30 January 2009

The Outlander (Gil Adamson)

Below is a review I wrote for The Outlander awhile ago. You could read it and be inspired to grab Adamson's novel, but you probably just need this: Yeah, the heroine's hard to like, the descriptive prose is a bit overdone and Anthony Hopkins would fit into a number of roles when and if this is made into a film; but this book is special and quite possibly brilliant, so get over the other things.
If you need more convincing, the tosh is below.

"Reading The Outlander was like reading the spawn of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier, the perfect blending of a harsh, North American landscape and a cast of flawed, strange and seemingly miraculous characters.
It is 1903 and Mary Boulton is on the run through Alberta, Canada. She is fleeing her brothers-in-law, red-headed twins intent on exacting revenge for the murder of their younger brother. The twins are rarely referred to by name and Mary is more often than not just 'the widow', creating a mysterious aura that surrounds these three characters and permeates throughout the novel. On her journey Mary meets many whose kidness overwhelms and frightens her, but it is William Moreland who reawakens any humanity the widow may have left in her after the death of her family and the harsh existence she has carved out for herself since.
The momentum which Adamson creates to propel us through Mary's story is constant. The reader must make a concerted effort to slow down and savour the breathtaking and unique voice in which Adamson writes. Mary is an eccentric heroine, a pipe-smoking, halllucinating young woman who, although victimised by her demonised brothers-in-law, may ultimately be outside the boundaries of atonement for what she has done.
Exploring themes of isolation and redemption amongst a stark landscape that Adamson describes with refreshingly new eyes, The Outlander is a hard and unforgiving thriller wrought with the delicate and complicated prose of a master storyteller. This is a book that other books have failed to be in the past and authors will strive to emulate in the future."
Rating: 9/10

29 January 2009

Five Quarters of the Orange (Joanne Harris)

Hmmm... I really don't know where to go with this review. In one corner we have evocative writing, memorable characters and a relatively solid plotline. In the other corner we have an elusive pike (yes, the fish), a hatred of clocks never explained or justified, migraine-inducing oranges, a heroine with the face of a toad (by her own admission) and a mother who makes the SS seem the lesser of two evils.

Not that these make the novel bad per se, but it's all a bit much. I put the book down and breathed a sigh of relief that I had finished and could move on. Except I can't move on because that pike keeps popping up in my mind and unsettling me.
Sure, I like being creeped out.
But a freaking huge, ancient, evil, intelligent pike that can grant wishes and curse people?
Yadiyadiyada... we still have Harris' trademark magical realism, the interweaving of recipes with the story, that description of children as 'dark and sly' that she seems to favour (I believe blondes have been known to have the occasional immoral moment); but... no. Tolerable, but NO.

N.B. Earhart loves everything Harris has ever written and vehemently disagrees with this review.
Pick a side.

Rating: 6/10.

28 January 2009

Newbery not Newbury

For those not in the know: Neil Gaiman = Love.
And the good people who are in charge of awarding the Newbery Medal obviously agree seeing as The Graveyard Book was just announced as the 2009 winner. Can I get a hells yeah? This news made me breathe a sign of relief...perhaps not all is lost in the world of children's book awards. To elaborate...

For the past couple of years there has been a worrying trend in the winners of children's book awards such as the Newbery Medal, and the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Awards. The books being named as winners are often not books which are suitable (or enjoyable!) for children to read. Take last year's winner of the CBCA Picture Book of the Year award: Requiem for a Beast by Matt Ottley. While this book is indeed stunning to look at, and visually powerful, it was described by the CBCA judges themselves as 'neither a comfortable nor a happy read'. Now I am the last person who would ever say that picture books are just for children, there are numerous picture books, Ottley's included, which you have to be an older reader to understand. However, I feel that an award put out by the CBCA should honour books which are in fact suitable for children. Similarly, last year's winner of the Newbery Medal, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schiltz, has been described as 'a book most children would find inaccessible'.
Basically, who cares if kids are scared/confused/bewildered... the important thing is the book 'has a message'.

So...The Graveyard Book...
When he was just a baby, Nobody 'Bod' Owens managed to escape from the (sociopathic) killer who murdered the rest of his family. He wanders into the nearby graveyard where the local ghosts decide to take him in. He is raised halfway between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and educated by a nomadic vampire. This is Gaiman's answer to Kipling's The Jungle Book. Instead of Baloo the Bear, we have Silas the Undead. Told in a similar episodic manner to The Jungle Book, we get to see Bod slowly grow up, and come to the realisation that perhaps he isn't the most normal of children.

