Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Novel Look At... Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Have you ever read the reviews for a book and been absolutely astounded by all the amazing things that have been said about it? I have. I recently finished a novel that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize back in 2005 and that novel was Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. And if I’m being honest (which I love to do), I don’t get all the hype that surrounded it at all.
            We are being told the story by the protagonist, Kathy H., a carer living in a world where organ donors are reared from childhood. Kathy will one day become a donor too after her career as a carer comes to an end. The story Kathy tells us is her own, from her days at a school known as Hailsham to the turbulent life she leads after leaving. Her friends and love interest play a huge part in her story but that is where the problem lies with this novel.
            One of Kathy’s friends is Ruth, a ridiculously annoying character that will most likely emulate somebody you knew in school. She’s the leader of her group of friends and acts like she’s a bigger deal than she really is, pretending to be a teacher’s favourite student and acting like she’s in-the-know about everything. In an ideal world, Ishiguro’s ability to write so well about a person shouldn’t be a negative but Ruth has a huge role to play in the novel and so much time is dedicated to her that I couldn’t enjoy it because hate whiney teenage girls with bitchy attitudes. It took a very long time to warm to any character for the same reason; they were all whiney children for most of the story.
            There’s not a huge amount I can say about the good aspects of this novel without spoiling the end but despite how much I didn’t like the characters, I did find myself wishing for Kathy to succeed in the end because of a certain character redeeming herself and another character’s development over the course of the passing years. The idea behind it is interesting; a world where organ donors are raised for the job but the moral and political side of the story is pushed aside to make room for the characters going about their lives for the most part.
            Chances are I will not read this novel again and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is looking for a book with a dollop of oomph! It would be more of interest to those who like Young Adult novels, dealing with the tribulations of growing up in a boarding school but again, why this book received so much adulation is beyond my comprehension.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Novel Look At... Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

My God, when it came to picking an idea for his first novel, German writer Timur Vermes went all out by choosing to resurrect Adolf Hitler and sticking him in modern day Germany. But you know what, being controversial gets you attention and Look Who’s Back definitely got the satirist some attention (and a few lovely book sales too, I imagine).
            We begin with Hitler waking up in the middle of an undeveloped plot of land where presumably his bunker once stood. He is dazed and confused about where he is and how he got there and so he dusts himself off in search for answers. But Hitler is horrified at what his beloved Motherland has become in his absence and vows to restore Germany back to its former glory.
            Look Who’s Back takes a very daring approach to mocking our modern love-affair with celebrity culture by presenting global supervillain Hitler as a hit on the internet and German TV. Vermes did a very good job of undercutting Hitler’s views on present Germany by having the other characters really believe that Hitler is actually just a very convincing method actor. The whole thing is funny because the people are so against Hitler’s ideology but they want to spread the message as far as they can for internet hits and TV ratings.
            The novel is a very interesting read, especially for a fan of History such as me. However, there are so many references to historical German figures that it is impossible to know who they all are and what role they played and that goes for double if you live outside of Germany. There is a handy guide written by the novel’s translator, Jamie Bulloch, which explains everything a non-History buff would need to know but having to flick through to the end of the book to improve the context isn’t exactly ideal.
            Overall, Look Who’s Back provides an eye-opening view on the world we live in where ratings mean everything. I wouldn’t recommend this novel to many people though. Entertaining as it was, reading it becomes effort if you want to understand it fully and likewise, you can get a little lost if you choose to ignore the translator’s guide. But if you like History and mocking celebrity culture, this is definitely the book for you.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

A Novel Look At... The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

If someone was to tell me many years ago that one of the best books I will ever read would be about a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome trying to find the killer of his neighbour’s dog, I would have told them that they were talking absolute nonsense. Yet here I am, having just finished The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, feeling somewhat amazed at how well the story works and simply astounded by the adventure I have been on.
            The novel centres around fifteen year old Christopher Boone whose mind works differently to that of the normal everyday teenager. He loves maths, hates the colour yellow and has a very strict moral code. Though it is never actually stated in the book, young Christopher has Asperger’s Syndrome which means he perceives the world around him in a unique light, favouring logic and science over magic and whimsy. When he learns his neighbour’s poodle has been killed with a garden fork, Christopher decides to become a detective and find the murderer, against the wishes of his father, the police and the dog’s owner. Little does Christopher know that his detective work will uncover more than just the identity of the dog’s killer.
            Christopher is one of the most interesting characters I have come across in the world of literature. His disability hinders him in the most unique manner and his drive to overcome issues such as going further than the end of his street by himself is inspiring. Through Christopher, we see the universe in a way that most of us can’t possibly comprehend. Sure, many of us hate crowds and don’t like talking to strangers but we do it with little fuss because of how hard it is to function in everyday life without doing so. It’s almost scary to think how these acts we take for granted can cripple a person whose brain is wired a little differently.
            Despite the book not being about a funny subject matter, there are many light touches of humour spread throughout. The blank way Christopher addresses the other characters will make you laugh and the bewildered way in which characters react to his actions will put a smile on your face too. Whether endearing or not in real life, your first instinct is to laugh at how certain scenarios play out. I’m sure I wouldn’t find it funny at all if someone pulled a pen-knife on me just because I wanted to know if they were okay but in the realm of the pages, you pretty much have a pass to let out a little chuckle.
            I couldn’t help myself; I flew through this book, utterly engrossed at what I was reading. It was funny and tragic simultaneously and it opened my eyes to a condition that I had next to no knowledge about before I started the novel. I urge everyone to read this book not just for the story but as a tool for understanding how unique people can be.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

