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 – 10. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Genre: Young Adult, Bildungsroman, Crime

Narrative Style: First person narrative, Straightforward chronological timeline

Rating 4/5jasper-jones-book-cover1

Format: Kindle

Published: 2009

Synopsis: Charlie Bucktin is both alarmed and gratified when Jasper Jones first knocks on his window. However, he soon wishes not to share Jasper’s secret and it weighs heavily on him over the summer. The sleepy town where he grew up, that seemed so safe becomes a place of secrets, violence and prejudice that he desperately wants to escape. 

This book had me from the first. Charlie’s excitement and worry is almost palpable when Jasper Jones, town outcast, first comes to his window to ask for help. Their journey to Jasper’s hideout is agonising. The suffocating weather doesn’t help. You can almost feel the heat. Of course, from the synopsis of the novel, you realise that Jasper has probably discovered a body so that wasn’t really a surprise but the boys decision to cut the body of Laura Wishart down and throw it into the river so that Jasper will not be blamed for her death is a little more shocking.

Events soon start to spiral. Charlie finds it hard to live with his knowledge and that contributes to his disintergrating relationship with his mother. He starts to fall in love with Laura’s sister which makes his secret knowledge all the more uncomfortable. Jasper’s decision to confront who he assumes is the killer reveals town secrets that go back decades. The seemingly innocent town reveals its darker side with a series of racial incidents.

Charlie was a lively and intelligent narrator who read as if his life depended on it. He describes life in the town vividly, as well as his own insecurities and worries. The novel is full of school boy humour through his conversations with his best friend. It was easy to read and compelling enough to want to read on. Jasper Jones, as the town outsider, blamed for everything, was full of pathos but never pathetic.

If I have any complaints, it would be that it was easy to see what the reveals were going to be. There were no surprises although the bad luck that might have saved Laura’s life was well plotted and interesting. Having said that, I always wanted to read on to see how Charlie and Jasper would react to the events as they unfolded.

The issues in this novel were skilfully handled. There was no preaching, just the sense of a young person trying to find their way in an increasingly difficult world.

 

Books read in 2014 – 9. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde


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Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014The TBR Challenge

Genre: Alternate History, Fantasy, Humour

Narrative Style: First person narrative, Straightforward chronological timeline

Rating 3/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2001

Synopsis: Thursday Next is a literary detective. Her life suddenly becomes more exciting when Arch Villain Acheron Hades starts kidnapping literary characters. Never mind the fact that her personal life is in tatters as the man she loves is about to marry someone else. When Jane Eyre is kidnapped, Thursday must see if she can return her to the book without causing to much damage. 

Time on shelf: About four years. This series has been recommended to me by a couple of people whose views I trust but I’ve always been a little hesitant. 

Part of me thinks I should have loved this book. After all, it’s literary, it’s clever and in places it is very funny. But at the end I just felt like it could have been so much better. There are an awful lot of ideas in this book but not really enough plot and character to sustain them. Perhaps if Fforde had held some of them back, it would have been a bit more satisfying.

Part of the problem is the characters are little more than hangers for various jokes and stereotypes and I didn’t really relate to any of them. Acheron was quite good fun as a villain but even he was a little flat. And by then end of the novel, I was completely fed up with comedy names such as Paige Turner or Millon De Floss. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always thought that this sort of thing is okay in moderation but very quickly grows tired. It certainly did here.

The best parts of the novel occur when Thursday is stuck in the book of Jane Eyre and she and Rochester conspire with the servants to ensure that Jane’s narrative is undisturbed. In this world, Jane does not end up with Rochester, at least not until there is an almighty fight between Thursday and Acheron and a fire ensues. I think you can see where this is going. Of course, everyone preferred this ending. And understandably so as the alternate ending was quite dreary.

After this, the narrative returns to Thursday’s love life. Despite being hostile to Landen Parke-Laine (Groan!) for a lot of the novel, she suddenly decides to stop him from marrying the wrong woman only to lose her nerve at the last minute. But it’s okay – the lawyers from Jane Eyre step in to accuse his bride of bigamy. I must admit, I found this part of the novel a bit tedious and not as funny or clever as Fforde probably hoped

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a terrible book. It definitely had its moments, just not as many as I might have expected.

Books Read in 2014 – 2. Beautiful Losers – Leonard Cohen

Genre – Erotica, Experimental

Date of Publication – 1966

Narrative Style – stream of consciousness. Non-chronilogical

Format: Paperback

Published: 1966

Synopsis – A three part story about three friends / lovers – the first part is a first person narrative after the death of his wife and his lover, F, the second part is a letter from F to the first narrator and the third part is a thrid person summing up of their stories. 

