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Little Miss Average (London, UK)

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unsettling - in a good way, 25 Nov. 2009
What I liked about this book is that we only get one viewpoint, that of the narrator who briefly recounts his recent history to an anonymous American in the form of a monologue. We never hear the American's dialogue directly - just our narrator's response to him (and these were a very telling and useful plot device).

It's what we're not told that I really like about this book: it's ambiguous, intriguing and full of suspense. There is a clear tension in the conversation, but the source of the tension is left to the reader to decide. Is the American under threat, or is he the one posing the threat? Is there even a threat at all or were both reacting in a way that demonstrates their own prejudices (with wariness and suspicion)? I especially like how the ambiguity remains long after the last page, a clear illustration of the current state of the world and the lack of understanding between the east and west.

One criticism is that the narrator doesn't speak like a Princeton graduate who has spent many years in America. I found that a little patronising, but perhaps the author thought it would lend an authenticity. The language was easy to follow and flowed very well though.

I have given this book 4 stars because I found it challenged me and my preconceptions. The open ending left me with lots to think about, and I thought about the issues it raised long after I finished the book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 28, 2010 11:39 PM BST


The Reader
The Reader
by Prof Bernhard Schlink
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Potentially brilliant, but sadly under-developed, 24 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Reader (Paperback)
What I liked about this book was that important questions were raised and the reader was left to wander about in the grey area between right and wrong and good and evil, and make their own judgements. The basic premise of the book was a good one: an exploration of post war Germany and the legacy left by the holocaust. Sadly though the opportunity was missed as the subject wasn't given the depth, complexity and scope it needed.

Fundamentally I think it was missing a very necessary human side - it's the human side of us that is most deeply ashamed and disturbed by that period in history, not the intellectual. On the whole the writing was not emotive enough to convey the nuances it needed to make this human struggle real. It intellectually made me think, but failed to move me emotionally (in spite of the gravity of the events). How I could have been so unaffected emotionally by the events in the church signify to me that something important was missing from this book.

I assumed that the relationship between Hanna (mid 30's) and Michael (15) was a vessel to explore how the different generations could reconcile themselves with what happened in their history and with each other: the ones who were there (Hanna) and the post-Nazi generations that followed (Michael). The war crimes trial being was a good choice of arena to explore this with Hanna and Michael being representative of each side of the divide. However, Schlink failed to make the romance real for me. The scenes of Hanna and Michael were mostly sexual, and those rare moments of a deeper connection were too few and far between to create the impression of a love that could span decades and endure the revelations of character and actions that we are asked to believe it did. If the romantic dynamic had been better developed, this situation could have been very powerful.

The unfulfilling romance aside, I could not connect with any of the characters individually either. They each made questionable decisions (around keeping quiet about Hanna's not-so-terrible secret) but I felt no empathy for either of them - I simply couldn't understand their motivations because I had no idea who they were out of the context of being tools to explore a complex issue.

I have given this book three stars. It does raise some important questions, and literature should always challenge, but it is ultimately lacking something and is very disappointing.

I might recommend this book to a select few.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 21, 2012 9:54 PM GMT


The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle, delicate, beautiful, exquisite and charming, 24 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Remains of the Day (Paperback)
Quite simply - I loved this book. It is a fantastic character novel, one of the best I've ever read. Stevens, the narrator, is reserved in the extreme and as a consequence his life is essentially empty. He is a fascinating character, trying desperately to preserve his `dignity' in every encounter, strive for perfection in everything, and keep a wall between himself and everyone around him. It's his vulnerability that makes him such an engaging (and desperately sad) character. Despite his best efforts to go unnoticed for anything other than his work, he is revealed to the reader is such a subtle way that you see straight through that reserve to the fearful and lonely man inside.

I found it incredibly moving, poignant and heartbreaking. I think the beauty of this character is that most people will be able to identify with him on some level.

The prose is brilliant; it has such an effortless flow to it that you get swept along with it. There are also sweet and comic moments - his worries and attempts at banter being one of them. All of this is set against the backdrop of political change and an impending war.

It's an amazingly subtle but human tale that I enjoy reading again and again. There is so much in so few pages that subsequent readings reveal more and more each time.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone and everyone.


Hunger
Hunger
by Knut Hamsun
Edition: Paperback

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful stuff, 23 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Hunger (Paperback)
I am so glad I picked this book up. It manages to be very intense, despite the fact that nothing really happens. The main struggle is in the internal world of the narrator, as he simply tries to cope and survive day to day. The psychological ups and down are very well written - his mood seemingly changes with the wind, and can flip and flop within a page of text. The characterisation is quite simply superb. He is sympathetically portrayed, and incredibly flawed, and is a victim of circumstance, but also perpetuates the cycle. It's such a human struggle I just couldn't put it down.

The key to this novel is the empathy you feel for the narrator. When his pride stops him accepting food you want to scream at him, when things don't go his way you hope for him, when he gets into a scrape you want to be there for him. In literature, if ever you encounter a character you want to scoop from the page and save from the world (or in this case themselves) you have something really special in your hands.