You have only to read Gaiman's profanity laden reaction to the news that he won the Newbery to realise that perhaps he isn't what most people would think of when they picture a children's book author, but his books are always right on target.

So go out and read it now, I promise you won't regret it.


Costa Book Awards 2009

Let's just do a quick review of what the Costa Book Awards are, shall we? Named by wikipedia as one of the U.K.'s most prestigious literary prizes, they were originally called the Whitbread Book Awards. Most people may not know that Costa is actually a subsidiary of Whitbread, so essentially sponsorship has stayed within the company. So basically, they were sponsored by a hospitality giant and now are sponsored by a coffee chain. They often award the prize for best novel on populist terms, weighing the quality of the literature against the appeal it has to the masses. I like to think of them as the book award that caters (hah) to the lowest common denominator.
That being said, we shouldn't begin to judge the winner until we have actually opened the covers and had a bit of a read.

Just like we shouldn't assume greatness with the Man Booker or Pulitzer awards. I mean, what happened in 2006? The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai beat out several promising contenders, none more so than The Secret River by Kate Grenville. The latter had all the fixings of a modern-day masterpiece and Grenville's predigree to back it up. Instead, the award went to Desai, who wrote a well-written, nicely thought-out story.
No X-factor = no award in my mind, but I'm not on the judging panel.

Don't even get me started on the PUH-LEASEitzer. I'm not suggesting Geraldine Brooks isn't a wonderful author. However I've only ever seen this wonderful authorship in one novel: The Year of Wonders. It's always a bad sign I feel when everyone considers your first novel your best. Better to stop right there and be a one-hit wonder than slowly peter towards the pedestrian. March, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer (maybe it was something about that year) was nothing more than glorified fan fiction. And People of the Book was interesting in the historical sections, but ruined by the interspersing of the most annoying 'modern' woman Brooks could conjure to tie the story together.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry has just been announced the winner of this year's Costa Book Awards. It was actually nominated for the Man Booker last year, which is why I realised it sounded so familiar, yet was also sure I hadn't read it. I'm not sure the actual award is a consolation prize for missing out on the Booker, (COFFEE award people, it's a COFFEE AWARD), but I'm sure the 25 000 pounds will help.

27 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Hmm...well after that not so subtle hint to hurry up and review...

I don't really think I can say that recent film of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 'butchered' the original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, seeing as the title is about all the story and the movie have in common. In the story, Benjamin Button is born like a baby-sized 70 year old man, a few hours after birth he is able to speak, and prefers hanging out with his grandfather to spending time with children his own age. Even this basic premise is changed in the film - Benjamin is an (almost) ordinary baby born in an aged body, but his mental age is still that of a newborn. You can see immediately why this was changed in the film - the story of the friendship/romance between Benjamin and Daisy would have been kind of creepy had it been between a young girl and an actual old man. Instead he is the same age as her mentally, and its just a matter of their bodies meeting in the middle, so to speak.
Which, quite frankly, is weird enough.
Added to this major, MAJOR change, book Benjamin's life bears no resemblance to film Benjamin's life; for starters they are living about 50 years apart. Book Ben lives with his proud father, film Ben is abandoned and brought up in an old peoples home...you get the idea.
And the thing is, I didn't think that the changes necessarily made for a good film. I was a bit shocked when the film got its million Oscar nominations or whatever, I mean a few would be understandable but I'll be honest, I thought the film was way, way, way too long, unnecessarily complicated, and boring. There I said it. The telling of the story through old Daisy was unnecessary and whenever we went to the hospital in present time I was all 'Lets get back to the real story okay?' All in all, the film had none of the cool edginess, the slight darkness that F. Scott is so good at bringing. Because its not really a film of the story. Not at all.

26 January 2009

The Butchering of Twilight

I realise I have to approach this topic carefully. Too much praise for the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer and I'll never be able to snatch my dignity back.
It is hard though, when you come across a book so utterly HILARIOUS, yet at the same time finding yourself unable to change a thing about the series. If I wanted dialogue that didn't make me retch involuntarily, if I wanted descriptive text that wasn't so freaking predictable, the books wouldn't be the same.
Anne Rice didn't do this to people. Sure, L'estat was cool, sexy, dangerous (given that writing about a harmless vampire would be as fascinating as the inns and outs of the tomato skin debate in Bengali cuisine, this is assumed); yet he doesn't have a hope against Edward Cullen. I must admit though, superb foresight of Tom Cruise to play this role. Who knew he would actually turn into the character everyone revolves around whilst making sure no direct contact is made?
You know, in case it's catching.

