IQ84

I wish I was a Murakami leading character. They are often beautiful, intelligent, strong and supernaturally intuitive. In fact, they are almost superheroes. This is not a criticism, he manages to make them just human enough for us to identify with them but special enough for us to want to read about them. It doesn’t help that the novels of his that I have read, and it is no small number, are translated so beautifully that his prose is almost poetic. When I stop to think about it his dialogue in IQ84 is unreal, and that’s not the only thing about this novel that is unreal, but he manages to keep it flowing well enough that it doesn’t jar. That’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from him. He defies convention.
IQ84 begins in 1984 and slowly edges its protagonists to a unity that the reader would have thought impossible until at least half way through. The plot centers on Aomame (Green Pea) and Tengo. Tengo is a writer who has a distant, yet strangely intimate relationship with his agent who calls at odd times and dispenses with preamble knowing without ever speaking of it, that Tengo knows it is him on the line. He offers Tengo a morally dubious job that quite literally changes the world. This is just one of the strange relationships in the novel.
Interwoven with Tengo’s narrative is Aomame’s. She is a sort of mercenary who ends the lives of men who have mistreated women at the behest of her friend and benefactor, the Dowager. Aomame also makes a decision that changes the world. The plot gradually draws the two closer filling in background details as we go along. Tengo’s relationship with the supernaturally beautiful Fuka-Eri, the writer of the story he ends up rewriting, is explored and the mysterious young woman brings two worlds together. A shadowy religious organization, the Dowager’s wonderful bodyguard and a gnome like private eye character round out the narrative. The plot twists and turns and we gradually realize that the novel is changing shape. Murakami keeps readers interested because he is never predictable and because as I have already said, he does defy convention. He does not disappoint here.
At 1000 pages this may test the dedication of some readers but it was enthralling and too hard to put down.

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Trainspotting- Irvine Welsh

Just to be perverse I decided to read this in the most unlikely place possible. Given the subject matter I selected my holiday to sunny and relaxed Noosa, playground of hippies, triathletes and aging Victorians looking for a place in the sun but still wanting a healthy lifestyle to read this gritty, urban, in fact, downright disturbing book. It was certainly an antidote to place.

While the novel is not without its dark humour it left me disturbed but fully believing in the young men who were the novel’s antiheroes. Mark Renton, Sick Boy and Begbie were the damaged and disturbed young addicts who cut a swathe through Edinburgh night life in the 80s, a time of depressing, grey housing estates full of desperation and ugliness with the ever present threat of AIDs and the grinding poverty of its inhabitants. They are sociopathically aware of society’s ills and determined to burn up quickly. Their contempt for themselves and everyone else masks something a lot more complex. Their need. Unable to fully feel things they mask the pain and disappointment of their lives with whatever substance they can get their hands on. Everything, including other people, is there to be used.

Welsh’s critique of Edinburgh’s underclass is a critique of Britain at the time and is hopeless and sad as well as frightening. The boys are dangerous to others as much as to themselves and I found myself anxious at times for those who came into contact with them. The world of the novel is painfully drawn from the point of view of the main characters and a few of those in the inner circle and the reader is drawn in to their needs, lack of real motivations and aimless paths. The voices are written in strong vernacular and the rhythms of the speech are amazing at conveying the amoral thoughts of the protagonists. For all the horror it is an amazing novel to read and haunts you for quite some time afterwards. The insight into the pain and love of addiction is so strong that you almost feel it yourself.Image

Just don’t read it on a sunny Queensland holiday!

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Through a Window and Disappeared- Jonas Jonasson

Originally published in Swedish. I loved this book. It reminded me of Forrest Gump, the obvious comparison, but with more attitude. Alan Karlsson, our hero, was certainly an interesting companion, he was an explosives expert who had met Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Mao’s wife and just wanted to live an easy life. He sailed through the events of the 20th century as an impassive observer but through his observations the reader sees the history of the tumultuous century.
Alan’s 100th birthday arrives and he decides to depart. His journey takes us on a trip through time as well as space as we view his present and past along his journey. 
Alan is unfazed by meeting thugs who want to kill him for stealing, a foul mouthed lady who keeps an elephant, and drug dealers along the way. He draws similar outsider characters to him and forms an unlikely band who decide to share some stolen loot. We learn that he has travelled across the Himalayas on foot. Walked through much of revolutionary China, travelled with Churchill and advised many other world leaders. He also spent five years in a gulag and exploded a whole dock area.
Life is never dull around him and his life and trip are fantastic to read about. This is a book to be read in one sitting.

