September 26, 2010

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Given that Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books of all times, I'm a bit surprised that I hadn't heard of this book until this year.

(Spoiler alert: I'm assuming that everyone knows the plot of Jane Eyre, whether you have read the book or not. If you don't want to know what happens in Jane Eyre, you'd best stop reading this post now.)

This book is basically the story of the "madwoman in the attic" from Jane Eyre, based on hints given to her story in Jane's story.

What we know about the Madwoman: she was born in the Caribbean; she is the "infamous daughter of an infamous mother", a dipsomaniac and insane; Mr. Rochester married her due to the plotting of his father and older brother in order to bring him some wealth not normally due to a second son; following the death of his father and brother, he brought her back to England and locked her up in the tower under the supervision of Grace Poole, where she eventually burned down the house and committed suicide.

This book goes into her childhood in a post-emancipation Jamaica, her mother's poverty and second marriage, her reluctant marriage and the subsequent fall-out. An interesting concept, but I found that the promise didn't live up to my expectations. Compared with Jane Eyre, despite being set in a much more lush location (the Caribbean vs. England), I found it to be a much less rich book in terms of depth and description. I found the plot a bit difficult to follow, though that may be because the first person narrator is an alcoholic and possibly insane. I also suspect that it would make even less sense if the reader weren't familiar with the story as presented in Jane Eyre.

It does point out though, that there are multiple points of view to every story, and calls into question why the first Mrs. Rochester became insane. In Jane Eyre, it is presumed to be genetic, however in this book it is presented as a combination of childhood experiences, culture shock, repression, and alcohol.

Much as I love the book Jane Eyre and it's heroine, I never had much sympathy for Mr. Rochester - he struck me as being very selfish, vain, and condescending. And what appeals to me about Jane is her integrity and how she stayed true to her principles, no matter how much it hurt at the time. I never quite understood what Jane saw in Mr. Rochester, and his character didn't come across any more favourably in this book.

I borrowed this book from a friend who had read it from school (the same friend who recommended Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to me); and she warned me when I borrowed it that she wasn't a fan of Jane Eyre, but loved Wide Sargasso Sea. Sorry Kirsti - this is 3 out of 3 books that I disagree with you over! It did however give me a craving to re-read Jane Eyre, so I think that I will curl up with that book next.

September 24, 2010

The Girl who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson

Sex and violence; sex and violence. If I had to sum up this book, that is how I would do it.

Back in the summer when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I wasn't sure if I would continue with this series. But enough people persuaded me that the other books were better that I decided to pick up the next book in the series. And they were right - The Girl who Played with Fire was much more interesting and engaging than Dragon Tattoo.

The one factor in Dragon Tattoo that I truly enjoyed was the character of Lisbeth Salander, and this book focused primarily on her. It picks up about a year after the end of Dragon Tattoo when Salander cut off all association with Mikael Blomkvist. It is a more conventional mystery than the first book - three people have been murdered and the police, along with Blomkvist and his magazine and a private investigation firm, have to solve the murders. Salander is the prime suspect right from the get-go.

I don't know what it is about Salander that appeals to me. She can be unpredictable, violent, anti-social, and stubborn. But she has a strong sense of justice that appeals to me; and she is completely self-reliant, not depending on any other person. And she is stronger than any person I have ever met in real life. This is summed up near the end of the book:

"Over the years she had been mixed up in fights, subjected to abuse, been the object of both official and private injustces. She had taken many more punches to both body and soul than anyone should ever have to endure. But she had been able to rebel every time."

In this book, the reader gets to learn about her history, and what happened to make her the way that she is. (I'm not going to reveal it here - you'll have to read the book to find out!)

I can't always turn my physiotherapist brain off when reading. I found fault with the injury in The Solitude of Prime Numbers, and there is an anatomy fault towards the end of this book. I challenge anyone with any knowledge of neuroanatomy to figure out where the bullet is lodged based on this description: "The third bullet caught her about an inch below the top of her left ear. It penetrated her skull and caused a spiderweb of radial cracks in her cranium. The lead came to rest in the grey matter about two inches beneath the cerebral cortex, by the cerebrum." Hmmm.... last time I checked, the cerebral cortex is grey matter, so if it were lodged beneath the cerebral cortex, it would be lodged in white matter; and the cerebrum refers to the main part of the brain so if it in the cerebrum, it can't be near the cerebrum. OK, I guess that authors can't be perfect!

This book ends with a cliff-hanger, so there is no question that I will eventually read the final book in this trilogy. I can't see myself buying the hardcover, so I will either wait for the paperback or track it down from the library.

