We Were Liars

09/11/2015 at 4:57 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

Although the book fails to explain the origin of the title, E. Lockhart does manage to deliver an interesting twist in the tale with We Were Liars. It’s a shame that I saw it coming from a mile away but for those who have managed to remain oblivious, I will do my best to give the gist of the plot with no spoilers. The main character is this privileged girl called Cadence who appears to have fairly inconsequential problems. She is romantically interested in Gat, an Indian-American boy, who does not fit into the world inhabited by Cadence. Her family is so wealthy that they own a private island where she spends her summers with her cousins and outsider Gat. We Were Liars in spite of seeming like light hearted YA touches on themes of avarice, influence and materialism with a grim warning in its core. You expect a fun beach read but end up with a heavy-hitting fable.

The writing style is fragmented and chaotic all at once reminiscent of poetry. I know there are people who would hate this book because they would not be able to tolerate the artistic liberties taken by E. Lockhart in crafting her imagery and compelling narrative so creatively but surprisingly it didn’t bother me. What stood out most were the enthralling mini fairy tale retellings about the King’s daughters that mimicked the main storyline and paid homage to King Lear. Since the prose is executed so differently, it is something that requires an acquired taste. There are no shades of grey: you’ll either love it or hate it.

It seems that even Cadence is not privy to the secret the author is foreshadowing and unreliable as she has amnesia following a possible breakdown. The family surrounding her are full of deceit and that makes it hard to trust them to tell the truth about the upcoming big reveal. By the time we become aware of the big secret in We Were Liars, we can only be shocked by the plan that tragically backfired. Apparently this book has caught enough attention that there is a possibility of an upcoming film adaptation.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

09/10/2015 at 8:52 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

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Source: Goodreads

What struck me about Rachel Joyce’s debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry when I purchased it was that older characters are gaining momentum as protagonists in literary novels as I couldn’t help thinking of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. After I finished it, my thoughts on the book changed because this felt more like a kindness of strangers story as it had no political symbolism.

Harold Fry is motivated to deliver in a letter in person after he hears from an old friend living in a hospice who once did him a big favour twenty years earlier. When Harold first plans to post a reply to the letter his intention is to go to the local postbox but the chance conversation he has with a girl prods him forward on his pilgrimage through the British countryside to his former saviour. As he walks, Harold starts to believe that his friend Queenie Hennessy will still manage to be there when he arrives.

Along the way Harold encounters various characters who could have been unkind but are not and finds serenity in the task at hand. He also develops the courage to come out of his shell in the absence of his wife Maureen who has so far regarded him as a defective spouse and father figure. In a cruel twist of fate, his wife, stunned by her husband’s abrupt departure and lacking a way of getting back in touch because he failed to take a cellphone, begins to desire his return home.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has both good and bad points. I was really into the beginning of the book but as various hangers-on join Harold on his walk and the journey halfway becomes a full-fledged media circus, my interest waned. While I get this is a love story which addresses the rekindling of a marriage, the liberally applied sentimentality was not to my taste.

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The Year I Met You

09/08/2015 at 8:00 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

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Usually books by Cecelia Ahern bewitch me but The Year I Met You didn’t live up to the magic of PS I Love You or Thanks for the Memories. Perhaps it was the fact the main character, Jasmine, wasn’t very charming unlike her previous heroines and it deals with serious topics.

Jasmine has been put on gardening leave. Technically she has been fired from her job but in order to stop competitors from snapping her up, she has to wait out one year before she can start a new job. Luckily she is still paid while she waits out the year. This was the first time I came across the phrase and what it referred to. Who says fiction doesn’t impart knowledge? Because so far her job has been her life, Jasmine is clueless as to what to do with all her spare time.

Apart from her job, there’s one person she has vowed to protect all her life: her younger sister who has Down Syndrome. As a result when she realises her neighbour across the road is a shock-jock who once belittled people with her sister’s condition, he becomes an unwitting antagonist subject to the prejudices of her blind judgement. As the days go by and the social barrier she put up against her neighbours begins to crumble, Jasmine realises she may have not known the full story about Matt, who has himself has been put on gardening leave after his controversial chat show went too far on-air.

Jasmine has to contend with a returning adopted cousin whose memories of their childhood do not mirror her own and is also approached for a job by a handsome headhunter with whom she develops a budding but promising romance. If anything, The Year I Met You is about judgement and how appearances can often be deceiving.

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The Buried Giant

09/05/2015 at 9:52 AM (Books) (, , , , , )

The Buried Giant

Source: Goodreads

After having read Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day and being enthralled by both, The Buried Giant let me down for a work written by Kazuo Ishiguro.

