Monday, 28 February 2011

[027] The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - Stephen King

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

On a six-mile hike on the Maine-New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Trail, nine-year-old Trisha McFarland quickly tires of the constant bickering between her older brother, Pete, and her recently divorced mother. But when she wanders off by herself, and then tries to catch up by attempting a shortcut, she becomes lost in a wilderness maze full of peril and terror. 

As night falls, Trisha has only her ingenuity as a defense against the elements, and only her courage and faith to withstand her mounting fears. For solace she tunes her Walkman to broadcasts of Boston Red Sox baseball games and follows the gritty performances of her hero, relief pitcher Tom Gordon. And when her radio's reception begins to fade, Trisha imagines that Tom Gordon is with her-- protecting her from an all-too-real enemy who has left a trail of slaughtered animals and mangled trees in the dense, dark woods...

Why I Picked It Up:

This novel has been sitting on my bookshelf at home since I was eleven. It was time to actually read it.

What I Think:

I was raised to love horror. My father needed someone to take to scary movies and watch late night sci fi and horror television with as it was made quite clear in the beginning of their marriage that my mother was not going to be that person. After taking her to see Predator when she was pregnant with me, my mother officially swore off horror movies and left the task of amusing her husband to her unborn child. As soon as I was able to, I heartily enjoyed my calling.

As such, I've been well acquainted with Stephen King for a long time. Although I can't for the life of me remember the first Stephen King I encountered, my greatest memory of him is reading It over summer break before high school. I had always liked the television movie and found, to my delight, that the novel was even better. King's style played up everything and while I usually find it hard to get spooked by a book, I remember having to put the book down a few evenings because I was starting to stare over my shoulder a few more times than was warranted. To this day, that book remains in my top five. 

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was actually given to me by my beloved Aunt Shannon when I was around eleven years old. She had read it, enjoyed it and said that the main girl reminded her of me so she gave me my own copy. I was a pretty precocious reader back in those days so it really wasn't all that strange to give me a copy of a Stephen King book. I was really grateful, stuck the book on the bookshelf and there it stands to this day. I would glance over at it every once in awhile, think "I should read that" and then go about my daily life. So when I found the book at Ogikubo, just sitting on the shelf, I knew I had to pick it up.

This novel is intense but it's very good. Very quickly into the book, Trisha goes off the path while hiking with her brother and mother to use the bathroom, mostly because she's annoyed they're not listening to her. She tries to return via shortcut and soon discovers that she can't really find her way back to the path. The next two hundred pages chronicle her wanderings in the wilderness with just the clothes on her back, a packed lunch, a poncho and her Walkman. 

There's something really interesting about a book centered on a solitary figure like that. Every once in a blue moon, King will give a throwaway reference to what's going on in the search for Trisha but 99% of the book is just Trisha and her thoughts. She makes good decisions and bad ones but almost everything is done on a whim or based on information she thinks she remembers hearing once. Days pass and you watch her slowly run out of food and water, withering down to a stalk of a girl, endlessly trying to find traces of civilization. 

As the novel progresses, however, a strange presence starts to follow Trisha. Obviously it wouldn't be Stephen King without a spooky element. The greatness of this "God of the Lost" that is stalking Trisha is that it's not introduced until a few days into her journey, at which point she has already hallucinated sounds and images. This could be a horror novel or just a survival novel with a slow descent into insanity. The ambiguity is delicious. 

One drawback for me is that I don't know baseball as well as I should. Although I am a Mariner's fan, I admit that it has been pretty recent and I don't know much about the sport. The book is framed in the style of a baseball game, the chapter titles different innings. If I knew more about baseball, I'm sure this would give me a lot more insight but, unfortunately, it was one of those "I know this is awesome but I'm missing it" moments. 

The whole book really does have a baseball theme. Trisha loves the Red Sox and tries to keep her sanity by listening to games and thinking about her favorite player, Tom Gordon. Gordon eventually becomes a constant hallucination by her side and ends up giving her advice when she is at her last challenge. It's an interesting motif  and spin on the "lost in the woods" story that has been told so often.

As this is Stephen King, I wasn't entirely sure how the book was going to end. Was she going to be rescued? Was she going to die in the woods? It could honestly have gone either way. And the ending did not disappoint. I won't spoil it, obviously, but there is definitely a worthy conclusion to the feverish tale.

I would highly recommend this book. It's a pretty quick read, between page length and page-turner statuses, and for those who don't really enjoy horror, it's honestly not all that scary. If you've ever slightly jumped while camping or looked up quickly when you heard a twig snap, then this is for you.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

[026] The Seventh Sacrament - David Hewson

The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"There's an entire underground city down there... houses and temples, entire streets."

Giorgio Bramante, a Roman archaeology professor, was master of the hidden world beneath the earth -- until the day he lost his young son, Alessio, to a group of students intent on re-creating a centuries-old ritual to a long-banished god. His rage knew no bounds and, in a frenzy, he beat one of the students to death.

Released from prison fourteen years later, Giorgio is bent upon a terrifying revenge on all those he blames for the loss of his son. Inspector Leo Falcone, a member of the original investigating team, is one of his targets.

And Nic Costa, watching Falcone move relentlessly into the man's merciless grip, realizes the answer must lie in solving a cold case that, like the forgotten Alessio Bramante, has long been regarded as dead and buried for good.

Why I Picked It Up:

I was feeling like a good mystery and between the back of the book and its 500ish pages length, it seemed like a good bet.

