Sunday, 24 June 2012

Book #59 The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot

In the opening of this novel Jeffrey Eugenides sets forth what is meant by "The Marriage Plot" via his lead character Madeline who is an English graduate. "The Marriage Plot" is the sort of novel that was written by Austen in the likes of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and Madeline's tutor espouses the belief that "a marriage plot" was the epitome of what a novel ought to be about and that a novel isn't a good one without one.

Thus Eugenides begins his own 1980's set "marriage plot novel"in which heroine Madeline must choose between her angst riddled relationship with intense but unpredictable bipolar sufferer Leonard and sensible theologian suitor  Mitchell whose desire for her she has somewhat exploited.

All are graduates from Rhode Island Ivy League institution Brown and the novel is deeply imbued with academia, from semiotics to biology to theology, there is a lot of intense intellectual discussion from earnest young people, because I am in some ways that sort of person, this aspect of the novel didn't bother me or at least didn't bother me to the point of annoyance but I imagine it could prove irritating for other people less concerned in the lofty ideals and bombastic opinions of the educationally privileged. 

I believe that his depiction of Leonard was a fairly good portrait of the average bipolar experience and think it might prove interesting for people wanting to know more about that experience. As a result of personal interests I preferred Mitchell, nominally Greek Orthodox but with a developing interest in Catholicism who travels through Europe and India having, for a change, what doesn't feel like a cliched spiritual journey.

The problem with this novel is that as I realised I was reaching the end, I thought to myself "but, this novel isn't nearly finished" the ending, like a film which suddenly cuts to black, is abrupt, though the marriage plot is resolved the novel is left feeling like someone cut the end off with scissors with one character in particular having zero resolution in terms of plot. As a separate issue I found his general comments about English undergraduates somewhat insulting, having been one myself once.

My first words upon finishing were "disappointing conclusion" which is a shame for a well written novel I was up til that point really enjoying . 8/10

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Book #58 Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch

Whispers Underground

Whispers Underground is the third book of Ben Aaronovitch's The Folly series charting the career of PC Peter Grant who in the original novel Rivers Of London was drafted into the magic department of the police force.

Firstly, I love the world which Aaronovitch has created here with The Folly, I like Peter Grant and Lesley May, and the cast of supporting characters. I enjoyed the fact that the Folly Universe was expanded with this novel to include new kinds of "different people" and "unexplained phenomena".

I enjoyed the return of the sassy Rivers girls, who are all great characters, but, I would have liked to have seen Peter and Lesley learn more spells and develop more skills, though I like the conversational style of narrative I felt like there was a lot of moments of hasty exposition, to justify how Peter knew something or could do something, as though the author came up with a cool idea, then realised, after the fact that there had to be a reasonable explanation for this development.

I also found it a little odd that the story of the Ethically Challenged Magician which was our cliffhanger from Moon Over Soho was only continued on from the previous book in a minor sense.

Though the "I won't tell anyone about this because they won't believe me and think I'm mental" is a handy Get Out Of Jail Free card for  explaining how information about these phenomena doesn't break into the public sphere, I also believe it's a truism, which makes it useful for the author!

I did feel a bit "Clay pots and plates?...couldn't it have been something a bit more...magical...?" about the objects of interest but I liked the cliffhanger and I look forward to the fourth. 7/10

The White Lie by Andrea Gillies

The White Lie

Regular readers will note that this book unlike all my other blogposts is not preceded with a number informing my readership where I'm up to in the 100 books challenge, this is because The White Lie has the ignominious distinction of being the first book this year that I have failed to finish, and only the second novel in the last two years.

The novel is the story of the Salter extended family. Its narrator Michael is dead, and his death and the complex circumstances around it continue to haunt the family. I began the book and read about 25% of it according to my Kindle, but I wasn't enjoying it. I didn't like the style, nor the characters, found the plot though initially intriguing lacking in credibility, that such a big scandal could or particularly WOULD  be covered up by such a large number of people of all ages over such an extended period of time. I also found the relationship definitions (as in who is whose sister, cousin etc) between characters confusing.

