Sunday, 23 November 2014


Not sure who's still reading, but I'm now announcing an indefinite hiatus (to give y'all some closure on the lack of updates).

Anyway, my point is that I've gotten lazier; I've found that my reviews take a long time to write and I'd rather spend that time reading.

I'm also sorry for not following people (back) -- I'll admit to being bad with technology and not being able to figure out Google+. Forgive me!

Thank you for reading everything thus far. I still update my Goodreads though, so feel free to friend me there (!

- Alex

Book Review: The Gemma Doyle trilogy

Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing
Author: Libba Bray
Year Published: 2003-2007
Genre: Young adult, supernatural, gothic, historical fiction

The Gemma Doyle trilogy is a supernatural Victorian boarding school story for young adults. That alone should tell you whether you want to read this series (for me the answer was, of course: hells yeah). There’s an indulgent, ‘comfort read’ quality about it despite its dark themes. While this normally would be fine for me, some of these themes weren’t your typical dramatic fantasy problems but rather actual real life issues. And that’s why I ultimately found the series problematic.

There are a number of seeming contradictions in the nature of the series itself, as if it is trying to be too many things at once. On the one hand, it's easy to luxuriate in the girly girl passages about the girls’ shopping expeditions and the social niceties of Victorian London – reminiscent of your Jane Austen type of stories, which the author references a number of times. On the other hand, there are plenty of gruesome ghostly things mentioned in the supernatural part. Then again, there are your ‘serious’ scenes describing family dysfunction, abject poverty and child sexual abuse – the latter of which I really wasn’t expecting in such a squishy sort of read.

There was so much going on that I felt that a number of these heavier themes shouldn’t have been included at all. Other than creating mood whiplash, I felt they weren’t given their proper dues. I kept thinking of the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’, as each ‘problem’ rarely transcends the scene in which it’s mentioned. For example, Gemma spouts a lot of pretty and ~profound~ insights about her dysfunctional family, but only ever seems to think about them when she’s in their actual physical presence.

While Gemma describes problems – particularly the ‘ordinary’ real-world ones – and how horrific they are, we can’t disagree; at the same time though, they’re given so little attention that there’s almost a passive tolerance of them. In this regard, it was Gemma’s musings on child sexual abuse that really made me irrationally angry – she talks as if she knows all about it, but then she doesn’t seem too bothered about it in the next scene, nor does she ever do anything about it – to be fair, I don’t know what she could do in those cases, but nevertheless I felt it made her concerns seem ungenuine.

Despite it being 1895, the behaviours and voices of the heroines are very, very modern. When the girls have ‘radical’ thoughts, it doesn’t feel very radical at all as they haven’t actually moved very far from who they already are. As for Gemma, well, her decision at the very end came as a surprise to me – her thoughts were so varied and unfocused throughout the series that it was surprising she even had that goal in mind: she never once mentioned it during the entire series.

Now, despite all my groaning, there’s still a lot you can enjoy in this series. I don’t doubt that a lot of people would be attracted to the gothic setting of the series, and there’s an indulgent pillowy quality you can get lost in – indeed, despite my misgivings I read all three books pretty quickly. This is the sort of series you let wash over you, without trying to keep track or think too much about, lest you spot the problems. There isn’t a lot of plot to be honest – it gets worse in the second and third books, where there’s more and more telling instead of showing, and the tale expands in breadth rather than depth. It seemed to unravel as things went on, and became a bit of a chore to read in the end. Be warned also that the ending isn’t exactly a happy one.

I did like that the main love interest was Indian, but I’m in two minds as to whether this series provides a positive example of non-white characters. There was surprisingly more sensuality than I would’ve anticipated, particularly given how simple the language is, so I’d probably say it’s suitable for those aged 13+. I was a little disappointed in the character development too – some of Gemma and Kartik’s relationship is retconned in the third book, and I was surprised to hear Felicity, Pippa and Ann described as Gemma’s “best friends” in Rebel Angels after their uneasy and bullying-tinged interactions in A Great and Terrible Beauty, as well as the fact that none of them seemed to actually like each other, except for Felicity and Pippa. I’m not sure what it says about me, or the book, but I found Felicity and Ann to be a lot more likeable and interesting than our heroine Gemma.

So in conclusion, I had a number of issues with this series – namely plot, character development and the handling of themes. It’s also very faux Victorian, if that’s something that will bother you. What’s left to recommend it then? Well, there’s an addictive quality in the writing, and an attractiveness in the mood and setting. There are also moments of great tenderness and poignancy, though these instances were too few and far in between. I don’t regret reading this series, but I doubt I’ll read it again.

