The Full House Reading Challenge – So This is Christmas – Josh Lanyon

Genre: Detective, LGBT, Romantic suspense

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: On returning early from a trip to London with his family, Adrien English is greeted by an old acquaintance who is clearly in a mess. His boyfriend has disappeared and he suspects the family of foul play. Adrien knows just the person to help. 

Reading Challenge: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre – Seasonal. 

Okay so this is not something I would normally do – read a book set at Christmas. Obviously sometimes I do read things that happens to be set at Christmas but that would not be the main selling point. That would not be why I chose to read it. But I knew that if I continued to read this series I wouldn’t be too irritated.

And I wasn’t. This was an enjoyable – and fitting end to the saga of Adrien and Jake.  I won’t spoil the ending but needless to say, anyone who has followed the on-off-back-in the-closest nature of their relationship should be pretty happy.

The family details were interesting and Lanyon captured the difference between Adrien’s family and Jake’s really well. To be honest, I would have been happy reading that without the mystery of Kevin’s disappearing boyfriend.

The mystery did feel a little tagged on. There were some of the usual ingredients such as Adrien rushing off and almost getting into a fight and some tension as Jake was hired by the family that Kevin suspected had bumped him off but mostly it was not very involving.

Overall, though, it was enjoyable and the season too be jolly wasn’t too difficult to take.

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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.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain

Genre: Children’s, Classics

Narrative Style: Third Person Narrator

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1876

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: Tom Sawyer is a typical young boy, always in trouble and skipping school, despite the best efforts of his Aunt Polly to make him tow the line. However, his need for adventure soon gets him into real trouble when he gets trapped in a cave with a murderer and thief.

Reading Challenge: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre – Children’s

This was a very enjoyable read. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it when I was younger as I was obsessed with a TV version of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn which, even now, very much influenced how I saw the characters.

The story begins with some establishing pranks to let us see Tom’s personality. He is always dirty, will do anything to get out of work and prefers to use his intelligence to avoid anything that might involve learning. It is hard not to be charmed by him despite the trouble he causes Aunt Polly.

Tom is also hopelessly romantic as is shown by his infatuation with Becky Thatcher, the new girl in school. Tom reacts in the only way he knows how by showing off and generally getting into trouble. Their childish relationship is touchingly portrayed by Twain and he manages to portray how much it means to both of them without being patronising or overly sentimental.

Tom and Huck get into many scrapes. Having accompanied Huck to the graveyard to witness some superstitious ritual, they actually see a grave being robbed. When the robbery goes badly, Dr Robinson is killed by Injun Joe who flees the scene, leaving his accomplice, Muff Porter to take the blame. The boys swear they will not tell. There is a good deal of tension while Porter is in jail and then on trial for a murder he did not commit. In the end, Tom does the right thing and tells the truth. Porter is freed but there is no sign of Injun Joe.

Later on, Huck and Tom go searching for treasure and instead come across Injun Joe and his stash of stolen money. They resolve to find out where he is going to hide his money. While watching Injun Joe, Huck stops an attack on the Widow Douglas and becomes a hero. Meanwhile Tom and Becky get lost on a picnic and end up in a network of caves where they almost dies. During this, Tom is horrified to discover Injun Joe is in the caves with them.

Eventually, Tom finds a way out and as a precautionary measure the caves are sealed up. Tom is horrified and has to confess that he saw Injun Joe in the caves. Twain does not skimp on details that show how horrible his death must have been although there is little sympathy for him as he is a thief and a murderer.

Tom and Huck then sneak back into the caves and find the money which has been stolen. They have enough money to keep them comfortable for the rest of their lives. Huck has also been adopted by the widow and is finding civilisation a little uncomfortable. It is amusing – and I’m sure most young boys would sympathise – to find Huck sleeping in a barn again in his old scruffy clothes.

Twain has been accused of racism and the whole character of Injun Joe makes for slightly uncomfortable reading. Twain lets his characters speak their minds and they are not very open minded when it comest to native Americans. However, this does not mean Twain is racist. Authors are not synonymous with their characters and there is no doubt that characters such as these would have held these attitudes. More concerning is the portrayal of Injun Joe as completely unsympathetic and as Twain does not offer an alternative perspective, the character’s views are never challenged. Although Twain was an ardent supporter of abolition, he didn’t extend this to Native Americans and his views were much harsher. It is hard to know how judgmental to be and it is unfair to judge a man by standards not of his time. However, if he could see that Blacks should have equality, then it seems strange that he could not extend this to the Native Americans.  It certainly makes the book less enjoyable.

Full House Reading Challenge – 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

Genre: Epistolary, Non-fiction

Narrative Style: Exchange of letters between Hanff and Frank Doel of Marks & Co.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1976

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Helene Hanff is an American with an interest in classical literature and old books. Marks & co are the British bookshop that she writes to to try and get her hands on some of these books. What develops is a funny and touching relationship between Helene and Frank mainly but also others who work in the shop and Frank’s wife. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Set in a bookshop 

I was quite excited by the thought of reading this as I loved the film. Really, I should know better. This is already the second post I’ve started off in this fashion this year. It is truly amazing that they managed to get such a rewarding film from such a slim volume.

Not that this was terrible. It certainly wasn’t. It was interesting to watch the relationship between Helene and Frank develop. The contrast between her open and easy going personality and Frank’s careful British reserve was amusing. Watching Frank slowly let his guard down was one of the more interesting aspects of the book.

