingly insurmountable differences between Visitor and prisoner – yet, in many ways, she is not so different from them after all. Margaret is outwardly a dutiful daughter, sedate, proper and genteel, but beneath that veneer she is frustrated, imaginative and highly-strung. Ultimately, Selina is the character with the influence.

Waters’ exploration of Victorian Spiritualism made a fascinating novel. The common conception of the Victorian age is rather a puritanical one, everyone being prim and proper and with the urban myth of people covering their piano legs for modesty! But it was also an era of discovery, and people found the world as they knew it quite turned upside-down. Anything might be possible! Affinity, like the two aforementioned classic, is a proper gothic novel, creepy and eerie, with seemingly clear lines blurring, between life and death, madness and sanity, real and imagination. I did not quite trust Selina through this novel and racked my brains trying to work out how she managed her “tricks,” or whether she was a genuine medium. There seemed to be no natural explanation for her accomplishments.

But were my suspicions of Selina right? In The Little Stranger, Waters leaves the ending ambiguous, and I wondered whether she might do the same here, to leave the reader to work out for themselves what had happened. Does Waters answer all the questions? Well, Affinity is such a wonderful read, I couldn’t possibly spoil it for you – you’ll just have to read it for yourself. All I will say is that there was a wonderful twist at the end, one that Waters has set the plot up for, and yet you shouldn’t see it coming. Affinity is a gorgeous and very satisfying tale, and I’m keen to get my hands on the rest of Ms Waters’ work. An excellent novel.

5 stars 

If you liked this you may enjoy:
The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins,
Film: The Illusionist

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Cookie, Jacqueline Wilson

After J.K. Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson must be the second most famous British writer of children's books. Formerly (if not still) the Children's Laureate, Wilson takes up plenty of shelf space in all UK bookshops, bringing out about two books per year. Most of her books are targetted at around 8-to 10-year-olds, although she has several for younger children and a few teenage books. Wilson often writes about difficult topics that nonetheless may be reality for her readership, such as broken families, mental illness and poverty.

I must have first read something by Jacqueline Wilson at the age of nine or so, Double Act (which depicts a set of inseparable twins growing into two individuals) or Tracy Beaker (Wilson's best-known character, a lively, untameable girl in foster care, waiting for the day her mother comes back for her.) Looking at her books as a whole, I find the "gritty realism" a little overpowering with its steady stream of abusive or neglectful parents, school bullies, lost tempers and loneliness, so that I wouldn't want to read her books one after another. But there is a simple sweetness in Wilson's storytelling, an empathy with her narrator - usually a preteen girl and often a social outcast. Wilson was clearly a student of the Enid Blyton school of world-building, with plenty of description, especially of clothes and food. I sometimes skim over these passages now, but it's the sort of thing that I couldn't get enough of when I was in her target readership.

Cookie is the story of the unfortunately-named Beauty Cookson, who is plain, dumpy and shy. A loner at school, and having to tread carefully at home, lest she provoke her dad's temper, Beauty finds refuge in her books, her drawing and with her pretend-friend Sam, in reality the presenter of a pre-school TV show, but with whom she imagines interaction and the sympathy she doesn't get from her father. Beauty's mum tries to shield her daughter from her husband's rages, but after Dad's moods ruin Beauty's birthday party, Mum decides enough is enough. She takes Beauty away to start a new life, though where, Mum does not know.

When we first met Beauty's Dad, I thought he could go one of two ways. He had the potential to develop into a 3-dimensional character, being a man who's made a small fortune, built a perfect world around himself and determined to keep it that way no matter the cost. Unfortunately, I ultimately found him too much of an exaggeration, with very flimsy excuses to fly into a temper, when it suited the plot if not a character. I couldn't believe in him as a person, because he was too much of a monster, defined only by his rages and cruel words. Mum, on the other hand, is very true to life, a rather young and timid wife and mother who married straight out of high school, and who has never had the chance to become her own person. She is torn between fear of her husband - who despite everything, she still loves - and the need to protect her daughter - and herself.

