Saturday, 8 September 2012

Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

I apologise for being gone so ridiculously long, but I'm determined to get at least one review in before I go back to college, so I'll just get down to this straight away (also because I haven't written one in so long, it's probably going to read really awkwardly). Without further ado-

Summary (from Goodreads): An upper-class woman, recovering from a suicide attempt, visits the women's ward of Millbank prison as part of her rehabilitation. There she meets Selina, an enigmatic spiritualist - and becomes drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina's freedom, and her own.

Review: This is going to be a really difficult book to review because it is so, so important that I don’t give anything of the story away, and discussing the plot will probably have to be kept pretty minimal. I’ll do my best.

I’m probably expected to have “grown up” by now, but there are some people who I admire so much I wish I could just be them in some distant point in the future when I’m actually supposed to be out in the real world. Sarah Waters is one such person. She is absolutely flawless at everything she does. She pulls you into a story and you get so caught up in it and carried along and you buy into everything so completely- even though there’s this tiny voice in the back of your head that wants to warn you that things probably aren’t going to go the way that you’d hope. You don’t know for certain until the very moment turns the whole thing round to reveal this whole other side to things that you’d never even contemplated.

The writing alternates between Margaret and Selina’s journal entries, running parallel in a way that initially confused me a little at first; Selina opens the story in 1873, then the next chapter from Margaret’s point of view begins two years later. Selina’s journal entries then jump back to 1872 and the events leading up to the opening chapter, while Margaret’s carry on over 1874. After a couple of chapters and you start getting into the story, it reads a lot more fluidly and it isn’t hard to follow.

The two perspectives both contrast very strongly in writing style. Margaret writes with a great amount of attention to detail, her entries often going on for several pages- she writes very carefully, if that makes sense, often describing things very elaborately but also giving the reader the sense that she’s still holding things back from us, as though we’ll never get a full sense of what she feels internally. In a way it makes her a rather difficult character to engage with, and she often feels more like the narrator of the story than one of the central characters.

Selina is very different. Her entries are much shorter, usually only a page or so, and more irregular and unreliable. Going back to discussing how convincingly the dialogue was written and so on, there are little things here and there that remind you of the fact that she hasn’t had the same upbringing as Margaret scattered throughout the writing, perhaps her way of phrasing things. Her perspective felt more direct, like she was writing more for herself than for the sake of the reader.

The theme of sexuality isn’t as prominent as it is in the other two of Waters’ books that I’ve read- Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith- but in a way having it just simmer under the surface for so much of the time was very effective, and it made the atmosphere of repression that ran throughout the book even stronger. It’s a very atmospheric book, and rich with all sorts of descriptions of Victorian London; the dialogue, especially, reads very convincingly. All the settings are dark, dull, bleak – it feels claustrophobic in a way, even, and moving between such locations as Millbank Prison, Margaret’s oppressive home, and the dark streets of London. It contributes to a sense of foreboding that you get right from the first sentence and doesn’t let you go until the last.

I feel like if I go on for too much longer I'll end up starting to give the most important things away, so that's all for now. Even reading the blurb of a Sarah Waters novel feels like it's taking something away from reading the story for yourself; so that's really the only thing to do. I'd better go now, so I'll leave you to it.

In Three Words: dark, haunting, tense.

Recommended for: fans of historical and gothic fiction.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 2 March 2012

Review: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Summary (from Goodreads): August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He's about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you've ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie's just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, despite appearances?
R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

Review: I had heard so many positive things about Wonder before I read it, and I'm always a little nervous around books that receive so much praise because I'm anxious that they'll never live up to the expectations I have for them. Wonder, however, was everything that I heard it was, and more. It blew me away.

The story is told from six different points of view: Those of Auggie, his sister Via, his friends Summer and Jack, and Via's boyfriend Justin, before going back to Auggie's perspective again at the end of the story.  As a general rule, I'm a huge fan of books which switch narratives, but alas I often end up finding that all the perspectives tend to sound the same. However, Wonder was totally refreshing in this respect.   I should have been disinterested when the focus shifted away from the protagonist if it was any other book, but I wasn't- each character's voice was completely their own, and each had their own story to tell, so it was engaging from start to finish.  I thought it was a very effective way of telling the story, with everything revealed from all sides by people from all walks of life.  Via was one of my favourite characters (if not my favourite) and the section from her point of view was just flawless.  I wanted nothing more than to just give her a big hug, but also take my hat off to her for persevering so much, for being so brave, and for all the things that she does and sacrifices for Auggie's sake, because she understands that in many ways she has it so much easier.   