In short, we've got a vampire in love with a mortal girl; a Quileute reservation that is on the point of exploding into a werewolf pack; the most beautiful people in the world all living in the same house and having vampiric relations all night long; a wildcard coven who decide to hunt our heroine; obsession bordering on the creepy; and, just for the guys, fast cars.
This should have been cinematic gold people.
Instead we got... uneven and staccato camera close-ups of Edward's golden eyes (yeah, we got it, his eyes changed colour, you didn't have to show us three times); unflattering angles where we seriously question how attractive Pattinson actually is (he is obscenely attractive, that's how bad these were); a voiceover from Stewart that doesn't make up for the gigantic plot leaps; and the careless disregard the director/screenwriter apparently had for making the rest of the Cullens in any way credible. I mean, why did Jasper look stoned the entire time? Was that entirely necessary?
Also, why, WHY in all the photocalls for this did Pattinson's hair look so utterly ridiculous? He said he was contractually obliged to keep it long, but it's not long in the film! Sheer lunacy!
I must admit, the Italian food preparation scene was amusing... but this is another peeve of mine. Why bother to add in extra scenes when you don't even do the existing scenes justice?
It is no great surprise to me that the director has been shafted for New Moon, although apparently it's a timing clash.
Maybe they all needed a warm-up and New Moon will be spectacular.

In other news, it's a great time for movies of novels at the moment. Revolutionary Road, written by Richard Yates, is a seriously excellent kitchen-sink drama and a fitting film for Kate and Leo to reunite on. The Reader (seriously, Winslet's outdone herself this season) by Bernhard Schlink should be superb. On a sidenote, I'm so glad Schlink has got himself back together, Self's Punishment and Self's Deception were so ordinary, but he's back on form with Homecoming. I'll let Earhart do the comparison of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with David Fincher's film as I haven't seen it yet.
Was it butchered?
Probably, but we'll have to wait and see.
Film Rating: 2/10
Novel Rating: 10/10 (Oh for... don't spit the dummy, check out the ratings table.)

25 January 2009

Plain Truth (Jodi Picoult)

Ahem, ahem, excuse me...
Thank you.
In my defence, I have a fixation with the Amish.
Ja, you heard me.
I think they're fascinating and the way of life has always appealed to me (the dresses more than the hard work/selflessness thing I suspect). That is the ONLY REASON I picked up this book. Most novels about the Amish are written by Mills and Boon type authors and it's all 'young Amish widow saved by emergency room doctor' or 'young prostitute saved by Amish widower who wants a mother for his eight small children'. The murder trial premise in Plain Truth elevated my expectations slightly. Also, Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley made a rather addictive movie ages ago called For Richer or Poorer, and, quite frankly, they're both super cute in it: high powered city-types trying to live Plain. I thought this might be like that.
However, I find myself quite, quite disappointed. Did I learn how to sew a quilt properly? Did I learn when to hull corn, or whatever it is you do with corn? Did I find my life philosophies challenged on a deep and fundamental level?
I did learn that unpasteurised milk can lead to asphyxiation in a neonate (I believe this is a newborn, although it sounds more like a fluorescent alien). I also realised that I have still to read a description of a high-powered female lawyer who doesn't wear a power suit and have a boy's haircut and isn't seriously misunderstood and doesn't secretly want to have a child.
The best character in the novel is Adam Sinclair who has a PhD in hunting ghosts. He doesn't really get enough page time for his potential to be fully realised, which is a pity as he was by far the most palatable (and believable) character.
I can't even be bothered to tell you more of the story; suffice to say, if I want a proper Amish fix I'm going to dig out Tim and Kirstie again. And if that doesn't work, I might just have to move to Pennsylvania.
Rating: 3/10

January Classic: Jane Eyre

So I've always felt vaguely guilty about never having read any of the Brontes. I never had to do them at school, and then it just never happened. A friend recently lent me The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, and I thought she was going to slap me when I revealed that I'd not actually read Jane Eyre itself. Hurried promises were made (and kept!) to read it IMMEDIATELY which I did, and I have to say I am in love. I am head over heels, and not just with the snarky, sexy Mr Rochester, but with the whole book.
Just in case you're like me and managed to make it through your life thus far without ever picking up Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece: the book tells the story of Jane Eyre (no, really?) through her childhood in the care of a cold and unfeeling aunt and her time at the harsh Lowood school, before she is employed as governess at Thornfield Manor, home of the mysterious and brooding Mr Rochester. Seriously, Darcy's got nothing on him. Jane and Rochester fall in love, but since this happens halfway through a pretty thick book, you can assume that you don't get the happy ending right away. The scandal! The drama! The intrigue! The insane sexual tension! Fantastic!

