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Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend

There were two main reasons why I picked up The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year. Firstly, the title is really eye-catching, and it implied an equally interesting premise. Secondly, I remember reading the first of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole series and enjoying it. So I thought that this would be a safe enough book to peruse.


When Eva Beaver's twins leave for university, she gets into bed after having to still pick up after her children and husband, even when they aren't there. Not intending to stay there for more than a few hours, she finds herself unable to bring herself to move out of her surprisingly comfortable bed. Now her husband, children and matriarchs on both sides of the family must figure out what to do with her, while Eva herself contents herself with thought and the unexpected sympathy of Alexander, the white van man.
The quotes on the front cover lie. Honestly, I think that this premise could have gone quite well. It's the old adage, "You don't know what you've got until it's gone." If this had been well-written, it could have been a touching lesson about valuing people for their contributions to the lives of those around them, and not by salary or intelligence. There could have been some comeuppance for the adulterous husband or the protagonist coming out of the experience with a new sense of what she wants in life and the drive to get it. What we instead get is the story of a woman who stays in bed for a year for no real reason other than she can, and in the process proving to be the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to keeping her dysfunctional family together. I don't see what is funny about that. I don't see what's funny about a middle-aged man who can't properly look after himself and doesn't have anywhere near enough emotional intelligence to maintain not one, but two affairs whilst still a little in love with his wife. I don't see what's funny about two autistic teenagers who have to deal with university life in general, a psychotic compulsive-liar for a room-mate, and the extremely public fallout of their mother's choice to hermit herself away. And I certainly don't see what's funny about a woman who is so determined to stay in bed that she pushes away the entire world, to the point where her doctors find no other option but to section her. Honestly, anyone who actually laughs because of this book must come from another planet, and I say that knowing that my sense of humour can be both utterly black at times and utterly bizarre at others. This is not a funny novel. End of story.
The other main thing that bothers me is that it just ends. I was hoping for an ending that would tie everything together and make the whole story make sense, but what I got instead was a year of Eva's life, no more and no less. What does it matter that the husband has given up completely and gone off to live with one of his mistresses, we never find out which. Why would we want to know what happened to the twins after they were apparently arrested? What possible reason would we have for wondering how they're going to stop that whole sectioning business from happening, because that shit doesn't just go away because hey you stopped doing the weird thing now. The ending is the mess that just tops off what was already a bit of a car crash anyway.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a complete embarrassment of a novel. Irritating characters with weak motivations do pretty much nothing but complain over the course of a year, and the ending adds to the pointlessness of the whole reading endeavour by wrapping up precisely nothing that had come up over the course of the narrative. It's a completely unfunny waste of time. Don't bother. 1/5

Next review: Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett time again. Having enjoyed the previous installment from the Discworld series a great deal, I had understandably high hopes for Sourcery. In addition, it would be revisiting Rincewind, a character that I hadn't seen for some time and who might hopefully get a bit more of an even characterisation this time around.


