Friday, 5 April 2013

Reviews in Miniature

Given my hiatus through March, I feel I'm a bit behind on my reviewing. I've read some absolutely fantastic books over the past couple of months, and now I'm so behind on potential reviews that I don't think I'll ever get around to them all. So, in the interests of time, and me getting to tell you what I've read lately, I would like to present my Miniature Reviews - they do exactly what they say on the tin.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
You may have recently heard of a cracking novel called Gone Girl, about a man's search for his wife after she disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary. It's a brilliant book, and probably been over-reviewed on the Net, so if you want to find out more about it, just go read it (you'll love it). Instead, I'm looking at another of Flynn's offerings, Dark Places, which follows a young woman who, having given evidence as a child that convicted her brother of her family's massacre, now finds that she may have been wrong about his part in the crime. The ensuing quest for the truth is interspersed with flashbacks to the night of the murders, building up to the fatal hours in a tense crescendo. There's a lot of red herrings here - a hint that maybe the brother did do it, or perhaps that person did it, and so on - it keeps you on your toes throughout, never giving enough clues about the truth until the very last moment. Admittedly, the novel does lack some of the pace of Gone Girl - there's a lot of driving, which is a bit dull - and the lead character is not particularly appealing;you're almost indifferent to her feelings, despite the clearly traumatic event so early on in her life. Nor is she entirely convincing in her sudden change of heart regarding her brother, which kind of swung from 'absolutely convinced he did it' to 'absolutely convinced he did not do it' in the space of about a chapter. Nevertheless, if you're after a very dark, very thrilling whodunnit, you really can't get much better than this.

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
I, like many people, only discovered this because of the film. I never actually got round to seeing said film, so when I found the book, I had to read it. It's about Patrick, who has suffered some kind of breakdown and is, at the beginning of the novel, living in a mental facility. After his mother comes to bring him home to try to get him back on his feet, we learn that Pat is separated from his beloved wife, Nicki, and is doing everything in his power to become a good husband when 'apart time' is over, including reading her favourite books, 'practising being kind' and putting himself through a gruelling daily physical workout in order to achieve the physique he knows Nicki wishes he had. It's not initially clear why Pat had a mental breakdown - the only clues are his extremely violent reactions to Kenny G's Songbird, and a cagey attitude from family members as to where Nicki is. It's during his rehabilitation that he meets Tiffany, a woman as broken as he, and a tentative friendship built around sadness, loss and dance begins. The most striking thing about the novel is Pat's narration; he's incredibly childlike in his description, almost like he's mentally gone back to a child's reasoning, and has a firm belief in cause/effect - if I do this, then that will happen. His logic is simple, if difficult to comprehend, and at times I was reminded of Jack in Emma Donoghue's Room; Pat's simple statements and firm belief in his own world is just as strong as Jack's. I got the impression that the film is a bit of a rom-com, and I didn't get that at all from the book - if it's meant to be funny, I didn't laugh. But it certainly pulled on the old heartstrings, and reminded me a bit about the simple silver linings in life that are so easy to miss, but can make you so happy.

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J Watson
Another thriller-type novel; I seem to be leaning towards these a lot lately. A woman, Christine, wakes up every day, having lost her memory from a certain age onwards completely. As the novel progresses, she begins to learn more about herself through the help of a doctor, who encourages her to write down her thoughts every day in order to help her maintain her grip on life. It's a reasonable theory, and initially appears to work - until Christine begins to discover things that make her question her life, the reasons given for her memory loss and just who exactly she can trust. I simply couldn't put it down, and read it all in one day, staying up to the wee hours to finish it. The uncertainty of life and Christine's horror as she discovers every day her true age and circumstances is conveyed incredibly well, and even had me feeling really paranoid of being hit on the head for a while in case I lost my own memories. It also really makes you consider what you would do if your memories - everything that makes you, you - was taken away. How would you know what film to watch when you felt sad? Or where your favourite restaurant is? Or why you're freaked out by the dark? It's truly unnerving but completely sucks you in - I was almost afraid to stop reading in case something happened to Christine whilst I was away and not keeping an eye on her. So compelling.