September 19, 2010

Room - Emma Donoghue

"Un-put-down-able" would be the best non-word that I can think of to describe this book. I can't quite say that I polished it off in a day as it was after midnight when I finally reached the back cover, but it was close.

In case you have missed the buzz surrounding this book, it is the story of a girl who was kidnapped at the age of 19 and locked in a room for 7 years; as told by her 5-year old son, Jack.

I heard Emma Donoghue interviewed a few weeks ago and she was influenced by the real-life story of the Austrian father who imprisoned his daughter in the basement for many years which hit the media a few years ago when the situation was discovered.

The book isn't perfect. I had trouble at first believing Jack's voice. For a child who is already able to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and write and parrot long passages heard on television, his grammar should be better than it is. My almost-4-year-old nephew speaks better English than Jack. And even if he knows the word "sarcasm", I can't see a 5-year-old being able to recognize it.

But even though this bothered me in the first few pages, I quickly forgot about these quibbles as I got drawn into the story. And I really was drawn into it - I found myself harshly jarred back to reality when the phone rang; and I had trouble falling asleep after finishing as the world of the book seemed more real than the real world.

It is a very well crafted story, with 5 separate sections: Presents (describing life in Room as experienced by Jack), Unlying (Jack discovering that there is a real world outside of room - his mother undoing the lies that she has been telling him), Dying (the escape from Room), After (the aftermath of the escape), Living (learning to live outside of Room).

This book is the only Canadian book to make the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it on other book prize lists this year. Certainly all of the buzz that I have seen/heard/read about it is positive, and I have to agree with that buzz.

This is yet another book towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

September 18, 2010

Spider Bones - Kathy Reichs

While admittedly not first-class writing, I tend to rush out and gobble up each new Kathy Reichs book as soon as it comes out. When I read 206 Bones last year, I noted that the series had deteriorated from the early books but was looking up with 206 Bones. Spider Bones isn't the best in the series, but isn't the worst either.

It was a fast, easy read, and provided a change of scene from the usual setting of Montreal/North Carolina with a shift to Hawaii. And the mystery was a departure from the usual as well - there was a murder mixed up in it all waiting to be solved, but the primary story focused on trying to figure out how two bodies could have the same identity. That was a bit too easy for me - I figured out early in the book how the mistake had been made - but then there were lots of red herrings thrown in, and it was interesting to see how the characters proved it.

I have never seen the television series Bones which is (very) loosely based on this series of books, and for which Kathy Reichs is a producer, however there is a laugh-out-loud reference to the television programme in this book.

And if nothing else, this book has made me want to visit Hawaii some day!

And it counts towards the Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.

The Giller longlist is set to be announced on Monday - I'm looking forward to seeing which books make the list this year; and then the shortlist which will be announced on October 5.

September 14, 2010

The Gunny Sack - M. G. Vassanji

I first discovered M. G. Vassanji as an author earlier this year when I read and loved The Book of Secrets. So recently I went out to the local bookstore and picked up a couple of his other books, and have been reading The Gunny Sack over the past few weeks.

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this book as much as The Book of Secrets. The plot was much more simple and straightforward, and at times I couldn't decide if he didn't have a point to make and so was just telling a story; or if he had an important point to make but didn't quite know how to make it.

It is basically a fictional memoir, if such a genre exists. The narrator, Salim, is of (mainly) Indian origin, born and raised in East Africa, who ends up in
North America - a strikingly similar history to that of the author. Like any traditional memoirist, he begins his story by telling of his ancestors (the first half of the book), and then continues with the story of his life.

There were some aspects that I liked - the complex family structure with the story spanning generations; the fluid writing style; and of course I always love being transported in a book back to my "other home" of Tanzania. And the cover. If you compare the cover of this book with this picture that a friend of mine recently took on Zanzibar (part of Tanzania), you know that the cover picture was taken on the East African coast.

But then there were aspects that I didn't like. As I mentioned above, the plot is very linear and lacking the complexity of The Book of Secrets; and I also found that the gunny sack of the title, as well as the sack's owner Ji Bai, played only a minor role in the book despite being built up in significance in the opening chapter.

I am going to be generous though. The Gunny Sack was M. G. Vassanji's first novel, published in 1989. The Book of Secrets came 2 novels later in 1994, and is definitely a stronger book while retaining the writing style. I also have a copy of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall which was published in 2003 so I am going to hope that he continued to develop as a writer, and that this book will be the best of all!

The Gunny Sack counts as a selection towards The Canadian Book Challenge over at The Book Mine Set.