Alex’s Rating: 2.5/5

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Book Review: Chalice

Title: Chalice
Author: Robin McKinley
Year Published: 2008
Genre: Young adult, fantasy

Mirasol is a beekeeper and the newly appointed Chalice of the demesne. Inexperienced and untrained, she attempts to perform her duty while finding her place in the Circle, for as Chalice she holds the most important office of the twelve members. The story begins with the arrival of the new Master – a Priest of Fire who is drawn back home only because of the death of his brother. The demesne is suffering, and Mirasol tries her best to assist the Master, bind the Circle, and soothe the land.

The world that McKinley has created is a strange but compelling one. The magic and the governing structure of the Circle aren’t your typical fantasy clichés, and what is revealed of them throughout the book only leaves you yearning for more. Each tidbit about the world was revealed naturally and gradually, as morsels to be rolled around the mouth and savoured. However, this can be frustrating at the same time – you never find out, for example, what all the members of the Circle do. I’m not really sure how I feel about this: on the one hand, it’s annoying, but on the other, it’s kind of nice to be left wanting – the wonder and the mystery is preserved.

Not much happens, I’m afraid. What does happen happens very slowly, with a lot of ‘action’ taking place in the past and a lot of passages focusing on the bees and honey that form part of Miraol’s identity. Mirasol’s relationship with the Master is one of the key parts of the book, but at the same time, it feels underdeveloped. Strangely, you wonder how that can be. What they have is gentle, sweet and slow, and you can easily interpret their relationship as a platonic one. The ending is where everything happens, and it’s almost too sudden – despite the whole book leading up to it, I felt that there was not enough build up.

While not particularly exciting, Chalice is still a pleasant story, good for when you want to relax and wallow in something quiet and girlish. It’s the sort of book I’d classify as a comfort read – fantasy with a domestic feel and a gentle sort of atmosphere that lulls you. It’s not my favourite Robin McKinley, but it is very McKinley-esque.

Alex’s Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Book Review: The Sense of an Ending

Title: The Sense of an Ending
Author: Julian Barnes
Year Published: 2011
Genre: Contemporary drama

The Sense of an Ending is refreshing and pompous all at once. If you’re the type who enjoys reading about white upper middle class British boys doing their thang, then this is the book for you.

It’s a short novel, in which a middle-aged Tony Webster reminisces about his school chums, his first girlfriend, and his life beyond. The writing is elegant and precise. Through Tony, the author explores the nature of memory and considers how people live their lives. I felt a certain tenderness – a sort of raw delicacy – in the way this was done, and I really enjoyed reading it. There’s something universal about the dilemmas conveyed, and if you’ve lived an ‘ordinary’ life, it is not difficult to see yourself in Tony – a man who has merely let his life happen to him.

And then, the plot. This is one of those rare books where I would have preferred for there to be less of a plot and more meandering ruminations on life. The whole ‘mystery’ of Veronica felt to me somewhat soap opera-esque. While the resolution is ambiguous and points to Tony’s unreliability (as a narrator and as a rememberer), this whole facet of the book seemed kind of clumsy when compared to the grace of the rest. But then again, maybe like Tony, I just don’t get it.

Perhaps this is why I found it easy to put the book down and not pick it up again, despite liking it. While some may read The Sense of an Ending for the mystery and its ‘literary’ appeal, I found more reward in the beauty of its language, and its ability to prompt us to reflect upon ourselves.

Alex’s Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Book Review: Empire Falls

Title: Empire Falls
Author: Richard Russo
Year Published: 2001
Genre: Contemporary drama

Empire Falls chronicles life in what used to be a thriving industrial community in Maine, USA. The Whiting family, who were the drivers of Empire Falls’ economy, have downsized their operations over time, leaving the town in a state of decay. Even so, Empire Falls’ inhabitants remain hopeful that someday, a benefactor will come to reinvigorate the empty mills and restore the town to its former glory.

Our hero, as it were, is one Miles Roby; though he was once among the brightest boys in town, he has somehow ended up flipping burgers at the Empire Grill for the last twenty odd years. At the start of the book, we discover that his wife has left him, and relying on a promise, Miles endures his lot with the hope that one day, the last Mrs Whiting will hand him ownership of the Grill.

Empire Falls paints a poignant picture of small-town life. Each character has their own values, motivations and personalities. Though we may despise some of them, Russo draws each one with great compassion, and we see them all as human. It’s remarkable how realistic they all feel.

Like the town itself, Empire Falls’ inhabitants seem mired in the past, and in their mindsets and obligations. Faced with a myriad of characters trapped in their own lives, you can’t help but reflect upon yours. What are you doing with your life? What do you want to do? What should you be doing? How can you escape? Should you? There are no easy answers to these questions, and considering them is both difficult and soothing at the same time. The very ordinariness of these dilemmas is what makes the book so relatable and so confronting at the same time.

