Monday, 29 October 2012

A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens

I first read A Tale of Two Cities when I was fourteen years old for my freshman year English class. I can distinctly remember sitting on the couch in the family room, contentedly reading and finishing the book a good week before we were supposed to. I fell in love with it then and there. 

Ten years passed and recently I heard that a cousin of mine who is in high school himself was having trouble with the book and my uncle wanted me to tutor him. I was happy to do it but I realized that I should probably reread the book myself as years had passed and I only barely remembered the plot. 

A Tale of Two Cities tells the story of the Manette family and those around them in the period before and during the French Revolution. At the beginning of the novel, Doctor Manette is freed from the Bastille after eighteen years of imprisonment. He is reunited with his daughter who is eighteen herself and thought her father dead. Years pass and they find themselves tangled up in the dealings of Charles Darnay, a young Frenchman who is on trial for espionage against England. Different events in the lives of all the characters fluctuate and coalesce until the dramatic conclusion, set against the backdrop of the Reign of Terror.

Now, I'm not a huge Dickens fan. I think he can tell a good story and create some interesting characters but he is ridiculously wordy. Now, of course, we all know why he was wordy (he was paid by the word) but that doesn't make it any easier to get through. A Tale of Two Cities is one of his shorter novels, the version I read was only 270 pages. Most Dickens are monsters. Thus, I think it's actually a pretty good first Dickens, a chance to stick your toe in and see if you like it.

The other great thing about Tale is that it is actually a compelling story and is tightly woven so that every detail fits in to the end and there's no meandering through the middle of the novel, as Dickens is prone to. Although the sentences take their time to get to the point, the novel is quite atmospheric and filled with forward momentum. Years are passed by in a few paragraphs to get on to the next dramatic point. There's no lingering.

Of course, the other thing I love about Tale is Sydney Carton, one of the characters. A once promising young lawyer that has had too much adventure and drink, he ends up taking the case of Charles Darnay when we first meet him. He and Darnay become foils for each other, perfect reflections with opposite characteristics. Although Darnay may be the better man in theory, I have been in love with Carton since I first finished the book. He's the anti-hero, the man who wishes he could do better but knows his best days are behind him. Carton absolutely shines in the second half of the book. He is definitely the best part of the narrative.

I cried the first time I finished Tale of Two Cities and I cried this time, too. The last two chapters have some absolutely beautiful moments that are poetically written. The part where Sydney takes the woman's hand, Sydney's thoughts that end the novel. That is what story writing should be about, moments like those. 

If you're a Dickens fan but never made it around to Tale, I'm sure you'll love it. If you're someone who never really read Dickens, give it a try. It's a shorter read and a good story. It may be a bit wordy but it has good things to say.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Partials - Dan Wells

The first thing my flatmate said when she saw me reading Partials was "Oh no wait, let me guess. You're reading a dystopian YA novel?" It's true that the YA dystopia trope is really very overdone, especially these days. With the success of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the like, it's clear that this is a genre that sells and does well. However, as I've told many people over the past few months, dystopia has always been a big feature of YA literature. I can remember reading tons of dystopian fiction growing up, Shade's Children by Garth Nix being one of my favorite books. I have my own theories as to why dystopia works so well for the YA genre, puberty and changes reflected in dystopian worlds where children now find themselves having to fend for themselves for the first time, but I think dystopias are something that will always be a part of the YA genre. 

The other thing I love about dystopias is, although they share a common thread of a world in need of rebuilding, they are always vastly unique and intriguing. A good dystopia needs a ton of world building and a new and inventive plot if it's going to work. The reader needs to know what the new world is, how it functions, and why the protagonist is in the position that they're in or will soon become. It requires a ton of imagination and talent to create good dystopian fiction and I admire people who can do it well.

