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 scottwesterfeld.com

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

Hi!
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