TBR Challenge 2019: The Plague by Albert Camus

Genre: Disease, Allegory, Classics

Narrative Style: First person but which gives the points of view of lots of other characters

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1947

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the town of Oran in North Africa, the rats are starting to die in unprecedented numbers. The locals start to panic. Then people start to die from a unexplained fever. At first the authorities do not believe what the doctor knows, this is a return of the bubonic plague. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019 – Time on Shelf – about five years.

This was an interesting rather than an enjoyable read. Camus is a clever observer of human frailties and the descriptions of the various reactions to first, the plague and then, the quarantining of the town, seem apt and still have resonance today. However, the characters felt a little flat, a little too of a type to have real emotional resonance.

There are many ways of reading this novel. At first glance, it is merely the story of a town fighting for its life, going through various stages of reaction to an emergency. Various battles are fought at an interpersonal level. Then there are the sociological elements such as Doctor Rieux’s fight with the authorities to have the plague taken seriously and his willingness to sacrifice his own life to treat those that are sick. There is the priest who preaches that the plague is God’s punishment. Finally, there are allegorical elements as to what the plague represents. As this was written in 1947, the Nazi threat would likely be high in Camus’ mind. At the end of the novel, when the plague has retreated, many return to their lives confident that it will never return. Rieux knows better and that it will return when the circumstances are once again correct. If that is not a moral for our current times, I don’t know what is.

Camus’ style is readable and the novel is clever but I stayed detached. It felt like what it is, an allegorical tale, with characters serving that purpose rather than developing in their own right.

TBR Challenge – Powder – Kevin Sampson

Genre: Music, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from various perspectives

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1999

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Keva McCluskey, lead singer with the unknown Liverpool band, The Grams, wants nothing more than the fame and success he feels are his due. When he meets Guy de Burnet, of newly formed Rehab records, he realises that his dreams may be about to come true. Will fellow band mates and manager, Wheezer, be a help or a hindrance on the way to the top. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019

Time on Shelf: My husband bought this at the time. He read it and really enjoyed it. I didn’t get round to it. So twenty years after he recommended it, I finally read it. No wonder he doesn’t often recommend a book for me to read.

I really wasn’t sure what to rate this book. There were some things I really enjoyed about it but also some things I really didn’t. However, it is generally quite well written and I did feel compelled to read on so I guess the good points won out.

What I really liked about this was the way it reminded me of the nineties and of the music scene then – a time when I was very enthusiastic about music and a time before The X factor and all those talent shows. There is a genuine love of music behind this novel. It also seems like I would imagine it is like when a band first takes off with all the madness of touring and recording. Sampson has long been involved in the music industry – as a journalist and a manager – so the novel has an air of authenticity.

However, this is also a very laddish book. And in that it is also very much of its time. At times it felt like an extended edition of Nuts. It is full of lewd sexual encounters. In fact, most of the women in this novel are little more than holes to be filled by the band. I’m not a prude and some of these encounters were amusing especially as guitarist, James Love gets more and more twisted in his needs. It just would have been nice for some of these women to be given a personality not just body parts.

There are some similarities between this novel and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. It is obviously aiming for a similar grittiness and honesty. And it is written in a similar style with little in the way of over-arching plot – more a series of vignettes about the band and the various hangers on. However, it lacks the emotional depth of Welsh’s novel. The characters are stereotypical and do not develop. I felt little for them and didn’t really care whether the band would survive or not. James Love is similar to Welsh’s Sick Boy but there is no hint of anything underneath his womanising so it all becomes dull and tawdry.

Still, it was amusing and it did make me nostalgic so I’m not sorry to have read it. It is quite a long read at 500 pages. Maybe if it had been shorter, I wouldn’t have got so impatient towards the end.

 

 

TBR Challenge – A Room With A View – E.M. Forster

Genre: Classics, Romance

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1908

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lucy is on holiday in Florence with her chaperone at the start of the novel. She is keen to experience life but is often hampered by the mores of the day and her conventional chaperone, Miss Bartlett. Her life is unbalanced when she meets the unconventional Emersons, particularly the son George. When she returns to England, her life no longer seems so straightforward. 

Reading Challenge – The 2019 TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf – about 5 years. This was inherited from my husband’s aunt. I felt I ought to read it rather than wanting to so I put it on the list to make sure that I did.