What I Think:

I don't know if it's me or if it's Japan but this book has continued the strange pattern of my picking up books that are fifth in a detective series. There have been hits (Upon a Dark Night) and there have been misses (Shrink Rap). It all really comes down to how much of the book is devoted to the mystery and how much of the book is devoted to characters that, if you are just starting at book five like I seem to always do, you know nothing about. It's a delicate balance that a devoted series reader will never notice and someone forced to read books out of order, despite being an avid series reader most of her life, is made painfully aware of. 

Now, the actual mystery of this book is, indeed, very interesting. Bramante was especially interested in the Mithraic religion and the novel centers around the seven fold path of Mitharism. I felt kind of blessed because I had visited the best preserved Mithraic temple in San Clemente last year and actually had an idea of what they were talking about: an ancient men's religion centered on overcoming fear through manliness and violence. It definitely suits the tone of the novel. 

The entire novel is told in two perspectives: the past and the present day. Depending on the way a small figurehead of a Roman statue is facing underneath the chapter number is the indication of what time period you are in. Thus, the reader is at once both watching the day that Alessio Bramante disappeared fourteen years ago and watching the police chase his father during a murder rampage in present day. By keeping the plot ever moving forward in this way, there is always the promise of more information, of more clues and it never really gets boring.

Until about page 300. You see, the biggest problem this novel has is that, for all its 526 pages of length, it only really needs maybe 300 of them. I swear, there wasn't even a plot twist until 390-something. The plot just continued forward with nothing happening that you weren't expecting. Even when we're first introduced to Giorgio Bramante, killer at large, he has already killed five of the seven targets on his list. If you're going to write a mystery about a man killing people in revenge for a missing child, at least give the reader the satisfaction of following him around for most of it. It almost feels like we jumped in to the story a little too late and missed the good parts. There are twists and turns, granted, but most of them come too little too late. Almost all of the most interesting information is presented in the last fifty pages, where you have pretty much already zoned out at this point. 

Added to this is the main characters themselves. The big question: are they interesting even if you haven't read the earlier novels? Well, yes and no. As personalities, they do seem to be fairly interesting, although it does take awhile to figure out who, exactly, is who. There's our hero, Nic Costa, who may have had some sort of past but now he's just a stereotypical hero. His girlfriend is Emily Deacon, an American who may or may not have used to work for the FBI (they were never super clear). There's Falcone, somehow a superior to Costa who used to be one way but now is another? There's the female pathologist who is very no-nonsense and her boyfriend (I think) who is a fellow agente and very tough-man. Basically, you can get a short idea of their personalities but not really any insight into them as the author assumes you already know them. 

The most frustrating part of all of this is that, apparently, the previous book in this series ended on a humongous cliffhanger. There are all these references to "after what happened in Venice" and "still recovering from Venice" and "due to his injuries in Venice." However, they never reference what happened in Venice. I can only assume it was the previous book in the series, especially due to who I assume is a new character and how they kept mentioning how she seemed so strange "since [they] found her in Venice." 

Did I love this book? Well, no. I was entertained reading it but I kept wondering when something was actually going to happen. Despite that, though, I can honestly say that I was a little intrigued by all this name-dropping of the past. I kind of want to know what happened in Venice. I'm curious if Emily Deacon was introduced in book one as an FBI agent and what Falcone was like before he apparently changed so dramatically in this novel. Although the mystery was overly long and the ending super abrupt, I would pick up this author again, just out of sheer curiosity. 

You win this time, Hewson.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

[25] Girl With a Pearl Earring - Tracy Chevalier

Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"Chevalier is a master of the telling detail, the evocative image... Through such detail, Chevalier draws the reader into the world of the painting, into the mood of the masterpiece she explores: moving, mysterious, at times almost unbearably poignant. Sometimes it seems so strong the reader can almost sense it, feel it breathing all around. This is a novel which deserves, and I am sure will win, a prize -- or two."

- The Times

Why I Picked It Up:

I like historical fiction and vaguely remembered a movie based on it.

What I Think:

Girl With a Pearl Earring is yet another novel that spawned a movie that I had heard more about than the original book. The movie came out when I was just out of middle school and I only vaguely remember it as the first movie where I knew who Scarlett Johansson was. I may have known that it was based on a novel of the same name but as I never saw the movie, I never though much of the book.

Last week, when I looked through the shelves (after already grabbing The Reader), I noticed this book and thought "Oh, yeah. I've heard of this." It had a very intriguing cover and there were rave reviews on the back of the book. It sounded interesting and possibly amazing, if the reviewers weren't crazy. I'm always down for a good book and decided on those two for the next two weeks (little did I know I'd finish them both in six days). 

What I think is the most interesting part of this novel is actually the basic concept of it, itself. I love that the author took a famous painting by a mysterious but famous painter and decided to write a backstory for it. It's really a genius idea. Little is known about Vermeer the man and what little is known is interesting. He lived in a tiny Dutch village all his life. He had fifteen children, eleven of whom survived to adulthood. He was always on the edge of poverty, skyrocketing just before his death. He sounds like an intriguing character.

He, however, is not the protagonist. Our heroine is Griet, daughter of a tile painter who was recently blinded in an accident. Due to the family's turn in fortune, she is required to go work for the Vermeer family as a maid. It's a downturn in her status, the mother and third daughter cannot stand her for unknown reasons, and (worst of all) the Vermeers are a Catholic family in a Protestant town. Griet, along with everything else, has to deal with religious iconography following her around the house. 

