Books Read in 2014 – 28. Running Wild – J. G. Ballard (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Crime

Narrative Style: First Person reports on Pangbourne Massacredownload (7)

Rating 3/5

Format: Hardback

Published 1988
Synopsis: All the adults at expensive gated community Pangbourne are dead and all the children have disappeared. Richard Grenville is the psychologist called into investigate. The novella begins two months after the massacre. 

After two months, when no terrorist groups have laid claim to the Pangbourne Massacre, the home office calls in Dr. Richard Grenville and asks him to investigate. He takes the reader through the crimes and the theories surrounding them in a clinical and professional way so that it is possible to be both detached and disturbed by them.

When one of the children reappears, in a catatonic state, Grenville realises who the culprits are. She is clearly disturbed by what has happened and reporters assume this is due to the treatment of her kidnappers. However, Grenville realises that it is because she is one of the murderers herself. He then revisits the scene of the crime and works out the exact events.

To be honest, it was fairly apparent straightaway that the children were to blame. There lives were filled with love and approval but were also stifling. They had no freedom – except as Grenville points out – the freedom to escape into madness. For me, the obviousness of this, meant that the novel lacked suspense.

That said, the issues raised by the novel are certainly interesting. One of the reasons that the public never believe in the theory that the children are to blame is that on the surface, their lives are perfect. They want for nothing. Who wouldn’t want the constant affection of one’s parents, never arguing and having nothing to rebel against. But teenagers need to rebel, regardless of whether there is anything real to rebel against.

The crimes at Pangbourne are fascinating, not just to the public and press in the novella but to the reader as well. They hit at what we all want to avoid thinking about. Children are brutal, to each other and to their parents. They have a savagery that we like to believe we can civilize. This is those in authority persist in viewing the massacre as an act of terroris, even though that is patently absurd.

This is well written and the ideas are good but I did feel that it became a bit pointless as it went on because of the obviousness of the culprits. The ending – when the teenagers attack a former prime minister – felt a bit forced. Although it could be taken as an interesting metaphor for the way that youth and the next generation remove what has gone before.

Books read in 2014 – 25. The City, Not Long After – Pat Murphy

Genre: Dystopia / Utopia

Narrative Style: Third Person, largely chronological

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1989

Synopsis: The narrative centres on San Fransisco after a plague. The survivors are all artists or eccentrics and are all peace loving. When a girl comes from outside of the city, warning of war, they realise that they have to $(KGrHqJ,!l!E8EqSozg6BPNuf3zchg~~60_35defend the city somehow.

This is different from other dystopia that I have read, in as much as it doesn’t see the very worst in people. So it may be more apt to call it a utopia. It represents the way that you might hope people would react, the very best that humans can be. Once it occurred to me that this was a utopia, I was able to cope with it a little better.

The characters are all a little bit wacky – a group of dreamers and artists who spend their lives creating works of art rather than struggling to survive. Danny Boy begins a project to paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue. The Machine spends his time creating metal insects and creepy crawlies. Books is trying to write a history of post plague San Fransisco. No one struggles for food.

Jax is guided to the city by an angel (which may have been made by The Machine) and her mother’s ghost. She brings the news that an army is planning to attack. However, the artists are loathe to take her seriously. And even when they do start to prepare, they vow not to kill but scare the army, unnerve them. Even those who have to be dealt with close up are merely sedated.

I understand the points that Murphy is trying to make about warfare and it’s dehumanising effect on the human psyche. She references many historical figures (like Gandhi for example) who used peaceful protest. And the utopian ideas are pertinent. However, I have to admit that I found it a little naive. I couldn’t quite stop my own cynicism from infecting the story. Maybe I’m essentially misanthropic but I find it hard to believe in the best of people. Especially in the area of warfare. At the end of the day, I prefer my post-apocalyptic fiction to be a little harder round the edges. This was too nice by far.

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 23. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Contains Spoilers.)

Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult

Narrative Style: First person narrative, chronologicaldownload (6)

Rating: 2.5/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2010

Synopsis: Having been pulled from the arena at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss finds herself in the hands of the rebels. She is reluctant to accept the role of Mockingjay but does so when she realises what the Capitol has done to Peeta. The battle for supremacy between the rebels and the Capitol begins in earnest.