Auggie, though, was also one of the most entirely convincing characters I've come across in a novel for the longest time.  Palacio really captures him perfectly.  He is such an ordinary ten-year-old from the moment he starts talking, yet the way in which he conveys that is so haunting from the very first paragraph- "I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go."  He talks about this so casually, as if it were really nothing at all, and I wanted to give him a hug right there before I knew anything else about him. For the next 313 pages I was crying and laughing and smiling along with him. You can't not, I don't think, he reads so realistically.

When I think about it, there wasn't much of a structured plot, and if it was there then it wasn't very strong. But I think part of the benefit from the book shifting to the perspectives of some of the secondary characters kept it from being as weak as it perhaps would have been if it had only been Auggie narrating, because there were always little stories within the story relating to their everyday lives, thoughts and feelings.  It's very much a character-driven story rather than one driven by action, but it kind of works here.  However, The ending was something I had a slight issue with; I thought it was a little overly sentimental. Saying that makes me feel kind of conflicted, because on one hand I feel like it's what Auggie and the rest of the characters deserved- yet it read as rather too good to be true  (conversely, I feel like Daisy dying was unnecessary, didn't add anything to the plot and was just perhaps there to get more tears out of the reader).

Still.  I suppose those issues are really kind of small, and this book really shouldn't be put aside because of them. Everyone should read it, and I also imagine that it would be a good book for discussion in places like book clubs. It's not to be missed.

In Three Words: bittersweet, thought-provoking, hopeful.
Recommended for: both children and adults alike.
Rating: 4.5

Thank you to Random House Children's Books for sending me a copy for review.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

In My Mailbox 28

In My Mailbox is hosted by Kristi over at The Story Siren.
Downside (or upside) of the central library in town being on my way to college: I go past the library at least four times a week, and normally I can't resist going inside and borrowing more books than I can realistically read before I have to return them.  This week, I suppose, was no different.  However, most of them are books that I've wanted to read for aeons and never quite gotten round to, so I'm pretty excited about reading them (and more determined to make an effort with them).

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir
How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
The Monk by Matthew Lewis (also includes The Bravo of Venice)
BUtterfield 8 by John O'Hara

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

So, there you are.  What was in your mailbox this week?   

Friday, 24 February 2012

Foreign Language Friday: after the quake by Haruki Murakami

Dear blog,
So.  I wrote a review, finally!  You'll have to forgive me if it sounds badly written.  I am so out of practise, but it will be good to get back into reviewing again. 

Original title: Kami no kodomo-tachi wa mina odoru
Author: Haruki Murakami
Original Language: Japanese
Translated by: Jay Rubin
Summary (from Goodreads): The economy was booming. People had more money than they knew what to do with. And then, the earthquake struck. Komura's wife follows the TV reports from morning to night, without eating or sleeping. The same images appear again and again: flames, smoke, buildings turned to rubble, their inhabitants dead, cracks in the streets, derailments, crashes, collapsed expressways, crushed subways, fires everywhere. Pure hell. Suddenly, a city seems a fragile thing. And life too. Tomorrow anything could happen. For the characters in Murakami's latest short story collection, the Kobe earthquake is an echo from a past they buried long ago. Satsuki has spent 30 years hating one man: a lover who destroyed her chances of having children, and who now lives in Kobe. Did her desire for revenge cause the earthquake? Junpei's estranged parents also live in Kobe. Should he contact them? Miyake left his family in Kobe to make midnight bonfires on a beach hundreds of miles away. Four-year-old Sala has nightmares that the Eathquake man is trying to stuff her inside a little box. Katagiri returns home to find a giant frog in his apartment on a mission to save Tokyo from a massive worm burrowing under the Tokyo Security Trust Bank. "When he gets angry, he causes earthquakes" says Frog. "And right now he is very, very angry."

Review: So, this is a selection of six short stories all set directly after the 1995 Kobe earthquake.  I thought I would review each story one by one.

UFO in Kushiro- I think this is actually my least favourite of the bunch. That's not to say that I disliked it- I did, the same way that I like everything that Haruki Murakami writes, just within certain degrees of liking as opposed to active dislike- but I suppose that I just found it rather ordinary, with all of the trademark aspects of his work that you would expect from his writing.  Look at it this way: as a kind of introduction, a prologue that sets the scene with the things that keep all of the stories in after the quake interlinked: people's lives that are outwardly so ordinary in many aspects, but which are somehow thrown slightly out of balance, and the way that the Kobe earthquake is somehow relevant to their lives.  UFO in Kushiro, to my mind, kind of establishes all of that as a lead-up to the rest of the book.