Most of the novel deals with her changing lifestyle, getting used to being a maid, the advances of the butcher's son, family politics she carefully maneuvers around. However, she was specifically hired for one duty: cleaning the painter's studio. Because of this, she is envied by some in the house for her access to such a private place (which even his wife isn't allowed inside). The novel plays with this intimacy and all the different stages Griet goes through with Vermeer. There is a strange sense of longing through most of the book, evoked by painting.

Several paintings are described in detail as he works on them and it's interesting to read a book and be able to go online and see the images for oneself. This sounds awful, I know, and forgive me art critics but honestly, most of the paintings sounded more impressive in the novel than they looked on the internet. I don't know if that says something good about Chevalier's writing or something bad about my eye for famous art.

There is an interesting device the author uses of never mentioning Vermeer by name. All the characters in the book are adressed as Griet, Catharina, Cornelia, and so on but Vermeer is always simply 'he'. At first, it was vaguely uncomfortable but it does create an intriguing sense of distance and respect, as if he is not a man but some sort of other being. It certainly affects the characters in the novel and it's fascinating to watch it play out.

It is interesting to read historical fiction like this, to go through a typical day with Griet as she hand washes the laundry, goes to the butcher and the fishmonger and sometimes even the apothecary. Despite being so far in the past, Griet is a good narrator, a smart girl with a good head on her shoulders that just has a lot to deal with in her life. She is as relatable as she could be, given the circumstances and, I feel, how much you liked her as a narrator will correspond with how much you enjoy the end of the novel.

The one thing I don't understand about this book, however, is the reviews for it. It's a fine book, to be sure, but I don't really see what it deserves an award for. It's entertaining, well written and enjoyable but it's not particularly deep or moving. I didn't come out of this novel feeling like I learned a lesson about life or love or anything in particular, except perhaps be wary of famous painters and the effect they could have on your life. I'm not saying the book is bad, far from it; I'm just saying that it's nothing super special, either. 

Either way, though, it's a good read and I would recommened it. Just don't expect it to change anything but your views on seventeenth century Holland.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

[024] The Reader - Bernhard Schlink

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"Bernhard Schlink's extraordinary novel The Reader is a compelling meditation on the connections between Germany's past and its present, dramatised with extreme emotional intelligence as the story of a relationship between the narrator and an older woman. It has won deserved praise across Europe for the tact and power with which it handles its material, both erotic and philosophical."

-Independent Saturday Magazine

Why I Picked It Up:

I had enjoyed Catcher in the Rye so much that I wanted to read something heavy-ish. A book about Nazism and questionably appropriate relationships that inspired an award winning movie? Sounded like it fit the bill.

What I Think:

When I came to Japan as an exchange student almost two years ago now, The Reader (the movie) was just being released on this side of the world. Of course, it had already had its heyday in America and I knew a bit about it, as I tend to know a bit about every movie that comes out, nevermind whether I end up seeing it or not. I remember taking the train to university every morning and seeing the banner for the movie hanging from the carriage's ceiling and laughing at what the Japanese had titled the movie. 

The Japanese title of the movie roughly translated to "The Person Who Reads Love." I found this hilarious. What little I knew about the movie at this point was this: Kate Winslet played a female Nazi who was having an affair with an underaged boy. Somehow books were involved. I could not think of a less romantic story to have such a romantic title. I chalked it up to a case of the Japanese not really grasping the point of some movies and marketing it their own way.

To this day, I haven't seen the movie. I know that it won a lot of awards and Kate Winslet even got the Oscar for her performance in it but I'm not really one for serious movies most of the time and it didn't really appeal to me. Whenever I thought of the title, the only image that came to mind was Hugh Jackman doing his Oscar opening montage and singing, with people dressed in metallic suits behind him, "The Reader~ I didn't see The Reader~"

With all of this bizarre lead up to the novel, I knew to expect something deep and possibly very sad. That was what I was in the mood for. But the novel was nothing like what I expected and it blew me away.

The Reader is told in three parts, all from the point of view of a man named Michael Berg at different stages in his life, as if he is looking back and reflecting in old age. The first section recounts his relationship with a woman named Hanna when he was only fifteen years old. His early descent into sensuality and carnality leaves its mark on him for years to come. This is the section of the plot that it seems most of the promotion for the movie centered around. When I told my mother I read The Reader, she responded with "I've never seen that movie. All I know is that Kate Winslet was naked a lot." Which is probably true but if that's all one focuses on, one would miss the point.

The second section (and my particular favorite) has Michael in college, taking a class on the law and how the government is dealing with the repercussions of Nazi Germany. Michael attends a war crimes trial as part of his class and is surprised to see Hanna again after many years, this time as a defendant in the case. This causes Michael to reconsider a lot of beliefs he thought he held and struggle with philosophical questions that even the reader will have to really consider as they follow along. 

The third and final section finds Michael as a man who has lived a sort of life and is dealing with the echoes of his unusual past when he is forced to confront something he never really wanted to. 

This novel is a beautiful piece of work, told in a very simplistic style that both blunts ideas and veils them. The use of repetition of phrases and themes, the non-romanticly written romance, and the memoir-esque tone all firmly establish a dissonance of distance and intimacy with the narrative, mirroring how Michael deals with the world around him.

The entire book is a long metaphor for how Germany should deal with its past. Michael is a representative of the first generation of Germans post-World War II, the children who could not respect nor understand their parents but still had to learn from them. The books asks questions like can someone have both understanding and condemnation? How exactly is blame established? and Can anything be seen in black and white? 