I seem to have read a few ‘journey’ books lately! maybe it’s time for a trip.Image

Past The Shallows

Miles and Harry live with their father, an abalone fisherman, in a small settlement in Tasmania. Their lives are rudimentary and Miles lives for getting out on his surfboard. Harry has found a new friend, an old man scarred by fire who lives with his puppy Jake. Harry and Miles’ father is a tormented and brutal man who is also scarred, this time, by love. Their lives take a sharp turn as the swell of the sea is not listened to.
This novel is beautifully written. I read it in two hours flat because I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking and sadly beautiful too. It tells the tale of two sensitive boys in a bleak environment living lives that are controlled by the past and old wounds.
The characters are carefully sketched and the reader slowly inhabits their world.
Highly recommended.

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The Last Werewolf. Glen Duncan

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This has been quietly waiting on my shelves for me to get around to it in between school novels, weighty tomes for my Masters and books that I promised students I would read. Finally, I got there. Jacob Marlowe is an urbane and intelligent voice and it was easy to listen to his story. He relates the tale of his life, flitting between the action at the moment (getting shot at by a WOCOP agent) and back to his beginnings (being ‘created’ by a werewolf running away from said WOCOP) and the intervening years; the sad tale of his first love, told as dispassionately as only a werewolf could. We begin Jacob’s tale near the end and this technique keeps the pace up. The plot has enough unseen twists to keep most genre fans happy and it differs from other supernatural tales in its style and voice, the aforementioned urbanity staying charming throughout, even when relating depraved debauchery. I did find the ending a bit disappointing in that I was able to guess much of it before it happened, a shame really as up until the last quarter I felt outwitted by the novel, which I like. However, having said that, I would still recommend it. The self awareness of the voice of Jacob was touching and sad at times, even while chronicling his own inability to maintain a moral focus. His ability to analyze his fate and embrace his own monstrosity was fascinating and oddly allowed me to sympathize with him.
This is definitely not for anyone enamoured of the Twilight genre. It remains strictly adults only and it’s gore and sex may put off some readers but for me it was an interesting exploration of the idea of survival and morality, relationships and modern life.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing

As the latest in one of my favourite series I couldn’t wait to read this one. It did not disappoint. The pace was great, lots of twists, turns and of course, funny moments. The real Thursday is missing and the fictional Thursday is called in to help, well, sort of, she’s actually given a hopeless task which they don’t expect her to complete as she’s not nearly as good as the real Thursday. She makes a point of trying to be the written Thursday as the real Thursday would have her, but no-one is reading her and as the read rates drop the calls for a re-interpretation of the way that she is ‘read’ are on. Most readers seemed to prefer the Thursday with more sex and violence.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing

So, Thursday (fictional) has to make some decisions, about how she plays Thursday, whether or not to go on a date with a nun and puppy killer, and how to solve the puzzle of the giant book that has just dropped from the sky with no ISBN numbers. She then has to do the improbable and rescue the real Thursday after sneaking in a quick visit to the real world where she has to deal with awful things like movement and gravity and having a crush on Landen.

If this sounds too confusing you really need to start the series at the beginning with ‘The Eyre Affair’. If you have read the others you will love this one. The literary jokes fly thick and fast and the language is clever and amusing. The final twist was plausible (well, if you can believe that there is a whole world within fiction and the whole idea of reading as a kind of acting) and it was nice that we got a different heroine this time – even if she was a fictional version of the real, albeit fictional! one.

Great fun.

Jasper Jones

The eponymous Jasper Jones is a part Aboriginal boy living in a West Australian town in the 1960s. He is used to prejudice. Our narrator is Charlie, a young, bookish, outcast from the same town. Jasper chooses Charlie when he really needs help and this is where the story begins.
Jasper needs Charlie’s help desperately but in order to help Charlie has to revise his notion of the world and replace it with something much more complex. His whole life is ineradicably altered by what he finds and this novel’s handling of the story is careful and interesting enough to make us want to go on the journey with him.
My favorite parts were definitely the hilarious dialogue between Charlie and his best friend, Jeffrey Lu. Being Vietnamese is 1960s Australia brings its own challenges but Jeffrey is up to that. His wit is spot on and there are several laugh out loud moments. Jeffrey is a cricket tragic and is excellent at playing the game. But, of course, the locals certainly don’t want to give him the chance. How many Vietnamese cricketers have you ever heard of from 1960s Western Australia?
Charlie’s love interest is the fragile Eliza Wishart and there are complications aplenty in their relationship, not the least of which is their social difference. Eliza’s sister, Laura, goes missing and Charlie knows more than he can possibly ever tell.
The strength of this novel is not simply, as the publisher’s blurb would have us believe, the multiple references to ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ but the similarities in theme are there. It is the complex relationships between characters that are far from stereotypical and the novel’s ability to lay bare the adult world that young Charlie is prematurely thrown into. It is a plausible depiction of small town life in rural Australia and has enough historical detail to maintain authenticity. The whodunnit factor will keep you guessing and the resolution was not too pat and obvious. I managed to read this in a couple of sittings which is a testimony to its storytelling abilities. Recommended.