We first meet an old couple in a village, Axl and Beatrice, who are plagued by fading memories of the past and become aware of this fact. After speaking with an old woman, Beatrice persuades her husband Axl, to accompany her on a journey to see their son. When weary, they pause to rest at a Saxon village which is experiencing a commotion. Their host suggests the mist that permeates the air rendering the memories of everyone into fragments could be the work of a God who felt regret. When the couple sets off the next morning to a hillside monastery to consult an old monk, they have two companions who are fugitives foisted on them: Wistan, a skilled warrior and a boy with a suspicious wound, Edwin. Strangely enough the warrior appears to recognise Axl. This unexpected addition to their party makes their journey a less peaceful one.

Once they bump into a character from British folklore charged with a strange duty he never accomplished for which he is maligned, the true mission of the Saxon warrior comes to light. Their stay at the monastery puts the old couple at risk but a friend they made comes to their aid and the two parties are split up. The mission the warrior is charged with is also one the couple promise to undertake when some children mistake them as Elders sent by God and request it so their parents may return to them. While the quest is accomplished, the results of it are going to disturb the peace once maintained by the enforced mist.

The couple faces several dangers, including those who seek to separate them from each other, but it appears Axl has far more to fear from the memories of the past returning than Beatrice. While I didn’t like the fantasy elements incorporated into this and the strange ending, what I did enjoy was how The Buried Giant explored memory: what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

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Damned

09/02/2015 at 12:37 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

The first book I ever read by author Chuck Palahniuk was Fight Club so I had this feeling upon reading Damned that it was not going to stand up to this particular predecessor and rightly so because it didn’t.

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Source: Goodreads

Madison is the intelligent but overweight and bullied daughter of a wealthy Hollywood couple with a penchant for adopting kids from poor countries for the publicity. Left alone with her new foster brother in a hotel while her parents go to an awards night, she ends up in the netherworld because of a “game” taught to her at an exclusive Swiss boarding school. Madison ends up making some friends consisting of a rip-off of John Hughes Breakfast Club characters if they were serving detention in Hell. Every chapter also emulates Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret but pulling a switch a roo, all the questions are addressed to Satan. Not having asserted herself while she was alive, Madison reinvents a new life for herself and uses her telemarketing job to create a conduit between the living that are to be soon deceased. When Madison finally meets the prince of darkness she is told an unpalatable story about herself and it ends on a note that suggests a sequel.

The book is clever in its mockery of tropes and exploration of theology and mythology but felt haphazard with the storyline. I liked the initial premise of having these characters form an unlikely bond in the underworld but a twist in the plot made it feel irrelevant. What I got out of Damned was even if you do end up in Hell, death is not all that bad.

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Ape House

08/31/2015 at 1:32 PM (Books) (, , , , , )

Ape House by Sara Gruen was a book I expected to fit in the genre of literary fiction but the constant telling rather than showing made me feel this was made for mass-market, commercial appeal. Even the plot which involves stereotypically-painted, vegan-branded protesters taking vigilante action to free bonobos involved in a language lab under the misapprehension that they are being mistreated by the university is not very original and the journalist/writer couple do not deliver on the empathy stakes. The fictional Great Ape Language Lab in Ape House was inspired by Sara Gruen’s visit to the non-fictional Great Ape Trust in Iowa and as many reviews say, this fiction would have been better off as a personal memoir reflecting on her own experiences as it falls flat on research. I cannot help but agree.

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Source: Goodreads

There are many narrative threads in the story: the main premise involves a language lab which houses six bonobos that can communicate using American Sign Language and scientist Isabel Duncan who is injured during the forceful “rescue” of the bonobos who end up being used in a reality television show produced by a porn mogul; another story explores the trials of  reporter John Thigpen and his wife, Amelia as they navigate their marriage while dealing with the ramifications of free citizen journalism and book manuscript rejections culminating in a move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The book includes a vile, cheating boyfriend who isn’t who he paints himself to be, an unexpected student friend who ends up being Kevin’s source to break a factual story in a tabloid and thwart a rival reporter at his former job, and a suspected paternity case stemming from a university prank gone wrong.

It’s just too many preposterous things at once and while you can connect the dots, I didn’t find it impressive. Isabel becoming close to Celia was odd and did not sit right with me given what happened after the new year party although I suppose she had no-one else being more bonobo than human. The way Celia bailed her boyfriend out of jail and manipulated Kevin was also unpalatable. Isabel seemed like a doormat but I suppose she was a victim rather than a protagonist in the story. While I found Kevin fairly sympathetic, the way he found the most damning evidence isn’t in the least credible and I found his desire to harp on Amelia’s sexiness rather unnecessary. On the face of it, I suppose apart from Celia’s character, all human characters were either boring or overtly stereotyped. Ape House may be a fun read but it lacks substance.

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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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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.

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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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