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 2018 Sign up.

So I have decided that I will do the Full House Reading Challenge. Despite not finishing it last year, it did give me some focus and also it forced me to read some things from my bookshelf that I had been meaning to read. Hopefully I’ll get all books read this year.

I have some ideas for some of the categories but recommendations gratefully received for the rest of them.

  1. Mystery / Thriller – Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
  2. Historical – The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
  3. Over 500 pages – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  4. Four Word Title – The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
  5. Added last year to TBR – The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
  6. A Classic – Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
  7. Fantasy – Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. Adapted to a movie – Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  9. Number in the title – Red Riding 1977 by David Pearce (currently reading)
  10. Under 250 pages – The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  11. New to you author from another country – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  12. Dual Time Line – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  13. Memoir / Autobiography = Americana by Ray Davies
  14. Reread – 1984 by George Orwell