This is all perfectly incapsulated in the main theme of the book, the secret that Hanna would rather keep than use to help her in court. Michael struggles with his knowledge of it and there really is no right answer. And that is this novel in a nutshell: there is no right answer. There are only humans and actions. What are laws? What is morality? At what stage should you judge by any factor? 

I really enjoyed this novel and it's a surprisingly fast read. It's only a little over 200 pages and the chapters are so short, I found I had finished it in two train rides. Despite that, however, I think it really will stick with me for years to come. Highly recommended, if you're in the mood for some light heavy reading.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

[023] The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Nothing. It's just a reprint of the art from the cover of the book.

Why I Picked It Up:

Another 'classic' I had never actually read in school.

What I Think:

As you probably remember from the rant I went on during the Of Mice and Men post, I'm not the biggest fan of American literature. I tend to find it boring, long and full of "American-ness" that has been beaten into me so much during school that I don't want to read it in my off time. That was the first bone of contention I had with this book-- the simple fact that it is categorized as an "American Classic."

Problem number two for me was the introduction I had to the book. I had it in my bag because I knew I was going to finish Upon a Dark Night that day so I pulled it out with only a few stops to go on my train line. Because of this, I only managed to read about the first six pages or so before my stop arrived. The first six or so pages introduced me to a first person narrator (oh no) and a boy who didn't apply himself in school, along with swearing every third word.

My next encounter with the book was the next day as I sat down to read it in my hour break between my Preschool Advanced class and my private lesson. I had been developing a headache all day and it came crashing down on me during that break. I think I managed to read one page. On the train ride home, I couldn't read, couldn't listen to my iPod, only managing to close my eyes and try to ignore the racket of the train and the chattering of the people around me. 

All these things set me up to hate this book. All of these things, as well, were not in a single way the novel's fault.

I had been emailing with one of my favorite professors, the illustrious BDH, the night of the awful headache and threw in at the end of the email that I was reading Catcher in the Rye. I only asked "Is he going to be this insufferable all the way through?" I got an almost immediate reply.

"Yes, but he's loveable, too--he's facing the world of the 50s, which is actually the early 60s, and it is/was an insufferable world, which is why Salinger wrote the book--he is distorted by the times--he cannot be open or free, nor can any one else. BUT, good news, he heralds the coming revoution--he dares to be different.  He is Kerouac and his buddy "on the road!"  it's the beginning of a new era--after that try anything else of Salinger, too--Nine Stories, Franny & Zooey, Raise High the Roof-beam, Carpenter! and others--you'll like it."

As I trust and respect BDH's opinion, I tried to go back to the book with a more open mind. After all, all my previous problems with it really were my own hangups.

Well, thank heavens that I listened to BDH's email because I think I loved it. I say "I think" because I'm still not one hundred percent sure how I feel about it but that phrase "he's loveable, too" really stuck in my head as I started to really get into the novel. It's completely true. Holden Caulfield is insufferable but it's because he's so mixed up. Deep down, he's a good kid-- he cares about women, children and people in general. He just can't cope with the adult world or indeed, pretty much any of his surroundings.

Holden hates change, he hates maturity and, obviously, he hates "phonies" and this two day journey around New York with him sees him try to run away from his problems, only meeting with disillusion at every turn. It's bleak but at the same time, it's completely relatable, especially to a twenty-three year old that has just graduated into the real world. 

I hear that this is a book you either love or you hate and I think I sit on the 'love' side of that bandwagon. I can easily understand why people hate it, though-- probably got as hung up on Holden as I did in the beginning. This is a book, I think, that you have to try a little harder at, play with that first person narrator a bit and dig around the edges of the information that he drops and leaves, never looking back. It's not open and shut (as nothing but a romance novel should be) but it's accessible. 

And it's official: there is an American Classic that I enjoy. What am I going to do with myself?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

[022] Upon a Dark Night - Peter Lovesey

Upon a Dark Night by Peter Lovesey

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Who is the young woman, and why was she dumped unconscious in a hospital car park upon a dark night?

Named Rose by the social workers, the amnesiac is taken to a hostel until her memory returns. There she meets Ada Shaftsbury, a huge, boisterous shoplifter and compulsive eater, who takes Rose under her wing. Throwing her quite considerable weight into the investigation, Ada helps Rose uncover the trail that will lead to her identity.

Peter Diamond, Bath's top detective, is investigating a suspicious death and is unwilling to get involved. A woman has plunged to her death from a roof in the Royal Crescent, while half the young people of Bath partied in the house below. Accident, suicide or murder?

Badgered by Ada, galvanized by another gruesome death, Diamond is forced to admit that the deaths may be linked, and Rose is the key to the mystery.

Why I Picked It Up:

A love of my previous Peter Lovesey find, The Reaper.

What I Thought:

Everytime I make my biweekly trek to the library, one of the very first shelves I check is the L's, in search of another Lovesey book. To be honest, I never have much hope so you can imagine how excited I was when I saw this book sitting on the shelf. The selection is so small in the library, to find two books by the same author seems nothing short of a small miracle.

Despite the fact that there was a small "A Peter Diamond Mystery" on the front cover, I picked up the book regardless. I had faith that Lovesey would not let me down and that, regardless of what number this book was in the series, it would be able to stand alone so that I could enjoy it (unlike some books I have read). 

Well, I put my faith in the right author.

The key point of this book is all the threads and ideas that are introduced early on never actually come together until the last forty or so pages. On the one hand, we have our amnesiac, Rose, who we follow for the first fourth or so of the novel. Lovesey has created a very powerful image in Rose, describing her amnesia in such detail that you actually start to wonder how she could possibly pick up the pieces of her life. She doesn't even recognize her own face in the mirror when she first wakes up. Her total despondency is intriguing and reels you right into the plot.

