Sunday, December 6

"The Lovely Bones" - Alice Sebold

" 'My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. My murderer was a man from our neighbourhood. My mother likes his border flowers, and my father talked to him once about fertiliser.'

This is Susie Salmon, speaking from heaven - which looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets, counsellors to help newcomers adjust, and friends to room with. Everything Susie wants appear as soon as she thinks of it - except the one thing she wants most: to be back with the people she loved on earth.

Watching from her place in heaven, Susie sees her happy, suburban family devastated by her death, isolated even from one another as they each try to cope with their terrible loss alone. Over the years, her friends and siblings grow up, fall in love, do all the things she never had the chance to do herself. But life is not quite finished with Susie yet..."

REVIEW: I got to about halfway through this book when I realised something was missing. I couldn't quite put my finger on it for a while. And then it hit me:


The Lovely Bones is sadly lacking in plot. Where had it even gone? Was it there to begin with?

To me, a plot has a clear Beginning, a Middle, and an End. In between the Beginning and the End, there is at least one cycle of 'Conflict' and then 'Resolution'. There's some kind of goal the characters are actively working towards. You know, the guy gets the girl. The tragedy is averted. The mystery is solved. That sort of thing.

Didn't happen in The Lovely Bones.

And what is a book without a plot? I guess you could call it an 'exploration' of a theme, or an observational 'study', or a collection of poems, or something along those lines. However, if you're going to craft a fictional work along those lines, it needs to be done brilliantly if it's going to work, otherwise the audience will virtually fall asleep whilst mid-read.

Like I did.

The first few chapters were interesting - I've never read a book where the narrator had died within the first few sentences!* - but later I realised that the emotional side of those chapters came less from the actual book, but more from imagining the pain that a murdered child would bring upon a family.

And then, it became a dreary, boring, highly unrealistic recount of people growing up, with the only added ingredient being that they were all dealing with grief and loss. Sort of like watching a generation of Sims growing up in The Sims 2 without having any interaction with the gameplay. I didn't feel for the characters, the story lacked depth, and most of all, none of it seemed real. The characters and their actions did not seem credible, even in the circumstances they were dealing with. Not a single character seemed 'right'. In a way, The Lovely Bones felt very slightly like a Jodi Picoult novel without the sheer, grippingly realistic characters and emotional punch.

Flicking through to the last few chapters, things only became more ridiculous. (Spoiler: highlight invisible text to read). After reading the scene where Susie possesses Ruth's body and then "makes love" to Ray "in the shower and in the bedroom and under the lights and fake glow-in-the-dark stars" - well, I kind of tossed the book down in sheer disbelief. Absolutely terrible. I mean, come on. Seriously?

Ultimately, The Lovely Bones wound up on a very, very short pile in my room: books that remain eternally unfinished because they were so incredibly unengaging that really, all things considered, I'd prefer to be watching paint dry.

RATING: I imagine voguelady will probably eat me alive for giving "one of [her] favourite books" such a vicious panning, but I cannot believe how much I disliked this book, despite its current popularity. 1 STAR

* No, The Book Thief doesn't count, since Death had never been alive and therefore had never died. See what I did there?

EDIT: OK, here we go, this is a first. An additional note for one of my reviews. How intriguing.

But really, people, what have I overlooked? Everywhere I look I find reviews that are nothing short of glowing. Plus, completely incorrect (in my mind) genre-categorising: people are calling it a "thriller" - why? It does not thrill. The pace does not keep smartly chugging along. Instead the pace seemed to get a bit lost in the pond where it's now become so stagnant that all the previously living creatures in that pond are now non-living thanks to the thick build-up of algae.

Anyway. Is this somehow another sign of my severe unsophisticatedness? My unappreciation for abstract art, unconventional writing, etc? Or am I just one of the few reviewers out there to not be swayed by both professional and public opinion and just tell it like it is?

Feel free to leave some thoughts in the comments for me.

Monday, November 23

"The Five Greatest Warriors" - Matthew Reilly

"It Began With Six Stones
Jack West Jr and his loyal team are in desperate disarray: they've been separated, their mission is in tatters, and Jack was last seen plummeting down a fathomless abyss.
After surviving his deadly fall, Jack must now race against his many enemies to locate and set in place the remaining pieces of The Machine before the coming Armageddon.
As the world teeters on the brink of destruction, he will learn of the Five Warriors, the individuals who throughout history have been most intimately connected to his quest.
Scores will be settled, fathers will fight sons, brothers will battle brothers, and Jack and his friends will soon find out exactly what the end of the world looks like..."