I am astounded at how involved I was in reading Jane Eyre - I am told my face was hilarious to watch when certain dramatic revelations took place. I cared so much about the characters and so much about what happened to them. This was a huge (and refreshing) change from many of the contemporary authors I read, where I am interested in what happens to characters, but in a detached kind of way. Charlotte Bronte makes you feel what Jane feels, when she is heartbroken, you are heartbroken, and when she is happy, you are ridiculously excited. If you've not read Jane Eyre I can only judge, if following this you do not go and pick it up immediately. 9/10

24 January 2009

January's Book You May Have Missed: When Nietzsche Wept

Gah, just the thought of writing about this book makes me want to rush and read it again, not many novels make me almost sob with gratitude that the author has created such an intelligent, visceral read that I can fully and honestly comprehend and appreciate. I hate those books that you KNOW are brilliant, but wading through waist-high mud is by far the easier option... *cough* Carpentaria (Alexis Wright) *cough*. When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession by Irvin D. Yalom was originally published in 1992 and tells the story of Austrian psychologist Josef Breuer and his encounter and subsequent treatment of a mentally incapacitated Friedrich Nietzsche. Sigmund Freud makes a cameo as a young psychoanalyst as does the author Lou Salome. All historical figures I had heard of and studiously avoided their literary tomes whenever they popped up on an English reading list for uni; but brought together in the wake of Nietzsche's (probable but for the sake of semantics, fictional) breakdown they create a tense and emotional iceberg of a story that I couldn't put down. In fact, for a few days afterwards I quite considered myself the amateur psychologist and contemplated a change of career. If you have no interest in psychology, history or intellectual relationships (and are, in fact, completely oblivious to the mental hinderance that your narrow-sightedness has caused) this book probably isn't for you. But considering it came out more than a decade ago, chances are many who would have enjoyed it missed it first time around and should look it up.
Rating: 7/10

The Book of Unholy Mischief (Elle Newmark)

Set in Venice, at the dawn of the
Renaissance, this book seemed
promising. Luciano is a boy from the streets, lucky enough to be taken in as apprentice to the chef in the Doge's palace. Working in the kitchens of the palace, Luciano is witness to the wheeling and dealing which goes on between the council, the doge and various members of the Venetian aristocracy. The most significant topic of conversation at ducal dinner parties is the existence of a book, brought to Venice from the Byzantine empire, which contains the key to power in Venice. The doge wants it because he believes it will grant him eternal life, the council members want it because they think it will get them gold, even the pope gets in on the action. Mixed in with all the courtly intrigue are numerous descriptions of the food which Chef Ferrero prepares, and uses to influence the doge and his dining companions.
I went into this book with ridiculously high expectations. For starters: I love Venice, I love the Renaissance, I love food - perfect! Add to that the fact that it has received amazing review after amazing review, including one in Bookchat which was supposedly written by me... It received the Rep's Choice Award 2009, and just about everyone I've spoken to has raved about it. That said, I was seriously underwhelmed. I was told this was the kind of book you read in one sitting, because you just can't put it down. It took me a couple of weeks to get through it because every time I put it down, my interest in it vanished. It was enjoyable while I was actually reading it, but there was nothing about the story that really hooked me in. The writing was good, the descriptions of food in particular - was constantly hungry while I was reading it, and the initial premise was good, it just didn't quite work in the end. Although I will admit, that maybe I stand alone with that judgment. 5/10

23 January 2009

The Evil Seed (Joanne Harris)

Harris' debut novel has only recently been pulled back from the brink of publishing extinction, no small thanks me thinks to Stephenie Meyer's phenomenal success with her Twilight series and the resulting thirst ('scuse the pun) for any and every vampire book out there. Definitely far more disturbing than Meyer's blood-sucker stories, Harris writes with a lackadaisical style, seemingly unconcerned that she may have to wrap the story up anytime soon. This in no way means the book drags, but the author is clearly in no rush to put the reader (me) out of her creeped-out anxiety. The magical realism Harris displays in books like Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes doesn't arise; with the supernatural almost snapping out of the book, no subtle weaving of symbolism is really necessary. However, I do feel that Harris has gained a maturity and more distinctive style since The Evil Seed was published, this novel feels like the raw and unpolished sibling of her later works. We are introduced to Alice, who immediately suspects that something is not quite right with her ex-boyfriend's new paramour, Ginny. Drawn into the underworld of Cambridge in the eighties, Alice comes across the diaries of a man who was driven to madness by an evil girl... a girl who bears a remarkable resemblance to Ginny. Seriously, quite chilling, I am in a big loft bedroom and reading this was highly unpleasant, I could see Ginny moving in all the shadows under the eaves.
Rating: 6/10.
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