Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Girlfriend in a Coma – Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland was first recommended to me about five years ago, but it's taken me a while to get around to finally reading some of his books. I bought Hey Nostradamus! on a whim a few months ago and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Even so, I still wasn't entirely convinced; I'd been tempted by Girlfriend in a Coma for a while, the title always stood out to me in book shops because of it's reference to The Smiths, but I found that off-putting as well as appealing. I think that mix of feelings is pretty much how I felt when I finished reading the novel.

Girlfriend in Coma opens on a group of six friends, Karen, Richard, Wendy, Linus, Pamela and Hamilton, who are introduced to us by their classmate Jared who has recently died from leukaemia. Hours after losing her virginity to Richard, Karen slips in a coma at a house party. Already hit with Jared's death the group struggles to cope; they are rejected at school with rumours of bad luck and blame and don't know where to turn. But the hardest thing for them to come to terms with is that in a letter to Richard, written before her death, Karen appears to predict her own retreat from the world as well predicting the decline of the world into a dark and broken state over the coming years.

Over the following seventeen years Karen remains deep in her coma and the group split off, throwing themselves into their lives in attempts to distract themselves and find meaning. Ultimately, though many of them find this solace in drugs, alcohol and extreme lifestyle choices. So, when we re-join the group seventeen years they are feeling unfulfilled and lost. But, then something they had lost hope in occurs; Karen wakes up from her coma, and although physically she is a shadow of her former self, mentally she is intact, feeling as though she was still seventeen.

I don't really want to explain the plot much more than this, don't want to ruin the twists and turns that are to come, but the plot does take a very unusual turn on more than one occasion. The reason I had mixed feelings about this novel was due to the final twist of the story; not knowing what is coming next can make a novel great, but I felt that Coupland ended this novel in such an unexpected way that I felt somewhat cheated out of a real ending. There came a point when I didn't know where he could take the story, and I guess that is when endings do become more likely to be unsatisfying. I was also surprised by the strong moral leaning the ending included as this wasn't particularly present earlier on. Even so, I did enjoy this book, even if I enjoyed the journey more than the destination and my disappointment hasn't put me off reading more of Coupland's books or recommending this one if you are in the mood for something a bit different.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Guest Review: Dark Banquet by Bill Schutt

Forget those imaginary sparkly poseurs who use fangs and the red stuff as a fashion statement. There are real vampires among us--and yes, they suck blood. Really.

Bill Schutt is a Cornell researcher who studies vampire bats. In the first third of his book Dark Banquet (which is all about blood suckers in the animal kingdom), Schutt dispels the myths surrounding these animals of which there are three species living in the New World. He also takes the reader through capturing vampire bats in a creepy abandoned military base in the middle of the Trinidad rain forest to feeding techniques used to maintain the vampire bat colony back in Cornell. The second section is a history of blood science, particularly in the art of bloodletting from ancient to modern times with emphasis on medicinal leeches. For the final section, the blood sucking animal highlighted is something far closer to home--the bed bug. Schutt visits an entomologist who studies bed bugs and feeds them himself! and discusses why it is so difficult to get rid of the critters. Needless to say, it might not be such a good idea to read this part in bed.

Schutt's writing style is very readable with a sense of humor about the bloody subject. For example, in the explanation for the circumstances that led to the evolutionary diversification of vampire bats from the rest of the bat family, one of the three vampire species, Diaemus youngi, is described as a "winged teddy bear" that behaves like a chick in order to trick the chicken into giving up the liquid goods. Leeches were not only depicted as some dark menace plaguing Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen but also as whimsical Tempest Prognosticators in a nineteenth century weather instrument that never really caught on to the public. And the footnotes are not to be missed. In one particularly hilarious one, Norwegian researchers got some leeches drunk and tortured them with garlic. At least in that instance, the folklorish notion that garlic keeps away the vampires is true!

While I understand that going into depth about all sanguivores would be foolhardy--or at the least require several more volumes--I would have liked to see more about some of the animals that were only briefly mentioned. Schutt does go into the fact that mites and ticks are known carriers of disease, but I found that section dissatisfyingly brief. I would have liked more explanation on how these insects metabolized their blood meals, how the microbes that cause disease survive in such a host, and the resulting consequences on the carrier insect's physiology. Much of the anecdotes and sensationalism about people freaking out about bed bugs could have possibly been cut out in favor of adding more science. Then again, this may be my own biases coming into play. I get frustrated when something I'm interested in is mentioned--such as the gut microflora of the vampire bats--but is never followed up.

