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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.
The expression goes ‘never judge a book by its cover’. But John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids goes far beyond that. The cover in question is the image in the top left corner. It’s his name, in block caital letters, the title underneath and then an image of an alien lizard thing. It’s green. It has crab claws. It’s wearing armour which looks like it fell out of an early episode of Doctor Who and it’s carrying a rather brutal looking mace. One would surmise, and rightly so seeing as this alien sounding name is written above an alien looking creature, that it is a Chrysalid. One would be wrong.
This book has nothing at all to do with this apparent depiction of Chrysalids whatever they might be. This creature does not get a mention in the entire two hundred pages of novel. In fact, nothing even remotely like this creature gets a mention in this novel. But here I am, judging a cover by its book. A grossly misleading cover, I might add. But nonetheless, it’s a good book.
The Chrysalids is a novel about a boy called David Strorm who lives in the closeted, fundamentalist Christian village of Waknuk, in a futuristic projection of Labrador, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. The villagers are obsessed with what they refer to as purity. A true form of person, if you will. Any deviation which crosses their path, they destroy. If a field is deemed to have too many variants from what is considered the norm, then it is burned. If a baby is born and is not considered the norm, then it is killed, and the mother is punished. David, as a child, meets a girl called Sophie, who has been living with the secret of having an extra toe on each foot and over the course of the novel he comes to realise he doesn’t fit the norm as well as he thought he did. David, and a collection of others from the village can communicate with each other with what they call thought shapes. It’s telepathy by another name, but it immediately put David and his friends in danger.
The book is good. The characters are interesting and well rounded; the plot is interesting, if a little predictable. As per with Wyndham’s work, there is a sense that everything will be okay. It came through very strongly in the Day of the Triffids that there was never any real danger to the protagonists and it feels similar here. The characters are too good at surviving for there to be any real urgency. It was this, perhaps, which made it such a demotivating read for me. It’s a book which you can put down. It just doesn’t carry you very well. I think the concept is very imaginative, and the characters portray it well. The sense of oppression is excellent and the communication between the characters is fantastic. But for me it can’t really carry it.
In the USA, this book is called Re-birth. It’s a title which makes a lot more sense to me. Potentially, it’s possible to surmise The Chrysalids is a reference to change, changing situations, attitudes, lives. It’s a novel about change. But as a title it’s an abstract way of saying this. It’s not often I prefer the American titles of novels but in this case I do. The cover on the other hand, I cannot see what it has to do with the novel, but thankfully, it’s hardly a point to stick at. Just be careful if you have an old Penguin edition of this book. I came into the novel expecting one thing and was left confused at the end and the cover was a large influence on my expectations.
Nevertheless, Wyndham writes brilliantly. His narrative style is relaxed yet interesting, he manages to avoid cliché neatly, while giving insightful commentary on a violent and twisted society brainwashed by their obsession with perfection. The novel was first published in 1955; I’d hedge a bet that he was drawing influence from the Nazi Aryan ideal. Overall, it’s worth a read, it’s a very interesting concept and well told, if a little slow, but it’s definitely worth the time spent reading it.
Apologies for the lateness of this review! I’ve had a fair bit to do this week. I will also be missing next week’s review post and all of my P365 posts as I will be away on holiday. So expect a load of posts next weekend. 🙂
The cover is literally draped in praise. The Times, The Telegraph, Conn Iggulden, Eoin Colfer. Most of it selectively quoted from a series of mediocre reviews. The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman was sickeningly over-marketed back in 2010. You could barely move around a book shop for the posters of the (admittedly pretty nice) book cover. Publishers fought tooth and nail to get a piece of what could have been “the next Harry Potter”. Unfortunately, “the next Harry Potter” it failed to be. The novel was almost universally a disappointment to several reviewers and readers. The hype which surrounded it fizzled just as quickly as it rose up, and now The Left Hand of God and its sequels are condemned to the annals of failed fantasy literature.
Frankly, this sucks, because it’s really not bad. This novel is a prime example of how money loving publishers yammering for the next big hit can completely ruin a book. If it had been published on the sly, it wouldn’t have sold anywhere near as much but it wouldn’t have been battered by critics who were expecting an absolutely earth-shaking triumph of a novel.
It was also marketed completely wrong.
The novel was in the YA section. Its protagonist is fourteen and as soon as the suits got that they immediately billed it as teen fiction. It’s really not teen fiction. The darkness and themes are harrowing, the settings bleak and dystopian and the ideas are very complex. Teens might have liked it, but it’s not for them.
