Posts Tagged Novel
Khaled Hosseini has a knack for heart-rending narrative. It was the case in his debut novel The Kite Runner and it’s the case in A Thousand Splendid Suns, his second novel. Thematically, the two are comparable. We have the child start in Afghanistan, we have two major characters who have a difficult and complicated relationship, we have the backdrop of civil war, coups and violence in both novels. Where A Thousand Splendid Suns differs is its characters.
The story initially follows the young girl, Mariam, who lives in a tiny mud hut in the Herat province of rural Afghanistan. She is a harami, essentially a child born out of wedlock, and as such is shunned by her father, Jalil Khan, (save for his false smile plastered visits every Thursday). Mariam’s prying into her father’s life gets her sent away to Kabul to marry a moderate shoemaker named Rasheed who is thirty years older than she is. Mariam, unfortunately cannot bear him the son he craves, and becomes distant and irritable towards her. Laila is the daughter of a woman-about-town in the area of Kabul Mariam finds herself. She is a blonde head-turner and turns the head of Tariq, a childhood friend. Tariq leaves Afghanistan under the oppression of the Taliban and Laila, once old enough, is taken in by Rasheed as a wife, with the intent of her giving him a son.
The relationship between Mariam and Laila is initially one of intense bitterness, but they eventually form a bond of an almost sisterly quality, despite their age gap of close to fifteen years.
The one problem I had with A Thousand Splendid Suns is that is feels somewhat regurgitated. It was an excellent novel, I have to admit first, and a powerful, emotional and moving read which evoked intellectual ideas as well as brought a tear to your eye. But, so was The Kite Runner. Some of the themes which Hosseini concentrated on in The Kite Runner were very similar to some of the themes portrayed in A Thousand Splendid Suns. They are still good themes and excellent to read, but they just hark too much back to his other work. It’s true enough to say that he writes about Afghanistan and he can’t write anything but the truth of what it was like and what happened there but I feel there could have been more to put the two apart.
The novel has its differences in that the protagonists are women, and as such are significantly oppressed during the novel. The idea that blame will always find a woman is a powerful one and certainly holds true in the narrative. The other notable difference is the lack of America in the novel compared to its predecessor. Hosseini moved to America and became a novelist, much like The Kite Runner protagonist, Amir. There are brief mentions of America in A Thousand Splendid Suns but it’s far more grounded in the east.
To put it simply, A Thousand Splendid Suns isn’t Hosseini’s best work, but only because it lacks the raw power of originality which his debut novel held so clearly. I’d recommend it as a good book to read, if you’ve already read The Kite Runner and enjoyed it. But for me, it has a bitter hint of a formula that works about it which knocks a few marks off a great book. The praise it’s been draped in speaks for itself though. It’s definitely worth your time. But read his first book first.
-THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR UNDER THE EAGLE, IF YOU INTEND TO READ IT, MY REVIEW CAN BE FOUND HERE–
Simon Scarrow’s difficult second novel is a damn sight better than his first one. The journey continues for Cato and Macro, through the bitter wilderness of South East England, about ten years after their fellow Romans seriously annoyed a group of Israeli Christians for crucifying their Lord and Saviour. The novel takes off about four days after the end of the previous one. The Second Legion are reeling from a messy victory against the British and the prospect of continuing a campaign in which the battles get bloodier and bloodier with no sign of any let up.
Cato has developed nicely from the first novel in the series. He’s more confident at fighting, and following the rhythmic process of thrusting a shield out then goring a man in the throat. For a scholarly young man he’s surprisingly ineloquent at public speaking, especially in the position of second in command in his century which he stumbled into one novel previously. He is also dreadfully mournful of the departure of his young lover Lavinia and pines for her throughout the novel, using her image as a reason to fight. These flaws and fumblings build up to make a nicely rounded character. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for his centurion.
Macro seems to have gone backwards. For a series which is purportedly about both Cato and Macro, his character goes from the complex hard outer shell with a softer centre – like a crème egg – to a man who is as brutish and simple. Cato has evidently more on his mind than to worry about giving him reading lessons as the entire plotline regarding Macro’s illiteracy seems to have been ousted and the novel passes by with just one solitary mention of it. It’s a great shame in my opinion. Macro was a complex and interesting character, and all though he is now depicted as a fearsome warrior, who fights by day and drinks the best wine the legion can offer by night, he’s lost a sense of vulnerability which Scarrow had so carefully built up in the last novel.