But despite these shortcomings, I really enjoyed Dark Banquet. Schutt is funny and informative without being condescending. And it is obvious, especially with the first section of the book, that the author has a real love of the subject. As a microbiology student, much of my studies concentrate on the disease and the physiology of the bacteria or viruses that cause the disease. I've been taught that the vectors for those diseases were nothing more than something pesky to be eradicated. But I think this book has given me a new appreciation for the complex biology of the organisms that serve as these vectors--even if not everything was explained to my satisfaction.

I also have to give kudos to whoever designed the book. The red divider pages gave the book real structure and organization. And the inclusion of the illustrations by Patricia Wynne was genius. Wynne's Gorey-esque drawing style beautifully meshed with Schutt's narrative resulting in a truly pleasing reading experience.

Contributed by Sya, who can be found here.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Guest Review: True Spirit by Jessica Watson

True Spirit is a real-life adventure story by 16-year-old Jessica Watson of Australia. On May 15, 2010 she sailed her yacht back into Sydney Harbour to a hero’s welcome. At that time she became the youngest person to ever sail solo, non-stop, and unassisted around the world. Even before she set foot on her boat, she and her parents were criticized by the media, by politicians, and by ordinary people all over the world. Many feared for her as she set out to do what a lot adults would never dream of doing. She and her little pink yacht, Ella’s Pink Lady, spent 210 days alone at sea where several times she battled monstrous seas and survived multiple knockdowns of her boat. However, in a voyage marked by extreme highs and lows, she also describes the amazing animals of the ocean which she encountered, the stunning sunsets that she alone was witness to, and the humor of trying to enjoy a normal life while on a 34-foot boat in the middle of the water.

Although she is primarily a sailor, Jessica writes with a style all her own. She is funny, honest and humble through it all. If I didn’t know better while reading it, I would think that she was at least in her mid-twenties because she writes like a grown woman and not a little girl. And yet, she also has moments where she demonstrates her age in humorous ways. The book is interspersed with entries from her blog which she updated faithfully by satellite while at sea. Like any teenage girl, she did battle some home-sickness and some depression and she tried to keep any negative comments out of her blog entries to avoid worrying her family at home. But in the book she reexamines the blog and points out the parts that were less than completely honest.

She starts off with a bit about herself and her life leading up to this amazing experience. She talks about her preparation both the serious (a boat collision just prior to the voyage that made her much more watchful on the trip itself) to the humorous (she took 576 chocolate bars with her). She tells about the doubts she had going into the trip, how she convinced her parents to let her go and about her sailing voyages prior to the circumnavigation itself. She shows the resiliency of teenage spirit, demonstrates what “dreaming big” really looks like, and encourages other people to do the same. Then she lays out the days and moments just prior to departure, the final words she had with her family, and how it felt to be utterly alone in the middle of the ocean. She discusses the technical aspects of solo sailing, the challenges of food preparation on a constantly moving stove, and lays out her celebration plans for Christmas, New Years and one of the biggest days of all for her: crossing the equator for the first time.

I am not a teenager nor am I a sailor, but this book made me wish I was both. I laughed when she tried to make pasta with diesel fuel instead of water, cried with happiness when she stepped off the boat all wobbly-legged at the end of her trip and couldn’t put the book down through the entire thing. So many “inspirational” books are sappy, annoying and theoretical but this book was none of those. It was very honest and was inspirational mostly in the fact that it was not trying to be. It made me want to get off of the couch and do the things that I want to do in my life, without waiting around until I’m older or have more money. Jessica did just that, put in years of hard work, and eventually completed the trip of a lifetime. I, for one, am grateful that she chose to put it on paper and share her experience with the world.

Contributed by Anna, who can be found here.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Guest Review: The Seven Secrets of Happiness – Sharon Owens

“A tale of finding happiness in the most surprising places.”

I bought ‘The Seven Secrets of Happiness’ when I was looking for a feel good chick lit to cheer me up. I thought the title was apt for that purpose – and I do admit that I am always one to judge a book by its cover!

