Friday, October 29, 2010

Sleep No More, Greg Iles (The Great Library Challenge author I)

Posted by lea at 11:33 AM 1 comments Links to this post
I had a hard time choosing an I author for my Great Library Challenge because I'd read most of the ones suggested to me (thanks for the suggestions LO and FB) and my local library had only a single shelf of I authored books. So I simply chose the author most represented in that section (with 4 books, Greg Iles had 30% of the shelf space market at Surry Hills Library) and chose the book that sounded most interesting.

Although it's not the sort of book I'd normally choose, the case for Sleep No More was strengthened by Stephen King's recommendation on the cover: 'a thriller that really thrills, a shocker that really shocks'.

Was it really? I tentatively read the first few chapters, prepared to swap the book for another I author if I didn't enjoy it, but the next thing you know, I was halfway into the story with no intention of stopping. It really was a thriller that thrilled.

The premise is that John Waters, an oil well driller with a good business and generally happy family, is suddenly approached by a strange woman who purports to be imbued with the spirit of his ex-lover, an obsessed fatal-attraction type who was raped and murdered 10 years ago. She claims that through the act of sex, a portal is created whereby she can overtake the use of her 'host's' body through orgasm (I know the temptation to laugh is strong, but resist. It gets chilling.).

His incredulousness turns to fear when she starts to prove that it's really her - it took her 10 years to make her way to him (like a game of 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon) from the man who raped and murdered her all the way into the body of an attractive young woman in his hometown in Mississippi, but now she's back and she still wants him all to herself.

Sleep No More combines horror and suspense with elements of supernatural fantasy to make a very compelling read. There were only two points in the book when I fell out of the spell, through an overused cliché or lame turn of phrase, but otherwise I was pretty engrossed.

It's a shame that the climax was rather unsatisfactory and lets down the build up that Iles achieves, but a plot like this is understandably difficult to resolve. It's just unfortunate that the final pages (which still manage to elicit a certain number of chills) takes it from a cinema-worthy psycho-sexual thriller (of the chilling rather than titillating kind) to a midday movie.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Radleys, Matt Haig (The Great Library Challenge author H)

Posted by lea at 4:53 PM 1 comments Links to this post
The Radleys appear to be a very normal family living a white picket fence life: Peter the doctor, Helen the artist and their two kids Rowan and Clara, who are rather average if a little intolerant to sunlight, quite pale and somewhat sickly.

Noone suspects that the members of this suburban family are actually vampires - especially not the kids, who don't know themselves, until one night, Clara defends herself against a bully and bites his hand. With her first taste of blood, the Radley secret comes spilling out.

This was my first foray into vampire fiction, and like Clara, I liked it. Matt Haig writes deliberately sparse prose that is free from unnecessary flourish, excess drama or gratuitous violence. There's a certain elegance to the writing, which I imagine is something that sets it apart from modern vampire fiction (think Stephanie Myer).

Peter and Helen are abstainers (vampires who choose not to drink blood), who have turned away from their blood-soaked past for the sake of their children. After seventeen years of cover ups and lies, they are forced to deal with their identity to help their children navigate their way around the background of who they really are. It's a family drama in which vampirism is a suppressed form of life, that once unleashed can't be contained. But more than that, it's about learning to accept oneself, and in a strange way, the acceptance of their vampire identities make them more human.

Though it's not a comedy, there is some humour in the novel, which mostly comes from the account of prominent vampires in the past: Lord Byron, Jimi Hendrix (one vampire school of thought says they're one and the same, Lord Byron simply having adopted a new identity for a new generation), David Bowie, and more obviously, Bram Stoker. Peter's brother Will (an unashamed practising vampire whose entry into the household wreaks havoc) says Prince's musical decline happened when he chose to become an abstainer. LOL

The Radleys is an enjoyable novel, not in the sense that it's fun or funny, but because it's a well written story that, at its core, is about being empowered by being yourself. It's a story that, ironically unlike vampires, has a soul.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Third Twin, Ken Follett (The Great Library Challenge author F)

Posted by lea at 2:23 PM 3 comments Links to this post
With around 20 books under his belt, Ken Follett is one heck of a prolific writer, so I thought I'd see what the bother was all about.

The Third Twin is a thriller about the genetic cloning debate and the dangerous mystery that its feisty (and of course attractive) protagonist, university researcher Dr Jeannie Ferrami, stumbles upon.

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious literary wanker, based on this novel alone I have to say that Ken Follett is a great storyteller but not a great writer. The Third Twin is a very fast-paced and absorbing novel, but the narrative voice isn't always believable, and is at times downright awkward.

Firstly, the good bits. It's a hefty book but easy to read, and I couldn't put it down. The story races very quickly (and not at all believably) in the course of a single week or so, in which Dr Jeanne discovers a major cover-up, gets her life threatened several times and takes down the big powerful bad guys.

But the bad bit is that the characters are extremely one-dimensional and while it has a whip-cracking pace, it has no emotional depth whatsoever. The story of Jeannie's raped friend was particularly unmoving and unconvincing. The dialogue is sparse at best and awkward at worst, and the narrative has some major holes and employs a lot of cliches.