A Novel Look At... Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

James Bond is one of the most iconic characters to ever grace the big screen but believe it or not, Mr. Bond actually began life as a book character (I know, who would’ve thought it?) On the front cover of the latest printing, Casino Royale states that ‘there is only one Bond.’ I’m here to tell you that’s absolute nonsense, there are six different Bonds and I’ve seen all six of them so why is this book lying to me? Why lie, spy? But enough about taglines full of deceit, I have a book review to write.
            We join British Secret Service agent, James Bond, as he tries to bankrupt Le Chiffre, the paymaster for Russian counterintelligence agency, SMERSH. Le Chiffre is a keen gambler and an extraordinary card player, risking his organisation’s huge cash flow at the baccarat table. Bond is tasked with defeating Le Chiffre to deplete SMERSH’s funds. As neither side can afford to lose, the two men realise they are not just playing for money; they are playing for their lives.
            When you start reading, you are immediately sucked into a world full of glamour, strolling through the casino, eyes on the rich and powerful winning and losing. It’s a beautiful place with an ugly underside but for all of Ian Fleming’s intricate descriptions, I found myself getting bored. There was so much background information about who was doing what and which country was helping who that I flipped through the book to see when the action picked up. Then there was the game of baccarat itself. Mathis, one of Bond’s accomplices, explains for the benefit of another undercover agent the rules of the game (though really, I’m sure it was an explanation for the readers who didn’t have the foggiest clue how to play). I don’t know how but I was more confused after the explanation than I was before it.
            I didn’t find any of it exciting. I really tried to get into it but I couldn’t. I still read the whole thing through because I paid good money for it but I was dying of boredom and confusion the whole way. Even when the main conflict was resolved, the novel dragged on for about 50 more pages about Bond and his love interest that had no repercussions for the follow-up novel, Live and Let Die (for which there will be no review because I found that to be a tedious read too).
           As an avid reader, I’ve spent most of my life trying (and failing) to convince people that films based on books are never as good as the source material. When it comes to Bond books though, my argument falls flat on its face. Stick to the films because they’re awesome.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Novel Look At... A Time To Kill by John Grisham

No one in my house actually knows where the book came from. I don’t remember buying it, my mum and dad sure as hell didn’t buy it (they don’t really care for reading) and my sisters have very little interest in courtroom thrillers. And yet, a copy of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill has sat on my book shelf, unread, for nearly a decade (I don’t mean that offensively, Mr. Grisham, I’m just very weary about picking up a phantom novel). But, finding myself without a book to read, I finally decided to take it off the shelf and dive in.
            The whole thing begins in a not so cheery way; a rape scene where two rednecks have their way with a ten year old black girl. As a young Brit, I won’t pretend to be an expert on the subject of race in the Deep South during the 1980s, but I’m fairly positive the two rednecks have crossed the line. From there, we follow young but mostly polished lawyer, Jake Brigance, in his quest to defend the father of little girl who has since gone all ‘bang-bang, you’re dead!’ on the men that raped his daughter.
            The novel does a lot, refusing to shy away from big issues such as racism, rape and murder, which was pretty brave considering this was Grisham’s first published piece. However, despite having a lot of material to work with, many situations that were played out just seemed pointless. The introduction of case-chasing lawyer, Marsharfsky, added a fair few pages of filler, Jake’s newly hired female law clerk felt thrown in as a red herring that led to a very disappointing departure and the whole scenario revolving around Jake’s house troubles had no pay off because we never found out his wife’s reaction.
            That being said, I can’t deny the fact that the courtroom drama had me hooked like a highly hookable fish (yes, I do write all my own similes. Aren’t they amazing!). Jake’s cockiness is never overpowering and you can’t help but like the guy especially when paired with his rival, the district attorney, Rufus Buckley. Reading the battle of words between them was exciting, the way they take sly jabs at each other and try to get one up over the other makes for a compelling read. You’ll find your reading pace increases towards the end in desperation to see whether Jake manages to keep his client out of the gas chamber or not.
           There’s a lot going on in this novel and at times it did feel like a bit of a slog to read through. If you do plan on reading A Time to Kill, mentally prepare yourself for a long and heavy ride with a few time-consuming pit stops along the way. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