I definitely have mixed about A Room with a View. I liked it better than Where Angels fear to Tread which is the only other Forster I have read but I really didn’t like that so it’s not saying much. In a lot of ways, I feel about Forster like I feel about Austen. The writing is clever and sharp but ultimately doesn’t move me.

When I read Where Angels Fear to Tread, I thought I’d never met a writer who seemed so ill at ease with his own masculinity and that of other men. In this novel, it seemed that the unease could be extended to the whole human race. Forster observes his characters well but I felt he was removed from them. And as such, they seemed more like representations of certain ways of being rather than fully drawn characters.

The story itself is very simple. Lucy feels obliged to marry a man she does not love because he is from the right social class. She has to choose between him and the unconventional George, who works on the railways. Part of the problem is that we do not see that much of George so it is hard to understand exactly what it is that is so loveable about him.

I’m not a big fan of romance. And for all the social observation and cleverness that is all this is. It’s not a terrible book. It was pleasant to read, just not for me.

TBR Challenge – The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Style: A series of interlinked short stories that show the human journey from arriving on Mars through settling there to leaving again. 

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1950

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Through a series of interlinked stories, Bradbury explores the human relationship with Mars. Beginning with invasions – and Martian attempts to thwart them – Bradbury’s stories look at colonialism, human nature, loneliness and war.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Time on shelf: This has been on my kindle for about two years. The last Bradbury short story collection I read was a bit hit and miss so I avoided this one for a bit.

This was, for the most part, very enjoyable. I’m not a massive fan of short story collections as I usually find some don’t quite hit the mark but the narrative links running through the stories helped the whole thing to hang together.

It is always a bit weird reading science fiction from a long time ago. (So long ago, in fact, that the stories are set in the early 2000s. It is weird to think that Bradbury’s distant future has already faded into the past.) Even when Bradbury was imagining amazing future technology, he was hampered by the knowledge of his age and things sometimes felt a little quaint.

However, the main point of Bradbury’s fiction is not to write a perfect version of future technology but to look at the way human nature will be shaped by technological developments.  So he looks at the way that humans would behave when they arrive on Mars – how they immediately turn it into another version of earth, trying to remove all Martian traces and not caring how much they ruin the planet (And the Moon Still Be as Bright). He looks at relationships between Martians and humans – although most of the Martians have been killed off by chicken pox. In the story The Fire Balloons, priests are sent on a missionary mission to Mars and Bradbury discusses the idea of what sin might mean on a foreign planet.

Some of my favourite stories were early in the collection and revolved around failed expeditions. In The Earth Men, the newly arrived spacemen are taken for mad men and placed in an insane asylum. Due to the Martians telepathy they can see others’ hallucinations and so all assume that the Earth men are merely mad. Telepathy also figures in The Third Expedition. When the crew arrives, everything resembles their hometowns along with long dead relatives and they come to believe that Mars is really heaven. However, nothing is what it seems as the Martians have used telepathy to lure them into a false sense of security.

The final two stories are both poignant. There Will Come Soft Rains shows the way an automated house will continue running even after nuclear war has destroyed civilisation. Finally, a family escapes the war on Earth back up to Mars. Hoping to repopulate the planet now that Earth is ruined, a number of people have hidden rockets until they could use them to escape. They burn all documents they have brought with them and relate to their identity on Earth including a map of Earth. In the end, having promised his sons the possibility of seeing Martians, he shows them their reflections in a river.

As with the best science fiction, the themes are still relevant to our modern society especially as the race to get to Mars is underway. The technology may seem a little hokey but the ideas are still important.

 

 

TBR Challenge 2019 – The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

Genre: Magic Realism, War

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2001

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Natalia’s country is still recovering from many years of war. She is travelling to a neighbouring country to deliver medicine to an orphanage when she learns that her beloved grandfather has died. She recounts the stories that he has told her about the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man and tries to make sense of the future, both for herself and her country. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: Inherited from a relative in 2014.

I didn’t really know anything about this book – where it was set, what it was about but I liked the premise of ‘a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself’ and it is a while since I have read any magic realism so I thought I’d give it a go.

This book is set in an unnamed Balkan country, an area that I must admit I know little about. Of course, I can remember the wars of the 1990s from the news but it was a long time ago and I was a lot younger at the time. So now that is yet another thing to go on my long list of things to find out more about.

The country has been devastated by the war but is now starting to try to recover. Natalia and her friend Zora are doing their bit by delivering medicine to an orphanage across the border. Near the start of this journey, Natalia discovers that her grandfather has died. She begins to tell the stories that he told her about the escaped tiger, the Tiger’s Wife and the Deathless Man.

