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Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

Confession time: I asked for this book for Christmas thinking I was asking for something different but equally snow and crime themed. However I was not disappointed with my accidental choice.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a 1950s whodunnit set on a small American Island, San Piedro, off the coast of Chicago. At the centre of the mystery is Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American man accused of murdering Carl Heine on a September night while they were both off-shore on separate fishing expeditions. The evidence seems pretty damning but with Kabuo maintaining his innocence the islanders are settling in for a lengthy trial.

This is a story which spans decades telling the stories of the islanders not only during the trial but also the story of the war that shaped their community and changed everyone’s lives forever.

I’ve read stories of life on the front line before but something this book included that I only had the vaguest idea about was the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbour public opinion began to turn against the Japanese community on San Piedro and just weeks later they were rounded up and shipped off to camps where they were to spend the rest of the war. This was the case for up to 120,000 people of Japanese descent who were residents of the USA between 1942 and 1946 because their loyalty was seen as divided – after all, ‘A Jap’s a Jap’ so said Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Command and the man in charge of the internment. As I say I was vaguely aware that this had occurred but it was kind of hard to believe and seeing it happen to characters I felt I knew brought it home that this was a real thing that happened to 1000s of people. That fact still blows my mind but a part of me is surely better off for knowing it.

But I digress. Guterson’s writing is a little long-winded at times and the plot chopped and changed seemingly at random but on the whole I liked his characters and I did enjoy the fact that he keeps you guessing until the very last minute.

But above all this book left me with a hankering for snow and strawberries. Probably not a combination I’m going to see anytime soon.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

Big BrotherI was all prepared to pan this book, I was mentally accumulating scathing reviews of the horrible, one-dimensional characters, the boring diatribes about the superfluous nature of food and the frankly lacklustre plot. In fact I held forth on this subject just last night when my housemate asked me what I was currently reading.

But then I reached page 390 and everything changed (which is very nearly an incredibly clever thing given the momentous significance of the figure 380 to the book’s central premise). For a brief moment everything I had thought about this volume was turned on its head and I had a series of revelations and emotions which I had not expected. And then, sadly, it ended just a shade too far back into preachy and leaving me curiously unable to decide on a final thought.

In brief the story centres around a group of people with improbable names – Edison Appaloosa, Pandora Halfdanarson, Fletcher Feuerbach – in a small Iowa town where everyone’s friends with the guy serving at the coffee shop (maybe Iowa’s really like that, I have no idea).

A depressed Edison flies in from New York to visit his sister Pandora and, realising that he’s put on a few more pounds than is healthy, she vows to get him back to the slim, happy chap she’s always looked up to. To be honest with you, as plots go I find this one a little…thin, if you’ll excuse the pun. Add to that Edison’s relentless monologues on jazz which drive his family (and readers) crazy and Pandora’s interminable quest to decide if there’s any point or enjoyment to food and it left me really cold. Not to mention Pandora’s moping over her, frankly vile, husband Fletcher.

I picked this book up because I remember reading an interview with Lionel Shriver where she complained that everyone always wants to talk about Kevin (see what I did there?) and never about her other works. ‘Fair enough’, I thought, ‘I really enjoyed Kevin so I should give something else a go.’ I don’t want to say that I regret that decision because that wouldn’t be entirely true – Big Brother DID make me think, not about food or obesity and definitely not about jazz but about….family maybe and the lies we tell ourselves to get by. That twist may have come a little too late to save my opinion of the book but I have to admire Shriver’s gift for taking you by surprise and switching things up.

Interestingly, while writing this review I checked out Shriver’s Wikipedia page and discovered that this book is essentially about her own brother who was morbidly obese and died a few years before Big Brother was published. That little titbit gives the whole think a new edge and makes it just a little bit more moving.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Sadly I don’t think Margaret Atwood and I are meant to be. I was really excited about The Handmaid’s Tale but then it didn’t really do it for me and now Alias Grace hasn’t really been a winner either. It’s a shame because she writes tales that should be perfect for me and so many people I know (and whose literary opinions I respect) have such wonderful things to say about her but it just doesn’t seem to be working out for us. Anyway, let’s turn to Alias Grace

I too this picture in May but I only finished reading a couple of weeks ago.

I too this picture in May but I only finished reading a couple of weeks ago.

It took me FOREVER to read this book (7 months to be precise). Partly because it was far too heavy to carry around with me and partly because I just didn’t get it most of the time I was reading.

A friend from work who had previously lent me two books that I really enjoyed loaned me her copy of Grace with the accolade that “it’s the only book she’s ever read twice”. So I was devastated to realise I didn’t like it when I started reading. I think a large part of my early dislike was due to the format of the writing. The first chapters are presented as letters between characters we don’t yet know and newspaper reports about events which happened prior to the book’s beginning. I find that this kind of format is tricky to get right and quite often I’m turned off by this style of writing which is what happened here.