But I have to admit, Helene got on my nerves. And nothing really happens. Books are ordered and received. Gifts are sent both ways. I suppose if you were reading this blind, then you might have the wonder of whether Helene was going to get to visit London but having seen the film, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

The main thing I thought when reading this book was how old fashioned it seemed and also how difficult it would be for this  to happen these days. Not only because we don’t really communicate be letter anymore but because these friendly, small businesses with time to treat their customers so well also seem like a thing of the past. I must admit that it gave me a strong sense of nostalgia for when we used to write letters to each other and we didn’t know every aspect of each others lives  through social media.

 

 

Full House Reading Challenge – 1984 – George Orwell

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from the view of Winston Smith.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1949

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Winston Smith lives under the eye of Big Brother in a land called Oceania. Constantly observed by tele screens that look outwards as well as showing images and unable to discuss subversive ideas with anyone, Winston wonders if he is the only one who realises the issues with the regime. Before long, he meets fellow subversive Julia and they start meeting in private. This sets in action, a series of events that is unstoppable and inevitable. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – Reread.

I realise I am following a trend in reading 1984 but it sprang straight into my mind when I realised that I had to reread a book for this challenge. The alternatives were both equally timely – Animal Farm and The Handmaid’s Tale. However, both of those had been reread more recently than 1984.

And it was timely. With Trump’s determined manipulation of the media and his hatred of the press, the idea that “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” felt all too real. “The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” also seemed fitting in a time when experts are ignored in favour of unsubstantiated opinions that support what people would rather believe. Now, more than when I last read this more than twenty years ago, did the idea of the loss of the freedom even to think really resonate.

This is not a perfect book. The character of Julia was irritating and she was little more than a tool to help Winston on his journey towards thoughtcrime and his inevitable punishment. Even Winston himself is not a fully drawn, three dimensional character and felt a little flat. However, maybe it is fitting. There is little way to express personality under such a regime particularly on the surface.

Also, the inclusion of the Goldstein’s treatise halfway through slowed down the pace and was quite a dry read. However, I feel it was necessary in order to fully understand what followed during Winston’s torture and to appreciate O’Brien’s position. But these are quibbles really. The message of the novel, the cleverness of the message of Oceania’s government overrides these issues.

I had forgotten how bleak the ending is. It is absolutely devastating that what little personality that Winston has is destroyed and he is now completely unable to think a false thought. The scene where he meets Julia for one last time and they explain their betrayal of each other is particularly depressing. There is no happy ending, no obvious way to escape the regime. And it is true that the level of control exercised by the government in this novel would be impossible to overcome. Winston is merely waiting for the bullet that he knows will come. All you can think in the end is at least it hasn’t got as bad as that here.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver (Contains Spoilers)

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2016

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When every other country in the world changes its currency to the Bancor, the United States finds itself with a problem. When it doesn’t accept the currency, the dollar quickly loses its value and prices start to rise. The Mandibles find their much relied on inheritance disappears and they suddenly are left with nothing. The novel covers their reactions to events from 2029-2047. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Most recently added to TBR.

This book was a struggle at times. In fact, it took me a month to read it. It is testament to Shriver’s high quality writing that I kept going. She certainly can string a sentence together. That is not the problem with this novel.

Nor is it the idea which I think is a solid one. In fact, given the current economic situation (particularly with Brexit causing so many worries in the UK) some of it seemed a little close to actual reality. There seemed to be dramatic possibilities in the idea of the once privileged losing everything. I always enjoy the rich taking a tumble.

The problem is that nothing really happens. Or it happens off page. An awful lot of  this novel is taken up with dinner party talk – or the equivalent when no one is having dinner parties anymore. In some ways, this is an interesting way of marking the changes in society  – with the way that a simple event changes – but it just isn’t very exciting. There are lots of intellectual debates about what might happen next which would be fine if this were an economic treatise but it’s novel and so it fell a bit flat.

I had some issues with the names in this novel – Willing, Goog, Fifia, Bing. It felt as though Shriver were trying a little hard. And the slang that these young folk used never really rang true and I never got used to it. Maybe that is just a sign of my age but it just sounded false.

When, at last, it feels like things are as bad as they can be, Shriver again doesn’t give  us the details but jumps past it all to a future where things are kind of settled again. The Mandibles are ousted from their house by their neighbours who play on their middle class naivety by pretending their child is ill. Willing, the teenage son, suggests they need to walk to their Uncle’s farm, a whole state away. This, I thought, would make for interesting reading. At last, something terrible was about to happen on the page. But no, this walk and their time on the farm was not described – perhaps because, in actual fact, their surviving this walk would have stretched incredulity to its limits. I felt cheated all the same.

The final chapters are largely taken up with the modern day equivalent of a dinner party where the young folk all sit around and discuss what became of everyone else. Not a very satisfying way of tying up loose ends. Again, there are some clever ideas about the way the world turns out but I felt I was being lectured to rather than being shown events unfolding.

Finally, the ending is a cheat. Nollie, Willing’s ancient aunt has been carefully lugging a box of her old manuscripts around with her from pillow to post. Willing thinks she may be becoming old and senile but, it becomes apparent that their is something precious in the box. Nollie has a large quantity of gold which it just so happens, she can now convert into currency in their new home in the state of Nevada – the one state that has not opted into the new economic rules. So there is a happy ending. Although the last line of the novel suggests that the future might not be exactly perfect, the whole thing ended a bit too nicely. Overall, it was disappointing.