The Last Dance

08/26/2015 at 9:46 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

So it turns out during my December vacation this year, I will be heading off to the exotic destinations of Spain, Portugal and Morocco with my cousins. This reminded me of The Last Dance, a present my sister’s boyfriend gave me for my birthday, because some of the most climactic action in the book takes place in the bustling alleys and bazaars of Morocco. So i’m pretty excited I have the chance to see this North African country in person.

The initial impression I had of The Last Dance was it was a spy thriller but as it progresses the romance takes precedence. The two main characters first meet at a ballroom dance where Stella has resorted to selling herself as a dance partner to earn an income. The mysterious Montgomery, who is charmed by Stella, organises a position for her as a governess at Harp’s End, home of the well-off Ainsworth family. I was wondering at this point if this was some kind of tribute to  Jane Eyre but I was wrong on that score.

Stella is responsible for tutoring Grace, the daughter of Douglas Ainsworth. Coming from an impoverished background and given her position, she struggles to fit in with the grand household or the servants as her employer insists dinners are taken with the family but she is still hired help. When Stella finally comes to face her married employer, she realises the family has a lot of secrets but the forbidden love that sparks between them becomes the hardest to conceal because this story is really about an affair. The palpable tension in the house after an accidental slip of the tongue by Grace almost drives Stella away but she somehow finds enough courage to accompany the family on a cruise to Morocco. As the setting is pre World War II, the trip turns out to be fraught with peril and conspiracy as her employer is not quite who she knew at Harp’s End. It turns out it was for the best Stella went on the cruise as she is able to enjoy a brief romance and witness events of significant importance before her world gets shot to pieces. While the sacrifice that is made is bittersweet, Fiona McIntosh gives birth to hope because of the way she reconciles the end.

The last impression I have of The Last Dance is that in spite of the not so savoury motivations of many of the characters, it was still entertaining.

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The Eye of the Sheep

08/25/2015 at 9:31 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna was a birthday present I received from my sister. It is mainly about the six-year-old character of Jimmy Flick, a kid with learning difficulties whose behaviour indicates he may have autism. The only person who seems to understand him is his mother, Paula. Even the local school is unable to provide him with the special care he needs and chooses to neglect him. Jimmy gets some support from his older brother Robby until the escalating domestic abuse at home starts creating a lot of tension in the family dynamics, especially after Gavin is made redundant from his refinery job and Robby chooses to pursue a life at sea because he cannot stand watching his mother get mistreated.

No-one is there to support Jimmy when life for the poor family becomes even worse when they receive devastating news about Paula that will alter the course of Jimmy’s life. Given the narrative is told from his point of view, although he doesn’t realise the future in store for him has changed, we do. During a brief period of temporary bliss, Jimmy finds a friend in Ned, his uncle’s dog who grounds him but when it comes to crunch time, can his father give up the bottle and step up?

The writing is simple and evokes a child who sees things too complex for him to comprehend: bruises on his mother’s skin; his father sleeping in the shed; disappearing bottles of Cutty Sark. It is obvious the parents are in love but the drinking is affecting the family badly. This is why Gavin, Jimmy’s father, sometimes comes off as deserving of empathy in spite of his lapses into violence. The Eye of the Sheep feels like a combination of Emma Donoghue’s Room and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time because of the juxtaposition of child-like perspective filled with hope in bleak times and curious choices of behaviour.

 

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The Luminaries

08/24/2015 at 10:24 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , )

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Source: Amazon

I am a fan of Dickens which is why I picked up Eleanor Catton‘s zodiac-inspired novel, The Luminaries, with its golden spiral formula that helped it win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Set in 1866 in the New Zealand goldfields, the book imbues its following twelve main characters with traits of the astrological star signs.

  • Te Rau Tauwhare (greenstone hunter): Aries
  • Charlie Frost (banker): Taurus
  • Benjamin Lowenthal (newspaper man): Gemini
  • Edgar Clinch (hotelier): Cancer
  • Dick Mannering (goldfields magnate): Leo
  • Quee Long (goldsmith): Virgo
  • Harald Nilssen (commission merchant): Libra
  • Joseph Pritchard (chemist): Scorpio
  • Thomas Balfour (shipping agent): Sagittarius
  • Aubert Gascoigne (justice’s clerk): Capricorn
  • Sook Yongsheng (hatter): Aquarius
  • Cowell Devlin (chaplain): Pisces

The traditional qualities tied to each sign forms the foundations upon which Catton builds full-fledged characters. These twelve characters provide with each individual version of events the missing links in the story pertaining to a series of unsolved crimes. They are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who will have a key part to play in a trial because he becomes privy to all their secrets. He and another set of characters associated with traditional planetary bodies listed below are also characters key to unlocking the mystery.