If I have anything to criticise here, I suppose it’d be the final act. The ‘plot twist’ was not particularly surprising, and the slow build of tension within Miles, and its eventual eruption, was almost deliciously satisfying. The sudden ‘event’ and the subsequent ending both seemed abrupt. I don’t know what I expected, but I guess I wanted something more.

While what I’ve described – a case study in stagnation, with no obvious solutions – may seem depressing, what does come through it all is, somehow, a sense of hope. Additionally, a healthy dose of humour suffuses the book and Russo describes the inhabitants of the town with a generosity of spirit. Empire Falls is an acute study of human nature, written without pretension, in plain and gentle language. Highly recommended.

Alex’s Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Book Review: The Liveship Traders

Title: Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny
Author: Robin Hobb
Year Published: 1998-2000
Genre: Fantasy

The Liveship Traders is the second trilogy set within the world of Robin Hobb’s ‘Realms of the Elderlings’, for which there are currently fifteen books. While you don’t need to know anything about the first trilogy – The Farseer Trilogy (a.k.a. the Assassin books) – in order to understand this one, The Liveship Traders contains major spoilers for its predecessor so you may want to read The Farseer Trilogy first. In fact, if you’re a fantasy fan and you haven’t read the Assassin books, don’t bother with this review and just go read them now. The first book is Assassin’s Apprentice. Go on. You can thank me later.

Anyway, back to The Liveship Traders. Though it’s comprised of three books (Ship of Magic, The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny), The Liveship Traders is better characterised as one somewhat very large novel. To put it another way, what you have here are three books, each being some 900 pages long, none of which work as standalones – so be ye warned.

The name of the trilogy essentially describes its premise. In the Cursed Shores, there is substance known as wizardwood – a sentient wood that can only be sourced from the Rain Wilds. A ship built from wizardwood will “quicken” and come to life only after three family members from successive generations have died upon its deck. At the start of the trilogy, the liveship Vivacia is about to quicken – an event to set in motion everything else in the series. The plot is almost impossible to describe without spoilers, so pro-tip: don’t read the blurbs. The Liveship Traders involves multiple plots and characters and is a slow burn sort of deal in the bestest sort of way. If you like seafaring adventure stories, fantasy, and being patient, this is the series for you.

Hobb has built a fully realised fantasy world both traditional and unique; its features are rich but not obnoxiously so; everything in the world, from its seal hunters, its religions, its cultures and its magic, simply belongs. Hobb brings a spark to traditional fantasy elements like mythical serpents, to innovations like wizardwood and even to the small domestic rituals shared between Bingtown folk and the Rain Wilders. The Rain Wilds in particular inspire a sense of wonder – something all too often lacking in fantasy fiction.

In addition to a multitude of settings, we are witness to a multitude of points of view. As a sample of this variety, we have Wintrow, the boy in training to be a priest; Althea, the tomboyish daughter of the Vestrit family; Kennit, the ambitious pirate; Paragon, the mad ship; Ronica, the pragmatic Vestrit matriarch; Brashen, the disgraced Bingtown son; and Malta, the girl you want to smack in the face. Personal, political and fantastical plot lines are woven together masterfully for all these characters, and if you ever get weary of one story-line, you know that a fresh point of view is not far away. Similarly, there is a mixture of light (ooh~ island exploration~) and dark (sexual violence) material. The Liveship Traders is one of those rare series where the tone, plot, setting and characters are balanced, so that you rarely feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed by any one aspect.

My only issue was that the ending seemed way too unrealistic (and yes, I do realise this is a series about talking ships).

<Spoiler alert, obviously>

While this may be a tired comparison, I’d say that if you enjoy Game of Thrones, you’d probably like this series too. It’s similar in that it covers a broad scope of characters, settings and dilemmas and it’s different in that it’s actually finished. In any case, your priority here should be to read The Farseer Trilogy – not only will it enhance your reading of The Liveship Traders, but it’s also excellent. I mean, it’s less “balanced” than The Liveship Traders, but if I’m to be completely honest, its wildness is precisely why I like it better of the two.

Alex’s Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Drama, Crime, Contemporary fiction

Recently named winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, a boy who survives the bombing that takes his mother’s life. In the chaos that follows, Theo is taken in by a posh New York family and, well, suffice to say that a painting of a bird is involved, and things don’t get easier for our teenaged hero.