If by now it sounds like a depressing read: homelessness, poverty, loneliness, starvation, and hopelessness are all rather bleak reading - but the intensity of it is thrown into light relief by some comical episodes, stemming from his prideful delusions, mood swings and interactions (bickering with others in the street, and especially with himself).

I have given Hunger 5 stars because it has everything I look for in a great book. I have remembered it long after reading it, I genuinely cared about the fate of the main protagonist, and I have absolutely no qualms about recommending this book.


The White Tiger
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars On the fence, 23 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The White Tiger (Paperback)
Firstly I can't decide if the narrator is entertaining or simply just annoying, but he is memorable. There are some amusing parts, but I wouldn't classify it as comic on the whole. It's an easy read; I finished it within three days with little to no effort.

I have little knowledge of India, so can't say how accurate the portrayal was, but it wasn't far from the normal stereotype I've encountered before so I'm not sure why this one is advertised as being unique in that respect. It wasn't making any excuses for how it portrayed the nation though (mostly negatively in my opinion), which I can respect.

It was an ok book, but as you know how it ends from the very beginning I found myself searching for something that maybe wasn't there: a unique viewpoint, an amazing character, a fantastic social commentary; but if these things were there I missed them. The structure, a letter to the Chinese Premier, is a bit strange too - offering unsolicited advice, and an over familiar confessional quality.

I have given it three stars because it's not an awful book, but not a brilliant one either. Perhaps my impression will change on a second reading.

I am ambivalent about recommending it. As a rule of thumb though, if you have experience of or interest in India, you seem to take more from this book than the uninitiated like myself do.


Water for Elephants: A Novel
Water for Elephants: A Novel
by Sara Gruen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars All the fun of the circus, 23 Nov. 2009
This book has lots to offer, all the life and colour of the circus in fact. The setting was atmospheric and colourful, the cast of characters well drawn (but slightly clichéd) and the plot engaging. I challenge you not to fall in love with Rosie the elephant.

Gruen doesn't shy away from the darker side of circus life either, and it's within this darker underbelly that most of the action takes place (including scenes of animal cruelty so be warned). The plot mostly centres on a romance, but there is also the back drop of the depression, the ruthlessly run circus business, and the main protagonists struggle to belong, form relationships, and find a new family within the circus - all the while trying to stay true to his beliefs.

I liked the way it was constructed, jumping from elderly Jacob coping with the effects of aging in the nursing home, and then back to his time in the circus. The nursing home scenes are some of the best in the book for me: sensitive, charming and sad.

My only criticisms would be that some of the characters could have been developed a little bit more, some didn't seem to make it beyond caricature status. The writing style also didn't offer as much suspense as it should have because it bordered on clichéd and obvious for the most part. Criticism aside I still enjoyed this book.

I have given this book four stars because although I loved it, for me it didn't leave that lasting impression that I need to give five stars.

I would recommend this book.


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
by John Boyne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dangerously inaccurate and badly executed, 23 Nov. 2009
This is a story of the unlikely friendship between Bruno, a German commander's son, and Shumel, a Jewish boy imprisoned in a concentration camp during WWII.

I'll start by saying that I personally really didn't like this book, for all the reasons stated in the other 1 and 2 star reviews. Before buying this book, I'd advise you to read through all the 1 and 2 star reviews, and if you read anything significant enough to put you off buying it, then don't. I wish I'd read these first.

I'm sure it has been written the way it has for a reason, and that all the things I disliked about it are literary devices to highlight its main theme. I also know that it is fiction, and as such doesn't need to present the facts exactly as they are. However, taking the implausibility of the plot out of the equation, we are still left with a cast of ignorant characters, and these are what I found the most offensive. This book is targeted at Children, and has (in my view), a responsibility to treat the atrocities with the utmost respect. I think this novel fails significantly on this point. Take for example the central character Bruno, who doesn't know what a Jew is (despite having a high ranking German commander for a father and a house where Hitler comes over for tea), doesn't understand basic German (and yes, he is German), and seems to be unique in that he is completely unaware of the propaganda of the time nor the Hitler Youth (and we know engaging the next Generation was part of the Nazi philosophy).

I think perpetuating the myth that that level of ignorance could have existed (even in children) entirely misses the point of the need to teach children of the true horrors of the atrocity, and explaining to them how it could have happened in the first place. It's also very patronising. This novel, in my view, makes light of such an important subject.


Me & Emma (MIRA)
Me & Emma (MIRA)
by Elizabeth Flock
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars "A big sister has to look out for a baby sister,", 20 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Me & Emma (MIRA) (Paperback)
In one word - heartbreaking! A warning though, it is a disturbing subject, so be prepared to feel uncomfortable. In hindsight it does have its flaws, but this one has haunted me since I read it years ago, so I can't help but review it positively. I will admit it did lose a little on my second more recent reading, but I'm putting that down to hindsight, and having lost a little of the naivety I had on my first reading.