Happily a large part of the book is actually written as prose from the point of view of Grace, a young woman who finds herself (wrongly?) imprisoned for the murder of her employer, or one of the doctors who is trying to establish her guilt or innocence. This is where the book took off for me – especially in its poignant accounts of Grace’s past sufferings and by the end I was actually gripped. I’m not going to give it away because I guess it’s at the back for a reason but when I turned the final page and read the author’s note the book took on a whole new level and for once I really wish that I’d seen that first.

I find it hard to say whether or not I’d recommend this book but on balance I’m glad I read it, take from that what you will!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

I went home a couple of weeks ago and to my horror I realised that I hadn’t packed a book for a three hour train trip! So I dived into Waterstones and picked up this book mostly due to the intriguingly sombre little girl on the front cover.

I had been aware of Miss Peregrine’s before but what made me pick it up this time was that I read a sentence describing it as being packed with “found photographs”. That idea really appealed to me because I love the opportunity to get an insight into other lives that is afforded by these discarded photographs. I find pictures of my own family fascinating but the photos of others even more so.

And it was these photos and their use, scattered throughout the text, that saved this book. I found that the story itself was a little lacklustre and predictable but I loved the way it twined around the photos of the peculiar children that really made it interesting and kept me reading.

The story is centered around sixteen year old Jacob who leaves America for a remote Welsh location where he hopes to finally make sense of the tall tales his Grandpa told him and the incredible pictures which Jacob always believed to be fakes. On his arrival Jacob finds himself drawn to the mysterious Emma and her friends as the mystery of his Grandfather’s life begins to unravel.

As I say the story itself didn’t wow me but I did love Riggs’ method of storytelling and his ingenious use of genuine vintage photography and the interview with the author at the back of my copy increased that feeling. So although I didn’t immensely enjoy this book I can recommend it to anyone else with an interest in vintage photography  or anyone who’s ever looked at an old picture and wondered who and why and where that photograph was taken.

North & South, Elizabeth Gaskell

I’m a northerner living in the south so a book about a southerner going to live in the north should be right up my street really shouldn’t it?

Admittedly there were a couple of hundred years between this book being written and my own journey to the other end of the country. And it’s true that Margaret moved from rural Hampshire to the heart of the Industrial North whereas I moved from one city to another but still I was intrigued by this book’s potential fish-out-of-water storyline and its links to my own part of the world.

Then I started it and realised I’d picked up yet another 19th century romance and I was less impressed (this one’s not even on The List).

Then I read a bit more and got really into it.

As I’ve already alluded to, North & South follows the journey of our heroine, Margaret Hale, as she is forced by family circumstances to move, first from London to the New Forest and from there to Milton (Mill-Town, geddit?) in Darkshire (which is probably Manchester where Gaskell lived).

As a protagonist Margaret is much more interesting than the majority of Victorian leading ladies. Removed from her comfort zone on several occasions she thrives on adversity and is able to develop from a “proper young lady” into a compassionate, political and independent woman. And not once do we have to endure her mooning over some man with a view to validating her own existence by becoming his wife. Go Margaret!

Billed as a love story in the blurb N&S is actually much more of a social commentary and it was one I really understood and could appreciate. Perhaps it’s because, coming from what was once a mill town, I know a reasonable amount about the sort of life Gaskell’s characters led and so I could properly picture the conditions and the difficulties they were up against. Or perhaps it’s because Gaskell didn’t really aim for subtle, through her more outspoken characters she tells us exactly what she thinks of the working conditions and the response to strikes and so on and so forth.

Outside of the mills there are many other strands to this story and while it is true that one of them has a romantic theme, it is far from the main focus of the story and it almost feels as if Gaskell has thrown it into the mix purely because she felt as if she had to. As such the resolution of that particular strand disappointed me slightly although at the same time I appreciate that because of the era we are talking about a woman did have to have a man and of the options presented I feel it went the right way.

So there’s not much left for me to say really other than to reiterate how much N&S surprised and pleased me and how nice it was to read a book set in a time period and place that I feel I know relatively well. It has left me feeling that I should read Hard Times though which I believe will give me an alternative view of that setting. Watch this space…

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Here be spoilers.

No, seriously, I’m going to talk about my thoughts and feelings on the entire Hunger Games series and the ending of Mockingjay in particular so if you’re one of those people who’s waiting for the next two films to find out what happens then I have two pieces of advice:

1. Don’t. Go and read the books, they’re guaranteed to be so much better and you’ll get a much richer experience.

2. Stop reading this post. Now.

And so to business. I’ve just finished re-reading the trilogy for the third time and I actually read Mockingjay twice just to confirm my thoughts. I’ve mentioned before how much I like this series but it seems that the more I read it, the better it gets. I read it in June 2013 and mentioned in this post that I found it even better than the first time and I found the same this year. So I wanted to devote some blog-space to discussing why.

