Book Review 30 – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompon

This was both the weirdest and the most ground breaking book of the challenge so far. It also left me floundering as to how to review the plot, so I decided to review my reactions to it instead:

End of chapter two – this is fun and slightly surreal. I’m liking the short punchy chapters.

End of chapter four – great supporting illustrations but what the hell is going on?!

End of chapter six – the depravity is getting heavy now. These guys are totally messed up!

End of chapter nine – you learn something new every day. Muhammed Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for his refusal to join in the Vietnam war. Still not much idea what’s going on in this story though…

Part two. End of chapter two – a madcap storyline is emerging. It is surreal as hell but also an awful lot of fun!

End of the book – OK seriously, what the hell just happened there? Have I fallen through a portal into a parallel universe where I lack the requisite senses to understand anything?!

At the end of this book if you would like me to summarise what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was about I would say drugs, Vegas, trying to keep one step ahead of the authorities and a whole load of random jibberish in between everything. Fun yes, but entirely nonsensical!

My general sense of confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that the book was stuffed to the giblets with American terms that I didn’t understand and had to keep stopping to look up. And then there were just references to things that I didn’t know about because I am from the wrong place and time. Take the sentence, “A long time ago when I lived in Big Sur down the road from Lionel Olay I had a friend who liked to go to Reno for the crap-shooting.” In this one sentence I had to look up three things, what is Big Sur? Is Lionel Olay the maker of my mum’s favourite moisturiser? And what is Crap-shooting? I was wondering if it was a typo and he was referring to fishing for carp with guns, either that or some kind of reference to shooting the holy crap out of people…

Fear and Loathing was discombobulating (there’s an Americanism that I do understand) in more than one respect and it took my reading of the notes at the back to understand more about Thompson and his so called Gonzo journalism. “A method acting style stream of consciousness writing.” When I told my husband this he said ‘So you had to read an explanation to understand what happened in the book?’ I’m glad he asked that because it helped crystallise the point. I still have no idea what in the name of Dumbledore’s crooked nose was going on in the book, but the notes helped to put the style of writing into context. Ultimately Thompson was passing commentary on the world around him. He wanted to say something using a partly fictionaled scenario to support him. I say partly fictionalised because Thompson, like his protagonist was a journalist who was sent to Vegas to cover events which he did while on a number of illegal highs. He wanted to make a statement on conscription, on drugs, on Nixon… I’m not going to pretend I get it, but at least I get that he created a genre.

I watched the film straight after and on this one occasion I would say the film was just as good as the book. It barely missed anything and if anything set the tone of sillyness for the rookies like me a bit more clearly.

Thompson was evidently a great thinker. He had a vision and he executed it in all its surrealist splendour. Tragically he committed suicide some years back. Pethaps I am romanticising it, but I can’t help but picture a tormented soul who was just too disillusioned with this world to remain a part of it. If you haven’t already either read the book or watched the film then I recommend you strap yourself in and get ready for one hell of a ride whenever you decide to take the plunge.

Next week the nerd in me returns as I go back to a favourite subject of mine, history. I’ll be reading ‘The illustrated history of England’ by Christopher Hibbert.

 

Book Review 29 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

It takes a kind of tolerance to read a book from another era. To see past the racist, homophobic language of the time and recognise the story for what it was. A modern day classic.

These things are certainly true of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My overall impression was that this was a book that’d had its time. Which of course is exactly what it is. Even if I chose to overlook any distasteful terms as a symptom of the time, what I couldn’t get over was the bloody-minded caricature that was Holly Golightly. Perhaps she was a breath of fresh air when Truman Capote moulded her, but to us jaded 21st century readers (or to me anyway) these flighty, tempestuous heroine’s are just tedious. It’s a shame I felt this way about Holly because I think a more likeable character could have turned the book around for me.

Capote’s writing skill is evident. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is stuffed with beautifully crafted similes. The story is told through the eyes of Holly’s friend and neighbour as he looks back on the time that they lived in the same apartment block in New York. Him as a struggling writer, her as a… well it’s not particularly clear what she does, some kind of 1940’s society girl. Refreshingly there is no love interest between them. They are just friends though Holly is a somewhat unreliable friend and one whom it turns out has a past that she has been concealing. 

True to form the story ends with Holly getting herself into a pickle and whilst she is no longer in our unnamed protagonists life, there still seem to be hints of her several years later. 