  • Walter Moody: Mercury
  • Lydia (Wells) Carver née Greenway: Venus
  • Francis Carver: Mars
  • Alistair Lauderback: Jupiter
  • George Shepard: Saturn
  • Anna Wetherell: The Sun/The Moon
  • Emery Staines: The Moon/The Sun

In spite of its technical prowess, the book didn’t connect with me. It didn’t give me the emotions I felt upon reading Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Little Dorrit although it attempts some social commentary and contains all the elements of a Dickensian Victorian-era novel: a man is killed; a will is missing; a politician is hiding a secret; the governor accepts a trade off the books; an opium addict is mistreated and so on. While I hold it in high esteem for its structural cleverness, The Luminaries failed to capture my heart.

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American Psycho

08/23/2015 at 7:29 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

American Psycho is an extremely graphic and violent book by Bret Easton Ellis about the 26-year-old handsome, educated, intelligent but misogynistic psychopath called Norman Bates who works on Wall Street interspersed with some banal content presented as postmodern social commentary. Having been subject to censorship due to transgressive content, there is a plethora of analysis about American Psycho out there. The common theme seems to be readers either hate it for its blatant sexism or love it because it defies the norm.

Personally I found the book boring given I was reading for pleasure. I may have viewed it differently had I been studying it. To be honest the protagonist’s emotionally-detached first person perspective of the world started to get fairly repetitive and dull. His friends are repulsive in their hubris and obsession with materialism which makes it difficult to like anyone in this book. Naturally with characters as repugnant as this, I was unable form any emotional attachment while the verbose and constant descriptions of brand names and insight into how Bates stimulated himself made me bored very quickly. Bret Easton Ellis may have been making a satire of consumerism but I cannot help wondering if he was trying to be shocking for the sake of it.

I know experiencing or creating a product does not make anyone an advocate of it but the problem was the lack of empathy in how torture scenes are described created prose that wasn’t particularly riveting but was stomach-churning and it happens multiple times. It could be the combination and the equal treatment of the banal and the brutal what makes American Psycho so shocking to most readers but while that may make it an interesting topic for academic dissertations, it failed to engage me which is what I desire from books.

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The Scorch Trials

08/22/2015 at 8:54 AM (Adaptations, Books, Movies) (, , , , , , )

When the boyfriend and I went to watch Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation recently, I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie The Scorch Trials. This reminded me I had read the book and a review for the sequel of The Maze Runner was timely given fans of the young adult genre will be picking it up again.

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Source: Wikipedia

The Maze Runner didn’t wow me but it won some affection so I was curious to find out how things panned out for the Gladers. The Scorch Trials made me frustrated because the plot kept haphazardly veering off in different directions and the narrative kept getting vague with each cliffhanger. Was it a plot device to make the reader feel as if they don’t know what is happening? It does not come across as intentional and is irritating.

What we learn through this book is that Wicked is issuing more difficult challenges and are continuing the trials explored in the Maze Runner. Meanwhile the surviving evacuees of the old maze have been tasked with a new set of obstacles to surmount on the open roads of a bleak and barren, desert landscape. Meanwhile Thomas seems to have lost his personality as he no longer shines and becomes a massive whinger. Teresa vanishes and apparently becomes a force for evil and new girl, Brenda, who is love interest no. 2 who fangirls over Thomas arrives on the scene and it feels like he likes this female attention. Aris, a telepathic boy, falls into the thick of things out of nowhere and his telepathic attempts to communicate with Thomas isn’t something he encourages because the new guy is a stranger who has replaced his confidante, Theresa but there is a important message he has to deliver. It would have benefited Thomas in the long run if he paid more attention to Aris than Brenda.

I read The Scorch Trials for the answers but ended up finishing it with more unresolved questions.

