Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo


Genre: Classic

Similar to: In a weird way, the Bible? 

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of heavy lifting

Publication date: 1862

Ok, I lied. This isn’t a review.

There is simply no way to summarise a book that is over 1200 pages long and covers almost every topic that you can think of without it turning into a dissertation (or a parody review – I could use massively flowery language and insert a big chunk of text about Waterloo somewhere in the middle…) but it’s Christmas and whilst I’m ideas rich I’m time poor (although that is a suitably massive sentence – stop it Lucinda!) So instead, I’m going to attempt to talk about some of the main points that struck me about the book-that-has-taken-me-a-year-to-read. Wish me luck.

Les Miserables is a vast, epic novel written in the about what life in France was like for it’s ordinary citizens during the first half of the nineteenth century. Jean Valjean is a prisoner, put to work on the galleys (prison ships) for stealing a loaf of bread. He escapes, reinvents himself and goes about trying to live his life as the best person he can be, helping everyone he meets as and when he can. He sacrifices himself numerous times for his ethics but continues to live selflessly. He encounters Fantine, a woman doing everything she can to ensure a good life for her daughter Cosette. Through a series of events, Jean Valjean discovers that Cosette is being worked like a slave by the unscrupulous Thénardier family and buys her from them, bringing her up as his own daughter. He escapes the clutches of the law numerous times and ensures Cosette is given a the happiest life possible. (This is a hugely simplified summary with many events and characters missing but it’s the best I’ve got).

I think the first thing to do is a shout out to whoever invented e-readers. I read Les Miserables on a Kindle and it’s a good job too – this is a BEHEMOTH of a book. As much as I would have liked to slam it down on a train table, or perhaps carry it in my arms whilst looking wistful in a Breton striped top, I simply don’t have the upper body strength for that sort of show-offy nonsense. If you’re into that kind of aesthetic though, this is the book for you.

In order to deal with the sheer length of the book, I signed up to a read-along where you read one of the 365 chapters a day for a year. I would guess that the book was written with that in mind, although the chapters themselves vary wildly in length with some less than a page long and some taking half an hour to get through. I quickly found that reading just one chapter was never going to work for me, so I tended to save up a week’s worth of reading and have an omnibus binge instead.

The novel, apart from being massive, is amazing. And very…French. It’s political and idealistic and raw and gritty and factual and endlessly quotable and brilliant and sad and funny and despite being written nearly 200 years ago it’s still (sadly) relevant to society today. I imagine that it was controversial in it’s day for the portrayal of ordinary people struggling through their ordinary lives; living in poverty, going hungry, doing everything they can to make ends meet. There are some truly tragic characters but through Jean Valjean there’s a sense of hope and an overall redemptive arc that lifts the narrative from depressing to inspiring.

There are literally SO MANY life lessons to be learned from Les Miserables. I’ve just read another review where someone said that this book makes you want to be a better person and I think that’s right. One of the central ideas is that by treating everyone – even a convict or a prostitute – with respect, that person will not only use that kindness, they’ll pay it forwards. If we could all see each other as human beings, rather than putting them into boxes full of made up assumptions, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

There’s also huge questions around ethics; what is legally right and what is morally right. Jean Valjean learns that whilst the state can punish him, abuse him and take away his freedom, they can’t harm his soul. He consistently does what he feels is right, even when this is often the hardest (and sometimes the illegal) option to take. In contrast, we see Javert the police officer bound by the letter of the law, acting entirely within the boundaries of legality even when this causes abject human suffering. The compassion that Jean Valjean is able to show eventually becomes Javert’s undoing (written, I have to say, in an extraordinarily beautiful way).

Despite the heavy moral overtones, Les Miserables never comes across as preachy or judgemental. There is so much light and shade within the novel that despite it’s length, you’re compelled to keep reading. True, the language used is often excessively flowery but somehow I didn’t mind it. I was concerned that the book was going to stray into the realms of poverty porn, romanticizing the misery that many of the characters faced but I needed have worried – there are scenes of children going hungry, homelessness, torture…the parts that stayed with me the most were the treatment of prisoners being moved across the country and the slow demise of poor Fantine. These scenes were truly upsetting but again, beautifully written.