I have to say that the book didn’t immediately do what it said on the cover, as it had me crying after the first few chapters – not exactly the feel good book I was looking for! But it grabbed my attention, being a sucker for depressing stories and love stories in equal measure – so I kept reading, and found it to be a very good book, with more true emotion than most chick lits. There is a tone of depression and grief continued throughout the book, but at the same time, it does show emotional strength and growth, and in that way, does bring veiled happiness, as well as making you evaluate aspects of your own life, in a way that most books of this genre usually wouldn’t.

Set in Belfast, the story follows Ruby, through the loss of her husband, learning how to get on with her life, finding happiness in new places, and learning lessons for how to live – the seven secrets of happiness. Working in a small boutique, Ruby makes 7 handbags, and with each handbag sold, she learns a valuable life lesson, from appreciating beauty in small, seemingly insignificant things, to doing good deeds. And of course, there is some romance intertwined in the story, as Ruby finds a perfect match in a Widower, Tom, who is leaning his own lessons in how to live without his late wife.

I found this a very interesting and enjoyable read, and it made me question many things in my life. One thing I love about books is when they really make you think, which this one definitely did! Am I emotionally independent? Is that really necessary to be happy? If I had better mental and physical health, would I be happier? Have I really let go of my past? Or should I forget it entirely? This book made me question all these things, and many more, while maintaining the girly writing style that I’ve come to expect from chick lit.

I would suggest this as a good read, but don’t expect it to be the happiest book you’ve ever read, despite the title, as although there is happiness, it is very much veiled in grief throughout the book. All in all, it was a very compelling, emotional read; definitely not the traditional happy ever after love story I was expecting!

Contributed by Jenny, who can be found here.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Yasutaka Tsutsui - Triple Book Review

Tsutsui is an author I have wanted to read for a while. I was first tempted after watching the Japanese animated film Paprika which was based on his book of the same name. And then I was even more tempted when I found out that another anime, The Girl who Leapt Through Time was based on a manga he had written. Partly, I was intrigued due to the depth and darkness of Paprika, and then more so as The Girl who Leapt Through Time is the total opposite; a funny and moving story based around a school girl.

So I visited my local library and of course they had neither, but they did have three other books by Tsutsui. So I took them all out at once and read them back to back.

The first was The Maid, which I think was my favourite of the three. The basic story follows Nanase, an eighteen year old girl who is entering into the profession of a live-in maid. The twist is that Nanase has an unusual talent; that she can read minds. What emerges are insights into a number of different families. Not only does it reveal the peculiarities that emerge within any home, but also those most hidden secrets, held deep within peoples heads. My only criticism was how focused on sex most of these revelations were, I wouldn't say they were overly explicit, perhaps just slightly too regular. I think there are plenty of other things that could be a hidden inside a person's mind, so by the end of the book the theme of sex was wearing a bit thin. But overall the dynamics of different families were well realised and thoroughly believable, although as is to be expected, mostly unpleasant. I think if I had written the book I might have included more 'normal' people, not everyone is sleeping with their father's mistress, some are just worried about money and what they should wear tomorrow, although I guess that might not be such an interesting story.

The second I read was HELL. If you look at the covers for this and The Maid, at least the editions I read, you would barely even know it was by the same author. HELL is made to look like it is a horror book, so I was sceptical, but I found it to be more similar to The Maid than I had expected. As you would expect this is a story about Hell. It is about a group of individuals with connected lives who have ended up in hell, although it is not entirely obvious why they are there or what the alternatives might be. I think what was most interesting to me was that this was not a western idea of hell, I suppose it was more Japanese, although I don't really know enough about that to be sure. It was just a strange version of the world where no one seemed too happy, but at the same time there appear to be many upsides, for example characters who returned to full health in the afterlife. The main focus of the book is telling the history of each character, their memories and how they died. These snippets are intertwined well and although they can be confusing to follow due to their non-sequential nature it all seems to add to the feeling of the book. There isn't really a story to this book, much like The Maid it is more of a glimpse into people and events in their lives, so although interesting I did not find it all too gripping. Once again I feel that Tsutsui's characters are well rounded and believable, and it was this feeling that I will really take away, however I think The Maid was stronger due to Nanase's abilities framing the smaller stories.