Soon (but not too soon) into the book, he introduces who will become our hero, Peter Diamond. Diamond is the head of the murder department of the Bath police, a little gruff, a little over-bearing, a little bit in a competition for dominancy with a younger DCI but overall endearing and very much an everyman. He's a very fully developed character and it takes perhaps a few paragraphs to start to get a grasp on who he is. Lovesey is confident in his work and thus, although he doesn't give us background information on him, Diamond is so well formed that we can figure it all out ourselves. I didn't even know that this book was fifth in an eleven book series until I googled it just now. It could have easily been much earlier on.

As the novel continues, the reader twists and turns through Bath and a number of crimes: the attempted abduction of Rose, a young girl falling to her death at the Royal Crescent, and the apparent suicide of an old hermit out in the middle of nowhere. As the characters press on, ignoring clues, investigating dead ends and gathering information that will later become vital, the seemingly separate plots start to tell a story much different to anything you probably would have guessed.

The true genius of this novel and, indeed, of Lovesey's writing is the way that he paces the plot and uses narrative voices. He employs a few characters for third person limited point of view during early points in the novel and, as the intrigue and danger escalate, he severely limits which characters we interpret the actions through. Without even drawing attention to it, he manages to make the reader worry about characters simply by realizing they haven't been the focus of the chapter in awhile. Little tricks like this really help set the mood of the book and subtly develop the mystery. 

All in all, a few more books and I will happily start calling Peter Lovesey one of my favorite authors. I highly doubt I will find more of his work over here in Tokyo but once I get to an English speaking country again, I am officially on the case.

[021] Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason - Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

The Wilderness Years are over! But not for long. At the end of Bridget Jones's Diary, Bridget hiccuped off into the sunset with man-of-her-dreams Mark Darcy. Now, in The Edge of Reason, she discovers what it is like when you have the man of your dreams actually in your flat and he hasn't done the washing-up, not just the whole of this week, but ever.

Lurching through a morass of self-help theories and mad advice from Jude and Shazzer, struggling with a boyfriend-stealing ex-friend with thighs like a baby giraffe, an eight foot hole in the living room wall, a mother obsessed with boiled-egg peelers, and a builder obsessed with large reservoir fish, Bridget embarks on a spirtitual epiphany, which takes her from the cappuccino queues of Notting Hill to the palm -- and magic-mushroom-- kissed shores of ...

Bridget is back. V.g. 

Why I Picked It Up:

Nothing says "It's almost time to go home for Christmas!" like a re-read of one of your favorite books.

What I Think:

I think I have covered most of what I have to say about my love of Bridget Jones in my entry on the first novel but I suppose I will say a little bit more about the main plot of the sequel.

If you've only ever seen the movie version of this, get that out of your head right now. Although I personally don't think it's an awful movie, it's definitely not as good as the book and it would be much better if you're not picturing movie scenes as you read. The plot line, although similar, strays a lot from the original plot and the novel is much, much better.

It opens about the same, with Bridget finally together with Mr. Darcy and settling into a comfortable life of domesticity. However, things start to go wrong when too many misunderstandings and not enough discussion begin spiraling out of control.  A frenemy of Bridget's sets her sights on Mark, Bridget keeps jumping to conclusions about things that she never explains quite right, Jude and Shazzar have problems of their own and Tom runs away to San Francisco with an airport attendant. 

Bridget tries to get her life back on track, tries to become an independent journalist and a confident working woman and those plans go just as well as you would expect. She has to face head on her addiction to self-help books and when friend's advice shouldn't be listened to anymore. It's a novel about personal growth, not just for Bridget but for all the characters.

There are some wonderful sideplots with Jude and Shazzar that I am ultimately disappointed they did not include in the movie. Jude and her on again/off again boyfriend 'Vile Richard' go through a lot in the background of this book and it has a big effect on all of the characters. Unfortunately, Richard just gets a passing mention in the first movie. Shazzar, as well, as to deal with the conflict between her non-comprimising feminist views and the relationship she has with a close guy friend. 

I love this novel as it sees the characters from the first book come into their own and achieve happiness not through luck but from really looking at themselves and doing their best to change for the better. It has a great message (if you're looking for messages in your chick lit) and, beyond that, it's just a great read. It's funny, romantic and takes all of about two hours to get through. If you like chick lit, I promise you that you'll love this book.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

[020] The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

SPECIAL REPORT: Mikael Blomvkist

The Millennium publisher has [obscured by price sticker] explosive and far-reaching expose of the multi-billion kronor sex-trafficking industry in Sweden, and its international links.

Double killing in Stockholm apartment

Two found dead. Suspected murder weapon recovered close to the scene. Police are baffled by this apparently professional killing.

Lisbeth Salander sought by every police force in Sweden

The chief suspect in three killings, former security analyst Salander eludes nationwide search. Inspector Bublanski leads the Stockholm team.

Crusading author and liberal journalist Stieg Larsson died after delivering to his Swedish publisher the novels that are the Millennium Trilogy. Tragically, he did not live to enjoy the phenomenon that his work has become.

Why I Picked It Up:

The first book had been a good thriller, if the characters left me dry. I wanted to read it. Plus, when you start a trilogy, you really have to end it, don't you?

What I Think:

If you remember anything about what I wrote about the previous book in this series, then it should be that, while I thought the plot was very interesting, I found myself not really liking the characters all that much. To be honest, that thing happens more often than I would hope but a lot of times I find at least one character that seems redeemable and I can anchor myself to them for the majority of the novel. The Millennium Trilogy, to me, doesn't have one.

