I've never read a book like The Lovely Bones, and I hope I never do, because its unique viewpoint is what makes it so special. A little girl, Susie Sa...moreI've never read a book like The Lovely Bones, and I hope I never do, because its unique viewpoint is what makes it so special. A little girl, Susie Salmon, is murdered by her neighbour, goes to heaven, and watches her family learn to live their lives without her, unaware that she is watching their every move, longing more than ever to join them again. It is heart-wrenching, not least in its unsentimental, relatively straightforward narration by Susie herself. I was amazed that a book about murder and loss could turn out to be not at all depressing, but optimistic and heart-warming, and would actually recommend it anyone who is struggling to understand the realities of life and death. It may not be a particularly conventional of the afterlife, but therein lies the beauty.(less)
With stunningly visionary foresight, Brave New World is eerily accurate in its attempt to predict the future of the developed world. Aldous Huxley pai...moreWith stunningly visionary foresight, Brave New World is eerily accurate in its attempt to predict the future of the developed world. Aldous Huxley paints a picture of a society which is controlled in every possible way, and displays both the benefits and considerable sacrifices which such an existence requires.
Considering the time at which this novel was written, perhaps the most frightening aspect is the relevancy. Test tube babies; hypnotic, sub-conscious propaganda; an abandonment of history and culture; all are apparent in today's society, for better or worse. Predictions of ridiculously materialistic attitudes and ever-widening social and financial boundaries are rampant in 2009, making Huxley's self-proclaimed satire on utopian dreams ever more appropriate and inspired.
Having been written in 1932, the novel is littered with casual racism and stomach-churningly sexist attitudes, but this is a sign of the times more so than evidence of Huxley's personal beliefs, making it all the more fascinating with comparison to today. What has changed? What has not? Do we live in times which are better than he predicted? Or considerably worse? With well-formed characters and surprisingly unpredictable plot lines, Brave New World tackles the ever-growing desires of human beings to have it all, and comes up with some sinister answers which grow ever more frightening as our world "develops" still further. Despite its outdated vocabulary, this novel will continue to be relevant for many years to come and should serve as a chilling suggestion of what human beings could endure should we reach the so-called perfection we spend our lives striving to achieve.(less)
Bridget Jones's Diary: surely a pre-requisite for any woman living in . . . who has . . . who's been . . . well, just any woman, really?! If you've go...moreBridget Jones's Diary: surely a pre-requisite for any woman living in . . . who has . . . who's been . . . well, just any woman, really?! If you've got a weight issue, are consistently attracted to the "wrong man", have low self-esteem, friends who you always seem to be helping and yet who blatantly have far superior lives to your own, and possibly a penchant for big knickers, then Bridget Jones's Diary is the answer to your prayers. That is, if your prayers are that you are not the only one, and that there must be a funny side to this essentially depressing existence somewhere! And there is - this is it! Bridget is every woman you have ever met, but she is guaranteed a happy ending, with a fabulous man. She is the staunch feminist who just wants a boyfriend. She is the archetypal singleton who only wants to be loved. Yes, the book is based on Pride and Prejudice, but so loosely that Fielding has created not only a new novel but essentially a new category of books. She was one of the first of the appallingly-named "chick-lit" writers (can she even be categorised as such? She deserves better) who created the character we all compare ourselves to, the idea of a writing as a diary (which has been shamelessly stolen on countless occasions since), and humour which has made its way irretrievably into our everyday language. (Fuckwit, anyone? V. gd?) Bridget has achieved the impossible: she can stay the size she is, she can smoke and cry and get pissed on regular occasions, and she will still be loved by said fabulous man. Essentially she gets everything in the end, but without legions of intelligent, well-read women groaning and saying "here we bloody go again - this'll never happen to me", but rather cheering, raising their glasses of Chardonnay in a toast to the chain-smoking, wine-chugging, self-help-book-devouring singleton who won her man, her freedom, and the right to cellulite on her thighs. Yes ladies, you can have it all. Helen Fielding speaks the truth. And if not, you could always read this book again - ten times later and I haven't found my Mr Darcy, but at least I have a smile on my face!(less)
Understandably, the first comment that anyone makes of this book is inevitably shock at the sheer size. At 1,475 pages, it is a labour of love, and th...moreUnderstandably, the first comment that anyone makes of this book is inevitably shock at the sheer size. At 1,475 pages, it is a labour of love, and there are certainly points throughout when you wonder if it will eventually be worth the time, effort, and undoubted wrist ache. I was given it at the start of my gap year, and it has taken me three years - and four countries - to finally steel myself to start reading. I worried that after so much time, and with such high expectations, it would result in disappointment, and no desire to complete the epic read it had taken me so long to begin.