Occasionally, there were parts that dragged – I almost gave up when I got to the part about the battle of Waterloo – but the short chapters and interspersing philosophical/historical/cultural asides into the main narrative really worked for me. I felt like I learnt so much about that period of history and my new found knowledge keeps rearing it’s head in the weirdest of places – like when I was on holiday in Devon and found out that 19th Century French prisoners of war had been moved from galley ships to Dartmoor prison and had built the church there by hand.

In contrast, there were parts that I absolutely flew through – the Thénardier heist, the barricade scenes and the sewers were some of the best bits of literature that I’ve ever read. Truly amazing prose.

Overall, Les Miserables is an incredible book. I found the portrayal of ordinary people a particularly fascinating topic and I loved learning about the real world events that took place during the same period. Yes, it takes time and dedication to read – and you will have a truly epic book hangover when you’re done – but it’s well worth it.

Rating: Four and a half “this can’t be right…96% complete, 4 hours 37 minutes left – WTF?” out of five.

Exhausting, occasionally waffley but overall brilliant. Plus, you’ll have arms like Michelle Obama if you read it in hardback. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #24 Read an assigned book that you hated or never finished.

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Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Genre: Western

Similar to: A more fun version of The Revenant

Could be enjoyed by: Men? This is very much a boy’s book (although I liked it too)

Publication date: 22nd May 2017

I have to say, I really like Michael Crichton books. They’re never going to win any awards for being outstanding examples of literary fiction but they’re easy to read, fast paced page turners and at a time when I’m still ploughing through the final few chapters of Les Mis, it was great to have a bit of light relief.

https://binged.it/2Sy5SjO

Yes, THAT Michael Crichton.

Set in 1876, Dragon Teeth is about William Johnson, a privileged Yale student with very little in the way of life experience. As a bet, he volunteers to go fossil hunting with the University’s resident paelentologist to the badlands of the Wild West. He endures a number of trials (including being caught up in the schemes of two warring professors) meets a host of real historical figures and gets stuck in the lawless town of Deadwood whilst attempting to get his important finds home – hopefully without dying in the process, of course.

As you can tell from the storyline, this is a really fun book. I loved how the author added in so many different crazy characters and awkward/dangerous situations which really brought the whole thing to life. Unfortunately, there were only a couple of female characters (who were mostly horrible) but that felt quite authentic for the period and setting (the lack of women, not their manipulative nature) so I won’t complain too much. The writing was fast paced, with tons of action and adventure. Again, it wasn’t great literature but it was highly compelling.

I really liked how Crichton blurred the lines between fiction and reality. Many of the characters and scenarios in the book were real and although much of the story is made up, it felt extremely authentic. The descriptions of people and places were really well written and I had a vivid idea of what it was like to live in Deadwood at that time.

Even though the novel was published posthumously after it was found as a draft on a computer, it still felt like a completed manuscript. I’m sure that if he’s been alive, Crichton would have spent more time working on it before sending it off to be published – it’s certainly not his best work, by any means – but it was obviously something that was near enough completion to still be a good read.

So, even though Westerns are really not my thing, I thought that Dragon Teeth was a really fun, compelling romp. I loved the vivid descriptions, the action and the inclusion of real historical figures. It made a great alternative to the trials of Javert and Jean Valjean!

Rating: Four out of five stars

A fun, easy book to read with surprising historic accuracy. A good option if you’re in a reading slump or as an alternative to a heavier novel.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #7 Read a Western.

Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Could be enjoyed by: Everyone apart from me

Publication date: 15th August 2017

After seeing the rave reviews of this book aaaand having it personally recommended to me aaaand seeing it win the Wome’s Prize for Fiction I knew I just had to read this book. 

After reading the first few chapters I was thinking “hmmm, slow start but ok…” . Then after a few more chapters I was thinking “woah, majorly disjointed storyline but ok…” . Then after reading a bit more I seriously began to doubt whether I’d picked up the right book. Was this really the new novel that everyone’s talking about? 

