Full House Reading Challenge – Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

Genre:  Fantasy, Dystopia

Narrative Style: first person

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1963

Synopsis: Dr. Hoenikker has created a deadly weapon which, if deployed, will freeze all of earth’s water. John, the narrator is writing a book about the day of the bombing of Hiroshima which brings him into contact with Hoenikker’s children and then his supervisor, where he learns of Ice-Nine, the deadly substance that  Hoenikker has invented. Later, he ends up on the same Caribbean island as the Hoenikker children. the island is ruled by dictator Papa Monzano and is in thrall to banned religion Bokononism. Will John discover the Ice-nine in time to stop the end of the world? 

Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – genre fantasy

That was one of the hardest synopses to write. It is extremely difficult to explain exactly what this novel is about. Of course, Vonnegut’s novels are always a little crazy but even by that standard, this was off the wall.

It is probably easier to say what it satirises. First of all, there is Bokononism which is based on foma which are harmless untruths. Vonnegut has any number of stabs at the concept of religion. Bokononism is absurd and ridiculous but no more than most real religions seem when viewed from the outside. For me, this was the most successful part of the book which made me laugh a number of times.

Ice-nine is a frighteningly simple concept, even more dangerous than the nuclear weapons actually being developed at the time of writing. The book is filled with the fear of the end of the world. I think I’d have enjoyed this book more if it had been more about ice-nine and less about the flight to San Lorenzo and the many eccentrics that John meets on the way there. The beginning, where he discovers its existence and at the end, when it has been deployed are successfully sinister but the middle of the book didn’t really go anywhere or further the story very much.

All in all, I didn’t like this book as much as other Vonnegut I have read but there were still some excellent moments of satire and humour that could only have come from him. A mixed read but I would certainly read more of his novels.

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Full House Reading Challenge – Turtles all the Way Down – John Green

Genre: Bildungsroman, young adult

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2017

Synopsis: Aza is trying to be a normal teenager but often she is caught up in the spiral of her anxiety and as result spends a lot of her time stuck inside her own head. Things change dramatically for her when she hears that an old friend’s father has gone missing in the face of being arrested for fraud. Not only is there the memory of Davis Pickett but there is the possibility of a $100000 reward for encouragement. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre – Coming of Age

This was very enjoyable, easy to read, compelling and I read it really quickly. I can see why Green’s books are so popular. As you can see I am heading for a couple of ‘howevers’. Well, here they are.

First of all, I always find that when you read Green’s fiction, you are always aware that you are reading fiction. Here is Aza, she is a ‘character’, here is Davis, he is also a ‘character’. Here is some faintly ridiculous ‘plot’ to throw them together. Let’s have lots of really deep conversations about the meaning of reality. There is so much meaning spilling about, it’s a wonder the characters don’t all drown.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Green captured Aza’s anxiety well but there is never any doubt that this is not a realistic story. There is an almost fairytale element although it seems to be Aza who is rescuing Davis from his fatherless, motherless castle. There are gifts of $100000 flying around as if that happens in real life. This becomes even more apparent towards the end when Aza miraculously and suddenly shakes off her terrible anxiety and seems a whole lot better for no apparent reason. That is the other ‘however’. The ending felt rushed. Suddenly they realise where Davis’s father is. Suddenly the story is over.

For all that, I still gave it four stars. It was interesting philosophically. The fight between Aza and her anxiety was well written and rang true. If I was a teenager, I would probably have loved this book. I’m sure that part of my irritation with it was just from age. it does make me wonder if I should give up reading books designed for teenagers. It was pleasing that it wasn’t a straightforward romance. Green must have felt the temptation to give Davis a happy ending but I’m glad that he didn’t.

Overall, then, a worthwhile read. It’s good to see a book about anxiety directed at teens and I’m sure many will recognise their own feelings in Aza’s. Just don’t expect this to be anything like real life.

Full House Reading Challenge: 1977: Red Riding 2 – David Peace

Genre: Historical Fiction, Thriller

Narrative Style: Two alternate first person voices

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2000

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Bob Fraser is investigating the ripper murders but he has a more personal stake than simply wanting to catch the murderer. Jack Whitehead, reporter, is  jaded and desperate but he too wants to get to the bottom of the ripper murders. This is a dark and violent tale of corrupt police, brutal murders and desperate men.

