"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Told from the point of view of Kathy, now 31 years old, Never Let Me Go is the heartbreaking tale of her life and the lives of two of her friends - Ruth and Tommy - beginning with their childhoods spent at the seemingly idyllic British boarding school, Hailsham. Never Let Me Go is a sci-fi novel, set in a dystopian England in which all diseases are now curable, but at a horrifying price. I don’t want to reveal the gut-wrenching crux of the novel as it would spoil the story; part of the intrigue in the first part is your ignorance as to precisely what sort of school Hailsham is, and the tragedy of the cruel fate that awaits its students. The less you know the better.

Part one covers Kathy’s, Ruth’s and Tommy’s time spent at Hailsham. It’s clear from the offset that something isn’t quite right at the school. The students are being kept in the dark about something very important - one of the ‘Guardians’ informs them they are not being told enough about their future, there is an odd persistence for them to be ‘creative’, and they are under strict rules to remain within the grounds. Furthermore, people seem unnerved by their very presence, they are subjected to rigorous health checks and are commanded not to smoke as it’s much worse for them to do so than regular people. Part two covers their time after leaving Hailsham at age sixteen, when they move to the cottages and are allowed more freedom than ever before, and then the novel moves on to  the final stages of their lives.

Never Let Me Go is a distressing and sad story of friendship, love and the frailty of life; it brings into play ethical questions and is extremely relevant with regards to modern day advancements in science. It asks what price we would be willing to pay for a world where terminal illness is a thing of the past; something before reading this I thought would be unequivocally worthwhile regardless of the cost. 

Initially I was reluctant to read any more Ishiguro after studying The Remains of the Day for A-Level, which I found really dull. I’m very glad I succumbed to my curiosity and read Never Let Me Go though; it is a very thoughtful piece with compelling characters, a strong message and timeless themes. Ishiguro’s poetic and beautifully crafted writing helps to weave a tale of harrowing poignancy that is haunting, honest, emotional and devastating. 

Rating: 9/10

Monday, 25 February 2013

Evil Water by Inger Wolf

Two women who share the same chestnut-coloured tresses have disappeared. Later their heavily decomposed corpses - what’s left of them anyway - are found stuffed into suitcases and sporting odd ‘Y’ shaped wounds; one of the women has a rare flower in her hair. When a third chestnut-haired woman is reported missing, the pressure is on for Daniel Trokic and his investigative team to crack the case and apprehend the culprit before she meets her grisly fate.

Evil Water is a bloody and suspenseful crime-thriller set in Denmark. The narrative is split into 76 short chapters, each one rotating between several main characters, but with a focus on the lead investigator, Daniel Trokic. The story is intriguing with an unusual and vile method of murder and an inventive plot set against a background of gruesome African cult practices. The pace is energetic and effortlessly manages to hold suspense throughout; it never gets boring or slow, and the case has numerous twists and turns to keep you guessing. 

The novel has been translated from Danish, and unfortunately there are several minor translation issues. Some sentences feel a bit clunky and poorly put together; I suspect that whoever translated Evil Water into English is not a native English speaker. Some of the dialogue also feels a little unnatural. This is not a major problem, but for me it detracted from the realistic quality of the novel and prevented me from ever feeling fully immersed in the story. Sometimes incorrect words are used which made the sentences confusing and at times made me re-read the sentence; for example ‘filled’ is always used instead of ‘covered’, so we end up with sentences such as “Her body was filled with Y’s” and “She was wearing a shirt that was filled with flowers.” These flaws are nothing major but it sounds silly in English and as a reader I found it distracting.

Overall, it is a very good thriller with a well thought out plot which succeeds in holding interest. I really enjoyed it, but at the same time it isn’t anything particularly special or new. The translation is far from seamless, and the characters are a little hollow and under-developed. Nonetheless the good certainly out ways the bad and I look forward to reading more of Wolf’s novels if any more are translated into English. Evil Water is definitely worth a read if you enjoy this genre and are interested in reading a suspenseful, gritty and bloody tale.