Home Fire is the story of a British Muslim family struggling to come to terms with the legacy of their Jihadist father. The son, Parvaiz, becomes a member of ISIS and it’s left to his two sisters to pick up the pieces and get him home. The story is a reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone which frankly went way over my head so please bear in mind that there might be lots of clever references used that I simply didn’t pick up on. 

Anyway…

The story felt extremely clunky to me. The novel was set in five different locations and frankly the first location (and character) seemed entirely superfluous to the rest of the book. It felt like the author was trying to be faithful to the original Greek Tragedy and in doing so had to shoehorn in bits of text that would otherwise have been cut. This made the book meander about to the extent that it felt like a good short story surrounded with a lot of filler. 

The other problem that I had was that not a lot happened – especially in the first half of the novel. Let’s not forget, this book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and yet weirdly, the two main female characters in it felt woefully underwritten. Isma was the stereotypical ” dutiful daughter”, taking care of the family finances by working abroad.I didn’t get a feel for any personality beyond that. Aneeka felt like an utter missed opportunity of a character. Her behaviour in the first half of the book was entirely based around having sex and yet I was never sure of her motivations. Was she in love? Lust? Or was she using her lover to get to his influential father? There didn’t seem to be any scheming, plotting or tactics employed except for the occasional bit of acting distant and again I had no idea why. In contrast, their brother, Parvaiz, was far more well rounded and had a much more interesting storyline. I definitely enjoyed the parts of the novel that focused on him the most.

There are a number of different ideas explored within the text about identity, belonging and sacrifice and in fairness, this is done rather well. The clash between what you feel you should be doing, what you want to do and what it would benefit you to do is replicated numerous times throughout the narrative, often so subtly that you almost don’t notice it. For example, one of the characters who we meet later on (called Karamat Lone) is a British Muslim politician trying to balance his public persona with his private beliefs. This manifests itself in big, obvious ways (he talks about his tough stance on immigration and the prosecution of individuals who go to fight for ISIS – to the extent that the Muslim community have openly criticised him) but also almost invisibly – his son is called Eamonn spelled the traditional Irish way rather than the Pakistani Ayman.I loved the way that these complexities were woven so deftly throughout the text without feeling obvious or unnatural.

I’m going to guess that the ending of the book is somewhat faithful to the original Antigone text but let’s think about that for a second. I’m woefully under-educated when it comes to classic literature but I’d stick a fiver on my guess that the Greek Tragedies are all about the high drama. Now imagine that being played out by an ordinary girl from suburban London. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? And using the good old she’s gone crazy trope didn’t work for me at all.

Overall, I have completely mixed feeling about this book. The Antigone reference went over my head, the storyline felt clunky and I felt like the female characters in particular needed fleshing out. However, the writing in parts was brilliant, the depiction of a radicalized young British man was really interesting and the overall narrative was, on the whole, compelling. That ending was a step too far for me though.

Rating: Three out of five stars

Great writing but trying to fit the modern storyline around an ancient Greek Tragedy didn’t work for me. I’m clearly in the minority though

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #9 Read a book of colonial or post-colonial literature.

Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: ??? *Resists urge to write Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a totally different culture* 

Could be enjoyed by: People who are interested in the experiences of first generation immigrants.

Publication date: 22nd March 1989

I’m going to let you in to a little secret here. Usually, I start my book reviews by assessing what emotions the novel has stirred up in me and allow them to set the tone for the review. Was it a super exciting story? If so, my review will have lots of exclamation marks and short, punchy sentences. Was it deeply moving? I’ll crack out longer paragraphs, throw in some half remembered A-Level psychology and feature the word “ohhhhh” a lot. But when I think of The Joy Luck Club I just think…meh.

So this probably won’t be a very good review (you’ve been warned).