What I didn’t realise when I picked this book up was that slim as the paperback copy that I held was, it was padded out with three short stories at the end! Breakfast at Tiffany’s was only around 100 pages. I read it in one day. If you are more forgiving than me then this is a speedy read with some good quality writing. At the risk of being branded a philistine, I’m just glad it was over quickly! But I must say I am intrigued enough to now go and watch the film and see what Audrey Hepburn made of Holly.

Next week I’ll be reviewing another modern classic. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson will be up on the blog for you on Monday.

 

Book Review 26 – Shards of Sunlight by Anand Nair

In the words of Bon Jovi ‘Wooooooooooaaaaaahhhhh, we’re half way there!’ Would you Adam and Eve it, it’s been six months of me reading a book a week, every week and reviewing it here for you. Six months?! Time has flown.

In six months I have metamorphosized from someone who used to pick up a book every few months and read it over the course of a few weeks to someone who is a compulsive reader. If I don’t have a book on the go I feel restless. I start picking up reference material and rifling through it. But more than that, reading has somehow made me more inquisitive, more interested in history, science, dinosaurs… I just want to know stuff about stuff. That doesn’t mean that all the information I acquire remains in my sieve-like head, but then you can’t have everything!

Before I go into this week’s book I just want to set the scene on how I came across the marvellous author. As you can see from my blog, I enjoy writing. Gabbing on about something or other is my forte and I most enjoy doing it in this space. So about a year and a half ago I googled some combination of words that included ‘Croydon’ and ‘writing’ and up popped a link to Croydon Writers. These guys are an awesome bunch of writers, but there are two of them in particular whose writing I have got to know well since starting to attend the group. Michael Round has written a whole stack of brilliant books, one of which I will be reviewing next week.

 

The second person from the group whose work I have read is Anand Nair. ‘Shards of Sunlight’ is based on some of Anand’s childhood experiences of growing up in Kerala, however the things that happen to her protagonist Indu are not autobiographical.

There is however one major point of confluence. Like Indu’s father, Anand’s own father was a political activist and like many other activists (including my own grandfather) at the time towards the end of the British Raj in India, spent time in jail as a political prisoner. This was a period of huge political and social flux in Indian history. I’m immensely proud of my grandfather (who died when I was young so unfortunately I barely remember him) for standing up for his beliefs. For being prepared to go to prison for them. We are fortunate enough to lead comparatively plush, sheltered lives these days. Most of us can’t even contemplate having to make such a stand.

Shards of Sunlight does sit against this political backdrop, but the focus of the story is Indu herself. It is the concerns of her personal little world that we are embroiled in. We watch her growing from a girl into a young woman and see her own family situation shift over the years.

Indu is unlike other girls in Kerala. She is far too educated for one. She keeps getting told that no man likes a wife that is too highly educated, with ideas in her head. But Indu wants more for herself than to be solely a wife and homemaker. Independent and free spirited she sets out her own path, rejecting the traditional ideals and we see her begin to develop her career and meet a man that she deems worthy of her. The trouble is will her family consider him worthy of her? Let’s just say the path of true love never runs smoothly.

Anand hooks you in with her skilful writing, and mesmerised, you are powerless to do anything other than turn page after page following the story of this fiesty young Indian woman, rooting for her every step of the way.

Anand is a self published author, but as I have mentioned before there are some gems to be found in amongst the self published book market. And here is such a gem. Shards of Sunlight is a delightful read that I enjoyed immensely.

Next week I’ll be reviewing Michael Rounds book ‘One Promise Kept’. Come back on Monday and check it out.

Book Review 20 – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I read a blurb for this book somewhere and was determined to read it. It sounded like it was full of adventure, emotion and human determination. There was one other thing it should have sounded like if I hadn’t fallen prey to my fallible memory. It should have sounded like the film that I had watched a couple of years ago… Sigh!

It was around page 32 that I remembered the film and, honestly, my heart plunged. I felt like the joy of the book had been stolen away from me by watching the film beforehand. Luckily I decided it was too late to go back now and that I would just have to see this book through. I’m glad that this is the course of action I chose because the book was delightful. The detail, the imagery, the spirited young protagonist had me reaching for the book at all hours of the day. And the experience of reading the story was different to that of watching it. Having said that, the film really set the imagery of the place and the characters for me so that in many ways having watched it beforehand became a sneaky little bonus. I know – I’m so contradictory!

Growing up in the UK, we are used to hearing stories of wartime Britain. Air raids and bomb shelters, rations and nights spent on underground train platforms. Of course similar events were playing out for ordinary Germans while the Nazi’s had their grip on power during the war. Many of these events have made their way into fiction. ‘The Book Thief’ plays out against this political backdrop.