In the Discworld, the eighth son of an eighth son is destined to become a wizard. The eighth son of a wizard, a wizard squared if you will, is destined to be a sourcerer, a source of new magic in the Discworld. When a powerful wizard breaks his vow of celibacy and creates a sourcerer in the process, the child makes his way to Ankh-Morpork and the Unseen University to claim the mantel of arch-chancellor. And the only wizard to stand in his way is Rincewind, the hapless protagonist from Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.
I'm probably not going to make any friends saying this, but Sourcery is at best a mixed bag. It's a really weird thing, because I've been gleefully quoting parts of the story that amused me, and they were plentiful. But when I turned the final page and actually finished it, the overall impression that I got was kind of average. Thinking through it though, I can more or less pick out what did and didn't work so well.
So, what worked? First, the asides are absolutely brilliant. These will be, for the most part, points where Pratchett puts the narrative on hold in order to explain a little bit about how the Discworld works. They are always amusing, and a lot of the time really interesting from a world-building perspective. For example, there's a bit about how ideas and inspiration work, where an idea is already formed out in the ether and must make an almost impossible journey through space and time in order to appear in the right head at the right moment for the inspiration to make everything fall into place. When it works, great things are done and understood. When it doesn't, you get a very confused duck with grand ideas about clean electricity generation, if it doesn't miss entirely. Stuff like that is great, and I think that I would have enjoyed Sourcery a lot less if there hadn't been as many of these witty asides.
Second, there is the eternal delight that is the Luggage. It was by far my favourite part of the previous installments including Rincewind, and that has not changed in the slightest. It is still my favourite murderous walking bag of holding, and the little adventure/extinction-filled rampage that it has on its own is wonderful. More Luggage is always appreciated, especially when it's drunk. Likewise, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse were great, although not strictly needed narrative-wise.
Now, onto the not-so-great parts. Firstly, the plot has a tendency to meander a hell of a lot more than some of the previous Discworld books. I mean, in Mort, the perspective was either with Mort, Death or briefly Albert. By the end of Sourcery, we had sections with Rincewind, sections with the non-magical companions that he meets on the way, sections with the sourcerer Coin and the Unseen University, sections with the Luggage, and sections with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Trying to keep all of these in check and equally interesting is not something that Pratchett succeeded with, quite honestly. If the plot had stuck to two, maybe three groups at most, it might have tightened the ending up and made it feel less anti-climactic.
Secondly, the majority of the characters didn't really appeal to me. There's Rincewind, who I want to like more than I do. I mentioned in my review of The Colour of Magic that Rincewind probably wouldn't work as well without a character like Twoflower to bounce off of, and I think that Sourcery kind of proves my point. Rincewind is a character that needs a source of manic energy and recklessness to bounce off of, and when it isn't there it becomes a mystery what he's even doing in the narrative. Pratchett makes no bones about how much of a coward he is, so it just doesn't sit right with me that he continues to be involved in the plot after the initial reason for joining the quest is no longer an issue. As for the non-magical characters, I just wasn't impressed. Conina, the barbarian woman who just wants to be a hairdresser but can't resist getting into fights, should have been so much more interesting, but wasn't consistent enough characterisation-wise. Nijel, the skinny wannabe barbarian hero, was funny at first, but quickly became irritating. The less said about Creosote the better. The sourcerer, Coin, was probably the best character-wise apart from Luggage, as a ten-year-old with powers beyond anything anyone else can conceive and guided by a malevolent presence and will to use said powers. I wish there had been more of him, as opposed to the weak-willed wizards surrounding him, so he feels like something of a wasted opportunity.

I want to like Sourcery more than I do, but as a novel it's only average. The asides dealing with world-building and the sections with the Luggage and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse had me laughing out loud, but the overall plot and characters are too weak to stand up by themselves. It just needed a little tightening really. 3.5/5

Next review: The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year by Sue Townsend

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

As is my wont, I have left reading one of the most touted books of 2012 until now, long after any kind of hype has died down. I even put off seeing Gone Girl in the cinema because I don't like seeing the film adaptation before the original book. So after all that, was it worth the staunch praise, and can I say that suffering through Mr Turner was worth not having it spoiled? 


Gone Girl follows Nick Dunne, a former writer and current bar owner, on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary to Amy. He hasn't been looking forward to the day due to their marriage hitting a few bumps, but things look to get a lot worse when he goes home after work to find the door to his house wide open, signs of a struggle in the living room and Amy nowhere to be found. The police are soon involved and quickly find that maybe Nick and Amy's marriage isn't as rosy as he would like to present it as. 
This book is messed up in so many ways and I absolutely loved it. There isn't much I can really say plot-wise beyond the summary provided above for risk of spoilers, but I will say that it is really worth going into Gone Girl without any prior knowledge of the plot. The twists and turns are spoon-fed to the reader over the course of the narrative, so while there were several parts that I hadn't expected, it never felt like the revelation was unnatural or forced. 
The character development is similarly solid. Flynn has a real talent for balancing positive and negative qualities in characters, then bringing out certain elements in order to create a certain caricature depending on what the narrative needs. Only towards the end do you get a real grasp on what makes certain central characters tick. And it really explores just how far you can stretch a husband-wife dynamic before it stops being real. 