The story centres on two sisters, who have very little in the world except for each other (dead father, emotionally absent mother, abusive step-father), and is told from the point of view of Carrie, an 8 year old and the big sister. The language is that of a child which is mostly very well crafted (although sometimes a little too sophisticated to be believable). All of Carrie's observations are spot on, and in her child-like prose, very, very affecting.

There will be points in the story where you wonder if it is going anywhere, but it is worth persevering. The story is told in the present, alongside flashbacks to happier times when her father was alive. This contrast adds necessary layers to what is going on in the present.

I found myself completely absorbed: wishing, hoping, praying for a happy ending for these girls, and that is what made it special for me. The ending quite simply broke my heart. You almost know as you're reading, but until that confirmation comes, you still harbour hope. A book that can make me really feel for the characters is always a treasure.

I have given it 4 stars because as I said it lost something for me the second time around. Had I written this review the first time I would have given it 5 stars without question, as I cried real tears for those girls.

I would definitely recommend this book.


Salem Falls
Salem Falls
by Jodi Picoult
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

3.0 out of 5 stars The elements of a great story are there .... but not enough is made of them, 20 Nov. 2009
This review is from: Salem Falls (Paperback)
This is the second of Jodi's books that I have read, the first being My Sister's Keeper, and again I'm left slightly disappointed, but not wholly deterred from her work.

I liked the tone of the book, the way that I never felt coerced into thinking in any particular way about the issue, and how the lines between perpetrators and victims were blurred throughout - the reality is that you are rarely just one or the other in life. I also liked the witchcraft element and feel it added a necessary dimension to the novel - I appreciated the parallel drawn between the Salem witch hunts and Jack's trial. I like the idea of the book: the impact of lying, the impact of not standing up for the truth, the impact prejudice, and how easy it is for a lie to take on a life of its own and the consequences of that. I liked the ending to this one too, the way we weren't given a neat tying up of loose ends.

This book had much poential, but I felt that it let itself down in places. For one, the character of Jack St Bride didn't make much sense to me - considering his background and mother, his utter naivety around impressionable young girls didn't fit (although at the same time his desire to help them was understandable for exactly those reasons). I felt that Jack should have been developed more as a character, and should have been given a better leading lady than he was, someone to play off more and reveal more of himself though. I feel like Gillian should also have been portrayed more sympathetically from early on - at no point did I take to her and I think it would have been more powerful if I had.

I did anticipate the ending from quite early on, so the twist for me didn't shock. But, to be fair I was looking for it, and had this been my first Picoult I might have missed it.

I have given this book 3 stars because although I wanted to keep reading, it was forgettable once you put it down and that's a shame. I will read other books of hers though as I think she has a storytelling gift, and I like that she tackles such difficult subjects with tact and without judgement, leaving the reader to make up their own mind. That is a gift.

As a bonus, it has made me want to read The Crucible (which I missed out on in school) and perhaps that added dimension will change my view of this book.

As it stands, it probably wouldn't even occur to me to recommend this to anyone or pass it on.


My Sister's Keeper
My Sister's Keeper
by Jodi Picoult
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Emotional, haunting, and sad ... but missing something, 19 Nov. 2009
This review is from: My Sister's Keeper (Paperback)
I'm torn between loving and hating this book. Loving it because the plot is engaging, and unique; exploring very difficult moral and ethical questions with empathy, tact and charm. And hating it because it had so much potential but sadly fell short of the mark.

Starting with the good, Jodi clearly has a talent for story telling - I could not put this down! The prose is easy to read and understand, and the way she has constructed the narrative provides multiple view points (perfect for exploring such a complex issue) as well as adding pace to the action. At no point did I feel like I was wading through text for the sake of it. Each character has been given their own sub plot and perspective which is built up in layers over the course of the novel in small digestible scenes. It definitely succeeds in bringing attention to the ethical arguments, and you can't help but question what you would and wouldn't do in the same situation. It is a tug at the heart strings sentimental tale, but I loved that about it, I wanted to be moved and I wasn't disappointed.

And now for the not so good: all those missed opportunities. The character view points were given, but there was little to distinguish the narrative voice of, for example, Anna (the little girl) and her middle-aged lawyer (Campbell). The sub-plots were predictable, missing an opportunity to make the characters more real (some seemed functional from beginning to end), and have the reader care where they ended up. And my final criticism, the ending! The whole plot lead up to the decision the court was going to make, and how every character was going to have to live with that decision (with the present choice being to give their support to Anna or her mum and living with the implications of that no matter what the court decided). Each character did their own soul searching for what they hoped that decision would be, and we (the reader) were on that journey with them, going through all of the complex moral and ethical gymnastics it took for them to reach a decision they felt they could live with. But no one ends up living with their decision because it is voided by a frustrating plot twist. A much more powerful ending would have been to allow the characters to simply live with the decision (and their role in it) and all its wide ranging implications.

In spite of my reservations I have given this book 4 stars. I cannot deny that it made me think, cry and generally feel something, and that is its charm. Ultimately it is one of those books that has stayed with me long after I put it down which must be a sign of a good book.

I would recommend this book.


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