Review: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot 2016 Read Harder Challenge #4 read a book out loud to someone else.

I’ve finally finished Read Harder 2016! Yay! Applause! I’m so happy! But then, you probably knew that because you read my summary post, right??? I’ve just about managed to squeeze this post in before the end of the year, ready for normal blogging service to be resumed in the New Year (as I start Read Harder 2017!)

As previously mentioned, this is the final book that I completed as part of Read Harder 2016. The reason for this is not because I started it last, or because I was savouring it (although I believe all Patricia Highsmith novels should be savoured, she is the mistress of suspense and foreboding) or because it was a particularly long book. No. It is simply because reading out loud TAKES SO FREAKING LONG. I HATED how long it took to get through even a few pages. I thought I would enjoy reading out loud but actually this experience has taught me that I definitely don’t have the patience for it.

In terms of the actual book, the story is about two men who meet on a train (they are strangers funnily enough – the clue is in the title), both of whom were struggling with a significant person in their lives. They realise that no one will know that they’ve ever met and drunkenly plot to commit murder on the others behalf, providing they both go through with it. The novel unfolds as one character descends into alcoholism whilst the other barely holds it together as the weight of their crimes haunt them. As with all of Highsmith’s books Starangers on a Train is a tense melodrama with a sociopathic character at the centre whose side, bizarrely, you end up on.

In saying all that I admit that I found the book quite slow. I’m not sure if it was because I was reading it aloud or because I just didn’t engage immediately with the storyline. I thought that the idea for the plot was really inventive (its very difficult to imagine how to commit not one but two perfect murders) but in places where it was meant to be suspenseful it just dragged. I usually love Patricia Highsmith so I was quite surprised not to really enjoy the story.

The novel itself is very cleverly written and I enjoyed the language that it used – many of the passages are incredibly elegant. I found that the bits where action happened were very engaging and well written but large swathes were just a commentary about the stress the main character was under which after a while became a little tiresome.

Perhaps it would be better if I read the book again normally (i.e. in my head). I may need to read it again to verify this theory *checks reading challenges for a re-read category* hmm, there is one, I’m not sure if I can face it though. I think I’d be better with a book that I read longer ago. We will see.*

*update – since writing the draft form of this review Christmas has happened and guess what I got – a VMC copy of Strangers on a Train! Now I’ll have to read it again! :-/

Overall rating 5/10.

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Review:The French Lieutenants Woman by John Fowles

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #15 Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.

I hate to say it but… I really didn’t like this book.

The novel is written about a young couple who are due to be married, staying in Lyme Regis during the Victorian period. At the resort, another young woman is seen often staring out to sea mournfully – after the French Lieutenant who reputedly stole her heart. She has occasional conversations with Charles (the fiancee) and the book is the story of what begins as his desire to help her going horribly wrong.

I found The French Lieutenants Woman to be quite a long book with not much action, especially by today’s standards. In particular, I found it really strange that the author would suddenly start talking to the reader to explain what was happening and what he thought he would do with the characters next. This took me out of the story, initially confused me and then annoyed me. There is an especially weird chapter 90% of the way in, where the future of each character is summarised and it appears that the book is over. Brilliant! I thought. I’ve finished unexpectedly early! But no. The author then writes that they are only joking and (ha ha ha) this is what really happened. You can imagine how happy I was to read that.

There is always a few lines of poetry at the beginning of each chapter (there are many) which I struggled to understand without the context of the rest of the poem and which I found very hard to relate to the text. Again, this broke up the narrative flow as some of the chapters are only a few pages long.

I hated the way that the women were portrayed in this book as simple minded and either foolish or scheming. The male characters appear to be entirely without guilt despite acting in morally questionable ways. I couldn’t warm to any of them and didn’t really care what their outcomes were.

The last 10% of the book seemed to squash a lot in, so the whole thing felt a bit rushed. I felt that all the way through, the characters acted in quite bizzare ways with very little explanation. It would also have been good to have a bit of explanation about what was acceptable behaviour at the time as you were left guessing if the characters had acted due to propriety or because they had had some kind of change of heart.

