Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Don’t bother to read the rest of this review. All you need to know is this book is fantastic and you need to a get a copy now. The book centers around the disappearance of Amy Dunne who suddenly vanishes on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary. The story is simultaneously narrated by Amy and her husband Nick, and is just fantastic! I can’t say any more without giving something away but it’s incredibly clever with many gasp-inducing plot twists that come out of nowhere. I literally could not put this book down – I read it while brushing my teeth, while stuck at traffic lights, and even read a chapter when I woke in the middle of the night to use the bathroom! Flynn is obviously a talented author and I’m keen to try her backlist now. If my recommendation isn’t enough, have a look around the internet – this book is getting a lot of buzz, and rightly so.

The book points out fairly early on that when a wife goes missing in suspicious circumstances, the husband is frequently near the top of the list of suspects. We’ve certainly all heard the statistic that most murder victims knew their attacker. In fact, 22% of murders in the USA in 2002 were murders of a family member, and 9% were murders of a spouse. The US Department of Justice has a really interesting document available on the internet discussing the statistics behind spousal murder. Some of the most interesting facts include:

  • The average age of someone killing their spouse is 39.
  • 44% of wives that kill their husbands had been assaulted by their husband at or around the time of the murder. This was true for 10% of husbands.
  • 66% of husbands that kill their wives had been drinking alcohol at the time of the murder.
  • Wife defendants had a lower conviction rate (70%) compared to husband defendants (87%), maybe because of the higher incidence of pleas of self-defense.
  • The average prison sentence for a convicted husband was about 10 years longer than that for a convicted wife (16.5 years, compared to 6 years).

Maybe there are some advantages to being single after all!

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Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

I finished this book over a week ago now and was hoping that time would help clarify my opinion, but I still feel uncertain about whether I enjoyed this book. Let me explain…

The book tells the story of Toru Watanabe during his college years. The book actually starts ten years later and the telling of the story is apparently a cathartic way for Watanabe to somehow deal with a difficult time in his life. Exactly what is still affecting this man in his twenties remains unclear. However, Watanabe has plenty to ponder. His friends are few but coincidentally suffer a high incidence of mental health issues and this poor man loses several loved ones to suicide.

When I first started this book, I thought I was going to love it. The first several chapters discuss memory – the odd things we remember, the tricks memory plays on us, and the links between apparently unassociated memories. I find this a fascinating subject. I have a memory as a child (over 20 years ago) in which I was at an airport to meet my mother returning home after an unexpected time away. I must have been very excited – I don’t remember my Mother going away at any other time, and don’t remember why she had to leave town then. However, the memory I have from that event is not of the greeting or the tears that must have followed, but of chewing a coffee stirrer while sitting in an airport lounge with my father. Whenever I use a coffee stirrer now, I immediately remember sitting next to my Dad in that airport lounge. I’m fascinated that there are events that seem so insignificant at the time, and yet are remembered vividly 20 years later. It makes me wonder whether a seeminly mundane moment from today will be remembered in another 20 years.  Murakami described that feeling perfectly for me when I haven’t heard it discussed before and it was one of those moments where I felt like I personally had connected with this author through the page. A special moment indeed and I thought I had found my new favorite author.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had after those first chapters. I would have loved for the theme of memory to continue more consistently through the book but instead it moved on. As already mentioned, a significant number of Watanabe’s friends suffered from mental health issues (depression, schizophrenia, suicide), although I find it difficult to call this a theme as there didn’t seem to be an obvious connection between these different characters. For me that meant it all felt a little far-fetched: what are the chances that so many of your friends would be independently affected in that way?

I’ve heard that Murakami is known for his unusual characters and strange plots, and that Norwegian Wood is actually one of his more realistic novels. I think I needed this book to be either more like realistic, or more strange, if that makes sense?  The way it was, I was never quite sold. I’m keen to try another of his books but I’ve been told that if you don’t love NW, it probably best to stop there. Would you agree? If not, what book would you recommend?

3.5 stars out of 5

Along the lines of memory, I read a quote from Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island today that I can relate to:

“I ordered a coffee and a little something to eat and savored the warmth and dryness. Somewhere in the background Nat King Cole sang a perky tune. I watched the rain beat down on the road outside and told myself that one day this would be twenty years ago.”