To my surprise, it turned out to be one of the best books I have ever read. Without a doubt, it has its drawbacks, most of which stem from the size; a large one of these is the fact that there are sometimes gaps of several hundred pages between meeting and revisiting a character, and you are expected to remember exactly where and when his or her tale was temporarily halted. Many of the names are also difficult to remember and associate with a certain person, especially from a Western point of view, since they are frequently ones which you may never have come across before. There are many unnecessarily long-winded and drawn-out sections, mostly conversation, which lead my mind to wander on several occasions, and when it comes time to put down the book it is often extremely difficult to make the effort to pick it up again. And certainly, I wondered with alarming regularity whether I would in fact ever reach the end.
Despite these relatively minor quibbles - and perhaps necessary evils - this book is undeniably a masterpiece. A Suitable Boy gives readers with little or no knowledge of Indian history and culture the chance to learn about this fascinating country from an intimate standpoint and many different, and highly believable, points of view. Having been lucky enough to have travelled to India before reading the book, it perhaps struck different chords than it would with someone who has never visited; but this is not to say that a newcomer to the finer details of this country would be any less able to enjoy and appreciate the world Seth has opened up, enhanced, highlighted and developed.
Seth's ultimate mastery lies within characterisation; he has a unique ability to create histories, personalities and lives for even the seemingly most inconsequential of characters. His dialogue is flawless, and effortlessly attributable to the vast numbers of people who pepper the pages. Within a few pages, you instantly care for and sympathise with each one of them, and truly feel their emotions as you follow their lives and journeys; a cliche, perhaps, but true nonetheless, and perhaps the most admirable quality of the novel.
After such a long amount of time spent with the characters, you feel as if you know them inside-out. Having lived their lives for the 18 or so months the book covers, you wonder, as it draws to a close, how Seth will possible draw the novel to an acceptable and satisfactory conclusion. It was with some trepidation that I approached the end of the book, and was delighted to find that, true to form, he drew loose ends together and completed the stories for each character in ways that I had simultaneously never expected and yet completely understood. Lessons are learnt, journeys are made, decisions are reached; life goes on, the world continues to revolve, and you know that even as you turn the final page, the characters will carry on with their lives, unheeded by the lack of constant observation. You have merely been privileged to witness a small slice of their everyday lives in the beautifully evocative city of Brahmpur, and I will forever be grateful to Seth for allowing us an intimate insight into the life and death, city and countryside, politics and history, culture and humanity of this intriguing, fascinating world.(less)
The fantasy genre is a vast one, stretching across historical, fantastical, sci-fi and more. At first glance it appears to be an easy genre to pick; d...moreThe fantasy genre is a vast one, stretching across historical, fantastical, sci-fi and more. At first glance it appears to be an easy genre to pick; don't worry about reality or the laws of physics, simply make it up as you go along. In fantasy, there are no rules.
Certainly, this is what puts off a lot of people from books attached to this tag. My mother, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get mathematician, has a morbid hatred of all things fantastical. Her scientific mind baulks at the notion that one can simply bend the laws of what can and can't be done to fit in with the confines - or lack thereof - of a story. For without boundaries, there can be no reality. Without guidelines, there can be no art. Even the most free-flowing and seemingly liberated artistic endeavours are governed by rules of some sort. So why should fantasy novels be any different?