The Rose Petal Beach by Dorothy Koomson
This is one of those novels that you kind of stumble across, think, 'I'll give it a go' and turns out to be utterly unputdownable. It's about Tamia, who seems to have an idyllic life in Brighton - childhood sweetheart husband, big house, adorable children - until one evening, her peace is shattered when the police turn up and arrest her husband, Scott, for an initially unknown crime. More chilling is the fact that, despite the reason for the arrest not being mentioned - the children are in the room - Scott seems utterly unsurprised by the visit from the law. What follows is Tamia's attempts to unravel the tangled web that surrounds the alleged crime, which is further complicated by just who has accused him. It's absolutely packed full of twists - it almost got to the point where I was getting a bit sick of them - and the all characters are an unnerving mix of infuriating and sympathetic; no one is completely right or wrong here, and that can make certain scenes very uncomfortable. It's an edge-of-your-seat, incredibly gripping read that will keep you guessing, and always getting it wrong.

The Host by Stephenie Meyer
WAIT! DON'T GO!  I mean, I know it looks bad, but... let me explain! I bowed to pressure - now the film is out, I couldn't resist seeing what new sludge Meyer was going to try and palm off as a not-at-all-unhealthy-and-deeply-disturbing depiction of love. It's actually not that bad; in an alternate world, an alien race known as Souls has effectively taken over the human race, by inserting themselves into their heads, overriding their thoughts and impulses and taking human bodies as their own. The Hosts, as the humans are known, are essentially suppressed and edged out of their own heads and bodies. Naturally, a few humans have managed to escape the alien clutches and are trying to fight back - and it's one of these, Melanie, who is eventually caught and given as a Host to a Soul called Wanderer. What no-one bargained on, however, was Melanie's strength and desire to live - resulting in Wanderer (or Wanda, as she is later known) having to deal with sharing a body with a human, who's emotions can override her own. When Melanie persuades her to find a colony of un-hosting humans, a typical Meyer love triangle ensues between Melanie's love, Jared, and Ian, a man torn between his hatred of Souls and his growing feelings for Wanda, who is nothing how they expected a Soul to be. Melanie and Wanda are relatively strong characters, both with their merits, and Jared and Ian make for far more appealing love interests - mostly because they don't isolate Melanie/Wanda (Melawanda? Wandanie?) from everyone else. It's not great literature, but it's very different to Twilight, and that can only be good thing.

Okay, you can go now. Please don't hate me for the last one.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Tonight, Matthew, I'm Going To Be...

Hello, it's been a while, hasn't it? I've been shockingly neglectful of late; I'd like, if I may, to blame it on a winning combination of being surprisingly sociable, birthdays and Easter - I've just been so unexpectedly busy that I haven't found the time to sit and write like I wanted to. But! I have been reading a-plenty, and musing on various literary subjects - the most recent of which is the result of an office debate about which literary character you'd most like to be. At first, I scoffed at the simplicity of the question - then realised that I couldn't settle on just one. What about the fun villains seem to have - or to be swept up in a Bronte love story? And your 'everyman', who just seems to find himself in the midst of madness? I even kept myself up one night, mentally revising my choices, and in the end just decided - to hell with it all, why do I have to choose?
So here they are - the motley crew of literary creations that I'd like to step into the shoes of, just for a day.

10. Katey Kontent from Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
She lives in 1930's New York City. It's really as simple as that.

9. The Caterpillar from The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
What do you mean, I can eat as much as like, and get to become a beautiful butterfly at the very end? Where do I sign up?!

8. Severus Snape from Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
Maybe a bit of a surprise entry, but I think he's a great character; he's sharp, acerbic and just plain rude. I'm not very good at being rude to people - unless I know them really well and I'm mostly joking - so I'd love a chance to actually use one of the pithy put-downs I imagine myself saying ten minutes after the moment has passed.

7. Lindsay Salmon from The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold
Lindsay would be a lot higher up my list, if being her didn't mean I'd have to deal with the murder of a sibling. Yet of all the characters who mourn Susie, Lindsay is one of the few who somehow manages to stay grounded, who channels her grief to make something positive of her life despite the sadness in it. As Susie watches from heaven, it's clear that Lindsay is the one she watches most, seeing through her a glimpse of the life she might have had. Lindsay's strength  is something unexpected in a novel like this, and I wouldn't mind having a bit of her determination - if I didn't have to pay the same price for it.