A Novel Look At... Misery by Stephen King

Stephen King will undoubtedly go down in history as the greatest horror writer of all time. He is a master of scaring the living daylights out of his readers and that’s not necessarily because he likes to write about supernatural spooky things that go ‘bump’ in the night. No, the best thing about King is his ability to conjure up truly terrifying characters that could easily exist in real life and one of his most enduring psychos is the infamous Annie Wilkes from Misery.
            The story follows successful writer, Paul Sheldon, trying to survive in Annie’s mental world full of spilt soup, dope addiction and missing appendages after she rescues him from a car crash which left his body in a bit of a mangled wreck. When Annie reads Paul’s latest novel in the Misery series, she is devastated to learn that he has killed off the titular character. In what she believes is a self-righteous task, Annie goes all cockadoodie coo-coo and tortures the poor man into bring Misery back to life in a new novel.
            What Misery manages to do is create a real sense of fear. Annie Wilkes is not a make-believe boogieman; she is a very plausible character that could be walking through your town at this very moment. King finds a very fine balance between making his writing funny and yet on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspenseful; you’re never sure whether Annie is going to be happy as Larry (whoever Larry is anyway) or fly off the handle. The reader may find Annie’s erratic behaviour amusing but to Paul Sheldon, the sudden change in Annie’s demeanour could literally cost him life and limb.
            One thing that I did find a little jarring about Misery is the novel within the novel; Misery’s Return. I wasn’t overly keen on reading the story being written by Paul but then again, Victorian romance novels have never been my cup of tea (here’s looking at you, Jane Austin, you very boring woman). In some ways, it does help to read through it as you begin to understand why Paul wanted to kill her off so much in the first place and you empathise more with him and the situation he’s in. If you want to skip those passages though, you don’t miss anything important.
            If you’re looking for a different kind of horror book written by the master of the genre then I would I highly suggest reading Misery. The tale is so unique and the characters are so vivid that you will be utterly engrossed from start to finish. 

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Novel Look At... Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

When it comes to deciding what the Great American Novel is, it comes as no surprise that Kurt Vonnegut’s hilarious Breakfast of Champions is left off the list due to the lambasting of the USA’s overzealous patriotism and capitalist society. However, it’s not just the daring attack on American culture that makes this novel so entertaining; the well-written characters play their part in that.
            The story follows mad-as-a-hatter author, Kilgore Trout, on his way to Midland City to speak at the opening of an Arts Centre. We also tag along for the tale of Dwayne Hoover, a Pontiac car dealer who is border-lining on the fringe of insanity. Without giving away too much of the story, the lives of both men change drastically when they finally meet, all observed by the author himself who pops up just to see how everything plays out (isn’t that nice of him?).
            The novel is full of surprising writing techniques that differ greatly from the norm. To start, Vonnegut is a character in the story, offering all of his own opinions and making it clear to the reader that he is capable of manipulating the world which he has created.
            Secondly is Vonnegut’s use of drawings. I found it very refreshing to see illustrations in a book not intended for children. His doodles are funny, thought-provoking, and on occasion, seemingly unconnected to the story at all. They break up the text nicely without distracting from the plot. They are simply offer a view into the author’s mind (and a lovely view of his anus), adding to the overall theme of insanity.
            Breakfast of Champions is still well-received by post-modern readers decades after it was first published and it’s not hard to see why. Today, western society as a whole is obsessed more than ever with the idea of capitalism and consumerism and Vonnegut’s points are as valid now as they have ever been. His depiction of Dwayne Hoover’s descent into insanity mirrors the way it happens today; slowly, under the radar of others, building from the pressures of work and other life issues (Dwayne’s wife had committed suicide).
            This is a novel I would recommend to just about anyone; it’s funny, well written and isn’t afraid to jab at all aspects of American life. A word of warning before you start to read; make sure you don’t have an annoying laugh that will get on the nerves of others because Breakfast of Champions will have you in hysterics.