Monday, August 18

"The Kite Runner" - Khaled Hosseini

BLURB: product description: "In his debut novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini accomplishes what very few contemporary novelists are able to do. He manages to provide an educational and eye-opening account of a country's political turmoil--in this case, Afghanistan--while also developing characters whose heartbreaking struggles and emotional triumphs resonate with readers long after the last page has been turned over. And he does this on his first try.
The Kite Runner follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable. They spend idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors until an unspeakable event changes the nature of their relationship forever, and eventually cements their bond in ways neither boy could have ever predicted. Even after Amir and his father flee to America, Amir remains haunted by his cowardly actions and disloyalty. In part, it is these demons and the sometimes impossible quest for forgiveness that bring him back to his war-torn native land after it comes under Taliban rule. ("...I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.")
Some of the plot's turns and twists may be somewhat implausible, but Hosseini has created characters that seem so real that one almost forgets that The Kite Runner is a novel and not a memoir. At a time when Afghanistan has been thrust into the forefront of America's collective consciousness ("people sipping lattes at Starbucks were talking about the battle for Kunduz"), Hosseini offers an honest, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, but always heartfelt view of a fascinating land. Perhaps the only true flaw in this extraordinary novel is that it ends all too soon. --Gisele Toueg "

I have always been someone who wants both sides to a story. When two of my friends fought, I didn't just listen to one and bitch with them about the other - I sought out both of their opinions before making any judgement. When I began getting involved in debates about science and religion, I was mainly reading creationist literature, so I took biology as one of my subject in my senior years of high school to get the 'hard science' I was missing. And these days, most of the time when the media talks about Afghanistan and the Middle East, it's in a decidedly negative tone. After all, who was it who flew those planes into the Twin Towers on September 11?
It's for this reason that The Kite Runner becomes a much-needed antidote to the biased attitudes of many (reinforced by the media, of course). At a time when many Afghanis are probably crying out for their side of the story to be heard, this book has launched itself onto the bestseller list, and at least one of their stories can be told to everyone who reads it (and judging by the statistics on BookMooch, that's a lot of people - it is currently in second place on the 'Most Frequently Mooched' list.)
The tale of Amir, the protagonist, is beautifully told - after reading action-packed thrillers for a while, the different style of prose was at first startling, however I soon got used to it. Hosseini paints characters so incredibly real, so real that even the most hard-hearted of readers couldn't help but feel for them. The bleakness of their situations only heightens the sense of heartache one feels while reading - this is not a novel to read when you need cheering up, it's one to read when you need waking up to what goes on in the world we live in.
Nowhere is the utter depravity of human nature more starkly highlighted than in The Kite Runner. You may not enjoy it, but it will certainly make you think.

Not what I'd usually read at all, but I'm glad I did. 4 STARS

Friday, August 15

'Buttons' (video) by Sia

There are no words to describe this. You simply have to watch it to understand it.

Despite the fact that you can't really 'read' a video, and this is a review site for stuff I've read, this just kind of got to me. My overall response to seeing this video clip can be summed up in three letters:


You know you must be famous when you can make a video that consists entirely of lip-synching your song while contorting your face into grotesque positions by way of clear plastic (warning: danger of suffocation. keep away from children), stockings (retired bank robber perhaps?), pegs (which made me cringe just to look at) and sticky tape (not its most productive use). It's as though the singer said 'Hey, let's see how stupid and unglamorous I can look with this put on my face!' Followed by 'Hey, let's make this into a video clip!'
One question: why? Were you out of your mind and/or drunk and/or stoned when you made this?
Sia, I'm sorry, but you look like a complete idiot. I watched an interview with you talking to someone on a bus, and you seemed like a quirky, charming sort of person. But this video clip does not "make any statements about true beauty" (as one commenter claimed), nor does it make any statement at all, apart from perhaps "I'm bored so am mucking around with various materials in front of a camera". It's painful and sometimes very, very disturbing to watch.
The song is alright though.