I must admit, this is honestly my only criticism. The novel is leagues better written than the previous one. Scarrow has nicely ironed out the cliché and the bizarre turns of phrase. The pacing is a lot better, and the climax is rightly where it should be, at the end (and what an end it is!). The other notable improvement is the politics in the novel. Where Under the Eagle bogged down in convoluted details, The Eagle’s Conquest deals with politics in the way a good thriller should. The wonderfully evil Tribune Vitellius sees to it that only the protagonists see him as who he really is, while he has Emperor Claudius on all fours, with a length of string around his neck like a leash.
Overall, it still shows as a second novel but Simon Scarrow is definitely finding his feet as a novelist at this stage. While there are some shortcomings, the novel is succinct, interesting, gritty and exciting. But please read the first one before this one.
Salem Falls is my third Picoult. As such, it is, unfortunately, doomed to the blight of comparison. You can expect a lot of referring back to Second Glance and The Pact in this review. Salem Falls follows the same structure as The Pact; there is a formulaic build up, climax and then the court case which takes up the latter third of the book. It’s a tried and tested formula and still feels fresh in Salem Falls. I would go as far as saying it works better than that of The Pact insofar as the characters are much more interesting and varied. The backstory that there is, is hard hitting and concise and the events in the present dwell more in the characters than in the prison the protagonist ends up in.
Speaking of the protagonist, Jack St. Bride must be the most unfortunate man in fiction. He is a stranger in the town of Salem Falls, having just been released from an eight month prison sentence. He was serving time for a rape which never happened, but the people of the sleepy little New Hampshire town don’t know this. The majority of them are ready to froth at the mouths and run him out of town. The few sympathisers he has are Addie and her family, owners of the aptly named Do-or-Diner. Jack’s already marred reputation is even more dashed on the pavement when he is, yet again, accused of rape, and of course it’s up to the familiar face of Jordan McAfee (The Pact) to get him off.
Looking back at The Pact after reading this, I can really see where Picoult fell down in that novel and excelled in this one. The characters in Salem Falls have interesting quirks and personality flaws. My favourite being Jack’s obsession and extraordinary expertise at Jeopardy! Overall they are very well rounded. None of them are filler. Although some do occupy the rather nameless space in the background, these are not in any sense central to the narrative. The list of interesting characters is far, far longer than these few. There is a harrowing sense of realism to them, which is a common trope in Picoult’s work. Jack and Addie both have the ghosts of their pasts at the back of their minds. Jordan McAfee is more or less the same (if a little diluted) as he is in The Pact. The ‘prosecution’ side of the story is rather more expanded as well. Gilly Duncan is a fascinatingly complex teen girl, who has, with a quartet of friends, turned to pagan religion and her father is leading the town against Jack.
Salem Falls, finally, holds close the one amazing point I had about Second Glance. The research is phenomenal. Reading Picoult is like having a lesson on topics you would never have known of otherwise. It’s truly unique. The novel is intertwined with quotes from The Crucible. Salem Falls is her answer to it, however the witches are the one’s doing the prosecution and the victim is the loner in town. It’s a clever reversal and fits nicely into a very intelligent book. I recently heard someone refer to Jodi Picoult’s novels as “Chick Lit,” but I honestly don’t see the comparison. Salem Falls appeals to me after all, a twenty-one year old English guy. I see it as crime fiction most of the time. And who doesn’t love getting into the gritty deathmatch which is a courtroom drama?
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is a dark fantasy masterpiece. I feel I should apologise as this blog slowly becomes “Let’s gush about Neil Gaiman” but I keep finding new things to gush about. Published in 1996 as an expansion on the script of a TV drama he wrote for the BBC, Neverwhere was Gaiman’s second adult novel, and easily surpasses Stardust (his third).