I really wanted to like this book but I felt like I failed to miss the point. And upon reading the Wikipedia page for it, it seems that I absolutely had. You see, the novel features seven different characters – three mothers, three of their respective daughters plus one daughter whose mother has just died. The mothers are all part of the Joy Luck Club (a mahjong playing group) and are all Chinese immigrants, whilst their daughters are all Chinese-American. The book reads like a series of short stories from each of the characters. Occasionally these stories overlap but they’re often stand-alone vignettes. 

Apparently, the book is structured into four sections and the stories are themed for each as an allegory for the way that mahjong is played (?) Well, that went straight over my head. As far as I could see, the characters were picked at random to tell a story about their life. There seemed to be hardly any narrative thread holding it together. I immediately forgot who was related to who and couldn’t find the family tree explaining the genealogy using the ebook version. There was very little in the way of introducing the characters so in my head they became interchangeable – the “mothers” and the “daughters”. 

I have to say, some of the writing about what I’m going to call “old China” i.e. the lives that the mothers had before moving to America was really beautiful and felt totally authentic. I could have got completely lost in the stories if they’d perhaps been expanded to a longer form or if the book was just a collection of the experiences of those three characters. Unfortunately, they were interspersed with the stories of the younger generation, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The main problem for me was that the characters – all of them – were horrible. The mothers and daughters didn’t get on. The daughters were petty and bitchy to each other. The mothers were petty and bitchy to everyone. The men were either nasty or useless. I would have loved to see at least one family work it out but there was such a disconnect between them all that it wasn’t to be 😢.

I thought this was a real shame. I loved the stories set in China but with such confusing, similar characters, a cast of horrible adults and no redemptive arc (actually that’s not true – one of the daughters ends up connecting with her extended Chinese family but we don’t get to find out how that plays out) I found The Joy Luck Club to be totally underwhelming.

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

One word: meh. Some parts were great, some parts were dull /horrible /annoying.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #5 Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).

Review: Not That Bad ed. Roxane Gay

“Dispatches from rape culture”

Genre: Non-fiction, Anthology

Similar to: Nasty Women, Misogynation by Laura Bates

Could be enjoyed by: Enjoy is not the right word AT ALL but this book is so so important it should be read by everyone.

Publication date: 1st November 2018

Wow. This book is like a gut-punch to your emotions. It’s incredibly powerful, often difficult to read but ultimately incredibly important.

Not That Bad is an anthology of #ownvoices stories about rape, assault and harassment. It’s intersectional, featuring people from many different backgrounds (including men and some “household names” that I’d never heard of, but whatever. Not important. The stories are universal). It features a really broad spectrum of experiences (often in quite graphic detail) but also mixes in everyday harassment stories and casual misogyny -and it’s that that makes the book so relatable. It really illustrates how behaviour that we think of as being low-level (or even acceptable) is really the thin end of a wedge that goes from wolf whistles to rape. 

The book focuses on a lot of the issues that rarely gets discussed – coercion, manipulation and abuses of power all feature. It totally breaks down the myth that rape solely consists of a man dragging you into the bushes when you’re walking home at night and the idea that if you didn’t categorically and loudly say the word no then how could anyone reasonably think that you weren’t gagging for it? I really appreciated how the more grey areas of sexual assault were explored and the bravery of the contributors who said “this is what happened and I don’t know if it was rape but I know it was bad”. 

At many times I felt like throwing this book at a wall (if it had been a paperback I would have – you don’t get that excitement with e-ARCs). Weirdly, what got to me the most wasn’t the experiences of the victims but the responses of the people that they told. The title of the book itself refers to how experiences of sexual assault are downplayed – at least you weren’t killed, at least it happened when you were old enough to deal with it, at least he didn’t hurt you, at least you’re ok now. It’s not that bad. That sentiment seemed to be echoed over and over again. Urgh.

What amazed me was the stories about the perpetrators who didn’t feel like they’d done anything wrong. Obviously all of the stories are shocking but the very idea that someone could rape/assault a woman and genuinely not know was mind blowing. The guy who wrote the “sweet” story of hooking up with his girlfriend by carrying her semi-conscious body to the beach to have sex with her was so wrong on so many levels and genuinely made me feel sick. How did we get to a point where young people could think that situation could be construed as romantic?