Tartt has a gift for language and detail – based on her descriptions, I find myself wanting to see New York in real life. From the very beginning, when Theo and his mother are caught in the rain through to Theo’s time spent alone in Hobie’s furniture store, you can almost believe you’re there with Theo himself. Theo’s remembered places and experiences are both dreamlike and solid at the same time; they feel real even when they’re unrealistic. Despite its heft, the book is easy to read; there’s a cushiony feel about the prose that makes it easy to sink in to; it’s almost comforting in a way.

Any yet, there were many times I found it hard to immerse myself in his story. Why? Multiple reasons, really. Perhaps dumbest of all is the whole business with the timeline. When is the book set? It’s not clear. Such a simple matter, and yet so irritating. We start with Theo as a grown man in Amsterdam before the narrative segues into his childhood. I had thought that this meant that the Amsterdam stuff was happening present-day-ish, but then aspects of Theo’s adolescence felt too modern. Instead of concentrating on Theo’s story, I found myself distracted by thoughts like: So the accident happened after 9-11? Is the Amsterdam stuff happening in the future then? When did Unleashed come out? Isn’t that kind of text-speak outdated? Why is there old digital clock font in a modern-day text? What?

Similarly, other aspects of the writing threw me out of the story. Particularly during the accident at the start, I wasn’t sure if Theo was retelling a story or if we were living it with him in real-time. This might seem trivial, but it does change how you interpret events. Another issue I had was with Theo himself. He’s meant to be a teenage boy, but there’s something about his observations that make him sound like a mature, well-to-do white woman. It’s more than precociousness (and boy is he precocious); I mean, improbable art history expertise aside, what thirteen-year-old boy recognises when someone is dressed in Valentino and knows that the lipgloss stick thingy is a “wand”? It would seem that this book was written by someone even more out of touch with today’s youth than yours truly, and that’s a worrying thought.

Another aspect of Theo that felt unrealistic to me was his ordeal with drugs. I can’t place my finger on it, but something about the casual but meticulous way things are described feels very researched and calculated. It’s as if the author’s trawled Internet forums about substance abuse and included her findings in the book as something ~edgy. Now, I know nothing about the author and her history. For all I know, she’s had experience dealing with substance abuse and knows what she’s on about. As a reader, however, something about it just did not feel genuine.

So too did the parts of the book dealing with art and art appreciation. The detailed and technical art discussions sounded like excerpts from someone’s essay rather than actual thoughts or experiences of actual people. Unfortunately, I got the impression that the author wanted to show off how cultured she was – which is sad, as I suppose the intent here was to inspire.

Other than the style, I also found the plot and characters a little unsatisfying. I am fine with the whole concept of this being one of those direction-less, that’s-how-life-is sort of books, but what I did not expect was for the narrative to jump from setting to setting and genre to genre. On the one hand this was exciting. You got new characters and drama and action and humour and a bildungsroman crime caper all in one – the book was never boring. On the other hand, it was also frustrating. Every time I thought the author was going to go deeper into a relationship or situation, things moved sideways instead. As a corollary, many of the characters never rise far above their stereotypes.

I’ve complained a lot, but a lot of this comes from how good the book is. I was so captivated by Theo’s experience that it became really noticeable when things felt unnatural and wrong. And here, I guess, I come to the controversy that is the ending. Feel free to skip this paragraph now, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that there is no ending. In the last chapter, Theo engages in some navel-gazing that does nothing to wrap up the plot. To me it felt like a cop out. It’s as if the author couldn’t or wouldn’t decide how she wanted things to go, so they didn’t go anywhere at all. Instead, we get a discussion on the book’s ~themes~. The worst part of this is that Theo’s undergraduate introspective philosomaphising isn’t even riveting, though I may have been blinded by anger at this point. The words sound pretty though.

The Goldfinch is a richly detailed account of one troubled boy’s life, tenderly and lovingly drawn. However, I find it hard to recommend: it annoyed me too much with its pretentiousness, its implausibility and its failure to provide narrative closure. In short, The Goldfinch a good book, but it’s not great, and you can probably find something better. Then again, what’s my opinion worth? There’s only one Pulitzer winner here and it sure as hell ain’t me.

Alex’s Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Book Review: Fooled by Randomness

Title: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2nd edition, updated)
Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Year Published: 2005; first edition 2001
Genre: Non-fiction, Economics, Philosophy

So the two take-home lessons from this book are:

1. People underestimate the role of chance in their lives; and
2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is smarter than you.

Of course, there are more nuances involved, but that’s the general gist of it. Fooled by Randomness basically tells us about the role of probability in life, how people perceive this role, and how they are wrong. The author posits that people tend to see patterns where there are none and attribute to skill what has happened by luck. The book explores a number of interesting logic concepts, including that of hindsight bias, survivorship bias and a number of others whose technical names I don’t know. These ideas are generally associated with how people construe “success” and are usually explained in the context of trading.