Leisel Meminger is a German girl who has been sent to live with foster parents in the small town of Molching. Her foster father, the kindly Hans nurtures her and helps her along with her reading, whilst her formidable foster mother provides her with equal doses of beatings with a wooden spoon and unwavering affection. On the whole it’s not such a bad life, but Nazi Germany is not a good place for those who sympathise with Jews, like Leisel’s foster parents. A treacherous path lies ahead.

As to the title of the book. Leisel is a book thief. Not a particularly prolific one, it must be added, but a book thief all the same. In amongst the poverty of wartime Germany, for people like Leisel and her family books are not easy to come by, but Leisel manages to get her hands on them and each book she owns, whether pilfered or gifted shapes Leisel in some way.

The book is narrated by a surprisingly affable Grim Reaper. You get the sense that the poor guy is just doing a job and that he gets rather a bad wrap in general. He sees people as they really are. The community he depicts is haunted by war, scarred by their experiences and yet there is so much affection and solidarity amongst them that it makes him see the best in us. In the words of Death himself ‘I am haunted by humans.’ The Book Thief is a beautiful, magical book and one that I am very glad I took the time to read.

Next Monday I will be reviewing ‘Sometimes I Lie’ by Alice Feeney. Do come by to check it out!

Book Review 10 – How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

I need you all to decide a very important question for me: Do audio books count as reading? I have used them on several occasions before this 52 week challenge and found them great for commuting because you don’t need spare hands that can otherwise be used for holding a rail on the train or drinking your tea. You also don’t need to put it away on the walk from the station to the office. What’s not to love?!

What happened was I had started reading ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley in preparation for this blog post, when I found myself stuck on the M25 on a journey that eventually took four hours rather than two. About an hour in, I realised how bad the tailbacks were and decided to make good use of the time by downloading an audio book on my app from the library. It still gives me a little thrill when I borrow e-books from the library. Instant service that’s totally free. I keep on looking for the catch, but there isn’t one! So anyway, whilst I made good use of my time stuck in traffic it was via an audio book.  My hubby laughed when I told him and asked whether watching the movie also counted or maybe reading reviews that other people have written. My husband is big on sarcasm, but he did have a point. Because now that I have committed to “reading” a book a week it felt like… well it felt like I was cheating. So I’ll take a poll on this. I know you lot are a bit shy and don’t like leaving comments, but if I get more comments saying that I have cheated than have said that I haven’t then I will read an extra book to make up for it. If no one comments then I’ll assume you are happy with my audio book!

So on to this weeks review. ‘How to Stop Time’ is about the very long life that the central character Tom has led. Tom has a condition which only exposes itself after the age of 13. He ages extremely slowly. For every decade or so he only ages one year and consequently at over 400 years old he only looks around 40. Over the years Tom has met other people with the same condition. They have to keep moving, never getting too close to people, otherwise others will suspect that something is not quite right. In the past Tom’s condition led to persecution when locals thought his mother was a witch or that he practised Devil worship to stay young. In modern times he and others like him are trying instead to keep one step ahead of the researchers and scientists who they consider would hold them captive and destroy their lives.

The concept is a clever one and Matt Haig has clearly thought long and hard about what a life that spanned hundreds of years might look like. These long living individuals are plagued by headaches caused by the amount of information their brains have to hold. This reminded me of Catherine Tate becoming The Doctor Donna. Perhaps Haig is also a Doctor Who fan! He also made some poignant observations about the character traits of a person who has lived this long. He observes that great age doesn’t necessarily bring great wisdom and that ultimately you have to live your life ‘within the confines of your personality,’ which I thought was beautifully put.

I don’t know if it was because this was an audio book, but I did find the book somewhat slow and meandering. I think what Haig is trying to do is give us a good feel of what has happened in Tom’s life over the period of 400 years, but I felt as though it could do with taking a chunk out. I also found Tom’s life to have been slightly too remarkable. He had known Shakespeare, met F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer of The Great Gatsby, and sailed on maiden voyages to the Cook Islands. I wondered whether 320 additional years of life on the rest of us would really increase the probability of these things happening so much.

Haig has created a thought provoking story. His characters are believable and whilst the book is long, I did find myself consistently coming back to it to find out what was going to happen, which ultimately is what we all want from a book.