I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to read this book but I’d highly recommend doing it in small bites. There’s just…a lot. A lot to process. A lot to get mad about. A lot to make you cry. Also, please think carefully about whether the book is going to be triggering for you. It’s pretty graphic and covers a wide range of experiences so do be careful with your mental health. 

Rating: Four and a half “at least you weren’t killed” out of five .

Powerful, upsetting but so, so important. Huge love and respect for everyone that contributed. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #22 Read an essay anthology.

 

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

“From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail”

Genre: Memoir, Travelogue, Bereavement Help

Similar to: A mix of Eat, Pray, Love and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Could be enjoyed by: I think people experiencing bereavement could find it helpful

Publication date: 20th March 2012

If you asked me to sum up Wild in one sentence it would be “a woman goes for a very long walk wearing incorrect footwear”. I really did find it that dull as it felt like the book plodded along at a snail’s pace. It’s a shame because I expected far better things from the novel, especially after reading all of the rave reviews. My overarching feeling was “meh”.

To expand on that one sentence description of the book, Cheryl Strayed is a young American woman whose life has been seriously derailed by the death of her mother and the subsequent break up of her marriage. After quitting University in her final term to help with her mother’s end of life care, Cheryl struggles to cope and a series of bad decisions leads to her decision to do something drastic – spending a few months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail completely solo. She has to carry all of her food, water and belongings on her back and camp each night out in the open. It’s an incredibly brave decision to make but ultimately I just didn’t find it that engaging.

Now, before you all jump into the comments section and call me a monster for trashing a book about a young woman who has just watched her mother die, I’m not saying that the book wasn’t emotional. On the contrary, it was harrowingly, viscerally grief ridden – to the point where I struggled to read some of the parts about Cheryl’s Mum’s last few days. It was just…depressing. Obviously, death is an incredibly upsetting topic but I wanted more of a redemptive arc – a sense of letting go of the grief and moving forwards but instead this is how the book went: 

walking, shoe problems, flashback: traumatic illness 

walking, bag too heavy, flashback: traumatic childhood

walking, hungry, flashback: harrowing death

walking, got lost, flashback: drug problems

walking, more shoe problems, flashback: divorce

walking, cold and wet, flashback: family drifts apart

walking, finally some sex, flashback: traumatic horse death

walking, money problems, flashback: more traumatic childhood

walking, anger 

The End.

I had complicated emotions about Cheryl. On the one hand I felt incredibly sorry for her as she seemed to be totally adrift in her life. Her Dad was abusive, her stepdad disinterested, her brother and sister were distant after the death of her mother. But whilst that provided a background for some of the situations that Cheryl got herself into, I did feel like some of her problems were entirely her own fault. Some of the things she had done to other people, whilst clearly a reflection of her own lack of self esteem/depression, were downright shitty. I felt bad that no-one had tried to help her but then would you help your wife if she’d cheated on you multiple times? 

Probably not.

On the plus side, although Cheryl was woefully inexperienced and naive (she doesn’t test the weight of her pack until the day she begins walking and finds she can’t lift it; she doesn’t have enough money; she doesn’t read the guidebook; she has the wrong size shoes) she perseveres and muddles through. In that way I had a lot of respect for her but I did find her lack of preparation infuriating. I mean, people die every year doing that hike. You’d have thought she’d at least have done a few overnight camping trips beforehand. Or, you know, checked she could pick up the bag that she’s be hauling round for the next few months (let along carry the bloody thing).

The journey itself is pretty epic and I will grudgingly admit that Cheryl’s tenacity and no-nonsense attitude was inspiring. I felt like her decision to  hike the Pacific Crest Trail was her attempt to come to terms with everything and although this was a book about “finding yourself” it managed to do so in a way that wasn’t too self indulgent. Unfortunately, this meant pages and pages of just…walking. Lots of flowery descriptions, lots of info dumps, quite a few transitory characters who were so briefly in and out of the story that I couldn’t remember who any of them were when they popped up later on – and it was all interspersed with the depressing details of Cheryl’s life. Then there was a rushed ending where she reached the finish point…and that was it.