Rating: 3/5 047533-fc222

I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohens music but I hadn’t read any of his fiction before this one so I was quite excited when I got Beautiful Losers for Christmas. Certainly, I wasn’t expecting to read something quite so erotic and quite so experimental.

One of the things that is immediately apparent about this book is that it is written by a poet. Quite often the language and the rhythm take precedence over meaning which leads to some beautiful imagery but like a lot of poetry, I didn’t always understand what was going on.

This is an intensely erotic book. Indeed, one of the original reviews called it ‘verbal masturbation and another suggested that it was the ‘most revolting book ever written in Canada’. There is more than one love triangle in this book as the three lovers experiment. However, it is never merely sex for the sake of it. Quite often it is described in an oblique way or involves body parts that aren’t necessarily thought of as erotic.

What I found more difficult to deal with were the long passages about the Catherine Tekakwitha and her religiosity. I didn’t find the historic information as interesting as the events in the present day, maybe because I have very little sense of religion myself. Also, I have a low tolerance of miracles and pilgrimages.

There seemed to be a preoccupation with ownership, with occupation of lands and with colonialism – the Indians by the Catholics, the French presence in Montreal, for example. I must admit to a lack of knowledge of the history of Canada but this book did make me think I might like to know more.

Finally, I found it a little unsatisfying. I was reminded of reading Joyce or Amis, maybe. Masters of language and they may be but they left me feeling a little lost and disappointed with myself. I don’t like to feel I may have missed the point.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – New Adult – The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

I bought this book when the movie came out with the intention of reading the book and then seeing the movie. In the end, I did neither. It has been on my to-read list since then. So it seemed perfecphoto-14t for the Eclectic Reader Challenge category of New Adult.

The book is series of letters to an unnamed person addressed simply as friend. They detail the ups and downs of Charlie’s life as he starts High School describing events and people with a warmth and naivety that was mostly charming. He is shy, awkward and has little grasp of social etiquette. He is befriended by a group of older misfits and through them goes to parties, takes drugs and learns about sex and relationships. While his voice was convincing, I think that I’d have enjoyed it more if I was nearer his age. I found myself feeling a little impatient with him, the way adults do with teenagers but for the most part I was keen to read on and find out what happened to him.

It is apparent quite early on that Charlie has psychological issues relating to the death of his Aunt Helen and he swings between depression and optimism throughout the book. Details are gradually revealed giving the reader clues to what the issues may be. However, the final reveal – I won’t give it away for those who have not read it – felt a little underwhelming. Not that it wasn’t a serious issue – it certainly justified Charlie’s issues – but that it wasn’t explored very deeply, was almost brushed off with an ease that seemed unlikely.

This book is often compared to The Catcher in the Rye and, in some ways, it is an apt comparison. Both Holden and Charlie are caught in cycles of behaviour that they seemed destined to repeat and both have distinctive voices. However, ultimately I prefer The Catcher in the Rye because it is darker and less twee. I found the end of The Catcher in the Rye devastating as so little progress has been made in Holden’s journey of discovery. I don’t know why but I find this easier to relate to then the sweet optimism of Charlie’s last letter.

GLBT – Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013 – Rent Boy – Gary Indiana

I read Resentment by Gary Indiana when I finished my MPhil in 2001. I really enjoyed it and I vowed to read more of his stuff. So here I am, 12 years later, finally getting round to it by reading Rent Boy for the Eclectic Reader Challenge.

The narrator, Danny, is a rent boy, as you might expect but also a waiter and an architecture student. He also goes under a number of different names. Danny is the name he goes by in the series of letters that make up the novel. The narrative voice is very entertaining – Danny is intelligent and funny, both about his clients, the other rent boys he knows and the social situations he finds himself in .

As you might expect, there is a lot of sex in this book and a lot of it is quite explicit. It isn’t, however, all that sexy. Danny’s world is not a glamorous one and he does not spare the reader some of the seedier details.

When Danny gets involved with a scheme to rob rich people of the kidneys they are not using, you just know that things are not going to go well for him and fairly soon he is up to his neck in trouble and having to leave New York at an urgent pace.298753

In the end, he gives two possible endings to this scenario, both of which involve him on the run. It is difficult to say which is true. We also discover that Danny isn’t his real name either. The final lines of the novel are devastating and poignant. Danny says “I have no real name. I live where nothing has a name, and the rest is silence.” The person he is writing to is never revealed but it seems they are no wiser than the reader as to who Danny actually is.

I really enjoyed this. It was funny, full of biting social comment and gritty descriptions of the underbelly of New York. I’ll try and make it less than twelve years before I read another Gary Indiana novel.