Books Read in 2014 – 63. Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather

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Genre: Religious, American History

Narrative style: A series of happenings that involve the same characters but are not connected by an over-arching narrative. Third person.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1927

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: An epic novel spanning the life of Father Jean Marie Latour as he becomes9780679728894_p0_v1_s260x420 Vicar Apostolic to New Mexico. The novel takes us from the beginning of his career through to his becoming Archbishop and eventual death. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: This is one of the oldest unreads on my shelf. I bought it while at university some twenty or so years ago. I had come across Cather’s name in books on feminist writing and so when I saw it second hand I picked it up. However, I then didn’t really fancy the subject matter, hence it languishing on the shelf for quite so long. 

There is no denying that this is beautifully written. Cather can certainly turn a phrase and for me to have kept on reading this, despite my lack of interest in matters of religion is testament to the strength of her prose. The countryside and the characters are all impeccably described and vivid to the reader. Latour and his assistant and friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, were interesting in their missionary zeal even while I could not share their enthusiasm. Both were based on real men and many of the events were based in reality which only makes it more remarkable.

The main reason I didn’t rate this higher was the structure of the novel. I’m not even sure that novel is the right word. There isn’t one storyline here, no overarching plot but a series of scenes, all as important as the other. This led to a lack of tension and I felt there was no reason for reading on. There were no hints of what was to come and little reference to what had been. It was perhaps like a series of short stories which just happened to involve the same group of people.

While I am not really interested in religion, I am interested in the period of history described and if nothing else, this book has reminded me of that and ensured I will read more about it in the future.

Books Read in 2014 57. The Flood by Ian Rankin

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Genre: Literary Fiction, Mystery

Narrative Style: Third Person, Chronologicaldownload (17)

Rating: 2/5

Published:1986

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: As a result of an accident as a child, Mary Miller has always had pure white hair. It has earned her the reputation of being a witch and she is something of an outcast in the Scottish town where she lives. Years later, she and her son Sandy are still on the outskirts of the town and looked on with a mixture of fear and pity by the other town folk.

Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: A good couple of years. I picked it up because I was curious. Rebus is one of my favourite literary characters. I wanted to see if Rankin could do anything else. And then I got a little nervous about whether I would like it or not. 

I was right to be nervous. This did not appeal to me at all. I feel a bit guilty saying this as if I was insulting a close friend. I really like Rankin’s Rebus books and I really wanted to like this but it just didn’t happen.

It wasn’t that it was badly written. If anything it was over-written, trying a bit hard to be literary. It felt as if Rankin was yet to find his voice and sometimes the prose was a bit tortured. Some of the descriptions of the area were reminiscent of the wonderful descriptions of Edinburgh in the Rebus books and some of the characters were ambiguous as to whether they were good or bad, a theme that often crops up in the Rebus books but this wasn’t enough to bring the story to life.

The plot is stretched too thin, I think. The story is interesting enough and there are hints of what is to come but is not enough to keep the reader’s interest. It is a slight story, really, concerning the possible father of Sandy and Sandy’s liaison with a gypsy girl living in the old manor house.

The ending was also disappointing. Although loose ends were wrapped up, it brought no satisfaction. I’m glad that this wasn’t the first Rankin I read as I am certain I would never have read another.

 

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 53. The Distant Echo – Val McDermid

2014tbrbuttonGenre: Detective
Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of viewpoints
Rating: 5/5
Published: 2003
Format: paperback
Synopsis: Four students find a girl, bleeding and almost dead, in a park on the way home from a party. A lack of any other suspects puts them in the firing line with the police and destroys their friendship. When twenty five years later, someone starts to kill them off, they feel they are back in the firing line. Will the real killer ever be found?
Reading Challenge: The TBR Challenge
Time on shelf: About three years. Not sure why. I guess, I forgot it.

This gripped me from the very first. I was convinced by the friendship between the four students – Alex, Ziggy, Weird and Mondo – by the end of the first chapter. I enjoyed the way that McDermid used their different viewpoints to add details to the story. They were all strong characters, some more likeable than others. There were many viewpoints – the police running the case, for example which gave the reader sympathy for them as they were unable to find the killer.
The pressure of being murder suspects takes its toll. The friendship – which has lasted since school – begins to break apart. The police investigation brings to light the fact that Ziggy is gay, which some of the group find hard to deal with. Then Weird finds God and the others wonder if that is a sign of guilt which further drives a wedge between them.
Twenty five years later and the first of the four is murdered. I won’t reveal who was killed but I will say that I was devastated as it was my favourite character. I was both surprised and impressed by McDermid killing of a character that I assume would be loved by most readers.
There are a number of red herrings in the second half of the book. McDermid gives just enough information to point you in the wrong direction while cleverly dropping hints as to who the real killer is. Once I realised who it was, the facts quickly fell into place and I realised what a master of the detective art McDermid really is. I will certainly be reading more.