The Left Hand of God follows a boy called Thomas Cale, an escapee from the pseudo-Catholic concentration camp of The Sanctuary of the Redeemers. Hoffman explores religion with a machete, creating a twisted and terrifying force which has kidnapped thousands of young boys for forced military training. Upon reaching an age at which they’re ready to fight, they are duly sent off to engage in trench warfare with the imaginatively named ‘Antagonists’ and never heard from again. Cale and his two companions, Kleist and Vague Henri escape the Sanctuary and flee to a faraway city of colours, debauchery, gambling and luxury. Memphis… Memphis. Hoffman’s naming is fantastically irritating. We have Memphis, which is one hundred miles south of… York. Inhabitants of Memphis include the inexplicable IdrisPukke, the feared assassins Jennifer Plunkett and Daniel Cadbury, the mob leader, Kitty the Hare and a high ranking army official, Solomon Solomon. I honestly feel that a rework of the names of this novel would give the entire experience a lot more depth and immersion. It’s a minor point, however. I can live with bad naming.
As it stands, it’s a reasonably good story, well told and packed with interesting concepts and ideas. It’s a bit muddled, unfortunately, and far from the watertight narrative trilogies it competes against. Cale is what brings the book up in my estimations. He is one of few fantasy anti-heroes. He’s a violent, narcissistic sociopath and doesn’t bat an eyelid while he brings foes twice his size to the ground in a pool of blood. He could so easily be a villain, but he isn’t. That’s what really stands out to me.
This novel has had a hard time, and my nit-picking over the poor naming and a slightly incoherent plot line is rather unfair. The book couldn’t live up to the hype and unfortunately that’s what killed it. It’s four years since that hype though, so why not pick it up and give it a go now? I was pleasantly surprised with the motion of the story. It’s a good, fast and exhilarating read. It’s not perfect, but it’s only a couple of things which keep it from being a highly rated book. They are quite significant things, but overall I enjoyed reading it despite its flaws. I liked the atmosphere, the characters, the action I liked in particular. It’s just a shame it didn’t live up to the impossible to reach standards it set for itself.
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.
I’ll admit I went into The Pact without really knowing what to expect. I left it knowing that I enjoyed it immensely and still reeling from the gripping last hundred and fifty pages which went down in one sitting. Picoult has a penchant for designing her novels. By which I mean everything ties in together very nicely, is exceptionally well researched and a very realistic mirror of perhaps the more unusual aspects of modern life. In my review of Second Glance I applauded her ability to collate research into a novel and although The Pact is considerably less complex in terms of plot, the attention to detail is still sublime.
I was perhaps a little worried that the book would turn out to be erring on the side of angsty, but I was pleasantly surprised when the main theme of the novel – a court case surrounding an alleged suicide pact was dealt with not only sensitively but interestingly. The pact was between Chris and Emily, a teenage couple living next door to each other in a small and romantic suburb in New Hampshire. Chris was among the first people to see Emily in the world. At her birth, he was six months old and was placed next to her in her crib. Emily however sinks into a downward spiral of depression and Chris can’t help her.
The double suicide goes wrong. Chris is charged with murder of the first degree and sent to prison pending trial and the novel really comes into its own in the courtroom scenes. Picoult introduces a wonderfully dysfunctional Lawyer – Jordan McAfee – as Chris’ defence. As it turns out he’s a viper in the courtroom and his character alone would make the entire book worth reading. He’s why the last hundred and fifty pages are so readable. He’s a confliction of uncultured layabout and maestro which works on multiple levels. He almost steals the story from the rest of the characters.
Unfortunately that’s not entirely a good thing. While the portion of the novel which concerns itself with Chris’ home life and his time in prison is an engaging read it’s not as engaging as the courtroom thriller it becomes in the last quarter. However, I would say that the courtroom proceedings may get tiresome if they took up the whole novel, and I would also say that the back story of Chris’ and Emily’s relationship is a necessary part of the novel. I just wish that it could have been written with the same hand-in-mouth verve with which the courtroom scenes were.
Chris’ parents are interesting but decidedly average. Gus (Augusta) and James are the typical supportive mother and distant father character. James flies on the edge of the novel and only really gains much of a character towards the end after realising he can’t just brush the death of his son’s girlfriend under the rug. Gus sticks with Chris throughout and is a lifeline between the prison and the outer world. Emily’s parents are the mostly insane Melanie and her oppressed husband Michael; they have a rift filled relationship, and quite rightly after their only child was taken from them – ostensibly by herself, but according to the officious policewoman Marie Marrone, by Chris. Michael is probably the less interesting of the two, just seeming rather normal. Like the character equivalent of mashed potato. Melanie is a freshly shaken up can of cola, braced for a good explosion. I must commend the diversity of character in the novel even so. The characters work excellently with each other to carry the novel forward when the frustrated, scared and confused Chris sits lonely in a cell.
I’d recommend the novel to anyone. If you’re out looking for a tearjerker you might find it here, but mostly it’s a book which has been somewhat misbranded. The young girl on the cover drawing a heart in the condensation on a window hides a brilliantly exciting courtroom drama on the other side of that misted up window.
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.