Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

I really enjoyed this Stephen King novel, first published in 1992.  A number of you have posted recently, and favourably, about various King novels and I realised I hadn't read any, although, I grew up really enjoying some of the movie and mini-series versions of his fiction.  This morning, I was at my local markets, and found  this lovely, hard covered, second hand copy of  Dolores Claiborne.  I'll admit it, it was partly the cover that got me in; eclipse, strange lighting and an old lady on a rocking chair.  I abandoned (temporarily) the fascinating, although more challenging, China Mieville novel I have been reading, and spent a wonderful afternoon completely immersed in the struggles of Dolores.

Firstly, to read a Stephen King novel in an afternoon it is clearly not one of his door-stoppers.  At less than 250 pages, I found it concise, engaging and thoroughly satisfying.  And for me a great introduction to Stephen King.

The story is told in a continuous chapterless narrative by Dolores as she makes a statement, at the local police station, pertaining to the sudden death of her elderly employer.  Dolores describes events, not only leading up to the death of the old lady for whom she has kept house for thirty years, but dark secrets from her own past, that shaped not only her life, but the lives of her children.  I am not going to say more because much of the enjoyment is in the surprising and wonderful plotting, except to say that the story takes place on a little island off the Maine coast where Dolores has lived all her life.  And I really admired King's ability to create two, sympathetic, strong and completely believable female characters, who pretty much carry this story.  The novel is a wonderful mixture of sensitive human drama and, what I assume to be, some of King's signature spine tingling effects and creepiness.  I loved it.

I will definitely be giving more of Stephen King's  novels a go.  Has anyone read Dolores Claiborne?  And what are others' favourites by King?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: Lilian's Story by Kate Grenville

I enjoyed this novel by Australian author Kate Grenville, after a bit of a bumpy start.  Lilian's Story was first published in 1985 and is a real favourite amongst Australian readers.  I was prepared to dislike it because I often find it difficult to fully engage with some of the, overcoming of childhood adversity or "triumph of the human spirit"  type stories.  And while Lilian's story certainly fits that bill, its effect completely snuck up on me, and far from contrived, I found it genuinely moving and surprising.

 The novel, told by Lilian in the first person, begins with her childhood, where the reader experiences the isolation and strength she must employ to withstand her father's cruelty and abuse, and her mother's disengagement.  Lilian eats excessively to try and create a barrier between herself and her father. 

I won't relay more of the plot details, except to say the book is divided into three parts: "A Girl", "A Young Lady" and "A Woman" which take the reader through the shaping of this woman from a bullied, but resourceful child, to someone trying to find her place in the world and realise her dreams.

Grenville uses a number of literary devices.  The chapters within the parts of the book, are very short, sometimes only a page long, this increases the pace of the narrative.  The brief chapters also seem to correspond to a life remembered in chards, and like memory, certain details stand out  with brilliant clarity and significance.  The meaning of events to Lilian is conveyed consistently and effectively.   The dialogue in the story was italicized, not enclosed with quotation marks.  While I am sure this was done to add to the remembered, first person, feel of the narrative, it mostly just annoyed me.

Lilian's story is peopled by some wonderful characters.  Her younger brother John is an interesting character, and their relationship, plagued by the influence of their abusive father, is poignantly portrayed as it endures into adulthood. 

Themes relating to mental illness and societal reactions to mental illness in the first half of the twentieth century play a major role in Lilian's life and story.  While the story is set in an earlier era, the issues around mental illness and its misconceptions still seem relevant today.  Where Grenville succeeds, is in creating a story that celebrates everyone's unique story.  She invites the reader to consider and remember that behind every face there is a story.  Like that wonderful REM song "Everybody Hurts", and some people have experienced such a degree of trauma in their lives, that to cope they may no longer fit an image of what others consider normal or acceptable.  For me this is what Lilian's story is about and where it shines.

Lilian's Story reminds me a great deal of Sebastian Barry's "The Secret Scripture" in its themes.  The Secret Scripture was one of my favourite reads of last year (in the top two), and while Lilian's Story did not hit the same heights for me, it is none the less impressive and memorable.

Monday, July 11, 2011

They Just Keep Getting Better: When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson, A Review

I will keep this brief because I have posted plenty about Kate Atkinson's thoroughly delightful Jackson Brodie books already, the earlier two being Case Histories and One Good Turn.  But I can't not post something about When Will There Be Good News because I found it the best of the three.

Jackson is no longer a private investigator, he is remarried and when the novel opens is on a hair-brained journey trying to find out if his ex girlfriend's son is his.  He starts out completely lost and becomes even more so as he is nearly killed in a horrific train crash.  A train he caught in error, no less.  The teenager girl who resuscitates him quickly involves him in her own quest to find her missing employer.

