Monthly Archives: October 2014

CARTHAGE by Joyce Carole Oates

carthage by joyce carole oates

This book has absorbed me for the last couple of weeks. It’s clever, poignant and beautifully written. Yet for some reason I am struggling to know what to say about it. Perhaps because it’s so big and profound, whilst not really appearing to be so. Or perhaps because to say too much would give away what happens and how much hurt people feel.

It centres around one family- the Mayfields. Successful lawyer turned politician, Zeno. Supportive wife and mother, Arlette. Older daughter Juliet, beautiful, shadowless and happy. Younger daughter, Cressida, intelligent, difficult and missing after an uncharacteristic visit to a rowdy pub, where she was last seen in the company of Brett Kincaid, an emotionally and physically wounded Iraq war veteran who also happens to be the former fiancee of Juliet.

The book opens with the search for Cressida but soon develops into much more than the thriller it first appears to be. Rather it’s a portrait of what happens to a family when one member disappears, at what point responsibility begins, and of the nature of guilt – to destroy or lead to redemption. There’s a line attributed to Brett that describes his “yearning for expiation, and for annihilation” which is actually a very apt epithet for the entire novel.

And then there’s Carthage itself, which gives the book it’s name and is a presence throughout – a symbol of power and influence that is no more, yet remains protected. A symbol of small town America and all that’s good and bad about that life.

Names here are very important – Cressida’s namesake, for example is unloved and uncared for, whilst Juliet conjurs up romance, love and tragedy for her and her Romeo. Zeno discusses his namesake’s paradoxes with the family, whilst the idea underpinning them, that change is actually an illusion, is central to the book’s themes.  In fact every little detail in this book is carefully thought through and I especially loved how each voice is distinct, how Oates uses language and sentence structure to evoke her characters’ personalities and states of mind. She does the big picture wonderfully too. So contemporary issues at the heart of American life are subtly woven into a story of personal loss, from the impact of war to domestic violence, each subtly enriching our understanding of the individual Mayfield family members’ responses to the tragedy that has befallen them.

CARTHAGE is a book to get lost in, so you can then later find yourself. A book that urges you to give into despair in order to find hope. A book that is both so vast and so contained that it will mean endless different things to different people, and which today, here, now, means a lot to me.

 

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LOST AND FOUND by Brooke Davis

lost and found by brooke davis

“A story to make you laugh, cry and feel a little wiser” proclaims the front cover of this novel. I am sorry to report that it did none of these things for me. There was one brief moment when I got a tear in my eye and a couple of moments when I smiled, but overall LOST AND FOUND is a real let down.

Despite the promises made on the front cover I would never have bought it myself – there’s something off putting about the jacket design that I cannot quite put my finger on, something reminiscent of all those books about women finally finding true love. Not my thing. But it was left by a friend visiting from Australia who didn’t want to take it home and I find it hard to resist any book that falls into my lap like that.

I didn’t hate it. It’s just rather boring, despite some potentially interesting quirks. The story centres around 7 year old Millie Bird and the friendship she forms with  82 year old Agatha Pantha, who has not left her house since the death of her husband, and with 87 yearl old Karl the Touch Typist, who has run away from the nursing home where he’s been left by his son. The elderly pair are helping Millie find her mum and the general gist is that 3 lost people find themselves through getting to know one another and having adventures together. Adventures like stealing a shop mannequin,  driving a bus and getting into a pub brawl.

There are some nice touches and some interesting observations about how the young and the old think about death. It also avoids sentimentalism in its portrayal of the old – both Agatha and Karl are rude, shouty and awkward, which I liked. But I wasn’t really convinced by any of the characters and whilst Millie’s trail of signs that read “I am here Mum” is touching, her general responses don’t ring especially true based on the 7 year olds I know. At times it feels the writer is trying too hard to be a bit different, wacky or entertaining  and that ended up grating a bit. But overall nothing remarkable really and my heart sank when I wanted a good read and remembered this was what was on offer. Sure, I could have given up but that would have meant admitting that I felt something about this book and the truth is I just didn’t. As a result, I suspect LOST AND FOUND might languish for a long time on my bookshelves deliberately lost and never found again – or be set free through book crossing to fall into some other poor soul’s lap.