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Sharp Objects

08/21/2015 at 8:31 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , )

After finishing Gone Girl and Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects was on my high priority to read list. Now the deed is done. The first one blew me away with its complexity, the second one scared the hell out of me but being from a medical family and an avid fan of Law & Order and other police procedurals, the twist in this one didn’t surprise me as much because the symptoms were recognisable from the outset. Being set in the small town of Wind Gap, the suspect pool is pretty limited so this narrative is really about the guilty party’s motivation behind the murders of Ann Nash and Natalie Keene who were choked to death and found without their teeth.

Recently released from psychiatric care after a relapse into cutting herself, Camille Preaker, a reporter, is sent by her editor, to her hometown of Wind Gap to cover the murders for the Daily Post, the fourth-largest newspaper in Chicago, because he believes a serial murder case could boost the paper’s profile. This requires a reunion with her mother Adora who obsesses about ailments and her confident, fearless 13-year-old half-sister, Amma, which she isn’t keen about because unresolved ghosts of the past contribute to her mental issues.

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Source: thecaroline.com.au

Camille initially works alongside the police and detective Richard Willis with whom she strikes up a relationship until she seeks comfort elsewhere with a primary suspect. The author shows it is hard to keep things hush-hush in a small town and no-one can avoid suspicion. The path to identifying the perpetrator responsible for the murders before they strike again puts Camille on a head-on collision course with confronting the past she has attempted to escape.

Given she doesn’t damage anyone, the character of Camille is more sympathetic than Libby Day from Dark Places or Amy Dunne from Gone Girl but to be honest, she was too old to be having such childish issues. Some behaviours she exhibited suited a younger character who was about 19 or so. The character Amma interested me more given her powers exuded over the townsfolk and what the ending revealed about her was more telling than the truth about her mother. What fascinates me the most about this book is that in spite of this being a story about bad women, it is a feminist novel.

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Dark Places

08/20/2015 at 12:12 PM (Adaptations, Books, Movies) (, , , , , , , )

Gillian Flynn is a master of the craft when it comes to producing extremely irritating, mentally damaged characters who are a complete mess. It is no different with the emotionally troubled, parasitic protagonist of her novel Dark Places, Libby Day. The author does a great job with Libby’s first person perspective of her struggles in the present while a third person narrative gives readers insight into the mystery of happened to her family in 1985 highlighting this story is more character-driven than plot-driven.

In the present, friendless and forgetful Libby is finding it hard to fend for herself. The fact she’s a kleptomaniac does her no favours. The primary source of income Libby has been living off, the trust fund created when donations poured in after the murders, is starting to dry up.

Back in the past in 1985, her mother, who is heavily in debt, and two sisters are brutally killed. 7-year-old Libby lives because she flees the house, and ultimately it’s her testimony that convicts her brother Ben of the crime. Allegedly, Ben is a Satanist who lost control after getting in too deep with a bad crowd. The Kill Club, a group of amateur investigators who think that her brother is innocent get in touch with Libby and she reluctantly agrees to a paid appearance because she’s desperate for cash. While she is not keen about their focus on her brother, the potential of earning money entices her into visiting people connected to the murders. Suddenly as knowledge sinks in as an adult, Libby starts having doubts as to if Ben was the killer.

The ending was a bit too tidy for my liking and kind of disappointed me after the stellar one in Gone Girl, but I won’t say much about that as it will spoil the story. This is not a true who-dun-it but explorations of the inner workings of the psychologically warped. For those who are interested, these points illustrate key changes made to the Dark Places movie adaption by Gilles Paquet-Brenner.

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Gone Girl

08/19/2015 at 10:48 PM (Adaptations, Books, Movies) (, , , , , , , , )

On her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne has disappeared when her husband, Nick, arrives home. It appears there has been some commotion at home but to some investigating police officers, it looks too much like organised clutter. Being the husband, Nick is the obvious suspect and Amy’s parents start to slowly distrust him after he fails to show adequate grief for someone who lost his wife on national media. It turns out that Nick has secrets he has been hiding from wife and her adoring parents because their marriage has been rocky but the police have doubts as to whether he actually murdered Amy because there is no body. His only supporter is his twin sister, Margo, who never liked Amy.

Gone Girl

Source: katyat34.typepad.com

The second half of the book takes a surprising twist showing that Gillian Flynn had been “gaslighting” her readers for the first half which is the entire theme of the book. I probably shouldn’t say more as I’ve already said too much. This is probably one of the best deeply deranged thrillers I’ve ever read given the well-written prose, but Amy’s characterisation has a lot more depth than Nick’s.  I just finished reading American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and while Gone Girl isn’t that gratuitous or nihilistic, I couldn’t help but feel there were some not so obvious parallels about creating a facade.