Sadly, Wild just wasn’t the book for me – although I’m well aware that my views are seriously in the minority. I thought that the novel literally plodded along and although it was genuinely inspiring I also found it pretty depressing – and I hate to say it but also pretty boring. Imagine Lord of the Rings without any magic. 

Yeah.

Rating: Two and a half “why the hell didn’t you read the guidebook?!?” out of five.

As inspiring as it is infuriating, I found Wild a real slog to get through. Everyone else seems to love it but I can’t for the life of me see why.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #13 Read an Oprah book club selection.

Review: Giant Days Vol.1 by John Allison

Genre: Comic book/Graphic novel, YA

Similar to: Like a grown up Lumberjanes

Could be enjoyed by: Freshers, or people who want to reminisce about Uni

Publication date: 24th November 2015

I discovered Giant Days on my Kindle when I was poorly a few weeks ago. To be honest, I’d kind of forgotten it was there. I can’t even remember why I bought it – I think it was reduced and I was on a buying spree. So not really the best credentials – and when you look at the cover you can kind of see why. The title means nothing to me and doesn’t explain what the comic is about. The artwork looks like the kind of thing you’d see in a newspaper comic strip. There’s no context to the character depicted so no clues there either. Basically the whole thing is pretty forgettable but I wanted to read something light and non-taxing, so I gave it a go. 

I’m so glad that I did! Set at an unnamed UK university, the comic follows three freshers who are just becoming friends. There’s sweet, naive Daisy; acerbic, serious Susan and dramatic, boy-crazy goth Esther. They get up to all the usual uni stuff – drinking too much, getting freshers flu, lazing about in pyjamas getting to know each other. It brought back so many memories 😍

I found the whole set up totally relatable and laughed all the way from beginning to end. I’d almost forgotten how uniquely weird those first few weeks of uni are, where you make friends based on whoever you’re randomly living with despite having totally different backgrounds and interests. I loved how the characters were all so un-alike and yet still became friends – something that I could definitely identify with. 

It was refreshing to read about a UK uni experience (sitting chatting in bars, having your mother visit because you’re only a few hours away from home etc.) and nice for my poor virus riddled brain not to have to convert words like faucet and college into tap and university. I think that this definitely helped me to identify more with the storyline and made me forego my “no backpacks” rule – I often find that I’m too old to identify with YA literature so I was pleasantly surprised. 

I absolutely loved all of the characters in Giant Days but I especially identified with Esther – she was exactly like I was when I was 18 (she also reminded me of Pandora from Kerrang! magazine – that’s a reference literally none of you will get 😜). I loved the female representation and how their unlikely friendship thrived, with none of the usual in-fighting, bitchiness or generic mean girl tropes. It would have been nice to see more diversity, although I did appreciate how Daisy began to explore her potential queerness (which was handled really well and again felt totally authentic). 

Overall, I thought that Giant Days was a brilliant graphic novel – highly relatable, fun, hilarious and charming. I thought that it captured that whole coming-of-age, exploring who you are thing really well and the way that the characters and their friendship was represented was just great. What a perfect read for October – especially if you’re a first year student – and what a great going-away-to-uni gift! 

Rating: Four “stall my mum while I sober up!” out of five.

Funny, warm and charming, Giant Days is the most relatable story of being a fresher that I’ve ever come across – the nostalgia will give you all the feels. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #18 Read a comic that isn’t DC, Marvel or Image. 

 

Review: 1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami

Genre: Magical realism/fantasy

Similar to: Literally nothing. 

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Murakami who also have a lot of patience

Publication date: 16th April 2010

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.

This is quote from my review of 1Q84 Book One (which I also used in my review of 1Q84 Book Two) and I still think it sets the tone nicely. Basically, Murakami books are downright weird – and 1Q84 is possibly the weirdest one yet. 1Q84 Book Three (the culmination of the trilogy) is where the average writer would begin to tie up loose ends…but Murakami clearly had other ideas. I’m actually left with more questions now than I had at the beginning, some of which involve pretty major plot points. The question is though – do I actually care? Did I expect to find anything out?