A very short review this time, but only because there's only so much that I can say without spoilers and you really need to read this with a fresh perspective. If you like thrillers in any way, then you need to read this if you haven't already. The plot and character building are pulled off masterfully. 5/5 

Next review: Sourcery by Terry Pratchett 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Friday, 26 August 2016

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

First of all, just an apology for taking so long to review this one. It has been a hectic three weeks, as I have just moved into my first home. As you can probably guess, this is a long process of settling in, and as of yet I haven't had as much time to sit down and read as I used to have.
As for Birdsong itself, I picked this up because I had previously read it in high school, but couldn't really remember it terribly well. I remembered snatches of it, and have found reviews to be generally positive, so I found myself wondering if I would enjoy it the second time around.


Birdsong follows Stephen Wraysford, a strange and intense young Englishman, in the years of the First World War and those immediately preceding it. The narrative starts with his passionate and scandalous affair with the wife of his host whilst visiting France on business. Following that are the years spent in the front line of the Western front and his growing apathy towards the war effort. Additionally, there are sections set in the late 1970s, with Stephen's granddaughter attempting to piece together his life whilst also trying to deal with her complicated affair with a married man.
Re-reading Birdsong, I realised why I could only remember parts of this book. It is somewhat uneven in tone and quality. The narrative can be roughly divided into three strands, all of which have their own separate issues. The first is the pre-war section, with the focus on Stephen's affair. This is by far the best part of the novel, with an engaging and intense affair between two very suppressed, unhappy people. The second strand is the 1915-1918 period, which I found to be mostly positive, but not as engaging as the pre-war strand. While the mood is appropriately grim and deeply uncomfortable, I found it made less impact than it possibly could have done, because while the slaughter of trench warfare is very well expressed, it's difficult to keep track of the cast of characters when almost none of the average soldiers get character development beyond being given a name. While the sheer amount of bloodshed and the awful living conditions are impressive and sobering to read about, it lessens the impact when it's happening to a cast of cardboard cutouts. The third strand is the 1970s section about Stephen's granddaughter Elizabeth, and honestly it's a complete waste of space. If there is a particular era of films that I remember disliking from my university studies, I found that they all seem to have been made in the 1970s. There's something about that decade that lends itself to ennui and a conscious level of detachment, and it's really quite grating to me. In terms of the plot itself, it's only really relevant in its penultimate chapter, where you get some closure in regards to what happened to Stephen after the war. As for the rest of it, it follows a woman who has by all standards a wholly uninteresting life. Sure, she's having an affair with a married man, but compared to her grandfather's affair it comes off as boring, because no-one seems to want to upset the status quo. Her quest to piece together Stephen's life could have made a good story by itself, but here we know far more about what she's researching than she does for pretty much the entirety of her plot. It was an exercise in wordcount padding.

A powerful novel let down somewhat by some poor characterisation and an entirely useless and irritating plot strand set in the 1970s. While still powerful, it does hit harder when you give people more character than just a name before sending them to be mowed down by machine-guns. The less said about the 70s sections the better really. 3.5/5

Next review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Mort by Terry Pratchett

I had been looking forward to Mort out of all the Discworld novels, because then I would finally meet Death properly. I haven't watched all of the Discworld screen adaptations, but I vividly remember my best friend putting the adaptation of Soul Music on and I was intrigued by what I saw of Death and his strange family. How much of that was down to the perfect casting of Christopher Lee I don't know, but from the moment I actually read some of Pratchett's work, I was most looking forward to reading about Death. It was what made the eye-searingly ugly front covers bearable at any rate. 


