28 May 2015

The Embers by Hyatt Bass, USA, 2009

This was a frightfully monotonous book to read: it was how I would imagine it would feel if one was to wade through treacle. It took me ages to get through it, simply because I could only manage a few pages at a time, and if it had not been the Book Club book of the month I would have given up after the first few pages. More than several times I wondered what the point of it all was, and if that point was the unravelling and then the reassembling of a family struck by tragedy then, for me at least, the point was blunt and of no consequence.  
A son dies in circumstances that, from the very first page, are hinted at as being mysterious, and although the author would like us to believe that it was this tragedy that sent the family into free-fall it is very obvious that the family was unravelling well before there is any sign of tragedy on the horizon – the father, Joe, with his extra-marital fling; the mother, Laura, constantly balancing her own innate fears with a need to control everyone around her; and Emily, who for whatever reason, has never grown up. Looking beyond the book's last page, I would assume that the surviving members all continue very much the same as they always had, each with his or her own very self-centred agenda. Consequently, all one has at the end of the book is that question about the point of it all.

The idea of the impact of tragedy on a close group of people is not at all new, and it had probably worked had it been handled differently and had there been some kind of multi-levelled management of both the plot and the characters themselves. Unfortunately, all the characters are either flat, unbelievable or sketchily drawn, and none of them are even vaguely likeable. In a book like this, the reader has to be able to form some kind of a bond with at least one of the characters, but this did not happen for me.

Apart from the dysfunctional group of unlikeable characters, the actual situations holding the story together are scattered, disconnected, uninteresting, and, at times, completely bizarre. The over-use of conversation does not work for me and simply adds to the 'treacle-effect'. In the book's defence, I will admit, that there are occasionally very faint glimmers of ideas that are trying to break through, but they fade before they are strong enough to impact on the book as a whole. A disappointing experience and not one that I would recommend to others. 
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19 May 2015

Going the Distance: A Walk across Australia by Deanna Sorensen, Australia, 2003

The title says it all: Going the Distance: A Walk across Australia is the non-fiction account of Deanna Sorensen's 1998 walk across Australia, from Perth to Sydney. The book is an interesting, extremely informative account of that walk – almost on a day-to-day basis – and is made the more interesting by flashbacks to Deanna's earlier life in Canada, Asia and England and her many other challenges, including a number of marathons.

The enormity of first visualizing and then actually realizing a 5,000 kilometre walk is admirable, even though I myself would have found the constant walking on main roads extremely stressful. On the other hand, Deanna admits at the end of the book that, initially, the important part of the vision was to achieve the goal, and, given that attitude, it probably made sense to use the quickest way of getting from A to B. However, after achieving a fantastic marathon result a year after the walk ended, Deanna came to the conclusion that it is not so much the goal but the journey itself that is the number one priority.

The book, therefore, is a journey in more ways than one, and should appeal to a variety of readers: those wanting to learn more about Australia; those contemplating a similar kind of challenge and even those interested in the personal story behind a challenge. Deanna's perseverance and determination are both remarkable and contagious. Even if it is not a book that can be read cover to cover in one sitting, it contains many gems, and is definitely a worthwhile read.
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12 May 2015

Every Day by David Levithan, USA, 2013

I do not read Young Adult books, and Every Day simply emphasizes my resolve not to do so in the future. The idea - of a soul migrating across countless bodies - has promise, but weighed down by child-like concepts and a long list of improbabilities it never lifts off the ground. That which is mind-boggling fails to become thought-provoking, and the story, for me at least, falls flat on its face.

The characters are two-dimensional and extremely clichéd, and it is impossible to connect with any of them. As we know, a relatively secure environment, with at least one constant adult, is essential if a child is to learn the basics of love, trust and good behaviour, and, therefore, the main character, A, having migrated from body to body since birth, should, by all rights, be a psychological mess. But this is not the case; instead he comes across as being well-adjusted, capable of forming a loving relationship and, in most things, a little ahead of his peers intellectually. For me, A is not an ordinary sixteen-year-old but some kind of mirror-reflection of the author himself.
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A review on the back cover of the book says: This breathless book made me cry. Obviously, the review writer and I cry about very different things; however, assuming that he is probably no more than twelve or thirteen, still thinking like a child and unable to take the step into proper literature then perhaps there are things in the novel that may make him want to cry. I could well have cried after having wasted so much time reading the book.

Finally, I could not but be amazed at the number of sixteen-year-olds with access to cars (often their own), the financial wherewithal to meet the cost of six-hour round car trips, and the absence of any adult intervention when the children decide to take time off from school and engage in under-age sex. Is this the way it actually is in America, or is it wishful thinking on the part of the author and his readers?

05 May 2015

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, USA, 2004

This is a very different kind of book. There are no heroes or heroines and no complicated plot; the action, if there is any, takes place on a passive, inner plane. The book, which is beautifully written, is no more than the musings of an old man, John Ames, looking back on his life. His thoughts are directed towards his young son, as he tries to bring together some of the wisdom he has gained over the years in the hope that that it shall eventually stand the child in some stead.

There is no particular order to the thoughts: the reader follows the haphazardness of John's recollections as he hovers over memories from his childhood, stories about his grandfather or things his father told him; however, it is when the reader finally stands back from these disjointed thoughts that he/she can discern the thin, red thread tying everything together.

Many of the thoughts are beautiful, some are very sad, most are thought-provoking, and, at least in the first part of the book, the disjointedness of the thoughts makes the book more suitable for reading in short bursts rather than reading it cover to cover in two or three sittings. Nevertheless, as the thread holding it all together becomes more and more apparent, an element of suspense is added to the mixture, and beyond appreciating the beauty of the thoughts the reader becomes eager to find out what will happen.

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Via her character Ames, Robinson manages to discuss many of those important questions regarding life and death. It is a beautiful book and one that is well worth reading.