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – number in title.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I thought I would and I’m not really sure why. I liked the first one and there wasn’t much difference in style but something didn’t work for me this time.

It does capture the era well. The police corruption, the racism and sexism all are written in vivid detail. I did find this difficult to take. I realise the reason for it – and it isn’t like this is the first book in this sort of style I’ve read – but it was pretty difficult to stomach.

I didn’t really take to Fraser or Whitehead either. Both men have dark secrets and to say they are flawed would be to put it mildly. They have no redeeming features and it was difficult to sympathise with either of them.

The plot should be driven by the hunt for the ripper and I suppose it is but there is a lot of other stuff getting in the way. Fraser’s relationship with a prostitute which eventually implodes, for example or Whitehead’s haunting memories of a former relationship which are incredibly disturbing. And. of course, there is no closure. Far too early in the ripper story for that.

While I knew this would be a dark book but I had no idea how difficult it would be to read about how the women in this book are treated. Not just the murders but Whitehead with his constant erections and Fraser with his jealousy and mistreatment of his prostitute lover. It was unremittingly bleak and while that may be true to the time, it didn’t make for a great read.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes

Genre: Historical fiction

Narrative style: Detached third-person narrator

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published

Synopsis: Set in Soviet Russia, The Noise of Time looks at the life of the composer, Shostakovich. The novel focuses on three key points in the composer’s life, while also giving details of his relationship with the Soviet state, first under Stalin then under Khrushchev. This is not a straightforward fictional account and is as much about the relationship between art and power as it is about Shostakovich’s life. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – History

I have been a fan of Julian Barnes for a long time. Unlike Amis or McEwan, he writes rich and enticing prose without having to show off his vocabulary and cleverness all the time. I hadn’t read anything he had written for a while so when I got this for Christmas I was very excited. Not only was it by Barnes but it was about the Soviet regime, something that I am also quite interested in.

Barnes chooses three key moments in Shostakovich’s life to illustrate the way he suffered and the difficulties he faced. These moments represent changes in the way that he is viewed by the state and the way that he views his position in relation to it.

At first, he is so convinced that he will be taken to the ‘Big House’ that he stands outside his apartment by the life so as not to be taken from his bed. His music is banned and he is very much disapproved of. It is only by a stroke of luck that he survives this part of his life.

In the second part, he is on a plane, flying to America to take part in what is basically a propaganda exercise, Stalin having decided that actually his music wasn’t banned at all. Now he is faced with making speeches he hasn’t written and agreeing with the Party line on various composers even though his personal views are different.

Finally, he is in the back of his limousine, having to be made to join the party, hating himself but seeing no other possible route. Barnes uses these three events as jumping off points to add detail and to Shostakovich’s life, his many wifes, his relationships with other composers and of course, with Power.

The portrait he paints of Shostakovich is easy to empathize with. Faced with survival as the only real consideration, it is hard to know how any of us would react. It is easy to imagine that we will stand up and protest but more likely, we would do what was needed and say what needed to be said. Shostakovich views himself as a coward but this sort of Power would make cowards of us all.

Barnes paints a clear picture of the changing Soviet state and calls the difference the new power under Khrushchev vegetarian by comparison to Stalin. It is, however, still Power and it is no easier for Shostakovich to produce music that the state approves of than it was before. (Having recently watched The Death of Stalin, I couldn’t help picture Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev as I don’t really know what the real Khrushchev looked like.) It seems that Shostakovich is destined to never be completely in favour or at least, in favour in a way that he could be comfortable with. It must be difficult when you can’t even appreciate your music being popular.

Finally, this is a novel about the role of art in society and how the Soviet regime – and others like it – warp the very idea of artistic creation. Not only do artists have to be free to create but audiences have to be free to listen and to hear what they want to hear.

Full House Reading Challenge – Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

Narrative style: Detatched, third person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1961

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more missions. He has done the required amount but the goalpost keeps moving. He doesn’t see why he should kill himself for the safety of others. However, whatever he tries, he is unable to escape his fate.

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre: Published pre 2000 

This has been on my reading list for a long time. I seem to be saying this a lot at the moment but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

First of all, there are bits of this book that are brilliant. The satire is generally spot on and Yossarian was easy to identify with. This was all as I expected. So why only give 3/5?