So this week I’ll be finishing off ‘First Love’ by Gwendoline Riley and I’ll be back with a review on Monday. I’ll await your verdict on how many books I have to read next week…

Book Review 7 – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

There are of course all sorts of books in the world. The flirty, easy reads that are devoured on summer getaways; gritty crime novels that keep commuters turning pages on packed trains; emotive roller coasters where you dive into the mind of the protagonist; literary heavyweights with awe inspiring imagery and language, the list goes on. I would perhaps pick up any of these before selecting a book about slavery. Not because I don’t think it’s important to understand more about this dark time in human history, but more because many years ago I read the unforgettable, Roots by Alex Haley.

It was one of those books that you can’t wrench your eyes from, despite the abject misery that you are confronted with. The fact that human beings are capable of such horrific cruelty sat heavily with me. And whilst I can’t remember the details of the book all these years later, the residue of that feeling (horror, sadness, shame?) is still nestled inside my brain somewhere, to the extent that when the BBC recently put on an adaptation of Roots, I knew two things. The first, that it would be a brilliantly made, unmissable programme; the second, that there was absolutely no way that I could bring myself to watch it.  No way that I could witness the subjugation and degradation of innocent people. Even if it is a fictionalised re-creation. It happened. The fact that it happened here on the soil that we walk on deeply saddens me.

So when I rocked up at the recent Croydon Literature Festival, and found The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead prominently displayed at a stall, I hesitated. A book about a slave who decides to escape from her bondage… was this the kind of book that I could read without it haunting me for the rest of my days? Wasn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable? How could I enjoy reading something so tragic?

There were a couple of things that tempted me. I am a sucker for prize winners and nominees and The Underground Railroad is peppered with them: winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, winner of the National Book Award, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a Sunday Times top ten best seller – my fingers are getting worn out just typing the list of Whitehead’s accolade’s for this book. On top of this, I was listening to some podcast or other before the Booker’s shortlist was announced and the presenters were so sure that he was going to be shortlisted. As it happens he wasn’t but then you can’t win everything all of the time. The nominations and prize winnings suggested that this was no ordinary book, and difficult subject matter or not, I just had to bite the bullet and read it.

Perhaps it was because I had primed myself for it, or maybe because I’m no longer the naive young grasshopper I once was, but The Underground Railroad didn’t leave me with the same electric sense of shock that Roots had done many years ago. Whitehead doesn’t dilly-dally over the treatment of slaves, but neither does he linger. In one sense this makes it worse. It gives you the impression that the maltreatment of slaves was so commonplace, their misery so ubiquitous that there was scarcely time to draw breath before you were on to the next atrocity.

In The Underground Railroad we follow Cora who flees captivity and stumbles from one place of seeming refuge to another. Everything is in flux for Cora and those who seek to assist her. The prospect of a merciless death, should they be caught, lurks around every corner and bares it’s teeth any time Cora or her friends get too comfortable. Every time they think that there is a better life, a chance, a place of opportunity; the violence that they are fleeing rears it’s head to remind them, I’m still here, I’m still hunting you down.

Some other tough reads – what are yours?

For me, whilst the central story-line was great, I felt there was a lot of surplus information about the numerous peripheral characters. Cora would often refer back to a character that had helped in some earlier part of her journey and I found myself struggling to remember which particular act of benevolence they had bestowed. But overall, and despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed the book. It got me thinking, perhaps I have been too hasty in dismissing a book just because it might make me feel uncomfortable. Is there a world of literature that I am missing out on because of it? I’m interested to know your experiences. What has been the hardest book you ever read? And if you could go back in time and make the choice would you put yourself through the experience of reading it again?

I look forward to hearing your tales and I’ll see you here again next week when I’ll be reviewing I Am, I Am, I Am, by Maggie O’Farrell. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you about that one, but it’ll have to keep till next Monday!

Book Review 4 – Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I first came across Mohsin Hamid a decade ago as I trawled Waterstones near

My signed copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

my then office in Piccadilly. I hadn’t heard of him before, but there in prominent position, with a ‘signed by the author’ sticker were a whole stack of fuchsia covered hardback copies of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. I idly picked one up, scanned the blurb and thought ‘yup, I’m gonna like this,’ and I took it to the till. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like Exit West, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and this alongside Hamid’s scrawl on the first page was enough to seal the deal for me. I wanted my very own signed book. Until last week, this was the only book I had ever owned that was signed by the author. (The more recent acquisition is I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell; which I will of course be reviewing in a couple of weeks.)

I hadn’t been following the Man Booker longlist all that closely when I first heard Hamid being interviewed about his latest book, Exit West on a Guardian Books podcast. If you have heard anything about this book you will know that it is about these strange doors that are portals through which refugees escape, thereby, as Hamid explained on the podcast, dispensing with the necessary and perilous journey that is faced by every asylum seeker (which is a whole story in itself) and focusing more on the human element and what happens to those who actually make it.