Are there any other books with a theme of memory that you think I’d enjoy? Someone has suggested Until I Find You, by John Irving. Any other recommendations?

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The Woman In Black, by Susan Hill

Well, after I Married You for Happiness and A Monster Calls, I promised a lighter read would follow. The Woman In Black, while not emotionally draining as the other books were, could hardly be classed as a ‘light’ read! I guess I should feel lucky to find a bunch of books that evoke such emotion!

The book tells the story of Arthur Kipps, a lawyer’s assistant, who is sent to a small English village to deal with the estate of a deceased client. The house in question resides on a small island among marshes, accessible only by a causeway that floods at certain times of the day. The isolation thus created lends itself perfectly in the telling of this ghost story.

While I appreciate that this doesn’t tell you much about the story that follows, I don’t want to say more because I feel it would ruin it.  The pieces of the story are only gradually put together and, while some plot points were predictable, otherwise were a complete surprise – and the ending that tied it all together was a complete shock to me. I think I even gave an audible gasp (this is why I have to be careful about reading books in public)!

The book is relatively short (170-ish pages in my paperback copy) but the author is masterful at building tension. This tension makes The Woman in Black a page-turner – but I actually read this book relatively slowly, savouring each of the short chapters individually. I am not a fan of horror usually but this is a more subtle ghost story. Nothing gruesome or gory happens to the main character, but the almost gothic atmosphere the author creates still makes for a spooky read. This is definitely not a book to read before bed. Or if you happen to be alone in a large house on the edge of a marsh.

I haven’t read anything else by Susan Hill but picked up this book after hearing that it has been made into a film that will be released later this year. There has also been a hugely successful long-running West End play based on this book. While I can imagine this book as a film (and look foward to seeing it), I find it difficult to see how they could create the same atmosphere in a large theatre. Has anyone seen the play?

A recommended read…for the daytime. 4 out of 5 stars.

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A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls

By Patrick Ness

ISBN: 1406311529          

Patrick Ness is already well known for his Chaos Walking trilogy (well worth a try if you haven’t already – I loved the first one) but this book has a unique tale behind it. Siobhan Dowd, an author of young adult fiction, originally conceived the idea behind this book but tragically lost her life to breast cancer in 2007. Patrick Ness picked up the baton and ‘ran with it’. The result is a very special book.

This is the story of Conor, raised by a single mother who is battling breast cancer. Conor awakens one night from his recurrent nightmare and is faced with a huge monster molded from a nearby Yew tree. The monster doesn’t scare Conor – after all he has much more horrifying events occurring in his life. The monster regularly visits Conor over the course of his mother’s illness, with the purpose of telling Conor stories of his past. Quite what the monster expects in return is left uncertain until the end.

I had heard this book was sad, so I guessed what the ending was going to be. I couldn’t figure out what purpose the monster would serve to the plot, however. The stories he told were strange and certainly not the straight-forward fables that I (or Conor) expected. However, it all becomes clear in the end. I don’t want to spoil it for you so I will only say that Patrick Ness is a genius.

While the monster injects some humour into the story, given the subject it is inevitably a harrowing and haunting read. I feel drained. I lost my grandmother last month after she battled with Alzheimer’s for 8 years and I saw my own grief in this book. Grief is a complex combination of sadness, anger, relief, and guilt. Patrick Ness handles the subject of chronic terminal illness sensitively, and never oversimplifies it. I am amazed at how he did it.

At the beginning of this book, I thought it was going to be a type of fairy story, and I revelled in the imaginative tales and beautiful illustrations (kudos to Jim Kay for some wonderful artwork), reading the book slowly to fully appreciate it. While those aspects are indeed wonderful, this book ultimately turns out to be so much more and in the end, I couldn’t put it down. This book deserves to be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, as well as on the YA shelves. Don’t miss it.

Oh…and keep a box of tissues handy.

5 out of 5 stars.

Next: a more light-hearted read, I promise!

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I Married You for Happiness, by Lily Tuck

I Married You for Happiness

Lily Tuck (2011)

ISBN: 9781443408707

I first heard about this book thanks to Jeff at Book Riot as a book that didn’t get the attention it deserved last year. I couldn’t agree more. Why aren’t more people talking about this book?