I left it and read something else, but I found when I re-opened it and came back to it, I just didn't want to carry on, I didn't care and I wasn't engaged, and I simply couldn't face plodding on interminably over what was a large percentage of book remaining. I bought this novel because of the sheer amount of 5 star reviews on Amazon, and now find myself utterly amazed by them, I don't know what I missed that seemed to click with so many, but blimey this book was boring.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Book #57 The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Steadman

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans is a post WW1 Australian set novel about  Tom Sherbourne who having been demobbed gets a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock. Soon after he marries and he and his wife come to love their isolated idyll. Their paradise becomes tainted by their inability to have children and following her third miscarriage Isabel is cracking under the strain of the grief, when one night a boat is shipwrecked on their shores..... it contains a dead man and a newborn baby. Believing God has answered their prayers Isabel persuades Tom not to report the wreck and they pass the child off as their own.

But though he loves the child, the actions wrack Tom with guilt for years to come.....

This novel is a stunning debut on the part of M.L Steadman and covers such a range of emotions and reactions. Guilt, grief, sacrifice, morality, love, marriage, parenthood, loss, time, change, duty, truth. Above all it is achingly human, and provokes the same dilemma in its reader as in its protagonist.

I am quite a cynic these days, and on top of that a well read one, so it isn't that often that I find a novel with the capacity to move me to tears, but this novel did. Its location is atmospheric and beautifully drawn, the sea and the windswept isolation of the island; even with the unusual parameters of the storyline the novel feels gutwrenchingly real, of a place and time and characters who existed as opposed to an entirely fictitious prospect.

Enormously moving and brilliantly told. I won't forget this book in a hurry nor the emotions that rose within me as I read it. A quality piece of writing and a quality novel, I hugely recommend you purchase this book. 10/10

Book #56 The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song Of Achilles
The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize 2012 about a week or so ago and rarely has a book been so worthy of the accolades it has received.

The story of Patroclus an exiled Prince, who is befriended by Achilles, Prince Of Phthia, the novel charts their lives together from childhood to adolescence to the Trojan war.

For me this book was flawless, just flawless, it got me from the first page onwards and I sat smiling at it as I read it, so pleased was I with the knock out quality of the prose. Tender, beautiful, dramatic, atmospheric, touching, heartbreaking. This book is all these things.

Moreover the characters leap off the page. Known from The Iliad, they become rounded humans in Miller's reworking and are beautifully realised. Particularly, I could feel Thetis before me, smelling of salt and choking the earth beneath her feet, with the threat of power all around her.

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, thoroughly believable is the obvious star of the show, but the relationship between Briseis and Patroclus is both touching and sad.

I was blown away by this book and I think everyone who reads it should be. A Herculean piece of work in order to portray the Trojan war and an obvious labour of love, I can only thank Madeline Miller for providing me and other readers with it.     

Though it has the obvious attraction for anyone into Ancient Greece and Greek Myths it utterly transcends that. If you love reading, if you love books you need this book in your life, you will not be sorry you spent your money. An outstanding achievement 10/10

Book #55 A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

A Handful Of Dust

Given that 'A Handful Of Dust' takes its title from the line 'I will show you fear in a handful of dust' from TS Eliot's the Waste Land, I anticipated that the novel would be somehow a psychological thriller.

Instead A Handful Of Dust is a black comedy novel about Brenda and Tony Last who live comfortably in Tony's ancestral home with their son John Andrew, they are part of wider High Society and both receive parties of visitors and attend parties elsewhere.

Brenda, who has become bored engages in a dalliance with a young man, apparently something that many women of her status have been known to do, but when things go too far their ordinary life is shattered.

The back of my copy states that the reader doesn't know whose side Waugh is on, but to my mind it was definitely Tony's, and Waugh sets out to paint a picture of women in society of that era, who can and do ruin men for the sake of it and get off unblemished. It's quite a modern outlook if you consider that the maxim in most divorces is that "the woman gets the lot".

A Handful Of Dust is often funny with plenty of darkly comic moments, such as when Tony, who is innocent of wrongdoing attempts to be indiscreet to avoid a scandal for Brenda. Tony is a tragicomic long suffering figure, and several points are made about the imbalance in acceptable standards.