In Exit West we follow the story of Saeed and Nadia who meet in an unnamed country which is experiencing civil war. The book explores Saeed and Nadia’s feelings about leaving their home. I liked the fact that things weren’t black and white. Just because you might die if you stay where you are doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t think twice about leaving everything you have ever known. Equally, once the migration has actually taken place life is far from ideal. What happens to a relationship when all you have left in the whole world is each other? When you no longer have a place to call home and can’t guarantee your future? What then?
Exit West isn’t just a commentary on the refugee experience. It is a story about ordinary people, about love and life. It is a story about the choices we make, but also the legacy of those choices. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid reminds us. We are constantly reminded that existence is transient. That things have happened before and that they will happen again. The book is contemplative and philosophical and Hamid is an expert crafter of words, churning out page long sentences without batting an eyelid. But is it a prize winner? We shall have to wait and see. Hubby and I are off to the Man Booker Prize Readings in a few weeks at the Southbank centre, where the shortlisted authors will be talking about their work. I’ll be listening closely for any clues for 17th October when the winner is announced. Good luck Mohsin Hamid!

A glimpse of what’s to come

So there we are, four books down… I must say, so far so good. I haven’t found it too difficult. In fact the more I delve into the world of reading, the more I begin to think perhaps 52 books isn’t so impressive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that reading a book a week isn’t any sort of challenge to me. It is, after being out of the habit for so long. It would be so easy to put my book aside and just watch TV or browse the internet, so I am pleased that at least thus far I’ve stuck with it. It’s just that others put me to shame. I am following a rather marvelous woman on Twitter who goes under the name of Bibliophile Book Club, and she posted the other day that she had read 141 books this year. 141. No really, 141. By the time this goes out she will probably have got another five or so under her belt. I am in awe! But I guess that is her challenge (she’s wondering if she might hit 200 by the end of the year) and this is mine. I’d better learn to walk before I can run ?.

Come back next Monday – we’ll be taking a look at a Man Booker Prize longlisted book, Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Book Review 3 – Tin Man by Sarah Winman

They say don’t judge a book by its cover but any publisher worth their salt would tell you that is nonsense. If nobody judged a book by its cover then all books would have plain white covers with simple black typeset print giving the title and author. And if that was the case then the world would have been deprived of the canary yellow beauty that is Tin Man.

The choice of colour isn’t incidental. The story is told around a famous yellow painting and the colour crops up again and again under various guises. It’s an extension of Sarah Winman’s touching tale of a trio of friends. As if the story itself has seeped out onto the jacket.

Tin Man begins with Ellis, following the quiet and melancholy rhythms of his world. Ellis is cautious, tender and bruised. The latter part of the book is told from Ellis’ friend Michael’s point of view. Where Ellis is lonely, Michael is desolate, parched of hope.

Tin Man’s fragile characters are utterly endearing. They don’t shout and rampage. This is a book where lives unravel, but slowly, poignantly and with an ethereal beauty that leaves you gasping.

Winman also breaks ground with her writing style for example through her refusal to use speech marks around dialogue. It is remarkably done. I don’t think I was once confused about when a character was speaking. Part of this is to do with the poetic style she employs. The book is almost one long poem that is more engaged with the characters’ feelings than the action. In one sentence Ellis will be lying in bed, in the next he is out in the street. Winman dispenses with the banalities of the quotidian and focuses on her characters experiences. The outcome is a strong affinity between the reader and her characters. We live in their heads and their hearts. We feel the depth of their pain. We bask in the warmth of their memories.
A certain famous yellow painting
Alongside the speech marks, Winman also more or less dispenses with chapters. Tin Man is merely made up of a few separate sections all of which contain a storyline that flits between past and present. It works. Too well in fact. Since there weren’t so many natural breaks I had to force myself to put the book down in the wee hours of the night to make sure I could get some sleep! This particular problem was resolved quite quickly. You can’t hold yourself back from Tin Man. You find yourself immersed in it until it is sadly, achingly, but satisfyingly over. It is testament to Winman’s ability to put such beauty on the page that I read this book in three days.
You’ll remember that I am trying to read a book a week. This book was devoured so quickly that I forgot I was even taking part in any such challenge!
In the next few weeks I’ll be embarking on something of a man booker fest. First up is a shortlisted one. Come join me next Monday when I’ll be poring over Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.