Now, in matters of probability, finance and philosophy, I am about as knowledgeable as Jon Snow; I don’t have an interest and I really only read this book because my brother recommended it. As such, I’m probably not the target audience here and I can’t (won’t) assess how “sound” the author’s ideas are, especially when he discusses theories made by people I’ve never ever heard of, and especially when he doesn’t explain said theories fully. To give you an indication of my level of knowledge (or ignorance), I had to look up what “bullish” and “bearish” meant, and was slightly disappointed to discover that the terms had little to do with animals.

For me personally, the most interesting ideas were the concept of “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” – you can’t judge a thing until it’s done – and how the time frame you take as a reference point alters the significance of any event. The only explicit bit of “financial” advice I could spot was in the author’s musings over the “black swan event” – the rare but disastrous random event – and how he prefers to guard against this while being accepting of other smaller losses. So if you’re reading this to get rich then, well, good luck. Anyway, that’s how I interpreted it all, though what would I know? I mean, what you’re reading now are essentially the thoughts of a peasant.

The writing has a distinct style that reeks of the author’s personality. You may like it, you may hate it. I was surprised at how dense the prose was, right from the get-go. The author, who has had a long career as a trader (I don’t even know what that means), fancies himself an intellectual who is above those other, lesser, money-grubbing, MBA-holding kind of traders. He comes across as arrogant, self-indulgent and pretentious, and adds so many philosophical/classical/historical namedrops and references that at times I found it impossible to understand what he was on about (but then again, I am a peasant). Even so, Taleb has a certain charm; he’s interesting and funny and he writes to the reader as if to a fellow comrade-in-arms – as if you, like him, are one of the intelligent elite (unless of course, you’re a journalist, have an MBA and/or are a liberal left-wing “pseudothinker” – then he despises you). At the same time, you get the feeling that if you ever met him in real life, he’d probably think you’re an idiot.

As mentioned, the author discusses a number of interesting concepts. However, the problem for this idiot is the way these concepts are presented and how the style and structure of the book affect them. Taleb occasionally spells them out, but most of the time they’re couched in anecdotes and blend into other messages or ideas. It’s a bit like going to a lecture where the speaker goes off on tangents, but due to the alien nature of the topic, you’re not really sure when and if he’s getting to some important point or if he’s just gone rogue. You can try to learn but the guy does not make it easy. Some ideas are very clearly explained (like the Monte Carlo engine – always wanted to know what that was), yet at other times, everything gets muddied. The author often sort of mentions something only to change the topic without having fully explained it. If this helps at all, Fooled by Randomness is the sort of book where (a) chapters don’t necessarily delineate topics (for example, the “it ain’t over” idea is sort of explored in dribs and drabs here and there); and (b) the author may occasionally veer into rants about a particular journalist he hates.

I can’t shake the idea that this book could have been much, much shorter. The author makes the same point again and again but in slightly different ways, as if unable to decide which way he likes best. Unfortunately, this just makes everything harder to understand. In the end, I was also left with the impression that nothing had been explored in very much depth, despite the fact I read an entire book. As interesting as Mr Taleb’s ideas – and personality – are, the end result is not very accessible to the average idiot reader. To someone with a background in finance or philosophy though, this book will undoubtedly hold more value.

If you’re looking to learn, you’d be better served reading a bunch of Wikipedia articles on logic and reasoning. If, however, you’re after an evening of interesting conversation with a clever, bookish, finance-y guy, then Fooled by Randomness is probably just the thing for you. 

Alex’s Rating: 3/5

Friday, 28 February 2014

Book Review: The Apprentice Journals

Title: The Apprentice Journals
Author: J Michael Shell
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Science fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Erotica

In the future envisioned by The Apprentice Journals, civilisation as we know it has been destroyed. Why? Because we humans were so caught up in our dead environments that we lost touch with the Elementals – spirit-like embodiments of the classical elements that make up our world. This is turn led to the Elementals forgetting all about our existence, meaning that when they had their giant, world-wide, non-human-friendly, natural-disaster-causing orgies, they sort of decimated mankind. In the new world order that emerges, some humans are born as Apprentices, people who have the power to communicate with Elementals and manipulate the elements. Apprentices to what, you ask? Well, the book never tells us. Those that “finish” their training are just called Finished Apprentices, so I’m guessing they’re Apprentices to Apprentices? Or Elementals? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. And that, incidentally, pretty much summarises my experience of The Apprentice Journals.

