Book Count (since 1 January 2012)

Book Count (since 1 January 2014): 30

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

One cannot criticise a novel unless one has read it. I have now read it and so shall begin.

It's boring, at least 100 (if not 417) pages too long and the writing is predictable and repetitive. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural making the characters indistinct and uninteresting. It doesn't help that there are too many incidental characters, mentioned in passing every now and then, which confuses the narrative. To be fair, it is not the author's fault that the whole of the Royal family are called Edward or Richard but the lack of character depth made it difficult to distinguish who was who, and impossible to summon the energy to try.

I cannot explain why at least one of the series appears in almost every "top 10". In my view, this is a historical book unhappily trapped between a text book and a novel.

The Blackhouse by Peter May

A crime novel set on an island in the Outer Hebrides. This novel follows a group of classmates from primary school through to adulthood, flicking between events in the past and a present day murder investigation.

The dialogue is not particularly natural (I have never heard a not-especially-well-educated labourer chatting about ideas being "crystallised") which makes the characters seem unrealistic and a little two-dimensional. However, the plot is fairly pacy which holds your interest and there are some well observed descriptions of adolescent behaviour.

I did enjoy this whilst reading it but it is not especially memorable and in my view there are better contemporary thrillers (such as Sister).

Monday, 14 November 2011

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Amazing.  A fascinating (non-fiction) read about an Olympic runner turned WWII airman.  This book is incredibly well written and very engrossing.  
There is a pro-American bias which slightly taints the narrative occasionally but other than that this book really is wonderful.  Definitely recommended (and an excellent Christmas present idea for hard-to-buy-for men).

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

I found this novel surprisingly emotive.  It follows a family of three children and their mother who move to an island in the Outer Hebrides after the death of their father.  All four of the main characters deal with their grief in different ways.   Two of the three children are particularly strong characters, with very well drawn and realistic personalities and dialogue.  Although the mother and the older sister are both quieter voices, they still add colour to this novel. 
The bear is introduced as one of the narrators fairly early on in the book and is initially hard to integrate into the thread of the plot.  However, as the book progresses, the bear's contribution becomes more and more poignant.  It is of course, all a little bit silly, but the way this novel is written makes a near-human bear not only believable but also surprisingly touching and that in itself is a pretty remarkable feat.
I enjoyed this book and recommend it is a well written summer read.

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

A novel about two friends growing up in suburban America and the strain on family relationships when one of them goes missing.  I didn't particularly like this book because it was very difficult to engage with the narrator, one of the girls, or indeed any of the other family members.  The dialogue reads in a very artificial way so the characters come across as very two dimensional.  Although the plot sounds exciting and it is dramatically told, it is not as compelling as I was expecting which makes the thinness of the writing style more noticeable.    A very average novel about friendship and family relationships.

The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood

An American novel about overcoming traumas, illnesses and grief by knitting.  It is very girly and not amazingly deep but surprisingly inspiring and uplifting.  The writing is gentle and the characters fun, if slightly unrealistic, which all makes for a very enjoyable read.   It is very easy to succumb to the charm of this novel and since reading it I have located my nearest wool shop and learnt to purl.  This has not solved my not-really-that-numerous problems and, outwardly at least, I have probably become more mental - sitting in a corner whispering knit-knit-purl-knit-purl-shit is not as endearing as the novel suggests - but it shows how addictive the ambience created by this book really is.  It's not many novels that can inspire a new hobby and I would definitely recommend this one (the novel - not necessarily the knitting which is actually a bit frustrating).

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

A novel about four different generations of an aristocratic literary family. The plot is actually a lot more interesting than I was anticipating, as it covers a number of different eras in a surprisingly sympathetic way.
There is, however, something very draining about the writing - the energy it takes to read this is disproportionate to the value you get out of it - like eating a stick of celery. The style of writing is definitely the kind critics describe as "hauntingly beautiful", which means you can skip pages at a time without missing anything of interest. Whilst this is useful if you want to daydream without  accidentally finding yourself staring at a terrifyingly tattooed woman in inconceivably tight white  leggings on the Bethnal Green bound tube, it leaves one feeling very dissatisfied.
So although this, sadly, is a must read for those who have set themselves a personal challenge to read the entire Booker longlist, there is little other incentive to plough through the whole 500-odd pages. 

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

If you know Patrick McGuinness personally and are agonising over his Christmas present, steer clear of a Roget's Thesaurus. This is a man who knows a lot of words. But surprisingly, the intellectual vocabulary doesn't grate in this novel - it is unusually natural. 

It was the plot, rather than the writing, which I found more difficult. It is very slow moving and lacking in energy. Every now and then there's a suggestion of mystery and intrigue but it never takes off, and my interest petered out fairly quickly. This may of course be because I completely failed to understand what was going on. At one point, after a seemingly inexplicable dialogue, Mr Words McGuinness comments: "If that was a code, it was easy enough to break.". Ha. Maybe if you're in the habit of completing The Times crossword in 3.9 minutes without the aid of a pen.

Basically, this book is excellently written but severely lacking in both plot and compelling characters.

Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson

This starts out as 50 First Dates in novel form and then becomes a lot darker.  The plot is exciting and moves fairly quickly (although there are a few slower moving sections) but it does require some serious stretching of the imagination.
The writing is easy to read if not particularly poetic.  I did find it difficult to relate to or connect with the main character, mainly because her personality is necessarily very temporary and I did find this a bit of a barrier.  Overall, a better than average holiday thriller.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I could not connect to this book at all. It is about a group of black jazz musicians in Europe during the Second World War and follows their struggle to survive as a group and as individuals. I found the characters unrealistic and hard to engage with and the plot surprisingly boring given the subject matter. The writing is good and the dialogue (which is written in an American patois) consistent and natural but I felt a real distance from the story. Theoretically, this is a good book but for me this didn't work in practice.

Cocktail Time by PG Wodehouse

Wonderful, like all PG Wodehouse. A recent study suggests that if you haven't read any Wodehouse your cognitive functions only operate at 46% of capacity. Read some. Immediately.

Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis

A classic coming of age novel. Very dark but surprisingly enjoyable. The writing takes a while to get used to as it is almost a stream of consciousness and is also quite staccato. But once you get used to the style, it really adds to the novel and is actually enjoyable to read. A little depressing, but worth a read.

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I very much enjoyed this book, which is set in America and is about a dysfunctional Jewish family sitting Shiva after their father's death. The writing is excellent and although it is not particularly deep, the story is both funny and poignant. I would definitely recommend this as a fun, different holiday read.