To be kind, I'd say it's probably a story for its time. Being published in 1996, it was possibly even ahead of its time. But now, in light of all the more sophisticated and polished stories of a similar vein, it smacks of amateurishness. We've become accustomed to authors who research their topics in depth to maintain narrative integrity, but it feels like this book was written in a hurry with nothing but the broadest ideas about the complex topic it's based on.

Ken Follett paved the story for writers like John Grisham – great airport novelists, but Pulitzer Prize material they ain't. As long you know what to expect, I think you can enjoy his extensive range of published novels, because after all, we all need a good airport novel sometimes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert: book and movie review (also the Great Library Challenge author G)

Posted by lea at 11:13 AM 1 comments Links to this post
Eat Pray Love the book

It wasn't the easiest thing to get into and I must admit I would've left it only half-finished if the movie wasn't coming out so soon. However, I'm glad I finished it because the latter half was better than the first.

It's as though Elizabeth Gilbert distilled her personal diary to write this book – it has the intimacy and warmth of someone not holding anything back, but it's also very beautifully written so you know she's crafted her words and stories carefully to bring the best of her experience to paper.

I started off skeptical – after all, it's about a privileged New Yorker running out on her marriage and real life to spend a year in exotic locations 'finding herself' – but I ended up won over. It's not just about her running away, but also running towards. She's seeking something more than herself (God) while seeking to find herself, and it becomes a spiritual journey where, by the end, she discovers contentment and a self-identity that she seems not to have had before. Who can argue with that?

Eat Pray Love the movie

Despite the presence of Julia Roberts and the lush international scenery, Eat Pray Love doesn't really work as a movie because ultimately the story is boring to watch on screen. It's such an intimate spiritual journey that most of the action happens in the interior, which doesn't translate well to an audience who expects a climactic movie experience.

Apart from the breakdown of her marriage in the beginning, there are no major highs or lows – it's all a very linear journey of self-discovery. At times, especially the beginning, the movie felt like a string of 'this is a re-enactment' scenes from a reality TV show – especially the use of that hazy filter and backlighting the first time she goes to Bali. Then the showdown scene between her and Felipe (Javier Bardem) at the end just didn't ring true to me at all. Maybe it's because it didn't happen in the book, but I was totally prepared for them to deviate from the plot of the book (in fact I expected it), but even then the whole scene seemed rather a false attempt to create some dynamic in an otherwise flat movie plot.

My conclusion

I thought that the critics were unduly harsh about the story when the first movie reviews came out, but I can see why they would have come to that conclusion now. In the movie, you don't get the full in-depth experience that you do with the book, so it's easy to overlook the whole thing as the self-indulgent whims of a Western woman.

In fact to be honest, that's how I first felt when the book topped all the bestseller lists and caused such a scene in the book-reading world. I avoided it for a long time and only decided to read it finally because I watched Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk and thought she sounded awfully wise and well-grounded.

After reading her book, I'm more convinced of that assessment. It is a wise book, full of lessons learned and lots of humour too. She has a great writing voice, and there were a lot of moments that resonated with me as a reader, which I'm sure is why the book was so popular.

Now onto H of my Great Library Challenge. I decided on Matt Haig and wanted to read The Radleys, but the library didn't have it so I'm now waiting for my book to arrive from the Book Depository. Any suggestions for an author beginning with 'I' would be appreciated because Surry Hills library only has a single short shelf for I, which consists of approximately 11 books only. Help!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Great Library Challenge: Fforde, Jasper The Eyre Affair

Posted by lea at 4:06 PM 1 comments Links to this post
'Ingenious - I'll watch Jasper Fforde nervously'
Terry Pratchett

After reading this quote by Terry Pratchett, I couldn't resist picking this book for my F author in the Great Library Challenge. I can see why Fforde has been likened to Pratchett - he creates a nonsensical world of parallel reality, injects a good dose of humour and drives the plot at a furious pace.

The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a SpecOps agent in the LiteraTec department, who quickly becomes embroiled in the chase for the evil Acheron Hades. Hades is hellbent on wreaking havoc in the literary world - by which Fforde means the real literary world of fiction - and enters Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre manuscript with an intent to sabotage.

Next's chase leads her to Swindon, where she manages to cross time barriers, parry with her ex- for whom she still harbours a flame, incur the wrath of the powerful Jack Schitt (yes that's really his name) and follow Hades into Jane Eyre to change the course of the story.

Next is a protagonist you can really grow to like. She's tough, self-deprecating and smart, even though she doesn't have it altogether. The fact that she's flawed is a lot of her charm, and returning to her Swindon hometown throws her square into the path of her ex-, Landon Parke-Laine, and her quirky family (time-crossing father, absent-minded mother, multi-religious brother, Aunt Polly and brilliant Uncle Mycroft - whose name was apparently borrowed from Sherlock Holmes' genius brother).