Now, it's fine to have horrible (in my opinion) characters as long as you have an intriguing storyline. The first novel had that down pat; although I didn't much care for the detectives getting to the bottom of it, the mystery of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger was interesting, with enough twists, turns and just suspects in general to keep me on my toes and interested. Surely, the second book would be able to pull through with that?

The problem I have with Fire is that it couldn't decide how it wanted to tell its story. Although we didn't need much exposition (as that's what the first novel in a trilogy is typically for), the first one hundred or so pages were devoted to what Lisbeth and Mikael had been up to since the first novel ended. Fine, whatever -- as long as we got a big, juicy mystery for them to solve pretty soon. 

It takes a few hundred pages before the murder described on the back cover occurs and even then, I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. The problem is that the novel creates a bunch of narrative threads that it really doesn't even try to weave together. Although they will eventually create a picture later on, it won't be for about five hundred more pages. While I normally enjoy a story that seems haphazard but later is fully fleshed out, in this case it seems to be more sudden realization than forward planning. 

Let me put it like this: if you asked me to tell you what the main plot of this novel was, I wouldn't be able to tell you. I might tell you it's about sex trafficking and it kind of is. I might mention a gangster and I wouldn't be wrong. I could talk about Lisbeth Salander's backstory and there's a bit of that in there, too. Plus, there's this whole side story about the police and the security company working together and another murder that seems important but ultimately isn't. In short, the plot seems more like a bunch of random stories thrown together to make a book. It doesn't have the underlying mystery to keep it neatly wrapped together, like the first novel.

Not to mention that this book keeps the characters separated and not talking to each other for most of it. Normally this wouldn't be a problem as that usually establishes dramatic tension and escalates plot but in this case, it just made us repeat the same facts over and over again as new characters discover things we had already known. It became truly annoying after awhile.

This isn't to say that there wasn't anything interesting about this book. Lisbeth's backstory is very intriguing, especially as they had shrouded it in mystery for so long. The murder of the couple is a good read, as you really don't find out what happened until the very end of the novel. But ultimately, it just seems thrown together and out of place. I'll read the next novel, if only to finish the series but I'm starting to wonder if this trilogy peaked with Dragon Tattoo. I suppose we shall see.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

[019] Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

A dazzling urban satire of modern human relations?
An ironic, tragic insight into the demise of the nuclear family?
Or the confused ramblings of a pissed thirty-something?

Why I Picked It Up:

Comfort food

What I Think:

Bridget Jones has long been one of my favorite novels of all time. Of course, if you ask me what my favorite novels are, I'll say something like Pride and Prejudice or Lord of the Rings or Snow Falling on Cedars. I definitely have a wide and varied taste on this sort of thing. However, when it comes right down to it, I think I have read Bridget Jones at least fifty times and it never gets old.

Bridget Jones is about as close to perfect as any chick lit novel can come. Bridget is a wonderful heroine: she makes mistakes but she is always endearing. She never really learns her lesson but stands up for herself when she needs to. Her diets never succeed nor do her attempts to give up self help books. She is simultaneously worried for and annoyed by her mother and second guesses herself constantly. Basically, she's a regular girl and incredibly relatable.

The novel is a modern take on the Pride and Prejudice story and if you've only ever seen the movie, I suggest you also read the book because the similarities are even more noticeable in the novel. It's a quick read: it will maybe take you all of a day, if you take frequent breaks. It's broken up into months as it is, as the title states, a series of diary entries. Even the entries that don't pertain to the plot are a delight to read as an insight to the mind of a thirty-something in the mid-ninties. Of course, due to the time period it was written in, a few things do seem a bit dated but it's easily overlooked. 

I always come out of a reread wanting to be Bridget's best friend and writing in her diary style for a few days afterwards. She has abbreviations and turns of phrases that are very her and will stick in your head for awhile. I applaud Helen Fielding for creating a character where you really feel like you're in her headspace. It's very easy to understand Bridget's point of view at any time and the writing style is a big part of that. 

If you've only ever seen the movies, I really encourage you to read both the original and the sequel, The Edge of Reason. I know the second movie isn't very good but I assure you that the book is quite the opposite. While the first movie follows the book pretty faithfully (with a few missing plotlines), the second movie is almost nothing like the book and the book really is much better. Bridget has a stalker! Bridget interviews Colin Firth! Trust me, it's just as good as the first novel.

It is very hard to write about books you love to death objectively in this blog format so I think I'm going to stop while I'm ahead, before this turns into me gushing "It's really just so good!" as I tend to do. If you like chick lit, then I promise that you'll find something to like in Bridget Jones. It's a light read but definitely worth it.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

[018] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

The Industrialist

Henrik Vanger, head of the dynastic Vanger Corporation, is tormented by the loss of a child decades earlier and convinced that a member of his family has committed murder.

The Journalist

Mikael Blomkvist delves deep into the Vangers' past to uncover the truth behind the unsolved mystery. But someone else wants the past to remain a secret and will go to any lengths to keep it that way.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic, delinquent and dangerous security specialist, assists in the investigation. A genius computer hacker, she tolerates no restrictions placed upon her by individuals, society or the law.