That said, my favourite thing about the book was in fact its magic system. Superhuman powers in science fiction tend to be mental in nature and a result of some sort of mutation. Here, however, we have a post-apocalyptic world with elemental environment-based magic. It’s pretty unique and also intense. From the first page you’re plunged right into it, which can be intimidating given how technical it gets, but after the initial weirdness and learning curve you get to appreciate how intricate it is. The magic stuff plays a major part in the book, so if you hate magic then this is not the post-apocalyptic book for you.

So the main character is a white dude named Spaul. He’s an Apprentice journeying north in what remains of the good ol’ US of A, for no obvious reason, but that’s cool, maybe he’s just like drifting or whatever. Along the way he meets a girl named Pearl, who’s black, hot and mute. That’s pretty much it. Well, a lot of things happen, but it’s hard to explain what the plot is, since all the ‘events’ seem like side quests to the main plotline of this northward yet directionless journey. A lot of time is spent travelling between settlements or chilling at the beach, but there are also occasions where stuff gets really odd – so odd it feels like you’re reading a different book entirely. There are abrupt forays into what feels like different genres or different times, and while this didn’t make for a cohesive world or story, it certainly kept things interesting.

Now, there are a number of issues I had with this book.

Let’s start with race.

So apparently, even in the post-apocalyptic world of the future, we have some old world race issues. Two things in particular almost made me choke when I read them. The first is town of Tara. Taking us right back to Civil War race relations, the town is essentially a black slave ranch run by white dudes, the leader of whom has a (hot) black woman on the side. The second is the portrayal of black people. If the “negra” being slaves weren’t enough, you also have Pearl’s father and the butler guy speaking like blatant stereotypes (“Hear that you l’il sheet-eater, Mistah Kurtz Missuh ‘Prentice gonna fix yo’ feets!” p25), though to be fair, the Irish guy is also stereotyped (“Aye, and yer a fishin’ machine, Spaul! Aye’ve never seen any so fast as ye!” p 54). I mean, you can also tell that the author has an interest in language, but what he does with it is not enough. The overall approach lacks rigour and the quirky bits feel half-baked. This makes the written-in accents – only present in black people and that one Irish guy – stand out even more, which is especially egregious given this story was published just last year. There is a huge focus on race in this book and it’s a problem because the topic is handled with very little sensitivity.

Here’s where I get to the sex.

I’ll be honest: from the blurb and the cover, I’d assumed this would be a young adult novel. How wrong I was! In the very first chapter, Spaul talks about “loving” some Fierae Elementals. Throughout the course of the book, he takes part in Elemental orgies, is offered sex/daughters, causes orgies, and last but not least, has lots and lots of sex with Pearl (or to be more precise, Pearl’s body – a whole other can of worms I won’t even get into). Strangely, it’s never super explicit. There are just orgasms: orgasms everywhere. The entire book was like one big masturbatory fantasy. This wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but hey, if you’re after some white dude/black girl magic sex in natural settings, then take note.

What makes this situation worse is the fact that Pearl is so objectified – she’s the kind of character whom everyone thinks is gorgeous and whose items of clothing are meticulously described. I may be totally off base here, but my overall impression, from the sex, the idolisation of Pearl and the handling of race issues, was that the guy has a fetish. The Spaul character brings to mind those (white) guys who think they’re progressive for being able to appreciate the ‘exotic’ beauty of foreign’ (non-white) women. I don’t know if I’m just being crazy here and reading too much into things, but that was my honest impression. I often felt uncomfortable reading the book and not in a good way.

To sum, reading this novel is like stumbling upon the weird part of the Internet: it’s unlike anything else you’ve seen before, it deals with something weirdly specific (and somehow sex-related), and it’s somewhat but definitely frightening for reasons you can’t quite explain. The Apprentice Journals is undoubtedly unique. While I really liked the “atmosphere” and magic system, the (human) world-building felt lacking and I’m not sure what to make of the strange “plot”, which, by the way, ends with sequel bait. I’m also massively leery of how the author handles race issues: it’s suspect at best and racist at worst. That said, this book is certainly an interesting read if only for its strangeness.

Alex’s Rating: 2/5
(Disclaimer: I received this book for free through Goodreads’ First Reads.)

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book Review: Love in the Time of Cholera

Title: Love in the Time of Cholera
Author: Gabriel García Márquez; English translation by Edith Grossman
Year Published: 1985, translation 1988
Genre: Romance, General and literary fiction, Erotica, Drama, Historical fiction

Florentino Ariza falls in love with the beautiful Fermina Daza, but just as the two are about to marry, Fermina breaks it off. Worse, she marries the prestigious Doctor Juvenal Urbino instead. Florentino lives a dissolute lifestyle as he pines for his true love, while the seemingly perfect Urbinos struggle with their marriage. Some fifty years later, the old paramours reunite, giving Florentino a second chance to declare his feelings.

