Books Read in 2014 – 38. The Lie by Helen Dunmore

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Genre: War, Historical Fiction
Narrative Style: First person narrative set in 1920 with flashbacks to the first world war.
Rating: 3/5
Publication: 2013
Format: Kindle
Synopsis: Daniel has survived the First World War and is now back in his hometown, homeless and without family. He is haunted by his experiences in the trenches and by the death of his best friend, Frederick as he tries to make a new life for himself.

I picked this to read because I enjoy reading about the First World War and because it had good reviews but I found that it paled compared to other fiction that I have read about this conflict. I found it neither as emotionally compelling as some (The Absolutist by John Boyne) or as interesting in terms of the themes treated here (Regeneration by Pat Barker, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks).
The main reason for my discontent was that the plot seemed stretched, little more than a short story’s worth of content strained by its extension to a novel. Daniel is sympathetic and interesting but not a lot happens to him, even during his flashbacks so there is little to move the plot along.
Where Dunmore does succeed is in her descriptions – both of the Cornish coast and the life in the trenches. They are vivd and really give the reader a sense of Daniel’s isolation and horror. Also the descriptions of him re-working Mary Pascoe’s land are an interesting metaphor for his attempts at starting a new life whilst also constantly reminding him of the mud in the trenches.
I also liked the analysis of class and the differences between Daniel and his much richer friend, Frederick are apt and seem realistic. The differences between them become particularly apparent when they are both in the army but in completely different roles.
Unfortunately, this couldn’t make up for the lack of action and also the I found the ending unsatisfying and a little ridiculous.

Books read in 2014 – 36. A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale

Genre: family, religion

Narrative Style: Third person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5065917-fc222

Format: Paperback

Published:2012

Synopsis: Lenny decides to take his own life after being paralyzed in a rugby accident. He asks the parish priest, Barnaby Johnson to be present. His decision and Barney’s involvement will turn the parish upside down and bring old secrets to light. 

This had me hooked from the first with Lenny’s meticulous plans for suicide and his request for the parish priest to be present. Barnaby has no idea what is going to happen until it is far too late and Lenny has already committed the act. He is left with nothing but prayer.

The story then unfolds from various characters points of view at various points in their life so we learn of Barnaby’s marriage, his difficult relationship with his adopted son and his affair with a local artist from his point of view and theirs. We learn about Lenny’s mother and a local parishioner named Modest who turns out to play a crucial role in events a number of times in the narrative without always realising.

The pace is unhurried and it is easy to work out some of the secrets but that really isn’t the point of this story. The narrative is as much about Barnaby’s difficult relationship with his faith and with God as it is about the actual events. It is about family and the ways we come to find love in the most unexpected ways. There are no big twists and turns because this is a novel about ordinary people dealing with what life throws at them.

The characters were convincing and I felt able to empathise with most of them even those I didn’t actually like. Even Modest, the most horrible character, was pathetic rather than anything else. It was interesting to see both sides of the father son relationship between Barnaby and his son, Phuc and realise exactly how hard it is sometimes to do the right thing.

The book ends well, in that it ties up loose ends and it is generally a happy ending but there is nothing forced or unlikely about it and no doubt if you continued to follow these characters life would continue to throw challenges at them but this was where this particular story ended.

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 33. The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai

eclecticchallenge2014_3002014tbrbuttonGenre: Indian Literature, Family95186

Narrative Style – Third person, non-chronological

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2005

Synopsis: In an old, isolated house a retired judge lives his life in solitude despite those around him, his granddaughter, Sai is in love with her Gurkha tutor and their cook can think only of his son in New York. The son is desperately moving from one dead end kitchen job to another. Around them all hell breaks loose and they are all forced to reconsider their emotions. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge (Award Winning), TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: I rescued this book about two years ago from my father in law when he was having a rare sort out of books for the charity shop. He hadn’t read it but decided he never would (this seems like sacrilege to me but he does have a lot of books).  

I’m still not really sure how I feel about this book. It did make me think. And it opened my eyes to some of the issues that have plagued India in recent years and I realised that I had no idea of the history and the politics and it may be something that I read more about in the future. So for that it was certainly good.

The prose was beautiful; poetic and haunting. It even made the desolation seem magnificent. It was easy to see how this had won the Booker Prize. However, sometimes it seemed like the frosting over not very much and left me feeling a bit empty.

I think my main problem was identifying with some of the characters. The judge was a very difficult character to empathise with and I didn’t really enjoy all the time given to his back story. More interesting was Sai’s relationship with her Ghurka tutor, Gyan, which falls apart when the Ghurka’s start to demand independence. Also, some of the minor characters were more interesting (in my mind) than the Judge and I would have liked to hear more about some of them.

Ultimately, I can see why this book won The Booker Prize and I can appreciate its beauty but in the end, it wasn’t really to my taste.

 

 

 

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 – 24. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Genre: Gothic, Suspenseeclecticchallenge2014_300

Narrative style:  First person narration, told from a point in the future. 

Rating: 3/5

Format: Hardback

Published: 1938

Synopsis: An unnamed narrator relates her dream of Manderley and describes how she and her husband Max de Winter can never return to Mandeley. She then relates her story, beginning with her first meeting with her future husband and then their subsequent marriage and return to Manderley where she is haunted by the presence of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca.

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014: Gothic genre.

Sometimes it is good to have no knowledge of a book. I was keen to rebecca11read this as I am a big fan of the film version which is tense and suspenseful. But I felt the knowledge of the film hampered me when I was reading this and made me impatient.

The nameless narrator – called only Mrs de Winter or the second Mrs de Winter – was an odd character who I could feel very little sympathy for. It was not apparent why Max de Winter might have found her attractive. She was insipid, childish and often lost inside her own head, unable to control her jealous imaginings. I know that some of my impatience with her was to do with my knowledge of the narrative and I felt she should have spotted more signs of future events. When she eventually discovers the truth about Rebecca’s demise, all she can think is that Max had never loved Rebecca and she immediately forgives him.

I often struggle with classics perhaps because I am more used to reading modern fiction. I felt that this took too long to get truly started. Perhaps if the narrator had been more interesting to me I would have found it easier to get to grips with.The pace did eventually pick up and the ending was suspenseful and packed with action. The ending was satisfying and I wished the rest of the book had been as tense.

The one success was the character of Mrs Danvers who is just as sinister in the novel as she was in the film. She was easy to picture in her black uniform, with her skull like appearance, ruling Manderley and yearning for the first Mrs de Winter. However, a lot of the other characters seemed more like types than real people.

Part of me wishes I could have removed the knowledge of the film from my mind and read this fresh. It’s hard to know how much more I might have liked it. I’m not sure that I could ever have taken to the second Mrs de Winter though.

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 – 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.