This effortless linking and weaving of plots, which to me is one of the hallmarks of Atkinson's writing, is mesmerising.  There is a great deal of subtly in Atkinson's characterisations, and wit and pathos.  She also holds a lot back, which is so unusual in any sort of modern mystery, and at other times she literally side swipes the reader with some utterly surprising but completely believable revelation.  It certainly kept this reader on her toes. 

And rather than become sick of Jackson, he is actually becoming far less like the modern day fictional detective/PI type and more nuanced, uniquely flawed, and completely captivating.  While overlapping mystery is at the heart of all three novels, each instalment is losing more and more association with anything to do with the crime fiction genre.  I am sure that is by design and by doing so Atkinson is showing us how really good she is.

Okay I am waxing on, but this series of books has been such a delightful discovery, and, I have the last one (to date) "Started Early Took My Dog" on the bookshelf, waiting to go.  I think I will delay that pleasure for a while yet.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Classic Science Fiction: The Chrysalids byJohn Wyndham, a review.

The Chrysalids, first published in 1955, is by English author John Wyndham. I remember reading, arguably Wyndham's most well known novel, The Day of the Triffids when I was about 13 and couldn't get over how exciting and scary it was. So it has been interesting for me to return to a Wyndham novel. Mind you, I am going through a bit of a flirtation with sci-fi, currently, and loving it.

Firstly The Chrysalids does not have much in common with The Day of the Triffids in terms of its plot. The Chrysalids is set in a future post apocalyptic world called Labrador, where life has returned to a pre industrialised state and the primary concern is farming. Our protagonists live in the small village of Waknuk.  When the novel opens David is 10, and largely ignored by his hard working, fundamentalist family.  David befriends Sophie who has six toes on each foot.  He is confused because under the doctrine that has been taught to him since birth, any "deviations" from the strict physical norm are seen as blasphemies and must be discovered and destroyed or banished, at all cost.  Genetic "purity" is pursued ferociously not just in people, but crops, and livestock.

The treatment of Sophie at the hands of David's father, who is a prominent community leader, leaves a lasting impression on him and he begins to question this so-called natural order of things.  Subsequently a small group of the village children, including David, discover they have telepathic powers, whereby they are able to communicate with each other using "thought shapes."  For the next decade the group of telepathic children live in fear of discovery and sterilization and banishment to The Fringes, a wild, inhospitable land where human deviations are sent, including children.

Concealment of their special abilities works, until David's much younger sister begins to show signs of very strong telepathic, projection powers; far stronger than any of the other children, and due to her young age she has little control over this power which brings the group to the brink of disaster.  They are forced to flee.

What works about about this novel?  I liked the tone and fast pace of the story.  In a way, it reminded me a little of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Not so much the plot, which is completely different, but the pace, and the idea of a group of young people having to fight against societal limits and tyrannical rules.  There is also a scene where members of the group have to seek refuge in a cave, which brought to mind a similar scene in The Hunger Games.  Like the Hunger Games, the adolescents' trials, form part of their development and character, as they are forced to reject a long established status quo and literally fight for their lives.  I also liked some of the literary devices used.  The "telepathy" intensifies the action as, even though different members of the group become captured and separated, they still contribute to the action of the fleeing group as they can communicate over distance.  One of the undiscovered telepaths joins the pursuing forces so he can keep David and the others informed.  Keeping everyone in contact, certainly increased the momentum of the story.

Limitations:  The ending is a bit silly, and doesn't really fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.  There is literally an "out of the blue" resolution that took the novel from being tense and compelling to a bit trite and Hollywood. 

Overall, this is a small matter, I could scarcely put the book down.  For those who haven't read any Wyndham, and would like to, I would recommend reading The Day of the Triffids (1951) first.  It's appeal, compared to Chrysalids, which is still marvellous, is that the apocalypse happens in the modern (twentieth century) era, and the Triffids are, frankly, the scariest creatures you can imagine.  I will have to read The Day of the Triffids again, because I am sure as a 12 or 13 year old reader, much of the societal comment would have been lost on me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review: One Good Dog by Susan Wilson (audio)

I haven't been listening to as many audio books lately, not really sure what is going on there, as I continue to drive a lot with work. Truth be told I am probably walking less which is where the audio book really comes into its own for me.

Consequently it has taken a while for me to work my way through One Good Dog.  This does not do it justice, as One Good Dog is an original, wonderfully conceived and executed story.  There are two parallel stories really, one is of Adam March, a fallen executive who has to try and piece his life back together after a rash moment at his office costs him everything: his good name, his marriage, his lucrative work, just to begin.  The dog, later known as Chance, is a battle hardened pit-bull fighter.  I don't think one needs to be clairvoyant to see that man meets dog, dog meets man, and both learn something from each other.

The audio book was deftly narrated by two men (Fred Berman and Rick Adamson), corresponding to the two, first person points of view of Adam and Chance.  Susan Wilson is clearly a dog lover as the sections of the book told by Chance are insightful and often hilarious.  Adam's story also strikes a chord in relation to how easy it is for anyone to lose themselves in the modern quest for professional power, when they are running from unresolved personal demons.