I Married You for Happiness tells the story of Nina who finds her husband, Philip, has unexpectedly passed away while taking a nap before dinner. After a neighbour’s unsuccessful attempt at CPR, and with dinner going cold downstairs, Nina is left alone to grieve next to her husband’s body. This book follows Nina during the course of a single night as she remembers the highs and lows of her long marriage.

It is a simple concept and the author has executed it beautifully. While I have often heard the term ‘stream of consciousness’, I will admit to not truly understanding what that means. If I had to guess though, I think the phrase could be used to describe the narrative of this book. It is a ‘stream of thought’, at least. The story of Nina and Philip’s relationship is not told chronologically but in the haphazard way that memories trigger other memories. Somehow, this is never confusing. And while it is certainly an emotional subject, it never becomes sickly sweet. Via Nina’s thoughts, we are able to see the whole story of their marriage, including the parts that aren’t supposed to be voiced aloud after someone has died – the things she loved about Philip and the things that aggravated her; the magical moments and the regrets.

This book was so well written that I felt as though I was sitting next to Nina, holding vigil with her. In fact, I started this book before going to bed and struggled to put it down, not wanting to leave Nina alone with her grief while I slept. I was that invested. With bleary eyes at 1am, I finally had to admit defeat, but had finished the book before my shower in the morning. It really is that good.

During the last 30 pages or so, I worried how the author was going to bring the book to close. As dawn broke at Nina’s house I was afraid that the cold responsibilities of morning – the duties of informing loved ones, arranging death certificates, etc – would detract from Nina’s night of reminiscing. I was relieved that the author avoided these realities but that did mean that the book seemed to suddenly finish without warning. I don’t know how it could have been done differently, but the ending did leave me slightly disappointed. This is a minor point only – do not let this deter you from reading this wonderful book.

You must read this book. Buy it. Borrow it. Whatever. And then tell others.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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A jaunt into YA (or younger?) – The Ruby in the Smoke

The Ruby in the Smoke (first in the Sally Lockhart series)

Philip Pullman (1985)

ISBN: 9780439957403

I have only recently dipped my toes into Young Adult literature (The Book Thief – which I loved; Twilight – which I didn’t)  but when searching for a local book club, a came across a branch group of Forever YA. I was delighted to discover that their next book was by Philip Pullman. I have actually heard of this YA author and I know the His Dark Materials trilogy has a big following. This was not that, however.

The Ruby in the Smoke, set in Victorian London, centres around a 16-year-old girl, Sally Lockhart (obviously), whose father dies in suspicious circumstances at the beginning of the book. Sally tries to learn the details surrounding her father’s death and becomes embroiled in a dramatic (and actually quite complicated) story of priceless gems, opium, pirates, and riddles. The story is set both in Dickensian-style London and the exotic Far East.

While it sounds interesting, this book wasn’t for me. This book seemed aimed at a younger audience compared to the other YA fiction I have read. I’m not sure why I think that, after all, as I mentioned above, the plot is fairly complicated, the language is not overly simplified, and all the characters are aged 16+. The only thing I can come up to explain it is that the characters themselves seem almost caricatures. Every person in this book is either good or bad, with very little in between. Sally, who is supposed to be a 16-year-old, should be strung-out on hormones, and yet seems younger than that and relatively tame. I couldn’t identify with any of these characters (which I know is not a pre-requisite for enjoying a book) and ultimately didn’t feel I knew enough about them to be interested in the events happening to them. Even at only 200 pages long, this book was a slog.

The most interesting part of the book for me, was actually the opening page, which listed ‘Certain Items of Historical Interest’ for the year in which the book is set (1872). There were 5 fascinating snippets of information, my favourite of which was the story of the Mary Celeste. For those that don’t know the story, this ship was sailing between New York and Genoa with a 14 man crew plus the captain and his family on board. The British come across her drifting in the middle of the Atlantic ocean only to find no sign of the crew, or evidence of violence or mishap, and plenty of supplies on board. What happened to them remains a mystery to this day. I can’t help but smile at the mention of this story because, as a child, my father used to state (with an exasperated sigh) that our house looked like the Mary Celeste as he was arriving home from work in the evenings – the lights on in all the rooms, and yet all of us huddled out of sight in the back kitchen.