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EVERY DAY by David Levithan

every day by david levithan

I kept seeing this advertised on the tube and it was one of the books I downloaded onto the Kindle for my summer holidays. But I never got around to reading it then and I am actually quite glad, because as there’s something about it being part of my daily reading routines – the train ride to work and in bed at the end of a day – that complemented the story beautifully.

Sixteen year old A wakes up in a different teenager’s body every day of his life. The first thing he does on waking is access what they know, who they live with, what they like for breakfast. He feels what those people feel, but he also retains a sense of self. He can reflect on their lives whilst living them. He tries to create as few ripples as possible in the lives of the people he inhabits. He leaves their lives intact, with broad memories of what has happened but not enough detail that they can work out something was not quite right. And  A sends himself emails to help remember who A truly is, not just on a particular day.

Then A wakes up as Justin. Falls in love with Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. And that changes everything.

Grappling with a deep desire to stay connected to Rhiannon, A starts to break all the rules and as their story reaches its climax, must choose between her and the fragile sense of self that is all that passes to the next day.

A crosses gender, race and sexuality barriers. Sometimes fat, sometimes thin, attractive, ugly, awkward, confident. One day uncomplicated or just living in the moment, the next clinically depressed or physically weak, A’s life is rich and varied, full of experiences and consequence free. Yet it’s also devoid of family ties, of friendship. A is denied a future that relates to his present and has no meaningful past either, the embodiment of transience. It’s little wonder then that the connection to Rhiannon exerts such a pull.

She however wakes up every day as Rhiannon. Has different expectations of the past, present and future. Cannot comprehend the life A lives or what it really means.  Their relationship is impossible. Or is it? Could simply accepting who A is, the way A accepts all those lives that make up life, lead to happiness?

Bittersweet and beautifully paced, this is one of those books that really gets under your skin. It’s proof too that teen fiction can be superbly written and appeal to all ages. I fell in love with A and I fell in love with EVERY DAY. I’ll definitely be reading more from David Levithan.

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Filed under drama, fantasy, love story

I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

i am pilgrim by terry hayes

This is a bit like a book version of a series of 24. It’s long, gripping, often very violent, and goodies as well as baddies die. I know I shouldn’t really like it (especially the way everything the US does is justified with reference to 9/11 and  the “war against terror”)  but I can’t help myself.

Pilgrim is a secret intelligence agent. The adopted, then as good as orphaned, son of a wealthy American couple, he has multiple identities, disappears at will and is the very best at his game. But Pilgrim makes one small mistake – he writes a text book on how to commit the perfect murder. Someone uses that book to track him down and someone else uses it as inspiration. That mistake embroils Pilgrim in a murder investigation that soon becomes a hunt for a terrorist named the Saracen.

This novel spans the world – from the wilderness of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, to the stunning Turkish coast, by way of Manhattan, Saudi Arabia and Paris. It  displays a remarkable degree of emotional literacy for a spy thriller too. The story of Pilgrim’s colleague, Ben, who rescued a wheelchair bound man from the Twin Towers had me in floods of tears. And, unusually for a book in this genre, I AM PILGRIM gives ample time and scope to developing the character of the terrorist and understanding his motivation. The Saracen we get to know is compelling and attracts our sympathy despite his plans for mass murder.

I AM PILGRIM moves backwards and forwards in time, so you need to keep your wits about you. There’s lots of back story – and several side stories too – but I recommend sticking with it, because when all the narrative threads come together it’s definitely worth the journey. An example of the very best kind of spy thriller, I defy anyone who can suspend their judgement of the politics of it all, not to get caught up in a plot that literally made my heart beat faster.

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