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All reviews - Movies (1) - Books (13)

Alternate worlds

Posted : 13 years, 2 months ago on 23 July 2009 01:17 (A review of The Post-Birthday World)

Using alternate chapters, this Sliding Doors-style story follows parallel Irinas following a fateful night with friend. One kisses the friend, a charming, handsome and famous snooker player named Ramsey, the other stays faithful to long-term partner and terminal nice-but-boring Lawrence. The two men are polar opposites - Lawrence is stable, hard working, frugal, staid, whereas Ramsey is exciting, passionate, rich but profligate. And Irina's life with these very different men is charted in each chapter.

This is a pretty standard chick-lit plot - which man should Irina choose. But it's raised above this level by Shriver's writing. As she has already shown in Double Fault and We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver is a keen observer of the battle between the sexes. She writes with wit, humour and occasional cruelty. As an observation of human behaviour this is excellent.

However, there are faults. None of the characters are particularly likeable, not even Irina. There's nothing to dislike about her but nothing to really identify with either. In the Lawrence-Irina strand, Lawrence is often nasty and rather cruel to Irina, treating her like a child and undermining her. The event that shocks Irina so much near the end can actually be seen coming from whole chapters before, and I was left wondering why she stayed with the man for so long.

Ramsey, too, can be cruel. He's jealous and insecure and will happily start a fight just for the making up afterwards. Again, I can't fully understand why Irina would stay with the man for so long. The implication seems to be that Irina needs to be needed; she can deal with anything that these men throw at her so long as they need her still.

Repeated episodes or those told from a slightly different point of view are used throughout the chapters, and these often feel forced. I assume the point of them is to reinforce the idea that only one life is being played out here, but it isn't always successful.

But my main problem with this book is the ending, and this next part will contain spoilers.

Ramsey-Irina is inspired to write and illustrate a children's book. She uses a similar ploy to Shriver's to tell the story of a boy who either becomes a famous snooker player or an astronaut. In each, while his life isn't perfect, he is OK. This is the point of the book - that life offers many choices and whatever happens it can be OK. It's a good moral. And yet neither of the Irinas is OK. Lawrence-Irina finds out he has been sleeping with another woman for five years, while Ramsey in the second strand dies of cancer. Maybe it illustrates the fact that there really are no right and wrong choices, just right and wrong for that very moment. But in life most things do turn out OK and a better way to illustrate these points might have been for both Irinas to be, well, OK.

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Introductory notes

Posted : 13 years, 7 months ago on 3 February 2009 01:53 (A review of Over Sea, Under Stone (Puffin Books))

I've got the whole The Dark is Rising sequence because I'm on a mission to find a series of books I read at junior school that I really enjoyed. I remember very little about them other than we first read one of the books in class, which wasn't the first in the series and then I went on to read the others. I'm thinking The Dark is Rising (the second in the series) is a strong contender.

The book follows the adventures of three young children on holiday with their parents and mysterious Great Uncle Merry. They find a treasure map and set out to discover what the treasure might be, but find themselves mixed up in something much more dangerous. Caught in a battle between good and evil, they don't know who to trust or where to turn. But they do know they have to find the treasure before their enemies do.

This book was written some time before the others and is more of an introduction to certain themes and characters than the first of the series. I believe was only published after a friend of the writer encouraged her to do so. And it's easy to see why. Much of the dialogue is clunky and stilted. There's something Blytonesque to the upper middle classness of it. There is something so unselfconscious about class that it's almost naive, especially when one remembers that JK Rowling was criticised as a snob for setting the Potter books in a boarding school.

There is nothing here to challenge the adult or even advanced child reader. However, the book is thoroughly enjoyable. It riffs on the Arthurian legends and the endless battle between good and evil. Pretty hefty subjects for a children's book! It's a good, fun and easy read, while not as polished as might be expected.

How the book stands up as an introduction will have to wait until after I've read the next volume.

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A Vurtual Rollercoaster Ride

Posted : 13 years, 12 months ago on 30 September 2008 03:20 (A review of Vurt)

This debut novel by Jeff Noon had me in it's drug-fuelled grip from the very beginning. The plot is simple enough: young man is searching for his missing sister. But there's so much more to it than that. Because this is an alternate Manchester in which dreams can be purchased and relived, in which 'feathers' are applied to the back of the throat to open the world of Vurt - a virtual fantasy land where dreams become reality, like some avian LSD. And the missing sister, Desdemona, has vanished into this world. To make things even more complicated, Scribble, the brother, was with his sister when she disappeared and the love between brother and sister is more than familial.

Scribble, so called because he is always writing, is the main character: this is his story. It's no accident that scribble sounds like scribe, because this is what he is: recording the tale of his search for the feather that led to Desdemona's disappearance, and so the tale of him and his friends and Vurt.

