Tag Archives: review

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.

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33. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

The Pillars of the EarthMan builds cathedral. Hardly the most exciting premise for a book huh?

So it’s probably just as well that Follett’s 1989 masterpiece is about so much more than just the combining of bricks and mortar. Spanning 29 years in the 12th century, The Pillars of the Earth follows all the major players in the building of the (sadly fictional) Kingsbridge Cathedral – from the righteous Prior Philip and his Master Builder Tom to the despicable William of Shiring who does all he can to disrupt Philip’s plans.

That’s the plot really except it’s about much more than just the building of the cathedral. Throughout the 29 years people die, they get tricked into bad marriages, they become business leaders and they lose everything they have. Children are born and raised, pilgrimages are made and behind it all a civil war rages which periodically forces monks and earls alike to choose allegiance to a potential new monarch.

So as you can see there’s a lot going on in this 1076 page novel which definitely makes up for the occasional two page description of a new style of wall. I’ll admit that when Follett goes into depth on the actual building work (which doesn’t happen all that often), I did tend to skim read a little apart from one very exciting section where a young builder invents the flying buttress!

Notre Dame

Pictured above you can see an excellent example of the use of the flying buttress on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They’re the kind of arches on the outside which are used to support the walls from the outside. I have a friend who, when we went to Brussels, spent a lot of time pointing out this particular architectural feature so to read a story of someone inventing it was very exciting for me!

I have to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book and I would say a major part of this was down to the language used. Although it’s set in the 12th century, the writing and conversation is relatively modern – there are no ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s – which I’ve seen some review complain spoils the realism but for me it’s about making the time period accessible. The prose isn’t entirely modern but it’s up to date enough that the writing isn’t intimidating which I find to be a problem with other books set in the same period. I know language has changed a lot over the last thousand years and that the way this book is written isn’t the way people would actually have talked at the time but if I’m going to commit to reading over a thousand pages, I don’t want to have to read every sentence twice to be sure I know what it says!

My main regret with this novel is that Kingsbridge is a fictional town so I’ll never be able to visit the wondrous creation of Tom et al but Pillars of the Earth was certainly a masterclass in the lives of 12th century folk as well as a very entertaining saga telling tales of both everyday people and the upper echelons who ruled life in the 1100s.

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.

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.

13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks

A few years ago I was offered a free ticket to see the stage show of Birdsong so (because I never turn down a free theatre ticket) I went along with absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for. What it turned out to be was an utter sob-fest set in World War I. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the book which I expected to be even worse.

BirdsongBirdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford who first arrives in France in 1910 as a young man of 20 to learn about the textile industry in the northern city of Amiens. The first section of the book deals with Stephen’s time with the Azaire family and the passionate love affair he embarks on under their roof which will mark him for the rest of his life.

We then skip to 1916 and a trench on the Belgian border where we meet Stephen again as a Captain in the British army. The introduction to wartime is as brutal as it can be with three characters dying in the first few pages of the 1916 section and little respite from then on. Every page bristles with the possibility of death or serious injury yet despite this it wasn’t the tear-jerker I was expecting. By this point death has become a fact of life for Stephen and all the other men and it is relayed as such in the text. It was a very grim read, there no doubt about that and there are some very gory descriptions making it definitely not a book for the faint-hearted but it only drew a tear from me on a couple of occasions (and that’s saying a lot, I’m the kind of person who cries at the drop of a hat).

I imagine that the war was a very surreal experience for those whose lives were consumed by it and that unreality is conveyed very clearly in the text, they shift dramatically between front-line warfare and rest days in some of the towns further from the line but there is a sense of abstractness that lies over everything. One of the most surreal moments was Weir’s story of his visit home and his parents’ complete disinterest in everything he had seen, experienced and felt which made it one of the parts that really moved me.

Then, about halfway through we shift completely to London in 1979 and some seemingly unrelated woman on the tube. It emerges gradually that she is looking into her family’s connection to WWI and I imagine that this part of the story was brought in as a way to tell what happened after the end of the war and to tie up the more romantic elements of the book but I felt it was completely unnecessary. I didn’t care about Elizabeth, about her relationships or any part of her life and I feel that all she did was detract from the central story. I was particularly annoyed that after the dramatic and moving conclusion to the book’s front-line events we were returned to Elizabeth which really spoilt the ending for me.

But that remains my only complaint, all in all Birdsong has left me with an urge to find out more about the terrible events of WWI. I feel like I know a reasonable amount about WWII but I only have a very vague grasp on the facts of The Great War which is awful given how many men and women gave their lives during the conflict. Today we are 100 years on from the horror of the trenches but we must never forget.

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…

43. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

4672Nope.

There you go, my opinion of The Great Gatsby summed up in a single word. Or to expand: Did not like.

I wanted to like it, I’ve heard great things about it and I have one friend in particular who is so keen on the 1920’s that she’s theming her wedding after that time period so for her sake I moved Gatsby up the pecking order and tried to like it. But I didn’t.

I found the writing style very hard to get to grips with, I don’t know what was wrong with it exactly but I found that I could read for pages with no idea what was going on and then I’d go back and reread them only to have the same thing happen again. I think it didn’t help that the prose tended to jump about a bit characters would get the briefest of introductions but then fifty pages later you’d be expected to remember who they were and why they had featured (and the book is only 110 pages long). Or time would slip so that you’d be at once in the past and the present without any real clarity on why.

The characters themselves also really infuriated me. I suppose they were the Made in Chelsea of their time, lots of money with no clear indication of how they came by it and no responsibilities that can’t be shirked for a day or three of drinking and driving about the country on a whim. That entire lifestyle is alien territory to me and I find it utterly mystifying as to how anyone can live that way. So I probably never stood much of a chance at bonding with these characters but still.

Having said that our narrator Nick Carraway was also a bit of an outsider. Caught up by mere proximity to Gatsby and a connection with the Buchanans he is pulled along in their whirlwind of champagne and excess to the bitter end. I quite enjoy the outsider narrator theme as it gives the common yokel a point of reference within the book and someone to hide behind when it all gets a bit much so I did like Nick. Right up to the point where he suddenly realised that he’d forgotten all about his birthday on account of being taken to New York and forced to participate in wanton renting of hotel parlours and drinking of mint juleps. I mean really, who lives this way and why?!

There’s a jumpyness to the whole novel which reminded me a lot of On the Road another book I hated (rant here) and to a lesser extent The Secret History which I enjoyed but felt a similar disconnect to (more balanced review here). I think it was this nervous energy which meant that despite it being very short I found Gatsby quite exhausting to read and at entirely the other end of the spectrum from the previously reviewed Midnight’s Children. Here’s hoping my next review will be more positive!

I was meaning to make this a brief post and suggest that for more expansive reviewing you read a review by my fellow Gatsby-hater Becky but I seem to have gone on a while. However I thoroughly recommend her review as it is better thought out and much more entertaining than this driveling stream of consciousness. Read it here.