On that note, let's move on to Partials. Eleven years previous to the opening of the book, humanity was almost completely wiped out by a disease called RM and a group called Partials. Partials were created by gene manufacturers to be the perfect soldiers and fought in a war between the Americans and the Chinese. However, they rebelled against humanity and ultimately won the war. Our heroine is Kira, one of the few humans left that resides in a small community in what used to be New York. She works in the hospital and is in a group of researchers trying to find the cure to RM. 

See, the problem is that the disease that killed most of humanity is still around and has been killing all infants born since its introduction. Thus, humanity is dying out, the youngest known human being fourteen. To combat this, not only are the doctors studying the disease but every woman age eighteen and above has to be pretty much perpetually pregnant, the thinking being that one day a baby will be born immune and can be studied. Kira, however, is positive they have somehow missed something and decides that they have to study a being that hasn't been seen in eleven years but is definitely immune to the disease: the partials.

I think the first thing a person notices about Partials is the fact that the book is long. Most young adult titles tend to be around three hundred pages. Partials is a whopping four hundred and seventy. It's not even that the print is strangely large or anything; it's just that the story is that intensive. I really appreciate what Wells has created. He spends a lot of time developing the world that Kira and her friends live in which kind of needed to happen because it's so vastly different. Although the book is long, it is still a quick read. I read the first seventy pages on a train ride to and from the movie theatre so it isn't impossible to get through, it just looks intimidating.

Also impressive is the amount of plot Wells puts into his novel. The focus changes about every hundred or so pages, keeping the reader on his or her toes. You don't even meet a main character until about two hundred pages in. This book could easily have been split into three but knowing it's the first in a series means that there is tons more to explore and I definitely am intrigued enough to read on. 

I have to admit that I found Kira a bit grating at times. She is rebellious to the point of just silliness at times. However, I really like how Wells created her. She is very smart and is also a scientific researcher. There are bits where she is doing laboratory tests and examining microbes and the like. Instead of skipping through it, Wells actually explores this and tries to explain the things Kira is seeing and tries to explain them. I was pleasantly surprised by this. Sure, it slowed the plot down a bit but it also added some really interesting information that indeed did come in handy later in the book. 

I was impressed with Partials and would love to read the next book. The book ends in both a comfortable and cliffhanger-y way. The plot of the first book is definitely resolved by the end but it leaves just enough questions and niggling thoughts to make you want to push on, just like a good first book should. If you're a dystopia fan, this is definitely up your alley.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

[Review Reaction] If on a winter's night a traveller - Italo Calvino

4 Questions about If on a winter's night a traveller

Colin and I have decided that the review reactions we've been doing have mostly been some strains of "I agree with the other person" and nothing super substantive. As a result, we've decided to instead ask each other a few questions about our views on the book. It should be more interesting. Here are my responses to Colin's questions for me. You can read Colin's reactions to my questions here.

1) What was the most enjoyable "novel" and the least? Why?

I'm going to cheat and pick two for my most enjoyable because there were two that I honestly would have loved to have kept reading. The first was In a network of lines that enlace, the story of the college professor that breaks into a house to answer the telephone. I think I liked that one because it felt like the kind of book I would read anyway, the book I would pick up at the library because it looked intriguing. My other favorite was Around an empty grave, the story of the cowboy that goes to find his mother. I really enjoyed that one because it wasn't the kind of book I would pick up randomly but by the end, I really wanted to know what was going on. I thought it had created a really interesting premise and I wanted to keep reading.

As for least favorite, I'm also going to have to go with In a network of lines that intersect. The main reason I have is that I honestly had no idea what was happening in most of it. It was one of those experiences where you're reading words and you think you're following along but you put it down after a paragraph and realize you have no idea what happened. I think this story had kaleidoscopes in it. Maybe.

2) As a female reader, how did you feel about the second person narrative when The Reader was clearly male?

To be honest, it really didn't faze me. When you pick second person narration in a fictional narrative, you're going to have to pick a gender at some point and as the author is male, it makes more sense for him to go with male. I understand how second person of a different gender seems odd but it never really mattered to me. I mean, this was a book written in 1979 in Italy. Clearly, even if it had a female narrator, it was going to be a foreign perspective. Sure, some things happen that wouldn't have happened had the narrator been female but The Reader was always a character, even if it was in second person, so I never really felt bothered by it.