This novel is about a great many things. But mostly it is about loss. A loss of innocence (Scribble and Desdemona are lovers), loss of friends or family (several characters die or disappear), loss of love. The story begins with the loss of Desdemona and ends with her loss as well, but in a very different way. It's also about what's real. In its layers of unreality the book most closely reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis's novels, particularly American Psycho and Glamorama. The narrative is punctuated with violent episodes in the real world and dreamlike excursions into Vurt, like Ellis's Glamorama but in reverse. But we never know quite what is real and what isn't. The book begins and ends with the mysterious 'A boy puts a feather into his mouth...' and '... A boy takes a feather out of his mouth' and an interjection from the Game Cat, an almost omniscient character that comments on the world of Vurt, seems to suggest the whole thing is a Vurt dream.

Then there is the question of how real Vurt is. It affects the real world of Manchester, when humans, such as Desdemona, disappear a Vurt being is substituted. In fact there is a very complicated sum by which the beings swapped must be of the same value, but no one knows how that value is measured. And how real is Manchester? This is a world of hybrid human/dogs, robo/humans, robo/dogs. Where shadowgirls can read minds and the 'pure' are few and far between. Where cops carry guns, TV is obsolete and the biggest rap star is a dogboy.

Noon's use of language is phenomenal. The book races along like a kaleidoscopic rollercoaster ride, each word as scintillatingly lovely as the fractal colours that herald one character's death. The writing is tight with not a word wasted and the imagery, even when describing violent shoot-outs or scenes of dilapidation, is beautiful.

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A picture paints a thousand words

Posted : 14 years ago on 16 September 2008 02:40 (A review of The Complete Persepolis)

I bought this book on a whim. I knew nothing about it other than that it had recently been made into an animated film. Had I flicked through the book before getting it to the counter (something I usually do) I wouldn't have bought it. Why? Because it's a graphic novel. Not that I have anything against graphic novels per se, just as a medium for telling a serious and true story. And had I put this book back I truly would have missed a treat.

The book begins in 1879, at the start of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It is the story of a young girl's life before and after the revolution. That girl is Marjane Satrapi and at the beginning of the book she is 10 years old. Her parents are liberal, non-religious and determined that Marjane should have a good education. Marjane is in a good position to comment on what is going on around her, not only is she well-educated, she is the great-granddaughter of the last Iranian emperor, who was deposed by the shah, the man against whom the people are revolting.

The book explores how such revolution comes about, and more importantly how it goes wrong. It looks at how jingoistic slogans, if repeated enough times, become mantras. How sacrifice becomes martyrdom, freedom becomes repressive and protest becomes criminal. And all through the eyes of a girl struggling to grow up. A girl just like girls all over the world: Marjane wants to listen to loud music on her walkman, display posters of her favourite bands in her room and make friends with the boys in her street. Some of the most poignant bits are when these small freedoms are taken away.

This is one of the most affective and affecting books I've ever read. The stark black and white imagery does a fantastic job of conveying what Marjane is feeling. It's particularly effective when headscarfs become mandatory: suddenly all the women look the same, it's as if their individuality has been taken away. Possibly because of the lack of space, the prose too is spot on, with not a word wasted anywhere.

One of the things Marjane is trying to do is show that Iranians are just ordinary people, living in very extraordinary times. And this she does admirably well. It's easy for us in the West to see Iran as nothing more than bearded men and headscarfed women, but beneath the hair and clothes there are real people, people like you and me, and this book is a timely reminder of that fact.

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How do I get there?

Posted : 14 years ago on 1 September 2008 02:54 (A review of Un Lun Dun)

When I was a child I spent an inordinate amount of time in cupboards, looking for a way into Narnia; I suspect that had this book been around I would have also spent much time trying out the various ways into UnLondon. Really, I want a way in!

Un Lun Dun is the story of two teenage Londoners, Zanna and Deeba, who get embroiled in a plot by the evil Smog to take over UnLondon. It would seem that Zanna is the prophesied Chosen One, sent to save UnLondon from its polluted enemy. But things aren't quite what they seem...

This is a fantastically inventive book. The way it mixes real London with mythical UnLondon is amazing and there's so much of it that I'm sure anyone who doesn't live in London will miss much, in fact there is much that the non-Londoner and especially any non-English readers simply won't get. But don't let that put you off. The basic story is of good triumphing over evil and it's fresh and exciting enough to keep any reader going, even the most demanding teenager, at whom the book is really aimed. It might well be that the language and the humour is too rich and too 'grown-up' for much of the target audience, but apparently kids today are much more sophisticated than I was at that age, and it's certainly nice to read a book that doesn't condescend to the younger reader.