Richard Mayhew is a bewildered Scottish businessman, living in London and working for a marketing firm, his day to day is the average day to day of an average London professional, and his girlfriend Jessica fits the bill nicely. The novel sets you up on false pretenses however and with the introduction of the strangely named female lead ‘Door.’ Richard is a man who falls through the cracks. He finds himself in London Below, twisted, dark and mysterious version of its plate glass and pigeon filled sister. Old Bailey is a man who lives atop roofs. Earl’s Court is a converted underground train carriage containing an Earl and his court. Hammersmith is a ten foot tall blacksmith and The Angel, Islington… Well you can probably assume.
The quirky nature of the characters and places within the novel are a true strength, and the characterisation is so well rounded as well. There is no one in there who feels like a plot device. Even an early misfortune, involving a comparatively minor character, which Richard has to come to terms with eats away at him throughout the novel. Two of the most excellently developed characters are the perfectly evil Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, two of the most prolific assassins, brutes and killers in all of London Below. They gave me an instant vibe of Mr Wint and Mr Kidd in the James Bond adventure Diamonds are Forever, packed full of whimsical quips and a malice which can only come with a huge grin. Mr Croup is the more intelligent of the two, while Mr Vandemar is the Lenny to his George. Together they almost singlehandedly (were there not two of them) take the position of some of the most enjoyable antagonists to read in all of fantasy literature.
There is nothing like the atmosphere this book sets up. There is that back-note of familiarity and then the bizarre nature of the novel and together it makes for a page-turner which will constantly surprise you. The style is excellent, a perfect blend of black comedy, fantasy and harrowing, nail-biting moments. The pacing is perfect. My only criticism is that I wish there could have been more. Gaiman doesn’t tend to write sequels, but he’s hinted in a lot of places that Neverwhere may well be an exception to that rule. I for one hope it is.
Alfred Bester has been lauded as one of the science fiction greats of the Twentieth Century. His two must critically acclaimed novels are The Stars, My Destination and the subject of this review, The Demolished Man. The novel follows the undeniably unpleasant protagonist Ben Reich. Reich is the CEO of Monarch Utilities & Resources, a prolific and gargantuan cartel which has all but enveloped all business it deals with. The exception of which is Monarch’s rival: The D’Courtney Cartel to which Monarch are losing.
Reich plots to murder Craye D’Courtney. But there is a significant additional complication to his plans. The world in which Reich lives is policed by telepaths. Bester calls them ‘espers’ or ‘peepers’ and they fill the roles of doctors, psychologists, even a seedy club owner cum psychic medium, and of course, the police. The Guild of Espers is a fascinating concept, described as a psychiatric hospital in the novel. The place comes across as a realisation of a bitter and confining life which plagues all espers. An esper can only marry another esper and each person with esper powers must join the guild. Reich, unfortunately, does not have these powers. The result is a constant struggle for him to keep his plans from peeping minds.
He recites a rhyme:
‘Eight sir, seven, sir,
six, sir, five, sir
four, sir, three, sir,
two, sir, one.
and dissention have begun. ‘
The infectious rhyme blocks out his thoughts to peepers and with the help of Augustus Tate, a first grade esper in the guild his plans slowly roll into action.
Bester’s style is captivating and post-modern. He effortlessly designs the future of the Earth while keeping the science entirely plausible, despite being able to get to Venus in a matter of hours. The world he builds is as detailed as a photograph in comparison to his characters; the novel reads like a moving image in the mind. His characterisation is exquisitely done and each character has their own human flaws, creating a realistic and deep set of complexities to dwell over while reading. Reich seems to be as much an enemy of himself as he is of Lincoln Powell, the esper police prefect determined to send him to be ‘demolished.’ Bester’s writing as well is inundated with the futuristic naming schemes of the world he created. He replaces sections of names with similar sounding grammatical and mathematical symbols: @kins, ¼maine and Wyg&, to name a few. The effect is an alienation from the contemporary world in which he was writing, planting the novel squarely in the realms of the yet to be.
Bester is a science fiction master and a must for anyone even remotely interested in science fiction. The Demolished Man is among his finest novels. Think about it.
NEWS: I have finished Under the Eagle and I am now on to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, so you can expect that review in three weeks time after The Pact and Under the Eagle.