Of course, this is why there are so many dire fantasy books on the market. This is where the authors get it wrong. There *must* be rules and laws to follow, or else the imagination will get lost amongst the endless questions and meandering trains of thought. You can't see the wood from the trees. So, the best fantasy novels have clear guidelines as to what can and can't happen, from the very beginning. The most effective, and most well-loved, have a clear basis in fact and reality, a firm foothold in what we, the human race at the beginning of the 21st century in England (current dimension) recognise to be true and believable. The best serialised fantasy novels have impossible dilemmas and crucial turning points based solely on rules which were introduced at the very beginning and can only now be recognised for their true worth and weight.
Philip Pullman has created a successful and beautifully written trilogy because he hasn't blindly gone into a make-believe world of odds and ends and half-baked ideas he thought it would be nice to pop in. His themes are clear from the start, and are based on well-established arguments and books which have already been written. He has taken the suggestions - and even the words - of others, and woven them into a story which is quite unique, and yet which will seem almost recognisable to those of us who believe that there is a little more to the world than meets the eye.
Taking on the vast and highly sensitive subject of religion is never easy, especially when one wants to delve into the philosophical reasoning behind why it first came into being and how people continue its existence. Yet Pullman, with the grace of a magician, conjures up explanations and references to answer all the questions the reader may posit. It would be extremely easy for hardcore religious nuts to dismiss the novel as heretical and forgoe even opening the first page, but it would be the greatest mistake they have ever made. Pullman's arguments for and against religion and the human concept of "god" is so deeply thought-out and finely tuned that everyone - atheist, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim - should consider his words, and marvel at his calm reasoning. Whether or not you agree with his imaginings is another matter entirely, but to ignore them completely would be devastating, for although you do not need to believe in them, they should open up your mind to the realm of possibilities, and not the philosophical "facts" we have been presented with all of our lives. To wind this questioning into a story wherein one cares so hugely for the characters and their plight is simply a stroke of genius.
Pullman is never shy in admitting his influences; in fact, in the acknowledgments at the back of The Amber Spyglass, he even goes so far as to say that all of his best work is directly down to the genius of others. The modesty is tangible, but unfounded. The fundamental concept may have been based on other works, but his storytelling is unrivalled, and his imagination boundless. Still, it is a pleasure to see referenced quotes from William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Milton, among others, peppered liberally throughout the book. He is not shy in admitting that works like these do not spring from the earth, but from careful study, and the careful study of others, not just one himself. Perhaps this is where the pitiful fantasy writers make their original error. Sadly the poorest of these novels are unresearched, unfounded, and unclear, and written in a darkened room with the access to the real world; the undeniable concrete base of all good art. What is art, but a reflection of the world? What is religion, but a reflection of ourselves? What is death, but a reflection of life? Pullman answers questions but asks a great deal more, and leaves the reader with a sense of wonderment as well as completion; of love, and hope, as well as despair for the sacrifice of others.
Perhaps the greatest fantasy writers are successful because they make us see something in ourselves and in our own world which we would not otherwise have seen. The world has not changed since I read His Dark Materials, but I have. Pullman gives us the opportunity to see the beauty and the love in the world, by taking us to other universes without us leaving the comfort of our own. He presents us with impossible sights without us questioning their authenticity. He teaches us to love and question, and take nothing at face value. His novel is, if anything, a gentle lesson in why we should appreciate our own world and not wish for others . . . and more than that, how the actions of one person can change everything. Question, learn, educate, believe, appreciate, try, hope and love. All vitalities which can and should be integral to life in any universe, in any world, in any country. Not sure how to integrate these activities into your everyday life? Read the books. Learn the possibilities. Pullman will show you how.(less)
Although “The Constant Princess” has never been recommended to me specifically, the enthusiastic response to “The Other Boleyn Girl” – Gregory’s most...moreAlthough “The Constant Princess” has never been recommended to me specifically, the enthusiastic response to “The Other Boleyn Girl” – Gregory’s most well-known novel – was enough to encourage my purchase of it a couple of years ago. She is touted as a fabulously emotive historical fiction writer, and yet my initial response was to discard it after I had read the first couple of pages. Roll on 18 months, and my recent second attempt at ploughing my way through was barely underway before I remembered what it was that had put me off from finishing the introductory chapter, let alone the novel, the first time around.