This is definitely the weakest book of the trilogy. I was keen to read on at the end of Catching Fire. It wasn’t obvious what would happen to Katniss and I dived in straightaway. It wasn’t long before I felt disappointed though.

There were a number of reasons for this. First of all, Katniss is whinier than ever, determined to take the blame for everything and reluctant to accept her new role. I found her even more irritating than usual. She is naive in her views and the reader is probably supposed to find this innocently refreshing but to me it just seems unrealistic. Gale is much more pragmatic but no less annoying as he seems more a rebel mouthpiece than a real character. The transformation of Peeta to a tool of the Capitol didn’t convince either. He moved between good Peeta and evil Peeta at the mercy of the plot with little thought for his actual character. I didn’t believe in either role. Especially as it started to be apparent that he and Katniss would end up together. There was no tension as to whether his good side would return.

A bigger problem is that of the action, a lot of which happens away from Katniss. The reader is then given a couple of paragraphs about what has happened. (This will be solved in the film, I guess where they will be more able to use multiple viewpoints.) This is particularly troublesome after Katniss shoots Coin and there is a trial happening while Katniss is singing to herself in her cell. But it’s okay because she is found innocent and allowed to go home. Very unsatisfactory.

The ending was equally unsatisfactory. (In fact, about halfway through I realised that there was no way this could end in a way that would please me. I’m glad that Katniss didn’t end up with Gale but the idea that she was able to have a family with Peeta was just as problematic to me.) The epilogue was mawkish and sickening. I felt the same at the end of the last Harry Potter. I’m not sure why it is felt to be necessary. It wasn’t a fairy tale so why end with a happily ever after?

To end on a more positive note, there are some interesting ideas in this novel – the use of propaganda, the nature of warfare, the way power corrupts, for example – I just wish that they had been played out in a different way.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 22. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult

Narrative Style: First Person narrative, largely chronologicalcatchingfire02-718973

Rating 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2009

Synopsis: Following their win at the Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta are preparing themselves for their victory tour and the next games. As this is a celebration of 75 years of the games, it calls for a special games to be designed, one which Katniss and Peeta will never forget.

I read The Hunger Games last year and I have to admit, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to read on. However, I always meant to read the others and so I finally got round to downloading Catching Fire and Mockingjay onto my kindle.

If anything, I enjoyed this more than The Hunger Games. The plot twists were a little less blatant and I loved the idea of the clock shaped games arena. The Capitol and the gamemakers seemed more cruel and some of the weapons / tricks played within the arena were truly horrible.

The book trotted along and I did find it hard to put down. I wanted to know that Katniss and Peeta would survive. Or rather how they would survive – the existence of a third book suggesting that they both lived through this one. I was glad to have the third one ready and waiting as the end of this one was much more of a cliff hanger than the last one.

I still found Katniss intensely annoying. She is constantly selfish, ignorant and mistrustful. The way she swings between Gale and Peeta is also irritating. While she is a strong lead character who takes action, she is often in the wrong or acts in a foolish way. She was hard to like. Whilst, on the one hand, Peeta is more sympathetic, in some ways he is just as annoying. His essential goodness doesn’t quite ring true.

The final reveal at the end of the book and Katniss’ reaction too it seemed a little forced and sudden. More subtle clues throughout might have helped with this. The appearance of Gale at the end and his rebel status also did not quite convince.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh but I did feel that I constantly wanted to shake Katniss. Maybe, again, it is just that I am too far removed from Katniss’ age to really be able to relate to her. Certainly, the idea of these books is strong and interesting, I was left feeling that the execution could have been better.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 21. The Fault in our Stars – John Green

Genre: Young Adult, Illness. Romance

Narrative Style: First Person Narrative, Chronological Timeline The_Fault_in_Our_Stars

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2012

Synopsis: Hazel has cancer and even though she is taking a drug to shrink her tumours, her prognosis is still terminal. At a cancer support group, she meets Augustus, seemingly recovered from his cancer, and discovers what life is all about.  

This is an excellent book for debunking myths and showing exactly how difficult it is for teenagers with cancer. It is funny and lively as well as being devastatingly sad. From the moment that Hazel meets Augustus, there is a sense that this cannot end well. (Otherwise what sense in telling the story.) There was always a sense of grabbing happiness while you can and one of the lessons Hazel learns is that you cannot stop people from loving you just so they don’t get hurt and equally you cannot stop yourself from doing the same.