I have to say, I was disappointed with this one. And I feel disappointed that I'm disappointed, since I was really looking forward to reading it, and I felt as though us readers were definitely owed something after the completely unfair cliffhanger ending of The Six Sacred Stones.

But unfortunately, to me this book felt like one long, drawn out, tired, well-used, and VERY predictable formula:
Team of Heroes must place pillars into vertexes to save world.
Team of Heroes are actively being pursued and trying to be stopped in this quest by Various Villains.
Team of Heroes encounter various challenges at each vertex. Team must fight Various Villains. Team must place pillar against all odds.
At some point, Member of Team is captured by Villain. Villain has some unspeakable fate for Member of Team. But never fear! Member of Team is rescued by other Team Heroes. Before the end of the story, the Villain responsible meets some ghastly end, either through the actions of one of the Heroes or just bad karma.
At one point in the story, Pivotal Character dies. Everyone is briefly sad. Lily sobs and cries. Then Team of Heroes grimly continue with Mission To Save The World.
At some point in the story, Key Fight To the Death occurs between two key characters. One dies. The other does not.
At one point in the story, Key Hero Jack West is seen meeting certain death. However he manages to escape this by an Implausible Reason and then Astonishes people by coming "Back From The Dead".
Throughout story, Astonishing Revelations about Historical Stuff and Places make everyone Gasp in Astonishment.
Climax of story involves Saving the World. World is saved. Villains are dead. Team of Heroes (minus a few) celebrate in peace and quiet in Remote Location.
Short Interview with Author at back of book.

OK. Now, formulas are fine, and every book / song / movie / creative work needs to start with some kind of base formula as its foundations. But the book (or whatever 'creative work') only becomes really good when this forumla is extrapolated, built upon, tweaked, changed, and ultimately crafted into something new and unique.

The Five Greatest Warriors, much like songs by Simple Plan, seemed to me to be just one long formula. I became a bit bored, despite all the perilous running around and actionable scenes. I didn't care for the characters and felt nothing when a key character died. This, to me, shows just how much Reilly's writing has changed since embarking on the Jack West Jr series. When characters died in Contest or any of the Shane Schofield series (especially Scarecrow!) or Temple, I felt sad (in some way) that they'd died. (No, I didn't burst into sobs and drench the pages of the books with my hot bitter salty tears. You know how it is when a good character dies.)

I also didn't really like the inclusion of Jesus as one of the major parts of the plot. (I don't feel as though I am giving any crucial spoilers away in saying this, since it's mentioned fairly early on in the book that Jesus Christ is one of the 'five warriors'.) I won't say anything else, and in fact the book doesn't make any great factual claims (it's allllll fiction, folks), but it just seems like a tacky grab for controversy on the author's part. "Ooh, look at me, I'm talking about the history of a major religious figure and making Implications! How controversial and risky of me! FREE SPEECH!"

In short, I really miss Reilly's earlier works and style. Bring back Schofield. Bring back aliens in the library. Just let Jack and his Team of Heroes feel all pleased with themselves for Saving the World and leave them to retire in peace in their Remote Location.

RATING: It was an OK way to spend two afternoons, but a lot of the reading felt curiously like a chore. Disappointing. 3 STARS

Friday, October 9

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" - Mark Haddon

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a murder mystery novel like no other. The detective, and narrator, is Christopher Boone. Christopher is fifteen and has Asperger's Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human beings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour's dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down."

It's difficult to know how to review this one. On the surface, I didn't really like the book...but the purpose of this particular novel isn't really to entertain.

For me, the majority of fiction I read has to serve one purpose, above all others: to entertain. I want to get absorbed in the story, lost in the words, hooked into the narrative, and basically use books as another form of escapism. Of course if the book also has an important message, that's icing on the cake. But I mainly read fiction for entertainment.

The Curious Incident didn't quite make it, and it was a bit of a chore to finally - finally - finish this book, which has been sitting forlornly on my 'to be read' shelf for possibly over a year now. The predominant emotion I felt throughout the story was frustration. And come on, when I'm on the train at 7:45am on a cold wet day being squashed against the window by a really big person sitting next to me - I'm already kind of in a sour mood. The last thing I need to be thinking is "This is the most frustrating, dysfunctional bunch of main characters I have ever spent time with".