Many elements of the book made me smile, such as the poker-straight Smeath, very different from our own twisty Thames. But it's not just these elements that make this such a great book. There is a wonderfully eclectic cast of characters, the variety of whom won't come as a surprise to any of Mieville's readers. But unlike many of his other books, you genuinely care about these characters. You want them to defeat the Smog and you feel just as devastated as them when the truth about the Klinneract is revealed.

The Smog is, as you might have guessed, pollution, and it is easy to read this as a warning about carbon emissions, a reminder that our actions here and now affect others in different places. And Un Lun Dun is this, but it's also a wonderful adventure story that is simply a delight to read.

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A very English adventure

Posted : 14 years, 1 month ago on 13 August 2008 01:03 (A review of Around the World in 80 Days)

This is one of those classics that has passed into the common consciousness. Who doesn't know the story of Phileas Fogg and his bet that he could travel around the world in exactly 80 days? But how many of us have actually read the book? I certainly hadn't; my understanding of the story was informed entirely by the Spanish cartoon series Round the World with Willy Fog, which according to Wikipedia is one of the most faithful adaptations around.

Following a bet at a gentlemen's club, Phileas Fogg is attempting a round-the-world trip in 80 days. If he fails, he will lost ยฃ20,000. Accompanied by his faithful servant Passepartout, Fogg has worked out an exact timetable of ships and trains, but unforeseen circumstances force them to take more unusual forms of transport. The pair are chased by Inspector Fix, who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.

This is really a classic adventure story. A seemingly impossible task being made more difficult by a series of hitches, all of which have to be overcome with ingenuity, derring-do and intelligence. All of which is accomplished with never an eyebrow hair out of place for our hero. But it also gives an interesting and sometimes humorous insight into perceptions of foreign places at the time. The book is full of witty asides about the various races that Fogg meets on his journey - most of which I'm sure modern day writers would never get away with.

What I found most surprising was very English the book is, despite having been written by a Frenchman. Fogg is the quintessential English gentleman - imperturbable in the face of misadventure and delays, and yet passionate about justice and, we see by the end, love. Fog disguises, and the aptly named Mr Fogg is a man of mystery. We don't know how he got his money, although we know he has plenty, we know nothing of his background. And he is less than forthcoming with any information. It's this lack of information about who Fogg really is that makes Fix so sure that Fogg is the bank robber - and when this information becomes common knowledge in London, even Fogg's friends have to admit they know nothing about him. Fix can suggest either in a fix or fix it. And at various times in the story the Inspector fulfills both roles, at turns helping and hindering Fogg.

Does Phileas Fogg win his bet? Is a gentleman thief? Well, you'll have to read the book to find out, but it's well worth it.

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Gathering the spoils

Posted : 14 years, 1 month ago on 6 August 2008 12:13 (A review of The Gathering)

The gathering of the title is that of the surviving family members of Liam, whose suicide is the catalyst for the book. The narrator is Veronica, Liam's sister and closest friend. Ostensibly the book is about the incident that happened to Liam when he was a child that ultimately led to his suicide as an adult. And so we have several threads to follow. First, the story of Ada, Veronica and Liam's grandmother. Then Veronica's remembered childhood with Liam. Then what happens between Veronica being told of her brother's death and the funeral. And finally Veronica after the funeral, when she is writing this book.

And here is part of the problem. Veronica admits she knows nothing of Ada's past, so everything she writes here is pure conjecture. She invents a love story for the woman that is highly improbable and there's no reason to believe any of what is written here. Her own past is full of half memories, things forgotten, invented memories and repressed memories, besides we know that she's an unreliable narrator so we're already questioning everything she tells us. What happened to Liam as a boy takes more than half the book to get to and when we do it's so obvious that it's almost banal. You can probably guess it right now. What might have happened to a nine-year-old boy that would have affected him so much he'd kill himself as an adult? Even Veronica by now seems to realise how pointless the admission is and she devotes only one paragraph to it. Most of the book is devoted to Veronica, both leading up to the funeral and after. And she just comes across as self-obsessed, selfish and put upon. She is the epitomy of middle-class ennui and I have no sympathy for her.

The narrative is broken up and never really gets going. Sentences are chopped into tiny bits by too many commas and the different threads of the story stop and start with no real reason or conclusion. The events in this book happened off the page, as it were, before this story begins, which means there is little reason to read the book. And at risk of 'spoiler's the love story between Nugent and Ada is improbably and doesn't make much sense; it is much more likely that Veronica's mother is right and Nugent is just the landlord. What he has done to Liam and probably the other children in the book is indeed horrendous but it is just a footnote here. A more interesting story would have been whether Ada knew of the abuse and let it carry on because of the difficulties the family had paying the rent. Decidedly mediocre.