The third book I read by Tsutsui was Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, which I must admit I was less excited about reading. This was because I do not like short stories, I'm not sure why, each time I try them it seems to be for a slightly different reason that I dislike them, but what I think it boils down to is just you can't get addicted to a short story because it's done before you have time, so it doesn't make the book as easy to want to return to. I think the best way I can describe this book is downright bizarre. Not that the previous weren't a bit weird in their own way, but Salmonella Men on Planet Porno is short insights into people lives as a unnatural occurrence happens to them. Some of them are highly enjoyable, for example the man who suddenly starts being followed by the press and every mundane moment of his life is turned into headline news, but others really failed to hold my attention, and it took a lot of effort for me to even finish this book. Like The Maid I felt that maybe there was a slightly over-usual focus on sex, but somehow in this setting it seemed less serious, so bizarre were the stories it was part of. Of the three books I think this was probably the funniest, but it is probably the one I would least recommend, however as I said I don't like short stories, so if you do you will probably like it!

Tsutsui is beyond a doubt an unusual writer, from what I can discover he is highly prolific, although very few of his novels seem to have made it to translation. Perhaps this is due to the bizarre elements to his stories, or that they seem very Japanese, but either way I want more and have already ordered Paprika from Amazon. I'm very interested to see how I go with it, partly because I know from having seen the anime that is more of a whole story than the three I have reviewed above. Of those above, The Maid was the one which I enjoyed the most, but I will get back to you on how it compares to Paprika.

On a side note - any recommendations of short stories that may change my mind are very welcome, I am willing to try to change my opinion on them!

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Girl with Glass Feet - Ali Shaw

This is a truly magical book that I knew I was going to love from the minute its title caught my imagination in a book shop. It's always good to stumble across a surprise book, and this really was a lovely surprise.

Set on a fictional, snowy archipelago The Girl with Glass Feet tells the story of Ida MacLaird who has returned to the Island to try to uncover the cause for her curious illness; that her feet are turning to glass. On the island she meets Midas Crook, an introverted photographer scared to get close to anyone. As the story unfolds the relationship between the pair develops beautifully and you are totally drawn into their situation. The island is filled with a sort of magical realism that means that while reading about Ida's situation and the wonders of the island it is easy to suspend your disbelief, and I think this is the real beauty of the book. I felt an almost child-like wonder reading Shaw's descriptions of the beautiful landscapes, really feeling as if I was there. A lot of the descriptions are reminiscent of fairy tales, but a depth is brought due to adult issues and heart ache from many of the supporting characters. To me the most memorable aspect of this novel is the prose, which is particularly striking when describing the island from Midas' point of view; he sees much of the world around him as if through a camera lens and some of these passages are beautifully evocative. It is rare for me to find the prose my favourite aspect of a work of fiction, so I thoroughly enjoyed absorbing the language and turn of phrase throughout The Girl with Glass Feet. The only criticism I have is that there were two very similar sub-plots both focusing on men who had lost women to another many years earlier and had never managed to move on, which I found slightly repetitive and confusing as I wasn't sure quite why the same idea was used twice.

I can only imagine how much better Shaw may be able to make his second novel, with a stronger plot to match his talent with prose this would have been a brilliant book. I thoroughly enjoyed this bittersweet story and for anyone looking for beauty where they are able to leave behind everyday life I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Wednesday Letters - Jason F. Wright

Last week I received a Victorian Trading Co. cataloge in the mail. In it was this book, a book about a man who, on his wedding night, writes a letter to his wife promising to writer her a letter every Wednesday as long as they are both alive. I'm a hopeless romantic at heart, so that alone grabbed me. I read no more of the summary, and assumed this was a nonfiction book reprinting these letters. I downloaded the free sample chapter from Amazon (I love my Kindle), and was shocked to find it was fiction. However, the first chapter already had me crying, and I knew I had to read the rest.

Jack and Laurel Cooper own a Bed and Breakfast in Woodtock, Virgina. When they die (I won't tell you how, even though the Amazon review does...that was part of the beauty of the first chapter for me), their three adult children come home for the funeral. Samantha, the middle child, is a local police officer. Matthew, the oldest, is a businessman in the Northeast. The youngest, Malcolm, is on the run from the law, but risks comes home from Brazil for his parents' funeral.

The siblings find boxes of letters in the basement of their parents' bed and breakfast, and discover they are filled with decades' worth of letters from Jack to Laurel, written every Wednesday, whether they were in the same room, or in different areas of the country from each other.

While reading these letters, they discover secrets that threaten to tear the family apart. Not only must they deal with the death of both their parents, they must come to terms with the past before it destroys them. The three siblings have demons to face, dreams they have given up hope of ever attaining, and the letters - particularly Jack's final letters to each of them - help them find their paths in life.