The book club meeting was last Wednesday and I was nervous to hear the others thoughts. I was worried that my dislike for this book might suggest that the genre as a whole wasn’t right for me. I was therefore relieved to discover that the rest of the group had a very similar reaction to the book. This book is the first in the Sally Lockhart series, and we all agreed that we would be unlikely to read any of the others.

1 out of 5 stars

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Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

ISBN: 9780676977110

Never Let Me Go is the story of three characters who grew up together in a school in the English countryside. While the era in which the book is set is unclear, presumably it is either the future, or an alternative idea of modern-day. This boarding school is home to a special group of ‘students’ and the story of their schooldays and future is slowly told through one of these students, Kathy.

The plot is captivating and is slowly revealed over the course of the book – slowly enough to keep you guessing, but not so slowly as to make it confusing. In many ways, this book reminded me a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, although it is difficult to discuss that further without spoilers. It is an intriguing story that raises certain questions. While the students understand what is expected of them, the details of the situation are kept from them. When these details are revealed later in the book, the question is raised as to whether sometimes it is better not to know the whole truth. As somewhat of a control-freak myself, I like to be well-informed, regardless of the nature of that information, so I can be prepared. However, the argument here is that had these students known the whole truth regarding their lives and their fate, their perspective would have changed, and their happy memories may not have existed. I thought this was fascinating and an interesting discussion point in the book.  I guess it’s the same question that the advance in genetics is bringing to the forefront: would you like to know how or when you are going to die? If you knew you were going to die at a certain time or in a certain way, wouldn’t that change your life dramatically, and potentially detrimentally. I think ignorance sometimes is bliss.

The plot is excellent and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The story is written in the first person singular, and there were times when the prose got in the way of the story for me. The narrative is in an informal, conversational, almost confiding, style but there was occasionally some slopping linking, e.g. “But that’s not really what I want to talk about now…” or “All this about Miss Geraldine reminds me of something that happened about 3 years later…”. I think the informality of these sentences stood out for me against the rest of the writing, and interrupted my reading. I haven’t read many stories written in the first person singular so maybe I just don’t like this style. Anyway, it’s a minor point and does not detract from my recommendation that you should read this book.

This is my first book by Ishiguro, but I don’t think it will be my last. I have several other books of his on my TBR list (Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, An Artisit of the Floating World, A Pale View of the Hills). Any recommendations?

4 stars out of 5.

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Shakespeare: The World As [A] Stage, by Bill Bryson


Shakespeare: The World As [A] Stage

Bill Bryson (2007)

ISBN: 9780060740221

In order to set the scene for the Shakespeare reading events hosted by Allie and Risa, I wanted to read something about William Shakespeare himself. Feeling fairly ignorant of his life and the time in which he lived, this biography by Bill Bryson provided the gentle introduction I was looking for.

This was an easy read and, as anyone who has read a book by this author will know, Bryson has a talent for finding the interesting details and building the story around them. Bryson admits in the first chapter that scholars actually know very little about Shakespeare’s life – not even how many plays he wrote, or in what order, let alone many personal details – and this immediately made me concerned about the content of the next 200 odd pages. However, there was no fluff here. This book is full of interesting facts about Shakespeare’s plays, his colleagues, and the historical context in which he lived and worked. To his credit, Bryson is very clear about what we actually know about Shakespeare, and what has been merely assumed over time – I can only imagine the amount of research that involved.

Here’s some of the interesting facts I learnt:

  • William Shakespeare wrote his own name with a range of different spellings (included Shagspere, haha!) but never actually as ‘Shakespeare’ – that is a spelling that was only adopted more recently. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary endorses the spelling ‘Shakspere’.
  • Despite his spelling difficulties, Shakespeare made an incredible contribution to the English language. An estimated 10% of all the most quotable utterances written/spoken in English have been traced back to him. Examples include the phrases ‘vanish into thin air’, ‘with bated breath’, and ‘budge an inch’.
  • Students nowadays have little to complain about – schooling in the late 16th century was arduous to say the least. Days usually ran from 6am – 6pm, with only 2 short refreshment breaks, 6 days a week (with the 7th day reserved for religious instruction). A disproportionate amount of the time was spent studying Latin. Those poor children.
  • Many have disputed Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays, for a variety of reasons. One book supporting an alternative author was published with an introduction by Nathaniel Hawthorne (of The Scarlet Letter fame). When criticised for his support of the book, Hawthorne admitted that he hadn’t actually read it! Poignantly, Hawthorne later wrote, “This shall be the last of my benevolent follies, and I will never be kind to anybody as long as [I] live”. It must have been quite a scandal at the time.