Mort follows a young man named Mort, oddly enough, who finds himself starting a very strange apprenticeship. After being sent to the job market by a father desperate to find him a trade to flourish in, Mort is chosen by Death to be his apprentice, to help usher the souls of the dead into the afterlife and possibly be company for his adopted human daughter, Ysabel. On his first night solo, however, Mort finds that he cannot bring himself to kill a young princess, leaving her alive in a world that is determined to believe that she is dead. 
I know that I'm only four books into the series at the moment, but Mort is definitely my favourite so far. As expected, the humour is brilliant, with a nice sprinkling of some appropriately black humour considering the subject matter, and the highlights are as always the little side notes that Pratchett throws out throughout the narrative. I got some odd looks on the bus, which is always a sign of quality for me anyway. 
The main character Mort was perhaps a little on the generic side for me, but there was an interesting transition from awkward teenager who is all knees and elbows to a would-be personification of Death (I'm not sure whether the anthropomorphic part of the title fits in his case) that felt both natural and appropriately eerie, which I wasn't expecting. I would have like to see more of Ysabel, because there's something incredibly endearing about a teenage girl who has maybe had one too many sweets trying so hard to emulate all the willowy tragic romantic heroines that she's read about in her father's library. My favourites by far though were Death and, much to my surprise, Albert. Death I was expecting to like, because there's something wonderful about the anthropomorphic personification of Death trying to understand what life is like. It's fantastic to see him experimenting with things that humans are supposed to like and being left more confused than ever because there seems to be no purpose to them. Albert though. I love Albert's moment in the spotlight when he returns to the world of the living, remembers what life and power feels like, and promptly falls back into the life of a crotchety, petty tyrant. It's brilliant and ridiculous and faintly rubbish even when he is causing chaos at the Unseen University. I am really looking forward to seeing those two again in later books. 
The plot is perhaps a little weaker, with the stakes feeling a bit underwhelming right until the end. I mean, it's one human life compared to quite a few that are snuffed out over the course of the narrative. But then I suppose teenage crushes don't necessarily take the pressures of fate into consideration, so it does sort of work. 

Mort is an absolute gem of a novel. I got to see a lot more glimpses of the Disc further afield than Pratchett has strayed before, which makes me excited for later books. I met Death, the character I had been most looking forward to seeing in action and my expectations were more than sufficiently met. And the plot, while perhaps a bit weak at points, is very engaging and even touching at times. I'd definitely recommend it. 4.5/5 

Next review: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Rose Madder by Stephen King

Rose Madder isn't a Stephen King novel that gets talked about much, especially when you consider how much attention some of his work does get. Honestly, until I found this again on my shelf, I had kind of forgotten that it even existed, let alone what the book was actually about. I think the only thing that I sort of remembered was reading that King himself was kind of disappointed with Rose Madder. So I guess I was curious to see how it would pan out.


Rose Madder follows Rosie, a woman who decides to leave her physically abusive husband Norman after a 14 year loveless marriage that has already caused her to miscarry once. Armed only with a few hundred dollars that she took from their joint account, she journeys to a new city, where she slowly starts to regain friendship, independence, self-respect and even a little romance. But her newfound happiness may be short-lived, because Norman isn't the type of man who can handle the thought that Rosie not only left him, but took his money in the same move. And even he may pale in comparison to the danger that Rosie lets in herself without even realising.
I can definitely see why King refers to Rose Madder as a "stiff, trying-too-hard" novel. I don't know if this is the best way to describe it, but I would say that there was a real sense that Rose Madder was deliberately constructed, at least in comparison to some of King's other novels. With King, I always got the sense that the bulk of his stories come out in one lump, with some tidying up done after the first draft. You know, making sure that characters act in ways that make sense or highlighting thematic links, that kind of thing. In comparison, Rose Madder felt more like the IKEA version of King: competently constructed, but hardly his best work.
Whilst I'm talking about how the novel doesn't work, I should probably mention the supernatural element. So it's a painting that Rosie finds, from which we get the novel's title, and it is somehow the most stiff and awkward part of the narrative, and yet the flimsiest as well. It is when the painting comes to the fore that you really start to notice how obvious the construction is, because it's this clumsy mish-mash of Greek mythology references that really don't mesh well with the modern (at the time of writing anyway) American feel of the novel as a whole. It's all the more noticeable when you're like me and read a LOT of Greek myths as a child, and you get the references. So yeah, while the Ancient Greek angle could have worked quite well, it needed to pick a particular myth and expand on it instead of cherry-picking. As it is, we have a weird mix of Theseus and the Minotaur, the River of Lethe, Persephone in the Underworld, and a blending of the Furies with the Cretan Bull, all of which have very different tones and themes. So that's the stiff part, now for the flimsy. While King's books rarely explain the supernatural elements in great detail, it's usually understandable from a thematic point of view. He had devil surrogates in The Stand and Needful Things representing ways that people can stray from the path if they don't pay attention, and the eldritch monsters from Hearts in Atlantis were a nice metaphor for the loss and fear experienced if we grow up too quickly. Here, there is no theme that the whole painting marries with. Sure, the image of the bull works nicely as a metaphor for her brutish husband, but the rest of the painting could do with a bit more explaining. Maybe the woman in the painting is her, maybe it isn't. It's never really explained and it just makes the climax confusing and conflicting with Rosie's story as an abused woman. Because while I can accept Rosie regaining confidence and beating her husband through wiles, I find the whole "suppressed rage" thing that comes up towards the end to be unsatisfying. It doesn't fit the character arc if she sinks to her husband's level.
One thing that I will concede works well is Norman's sections. I have found some reviewers who consider him to be a bit of a one-note villain and I can see why (the corrupt cop who is happy to dish out police brutality is also a domestic abuser, really?), but the sections that followed him in his search for his errant wife were by far the most vivid and creepy of the novel. There is a line of reasoning in his inner monologue that is utterly awful, but makes him feel so much more immediate as a villain. Honestly, I think that Rose Madder could have been so much stronger if it had done away with the supernatural stuff and just focused on the cat and mouse game between runaway wife and abusive husband. It might not necessarily be the most original novel without the supernatural element, but a more solid and even-toned read perhaps.