Books Read in 2014 – 47. Let the Right One in – John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Genre: Horror, Vampires

Narrative Style: Third person chronological

Rating 5/5 

Published: 2009

Format: Paperbackdownload (14)

Synopsis: Oskar a loner, bullied at school and friendless, is over the moon when he meets Eli, the girl who moves into his apartment block. She seems a little strange but then so is Oskar. However, all is not as it seems and with Eli’s arrival comes a series of strange deaths and uncanny events. Oskar knows she has a secret but could not have imagined the full extent of her story.

Reading challenges: TBR challenge

Time of Shelf: I bought this not long after I watched the film which I really enjoyed. But then I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the film (whenever I read a book of a film, I seem to like it less than the film) so I started to avoid reading it. 

I was a bit nervous starting to read this. Not because I thought I might be scared – I rather hoped I would be – but because I had loved the film so much. (The Swedish original not the American remake.) I had high expectations. What if the book couldn’t live up to them? Well, I needed have worried. This book is amazing in its own right and while I enjoyed it more than the film, the film didn’t lose anything as a result. I could still watch it.

It is almost difficult to know where to start. As with all good horror, this is more than a story about vampires. It’s about good and evil and the very basis of what it means to be human. Eli – or Elias as it is later revealed – has to kill in order to survive ( if survive is really the right word) but is less monstrous than the man who helps her by killing young boys and bleeding them. He is eventually caught out by his own desire for young flesh and when  he becomes un-dead, it is this perversion that drives him to almost destroy Eli in one of the most disturbing encounters in the novel. As a vampire, he represents all of society’s great fears about the potential danger of the paedophile.

By contrast, Eli and Oskar’s relationship is almost innocent. They are both on the cusp of adolescence and their relationship slides between childish and adult. Oskar is more disturbed to discover that Eli is actually a boy (although one that has been castrated) than to discover he is a vampire. She gives him the confidence to stand up to the bullies at school and he gives her a much needed friend. They are both outsiders – the details of their difference are less important than the fact of it.

Where this novel really succeeds is the sense of place that  the reader is given. Like in the best of Stephen King’s work, Lindqvist shows the reader the smallness of his characters’ lives. The small town is suffocating, killing its inhabitants as surely as if it was the monster. And for the ones that are left alive at the end, there is no escape. Only back to the grey, dead landscape of their everyday life.

Having said that, the end of this story is not depressing and you can’t help feeling hopeful for Oskar and Eli. They are the ones that get away and even though one of them is hundred of years old and lives of the blood of others, you hope that they will be happy.

 

Books read in 2014 – 37. The Rules of Attraction – Bret Easton Ellis

 

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Genre: Masculinity, GLBT

Narrative Style: Various first person narratives. Chronological.

Rating 4/5

Publication: 1987

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Paul is in love with Sean but is on the rebound from Mitchell. Sean is in love with Lauren but that doesn’t stop him from going to bed with Paul. Lauren is in love with Victor who is in Europe and not communicating. These are the main voices in Ellis’s novel of disconnection and loneliness who recount their many attempts at love and sex. 

Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About four years. Not sure why – I like Ellis but this just seemed to slip to the bottom of the pile again and again. 

This is a fairly typical Ellis novel. The characters are empty, trying desperately to fill their lives with something – drugs, sex, alcohol – certainly not with what they are supposed to be studying. This isn’t a criticism. I enjoy Ellis’s style and subject matter, just that it is easy to see where this fits before American Psycho and Glamarama. Of course, both of those branch off from this one so I suppose it isn’t surprising.

The main characters are Sean, Paul and Lauren and they get the narrative the most often. The triangle is absurd. Paul is besotted with Sean and describes their time together but if you only read Sean’s chapters then you’d never know about this relationship as he only mentions Paul in passing. In fact, it is almost possible to believe that Paul has the wrong person although some details do seem to be backed up by Lauren. He claims to be in love with Lauren but only because he thinks that she has been leaving love notes for him. Lauren’s motives for sleeping with Sean are uncertain although she is bored and angry with Victor who she discovers is chasing somebody else.

This is typical of the relationships in the novel and of the other characters who get the narrative voice. Everyone is in love with the wrong person. This is a novel about disconnection. Not just between people but with life and with themselves. No one really knows what anyone else is thinking or even comes close to guessing. In fact, more often then not, they have it about as wrong as it is possible to be.

This lack of connection is shown in the way the characters bed hop with about as much thought for sex as any other bodily function. It is no more important than scratching an itch. Even while Sean claims to be in love with Lauren, he still sleeps with her best friend. Also, it is symbolised by the fact that no one seems able to decide on a subject to study. These people do not know themselves so it makes sense that they would be unable to form relationships or settle on a pathway for the future.