Rating: 7/10

Disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of this book by the publisher (Black Cat) in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

When Nick Dunne returns home on his fifth wedding anniversary he finds the front door flung wide open, the house a mess, and his beautiful wife, Amy, missing. But when the police get involved and the evidence mounts, all of the clues seem to point to Nick. This might sound like a typical premise to a pretty average thriller novel but be warned, Flynn has written a novel that will surprise and stun you; it is dark, disturbing and filled with tension and numerous twists and turns.

Gone Girl is the most original and memorable thriller I have ever read.  At its core it is about what makes relationships work, and the consequences of miscommunication in a relationship. It forces us to consider how much we really know our spouse.

The narration is unique and lends a whole other level to the novel; it’s a very clever book. The chapters alternate between Nick’s perspective, starting from the day of Amy’s disappearance, and excerpts from Amy’s diary, starting from the day the couple first met. Giving the perspectives of both the alleged victim and culprit provides the reader with unique insight; I loved this aspect as most thrillers have you read things from the detective’s point of view. It soon becomes clear, however, that our two narrators are far from reliable. For example once the police have come to Nick’s house shortly after Amy’s disappearance, he is talking to them completely normally, seemingly helping them as much as he can, when out of nowhere he informs the reader: “It was my fifth lie to the police.” It’s startling as up until that point you feel as though you’re on his side, he surely had nothing to do with Amy going missing, and then all of a sudden doubt creeps in and you feel compelled to re-read earlier sections to catch the clues that are scattered throughout. Gone Girl’s unusual style of narration means you never fully understand what is going on, even when you think you do, you don’t know who to trust, and desperately want to get to the bottom of it all. It kept me intrigued right from the beginning; it is a novel that immediately hooks you and doesn’t let go until you’ve devoured every page. 

Flynn is a talented writer; she manages to make you feel about the characters exactly how she wants you to feel. The dialogue flows effortlessly, and the characters feel real and easy to sympathise with or hate accordingly. She leaves clues and red herrings peppered throughout the novel; I am tempted to re-read most of it again to see if I can ‘see it coming’ upon a second reading. I can’t wait to read Flynn’s two other novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects; if they’re anywhere near as good as Gone Girl I will have found a new favourite author. 

I like reading the occasional thriller, but they are largely very samey and lacklustre. Not Gone Girl though; it’s unusual and intriguing style of narration, it’s compelling, messed-up characters and shocking plot twists make for a dynamic, gripping, smart and truly memorable read. 

Rating: 9/10

My other Gillian Flynn reviews:
Sharp Objects 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Misery by Stephen King

“I am in trouble here. This woman is not right.”

Paul Sheldon, writer of the much loved ‘Misery’ books, has been in a car accident. His legs have been crushed and he cannot walk; he is in blinding pain and he is trapped in the wreckage. No worries though, because his number one fan has come to the rescue. Annie Wilkes - a maniacal ex-nurse and obsessed fan of the Misery books - takes Paul back to her secluded home in Colorado in order to nurse him back to health. The only problem is that Annie’s a tad insane, and when she discovers that Paul has killed off her beloved heroine Misery Chastain in his latest novel in favour of writing some cockadoodie rubbish packed full of the f-word, she forces him to bring Misery back to life, and Paul’s suspicions about Annie’s state of mind are more than confirmed. 

It has taken me years to finally get around to reading this novel, one of Stephen King’s most famous and acclaimed, because I saw the film when I was quite young. I didn’t know it was originally a book at the time, and once I discovered the novel I preferred to read something that I didn’t already know the story of, so I kept pushing it to the bottom of my ‘to-read’ list. I’m really glad I finally read it though; except for a few changes, the story is basically the same as the film, but the novel has so much more depth, especially in regard to character development. With there being only two central characters, you really get to root around in their heads and learn a lot about their background and psychology - something which is naturally missing from the film adaptation. 