To be fair to the author, my biggest gripe is less to do with her and more a fault with the editing. It’s a shame that they don’t give the name of the specific editor on the publication page in novels, because he or she would probably never work again. The oversights in this book were so progressively irritating that I was almost on the phone to HarperCollins begging them to fire the fool who created such a shambles out of an already questionable manuscript.
The most common issue was the punctuation. It was a disaster. The misuse of commas was almost painful; thrown around with wild abandon where semi-colons or full stops would have worked infinitely better. Now, I admit that I am a grammar Nazi and that the majority of readers would probably not be worked up into such a fluster by a few misplaced dots and squiggles, but the fact is that the ideal novel should read smoothly and cleanly, with no attention paid to the punctuation whatsoever. Just like theatre stagehands and butlers, stops and commas are noticeable only when they’ve made a mistake. Do their job properly and they should fade into the background, embedded neatly into the lines of the story, allowing a flow of semantic traffic like a well-placed literary roundabout. When you start to notice, comment upon, and get angry at the comma situation, you know there’s a problem. And it wasn’t just once or twice, but several times . . . on every page. Whilst I acknowledge that perfect punctuation in the English language is a endless and thankless debate with no clearly defined boundaries or answers, quite frankly an editor should have at least have a fundamental working knowledge of the use of commas. This is a person who works with words for a living; and he or she has even less of an excuse when the language and style is as basic as this.
And so to my second point: vocabulary. Apparently the average person has a vocabulary of approximately 30,000 words. Journalists can claim between 50 and 70,000, and Shakespeare’s limit supposedly ran up to six figures (although admittedly he made most of them up himself). Gregory would have trouble bypassing 1,000. The monotony of her descriptions astounded me, especially with such passionate claims on the cover that she is able to “bring the sights, sounds and smells of 16th century England to life”. I wonder whether the critic and I were reading the same book – or if her publisher cannily chopped off the start of the sentence, which began “certainly does not”. She frequently uses the same adjective in one sentence, which is beyond lazy, and into the realm of questionable literary sanity. Shift+F7 will conjure up a list of basic Microsoft Word alternatives for the most inactive of authors, and one would hope that a writer as prolific as Gregory might have a real-life thesaurus to hand. Apparently, however, she does not. Repetition and inane lexicon aside, her descriptions are vapid and uninspiring, as is the fictional love story upon which the entire novel is based.
Katherine of Aragon no doubt had a fascinating life. From cradle to grave, she was surrounded by figures who would become steeped in history and legend, and she herself performed and was party to deeds and occurrences which had an enormous effect on the political and geographical future of Europe. And yet, despite all this, Gregory STILL manages to paint her as two-dimensional and forgettable. I never really cared about her, or anybody else. Again with the editing, some parts of her life were impossibly drawn out, whilst others were glossed over in a matter of sentences. The whole thing reads like a historical Mills & Boon, and not a particularly fascinating one at that.
After finishing the book, and remembering embarrassingly little of my history, I had a quick glance through the Tudor queen’s Wikipedia page, to bring myself up to date on the later years of her life. It concerned me somewhat that the brief, yet detailed, amateur article was far more captivating than the entire novel I had just read – and gave me more information than Gregory had managed into the bargain. The fictional relationships and descriptions are simply dull, which is beyond frustrating since this was all Gregory had to work at in order to create an interesting novel. She was handed the ideal subject on a plate; a fascinating woman, surrounded by myths and legends, with exotic royal parents and married to arguably the most famous monarch of all time. The story was basically written for her; all she had to do was fill in the gaps, and make up some interesting fluff to pad out the pages and make it into a rip-roaring read. Quite how she managed to fail so spectacularly, and make an interesting story into a boring book, is beyond me. Next time I’ll just stick to Wikipedia!(less)
Having been a little disappointed by my only other foray into Amy Tan territory - an audiobook of The Bonesetter's Daughter, listened to whilst living...moreHaving been a little disappointed by my only other foray into Amy Tan territory - an audiobook of The Bonesetter's Daughter, listened to whilst living in China - I began reading The Hundred Secret Senses with some trepidation, but ultimately an open mind. My boss had lent me her unread copy of the book, asking me to give her my opinion, and I hoped that I would thoroughly enjoy it and hand it back with my blessings and encouragement to get stuck in as soon as possible. I intended to finish The Hundred Secret Senses and finally get around to reading The Kitchen God's Wife, which I've had on my to-read list for several years.