Landscape with Flatiron- is quite possibly my favourite of the six, and also quite possibly my new favourite Murakami short story.  The surreal and supernatural is something that's often one of the most prominent themes in his writing, but this collection is (apart from Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, which I'll get to in a minute) kind of devoid of all that. Yet Landscape with Flatiron reads as quite dreamlike and surreal in a way that no giant frogs could ever be, with the imagery that it conjures up, the fleeting dialogue, and the way that the story meanders along quietly, like it's hardly there at all.  You hardly notice that it's finished, the way it kind of trails off in an unfinished thought.

All God's Children Can Dance- is best described as...slightly disturbing, or maybe slightly unsettling would be a more accurate description.  There are all kinds of vague underlying themes and undertones to the story, like everything is lurking just underneath the surface.  You wouldn't think it when you first start reading and meet the protagonist- who wakes up alone at home with a hangover- but it's the darkest story of the six, and the deepest, too.  I found the conclusion of this story particularly satisfying: it opened in one place, seemed to go on a slight detour as a kind of intense character study, before concluding in what felt like a full circle.  Though the story was only around twenty pages long, by the end I felt like I knew everything about the main character and the world he inhabited.

Thailand-  Is it possible for a short story to pull you in gradually?  If it is, Thailand did exactly that. I started out thinking, "well, this is an okay story," but then as it kept going I felt myself more and more gradually drawn into it.  All the stories in after the quake are linked in differing ways, but I found the way that this was connected the most interesting; the main character, Satsuki, wonders if her hatred of one man is what caused the earthquake. 

Super-Frog Saves Tokyo- Reminded me a lot of the story The Little Green Monster from the collection The Elephant Vanishes, and was just as much fun. It's as strange and as quirky as it sounds, but always in the most delightful way possible.  A bank employee named Katagiri comes home from work one evening to find a six-foot-tall frog waiting for him in his apartment, and, after the frog has asked Katagiri to close the door behind him and take off his shoes, Frog proceeds to warn Katagiri that they must both work together to "do mortal combat with"...drumroll...a gigantic worm, in order to prevent aforementioned worm from destroying Tokyo.  Every page gets more and more random, but for that I absolutely love it.

Honey Pie- I envy Haruki Murakami for his writing skills so much, and he makes me feel like such a mediocre writer. How are his characters so fully-formed and believable, even when we only stay with them for such a short period of time? I know that this is a highlight of the collection for a lot of people, but I was initially a little confused about where the focus of the story lay.  It started off in one place, with a young girl being told a story by her Uncle Junpei. Then it sort of takes a detour into the lives of Junpei and the girl -Sala's- parents, only it's sort of too long to be a detour and seems to become the central point or idea of the story, before coming back to Sala again at the end.  Still, whatever story the reader wants to get from it- and there are many within it- it remains ultimately heartwarming and hopeful.

In Three Words: surreal, profound, emotive.
Recommended for: everyone!  I think it's a good introduction to Murakami's short stories.
Rating: 4.

Monday, 6 February 2012

I'm Still Here!

Dear blog,

So. It's been a while. A very long while.   I've been missing blogging and the blogosphere a lot, and now my January exams are well out of the way, this would be as good a time as any to start reviewing again.  I miss the days when I would actually post frequent reviews, when there was more than just the sound of virtual tumbleweeds rolling by. Alas.
Since I've started college I've been way busier than I thought I would be, so although I've still been reading (albeit considerably less), I just haven't had time to sit down and write proper reviews. Which is a shame, because I have been reading some seriously awesome books recently.
However, enough of my excuses.  I guess as well as that, I had inevitably reached the dreaded blogging slump, and sort of felt like with every book I was reviewing I was just repeating myself over and over again. I've sort of felt like if I wasn't going to be reviewing with as much as enthusiasm as normal, maybe I shouldn't feel so pressurised to do so until I felt more motivated again and could come back to things with a more refreshed perspective.  However, having been on something of a hiatus, hopefully I shall have more interesting things to say.  

So. Thank you, followers, for putting up with me...or, rather, a lack of me.  We'll see.  Hopefully, if nothing else, I shall try to start posting some more reviews again over the next couple of weeks.  It resumes.