The school scenes took me right back to my primary school days, and in places it was painful to read about. Like Beauty, I was clever, but socially awkward, with a vivid imagination but far behind my classmates in terms of popular culture, TV and fashion. Shy Beauty could so easily have been me. If her descriptions of family life can be a little over-the-top at times, Wilson's recreation of the primary school playground politics took me about seventeen years into my own past.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

Whenever Toru Watanabe hears his favourite Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood,” his mind is taken back to the late 1960s, when he was a student in Tokyo. In particular he relives his relationships with two girls: vulnerable, damaged Naoko, the girlfriend left behind by his best friend Kizuki, who took his own life aged 17, and lively, curious Midori who is Naoko’s opposite in every way.

Norwegian Wood is first and foremost a story about memory. It’s quite difficult to comment on the prose, as being a book in translation, I’m not sure whether to credit the author Murakami, or translator Jay Rubin. Still, the narration is beautiful and poetic. In the descriptions, I felt the effect of a lazy, sultry summer afternoon, as if lying in a meadow and watching the world go by. There is a haunting sense of the sadness of time gone by, lost loves and missed opportunities.

In Watanabe we have a protagonist who is drifting, unsure of what he wants to do with his life. He is an ordinary youth at a time of revolution: he watches his fellow students protest about the “established order,” then slink back to class so as not to fail their course. Watanabe is a student of drama, more out of a vague curiosity than because he has any passion for the subject, a rather world-weary, bored character who describes university as “a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom.” He is somewhat of a loner, going through to high school making up a third with Kizuki and Naoko. After Kizuki’s death, he and Naoko clung together as if for safety, but when they have spent only one year at university, Naoko takes “leave of absence” and is taken to a sanatorium for mental health.

When compared with Naoko, Watanabe himself, or anyone else, Midori stands out as someone fully alert and alive amongst a cast of sleepy drifters. She is rather a breath of fresh air, a childlike character in her curiosity and frankness. Despite being rather sex-obsessed and starting horribly inappropriate conversations at the worst times, there is a sort of innocence about Midori that is very endearing in a world of “phonies.”

Immediately after I jotted down that thought, a throwaway line from Midori jogged my suspicions as it echoed from another character’s history, and I expected a plot twist that never came to pass – much to my relief, for it would have completely changed my feelings towards one of the most central characters, and not for the better.
Read for the Support Your Local
Library 2011 challenge

Usually, love triangles bore me, and I have little patience with a character torn between two people. If it’s not obvious who you should be with, I reason, then should you be with either? In Norwegian Wood, however, I felt sympathy with Toru Watanabe’s dilemma. Naoko and Midori were so different, yet both were such important parts of his life. His choice seemed so impossible.

Norwegian Wood is the first book I have read by Haruki Murakami, and it is described as being very different from his usual style – a coming-of-age novel and a romance – or several romances. I understand that most of his books have more surreal or supernatural elements to them – but this is something I would be perfectly happy to find out for myself.

4 stars

Norwegian Wood has been made into a film which is released in the UK on Friday.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Truth About Forever, Sarah Dessen

Since her father died, Macy has been struggling to hold everything together. On the surface everything looks perfect: perfect grades, perfect boyfriend, perfect life - but underneath she's falling apart. It's the summer before her last year of high school, and everything counts towards going to a good university. Her boyfriend's gone away to "brain camp" and left her his job at the library - but she hates it. Her colleagues sneer at her, and at home her workaholic mother is too busy with her job as some sort of estate agent/party host who shows off the new houses. At one of her mother's functions, she befriends the kind-hearted but chaotic caterers and takes on a second job with them. Her new friends help her to see that life is not to be feared but embraced, while Macy finds herself growing closer to Wes, the boy with a Past.

Grief treats everyone in different ways, and Macy and her mother bury theirs deep inside, pretending that everything is fine. Macy's mother loses herself in her work, while Macy's coping mechanism is her pursuit of "perfection," for only when she's perfect, she reasons, will she have control. But she is not happy. Although she claims to be in love with her boyfriend, Jason, it's clear the lady doth protest too much, and that Jason is not good for her, being more interested in his university applications and that Macy covers his job adequately.