It seems to be a pretty common opinion that the first book is the best and that the series declines from there onwards and I generally agree. It feels to me almost like book number 1 was written as a stand-alone novel with two unplanned sequels tagged on the end which is something I think spoiled my enjoyment the first time round. In fact even having read them and enjoyed them I think I’d still be pretty happy if books 2 and 3 had never existed. The bittersweet ending of The Hunger Games has a quality of 1984 to it, a reminder that things don’t always end happily ever after.

The first time I read the series I definitely felt that the sequels were a bit flat and almost cobbled together in comparison and I found the grand finale to be unspeakably disappointing. I felt like the whole series had been building up to a dramatic climax and in the end Collins just had Katniss get knocked out and wake up once it was all over. I hate, hate, hate that kind of cop-out ending which seems to suggest the author ran out of ideas and doesn’t know what to do with the suspense they’ve built up over the length of the novel.

I think this kind of view is natural when you’re reading it for the first time – you’ve spent three books getting to know Katniss and to root for her and view her as the saviour of Panem so when she fails to deliver there’s a natural disappointment.

But reading it this time (and maybe because I knew what was coming) I felt differently. Because realistically, how could we expect Katniss to be the hero we expect her to be? Apart from the fact that she’s only 17, a fact that is easy to forget given the maturity and world-weariness of her narrative, by the end of book 3 she’s completely broken. Entirely understandable given all that she’s been through but hardly hero material.

She blunders through the Capitol with only the bare bones of a plan and a single aim – to kill President Snow but if she had, by some miracle, succeeded would that act really have ended the war? I’m not convinced that it would. Snow must have had some kind of deputy who would have stepped into his place, used her actions to prove that the Mockingjay was deranged and potentially destroyed the rebels campaign completely. And who among us would have accepted that Katniss was able to reach and murder the president in his fortress when she had such a tenuous grip on reality never mind her own location?

So on reflection, given the very real picture of Katniss’ “mental disorientation” Collins had painted I think that the ending on Mockingjay was spot-on, I’m still not completely convinced about Coin, I’m not quite sure that her death was necessary but I preferred Paylor so I’m not complaining.

One of the other things that I know a lot of people are unhappy about is the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle so I’m going to share some of my thoughts on that as well.

First of all, I have no doubt that if she’d never had to go to the games, Katniss and Gale would have ended up together one way or another although whether they would have had children I doubt.

But things didn’t turn out that way and is it really any wonder? Even if we forget the fact that Katniss did have history, of a sort, with Peeta can we just consider everything that the two of them went through together. At the age of 16, when none of us are particularly stable hormonally speaking, they were thrown together, forced to demonstrate a deep an abiding love for each other (real or not) and put through a hell which they both only survived because of the other one. Now even if there weren’t some kind of feelings there before all of that, it’s hardly surprising that there would be after. And maybe Katniss did come out of the arena feeling confused about her feelings towards Peeta but she hadn’t exactly had time to think things through and sort fantasy from reality had she? In the most intense of situations she’d been forced to enact a romantic attachment and coming out of that arena she should have been given space to process her feelings, the events of the Games and what she wanted to happen next but she wasn’t. Instead she was thrown back into Peeta’s arms for the Victory Tour and the Quarter Quell and confronted with the realisation that Snow was going to insist on them having a Forever After (Happy presumable optional).

So of course she was confused and then we can add in the fact that she was somewhat preoccupied with her post-traumatic stress and the fact that her entire world was teetering on the edge of extinction and why exactly are we so surprised that her romantic liaisons weren’t exactly straightforward?? In actual fact all she really seemed to want was to be left alone whereas it was the rest of the world who wanted her to have nothing else on her mind but picking a potential husband. I think this point is proved perfectly by the fact that she’s so surprised when Coin suggests that Gale should be presented as Katniss’ lover in the propos. All she wants is someone she trusts standing by her side, supporting her. Which is all anyone in her position would want. So can we stop with the love triangle nonsense please?!

I think one of the reasons that this has become such an issue is down to the films. In the books we get insight into all the intricacies of Katniss’ thought processes, we get the true nature of her history with Peeta which is skated over in the films as well as her clear confusion over Gale’s romantic feelings. Katniss’ inner voice is something which is seriously missing from the films, without it I feel like they’re quite flat, lacking a layer and texture which make Katniss a real person in the books and making me quite nervous about film 3 (UK release date: 21st November!). In the final book Katniss does a lot of sitting and staring at dust specks or generally hiding from the world which I don’t think will really work on film. I’ve seen films that do take that tack and they’re as boring as hell (Three Colours Blue, avoid, avoid!). In the book we actually hear her inner pain rather than imagining it as she stares into space on screen so I’m worried about how it’s going to translate. However, given the trailers that have been released so far I’m still pretty excited to see how it works out!