Overall I struggled to get to grips with this book. It’s long, there is very little happening for great swathes of it, there are very few characters, I didn’t like any of them and failed to be engaged in their story. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone despite the fact that I know it’s seen as a classic. Not for me I’m afraid.

Overall rating: 4/10.

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016

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Hurrah! I have completed the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016! Not bad considering I only started it in the summer!

I really enjoyed undertaking this challenge. I would never have read, for example, a food memoir but actually this turned out to be one of my favourites. I thought the challenge was a great way to expand my horizons and I’ve definitely read a wider variety of genres because of it.

The books that I read are:
1. Thinner by Richard Bachman
2. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
3. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
4. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
5. Spot the Difference by Juno Dawson
6. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
8. So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane
9. Yes Please! by Amy Poehler
10. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
11. Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell
12. If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
13. Three Thousand Miles for a Wish by Safiya Hussain
14. The Teracotta Bride by Zen Cho
15. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
16. 1Q84 Book One by Haruki Murakami
17. The Wicked and the Divine – The Faust Act by Gillian McKelvie and Wilson Cowles
18. Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
19. Animal by Sara Pascoe
20. The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz
21. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
22. Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats      Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton
23. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
24. Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas

I found the books in a variety of places. I initially looked at my immediate TBR list and added those into the corresponding categories. Then I looked at my wider book collection and specifically searched for books which would fit into the remaining categories. Finally, there were a few gaps left so I hunted around online for recommendations and ideas and bought a few books in order to satisfy the criteria left. I don’t think I could have completed the challenge if I didn’t have the list laid out in front of me in advance (this doesn’t bode well for the Popsugar reading challenge).

So, according to my rating system the winner is….complicated! Because I gave Confessions of a Sociopath either 6/10 (based on how I thought the average reader would perceive it) or 10/10 (based on the impact that it had on my life) it is technically the best book that I read as part of the challenge. However, if I were to recommend one of the books on the list to a friend it would have to be my second highest rated – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (I really loved that book). Honourable mentions also go to 1Q84 Book One by Haruki Murakami, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, Animal by Sara Pascoe and Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton.

Books that I would happily avoid in the future/recommend to people I don’t like include Yes Please! by Amy Poehler (boring), The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (hated the writing style) and The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz (so predictable). In saying that, none of these books were terrible so I’m pleased that I didn’t waste any time reading something dreadful.

The most surprising book was definitely Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas. I didn’t expect to suddenly understand so many of my own personality traits by reading about someone else’s experiences. This book has made a huge impact on my life and has helped me to understand not only myself but my friends and relatives too.

I think that reading Pretty Good Number One – An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton really opened my eyes to the whole food memoir genre. The way that this book was written was funny and engaging and really helped me to understand Japanese culture (and (weirdly) my own British culture). I thoroughly recommend this book and would definitely read more of his work. I’m also looking forward to hearing more from Ernest Cline and Sara Pascoe, although I doubt she will be writing another book in the near future.

I really wasn’t looking forwards to watching a film of a book that I had just read – almost every film adaptation that I’ve ever seen has been a pale imitation of the novel it was based on. However, Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan seems to be the exception to the rule – I actually enjoyed the film more than the book. I also quite enjoyed comparing the two, which again I didn’t think I would.

As I like to read about five or six different books at once I did sometimes feel under pressure to finish at least one of them to stay on track. However, I found that this did push me to complete the more “challenging” reads in a relatively short timeframe, rather than having them lying around half read for years (and then having to start again from the beginning).

Next time I will be starting the challenge along with everyone else so I’ll be looking more at social media groups for suggestions and support. I think this will add another dimension to the challenge (hopefully positive!).

I will definitely be doing the challenge again – I’m already on the lookout for the 2017 list!

Review: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #2 Read a non-fiction book about science.

The quote on the front cover of this book says it all really; “the sort of popular science writing that makes the reader feel like a genius”. I have learnt so freaking much from this book I don’t even know where to begin.