3) What makes this book a classic?

I think what makes this book "a classic" is that it tackled difficult ideas in fiction in an original way. It dealt with ideas of reading and writing in highly metaphysical ways which was something that was just coming into vogue at the time of publication and he wrote it for a mass market audience. I bet this was the first time a lot of people actually sat down to think about the process of reading and what it could mean. Nowadays, the whole meta aspect of media is explored all the time and so I think some of the ideas in Winter's Night aren't as groundbreaking as they were when the story had just come out. However, it marked the beginning of a trend that still continues and that's why I think it's a book to be read by anyone who considers themselves "a reader" or "a writer."

4) Sum up this book in six words.

Man reads, explores meaning of reading.

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Uninvited - Liz Jensen

This is another book I got off Netgalley. The minute I got the email that I had gotten access to it, I ran off to download it. I was very excited about this book and could not wait to get my hands on it.

The Uninvited tells the story of a rash of unexplained child attacks. Normal children, seemingly happy and well adjusted, start attacking family members for no reason. Meanwhile, our hero, Hesketh Lock, is sent on a strange business trip. He works for a company that helps corporations manage scandals. He is sent to Taiwan to investigate a whistleblower who seems to be more ashamed of himself than happy with what he's done.

Hesketh is an interesting main character. A man with Aspergers, he narrates the story with an interesting take as he views the world differently than many a protagonist would. He constantly reflects on a recently broken relationship, thinking back to why it broke up and how much he misses the boy he had become a surrogate father to. At first I thought all of the looking back and the pining was a bit much but it ties into the story about midway in a not unexpected but interesting way. Jensen even went a bit further than I thought she might have and I was impressed.

I honestly could not put this book down and finished it in about two days. There were twists and turns galore. At one point, I was reading the book on the train on my way to a friend's and actually gasped aloud. Definitely an edge of your seat thriller.

I was also impressed with how genuinely creepy Jensen is able to set the mood. Pulling off a "scary" book is one of the hardest things, I believe. When it comes to television and movies, the right atmosphere, lighting and music can set any scene but with literature, it all comes down to the right combination of words. I'm not usually frightened by books but there was a bit, when I put the book down after reading the chapter on the tower in Dubai, where I lay in bed and couldn't help but glance and make sure there wasn't an evil little girl in the room with me.

One thing that is absolutely lovely with this book is that every chapter drives harder and harder towards the end. Each chapter builds upon what it had before and creates a genuine and taut air of tension. I'm honestly surprised I managed to read it in two sittings. The only thing that disappointed me was that I felt the ending didn't quite live up to what came before. Was it a perfectly adequate and understandable ending? Yes. I just felt like there was a bit more coming, a new twist that ultimately was more expected than revelatory. It reminded me of Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. Which is a good thing because that book is amazing. Still, though, it felt expected, in the way it hadn't in that novel.

Overall, I did absolutely adore this. It was right up my alley, scary, thrilling and full of twists and turns. I would recommend it in a heartbeat. You will not be able to put it down. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Listeners - Harrison Demchick

The Listeners is a book I received a galley of through NetGalley. I thought the plot looked intriguing and I'm happy to read anything once. For some reason, I had gotten it into my head that it was a YA novel. After reading it, I'm pretty sure it's not a YA novel. It definitely had an interesting plot and narrative structure.

The Listeners tells the story of a boy named Danny. Danny has been in his house for heaven knows how long when the book opens, forced inside by a quarantine of the borough he lives in due to an unknown disease. His mother went out for toilet paper three days prior but has yet to return. As Danny eats his breakfast, he sees an infected person out on the street who shoots at him. This calls the cops over, who offer to trade Danny his mother's gun for supplies. However, they take a little more than that, as well. After the cops leave, two men appear and whisk Danny away with them. They are two Listeners.