Singing with a stocking over your head just makes you look like a moron. 1 STAR

"Next" - Michael Crichton

"Is a loved one missing some body parts? Are blondes becoming extinct? Is everyone at your dinner table of the same species? Humans and chimpanzees differ in only 400 genes; is that why a chimp fetus resembles a human being? And should that worry us? There's a new genetic cure for drug addiction--is it worse than the disease?
We live in a time of momentous scientific leaps, a time when it's possible to sell our eggs and sperm online for thousands of dollars and to test our spouses for genetic maladies.
We live in a time when one fifth of all our genes are owned by someone else, and an unsuspecting person and his family can be pursued cross-country because they happen to have certain valuable genes within their chromosomes...
Devilishly clever, Next blends fact and fiction into a breathless tale of a new world where nothing is what it seems and a set of new possibilities can open at every turn.
Next challenges our sense of reality and notions of morality. Balancing the comic and the bizarre with the genuinely frightening and disturbing, Next shatters our assumptions and reveals shocking new choices where we least expect.
The future is closer than you think. "
This is such an ambitious sort of book I doubt it would have succeeded if it weren't for Michael Crichton's best-selling status and reputation. In fact, my mum (also a fan of Crichton) tried reading it but put it down quite quickly as it "was just too complicated". I have to admit, it was.
This is not the kind of book you read as you're getting ready to fall asleep - it requires concentration. It was even getting to the point where I felt like writing down a list of the main characters and a short description for each, just for reference. Crichton juggles many lead characters at once, with many complex scientific scenarios as well, not to mention the fully fleshed-out personal lives of each character - their career paths, their wealth, their upbringing, their various sex partners, the lot. Their stories are all told 'at once' so to speak - a chapter about Rick, followed by a chapter about Josh, followed by a chapter about Lynn, and it's five chapters before we get back to Rick's story, which has since moved on slightly, and then we're back to Josh again and then a new character with a new situation is introduced and - you see what I mean. (There are even two different primary-school-aged boys called Jamie. Confusion city.)
These characters and their stories all interweave and connect as you move through the book, so the experience is sort of like watching a tapestry being constructed, but only seeing one distinct section being worked on at a time. The issues tackled in this one are also pretty hefty - it's all about genetic researchers and their crazy experiments and the big pharmaceutical companies who just want to make money. Occasionally, some elements of the story became slightly ludicrous - a genetically modified parrot with incredibly high intelligence levels who can perfectly mimic voices and sounds, do arithmetic, and hold coherent conversations sometimes provided comic relief, but other times was simply too ridiculous and the situations seemed contrived.
Because of all the different plotlines being juggled and told at the same time, I felt that there were too many loose ends not tied up at the end of the book. Following all these different storylines proved difficult, but possible - as long as you were concentrating very carefully.
Thought-provoking stuff that raises many questions about issues that arise in today's genetic industries, but the sheer amount of different plotlines and characters muddled the message. 3 STARS

Monday, August 11

CSSA General Mathematics Trial HSC Paper

General Instructions:
-Reading Time: 5 minutes
-Working time - 2 1/2 hours
-Write using blue or black pen
-Calculators may be used
-Use Multiple Choice Answer Sheet provided
-A separate formula sheet is provided
-Write your Centre Number and Student Number at the top of this page.

I hate maths. Also, after doing this exam today, and finding it to be the first exam paper that I have failed to completely finish within the allotted time, I am convinced that there is clearly not enough time to finish everything in two-and-a-half hours. Three hours are needed. We get three hours for the science papers, and for my senior science exam, I only needed about two-and-a-half. Why can't we have the same amount of time for maths? It's just as time-consuming to nut out how much tax Marie has to pay on her taxable income as it is to write about the impact mobile phones have had on society. There were way too many questions and not enough time, and I swear there were more financial mathematics questions than there were other questions, which take the longest to do. Unbalanced.