Firstly, I really like Richard Dawkins. He’s often angry and pernickity and this comes through in his writing (case in point – a paragraph on how to correctly pronounce algae (hard g) in case you’re American and don’t know how to do it correctly) – but I love that. It adds real personality to the text which otherwise could be quite dry. Weirdly, there were moments of humour (his criticisms of other scientists with rival theories are always proper put downs) that made me snigger. In anyone else this could come across as big headed but because Dawkins’ arguments are so meticulously put together you always end up on his side.

I loved the way that such complex ideas were broken down, without being patronising. Lots of examples were used so that you really got a clear picture of what he was trying to say. Peppered throughout the text are some real mind blowing sentences which Dawkins presents as throw away one liners – which for me only added to their impact. For example: of course, all of our ancestors were successful enough to reach maturity and breed, going back to the first primitive species. Woah, wait, surely….oh yeah!

Interestingly, as The Selfish Gene was written in the 70’s it is weirdly sexist. All pronouns are “he”. Take this sentence from the preface “three imaginary readers looked over my shoulder while I was writing…first the general reader, the layman. For him I have avoided technical jargon…but I have not assumed that he is stupid”. I found my inner feminist interrupting my reading whenever I came across these comments which in itself was quite jarring – but obviously this was the given convention at the time so I can’t hold it against the author. My copy of this book was from 1989 so I’m not sure if it’s been updated since? I also came across this absolute cracker of a paragraph;

“It is of course true that some men dress flamboyantly and some women dress drably but, on average, there can be no doubt that in our society the equivalent of the peacocks tail is exhibited by the female…women paint their faces and glue on false eyelashes. Apart from special cases, like actors, men do not. Women seem to be interested in their own personal appearance and they are encouraged in this by their magazines and journals. Men’s magazines are less preoccupied with male sexual attractiveness and a man who is unusually interested his own dress and appearance is apt to arouse suspicion…when a woman is described in conversation, it is quite likely that her sexual attractiveness, or lack of it, will be prominently mentioned. This is true whether the speaker is a man or a woman.”

So many things wrong with this…

Again, I accept that this was written in a time when sexism was rife but for a scientist to present AS FACT what is written above is just bullshit. I particularly enjoyed the part about mentioning another woman’s sexual attractiveness prominently when describing her in conversation…”you know my friend Kathy? Yes you do, she’s really sexually attractive. Like, an 8 out of 10. Great boobs. Nice legs. You know.” What woman has ever talked to her friends like that? Even in the 1970’s? Also, great insinuation that any man who is interested in his appearance is gay (or arousing suspicion, as he obliquely calls it). Again, I know this is a product of the time but surely, such a great thinker as Dawkins could have based his words on actual evidence instead of bland assumptions? I actually agree that in the 60’s and 70’s women did, on average, spend more time than men on their appearance but a simple bit of data regarding male average spend on cosmetics vs female would have sufficed. Oh, and we don’t all wear false eyelashes.

Ok, rant over…

Of course, the Selfish Gene is by no means a light hearted romp through evolution. There were some passages that I had to re-read several times and I had to be in the mood to pick it up. I found that reading 10 or so pages at a time was about my limit before I had to take a break to absorb what I’d just read. It also helped that my partner is a scientist so I could talk through some of the concepts with him.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone. It taught me so much and helped me to understand a broad range of ideas, not just about evolution and genetics. In particular, there is a really interesting chapter towards the end of the book on game theory which was so intriguing I’m going to have to read more about it. In parts, I did feel like Dawkins was labouring the point but his style of writing was so easy to follow that it was always engaging.

Right, I’m off to read my “journal of false eyelashes” 🙂

Overall rating: 8/10

PS If you don’t mind a bit (a lot) of swearing, Love Letters to Richard Dawkins is an incredibly funny video of the man himself reading his hate mail. I can’t think of a better way of dealing with trolls than this.

Review: Three Thousand Miles for a Wish by Safiya Hussain

I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #13 Read a book that is set in the Middle East.