While part of me wants to complain that at times it was all just a bit too sentimental for this cat lover, I can't honestly do that, because I still found myself laughing and crying at different times.  Wilson writes succinctly, and gloriously evokes a dog's eye view, which well and truly transforms this story of self discovery and redemption, into something unique and thoroughly entertaining.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

Well it is Friday, thank goodness for that, and time for The Hop, which is hosted by Jennifer at Crazy For Books.  This week the question to get the conversation flowing is:

What keeps you reading beyond the first few pages of a book, and what makes you want to stop reading a book and put it back on the shelf?

For me, an intriguing plot or an interesting character will keep me going for a while and then the biggest thing that makes me shelve a book before finishing it can be poor writing or cardboard characters, or both. 

What an interesting question this week.  I look forward to reading everyone elses responses.

The Scar by China Mieville

The Scar by China Mieville is so far beyond my normal reading purview that I hardly know where to begin to do it justice.  Whether it goes under steampunk fantasy, new weird fiction or plain old sci-fi, this weighty volume is something else.

We begin on a ship, the Terpsichoria, with our reluctant, self absorbed and down right taciturn heroine, Bellis Coldwine, who has taken passage on the ship to escape her beloved home of New Crobuzon.  We do know that Bellis is a linguist and sometimes translator, we don't know at that stage why she has fled.  The Terpsichoria is bound for Nova Esperium, a young colony half way across the world, eager for new settlers.

There are other passage paying characters that become important later on, including Johannes Tearfly, a naturalist and scientist who was going to the Nova Esperium, to investigate the largely unstudied fauna of the new colony. 

Bellow decks, the Terpsichoria is transporting a hull load of "remade" prisoners to see out their sentences on the new colony.  Learning what remade means is the first of many truly fantastic delights in this book, as Mieville unleashes his extraordinary imagination describing convicts who have been surgically altered as part of their punishment, to change their functionality.  I won't give away any spoilers here, except to say that part of the charm and intrigue of this story is what I think makes it fall under the steampunk category, and that is, while we are clearly in another world, the technology available is more like what was available around the time of the Industrial Revolution, steam engine power etc.  Mieville does go beyond this as well though, and creates whole new types of energy and power, but there is not a computer chip or laser beam in sight.

The Terpsichoria is intercepted by a pirate ship, and the ship, and all aboard, except the captain who is killed, are abducted and taken to Armada, which, as the name suggests, is a city made entirely of sailing vessels linked together and built upon.  This is really where the story begins, as our characters have to adapt to being citizens of Armada, with no hope for return to New Crobuzon.  For the convicts from the Terpsichoria, it is a wonderful boon, they are suddenly free.  For Bellis it is a nightmare that she spends all of her time trying to manoeuvre her way out of.  She is employed by Armada as a librarian, in a city where books are mysteriously prized above nearly all else.

Throughout, Mieville's imagination and vision reign supreme.  Besides humans, the novel is populated with characters from different made up species; there are fighters, cactus people and vampires, to mention only a few, who are all flung together on the Armada, a pirate city that has been sailing the seas for centuries.  Much of the tension of the narrative comes from the machinations of the rulers of the city in their outlandish quest for power and dominance.  We learn that the Terpsichoria was targeted for a reason and several of those on board, including Johannes and Bellis, were earmarked to play a significant part in trying to harvest an almighty power that has the potential to change the future for ever.

There are so many themes and so many levels this novel can be enjoyed on.  For me the standout character is the floating ship city, Armada, itself. Mieville's writing transported me to this dark, constantly rocking, labyrinth.  As odd as it might sound it is a bit reminiscent of some of Dickens settings, with a twist of course.  The social conscience of the novel also adds to the Dickens feel I think.  The story is about "the masses" being manipulated and sacrificed for the powerful and that sort of thing.  But even if one doesn't notice any of those allusions, The Scar reads as a complex and fast paced adventure. 

There is a lot of violence in the novel, but it is all for a purpose and adds to the narrative.  I have not read better battle scenes, Mieville has a gift, not only for beautiful descriptions of landscape, but also whirling, fast paced action.  His writing transported me into the midst of the landscape and action.

The Scar may not be for everyone; it features some very weird creatures and it is, at times, bloody and brutal, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Perhaps even more so, because I didn't think this would be "my sort of thing."  What prompted me to try it,  was China Mieville's most recent work, "Embassytown" has received plenty of favourable publicity here in Australia, and I have read some wonderful blogger reviews about it.  I am glad I read The Scar first, as an introduction to China Mieville's alternate worlds, where he explores complex ideas.  My understanding  is that Embassytown is even more complex as he  explores the role of language and communication.  With my, not so secret, passion for crime fiction, I plan to tackle Mieville's "The City and the City" next where I believe he combines his weird fiction with crime fiction.  What a marriage that sounds like.  After reading The Scar, I can't wait to give it a go.