Jack's letters, which are are funny, poignant, and heartbreaking, are peppered throughout the novel. I admit I cried several times while reading this book.

There are some religious themes throughout the book. I am not a religious person, so this doesn't really appeal to me. However, it was all written as part of the story, was not preachy, and did not detract from the overall novel, so I was able to overlook this.

The Wednesday Letters is a fast, easy read. It took me about three days to read it. Because of the simplicity, I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, but recommend it to anyone who wants a heartwarming tale of romance and redemption.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls - Emilie Autumn (EA)

The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls is part autobiography, part fictional horror. It tells of Emilie Autumn's time spent in a psychiatric ward after she tried to commit suicide. Alternately, it tells the tale of the fictional (or is she?) Emily, a girl locked in an insane asylum in Victorian London.

Emily's tale is artfully written and paints a vivid, page-turning picture of the horrors of the Asylum. EA has done much research on the mental institutions of Victorian times, and the blood-chilling events that were the norm are described in horrific, blood-chilling detail. It tells the tale of Emily's youth and the hard path to her unearned internment in the asylum, as well as the other girls she meets there. The girls unite in an effort to keep themselves sane (for most are not truly insane when they are dumped at the asylum, only unwanted by society.) If you like thrillers you will love the Victorian Emily's story and the shocking ending that leads to the inmates' uprising and their happily(?) ever after.

The real life Emilie's tale is equally as chilling. I admit I was disappointed that it didn't go into more detail into her early years, but I should have known better than to expect a typical autobiography from EA. Instead of a year by year account of her life, The Asylum shows her time in a modern mental institution - which was almost as shocking as the Victorian institution. Diary entries in EA's own handwriting describe the medications she took, her thoughts of suicide, and the brutal reality of cutting. If you want to learn more about these topics, and bipolar, you will be pleased with Emilie's story, although it is left open as to whether the real life Emilie has a happy ending or not. Perhaps there will be a sequel... EA is full of surprises.

I give the book 4 out of 5 stars, simply because I want to know more about EA's past and what made her who she is today, not just her time in a mental hospital. If not for that, I would give it 5 out of 5. The book itself is gorgeous, a large, beautifully illustrated edition perfect for display. Stunning photographs and drawings by EA herself fill the pages. There is something for everyone in this volume. Well, anyone may be slightly mad, that is.

Q&A with Jen

Hi! I'm Jen, and will be a part-time contributor to the blog. I'm hoping to post a review every month or two. Here's my introduction, and my first review should be up soon.

What are you reading now:
Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill by Robert Whitaker. Next up, I think, will be Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, or Ruby's Humans: A Dog's Eye Memoir by Tom Adrahtas and Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth by Nina Auerbach

Favourite Book:
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Favourite Authors: Natalie Goldberg, Thich Nhaht Hanh, Jim Butcher, Simon R. Greene, George R. R. Martin, Ann Brashares, Stephen Hall, Laurell K. Hamilton

First book you ever read that you couldn't put down:
I don't really remember, but at a very young age I read "Fred and Ted are Friends" so many times my parents had to replace the book after it fell apart.

Favourite Quote:
My favorite writing quote is: The Muse cannot resist a working writer - Ray Bradbury
My favorite quote in general is: Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you. - Aldous Huxley

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Coma – Alex Garland

On the last train home from a late night in the office Carl steps in to help a woman from being mugged and as a result to beaten into a coma by four men. This is how the first chapter of Alex Garland’s third novel unfolds. As is typical of Garland he doesn’t worry about making the reader feel safe or comfortable. We are given no time to settle in and within the first three pages this violent incident unfolds in front of the reader’s eyes; I was already hooked. What follows is a confusing maze around Carl’s brain as he tries to separate his dreams from reality and stumbles around his own unconscious in attempt to return to the real world and deal with his past.