While I have no qualms with encouraging people to read the book, people who only watch the David Fincher movie based on the book are missing out as they have changed some key elements of the story, including what happens with Desi. The casting of Rosamund Pike was great for “Amazing Amy” but I couldn’t really swallow Ben Affleck as the hipster golden poster boy, Nick. Usually books told in multiple perspectives don’t translate so well into film as major plot details end up being omitted in order to maintain suspense. Some people find reading the book gruelling as it gets off to a fairly slow start but I found the movie more difficult to follow than Flynn’s novel which kept me awake until ungodly hours.

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The Girl on the Train

08/18/2015 at 11:56 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , , )

Because I finished all three novels written by Gillian Flynn, I was led to read this book which touted itself as the next Gone Girl. As I submerged myself into the book, apart from the theme of unreliable narrators, it was clear to me I wouldn’t have made the comparison. There are three narrators who tell the reader the unfolding events in the story: Rachel, the jilted lover; Anna, the other woman; Megan, the cheating wife. All these characters manage to be somewhat repugnant but still compel tinges of sympathy.

The Girl on the Train

Source: Goodreads

Rachel, our evidently alcoholic and therefore cannot-be-trusted first narrator, is in the habit of taking the same train from Asbury to Euston each morning, even though she has been fired. During a regular stop, she always watches a couple living near her old home, who is perfect in her eyes and she has given them imaginary names: “Jess and Jason”.  We find out she is pining for her lost marriage which once used to be like that. One day she is a spectator to something unexpected while on the train. Upset by what she saw, Rachel tells the police what happened, who find out she isn’t exactly a standout witness, and ends up becoming further involved in murky territory with the full cast of characters.

This book moves much quicker than Gone Girl does but the mystery and the sucker punch of the former is lacking here. Paula Hawkins puts in a lot of red herrings to misguide readers as to who the culprit might be but it’s fairly obvious to any seasoned crime novel reader. Gillian Flynn is the more superior writer when it comes to psychological thrillers because this felt more like a character study and their development than something to be shocked about. There was a lot of hype surrounding this book catapulting off Gone Girl’s success which ended up seducing me into its covers but I was left disappointed and unsatisfied in the end.

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Under the Greenwood Tree (Film)

08/17/2015 at 4:00 AM (Books, Movies) (, , , , , )

Recently I had the opportunity to watch the 2015 released movie Far From the Madding Crowd based on the literary classic by Thomas Hardy starring Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba, who attracts the following characters as suitors: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge); and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). I’ve already blogged about the adaption that features Paloma Baeza before so this post is about the consequences of me watching this re-release as it led to me to seek out another Hardy adaptation, based on the bookUnder the Greenwood Tree.

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L to R: Mr Shinar, Parson Maybold, Fancy Day & Dick Dewy (Source)

In this story, a beautiful, young and educated new schoolteacher Fancy Day (Keeley Hawes) has come to live in the village of Mellstock while taking care of her sick father. Her father’s goal is to see Fancy married well because he married for love which had bad repercussions for Fanny’s mother. Like Bathsheba Everdene, Fancy is pursued by three very different suitors: poor but passionate Dick Dewy (James Murray), the mature but wealthiest man in in town Mr Shinar (Steve Pemberton) and the arrogant but educated man of the world Parson Maybold (Ben Miles). Her father believes Mr Shinar is the best of prospects for her and hides the truth from Fancy when he is rescued by one of the other suitors, whom he believes is below her station. But Fancy discovers the truth and ends up choosing simple love although she is offered wealth and the world. In the middle of romantic quandaries, a new harmonium that is to be played at the local church by Fancy Day is being introduced by Parson Maybold and the former church choir consisting of mostly simple farm parishioners aren’t taking it too well and their pranks cause her some distress and embarrassment.

Surprisingly this Hardy adaptation had a happy ending compared to his other work but I hear the book is different in character portrayal. Here’s a good in-depth review of the book as I’ve yet to read it! I like this assessment and it applies to the Under the Greenwood Tree adaption as well, “The question is not about her choice but about whether it is the right one — a question that cannot be answered by the end…”.

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