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.

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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 – The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Genre : War

Narrative Style: First Person, Non-chronological

Published: 1956

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis:  Fowler is a cynical journalist following the battles of the French against the Vietminh. Pyle is the naïve American who has idealistic ideas about how to end the war. When Pyle is murdered, everyone is suspect, including Fowler. As Fowler recounts his story of meeting Pyle, it transpires his own motives are less than pure.

Reading Challenges: The Full House Reading Challenge – Less than 250 pages.

I can’t say that I fully understood the political situation in this novel. I haven’t very much knowledge of the Vietnam War but Greene paints his picture in a very human way, looking at individual motivation and personality so it is relatively easy to follow.

As with other Greene novels I have read, motivation is nothing if not complicated. Fowler is attempting to keep himself on the side lines. But he finds it harder and harder to remain uninvolved. His relationship with Pyle is complicated by the fact that Pyle’s first act is to steal Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful mistress.

The story unfolds in flashbacks after Pyle’s death and the reader slowly realises that while it is true that Fowler did not kill Pyle, he is also not completely innocent. Fowler cannot let Phuong go. Pyle has to be removed from the picture. The novel shows how complicated personal and political motivation can be.

The one thing that made me a little uncomfortable was the way Phuong is passed between the men. I’m not accusing Greene of sexism or anything. I’m sure it is an apt description of the way Vietnamese women were treated by Western men.  But nonetheless, it made the novel a little less enjoyable for me.

All in all, an interesting novel that made me think about war, about the personal and the political and about relationships in general. Definitely worth a read.

Full House Reading Challenge – The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller

Genre: Romance

Narrative Style: A mix of first person, third person, and letters.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1992

Synopsis: A writer is presented with the diaries of Francesca Johnson by her children. They detail the brief affair that she had with Robert Kincaid who came to photograph the covered bridges of Madison County. It shows the sacrifice she made by staying with her family. The writer promises to tell the story. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Made into a movie.

I read this because I really enjoyed the film. Romance is not really my thing but I remembered crying at the film so I thought that maybe the book would be as emotional. Instead, I found it sentimental and slightly irritating.

At the beginning, there is a preface explaining how the writer came by this story when Francesca’s children brought her journals to him. This makes it feel like you are reading a true story and I admit, this made me like the story more. It also explained some of the worst excesses of the text – Kincaid’s pseudo hippy talk, for example – as he was working from real people. However, about halfway through, I decided to investigate whether it was true or not and it isn’t. I admit, my impressions of Waller as a writer went down from this point.

Looking at the Goodreads reviews of this book shows that it completely splits opinion. There were a whole raft of one star and five star reviews. I don’t really understand this book inspiring either extreme love or extreme hatred (and some of the one star reviews are pretty angry). It left me feeling empty. I felt little sympathy for either party.

Of course, in the film you have Clint Eastwood (who easily embodies this sort of masculinity) and Meryl Streep, both capable of making an okay story into something special through their performances. Things that had niggled only a little after the movie became downright irritating after the book. Why was it that Francesca had to sacrifice her happiness and stay with her family and  then spent all her time holding onto the few things that reminded her of Robert. The whole ‘last cowboy’ and Kincaid as the end of an evolutionary line of masculinity was irritating as well. Presumably this is the type of man Waller would have liked to be: no ties or responsibility but with the secret of a lost love in his past to explain his solitariness.

At the end of the day, the best thing I can say about this book is that it didn’t take long to read.

 

Contains Spoilers – Full House Reading Challenge – Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Genre: Young adult, dystopia

Narrative Style: First person from two points of view

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2013

Format: paperback

Synopsis: The faction system is broken. Tris is surrounded by violence and nothing seems to be any better than before. Tobias is caught between his warring parents. Perhaps they can find a better life outside of the city? 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre: Favourite series. 

First of all, I should point out that I don’t really have a favourite series but this is a series that I needed to finish. I thought the previous books were ok -certainly enough to decide that I needed to know how it ended.

I really wish I hadn’t bothered.

I’ve had some problems with accepting the idea of the factions in the previous books. It just doesn’t hold water for me. Discovering that it was all a giant experiment to try and return the  world to genetic purity didn’t help me suspend my disbelief any. In fact, it made it all seem a bit more false.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that Roth was trying to make a point about the use of genetics as an excuse to treat some people as second class citizens. Definitely a point worth making. However, Roth spoils any political point she may have been trying to make by the way that Tobias and co. win their freedom.

Instead of a realistic battle with the government, Roth settles instead for allowing all the government’s memories to be reset by a serum so they could be given a new history and would no longer be obsessed with genetic purity. This seems to me to be a slightly more grown up version of ‘and then I woke up’. Had she run out of ideas? It certainly seemed a lazy way out of the problems the city was in.

This wasn’t the worse thing though. No, that was the death of Tris who happily sacrifices herself for the rest of the group even though there is no reason for her to. This annoyed me so much, I nearly didn’t finish the book. (Especially the whole scene with her hallucination of her mother which was needlessly sentimental.) Why bring a character so far through a story, make her battle so much, to not have her survive and enjoy the victory?

Finally, the epilogue made everything just too perfect. It was too easy. Real political battles are much more hard won. I admit, I don’t like uncomplicated happy endings and so I was never going to be pleased with this. However, I know I would have been happier if Tris had been in the final picture.

 

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 – 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.