Misery does feature some gore, but it’s much more of a psychological horror. The idea of such severe entrapment, to be at the complete mercy of a hulking woman who is mentally unhinged is a terrifying prospect. King writes this incredibly well; he gives a palpable feeling of the sheer isolation and peril that Paul is in, his broken legs rendering him helpless in contrast with Annie’s beast-like strength.

I love Annie’s character; she is one of the most interesting personalities that King has written and is probably the most compelling and scary female I have ever read. King introduces her madness with subtlety, giving little hints here and there that something is not quite right with her. It’s completely unnerving, and much more effective than if she acted full-blown crazy from page one. Her use of language is amusing - although I wouldn’t dare laugh at her - as she hates curse words and instead says things like “cockadoodie”, and likes calling Paul a “dirty birdy” when he displeases her. I did pity her at times; it is clear that she is in desperate need of medical help, and when she’s in a good mood she is very sweet to Paul and desperately seeks his approval. I think this bizarre dichotomy is another reason why she is so scary; her moods change so suddenly, and her bad moods are nothing short of dangerous for Paul. 

Misery is a fabulous book; even if you’ve seen the film or are familiar with the story, the novel is worth reading as it has so much depth. You feel like you are right there with Paul, wondering what Annie’s mood will be, and how she will react to each situation, making for a very suspenseful and engaging read. The characters in Misery are genius, the writing is clever and King creates a very tense situation that made me genuinely afraid for Paul’s safety; it’s a skilful, thrilling novel that I had trouble putting down.

Rating: 9/10

My other Stephen King reviews:
Gerald's Game
In the Tall Grass
The Running Man 

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory is at its core a coming-of-age tale - only much more gruesome and disturbing - set in 80s Scotland. The story is told through the eyes of a deranged sixteen year old boy called Frank who lives with his eccentric father. Frank was abandoned by his mother at birth, and his older half-brother Eric has been confined to a mental institution for setting fire to dogs and forcing children to eat maggots. I think the less said about the plot the better; there are many surprises and part of the intrigue is not knowing exactly what has happened in Frank’s past. The Wasp Factory features a ‘big twist’ at the end, which at first I thought was just bizarre and slightly predictable, but after some thought I came to realise how well it fitted with the coming-of-age aspect and Frank’s resolution with growing up and becoming a man. As such, The Wasp Factory is a novel that forces you to think about it a long time after you have finished reading. 

Something I feel is important to mention is that at times this book is very difficult to read; if you have strong aversions to reading about animal torture and/or child murder, I would advise you to avoid The Wasp Factory, which features both of these as prevalent themes throughout. There are some particularly gruesome passages and some disturbing images that are quite hard to stomach.

The novel reminds me of a grotesque combination of The Catcher in the Rye and American Psycho; there is even a similar shower scene to rival Patrick Bateman’s detailed routine, but then Frank surprises you by saying he cut the labels off his shoes because he doesn’t want to be a walking advertisement for anybody - the opposite to image and fashion label obsessed Bateman. 

The Wasp Factory is a really weird book. Frank is a strange kid; he sacrifices rabbits and puts their heads on poles all around the island on which he lives, and he keeps a ‘Wasp Factory’ which is a clock with a tunnel leading to a death device behind each number (such as a large spider, drowning, burning) into which he feeds wasps and uses as a sort of fortune-teller, according to which tube the wasp chooses. I couldn’t decide if the book was maybe slightly too weird for me in fact. It’s gritty and disturbing, and Banks manages to demonstrate how deranged Frank is with subtlety and precision. He doesn’t even seem too odd to begin with, until he starts to talk about his murders and animal tortures in such an off-hand, casual manner, sometimes almost dropping them into the narrative as though they are of little importance or consequence.

The Wasp Factory is a deeply disturbing but clever novel; it leaves a lasting impact and is worth a read if you think you can handle it. It is repulsive, shocking and raw, with an odd combination of a naive narrative voice with vivid visual gruesomeness. It is a coming-of-age tale with an edge, a story of growing up and learning who you really are, all against a backdrop of psychosis, trauma and murder.

Rating: 8/10