The Listeners are definitely the main focus and idea of the novel. They are a brotherhood (no women are allowed in) that live together and work together to take out the cops, who they feel are corrupt. They are led by a 'prophet' named Adam and, ritualistically, cut off their right ear when they become a true Listener, so as to only hear the truth. Demchick has definitely created a stunning image and the chapter where the ritual is performed is extremely well written.

I think the thing I liked more than even the plot itself was the narrative structure. This story is told in chunks. The chapters jump back and forth through time, following Danny through different parts of his journey with the Listeners and what he comes to believe and to doubt. Meanwhile, there are also 'respites' throughout, that offer a somewhat lengthy chapter from a random, usually only tangentially related character's point of view. This both fleshes out the world that the novel is taking place in and allows the author to explore more complex views than Danny has without questioning his protagonist. I found the respites maybe the most interesting parts of the novel, since you never quite knew what was going to happen with them. The chapter about the male nurse I found especially haunting. It could have been a short story on its own.

The way the plot twisted and turned, especially with its nonlinear fashion, made the book a quick read. Chapters were short and usually ended on somewhat of a cliffhanger. It kept you on your toes, although sometimes it was a bit too fast paced, racing through bits you would have to go and reread because you missed the significance of them the first time around.

Another really interesting idea was the disease, itself. Although it takes a typical zombie movie-esque formula, Demchick has invented a very interesting and somewhat more disturbing take on the stereotypical 'infected.' The sickos, as they are called, are normal people who begin growing boils all over their skin. However, for the most part, they remain conscious and aware of their surroundings, able to talk and communicate up until the point where, well, they can't. That's what makes them such interesting "monsters." Some can be communicated with, some are basically harmless as they've lost their awareness and some turn violent. It's just unknown when and why any of them will be the way they are. It adds complications and ethical questions into the plot more than a normal zombie situation, although, to be honest, it's not talked about all that much.

To be honest, as much as I liked this book, I think it needs a continuation or it's sunk. It has created a very interesting world and cast some questions on it. However, the last twenty or so pages are completely unfulfilling compared to the rest. Questions are brought up (especially one in regards to a picture found) that are not even thought about but briefly. I'm hoping that means a sequel is on its way. However, if this book is a stand alone, I don't know if I could recommend it. It's interesting but it asks more questions than it answers and not in a good way. It is the beginnings of a very good zombie novel but only the beginnings. There definitely  needs to be more.

The Listeners comes out in December from Bancroft Press.

Monday, 15 October 2012

[Duel Review] If on a winter's night a traveller - Italo Calvino

Okay, I picked the book for this month's duel review. I had been glancing at it in Waterstones for a few weeks beforehand as it sat on the two for one table and had been intrigued. During my friends and my "we finished our dissertation so let's buy all the books!" afternoon, I gave in to temptation and picked up a copy. As well as the back cover making it sound quite interesting, my friend Lizzy's coworker had been raving about it to her the weekend before so it seemed a good buy.

To be quite honest, I'm not entirely sure how to describe the novel. It is definitely nothing you've ever read before. I think I may just put the back cover blurb: 

You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But there is a printer's error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. This remarkable novel leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the hero of them all is you, the reader.

I guess, at first glance, it kind of sounds like a very intense 'Choose Your Own Adventure' novel. The Reader is the main character, although, to be fair, there are instances where you realize that the author is aware of the difference between The Reader and the reader. Which shows you just how incredibly meta this novel is. 

Although there is a semblance of plot about forged books and sneaky translators, this book, more than anything, is a treatise on books, on reading and writing. It makes you think about what a book means to you and what the written word means in general. It investigates what the point of novels are and what a writer must do to be a writer and if he does not do these things, doesn't that still make him a writer? 