Of course, the protagonist (and narrator) has every reason to come across as frustrating, and I guess that's where this book really shines through: realism. Every single other person that Christopher came into contact with struck me as incredibly real. The dialogue, their thoughts, their actions, and most of all how Christopher perceived them, seemed to leap off the page. Plus, I definitely have a bit more of a sense now for what it must be like to live with someone who has a mental illness. If I felt frustrated just by reading a (comparatively) short novel about someone with Asperger's, I can't imagine how difficult it would be to feel that way every single day.

I have a terrible feeling if I go on for too much longer, I'll fall into some horrible quagmire of Insensitivity and/or Political Incorrectness. Normally, I fully support this on the Internet - there's too much careful sidestepping and political correctness everywhere else in the world, it's often refreshing to find someone who doesn't give a damn and just says what they think. But for now, I'll leave this review with just one final comment...

RATING: ...I'm giving it points for sheer realism, and also for (as I call it) Dealing with a Significant Issue, but for me personally, I wasn't a fan of the book. 2 STARS

Thursday, October 8

"Jennie" - Paul Gallico

"Original, humorous, poignant, compassionate, Jennie has become a classic of its kind.
It relates the unforgettable adventures of a small boy changed into a stray cat and befriended by the indomitable Jennie, who initiates him into the lore of London's streets.
The Times Literary Supplement said: 'Jennie has the same simplicity as The Snow Goose; it is, like its forerunner, a family book, and as such deserves the same success.' "

I showed this blog to a friend at uni today, and she asked me which was my favourite book. I mentioned I hadn't actually reviewed it on here (and so I decided to remedy this immediately), and then proceeded to tell her what the book was about.
Unfortunately, when you try to describe Jennie to other people, this is another example of a really great book with Stoopid Plot syndrome:
"It's about a boy called Peter who sort of turns into a cat...and he meets up with another cat...and they go on all these adventures together."
Even though it sounds ridiculous, this is such a gorgeous story which I have read approximately 14, 753 times. It's one of those rarities that can transcend age boundaries, in my opinion, since children can enjoy the fantastical premise and the adventures of Peter and Jennie, while adults appreciate the gentle storytelling and cat-person references.
And oh man, I am definitely one of these 'cat people'. In fact I think I'm starting to sound like an old woman. Living alone. With fifty cats.
I have a feeling non-cat-people wouldn't appreciate the majority of this book, since it focuses so directly on cat behaviour. The author was a keen cat lover and wrote quite a few books featuring felines and their foibles (other examples include Thomasina and The Silent Miaow). However for cat lovers, it's a real treat to read about Jennie's careful tutelage to the newly-transformed Peter about how to behave like a proper cat - it's full of little moments of recognition, when you realise your cat does everything Jennie describes, to the letter.
It's an older book, with some subtle humour and more than a few lines of thickly accented Scottish speech (och aye) that some people might find difficult to understand, and one particular part of the story nearly always moves me to tears. It's also one of my favourite books.
Go read it. (Unless you're a dog person.)

RATING: Incredibly sweet, warmly told, and generally just a great story. 5 STARS

Wednesday, September 30

biotaBOOM - A Blog

"biotaBOOM is a blog about interesting animal stuff. And maybe occasionally plants, although I don't find plants very interesting to be honest. And occasional other related stuff.
"Biota" simply means "living organisms", and "boom" means "boom." You're right, there's no point to the "boom" part. I put it there just for kicks."

Normally, I would never indulge in such shameless self-promotion as this. If I'd created another blog of some sort, I would probably just leave a little discreet link on the side panel over there -> and wait for people to randomly stumble across it (much like this blog).
Unfortunately, 'biotaBOOM' is not just another case of "I feel like making a blog about [blah]. Cool. I'll do that."

I'm currently enrolled in a subject at uni called Professional Science Communication, in which we learn how to use multimedia to communicate science, basically. We were told to create some kind of 'project' (worth 15% of our final mark) for the last few weeks of semester that involved multimedia and science, so I decided to set up another blog about interesting animal stuff.
BUT. The thing is, part of the marking scheme involves incorporating feedback from other people into the final product.

And I need your feedback!

The main purpose, therefore, of this particular blog entry is to plead for pageviews and comments. I've got a hit counter on the new blog, and it would be seriously extremely wonderful if you, dear reader, could simply take two seconds of your day to click on this link:

Even if you don't leave any comment - even if you don't look at the website at all! - at least that's another 'hit' on the site, so at the end of the day I can say "Well, I had x number of hits on my blog!" And hopefully get more marks, or something.