Any literary snob (or anyone with pretensions to literary snobbery) with some smarts and a sense of humour will love this book. There are some very funny ideas that often stretch the bounds of belief, woven through with enough intelligence and classic literary knowledge to make them believable. (Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays? How many John Miltons can one town contain?) I'm sure I missed or only half-got some of the references, because my literary perch is not that lofty.

It's an enjoyable romp that manages to suspend your belief and throw a smile on your face. Apparently this is the first of a series of novels about Thursday Next, but I'm not sure if I'll continue with it right now. I get my good dose of silly and witty and Pratchett, Gaiman and Holt.

Onto my G author: I've chosen Elizabeth Gilbert, because I've been halfway through her book for ages now, but haven't been able to finish. I'm taking this opportunity to finish the book before the movie comes out and knock down my G author with one stone.

On a side note, I've found myself really embarrassed to carry Eat Pray Love around because I fear I'll be mistaken for 'one of those women'. However, I was totally won over by her TED talk on creativity, which spurred me to read her book, and I want to finish it now so I can make up my own mind whether it deserves its early acclaim or, more recently, the disdain that the movie has been receiving.

Monday, October 11, 2010

2010 third quarter reading round up

Posted by lea at 1:56 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Brief review of books read between July-September 2010:

The Diary of Anne Frank
This is a particularly moving read because we know the author's fate before we begin (for anyone who's lived under a rock for the last 50 years, Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who died in a concentration camp during WWII), but even without allowing for the fact that it was written by a 13-15 year old, it's a really well-written account of her life in hiding during the war, and it's an oddly intimate experience reading someone else's diary. She was a really lovely person, honest and refreshing and hopeful even against all hope - no wonder it's such a classic.

Daddy Longlegs, Jean Webster
This is a lovely book (written in 1912) in the form of letters from an orphan to her benefactor, who sends her to college. It's a coming-of-age story and a love story in one, which I remembered reading and loving at around 13 years old. It was just as good as I remembered. You can read it for free on project gutenberg.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, MA Shaffer & A Burrows
Whilst I love the idea that this book was the first published work of 70-year old first time author, I'm afraid I didn't find it as charming as the rest of the world appears to have. It was quite predictable, and the letter-writing method of storytelling didn't quite work because many of the letters sounded contrived. It would've worked better told in straight narrative.

The Bride Stripped Bare, Nikki Gemmell
I'm trying not to re-read books on my bookshelf, but while I'm waiting for my new purchases from the Book Depository, I picked this one up because I remember it being a quick read. Second time round, the device used to sandwich the narrative (the bride is missing, the manuscript was found by her mother) is even flimsier than ever, but kudos to Nikki Gemmell for the second person present tense narrative, which is difficult and at times sounds pretentious, but she manages to make it quite lyrical and create a unsettling tone for the book.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck
East of Eden is a fascinating book full of character studies, most of them one-dimensional, but fascinating nonetheless. 

Wutherng Heights, Emily Bronte
The fact that my review is titled 'Wuthering Heights sucks big time' kinda gives away how I feel about this book. It's seriously atrocious - the characters suck, the plot sucks and the writing sucks.

Turkish Gambit, Boris Akunin
(The Great Library Challenge: Author A)
I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy historic Russian crime fiction, but Boris Akunin kinda made it fun. Set during the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, this is one of a series of books about Erast Fandorin, a modest gentleman sleuth. It seems to be written a bit tongue-in-cheek and that's just the way I like it.

Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell
(The Great Library Challenge: Author B)
With its punchy, fast-paced narrative, Beat the Reaper is a great holiday (or anytime) novel about a one-time wiseguy turned doctor who's under witness protection. It'll make a great movie when it comes out too - apparently starring Leonardo Di Caprio.

Breakfast at Tiffanys, Truman Capote
(The Great Library Challenge: Author C)
The fact that this appears to be one of the defining novels for American literature (or am I making this up?) says something about the disenfranchised state of a generation who loved it and allowed it to define them. Holly is a seriously emotionally troubled young woman and I couldn't help but finish the book thinking it would be far better for her if she could just get some professional help.

The News Where You Are, Catherine Flynn
On the whole, I have to say that the book doesn't live up to the blurb about Frank Allcroft, a local news anchor and the 'unfunniest man on Earth'. It does have some depth and a message about growing older, but it's such a bland read that I just couldn't get into it.

Becoming Strangers, Louise Dean
(The Great Library Challenge: Author D)
This is a 'character study' novel about two couples who meet on holidays, one party from each couple being seriously ill in some way. It's about life and growing older and... yet another bland book I couldn't get into.

The Sandman: Endless Nights, Neil Gaiman and graphic artists
Really amazing graphic novel about a family of siblings who are Dream, Death, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, Despair and Destiny. Each chapter is drawn by a different artist, and each has a uniquely stylised feel. It really creates a whole different world that's really easy to immerse yourself in. Highly recommended.

Ramona's World, Beverly Cleary
I was stoked to find that Beverly Cleary had added a new volume to her Ramona series, which I LOVED as a kid. Although it was written around 15 years after the last one, it's a seamless and timeless addition.

Wow - I can't believe three quarters of 2010 is already over!!!!

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