Three Thousand Miles for a Wish is the story of a young British woman who has suffered a difficult relationship breakup. She doesn’t know how to handle the situation and becomes very depressed about it; drinking, going out and neglecting her faith. As a last chance to redeem herself, she decides to complete the Hajj pilgrimage with her parents.

The book contained a very detailed account of the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. I had previously thought that the story might be a little boring but actually it’s an incredible journey and a very well written and honest account. There is such a real risk of death when completing Hajj that makes the novel so dramatic – in places it was a real page turner. I found it amazing that so many people complete such a difficult journey .

As a non Muslim I think that reading this book will be the closest that I get to seeing what Hajj is like. I thought the author did a great job of explaining all the rituals and getting the reader to fully understand what happens and why.

However, I struggled with the religious fervour element of the book. In my opinion It seems like the author has some troubling issues that she needs to fully explore with a doctor or therapist. I sensed that she had turned her depression into anger and was still coming to terms with what had happened. I was concerned that she seemed to believe that by devoting her life to Allah it would magically make her problems go away. I had no issue with her turning to her faith as a source of strength but she seemed to believe that she could just pray for things that she wanted instead of asking for the strength to make them happen for herself. There still seems to be a lot of hatred within her regarding her ex which she seems to use religion to mask – she talks about forgiving him because Allah has told her to but I think she really needs to forgive him because she actually wants to. I worry that if she doesn’t get what she’s prayed for she won’t be able to cope.

I also struggled with the way that the author accepted as gospel everything that she was told in relation to the way that she was expected to live her life. She seems extremely worried that she will go to hell despite her devotion to Allah and this seems to have a very negative impact on her mental state. Again, I though this was indicative of the author needing professional help and made for some challenging reading.

Despite finding it difficult to read about someone who is obviously depressed and not getting help, I thought that the author gave a great first person perspective on Hajj. I did notice a few typos and a couple of bits that would benefit from editing but overall I thought that the book was quite well written. 

Overall rating: 6.5/10.

Review: Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #21 Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or non-fiction).

Fahrenheit 451 is about a dystopian future where books have been banned by the state. People are controlled through a combination of drugs and the mass media. The zombiefied state of the general populace gives the government ultimate control, as without written accounts they can literally make up their own history and present any message that they wish to convey as fact. As such, “firemen” are employed to start fires in homes where books have been found, regardless of the cost to human life. This terrifying world is home to the   main character, a fireman who suddenly starts to view the world differently as he realises the extent to which he is being manipulated.

I thought that this was such an interesting book. It touches on so many themes and gives a really important message about the role of the state and the importance of freedom of speech. I would put it up there with 1984 and Brave New World as a modern day classic.

Despite the chilling tone I actually found this book very easy to read. It’s a relatively short story (especially for science fiction) at 227 pages and keeps up the suspense throughout.  Ultimately the book is uplifting and is a brilliant tale of people power and the tenacity of the human spirit. Highly recommended.

Overall rating: 8/10

Review: The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz

I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – # 20 Read a book about religion (fiction or non-fiction).

The Holy Woman is the story of a beautiful young woman (Zarri Bano) growing up in modern day rural Pakistan. Unfortunate events transpire which result in Zarri Bano being pushed into (forced isn’t exactly the right word) becoming a holy woman, unable to marry and expected to devote her life to Islam. The book charts the life of Zarri Bano as well as members of her family and local villagers as they go about their daily lives. Despite the enforced celibacy that the role of holy woman demands, the book is essentially a love story between two main characters.

I have to say that I really didn’t enjoy this book – I struggled to get into it. I thought that the story had lots of filler with not much action, with a very predictable storyline. It was quite a long book and I think that cutting out a lot of the superfluous narrative would help to give the story more impact.

I got very annoyed at how hopeless the female character is portrayed – not in relation to they way that she is expected to obey her father and become a holy woman but that she falls so helplessly in love with someone she barely knows. I found the whole thing quite unbelievable and hugely over dramatic.