I seem to have gone on for a lot longer than I intended but if you’ve stuck with me this long I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Hunger Games!

The Silo Trilogy, Hugh Howey

Disclaimer: I’m reviewing all three books of the trilogy (Wool, Shift, Dust) in one post, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers but it’s possible that the odd thing may slip out. Read on at your own risk…

The Silo trilogy spans a 400 year time period starting around 100 years from now in a world that is very different from our own. The entire world has been condensed down so that only a few people remain, people who live in a rigidly structured society within a massive underground silo. The world we know is destroyed, to go outside would mean almost instant death and to even speak of doing so is to consign yourself to that fate.

WoolThe trilogy begins in Wool, a book I’d seen floating around, copies on the tube, reviews on Goodreads and so on but I hadn’t really been tempted by. But then a friend lent me her copy as I mentioned something about it and she had just finished reading it so I promised I’d give it a go.

To be honest, I wasn’t impressed. The story launches in somewhat, giving me as a the reader the feeling that I’d walked in on the middle of a conversation and didn’t have a clue what was going on. I suspect the point of this technique is to grab my attention and pique my curiosity (who is this Holston? Why is he going to die? etc. etc.), but I’m afraid what it actually does is put me off (you don’t want to tell me what’s going on? Fine, I don’t care anyway.).  But I persevered and although it was slow going to start – a lot of stair climbing and unrealised love between two individuals I didn’t particularly care for – it did manage to intrigue me. I couldn’t quite get my head around this silo they all lived in, what ‘cleaning’ was and what on earth had happened to the world outside.

So I kept reading but it wasn’t until roughly halfway through that it really grabbed me. Jules, our hero, hadn’t made a huge impression on me, I found her rather too predictable and a bit of a hero stereotype, but when Solo was introduced I felt the whole book changed. His was an entirely different story and I loved getting to know him and teasing out his history.

And then, just as it was getting really good, Wool ended! I was furious! Especially because I was aware that for the next installment we would be going back in time to find out how it all started. Yes I’d get the answers that by now I really wanted, but how long would it be before I would find out what happened to Jules and Solo and all the rest of the characters I’d just started caring about?!

Well happily lot too long as the same friend was able to lend me both Shift and Dust so at least I didn’t have to hold on until I found my own copies. (And after reading this review by Buffy, I was glad I didn’t have to wait too long!)

ShiftSo, book II. Shift alternates between two timeframes for the first part of the book – following Donald in 2049 and Troy in 2110. Troy is confined to a silo whereas Donald is a member of the pre-silo world and their paths zigzag across the chapters.

I wasn’t expecting to like Shift, I find the whole prequel thing kind of annoying but actually I think this was a really clever way of doing things. If I hadn’t already visited the silo and built up a curiosity about it, I might have lost patience with the political wranglings of this second book and I think the whole thing may have made less sense. As it was I already knew what direction things were headed in and I really enjoyed seeing them unwind.

Troy confused me somewhat although seeing his eyes slowly open to the world around him was a nice touch, but it was Donald who I really came to care for. Here was a man who was blindly led into an awful world, whose innocence and naivety were his undoing but who managed to keep fighting, even once it seemed like it was too late. I think he went on a harder journey than any of the other characters and I enjoyed travelling that road with him.

It was also nice to get a sense of background to some of the other characters from Wool and there were some fun moments of ‘oh, I know who that is!’ And Mission’s story damn near broke my heart.

All in all this was by far my favourite book of the trilogy and it left me with big hopes for Dust, the concluding chapter.

Alas I feel that it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

DustDust picks up from the end of Wool and I think it might have helped if I’d gone back and re-read the last chapter of the first book before starting this one as I was slightly confused as to how much I’d forgotten happening and how much had happened in my absence.

For the final volume Dust is surprisingly thin and I can’t help thinking that it could have used a bit more padding (not a common complaint!). There seemed to be less story-telling than in the other books and what there was started to feel repetitive. By now I knew how the silo came to be and I knew how the various characters played their parts, there was no need for this to be reiterated every five pages. And I did lose patience with some of the politics, I’m not sure the reason for the destruction ever became entirely clear.

Having said that, there’s no doubt that the ending brought a smile to my face and my immediate feelings after completing the trilogy were incredibly positive. It’s only looking back now that all the negatives come to light.

So it’s a lukewarm review when all said and done but Shift stands out as being a brilliant piece of work sadly bookended by two weaker volumes but don’t let me stop you, I’d still recommend reading the trilogy if you’re into the dystopian mystery vibe!