I hate maths. 0 STARS

Saturday, August 9

"Digital Fortress" - Dan Brown

"When the National Security Agency's "invincible" code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls in its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant, beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers send shock waved through the corridors of power. The NSA is being held hostage - not by guns or bombs, but by a code so complex that if released it would cripple US intelligence.
Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides she finds herself fighting not only for her country but for her life, and in the end, for the man she loves..."
I was about halfway through this book when Mum came and knocked at my bedroom door, telling me that she was going downstairs to watch the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, which - as we'd seen on the news - promised to be absolutely amazing (we'd recorded it). Did I want to see it?
I glanced from the book, back to her. "I'll be down in a few minutes," I said.
The next time I saw Mum, she was again standing in my bedroom door, telling me how spectacular it was, and that I would have loved it. Meanwhile, I'd made it to within the last couple of pages of the book.
This is how utterly engrossed I was in "Digital Fortress". The pace was absolutely unrelentless, the plot irresistably compelling, and it held my attention completely for an entire afternoon and evening, with the exception of mealtimes and helping to hold our cat while she was given a pill.
I love thrillers, pure and simple. But my favourite kind are the 'chase thrillers' - yeah, there's plenty of them, and often they all feature the same basic elements, but they are my absolute favourite kind of story, whether in print or on a movie or TV screen. Give me someone being chased and running for their life, and all the action scenes this scenario promises, and I'm hooked. That is exactly what this slightly exhausting book delivered.
In addition, I liked the 'geeky' touches; brilliant computer hackers always make a good plot device. In this case, someone threatening to compromise the computer that holds all the secrets of the United States. Sound familiar? Yeah, I thought so too, but what the heck - if something works, stick with it.
The entire book felt like a rollercoaster ride - for the first few chapters, it was that moment of anticipation as the cars are being slowly tugged to the top of the track, and the ride hasn't started yet. Then you get to the top, and the cars are released from whatever mechanism had been hauling them up to the peak of the ride, and it's just one big screaming adrenalin rush down to the bottom.
And if I say any more, I'll just end up using even worse cliches.
Yay for nerds! An exhilarating ride from start to finish. 5 STARS

Friday, August 8

"Breaking Dawn" - Stephenie Meyer

" To be irrevocably in love with a vampire is both fantasy and nightmare woven into a dangerously heightened reality for Bella Swan. Pulled in one direction by her intense passion for Edward Cullen, and in another by her profound connection to werewolf Jacob Black, she has endured a tumultuous year of temptation, loss and strife to reach the ultimate turning point. Her imminent choice to either join the dark but seductive world of immortals or pursue a fully human life has become the thread from which the fate of two tribes hangs.
Now that Bella has made her decision, a startling chain of unprecedented events is about to unfold with potentially devastating and unfathomable consequences. Just when the frayed strands of Bella's life - first discovered in Twilight, then scattered and torn in New Moon and Eclipse - seem ready to heal and knit together, could they be destroyed...forever?"

If you haven't read the book yet, this review does have some spoilers...which is why I've left this enormous white space. So the spoilers don't hurt your eyes when you first wander in, and you can still exit without coming into contact with them. For those who've finished (or just don't care), scroll down!

I finally finished ‘Breaking Dawn’ yesterday – a fair task, considering its width. When I brought it home I immediately compared it to the thickest book in my collection, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’, and discovered it was about the same size, although its actual length is probably closer to ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ once you take font size into account. But that is by the by – I finished this mammoth book in the same week I was busy studying for, and taking, my yearly exams. Now that’s dedication. (Or perhaps just obsession.)

I am glad with the way it turned out, though. Finally, here is an author who is not afraid to have a story with a happy ending for everyone! It really annoys me when authors inflict terrible events on their characters just for that added shock value, or to get in a real twist (again, Harry Potter springs to mind…). Meyer manages to avoid this and still spins a decent tale.

I think it’s interesting to note that her book has received negative reviews from some people, due to the fact that Bella becomes pregnant, and they believe Meyer is condoning teenage pregnancy. They, however, have missed the most important point – Meyer is not condoning teenage pregnancy, per se, but is condoning waiting until you have been married before having sex. Additionally, Bella decides to keep the baby, rather than just shrieking ‘Ah! Baby! I’m a teenager! Abortion!’ straight away. I applaud Meyer for upholding these basic moral values that seem to have slipped through the cracks of our society.

Speaking of which, ‘Breaking Dawn’ and the rest of the Twilight Saga is proof that you can write a dramatic, seductive and sexy romance novel (and believe me, there were many eyebrow-raising lines that put the ‘adult’ in ‘young adult novel’) while still only having couples that are committed to one another! Sexy romance, but married! Imagine that.

Admittedly, this book was a slight let-down (emphasis on 'slight'). Despite its length, it seemed over very quickly. Also, I think having Jacob narrate about a quarter of the book was a bad move - sure, it will please the Jacob fans, but as for everyone else (me included)? Annoying! I deliberately pushed my way through Jacob's bit in order to get to Bella's narration again. Although I did enjoy the chapter titles for Jacob's section - a nice contrast, with humour too.

'Breaking Dawn' just seemed to be lacking the pizazz of its predecessors, like there was something missing - something indefinable, but something that was definitely there in the first three books. I did enjoy it, but my final reaction was the same after reading the final Harry Potter book - "what, is that it? After all that hype?" I just feel the ending could have been better.

Good story, happy ending, but I still think 'Eclipse' and 'Twilight' managed to surpass this one overall. 4 STARS