I was impressed with the gallows humour in this book and it always felt right and didn’t step over the mark at all. I was a little wary of reading it, thinking that it might be too upsetting but in fact I found I laughed more than anything. There was one point towards the end when it is obvious what is going to happen and I put the book down, thinking I might not pick it up again. But I did and it was painful but not impossible to read.

One of the reasons I didn’t find it more upsetting, I think, is that it never stopped feeling like a book. The characters were well written and the plot moved well and wasn’t cliched but I never really suspended my disbelief. In the book, Augustus is obsessed with the metaphoric resonance of everything he does and the story often seemed symbolic rather than real as if everything was imbued with too much meaning.

Still, undoubtedly an important book about the importance of living even when you are dying.

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 20. Dissolution by C. J. Sansom

Genre: Historical Fiction, Detective Fiction

Narrative Style: First person recount, largely chronological

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2003

Synopsis: Matthew Shardlake is commissioner to Cromwell during the dissolution of the monasteries. He is sent by Cromwell to investigate the death of a previous commissioner at a monastery in Scarnsea. When he arrives it seems that quite a number of monks are potentially guilty and Shardlake has to walk a difficult path to get to the truth. 51xcXRFlN0L

Tudor history is one of my favourite eras to read about and I love a good detective story so this seemed to tick all the boxes. The fact that it was set in a monastery and all the monks had some sin that they are trying to keep secret only added to the fun.

When Shardlake is first sent to Scarnsea and we are introduced to the potential murderers, it seems that any number of people could have murdered the previous commissioner. Clues and red herrings rain down through the plot with an astonishing quickness and Shardlake is quickly out of his depth. When the bodies start to pile up and he starts to feel pressured, he begins to make dubious decisions and mistakes.

The historical detail seems note perfect and I particularly enjoyed the various descriptions of Cromwell. The battle between traditional and new religion is well described and Shardlake is as uncompromising in his views about the new ways as the traditionalists were about theirs. Ultimately (like In The Name of the Rose) this is a story about knowledge and power and who should be allowed to have it.

I did find Shardlake to be an irritating narrator. I’m sure this was intentional but his peevish voice started to grate by the time I got to the end. This, and the fact that I worked out who the murderers were (although not why) before the end, were the reasons for this not being a 5/5 read. Other than that, it was a very enjoyable mixture of historical fact, political intrigue and detective story.

 

Books read in 2014 – 19. The Absolutist by John Boyne

Genre: Historical Fiction, War

Narrative Style: First person narration, Moves between 1919 and Tristan’s memories of the war

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Tristan Sadler has decided to deliver letters written by Will eclecticchallenge2014_300Bancroft to his sister in Norwich. Will was shot as a coward but Tristan knows the truth of what happened and hopes to be able to tell Will’s sister his deepest secrets. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge: War. 

Having previously read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I should have been more prepared for the onslaught on the emotions that this book provided. At the end, I was devastated. My mind kept playing over the details of the ending as if I could somehow change the narrative and give Will and Tristan a better ending.

The narrative begins with Tristan’s arrival in Norwich to give the letters to Will’s sister Marian. He had trained and fought with Will and it soon became apparent that he had loved him very much. Marian wants answers as to why Will died and proof that he was not a coward for laying down his arms and refusing to fight. the absolutist

At first it seems that Tristan’s great secret is his homosexuality and the physical acts that he and Will shared. Understandably at this moment in history, and in the army, this was something that both men found difficult to deal with. However, the truth of the matter was much more painful and dark. And although I had worked out exactly what Tristan had done, that didn’t lessen the trauma of actually reading about it.

The themes of this book run through many war novels – the nature of bravery, what makes a man, the effect of brutality on the psyche – but I don’t think I have ever read a novel that tackles them so directly. Before Will lays down his arms, another character, Wolf, is murdered by the other soldiers when he finally hears that he will not have to fight. The treatment of those who wished not to fight and those who could not was appalling – much worse than I’d realised. The treatment of Marian and Will’s parents is equally deplorable.