Throughout The Coma Alex Garland convincingly captures how it feels to dream, from crazy, trippy, impossible dreams to lucid dreams where you are almost convinced you are awake. Unconscious episodes are a particularly brave subject matter for Garland to tackle in this way due to the fact that everyone has their own individual experience of dreaming, but he pulls it off with all the different emotions and environments of dreams being recognisable to how it feels to me to dream. Had he failed at creating this recognition from the reader the whole novel would have been lost as it is the key to understanding Carl’s situation and allows the world around him to act in its own peculiar way without the reader feeling totally confused. The use of language is so evocative that I really felt I was experiencing Carl’s anguish and confusion with him, rather than merely looking on. Garland plays within the ‘rules’ of dreams so that the experience of following Carl is disorientating at times without being purely random, and it is this that allows the reader to follow the overarching plot and also understand what is even happening almost all the time. Adding to the confusion and sense of unease experience as we lurch around Carl’s conscious and unconscious mind are a series of woodcuts created by Nicholas Garland (his father), which I enjoyed, however I know that some feel that they were used as padding. The reason for this is that The Coma is more of a novella than a novel. With a lot of blank pages and each chapter number also taking its own page, the art work adds another page that you can’t read and speeds up the rate of page-turning. Because of this I zipped through The Coma in under two hours, and as enjoyable as I found this I think I would feel cheated if I had paid the full £6.99 for it rather than borrowing it. Perhaps Garland could have done more with a longer story but I for one didn’t mind, I was just sorry it was over and left wanting more, particularly due to an enigmatic finish, that due to the subject matter I don’t think I should have been so surprised by!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld

Finally, my first review. (It would have been up earlier, but this last week has been incredibly busy.) Anyway, due to the fact that I spent most of the last two years writing for my school newspaper, most of these reviews will be written in newspaper reveiw form, (meaning third person and such). All right, enough talk, here we go:
A girl disguised as a boy in the British army, the son of the Arch Duke Ferdinand running from the people who killed his parents. These are the circumstances that the protagonists in Scott Westerfeld’s new novel, Leviathan, are put up against in this steampunk, historical science-fiction piece. Westerfeld, author of the Midnighters trilogy, Peeps, and the New York Times Bestselling Uglies series, has recently released a new form of reading. Leviathan, which not only has the unusual genre of historical fiction combined with science fiction, is also a fully illustrated young adult novel. These illustrations depict the unusual creatures and machines that Westerfeld has planted throughout this entire novel, pulling the reader even deeper into this strange new history.
Leviathan begins with the murder of the Arch Duke Ferdinand, thus starting World War I. This is not an ordinary story, only portraying the war. In the world Westerfeld has created, Charles Darwin not only became the father of evolution with his pea plants, he also discovered DNA, and in doing so began creating his own species. These species are now used by the group called the Darwinists, consisting of Britain, France, Serbia, Russia, and Italy, as war machines. The other side of the war, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, is a group called the Clankers, which, due to the development of the Darwinist living war machines, have built their own weapons, machines that walk on legs and move like a combination between tanks and animals.
The main characters are both thrown into this war under different circumstances. Deryn Sharp is a girl pretending to be a boy named Dylan in the British army. After her father, a balloonist dies, her mother tries to stuff her into skirts, but she rebells by leaving with her brother to join the British ranks. She is put upon a giant living warship called the Leviathan. The Leviathan is a flying whale, made up of dozens of creatures that keep it alive. It is Deryn’s job to tend to some of these “beasties.” The ship takes on a very important passenger and cargo, and new adventure begins when the ship is shot down in the Swiss Alps.
On the Clanker side of this story is Aleksander Ferdinand, the son of the Arch Duke. After his father is killed, he is taken by two of his servants in a Clanker machine called a Storm Walker, and they begin running from the people who want Alek dead. Alek is the unofficial heir to the Austria-Hungary throne. His father had married a commoner, and, thus, none of their children could inherit the throne. Due to his father’s efforts, though, many believe that Alek may be able to inherit it. Ultimately, Alek’s own country is out to kill him.
Leviathan, at first, may seem a book only for World War I enthusiasts, but this book will surprise all readers, as those who do not enjoy historical fiction will find themselves reading late into the night. The lives of Alek and Deryn, teenagers from two different sides of the war, intertwine, as the world begins to break apart.
This book does not only include an exciting storyline and personable characters, it also has fifty illustrations by artist, Keith Thompson. Thompson has done some previous artwork; although, nothing as extensive as the many sketches for Leviathan. The drawings have a great detail, showing the living airships and Clanker machines. Westerfeld discussed these illustrations at an event at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, in mid-October 2009. He said that the idea behind this illustrated novel for young-adults came from viewing the books in his parents’ attic. These books, from the early to mid-1900s, had a variety of pictures, and he began to wonder why books of today did not have the same number of pictures. He explained to the crowd that after the invention of photography became common place, the drawings in books became obsolete, due to the lack of illustrators, and the rising cost of hiring artists. With Leviathan, Westerfeld wants to help bring back book illustrations for teens and adults. Many authors would not have been able to convince a publisher to print a book such as Leviathan, but due to his Uglies success, Westerfeld got his wish of an illustrated novel, and Leviathan was born.
Leviathan, released on October 2, 2010, is the first of three books; although, a guide to the world of Leviathan may be published after the end of the trilogy. Thompson and Westerfeld have already finished the first draft of the second novel, Behernoth, which will be published in October 2010, and are now hard at work on the third novel. These novels are sure to entice many, whether fans of Westerfeld’s previous books, or new readers. Thompson’s beautiful artwork and Westerfeld’s winning prose are a combination that will draw many into this new world of living war machines, giant, walking tanks, murder, battles, and excitement.