On a positive note, it was interesting to read a book from another culture. I knew nothing about the tradition of holy women so it was good to expand my knowledge in this area.

This is a long book with quite dull characters, petty squabbles and overblown gestures (lot of longing looks that pierce through to the soul etc.) If this is the kind of thing that you enjoy then this book offers a very different take on the usual boy-meets-girl story but it just wasn’t for me.

Overall rating: 4/10.

Review: 1Q84 (Part One) by Haruki Murakami

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge #16 – Read the First Book in a Series by a Person of Colour.

The world of Haruki Murakami is a very, very weird one. Literally no-one writes like he does. All of his books are set in quiet towns in Japan where people with ordinary lives have extraordinary, strange and bizzare things happen to them. His work defies categorisation – weird Japanese realistic fantasy is about as close as I can get. However, the stories are so brilliantly written and beautifully detailed that the fantasy elements feel totally natural to the overall narrative – to the point where you can describe an entire book and forget to mention that the main character can converse with cats.

Having already read most of Murakami’s back catalogue I was concerned that the 1Q84 series would be too drawn out, too heavy on mundane details to have any real drive and that I would lose interest. However, after reading the first part of the trilogy I was pleasantly surprised to be completely hooked.

The story itself centres around two main characters who each lead entirely separate lives. One is a self defense teacher by day and assassin by night who notices that the world that she lives in (Japan 1983) has subtly changed (hence 1Q83 – Q is the Japanese for 9). The other character is a teacher/writer who encounters a strange author with an unbelievable story to tell. By the end of 1Q83 part one we are still not sure exactly how these two stranger’s lives are relevant to each other but there are many clues which suggest a number of different ways that the story could progress.

Due to the way Murakami writes it’s hard to work out what is relevant and what isn’t but for me this only adds to the excitement of the book. Magical and dreamlike, this is one of Murakami’s best works and is a story like no other. I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Overall rating: 9/10.

Review: So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #8 Read a book published in the year that you were born (1983).

I read some of the reviews of this book before I bought it and immediately I kept coming across Harry Potter comparisons. However, if anyone is hoping that this is some kind of HP predecessor that J.K.Rowling somehow copied without anyone noticing then I’m afraid they’re going to be disappointed. This book is slow, not particularly coherent and not especially exciting. There is no character development – individuals are either good or bad and therefore quite one dimensional. Because the spells take a long time to cast the action is much slower paced and sometimes I struggled to follow the logic that the author had used for the characters to complete their quest. I can see how children would be able to enjoy the story more than adults (you need a very vivid imagination and an accepting nature to believe the concepts presented) but as an adult I really didn’t enjoy it.

If anyone else is looking for a book from 1983 then I would recommend The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, which is excellent.

Overall rating: 5/10  

Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #23 Read a play.

I didn’t have to ‘do’ Of Mice and Men at school, although almost everyone else I know did. When I asked them about their thoughts on the book, most struggled to remember the details. ‘Someone gets framed for a murder?’ my partner said, sort-of-half-remembering part of the plot. Uh, not really sweetie. Nice to see that a classic of 20th century literature made such a lasting impression on you.

I didn’t really think that this short novel ‘qualified’ as a play but in the introduction to my copy it says that Steinbeck rewrote the novel in the year that it was published (1937) for performance on Broadway (although weirdly, he never saw it performed). He also had to rewrite the entire manuscript after his puppy shredded his only copy, so it’s a miracle that the story was published in the first place.

After reading the book (play) I can completely see why it is taught in schools. The main plot centres around intolerance of people who are a bit ‘different’, which is sadly still relevant 80 years on. I found the text quite easy to read despite the difficult themes of despair and hopelessness that are dominant in the script, but this is simply down to good writing and not a simplistic storyline.

To say that I enjoyed reading the play is not exactly true – I found it quite depressing and the ending is truly horrific. However, I found the story really engaging and I really responded to the characters. This really is a must read book for teenagers upwards.

Overall rating: 9/10.