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The right one

Posted : 14 years, 2 months ago on 29 July 2008 12:04 (A review of Let The Right One In)

Oskar is a 12-year-old boy living with his mother. Friendless and bullied, he is a victim - of the bullies, of his parents' failed marriage, of the estate on which he lives, with its drunks, dropouts and losers. Until, that is, he meets Eli, a 12-year-old girl who lives in the same block as Oskar. Eli, who only goes out at night, who seems so much older than 12, whose windows appear to be covered at all times. Yes, Eli is a vampire who has lived more than 200 years and always remained a child.

This is a disturbing read in which the lines between good and evil, innocent and guilty, demon and angel become blurred and even disappear. Eli has managed to live so long because she is seen as innocent, people take pity on her. And yet. And yet she has killed many, many times in order to live. At one point the reader is put in the very uncomfortable position of hoping a paedophile will manage to murder someone so as to keep Eli alive. Hakan, who adores and protects Eli, is a saviour to her, but to others a monster. It is Hakan who later becomes the actual monster that we expect from a vampire novel - the nameless thing that comes in the night.

Read as a simple vampire novel, this is a fine book. Scary, believable with an interesting take on vampire mythology. But it's what lies beyond the surface that makes the book extraordinary. This isn't just about vampires, it's about the monsters we meet every day. The fathers who can't face up to their responsibilities and so turn to drink, the men and women who are too scared or too selfish to let themselves love, the children who terrify their more unfortunate peers. It's also a novel about loss: Oskar's lost father, Eli's lost innocence, and more, companions lost to the vampire's bite, but mostly the loss of hope.

The estate where Oskar lives was built on hope, but it didn't work. Now it's populated by single mothers desperate for love, drunks desperate to blot out their loves, fatherless children, worn out women. An impassioned speech by Lacke, one of the drunks whose best friend has disappeared, says it all. They got it wrong. The estate was so carefully calibrated to be the best, but something went wrong and evil crept in. But Eli and Oskar give each other hope, they save each other. The monster becomes an angel.

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Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing review

Posted : 14 years, 2 months ago on 21 July 2008 08:56 (A review of Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing)

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors so a chance to take a look inside her writing process was one that I couldn't pass up. For fans of Atwood's work, this book is a treasure trove: a collection of book reviews and obituaries she has been asked to read, transcriptions of lectures and talks she has given and musings on her own novels.

It's often the book reviews that are most fascinating, giving, as they do, an insight into what Atwood thinks is good writing. The range of material here is wide - from HG Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau to obscure foreign-language titles that have only just made their way to an English translation. Atwood's familiarity with the titles is testament to an almost ferocious appetite for reading, something that she mentions time and again. It's easy to get the impression that reading got Atwood through some tough times, especially as a child, and as a fellow book obsessive this is something I can relate to. Where would we be without our trusty tales?

Atwood's thorough reviews have certainly taught me to look beneath the surface of a book to the possibly endless layers beneath.

The book also gives an idea of the extent of Atwood's friendships. Many of the obituaries she has been asked to write are for personal friends. This lends a bitter-sweet tone to the obits, for while Atwood conveys admirably well a celebration of a life lived, there is a certain amount of personal sadness at a good friend lost.

Possibly the most interesting pieces for fans of Atwood's work and for anyone hoping to follow her are those on writing itself. She has given many talks on this subject over the years, as well as written various thoughts on it. These pieces won't teach you how to become an author, but they do give an interesting insight into how Atwood became an author.

All the pieces are well-written with Atwood's customary wit and a certain amount of self-deprecation that leads me to believe Atwood to be a thoroughly charming person in the flesh. A must-read for anyone with more than a passing interest in Atwood's novels.

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The Voice of the Gods

Posted : 14 years, 7 months ago on 14 February 2008 08:13 (A review of Voice Of The Gods: Age Of The Five Book Three)

This follows on from Last of the Wilds and the bulk of the book is in much the same vein. Auraya has resigned her position as a White, Mirar is finding acceptance in South Ithania and Emerahl is on her quest.

Again there is too much politics. The book tries to cover too much and ends up as a spralling mass. The Reivan sections add little and Ellereen's (Auraya's replacement) are pointless. They bring nothing to the party.

All of the action is packed into the final third of the book. The White announce their intention to invade South Ithania and rid the world of all Pentadrians. Auraya is captured, Emeralhl makes an important discovery and Mirar ends up in the hands of the Pentadrians.

But again there is much to criticise. The attempted rape scene is handled very badly. There's no tension. And I saw Auraya's big realisation coming from the first book. The ending was simply too easy. Both sides were just too accepting at what in effect added up to the complete upheaval of their lives and beliefs.

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