*Images courtesy of

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Posionwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

Every month I attend a book group, and this was last month’s choice and one I wasn’t too happy about when it won the vote. I don’t really like books about Africa, I’ve tried a number of times and just seemed to be a subject matter that doesn’t appeal to me. So this was a very pleasant surprise – I thought it was great.

The Poisonwood Bible is told by Orleanna Price and her four daughters (Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth-May) as they follow their missionary father, Nathan, to the Congo in the 1950s. Each section of the book is introduced by Orleanna but subsequent smaller sections are told by each of her four daughters. Each daughter has a very distinctive voice, which impressed me and made this format easy to follow, something that many other authors using multiple narrators have failed at. Hearing the stories from the heart of the family makes you feel included and you develop a strong understanding of the family dynamic and sympathise to their increasingly awful situation. Notably, Nathan never narrates, highlighting the fact that he seems completely blind to what the rest of the family are feeling and experiencing.

The prose in this book is quite beautiful, artfully illustrating the wild surroundings of the Congo and the girls’ emotions and reactions to their new lives. My favourite sections were those written by Adah. She and Leah are twins and she is the ‘backwards’ twin with one half of her body damaged due to lack of oxygen during birth. She has difficulties walking and barely speaks but loves word play, particularly creating her own palindrome hymns (‘oh god, dog ho!’) which I found very entertaining as well as unusual.

Together the sisters face challenges which their father has in no way prepared them for; his opinions and attitude, both religious and not, are strong and inflexible leaving no room for cultural changes. While the rest of the family adapt to their new surrounds Nathan Price seems to adopt the strategy of keeping his head down and charging ahead regardless. He cannot understand why so many of his religious teachings are disregarded and ignored by the locals in the village because he simply will not listen to them. One striking example is that he desperately wants to baptise the unwilling congregation in the river and is offended when they refuse, however we later find out that this is because a young child was recently eaten by a crocodile in the said river. But Nathan won’t listen, blindly assuming he always knows what is best as he views the Congolese as savages. Personally I found Nathan deeply infuriating and was constantly waiting for the moment when Orleanna would reach the end of her tether and save her daughters from the Congo which grows increasingly dangerous for the family.

I much I have raved I must admit the later sections of the book are more disappointing, as we return to the family in later stages of life, although none remain in the Congo we see how their experiences continue to effect their lives. This portion of the book felt drawn out – it would have been much better as an epilogue rather than almost a third of the story, however in my memory the stories told by four girls dealing with a life they haven’t chosen for themselves shines through.

This book artfully weaves together themes of religion, feminism, culture, politics, even environmental issues, and although at times these themes quite blatant I found at no part does Kingsolver seem preachy or overly aggressive in addressing these issues. The strongest idea has to be that so many foreigners come into Africa thinking they can fix it, but Africa is a very different place to the rest of the world, and has to be treated as such; if it was that easy to fix, someone would have done it already.

Although none of the messages are new I think it is unusual to see so many themes so deftly covered and inter-woven whilst still providing the reader with such a vivid and enjoyable story.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book to everyone and will definitely be looking into reading more of Barbara Kingsolver’s work.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

In the Miso Soup - Ryu Murakami

The first thing that really struck me about In the Miso Soup was its cover - it caught my eye again and again before I finally gave in to it. It took me so long to get around to reading because almost every time I picked up this book in a book shop the quote on the front - "Reads like the script notes for American Psycho - the Holiday Abroad" put me off just as quickly at the cover art had caught my eye. I've read American Psycho, and I enjoyed it, but I never quite understood what all the hype was about, so this quote didn't have quite the winning effect on me that was perhaps intended. So, having thoroughly judged this book by its cover I eventually read it.