I enjoyed the mix of myth and reality in these tales and I enjoyed fitting the details of the story together. Obreht’s writing is at its best, I think, when telling these mystical tales of death. I particularly liked the story of Darisa the Bear and how he became so good at hunting. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure what the overall point of the stories was. They seemed disjointed and removed from the modern day story. I don’t think Obreht quite managed to pull the whole thing together.

This is a novel about death and the rites that go with it, both on a personal and universal scale. Natalia is recovering from her Grandfather’s death as her country recovers from war. As such it is not an easy read and is dour in places. However, there are moments of beauty in amongst the grit.

Full House Reading Challenge – The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

Genre: Spirituality, Magic Realism, Brazilian Literature

Narrative Style: detached third person similar to a fable.

Rating: 2/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1988

Synopsis: Santiago is a shepherd and seems quite happy tending his sheep and waiting to see the girl of his dreams. However, a recurring dream of treasure sets him on an adventure that will take him far from home. Along the way, he learns lessons about human nature and spirituality.

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre – new to me author from another country.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I knew that it was pretty popular and that it was sometimes described as magic realism, a genre I am fond of so I thought I’d give it a go. I haven’t read any Brazilian literature before so I was curious to see what it was like.

It wasn’t long before I realised it wasn’t really going to be for me. The novel is written in the style of a fable or parable and the characters are archetypes – e.g. the simple shepherd, the king, the alchemist of the title. Right from the start it was clear that the moral was going to be a little heavy handed. I lost time of the number of times the boy was told to listen to his heart and that if you want something strongly enough the world will give it to you as long as you never doubted your purpose. It was all a bit new agey for me. I’m too cynical to really be able to believe that this is the way of the world.

Also, it seems a bit of a dubious moral philosophy. If everyone was off following their heart’s desires, the world would be a very different place. After all, not many people have the heart’s desire to work in McDonalds or be a refuse collector. Even deciding to do something that is more like a vocation may be a pragmatic decision rather than a following of your ultimate desire.

The boy finds his treasure. I must admit that I hoped that it would turn out to be other than simply monetary. I understand that his search is what is really important – he learns valuable lessons along the way. Because he follows his ‘personal legend’, he is duly rewarded by God but I couldn’t help but feel that this reward being gold somehow undermined the message that following one’s dream is spiritual and about oneness with the world.

Having looked at reviews of this novel, I can see that many people feel it has changed their lives. If I’d realised that before I started to read it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read it. I’m not really in the market for a life-changing experience. It’s not something I look to reading to give me.

Full House Reading Challenge – The Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan

Genre: Historical Fiction, Chinese Literature

Narrative Style: Various first person accounts. 

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Violet lives in a high class courtesan house in Shanghai with her American mother. There’s is one of the best houses, open to Chinese and Americans. They live a comfortable life. However, it isn’t long before Violet is separated from her mother by a vindictive lover and is forced to become a courtesan herself. Violet’s narrative is the main one but her mother and companions are also included to tell a tale that spans fifty years. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre: four word title. 

This book is 900+ pages. I don’t say this so you can all slap me on the back and say well done (although, y’know feel free if you want to) but to suggest something of the pain of reading it. This book does not need to be 900+ pages. There isn’t enough narrative to go around.

I’ve read Tan before so I assumed that although it was  a long book, it would jog along nicely. This is not the case. I found that there was no tension as it was easy to spot what the problems were going to be for Violet and the other women who’s tales are told here. The men were duplicitous or they died or they were ineffectual. It was easy to spot the next tragedy coming over the hills.

There is quite a bit of sex as you might expect from a novel about courtesans. I felt we could have been spared some of the details – particularly when Violet is learning what is expected of her – or they could have been shown through action rather than being described in a long list that just got harder to stomach as it went on.

For all that, Violet’s story is an interesting one and probably could have sustained the reader by itself. The other stories were not interesting enough to warrant a separate voice telling them and I would have rather focused more closely on Violet. She could have given details of her mother’s story through her own narrative as she did her daughter’s.

Finally, I was really just getting interested in Flora and Violet’s relationship when the novel ends. Perhaps if some of the surplus details from earlier were removed, we could have seen more of this relationship. For all my complaints about the length of this novel, I would have happily read on if it involved finding out more about this.