Why I Picked It Up:

This book is a phenomenon. It felt like God had placed it on the shelf for me, as a reward for finishing Doctor Zhivago

What I Think:

They say that you have to get a hundred pages into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before you really get into it. However, once you pass that mark, it is one of those intense, can't-put-it-down novels that have you on the edge of your seat. I have heard that statement from pretty much every source: friends, family, random reviews on the internet. Considering this is one of the top selling novels of the past year and everyone and their mom seems to have read it, I figured it must be true.

Now I think that those estimates may be a little off. There definitely is a period you have to struggle through the novel before it hits a good pace but a hundred pages is a bit naive. It took me about two hundred pages, if not two hundred and fifty, until I found myself intrigued enough to continue reading outside of the train, at the stoplight, waiting to pick up my dinner at the bento shop. The hundred page mark is rather significant, plotwise, but if you're looking for the can't-stop-reading mark, I would say it was definitely around the two hundred mark.

One of the reasons this is is the very nature of the narrative of the novel. There are two main characters: Mikael Blomkvist, the financial reporter who gets indicted for libel in the first ten pages and Lisbeth Salander, the vaguely punk rock, takes nothing from nobody character who works for a security firm. The main problem is that they don't meet each other until around page 250. Before that, the novel is constantly mixing perspective with different storylines. The first one hundred pages gives you a background on both Blomkvist and Salander, giving you a taste of the kind of people they are and what some of their motivations are before actually getting them involved in the mystery.

Now, once the mystery of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger begins, the book really picks up. The case is forty years old and seemingly a beyond dead end but clues come up and strange occurrences happen and it's all very exciting. The problem is that you have to make it to that point and I know a lot of people that have given up before getting that far. To those people, I can only say: Try again! Even if the characters don't appeal to you (and I will get to that in a second), the mystery is definitely interesting enough to at least give it a try. If at page 300 you're still on the fence, then I can forgive putting it down. But at least get to the Bible references! You'll know what I mean when you get there and, hopefully, thank me.

With all that being said, I do have to admit that I'm not entirely in love with the characters in this book. Blomkvist has a few faults that rub me the wrong way but, as a detective character, he is intriguing enough to read about. As much as I hate to admit it, it's Salander who gets on my nerves the most. I know that there is much debate about whether she is a feminist character or not and here is my little take on that issue. Personally, her character feels (to me) like Larsson trying too hard. She has piercings and short black hair and wears shirts with slogans like "I can be a regular bitch. Just try me." on them. She is bisexual, she is not afraid of getting violent revenge on anyone who wrongs her (or, indeed, anyone who just kind of irks her) and her emotions are very black and white. Basically, she feels like a grown up child of the Hot Topic generation. I don't even want to touch the strange tilt in her personality that plays up in the last fifty or so pages of the novel. It's so out of character and, frankly, annoying so as to turn me off of whatever I found understandable about her character.

This isn't to say I didn't like the novel because I did. I'm looking forward to trying to read the other two novels in the series if I ever get the chance. It was a highly addictive mystery. But I don't know if you should really be looking to this book for kickass role models because you might find yourself a little put out.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

[017] Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

"On they went singing 'Eternal Memory', and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing..."

Doctor Zhivago is the epic novel of Russia in the throes of revolution and one of the greatest love stories ever told. Yuri Zhivago, physician and poet, wrestles with the new order and confronts the changes cruel experience has made in him and the anguish of being torn between the love of two women.

Why I Picked It Up:

Yet another misguided attempt to better myself by reading the classics.

What I Think:

Personally, I feel like I deserve some kind of special accolade for having read all of Doctor Zhivago. The entirety of the novel feels like you're reading a "classic." It revolves around Yuri Zhivago, true, but it encompasses eras of Russian history, from the Tsarist beginnings of the early 1900s to the end of the 1940s and World War II. Because of the scope of the novel, it makes it incredibly difficult to read for many different reasons.

The first reason is, to be quite honest, my own ignorance of early twentieth century Russian history. Of course, Pasternak lived through everything he described in the novel and there is an assumed sense that you know what the current regulations are, who each of the various fighting armies or militias are, and indeed, even what the year is. I always thought I knew a bit about Russian history but this novel has opened my eyes to the fact that everything I know about said history is from popular movies that I have watched and clearly that is not enough. 

The secondary reason this book is nearly impossible is Russian names. In the edition I read, the page after the table of contents is a page devoted to "Principle Characters in the Novel" with a name division of three columns: "surname", "name and patronymic" and "diminutive". Any character can be called by any three of those names. Our main character is referred to as Zhivago, Yury Andreyevich, Yura, or Yuri. At least most of his start with "Yu" so you can figure it out. Other main characters are fairly easy. But where it gets hard is with all the secondary characters which leads us to our third reason.

There are so many secondary characters and Pasternak expects you to remember every single one of them. Despite the list after the contents, there are still at least ten or so characters that the author clearly expects you to recognize immediately but usually just leave you with that strange 'I know I should be making a connection' feeling in the back of your head. Pasternak is obviously trying to make a theme of connectedness and fate with the way characters appear in and out, hundreds of pages apart but it is ultimately just frustrating. What you actually need to read this novel is a constantly updating chart with names, references and maybe even page numbers. 

Getting past all these details, there is still the plot itself. The cover of my edition tells me that this is "one of the greatest love stories ever told." I am annoyed with this. The way love is portrayed in this novel is the way all old fashioned, epic love stories tend to make it: the main characters meet and despite the reader never actually seeing them fall in love, they somehow fall into that state and then are passionately and painfully in love. It's tiring, especially as it seems to come from nowhere and catches both of our "destined" lovers in adulterous affairs.