There’s a video review of it here should you want to know more.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Penguin Edition

I have just finished re-reading Mary Shelley’s masterpiece.It’s always a daunting experience to reread one of the ‘greats’ of English literature. You tend to worry that it won’t live up to your high expectations or that you are too concerned about making ‘readings’ of it that you forget to enjoy it. When reading it in the 21st century you tend to come to it with a lot of cultural baggage and at first I wondered whether or not it would distract me from the experience. It didn’t, although in retrospect you do end up pondering the effects of science on modern society. Sometimesthey’re amazingly beneficient, sometimes (Frankensfoods etc.) less so.

The story is carefullyand neatly structured with a chinese box type of narrative where we first listen to the story through Robert Walton,erstwhile polar explorer, thenVictor Frankenstein and then the monster and then back again through the layers. This has the effect of containing the monster’s story within the two ‘men of science’. The men of this novel (excluding the monster) have remarkable similarities, however Walton is more sympathetic due to the influence of his ‘sister’ who we never meet, we just read his letters to her and she acts as a brake on his more reckless impulses. The similarities between characters do not end there either. Victor shares a lot in common with his ‘hideous progeny’. Their reactions to the sublime in nature, their debilitating fear of solitude and their need to be loved and admired.

When Walton first meets Frankenstein sledding past his icebound ship and in very poor physical shape he is instantly sympathetic and identifies with him strongly. They are of the same social class and share the same homosocial values. Luckily for Walton, this relationship is brief as Frankenstein has rather a bad influence on the impressionable would be hero. When Walton’s crew want to return to civilisation as soon as their ice-locked ship is freed, Frankenstein berates them and tells them that they are cowardly if they do this. He also asks Walton to pursue and kill the monster for him which of course, is foolhardy given that it is eight feet tall and of superhuman strength!

Frankenstein tellsWalton  the story of the birth and subsequent abandonment of his creature outlining the horror he felt when he realised what his hubris had led him to. He does not, however, feel that he is to blame, he merely followed the logical consequences of modern science and after reading the early alchemists and thenthe  modern physical scientists, he sees this as a progression.He then worries that someone else will followin his footsteps. In fact he will not tell Walton exactly how and what he has done in case he repeats it. Victor’s tale follows his journey back home after fleeing from the monster and then the horror he feels when he realises that the monster has not only pursued him, but has actively worked towards vengeance on his creator by killing his family members. (Or so he believes at the time – we later find out that the creature did not at first know that William was related to Frankenstein, however, he was so brutalised by human society by this time, that when he did find out, he killed him). Frankenstein’s story is then interrupted by the creature’s own story.

We learn of his shock upon discovering that he was alive and we follow his journey through experience and knowledge from his ‘tabula rasa’ state. Locke and Rousseau’s ideas about knowledge overlap in the monster. He is born a blank slate and gradually, through sensation, learns about the world. The theory being that if the monster had had positive experiences of life he would have learnt good things, but unfortunately, the opposite can, and does occur. The abused child, becomes an abuser. He hides himself in a shack off a house of the DeLacey family, exiled French natives, who teach him inadvertently about the modern world. Through them he learns to read ( the plot device here is a Turkish woman, Safie, who the family are teaching French) he has access to the modern Romantic library in ‘The Sorrows of Werther‘, Paradise Lost, and history of the Roman leaders. There has been some criticism of the likelihood of the creature finding this family and learning from these books, but if that is a problem for the reader so is the actual creation of the monster.

The creature tells his story to Frankenstein in order that he will understand what he has created and in order to plead for a mate.He tells his ‘father’ of his plans to meet and converse with the DeLacey’s and of his overpowering need for human contact. He relates their horror at his appearance and the abject loneliness and then rage that he subsequently felt. Frankenstein agrees to create a mate for him eventually as he understands that he has an obligation to the creature.The monster’s argument is that if he is loved, even by such a creature as himself, he can only do good in the world. This again, highlights the central philosophy of the novel that humans need human compassion.