What would be even better, though, is if you could just read the blog entry/entries that are there, have a brief look at the blog overall, and then leave a quick comment about it. Tell me what you like and what you hate (and why) and I will love you forever and send you an imaginary prize via telepathy for your trouble. I only ask because I need to build up the blog (and the entries), market it a little, and incorporate feedback etc, within the next three weeks. Everything has to be finished by the 15th of October.

RATING: I think this is fairly irrelevant, seeing as it's another one of my own blogs. I'd really love it if YOU could give it some kind of rating though - preferably in the form of a comment on the blog itself!

Monday, September 28

"The Book Thief" - Markus Zusak

"It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.
By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery.
So beings a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.
But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down.
In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time."

I read this one in bits and pieces over a very long period (...well, a long period for me to be stuck on the same book, anyway). It wasn't because the book wasn't engaging enough, but because stupid trivial things such as university and tests and assessments and minor family mishaps kept getting in the way of progress.

But I finally finished it today, and subsequently felt rather depressed. In fact, very depressed.

Of course I know about what happened during the second world war in Nazi Germany, on a sort of 'factual' level. I've seen a movie adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, I've heard about people like Corrie ten Boom, I've read about it on Wikipedia (which of course naturally makes me an expert now), etc etc. But nothing brought home the true horror of actually living there, actually experiencing the full force of human tragedy, as The Book Thief.

At first I thought it was the weirdest book I've ever read. I mean, for starters, it's narrated by Death. Secondly, the prose is bizarre. I felt like I was swinging wildly between hating the pretentiousness and loving the richness with which Zusak describes the most ordinary things. Everything is personified and metaphoralised (..."metaphoralised"?...oh well) beyond belief. Houses "crouch nervously", for example, or pimples "gather in peer groups". Only, imagine this continuing throughout the entire book, on every page. Also, there were a couple of things that weren't explicitly spelled out, which mystified me a bit, and I wish they'd been made more obvious.

Once the book really got going, though, I quite enjoyed the reading experience as a whole. A lot of careful thought and imagination has been poured into this story, which I like. The characters were interesting, if occasionally a little unbelievable. And it definitely highlighted the despair of living in Nazi Germany.

What a horrible time in human history.

RATING: Incredibly haunting, and well worth a read - but probably only once. 4 STARS

Monday, August 24

"Nineteen Minutes" - Jodi Picoult

"Sterling is a small, ordinary New Hampshire town where nothing ever happens - until a student enters the local high school with an arsenal of guns and starts shooting, changing the lives of everyone, inside and out.
The daughter of the judge sitting on the case should be the state's best witness - but with her boyfriend dead and her childhood friend charged with murder, she's struggling to remember what happened in front of her own eyes....
Number one bestselling author Jodi Picoult brings us her hardest-hitting and most involving novel yet. NINETEEN MINUTES asks what it means to be different in our society, who has the right to judge someone else - and whether a person is ever whom they seem to be..."

If you want a truly uplifting, joyous, warm, inspiring read - do not read Nineteen Minutes.
I borrowed it from the library on a whim, mainly to see why everyone was raving about Jodi Picoult. And once I started reading it, I found out why. To me, it was utterly engrossing, and as 'un-put-downable' as any thriller. It was also very, very moving and emotionally powerful. However I don't think I'll be reading any more books by Picoult after this.
Why? Because it was so profoundly sad.
Nineteen Minutes is incredibly depressing, but I think that's because it seems so real. You can imagine, with great clarity, every single one of the scenes in this book. You can imagine how each of the characters feel, how they act, how they think, what they look like. In fact Picoult paints characters so real, so vivid, that I found myself thinking about them long after I'd actually put down the book on any given day.
Occasionally, it did veer a little too widely into slightly sappy sentimental territory, and at times it felt as though the author was putting in all these clever metaphors just for the sake of writing something that had a 'deep' hidden meaning to it, just because she could. "The rain came down so they couldn't see each other clearly". Oh, and it's like a reflection of their relationship too! Wow. That's profound.
On the whole, it was one of those books that just stays with you for ages, making you think, and it does call you to question who the real victims are in various situations.

RATING: Riveting. Depressing. And haunting. 4 STARS