In the end, although Tristan’s behaviour was also deplorable, I had a lot of empathy for him. Boyne’s characterisation and use of historical detail is so good that it is possible to see past the terrible act he commits and see the man and the reasons behind it. Easily the best book I’ve read in an age.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 17. All the Flowers in Shanghai – Duncan Jepson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: A chronological first person account in the style of a memoir written for her children

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2011

Synopsis: The story of Feng, a young Chinese woman who suddenly has to download (5)replace her elder sister in an arranged marriage. The novel begins in the 1930s and moves through to the Cultural Revolution showing the effect on Feng and her family.

This was quite an easy read – straightforwardly chronological and with easy to follow prose. The pace was good and there was enough interest to keep the reader going. At first, it was difficult to pinpoint why I didn’t like it more.

I think my main problem was with the character of Feng. At the beginning of the novel, she is a sweet girl left to her own devices because it is her elder sister who will make the important arranged marriage. She spends most of her time in the gardens with her precious grandfather learning the names of the flowers and trees in Latin. However, when her sister dies, she is forced by tradition to take her place.

She has no idea what lies ahead. Even after the wedding, she still seems like an innocent abroad, lost in among the plots and petty problems of a large family.

However, when she becomes pregnant, she changes. She makes the decision to send the child away if it is a girl and she becomes hardened. While it is likely that she would grow up a bit, this change in personality does not quite ring true. Later still, she runs away from her home, ashamed by how she has behaves and this too seems unconvincing.

Finally, she is able to contact her long lost children with what is, in my mind, a pretty weak plot device. The happy ending that this dreates is, to my mind, a little forced as the other changes had been. It isn’t that Feng’s voice is unconvincing particularly but that she is used by the plot regardless of whether the behaviour fits in with her personality.

At the beginning of the novel, I was a little lost as to when it was set. It wasn’t obvious and I suppose that this is because Feng was sheltered from the real world by her wealth. The end section is much more successful and the way that China was scarred by the Cultural Revolution is well documented. In fact, the way that Feng is constantly ruled by forces out of her  control shows the problems with both the old and the new regime.

 

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.

Rating 2/52014tbrbutton

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.

Books Read in 2014 – 15. Some of Your Blood – Theodore Sturgeon

Genre: Horror, Epistolary
narrative style: a variety of letters, third and first person narration, sturgeon-some-blood-tempsychiatric evaluations and interviews.

Rating:4/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1961

Synopsis:A soldier who calls himself “George” is admitted to the army’s psychiatric ward after a vicious attack on the major of his company. The major was concerned about the contents of a letter “George” wrote home to his girl, Anna but the contents are not revealed to the reader until the very end.

Dr Phil Outerbridge is given the task of dealing with a soldier who is surrounded with some mystery. The army want the issue of his attack on the major dealt with quickly and sensitively. The novel opens with a series of letters between Phil and his superior Al, discussing the way in which this case could be dealt with and Phil’s initial impressions of the patient.

At the very beginning, before the story proper, there is a section describing the reader sneaking into Phil’s office (We are assured it is safe, after all it is only fiction) and opening this particularly curious file and working through it.  The different voices and styles that this requires are skillfully handled and the psychiatric reports and analysis are convincing and intelligent.

The soldier is tasked with writing his own story. He is advised that it might be easier in the third person and chooses the name “George” for himself.The third person narrative that follows gives a lot of detail about “George’s” early life, his time in a boys’ home and then in the army and details his love of hunting. Whenever it seems that there may be some sort of revelation, George moves on to the next event and the reader is left wondering exactly what has happened. As Phil later comments, there are a number of holes in his story.

After “George’s” narrative, there follows a number of psychiatric evaluations and interviews in which more details are slowly revealed about the exact nature of “George’s” sickness. The way the story slowly unfolds reminded me of the narrative structure of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde where witness accounts and letters hint at the horror that the reader eventually faces.

In the end, the contents of the letter is revealed and the story finishes with no absolute decision on whether “George” will stay in the hospital or not. Instead, there is a return to the authorial voice of the beginning offering us possible fictional outcomes and inviting us to decide. Then in the final chilling moments, we are warned to hurry in case Phil catches us and it isn’t fiction after all but real. Of course, such horror does exist in the real world and this could easily be a real case study. It is a clever and unnerving ending to what was a clever and unnerving story.