There were some parts of the book I thought could have been better. There were a number of theatres mentioned, some of which seemed to change names, and one of which was even translocated, and I found it difficult to follow. Maybe a map would have helped, or a more linear discussion of their histories. Similarly, Bryson sometimes mentions names in the book without explaining who they are or how they fit into the story. On more than one occasion, I incorrectly assumed this was because they had been mentioned previously and thus flicked back through the pages I’d already read to find them. This quickly became frustrating. I think it was an effort to be thorough in mentioning sources, but it was unnecessarily confusing. Finally, the front page of my book seems to have a typographical error -“Shakespeare: The World As Stage”. I assume that should read ‘…As A Stage’? A pretty unfortunate place for a spelling error!

All in all, this is an accessible and entertaining read. I have no wish to read another Shakespeare biography after this, although it has piqued my interest in the authorship debate (isn’t there a recent film about this?) and the monarchy of the 16th and 17th century. While this book is no literary masterpiece, it has obviously been well researched, and would suit anyone with a passing interest in Shakespeare.

3 out of 5 stars.

Additional Reading:

Allie, at A Literary Odyssey, has written a great post on some of the nonfiction books available about Shakespeare.

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Welcome to Literarytangent!

Hello to all you wonderful people who are kind enough to visit the first post of my blogging ‘career’. Starting this blog has become my (only) New Year’s resolution for 2012. I am a newcomer to the book blogging community, having only found out they existed 6 months ago. However, having armed myself with the right tools (aka Google Reader), I am now hooked! I am certainly nervous about the amount of work involved in maintaining a blog, but I’m keen to find a way to forge more connections with other avid readers. My aim initially is a post a week.  We’ll see how that evolves.

So, do I read the sort of books you like? Well, my ‘go-to’ genres generally include literary fiction and classics, although I’ve been experimenting with some YA, historical fiction, and even a little Sci-Fi, on the recommendation of some of my favourite blogs.  Having spent the last ten years working to meet my career goals, I feel behind in my reading. I will therefore be reading both back-dated and more recently published books. As a disclaimer: I am completely ignorant in literary technique and therefore my reviews (ramblings) will focus only on my personal thoughts and emotions while reading. While I hope I can encourage you to read the books I enjoy, I urge you to seek other opinions before dismissing a book I dislike. I truly believe that sometimes those mismatches are as much to do with me as they are with the book.

What makes this blog different from other book blogs? Well, I can’t compete with the many other book blogs in terms of eloquently written or prolific book reviews. What I hope to offer is some of the story around the books. I believe in lifelong learning but need inspiration to research a subject further. Fiction books often provide that inspiration for me. I hope to share the results of some of my ‘literary tangents’ (see what I did there?!) as they happen.

Matt Banks / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To try to give this blogging attempt some structure, I’ve decided to sign up for a couple of reading challenges. The challenge that inspired me to finally commit to this endeavour was the Reading Shakespeare challenge, bravely orchestrated by Risa, of the blog Breadcrumb Reads. The aim is to read 12 Shakespeare plays during 2012, one per month. I’m also going to take this opportunity to learn a little more about William Shakespeare himself, and the time in which he lived. Conveniently, Allie, of A Literary Odyssey, is holding a Shakespeare reading month in January so I plan to double-dip on my January reading!

While the Bard will hopefully feature often on this blog over the next year, it will certainly be far from my only reading/blogging. Given my aspiration of one post per week, I have also signed up for the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge, hosted by Robin of My Two Blessings. I have never kept track of my reading before so I’m assuming that 52 books/year is doable. We’ll soon find out!

Over the last 6 months, I have also been trying to pick books from the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, in order to expand my reading. I have found some great books by using this list that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I’ll highlight those books as I mention them.

I am anticipating that this will be a steep learning curve, and I thank you for your patience while I figure it out. If you see something you dislike, or have some suggestions for improvements, please leave me a comment or send me an email (literarytangent@gmail.com). While I hope this blog will add to my reading experience, the main aim is to reach out and discuss books with people like you. I want to make this a place you enjoy visiting.

I can’t wait for 2012!! Happy Reading!

– Katie –

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