Well, this isn’t any easy book to read. The language isn’t difficult. In theory, you should be able to trot through it at an easy pace. But I certainly didn’t find this to be a page-turner. This is because there is no plot to speak of. Things happen. There are events. But there is no overarching storyline. I realise that this is likely a ploy on Heller’s part to represent the insanity of the situation but it meant that it wasn’t compelling to read.

Also, I found it hard to keep track of all the characters and spent a lot of  time flicking back through the book, trying to remember who did what. Obviously some characters stood out more than others such as Doc Daneeka and Milo Mindbender but some of others just blurred together.

Overall, I’m glad I read this. It’s another classic ticked off and the ideas behind it were worthwhile and interesting. I just wish they had been delivered in a slightly different way.

Full House Reading Challenge – No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

Genre: Western, Thriller

Narrative Style: First person and third person sections

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2005

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Llewellyn Moss’ life changes when he finds a pickup truck containing money, drugs and some dead gang members. He decides to take the money and immediately goes on the run. He has no idea how bad the chain of events he has set in motion will be. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – genre: Western.

I wasn’t really sure what to read for this genre. While I quite like a western movie, it is not a genre I have ever read – apart from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It seemed like a good idea to read another of his novels for this challenge. While No Country for Old Men is not a traditional cowboy story it is very much a modern day version. And I’d seen the film so I was sure that I would enjoy it.

This is a dark and brutal book. The violence is well written and (like in the film) it is not glamourised. It is bleak and empty like the landscape. Chigurh is a relentless killing machine who is unstoppable and unsympathetic. He dispatches people with the same dispassionate efficiency as a farmer slaughtering his cattle. He is the only character who is completely bad and amoral and as such he is the most frightening. You definitely would not want him on your trail.

By contrast, Moss is ambiguous in his morals. He is a veteran who is a loving husband to his very young wife. When he takes the drug dealer’s money, he sets off a tense chase across the country and the bodies very quickly start to pile up. Although Moss tries to protect his wife from the aftermath of his actions, it is inevitable that she will also come under the killer’s radar.

The sheriff, Bell, feels that his country has changed and he cannot understand this kind of cold, emotionless killing. He is part of a past that is disappearing and he feels that his morality does not quite match with the murders that he is seeing. Here is a man who loses money running the jail because he wants to make sure his prisoners are well fed. It is inevitable such intellectually cold killings as Chigurh’s would be impossible for him to understand.

McCarthy’s minimalist style seems the logical successor to writers such as Chandler and Hammett. This is a gangster story as much as it is a western. It is violent and cold in places but the contrast of Bell’s homespun philosophies and his quietly romantic relationship with his wife suggest that maybe the future isn’t totally bleak.

Full House Reading Challenge – Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

Genre: Children’s, Classics

Narrative Style: Third Person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1930

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Walker children are given permission to camp on an island in the middle of a lake (somewhere in the Lake District.) They are looking forward to some adult-free adventure so when they spot another boat flying a pirate flag, they expect there will be war. And who is the grumpy grown up in the houseboat and why does he think the Walkers have broken into his boat? 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – Middle Grade

I was going to read a more modern book for this genre but my husband was so appalled that I hadn’t read this, that I had to read it in order to shut him up. I don’t remember having heard of it when I was younger and as I was obsessed with horses, my books tended to revolve around them.

This was a very old-fashioned book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it had clear differences from modern children’s fiction. Like Little Women, it was less strong on plot and was more a series of events involving the same people. It was a set of adventures rather than one over-arching storyline. As such, it took a long time to get started and I could imagine young readers getting bored waiting for something to happen, being used to diving headlong into the action straightaway.

It is hard to imagine modern parents allowing their children to go off unsupervised onto a deserted island. There is one moment when the Walker mother visits to find Titty alone on the island and despite her worries, leaves her their alone. As a child reading, I know I would have appreciated the idea of an adult-free environment. As an adult, I found it a little harder to deal with.

Overall, I did enjoy it but I must admit, I wished for more to happen. I had thought it would be a little like the famous five, with a mystery to solve but although there was some intrigue involving the houseboat owner, it wasn’t really enough to satisfy me. The children – particularly the Walker family – were fairly well-drawn and I didn’t find them too annoying (unlike a lot of modern novels). I probably wont carry on and read the rest of the series though.