I found The Truth About Forever to be much more a character-led book than plot-driven. Dessen does a great job at bringing Macy's new friends to life: accident-prone, pregnant caterer Delia - UK readers may be amused by her name, being very unlike another Delia in food! - bickering brothers Wes and Bert, lively Kristy and her sister Monica "Monotone" whose vocabulary consists of "Mmm-hmm/Nuh-uh," "Don't even..." and "Better quit."

I wasn't so convinced by the "villains" of the piece, if I may so call them. Jason acted more like he was Macy's middle-aged, humourless boss than her boyfriend, and her mother was a monster. Yes, I know she was grieving and stressed, but the way she treated Macy was disgraceful. One evening she came home to find Macy had invited her friends in to watch TV - whatever next? Offering them coffee? Playing music? - and she acted as if Macy had staggered home drunk at three in the morning and thrown up over the new carpet. If Macy's aim of perfection was unhealthy, her mother's pushing her was far, far worst. Any time Macy spent on her summer holiday not studying or working - and only the library job counted - just wasn't good enough. Only perfect was good enough. She's seventeen years old! Let her live!

But what is the truth about forever? The subject popped up throughout the book, but I wasn't quite sure what message Dessen was trying to get across. Kristy contradicts herself by saying at different times, "Life is long," and "Life is short." In short, nothing lasts forever. A few weeks of summer might feel like forever at the beginning, but it's gone before you know it.

Although I quite enjoyed this book, it took me a few days to get through as it was quite similar to some other books for teenagers, and not a lot ultimately happened. I felt the need to read something a bit more challenging; this was nice but too light and fluffy for my taste at the time of reading.

If you enjoyed this you may like:

Tiger Eyes - Judy Blume

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Wight Moon: Out of the Shadows, E.A. Berry

When Ann Grayson moves to the quiet Isle of Wight after a messy divorce, the last thing she expects is to find herself mixed up with a family of vampires! Alarmed at first, she soon learns that the Island vampires have coexisted peacefully with their human neighbours for well over a hundred years. But when missing young women start turning up outside the home of local businessman - and vampire - Joshua Ellis, unconscious, suffering severe blood loss and with puncture marks on the necks, this peace is threatened. Are the Island vampires as tame as they seem, or does someone with a grudge want to discredit them?

Wight Moon's author, Elaine Berry, is a friend from my theatre group, but I had no idea she had written and self-published a book until she turned up at rehearsal with the finished product. Wight Moon is a supernatural thriller, and Elaine does not mess around with introductions but plunges you straight into the action when protagonist Ann encounters a strange child alone in the cemetery. I don't know many books set on the Isle of Wight, so I enjoyed identifying local landmarks, and was amused by the addition of "friendly neighbourhood vampires" into the local mythology. Wight Moon does nothing to alleviate the impression that Islanders are a little, well, peculiar!

All fantasy writers have their own take on the mythologies they use, and Elaine's vampires have their own existance. In everyday life, they appear no different to human beings - no sparkly skin here! - but when they "turn" they take on the more traditional "vampire" appearance, with red eyes and prominent fangs. When in "vampire" form, and only then, they have additional, supernatural powers, such as deep hypnosis which they use (mostly) for the good of mankind, although they are not above turning on the "vampire sleep" for their own purposes.

Wight Moon is a gripping tale - as Elaine put it: "if you like twists, this one is plaited!" She creates suspense early on with short, choppy passages, alternating the mundane scenes of a mother and daughter at lunch, with the kidnapper hiding in the daughter's flat, waiting for her return. The book is full of humour, shown in the day-to-day lives of the vampire family, such as her matter-of-fact description of Mary, the baby vampire, with a mug of blood in one hand and a rusk in the other. If I hadn't already known Elaine, I might have guessed she was a connoiseur of Gilbert and Sullivan in a scene between Mary and her uncle that culminates in a groan-inducing pun reminiscent of Pirates' "Often/Orphan" gag. The book works well as a stand-alone novel, with a satisfying tidying-up of loose ends, but finishes off with a wonderful sequel-hook which sent me off to Elaine to offer my services as proof-reader for book two. A really enjoyable read.
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