6. Lucy Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
I'm not sure how much I need to explain this one - she finds Narnia first, meets Mr Tumnus, gets to meet the real Father Christmas and becomes a Queen. Plus, being the first of the Pevensie children to go through the wardrobe, she spends the most time in Narnia and, as one of the youngest, gets to go back to Narnia four times! But of course, that's not just why - she's also the sweetest of the characters, the one whose faith in the magical land is never, even for a second, shaken. She has a true connection with Aslan and the land, and throughout the books in which she features maintains the childlike innocence she had in her first appearance. A far nicer character than snobby Susan, irritating Edmund or pompous Peter.

5. Lyra Silvertongue from His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman
The heroine of Pullman's fantasy epic, Lyra is a fast-thinking, smooth-talking tomboy with a will of iron. Apart from the incredible adventures she goes on - including visits to the North, Svalbard and the World of the Dead - she counts witches, talking bears and tiny poison-bearing human-like creatures as her friends. In many ways, she's like Lucy Pevensie, but with gumption; she rarely questions herself, happily wanders into adventures without much consideration for the consequences, but is humble enough to know guilt, pain and sorrow. Plus, she is an incredible liar - and, being someone who struggles to tell even the whitest of lies with a convincing spin, I'd quite like to experience the feeling of telling a massive fib without worrying I'm about to get caught.

4. Edythe DuBarry from Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
Edythe is surprisingly rounded character, despite the overall shallow tone of the novel. Instead of her friend Delysia's shame-faced harlot act, or Miss Pettigrew's poor attempts at morality, Edythe displays more levels than either woman. For starters, she's incredibly canny - she uses her feminine whiles to get herself married to an older man with a beauty parlour business, who soon fails to keep the pace and leaves her the parlour in his will. She then procures the recipe for an exotic, exclusive perfume from a Frenchman that puts her parlour on the map, thus setting herself up for life. She's always impeccably turned out, striking to look at, beautifully dressed - and yet, in her first appearance, she's vulnerable, desperate for advice and needing a friend. A strong, savvy woman who's not afraid to be a girl about it.

3. Gerald Samper from Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton
Gerald is possibly the campest, most deluded character I've ever come across. A sexually-ambiguous wannabe chef living in Tuscany, the sheer vanity of the man is astounding. He is pretentious, pompous, completely self-involved and utterly adorable. Being the kind of person who sings the wrong words to songs all the time, I can completely sympathise with his mistranslated opera arias; and as to his experimental cooking, well, who hasn't knocked something up in the kitchen that turned out to be disgusting? My mustard sauce on chicken drumsticks is becoming the stuff of family legend. To be as blissfully unaware as Gerry is, combined with his unbreakable self-confidence, would definitely make for an interesting day in the kitchen.

2. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I'll be the first to admit it - this is hardly a surprise entry. But come on - she's witty, confident, has fine eyes and won't sacrifice her hopes and dreams for money; even though she has very few marriage prospects in a time when marriage was the only way out of her parents' house, she still refused to do a Charlotte and cave in to pressure by marrying the repulsive Mr Collins. Instead, she takes her chances on the vaguest possibility of marrying for love. She won't be bullied by Lady Catherine, or her mother, and to top it all off, she gets to marry Darcy.... phwooaaarrr. 

1. Titania the Fairy Queen from A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
I did wonder about this one, because she's from a play, not novel - but then I thought, screw it, it's my list, and I want to be her! I'm not really sure what her allure is - probably the fact that she's Queen of the Fairies (it's definitely not her weird night with Bottom the Donkey-Man) - but there's just something about her character that I love. She won't take any crap from Oberon, to the point she'd rather split up with him than give up a boy in her care, her last connection with a departed friend. She does lose a bit of her appeal when she speeds back to Oberon - even after his massively disproportionate revenge - but given that I've always wanted to say 'Fairies, skip hence!' without being thrown out of wherever I am for being weird, she narrowly makes it to the top spot.

So, if you ever discover a Jasper Fforde-esque way for getting into books, let me know - I've got a bunch of characters I'd like to spend time as!

(Note on the title: if you're not from the UK, or under the age of about 16, you may not know that Stars In Their Eyes was a mid-90's TV show in which people would be given a makeover to look like their favourite star, and then sing a song by them - essentially karaoke on telly. People who went on the show would always announce who they were going to impersonate by saying "Tonight, Matthew (the host), I'm going to be...."Hence, the title of this here entry).