This novel is funny in places and Ellis has a superb ear for dialogue so the meaningless student exchanges seem realistic and reminded me of the sort of conversations that you have at that age. Ultimately though, this is a difficult book to read and I found the characters a bit depressing. They have no characteristics, they only have things. And while I know these sort of people exist, I certainly wouldn’t want to spend anymore time than I just have in their company.

Books Read in 2014 – 27. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Genre: Family, Australian Fiction

Narrative Style – A series of third person perspectives from different characters’ points of view. 

Rating 4/52014tbrbutton

Format: Paperback

Published: 2008

Synopsis: At a barbecue in suburban Australia, a young child is out of control. While others look on in horror, a man who is not his parent slaps the child. The repercussions of this act ripple through the lives of all present that day. 

Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: Only about three years. I meant to read it before it was on TV but then I only managed to watch the first episode (not because it wasn’t good but because I was too busy and/or hopeless) and the urgency fell away. I was quite glad not to have watched it as I really enjoyed not knowing what would happen. 

Before reading this, I was interested to see how the issue of child discipline would be handled. This is a emotive issue. If you are seen to disagree with modern parenting methods then you are perceived as some sort of barbarian. But sometimes it does seem that children are being done no favours by parenting methods that give them a choice article-1304653-0AC0591E000005DC-621_233x353about everything but neglect to teach them that sometimes they won’t get their own way. Tsiolkas handles these issues successfully due to the method of giving each person a chapter and opinion. He shows the multi-faceted nature of the issue at hand.

There is not doubt that Hugo is a little monster, still being breastfed at almost four, refusing to play nice and told by his mother that he is the most important person in the universe. Actually, Rosie, his mother was one of the less convincing characters, she was too cliched an earth mother for me and I found her chapter one of the least fun to read. However, this may be due to the distance between myself and this sort of women. She was the sort of person I would never be friends with.

Harry, the person who slapped Hugo was suitably horrible – racist, sexist, violent. After all, even if you might think that child could do with  a slap, there aren’t many of us who would put that into action. Even so, I was pleased that the court decision went his way. You shouldn’t slap someone else’s child but surely you don’t need to take it to the police either.

I enjoyed reading the different viewpoints and trying to understand how different characters came to their decisions about the incident. The story unfolded cleverly and there was always reason to keep reading. The ending pulled together most of the narrative threads and was largely satisfying. The only thing I might have liked was more from the early characters as hints are dropped about them but you don’t actually get to see how they have changed.

When I rated this on Goodreads, I was surprised by the number of negative reviews. There is s something a little soap opera like about this but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The issues raised – like those in a soap opera – are pertinent to everyday life. I enjoyed this and will certainly be reading more of TSiolkas’ books.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 16. Translated Accounts by James Kelman

Genre: Experimental, Dystopia

Narrative style: a variety of first person accounts from a number of unnamed people.

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Format: Paperback

Published: 2001

Synopsis: A series of nameless narrators tell of their life in what seems to be some sort of police state. There are rules and securty forces and the narrators seem concerned about conforming or otherwise. The accounts are supposed to have been translated from the original language by some Government authority and as a result they are somewhat alienating to read. 

Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on shelf: I bought this in about 2003, not long after I had finished my MPhil, in which I wrote about A Disaffection and How Late it was How Late both of which I really enjoyed. However, I felt the need to read less challenging books for a while after finishing my thesis so this got stuck on the shelf as I knew it was likely to be difficult. 

This was a real slog and it is a long time since I have felt so pleased to have finished a book. In fact, if not for the fact of reading it for the TBR Pile Challenge I might have abandoned it. I knew it wasn’t likely to be an easy read but I had no idea of the problems I was going to have with it.

There are a number of things that make this difficult to read. The first is download (4)that not only are none of the narrators named but neither are any of the characters. They are referred to as woman, wife, mother and so on. This means that there is no continuity and it is even more difficult to tell which narrator is which. It also means that no character stands out and so there is no one for the reader to attach themselves to or be concerned for.

There is very little detail about the society although you can glean that people are frightened and that they’re ruled by some all powerful higher authority but the rules are never really explained and as there is very little action the plot moves very slowly.

Finally, the language is disjointed and does sound a lot like it has been translated from another language. It is as if the fracturing of society has had a fracturing effect on the language of its people. Again, this makes it difficult to read.

I realise that what I’m viewing as problems might very well have been Kelman’s intentions and I understand the points he is trying to make about the way a police state would strip its members of individuality and make it difficult to discuss anything openly. It was an interesting experiment although ulitmately, I think, a failed one.