I guess the answer is…no. 

A big, fat resounding no. 

No

NO

NO.

You see, that’s the genius of Murakami. I didn’t really expect to have any answers, I don’t know what happened, nothing has been resolved before getting to the book’s final destination. 

All I know is, I just really, really enjoyed the journey.

1Q84 Book Three kicks off directly after the dramatic ending of Book Two, where Aomame was stood with a gun in her mouth about to pull the trigger. There’s a slightly laboured point about Chekhov maintaining that any gun introduced to a story must be fired so I was expecting some major drama. Except…that’s not what happens. 

Basically – nothing happens. 

The book is one long nothingy nothingness of no action, no drama and no plot development – and yet it still managed to grip me from the first page to the last.

No, I’m not entirely sure how either. But it did.

I think that perhaps one of the ways that Murakami managed this feat was the introduction of time slips and the concept that time was moving faster and slower for different characters or in different situations. This is all done extremely subtly through suggestion and the storyline is left up to the reader to piece together as the characters (none of whom meet each other until the very end of the book) weave in and out of each other’s narratives. In reality, this was done extremely effectively so it wasn’t as confusing to understand as it sounds and it added a new layer of WTF to keep me entertained. 

I said in my Book Two review that I felt emotionally distant from the two main characters and this feeling remained during Book Three. For all his genius, I don’t think that Murakami writes women very well and honestly, the number of times that breasts were mentioned bordered the ridiculous. I literally know more about Aomame’s tits than I do about the main storyline (to be fair, not that difficult) and the final heartening scene was somewhat ruined by her apologising for having small boobs. I mean, really….

The ending itself explained literally nothing and although I was heavily invested in the storyline, I quite liked the open-ended “resolution” as I felt I had enough information to draw my own conclusions.

So, who are the little people? Why were Tengo and Aomame inextricably linked? What even is 1Q84? 

Who gives a shit. This is a brilliant, epic trilogy; a masterpiece of magical realism and a fantastic, complex work that I’m sure most people will hate but I absolutely loved. 

Rating: Four and a half levels of unexplained weirdness out of five.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #19 Read a book of genre fiction in translation.

 

Review: The Kite Runner (Graphic Novel) by Khaled Hosseini

Genre: Graphic novel

Similar to: Persepolis

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of graphic novels who want their stories to be a bit darker, more diverse and emotional

Publication date: 6th September 2011

Wowzers. I’d already read The Kite Runner when it first came out and although I remember thinking at the time what a good book it was, it didn’t really make a huge impact on me. However, reading the graphic novel was a completely different experience. Maybe it’s because I read it all in one go, maybe it’s because the pictures added an emotional depth and connection that I didn’t get as much of from the book or maybe it’s because it was basically a re-read but the result was that I LOVED IT.  

In case you don’t know, The Kite Runner is the story of Amir, who lives in wealthy Kabul in the 1970’s. He and his best friend Hassan dream of winning the local kite flying championship but a shocking and violent event leaves Amir with a difficult choice – whether to intervene to save his friend and possibly put himself in danger, or whether to walk away. Amir’s choice has major repecussions but due to the ever changing fortunes of the country that he loves, he is offered the opportunity of redemption. 

As I said, I really engaged with the graphic novel version of this story far more than the book. I loved the illustrations and the limited pallet used was immediately evocative of the Middle East. I liked how the story had been condensed but without leaving out any important bits – in fact, the pictures and narrative together gave me a much clearer idea of the story and really brought it to life. I thought this worked particularly well for the more violent parts of the storyline – you can describe a rape scene using the most graphic language that you want but to see a depiction of the look on the victim’s face and the blood on the back of his jeans is an image that will stay with me for a long time. 

It was this visceral imagery that really made me connect with the characters. You can completely understand the motivations of Amir and Hassan (they are only children after all) and although the events which take place are heartbreaking, it was the portrayal of their friendship that I felt so deeply moved by.  