In the Miso Soup is told from the perspective of Kenji, an unlicensed Japanese guide who shows tourists around the darker and sexier back streets of Tokyo. His client for the duration of this book is a fat American, calling himself Frank. However, from the off, Kenji senses there is something weird about Frank, and as two murders are reported he becomes even more suspicious and uneasy. Over this reasonably short book the tension and anticipation builds steadily, and although you can sense something is coming you are not quite sure what (or if you even really want to know) you cannot help but read on.

As is probably obvious from the comparison to American Psycho, this is a gruesome book at times, with unexplained violence that doesn't skimp on the descriptions. The lack of explanation can often make violence seem gratuitous, however seeing as Kenji is just as unsure of what it all means as the reader, the lack of justification makes sense. I’ve read another of Murakami’s books – Piercing – where the narrator is the one with violent tendencies, and I must admit I prefer Kenji, an outsider, telling us the story. Perhaps this is because it is hard to identify with a psychopathic narrator, where as Kenji is more of an ‘everyman’; like us he is a normal person viewing horrendous things. But, I think that part of what makes In the Miso Soup’s narrative stronger is the descriptions of Kenji’s psychological reactions. It is undeniably realistic and encourages the reader to really face up to Frank’s behaviour – you can’t suppress your own reactions to it when Kenji’s are so strong.

Although the violence is the most memorable aspect of this book, there is more to it. Most obviously it shows the reader darker side of Tokyo not commonly seen to tourists, and although prostitution is probably the dark underbelly of every city Tokyo's Red Light District is still distinctly Japanese in its etiquette and treatment of foreigners. It also presents ideas on Japanese culture and its relation to the West, personal responsibility and loneliness in a big city.

I found this book thoroughly compelling and recommend it if you want something a bit different, however probably not if you have a low tolerance for violence or are particularly easily offended.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Q&A With Erin

What are you reading right now?
I'm never reading one book at a time, so here's the current list. (It's shorter than usual, because I'm busy):
All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein
The White Cat by Holly Black
Touching Darkness by Scott Westerfeld (This is probably the twentieth time I've been through it.)
Hacking Harvard by Robin Wasserman

Favorite Book?
In young adult, definitely Scott Westerfeld's Midnighter's series or Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games.
Outside of young adult, probably George Orwell's 1984, Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, or Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, (I can never decide which one).

Favorite Authors?
Scott Westerfeld, Maureen Johnson, Robin Wasserman, Libba Bray, John Green, Justine Larbalestier, Suzanne Collins, Orson Scott Card, and Audrey Niffenegger.

First book you ever read that you couldn't put down?
I've loved reading for as long as I can remember, but I guess as a child the first two books that really influenced me were The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

Favorite quote?
"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." -Mark Twain

Q&A With Ellem

I'm terrible at introductions, so I'm going to let my Q&A make my first impression for me.

What are you reading now?
Right now I'm reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. I've been a big fan of the showtime series and it's only fair that I give the book a go too. So far I've found it quite different from the series, but in a very good way.
Favourite Book?
That's got to be Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. It's a cliché I know, but it's such a common favourite for a reason. It was the first book to ever truly grip me, and it's also what got me into reading in the first place.
Favourite Author?
Roland Barthes.
First book you ever read that you couldn't put down?
As I said before that was Ender's Game but saying that again would be cheating. I'm going to have to say Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. At a point when I was beginning to lose my love of literature this book re-ignited that spark.
Favourite Quote?
"When I was five years old, my Mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down "Happy" they told me I didn't understand the assignment, and I told them they didn't understand life.

Welcome to The Last Page

Welcome to our new blog 'The Last Page'. We've decided to kick off with a short Q&A from each of our contributors so you can get an idea of who we each are and what we like. Then, onwards into the world of book reviews - we hope you enjoy.

Name: Kate
What are you reading now? The Understudy by David Nicholls
Favourite Book? The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Favourite Authors? Xiaolu Guo, Audrey Niffenegger, Lisa Jewell, Nick Hornby
First book you ever read that you couldn't put down? The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton
Favourite Quote? "All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. ... But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not." — Nick Hornby