Sadly, this was not to be the case. Basic writing, dull storylines, and forced supernatural elements were the least of my issues with this badly-written, seemingly rushed and uinteresting book. The story is told by our unlikely (and unloveable) heroine Olivia, in the first person, a style I tend to find somewhat grating almost every time I encounter it, and something to which Tan has not enamoured me in any way. Choosing not to delve deep into the intertwining cultural, philosophical and emotional strands of Olivia's psyche but rather to deliver shallow, generic observations from a shallow, generic American woman, she totally misses the point of this potentially useful tool.
A quote from a critic on the front extolls the virtues of Tan's characters, describing them as "leaping off the page". Frankly, I wonder if she read the same book as me. The narrator is a bitchy, selfish, cold woman, but not to the extent that I am able to "love-to-hate" her. She is frustratingly two-dimensional, with few positive traits to make me wish her well. I found myself bored by her constant complaints, irritated by her lack of compassion and compromise, and appalled by her treatment of the ever-loving sister around whom the story is woven. Yet none of these emotions were strong enough to give me a sense of empathy or affection for the character, even in a negative sense. In fact, I simply found her transparent and easily forgettable. Of course, no person is perfect, and perhaps Tan is simply trying to make us aware of this fact; but the problem is that I do not wish this character well, and I have no innate desire for her to be happy. It's very difficult to read a book told from the point of view of a person the author clearly feels that you should love and admire when you assuredly do not, but it's even harder when it's about someone for whom - quite frankly - you don't give a rat's arse. Her half-hearted apologies for her attitude and actions are so lukewarm as to be dismissed out of hand, and I simply felt sorry for her long-suffering sister and husband . . . for the short spates of time I felt any emotion towards Tan's half-baked characters at all.
The supernatural elements of the story were a good concept, but failed miserably in practice. They seemed forced, partially-developed; uninspiring and pointless. If the aim was to create a family drama with a supernatural twist, it didn't work. Instead my reaction was that the novel was another bog-standard, sibling-rivalry, "oh my mother was so mean to me", generic family drama with little to distinguish it other than some ghostly references crowbarred in for good measure. They jarred with the storyline and would, perhaps, have made for an interesting novel on their own had they been better developed and played a larger, deeper part in an otherwise unexceptional book.
Tan's descriptions of family life in modern rural China, the rolling mountains of Guanxi and the historical tales of the invaded Middle Kingdom are well-executed and interesting to read. She clearly has a genuine and deep love not only for her own people and homeland, but the history behind both of them. Her enthusiasm and joy comes through in the passages when she is describing the most mundane of tasks, in the most basic of settings; but this, perhaps, is where she should limit her tales. Trying to make them up-to-date by forcing the juxtaposition of tradtional China with modern-day San Francisco is a gamble which did not pay off, simply because the sections of the story which take place in America are lacklustre and boring. Is it because she doesn't care as much? Possibly. It's more likely that no-one's bothered to tell her a few home truths: namely that she's not a bad writer, but has simply mired herself in the style and trappings of a bit-part novelist and trapped the genuine talent and love for her country and history underneath a thick skin of Americanised rubbish.
There is, of course, a strong possibility that Tan's intention was to contrast the hidden boredom of American life, with all of its goals, accomplishments and targets with the hidden joy of Chinese life, free as it is of deadlines, assessment criteria, appropriate spouses and 2.4 children. Maye she deliberately wrote the first half of the novel with thinly-veiled unenthusiasm, creating two-dimensional characters with little to endear them to the reader so that one would be forced to "look deeper" and see the real emotion underneath the uninspiring written words. But I doubt it. I think that whilst that may have been her intention, it backfired by being, simply, not very interesting . . . and with no hidden agenda to save it from itself.
Tan writes simple books with dot-to-dot plotlines, ideal for someone who wants an easy introduction into the shallower waters of recent Chinese history. Other than that, I don't have a lot with which to recommend her novels; and The Kitchen God's Wife has been struck off my list for the forseeable future.(less)