What really annoys me about Lara and Yury's deep and powerful love is that they are both obviously still in love with their respectful partners, despite also having an all-consuming love for each other. I understand the way the author tries to justify their love by showing how their spouses came out of childhood views of responsibility but the two of them clearly still feel for their significant others. They're also both parents and Lara, in particular, seems to be leaving a bad impression for her daughter, Katya. 

And beyond all of that, towards the end of the novel, Yury takes on a third relationship with a girl named Marina and has children with her. Tonya and Lara are vaguely understandable as a dutiful love versus a passionate love but to bring in a third girl? I was slightly offended, to be honest. 

I'm not even going to get into the strange Biblical undertones that come out of nowhere sometimes and the forty pages of poems ostensibly written by Zhivago in the back of the book. Suffice it to say, I tend to dislike poems and these did not change my mind. 

All in all, the novel definitely felt like an epic but keeps a distance from the reader that is nigh impossible to bridge. Read it if you fancy an intellectual exercise but I don't know if you'd really want to read it for pleasure. I definitely wouldn't again. 

Sunday, 6 February 2011

[016] Y2K: It's Already Too Late - Jason Kelly

Y2K - It's Already Too Late by Jason Kelly

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

The world depends on computers. They run power plants, route phone calls, and control banks. Because computers have existed only in the twentieth century, they store years as two digits, not four. The year 1999 is stored as 99. But on January 1, 2000, two-digit dates become 00 and computers shut down.

Los Angeles riots and burns to the ground. Neighbors fight in grocery stores over the last remnants of food. An old man dies from a stopped pacemaker. Digital power brakes lock up at seventy miles per hour. The lights are out. The phones are dead. The U.S. military sits crippled on bases and in ports around the world. Suddenly, from within the confusion, the Chinese navy steams towards Hawaii.

Operating on its own diesel electricity and private satellite network, Solvang Solutions is the only company still operable after New Year's Eve 1999. Mark Solvang frantically directs his Year 2000 repair firm to restore the world. He discovers powerful forces exploiting the meltdown and finds himself in a race to save his life.

The Year 2000 computer problem, known in the industry as Y2K, is real. Jason Kelly's novel is based on evidence from congressional testimony, military documents, and reports from computing experts. It is a chilling look at what lies just around the corner.

It's already too late to escape.

Why I Picked It Up:

See Title and Back Cover

What I Think:

I was 12 years old on New Year's Eve 1999. I remember that my family was at a party at a friend of mine from school's house a few blocks away from ours. It was my very first NYE party and I was really enjoying myself. That's why I was very disappointed to find that my parents wanted to leave around 11:45. I didn't understand why I couldn't just keep playing with Kelly until after midnight, as that was obviously the point of a New Year's Eve party. My parents wouldn't listen to my protests, however, and I welcomed 2000 sitting on the couch between my mother and my father, beloved pet cat in hand, watching the ball drop in New York.

Looking back, I suppose that my parents must have been slightly worried about Y2K, to make sure we were together as a family on that historic moment. Ever since then, they have slept through the countdown while I banged pots in the other room, at least until I was old enough to go to parties on my own. However, despite the nation's worries, the only thing that came out of the moment we hit 2000 for me was a photograph that still sits in my parent's living room of the three of us, me in all my nerdy 12 year old glory, giant green glasses, dorky grin and all, holding my cat by the scruff of the neck so she would look at the camera which unfortunately makes it seem like I'm choking her. No power outages. No riots. No end of civilization.

My family's reaction, though, is pretty suggestive of most people's thoughts at the time. The truth was that everyone had heard stories and theories on the news and no one knew what would happen. Although I have the advantage of reading this book ten years after the event,  what is really sweet about Y2K is that it is obviously written by a man who honestly thought that the end was upon us. There are ads in the book for a company where you could buy a year's supply of freeze dried food or buy extra copies of the novel, with the inference that you will pass them on to family and friends. He wanted people prepared.

Throughout the novel, Kelly presents a vision of a future where the breakdown of modern technology puts us into some chaotic vision of the apocalypse. There is an obvious parallel between the author and our main character, Mark Solvang, the founder of a company that has been trying to convince the public of the Y2K problem for ten years but only gets anyone's attention in 1997, much too late to save anything, their help now limited to damage control. 

The novel is all over the place, jumping from Solvang Solutions trying to fix different civilian centers, to the Department of Defense slowly watching a fleet of ships heading to the US from China, to random civilians and how they deal with the aftermath of Y2K. There are race riots in Los Angeles. People in Portland attack each other after breaking into a grocery store-- not the prettiest picture of my own hometown. 

The China plotline is a little ambitious, thinking that there was a whole conspiracy with China to make sure the US military wasn't ready for Y2K which threads itself through the whole story. However, without some of that intrigue, the novel would be incredibly boring. It lives in its descriptions of a strange rival military team attacking the headquarters of Solvang Solutions and the riots breaking out in areas of California. It gets bogged down in a naval battle towards the end of the novel that I admittedly heavily skimmed but action is definitely the best part of this story.

What I loved the most, however, of my reading was the fact that whoever had read this book before must have been worried themselves about impending disaster and had taken notes throughout the book. All over the place were little marks in red pencil, underlining facts and figures, writing little notes in English and Japanese in the margins. In one instance, they had underlined the phrase "Global Positioning System" and had written down what I can only assume were the coordinates of their home. There's something endearing in watching people prepare for a disaster you know will never hit.

Say what you will about what all of their preparations turned out to-- at the very least, if the something had happened, at least someone would have been prepared and maybe, much like Solvang Solutions, would have helped us get back on track.