One thing that you will either love or hate about the book is the format. Every other chapter follows the exploits of The Reader and what he does in search of the continuation of his book. Meanwhile, the chapters in-between are the beginnings of the novels that he is attempting to read. Each one is very different, even if they sometimes explore the same things. On the one hand, they seem out of place at times but on the other hand, they really do showcase the talent of Calvino as a writer. I really enjoyed each new beginning and I think it really helps the reader identify with The Reader. When you finish each snippet, you really are curious how it would continue. It also shows you what the importance of a great set up is and how (as stated towards the end of the novel) perhaps that anticipation, the small beginning that sets the reader up, is something that can never be lived up to, no matter how good the following subject matter is.

I can't say that I particularly liked the actual plot of the novel, as I found it a bit too heavy handed and took away from some of the more interesting passages about reading in general. Even though I usually despise second person, I think it was used incredibly effectively in this book. 

I do feel that this book was probably much more revelatory in the period it was published in (the early eighties), mainly because being meta has become more mainstream, with social media breaking down the wall between reader and author and media in general becoming more interested in exploring structure through its own medium (I'm thinking Community here). However, it still packs quite a punch and gives the reader a lot to think about.

I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone who considers themselves "a reader" or "a writer." It has a lot to say on both topics and will genuinely  make you think. It's an inventive novel and well worth your time.

This is my review for If on a winter's night a traveller. Here is a link to Colin's review.

Monday, 8 October 2012

It's Not Me, It's You - Jon Richardson

I picked up this book on a lark while I was working at HarperCollins. The employee store was amazing and all paperback books were 25 pence. Since I happen to like Jon Richardson as a comic and picking up his book wouldn't put me back much, I picked it up in my mad buying spree. I thought it would be good, silly fun.

The book is a nonfictional look at Jon's life and more specifically, his love life. He has been single for eight years (when the book was written) and by going through a period of three days with him, the reader follows him as he thinks about the way he lives his life and how he feels this impairs his chances of finding happiness. 

What I really liked about this book is that it wasn't anything you expected. It has its funny moments, of course, but for the most part, this is a pretty intense look into the issues someone faces everyday. Jon's intense fear of failure and his need to do things his own way, not to mention his tendency to analyze every possible thing that could go wrong before taking a single chance stand in his way as he struggles to make himself text a girl that gave him her number a few nights before. And as Jon slowly explains the way his mind works, it makes you sympathize and root for him. There were definitely some moments where I could really sympathize with what he was saying and it definitely sheds light on things about my own life that I never really thought about. 

There are a lot of things that I really enjoyed his thoughts on and really made me think. I'm going to give you a few tasters:

"Friendship [is] something that transcend[s] physicality; it [is] almost purer than any love you could feel for a partner. The friends you make as a child who stay with you throughout your life do so not because they find you attractive, or they gain financially from your time together, but because something deep down connects the two of you. Because you have stayed with each other through more than one period of your evolution."

"Dreams are an excuse for unhappiness; they allow us to think we would be happier and healthier if only we had what we were looking for. Once that thing has been found and eternal bliss remains as unattainable as ever, then unhappiness takes on a life all of its own, unconnected to any one possession or person. It is an entity that cannot be controlled, cannot be defeated and comes and goes from your life entirely as it pleases like a drunken guest at a house party, staggering from room to room and bringing with them only chaos."

And my personal favorite:

"It is a source of confusion to me that as a child, say, in your first fifteen years, you learn more than you will ever learn in the same time period for the rest of your life. You learn how to walk and to talk, you learn about illness, death and about not getting your own way. You learn that life is sometimes unfair and that, for no reason at all, bad things happen to good people. You learn that there will come a time when all help ceases and you will be in sole charge of your own happiness and responsible for your own actions. You learn about money and what it is to be without it and you learn (if you are lucky) to ask questions about religion and what might exist beyond the world we know.

Not only this, but you must also get to grips with school, exams, bullying, physical education and physical attraction and the prospect of being poorly suited to success in both, not to mention the constant see-sawing of emotion caused by the hormonal changes going on in your body and doubts about sexuality and the consequences this might have on your future.