Rose Madder is the first of Stephen King's books that I find myself not recommending. It's disappointing, because there is a very solid basis for a great book in Norman's increasingly deranged hunt for his wife, but there are just so many things that don't work that I can't really say that it's a necessity to read. A large part of that is a supernatural element in the eponymous painting, because the mish-mash of Greek mythology references and uncertain origins do not marry well and just leads to a tonally confused ending. I suppose entertaining enough if you're looking to complete reading King's works, but by no means one of his best. 3/5

Next review: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

I picked up Empress Orchid for one kind of shallow reason. I know practically nothing about pre-Communism China, and this seemed like an interesting way to dip into some history that I have been intrigued by for some time without getting bogged down in text-books of varying dryness.


Born into an impoverished family of aristocratic blood, Orchid decides to compete to be one of the Emperor's wives when the alternatives are to marry her cousin or become homeless. Winning a place as one of Emperor Hsien Feng's concubines only proves to be the beginning of her troubles though, as it soon becomes apparent that being one of his wives is to be part of a treacherous race to be the first to bear the Emperor a son. And those who are favourites today can easily be forgotten tomorrow.
I vaguely remember hearing about the woman who this novel is about, Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi. What I do remember was basically that she essentially ruled China via her son during the final years of the Qing dynasty, and that she was something of a person to be reckoned with. I remember my teacher telling us about her with more than a little admiration. So it was nice to learn about her life in more detail, if perhaps a bit embellished. I'm happy to say that Anchee Min's depiction of her is utterly absorbing, and I am more than a little interested to read other books that she's written. Certainly, if you're after a book that has both tragedy and courtly intrigue up to the hilt, then Empress Orchid is definitely one to consider. The ways that the concubines in particular fight amongst one another is probably my favourite aspect of the novel, because it can be utterly devastating in its effect whilst still being so much subtler and unassuming in appearance.
Orchid herself is also very well written. I can't tell for sure how accurate her depiction is compared to what we know about her from historical records, but I certainly found her to be an engaging protagonist. Developing an iron will in order to flourish in an environment that she is incredibly unhappy in, she is fascinating if not always entirely likeable. Likewise, the people that she interacts with, like her fellow Empress Nuharoo and her personal eunuch servant An-te-hai, are a varying mix of fascinating and repulsing. Nuharoo in particular is brilliantly written, if only to see how easily she hides her spoiled and jealous nature.
The one thing that bothers me is the ending. It doesn't so much finish as screech to a halt once the word count is filled. I know that this is the first in a duology, but I still feel that the ending of Empress Orchid could have been handled with at least a little more grace than it is.

Empress Orchid is fantastically written with some really nasty court rivalries and some impressively evoked characters. The fact that it's based on real events only makes this more interesting, and I wouldn't mind learning more about the era depicted. My only issue is that the ending is too abrupt, a move that is surprisingly clumsy compared to the elegance of the rest of the novel. 4/5

Next review: Rose Madder by Stephen King

Signing off,
Nisa.