The narrative then returns to Victor’s story and here he tells of his betrayal of the creature as he justifies his destruction of the female monster that he began to create. He reasoned that they could breed a ‘race of monsters’ ( a la Caliban)  and the monster then vows to destroy him utterly for giving him such a miserable lifeand his gross betrayal. Henry Clerval, Victor’s best friend and the man he ‘loved above all others’ as they were childhood friends, is murdered and for a time Victor is imprisoned. When he is eventually freed and returns to wed Elizabeth, his ‘cousin’ (yes, the novel is rather incestuous) he remembers that the creature has vowed to see him ‘on his wedding night’. Victor assumes that this means they will fight to the death. Of course the dramatic irony here is very strong.

Eventually the narrative returns full circle to the beginning and we view the demise of Frankenstein and the last visit of the creature to his creator. Victor Frankenstein leaves Walton with the horrible lesson of man’s excessive pride and the dangers of science dabbling in the creation of human life. The monster comes to see him at the end and then swears to commit suicide, thus ending his miserable existence.

The novel deals with the ideas of beauty and the sublime, ideas of science and creation, ideas of masculinity and femininity and ideas of parenthood. It is a powerful piece of fiction that crosses many genres and is difficult to pigeonhole in just one. Shelley’s genius was even more amazing considering she was 17 when she wrote it and some critics have read into the story her own struggles with motherhood and her criticism of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Byron. Read Anne K Mellor‘s Mary Shelly: Her LIfe, Her Fiction, Her Monsters or Esther Shor’s wonderful Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley for more.

Victorian affair of the heart – with a gothic twist

Affinity by Sarah Waters introduces us to Margaret Prior who is a sensitive soul and, as we shall later see, lost in Victorian society. After her father’s death, which affected her terribly as she was his academic equal and his helpmeet, she tries to kill herself and is medicated for what today we would call depression, but then was seen as something much more insidious and was treated with chloral and laudanum. Women’s lives were so circumscribed that there is always a danger that Margaret’s family will simply deem her insane and lock her up. She tries very hard to appear normal and takes volunteer work at Mill Bank, a local women’s prison. The theory behind this was that as she was a lady, she would bring a civilising influence to bear on the women of the prison, most of whom are petty thieves. One of these prisoners is Selina Dawes who fascinates Margaret, or Aurora as she wishes to be called by her. Selina is a spiritualist and the narrative is interspersed with flashbacks of her life before she was imprisoned in Mill Bank for harming a client (via her ‘control Peter Quick).

Selina reminds Margaret of a painting by Crivelli and Margaret begins to feel strong sympathy for her and then falls in love. The novel then takes a darker turn as we can see more of what Selina’s work entails and Margaret winding a web around herself as she becomes more obsessed.

The novel is a rumination of women’s lives in Victorian England, their bodies, and minds and the ways that society sought to control them. It also deals with love and power and the ways that people can want to believe something so strongly that it alters their worlds. Margaret was willing to risk everything. Her life was so narrowly focussed that she was at a serious disadvantage. Her mother is an unpleasant character and as we see Margaret’s future spread out after her younger sister is married we see the bleak fate of the spinster. Vulnerable, it is no wonder that she seeks a way out in love. It is tragic that this love is so wrong, and not because Selina is a woman.

The novel was captivating and the revelation at the end was so carefully crafted that even if the reader suspects, they don’t completely guess. The writing is beautiful and I found myself feeling empathy for Margaret even as I thought her weak, partly because of the language woven around her.

Cell – wish I hadn’t picked up the phone :(

Just finished this one by Stephen King. After his brilliant Under the Dome I really wanted to catch up on some of his books that I hadn’t got around to yet. Actually, it was pretty good and I was really enjoying it until the end!

Clay is in Boston having just signed a deal with a publisher to create some graphic novels. He stops to buy an ice cream on his way back to his hotel as he can’t ring his wife until four. In true Stephen King style – all hell breaks loose. People’s cell phones are rigged up to send them into a murderous rage and everyone who answers their phones begins a rampage. Clay does not have a phone, but his young son does and he immediately is terrified that he may have answered it. Clay finds a young girl and a gay man named Tom who have also not answered their phones and they desperately try to get out of town. Eventually they do, but the phone crazies begin to change their behaviour and are more organised. They sleep at night, forcing our heroes to use the night to travel. They meet up with an elderly teacher and his one remaining pupil who decide a bit of vigilantism is due. Now, however, the crazies are able to tap into their minds as they have been improving their telepathic powers. They are now much like a giant computer virus, their brains as the bits a bytes in a system designed to maintain the crazies’ status quo. Clay and his band suffer much in their journey and they eventually part ways so that Clay can go and try to find Johnny, his son. However, the Raggedy Man does not want to let them go and makes the others wait for Clay. He wants them all to go to a no phone area where he will make them pay for the damage that they have done to the rest of his system.

I won’t give the ending away, but it was immensely disappointing. It just left me hanging without any real answers. Frustrating.