All of these issues are to be confronted night after night, staring up at the ceiling on your own with your brain fit to burst, in a single bed. Then suddenly you become an 'adult' and you are told that the inability to find someone with whom you can share a double bed is the single biggest failure you can make in life. Well, bullshit!"

To be quite honest, I kind of love this book. It's definitely not what it's marketed as ("So funny! You'll love it!," etc,) but that just makes it better. It's not a memoir, it's not some trivial joke book, it's a person with things to say and intelligent things, at that. Parts of Jon's book really resonated with me and I think they will with more people than are willing to admit to it. I absolutely loved it and if those quotes above appealed to you, than you'll like it, too.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Arabella - Georgette Heyer

The one thing I absolutely love about Georgette Heyer books is that you always know what you're going to get when you pick one up: you're going to get an absolutely lovely and completely innocent tale of wooing in the Regency period, complete with gaming debts, cynical young men and naive and trusting women. Will it make you think differently about anything? No, probably not. Will it make you smile for about three hundred pages? Absolutely.

Arabella is a classic Heyer book. Our heroine, Arabella Tallant, is on her way to London for her season. She doesn't have much money but has been taken pity on by her godmother that will sponsor her. On her way to London, however, her carriage breaks down and she seeks shelter from the rain in a nearby house.

This nearby house is of course owned by our male lead, Robert Beaumaris. Mr. Beaumaris is the Nonpareil of the season, setting all the fashion trends and dictating what is in and out in London. He's also worth quite a bit of money. He thinks Arabella is faking the carriage accident to get closer to him. When Arabella hears him confide this to a friend, in outrage, she hints that she's worth a great deal of money herself, to make him feel bad about his assumptions.

Mr. Beaumaris, of course, knows this is a pretense but runs with it, thinking it would be funny to make Miss Tallant the most sought after girl of the Season. And it works. But he finds himself falling for her, too. And Arabella has to start fending off fortune hunters that don't know that she doesn't actually have any money.

Georgette Heyer books are also absolutely lovely because they are romance novels written in the fifties. You know what Georgette Heyer doesn't mess with? All those sex scenes in modern romance novels. Instead of the prerequisite (at least) three sex scenes of a romance novel, Heyer just keeps it light and breezy, a complete courtship with an innocent but passionate young woman and a man impressed by her zeal. It's much more Jane Austen than Nora Roberts. Even her writing style is old fashioned but in a good way, that keeps you involved in the plot. 

Arabella was an absolutely lovely read, exactly what I needed at the time. It was short, it was sweet and it was romantic. It didn't change the world but it made for a good read.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science - Mary Roach

This is the third Mary Roach book I've reviewed on this blog and as such, I think you'll realize by now that I really like her. She takes subjects that interest her but that she knows little about, researches them and writes easily accessible and extremely interesting books. I'm a bit addicted to them.

The most recent book of her's I've read is Bonk. Bonk is all about the science behind sex. As such, it was kind of embarrassing to read on the train. However, despite the initial squirm you get pulling it out of your bag and determining if it's worse to let people see the cover or open it up on your lap and let your next seat over neighbor glance over and catch a sentence about vibrators, you're quickly pulled in.

The interesting thing about the science behind sex is just how recent everything is. Sex is such a taboo subject, especially in America, that most studies began, at the earliest, in the 1950s and even those were very scandalous and not taken super seriously. Beyond that, funding was near impossible because it was just so very hard to convince people that this was a thing that needed to be studied, let alone figure out how to get human test subjects for most of it. 

This book was extremely interesting and posed a lot of questions I didn't even realize where questions, let alone what the answers were. For instance, how does one actually investigate what happens in the vagina during sex? Seriously. That is a thing I have never pondered but once it's asked, you kind of just sit there and think "…yeah. How does that work?" The answer: penis camera.

Seriously, though. Stuff like that. Stuff you would never even think about. It's all there and in the humorous, curious style of Mary Roach. It's not for the faint-hearted, as most of her books are but it's very interesting and, yes, entertaining. Definitely worth a read, if only in the privacy of your own home.