Put this way, the plot sounds very straightforward, and I suppose it is. And yet, the book is absolutely captivating. Márquez brings his characters to life in a way that is simply masterful. The protagonists are only ever almost likeable (for me, at least), but there is no doubting that they are human in all their flaws and virtues. As you read their stories, you become intimately acquainted with who they are, how they feel and how they think, though at the same time, there is something about each person that is left a mystery. An exquisite depth and breadth of human experience is captured within these pages, from the mundane to the alarming. The book covers events as varied as Fermina’s and Urbino’s greatest argument (there was soap!) to Florentino’s defecation in a carriage and the brutal murder of a woman following infidelity.

Cholera is set in an unnamed city, presumably in Colombia, during the turn of the 20th century. It’s a context with various social, political and yes, medical concerns which all go to shaping the identity of the characters. Though the flavour of the setting suffuses the entire book, it never overwhelms; rather, it forms a natural part of the story, the characters and the writing. On that note, there is something sensual, visceral and almost sweaty about the way this book is written. I admire the English translator for having achieved (or preserved) this atmosphere, but at the same time, I can only at speculate as to how much has been lost in translation.

I will mention now that while romantic love is the focus of the book, sex and sex-related topics feature prominently. It is at this point that I turn to our hero Florentino Ariza. While some may see him as the ultimate romantic, to me, he is, more than anything, one seriously creepy dude. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’s the most polarising character of the book. Be ye warned for the spoilery discussion below (though you might want to know about these things if you intend to read the book as a romance) – highlight to read.

<major spoilers>
So, how is Florentino creepy? Well, he “falls in love” with the thirteen year old Fermina at the moment he first he lays eyes on her, transforming into what we nowadays would call a stalker. While we get a great sense of his passion and obsession, there is no real sense of why he “loves” her so fiercely; he just does, or thinks he does. When he is rejected, he swears to stay faithful to her: after all, her husband has to die at some point. Later, after Florentino is sort of raped on a boat, he becomes a sex maniac. He dedicates himself to seeking out women who’ll have sex with him and he documents his encounters in writing. His various affairs (622 apparently) comprise a large portion of his life and of the book. But of course, our hero must stay true to his One True Love, meaning he basically treats these women as (thankfully consensual) sex objects.

As overblown and ridiculous as Florentino’s feelings might seem at times, it’s easy to believe that he believes them. Despite his shifty behaviour, it’s also possible to root for him and wish for his happiness… for most of the book.  For this reader, our hero crosses the moral event horizon when he goes all Humbert Humbert on us near the end, which, as a friend deftly put it, is “totally not cool”. At this point, I found him so morally repugnant that I was all the more amazed at my ability to still kind of sympathise for him. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that he can write a character so vile and so human, whose actions can be seen as both romantic and sociopathic at the same time. I found the ending, with all its romantic airs, to be highly unsettling. The book’s brilliant like that. 

Love in the Time of Cholera is an exploration of love and lust; it demands its reader to think about love and what it is. You may conclude that this is a story of the deepest love, or alternatively, that none of the characters know love at all. It makes you wonder what you know of love. Additionally, the book touches on themes of time and mortality. The foibles of the human body and the vicissitudes of aging are thrown into the limelight, adding another dimension to our thoughts on love – how it lasts and how it changes. There are no easy answers. These notions are integrated organically within the story, and to read and think about them is thus never a chore (…and that is all I will say about the book’s ~themes, for I am neither doing homework nor writing a set of CliffsNotes).

Beautifully written and startlingly human, I highly recommend Love in the Time of Cholera. While it’s an immersive read, you should know that it’s not a necessarily a comfortable one. It’s primarily a meditation on love, but it also deals with sex, perversion and degenerating bodies, which might not be what everyone is after. For what it’s worth, I personally found it tender, sad and disturbing – and much too ominous to be romantic (seriously, look at Florentino, man). It’s not so much a love story as a story about love. The book can be wonderfully romantic, frighteningly sinister, or something else entirely, depending on your interpretation, and that’s what makes Love in the Time of Cholera such a masterpiece.

Alex’s Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Book Review: The Book Thief

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Year Published: 2005
Genre: Historical fiction, Young adult

Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a German girl who goes to live in the fictional town of Molching after being fostered to new parents. It’s a Holocaust bildungsroman that’s proven massively popular, so much so that it’s now also a movie, coming soon to a cinema near you.

The first thing you notice about the book is the writing style. Death serves as the narrator, and in addition to the story proper, we occasionally get Death’s commentary, which comes in the form of asides.