I loved how the tension that was such a central part of the original book was retained in the graphic novel format and how the emotional storyline was portrayed. The Kite Runner is a really gripping book and I enjoyed reading about a totally different lifestyle and culture, despite the horrific events that were also depicted. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the graphic novel version of the story but the combination of great writing and beautiful illustrations really worked well for me. I actually think that I preferred it to the original book (or perhaps the combination of knowing the full story and then reading the graphic novel is what worked) as the more straightforward storyline was easier to follow and connect with.

This led me to think: have I just opened up to a whole new genre of graphic novels that I wasn’t previously aware of? Have I finally managed to strike a balance with re-reading, as a graphic novel version of a book that I’ve already read still feels like a new book (so no so-many-books-so-little-time guilt) but retains that familiarity of a story that you already know? Is this why you lot all love fairy story re-tellings?

Who knows. All I’m sure of is that I’ll definitely be looking up more of these types of graphic novels in the future – and I’ll definitely be recommending The Kite Runner graphic novel to everyone I know.

Rating: Four and a half heartbreaking Hassan quotes out of five.

Evocative, engaging and deeply emotional, The Kite Runner graphic novel is an unexpected treasure. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #8 Read a comic written or illustrated by a person of colour.  

Review: The Letter For The King by Tonke Dragt

Genre: Fantasy, Children’s Literature

Similar to: The Hobbit, LOTR

Could be enjoyed by: Parents looking to read their kids something other than Harry Potter

Publication date: (In translation) 7th November 2013, originally published in 1962

Some of you may remember that I sent out a request a while ago asking for suggestions for some of the remaining categories in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. One of those categories was to read a children’s classic published before 1980 and although you all gave some excellent suggestions, I shamelessly ignored them and read The Letter for the King instead. Sorry! I do honestly appreciate your imput, but this book just looked sooooo interesting that I had to give it a go.

Anyway…

The Letter for the King is something of a classic in mainland Europe but for some inexplicable reason was never translated into English until a few years ago (WHY???) The book follows the adventures of Tiuri, a teenage page who is on his way to becoming a fully fledged Knight. However, a chance encounter leads to Tiuri becoming tasked with a quest to travel across the Great Mountains to deliver a message to the King. In order to do so, Tiuri must avoid numerous perils, pitfalls and shady characters conspiring to stop him – otherwise the whole kingdom could be brought to it’s knees. 

Unsurprisingly, this is a lovely, exciting, easy read. It’s described as Children’s Fiction but I’d say the age range could be a little older – say ten years and up (I hate writing an upper age limit on these recommendations – I’m 35 and I enjoyed it!). I loved Tiuri and his unfailing dedication to always doing what was right – I thought he would make a great role model, especially for young boys. Unfortunately, these’s not a lot of (barely any) female representation but I’m reliably informed that this is rectified in the sequel. 

I really enjoyed all the action and suspense within the novel. I can imagine that if you’re reading the book as a bedtime story your kids would definitely be begging you for one more chapter. There’s just so much that happens and lots of chapters end on cliffhangers, so be warned!

I loved the central themes of bravery, friendship and choosing the right thing to do, even if it is the more difficult option. Although it feels very much like a high fantasy novel, there’s actually no magical elements so it makes for a bit more of a straightforward read. I actually didn’t miss them at all as the storyline has more than enough going on.   

Although the book is a great translation, it does retain something of that Germanic/Eastern Bloc creepiness that I have potentially only picked up on because I was subjected to watching those weird foreign cartoons as a child (things were very different at the BBC in the 80’s).Think like The Moomins or The Singing Ringing Tree, as parodied beautifully here by The Fast Show:  

Overall, I loved escaping into the world of Tonke Dragt. The Letter for the King is a great book to be enjoyed at any age and yet another brilliant find courtesy of Book Riot. I’d encourage you all to read it.

Rating: Four ‘how do I pronounce that inexplicably scary name’ out of five.

Fast paced, exciting and easy to read – I’m sure this book will now gain a whole new legion of English-speakng fans. 

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #11 Read a children’s classic published before 1980.