The end is one of the weirdest endings I have ever read in a novel. Truly bizarre. But, the ultimate message seems to promote the argument that men, rather than women are disposable as long as society at large is happy. Thought provoking. 7/10

Book #54 Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart, the title taken as a quote from a Yeats poem is the story of tribesman Okonkwo, a man who has worked hard within his tribe to achieve recognition having suffered the burden of an embarrassing father. A number of unfortunate incidents befall Okonkwo and he is forced into exile. Upon his return white colonialists have come to his village, and nothing will ever be the same again.

A relatively short novel by any standards, Things Fall Apart shows tribal life before European colonisation reflects upon morality, belonging and social standing within different cultural norms to our own. It also shows the beginning of what became the almost total erosion of tribal culture due to Western interference. This gives cause for reflection because whilst the West generally had a negative impact in its dealings with Africa, certain horrible cultural acts based upon superstition such as leaving twins to die of exposure in the forest vanish too.

It reminded me of a somehow reverse Heart Of Darkness, however I did not feel that the ending rang true to Okonkwo's character of spirit.  A good book, and given its brevity worth the time it takes to read it. Part of me would have liked a longer, more detailed novel, which said more and followed history as it had developed over time 7/10

Book #53 The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

The Quincunx

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser was recommended to me by Internet buddy Helen who knows I like Victoriana style literature. In The Quincunx a young boy named John grows up under a cloud, his mother alludes to their being in danger but does not state what this danger is, and they live under a false name.

I could not decide whether this book, a story of an extended family's fight over a will was a homage to Dickens or mocking Dickens, it certainly feels like a satire and therefore mocking of the sort of thing that Dickens produced. There are elements of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield and most fundamentally Bleak House throughout the entire tale. Henrietta for example reminded me of Estella and the character of Bissett reminded me of a female Uriah Heep.

There is plenty of suspense and action as John lurches from disastrous episode to disastrous episode, but I found I became infuriated by how often he is repeatedly tricked and cheated, suspects the wrong people and doesn't trust the right ones and ends up in a worst state than he was in before.

The book incites genuine feeling in the reader which not all books manage to do. In this book, it's severe irritation in the early stages with both conniving servant Bissett and foolish mother Mary. Others such as Miss Quilliam manage to pull off both respect and pity. So in that manner it is a well written novel because you do genuinely care.

One of the things I liked best about The Quincunx particularly in the initial stages was that the shadowy figures pulling the strings behind the scenes are not initially referred to as who they are but by what they represent. Power, Justice, Equity, Law. You don't know who they are, but you know what they are I thought this was clever. The mystery aspect too is genuinely intricate.

On the other hand the inter connections and general ancestral history of the family are (probably deliberately) highly convoluted and genuinely confusing. Towards the end it feels farcical, as heirs seem to sprout up from every corner. The Quincunx at over 1,000 pages long is quite the task to read in terms of sheer man hours, and in my opinion could have been pared back by about 400 pages.

A good book, but only if you like the style of writing of Dickens and his peers . 8/10 

Book #52 Every Contact Leaves A Trace by Elanor Dymott

Every Contact Leaves A Trace

Every Contact Leaves A Trace is the story of Alex Petersen and his wife Rachel Cardadine who are Oxford graduates. One evening they attend a dinner at their former college at the invitation of a tutor but when Rachel goes walking alone, she is suddenly murdered, leaving Alex at a loss to know what happened.

Despite beginning with a murder, barely nothing happens throughout this book, a man muses on the sudden death of his wife and gets a new outlook on her past via her affectionate poetry tutor. The smell of elitism and snobbery wafts off the page and none of the characters are particularly likeable. Widower Alex Petersen is terminally dull whilst Godmother Evie is laughably pantomime.

As the truth about what happened to Rachel finally emerges the book becomes entirely ludicrous. The motivation for and execution of her murder is ridiculous; overblown in its utter absurdity, and there is a total absence of believability. In reference to Evie it again lacks all credulity that she would cut Rachel off for her extremely minor in the relative face of it youthful transgressions or indeed be so close to inhuman in her lack of compassion to both widower Alex and god-daughter Rachel whilst living. More importantly until Alex begins to be filled in on the background and some semblance of truth emerges, this book, is I hate to say it, extremely boring or at least it was to me. Dull as dishwater I was both skimming and page counting willing it to just end already. 3/10