~* An Illustration of what I mean *~
This is what Death’s commentary looks like in the book.
Passages like this interrupt everything and they’re everywhere.
Just everywhere.
Is ‘commentary’ even the right word?

Extensive use of imagery pervades the novel and the prose itself can be rather stylised. For the most part, it’s very readable, but now and then you get the feeling that words and phrases were carefully chosen and polished for maximum poetic effect.

~* A Sample of Mr Zusak’s Writing, taken from Page Fourteen *~
“For hours, the sky remained a devastating, home-cooked red. The small German town had been flung apart one more time. Snowflakes of ash fell so lovelily you were tempted to stretch out your tongue to catch them, taste them. Only, they would have scorched your lips. They would have cooked your mouth.”

It’s a very quirky style and it demands to be noticed. Its popularity with readers is understandable: it’s unique, it’s lyrical and it has that lush quality about it. However, I personally was put off by the self-consciousness of it all; it just wasn’t to my taste.

~* Heck, here’s another, this time from Page Three Hundred and Eighty-two *~
“At times, in the basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her ears.”
There are more like this, but I can’t be bothered finding them.
You get the gist.

Most of the time, the style is relatively simple and neutral, but every so often some particularly ~poetic phrase comes along and takes you out of the story and into the mechanics of the writing. In these cases, the language and format feel particularly clumsy and childish, kind of like something a teenager would write (no offence to the Rimbauds out there). For these reasons, I also wasn’t entirely convinced by Zusak’s portrayal of Death as an entity. Having Death narrate your story is a brave choice, but I’m not sure it’s one the author pulled off.

~* Oh, and the German *~
Another minor problem I had was with the use of German words. They were sometimes translated into English and sometimes not. This just left me confused as to whether I was supposed to know the meanings of all the German words to properly read this book.

For a novel entitled The Book Thief, I expected more books and more thievery than what there actually is. Instead, the main concern of the book is Liesel’s day-to-day life, full of childhood adventure, schoolyard fights and nostalgia. We have the kind father, the shouty but loving mother, the boy who loves you and the enemy neighbour. They’re the ingredients for a slice-of-life sort of tale, and while there is nothing wrong with this – indeed, I liked it  – I believe that the title and blurb of The Book Thief give the impression that the story is a lot more epic than it actually is. So if you’re after an ‘exciting’ Holocaust novel, this probably isn’t the book for you.

On that note, one thing that irked me was the somewhat facile treatment of the historical context. Now, perhaps it’s because the first pieces of Holocaust fiction I read were The Reader and Maus, but I found this book to be almost insultingly simple. While this may all be very well for a middle grade or (young) young adult reader (a story where Germans are the good guys? woah!), I would have liked more complexity all around. The characters are all pretty much either good or evil and what little exploration of moral issues there is seems rather shallow. For example, consider ‘The World Shaker’ (which, bizarrely, is printed in tiny, hard-to-read font), a book that features within The Book Thief. Written and illustrated by the persecuted Max, it includes an illustration of a man in The Führer Shop (page 475) selling containers of “FEAR”, “HATRED” and “small moustaches ½ price”. Now, if this isn’t the stuff of Year 8 Art projects, then I don’t know what is. I know this is classed as a young adult novel, and perhaps I’m being unfair, but I expected, well, more. Like an emo teen’s poetry on the livejournal of yore, The Book Thief isn’t nearly as deep as it wants to be.

~* The Reader and Maus *~
are both excellent books, by the way

(or at least, they were when I read them some ten years ago, wow, crap I’m old.
They’re by Bernhard Schlink and Art Spiegelman respectively.
I’d recommend The Reader if you want a bit more of an exploration into the ‘German side’ of things and I’d recommend Maus (which is a comic) generally, but also as an introduction for those just starting to learn about the Holocaust).

In addition to the pretentious style and the simplification of the context, another thing that irritated me was the ending. Now, we all know that this tale won’t end with flowers and sunshine, but still, it was so sudden and abrupt to the point where it felt almost like laziness. It’s as if the author thought, hmm, crap, how do I end this? Oh, I know! And yet I found myself getting teary-eyed even in my annoyance.

I know this review reads like a litany of complaints, but I did enjoy this novel overall. It’s hard not to feel for – or at least like – Liesel and her family and the other ‘good’ characters. Her coming-of-age in a small town was, as odd as it sounds, a pleasure to read. It’s warm and bittersweet, with a healthy dose of charm. Her relationships, and especially that with her father, shine with a real humanity and sense of love. All in all, there’s such a bright-eyed earnestness about The Book Thief that I couldn’t help but be moved despite all my problems with it.

~* One Last Thing *~
Happy New Year!

Alex’s Rating: 3/5