Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
I picked up The Elegance of the Hedgehog after having read so many rave reviews on it in different blogs and sites. I’m normally a bit wary of books that tend to capture the masses because what makes it onto the best seller list isn’t always to my taste. However, it sounded intriguing so I went ahead and got it. Unfortunately, I’m afraid this book did not live up to its reputation, at least not for me.

Renée Michel is a concierge in a posh apartment building in Paris where the young girl Paloma Josse lives. Neither person is what they seem to be. Renée is an autodidact who has taught herself much which a normal concierge wouldn’t normally even be interested in. Paloma is a highly intelligent child who is too old for her age. Both of them hide their intelligence so they can melt into the crowd and remain anonymous spectators who watch the world around them going by as if the rest of the people were ants in a farm who have no idea what their purpose in life is. Paloma decides that there is no point in living such a life, so she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Before she does this, she takes it upon herself to write down as many meaningful things as possible, through which the reader realizes that Paloma suspects Renée’s deception. Renée also begins to realize that Paloma is more than a vapid child and becomes interested in her.

The whole premise is interesting and the characters are well drawn, thus I hoped for more out of the book. However, two things got in the way of making this a really great work. The first was the attitude of the child. She was arrogant and annoying and I spent much of the time wanting to slap her. Yes, she was just a child and it was a phase, but I could have lived without this being the centre of attention for so long. The second is that it read a bit like a philosophy primer. It was as if I were back at uni in a philosophy 101 course going through the basics instead of reading about the relationship between and old woman and a girl. The two things did not mesh well together and it disrupted the rhythm of the story; it was a bit like talking as you bump down stone steps while on a cart. Had the story been smoother, the book would have been fantastic. As it was, I spent the first two-thirds wanting to slap the child and the last third regretting that the author hadn’t arrived at that point sooner.

All in all, I give the first half 2/5 and the last half 4/5, so a decisive 3/5.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Unplanned Hiatus

I should have realized that I woulnd't be blogging last week and mentioned it, however, it never occured to me that between a visit from my cousin and a company outing that I wouldn't have time to blog at all. Add a few sick days to that and voilà, you have a blogging outage! So, just to get me started again, I'll post the meme I did a while back and forgot to post before going on vaccy.

1. Why did you start blogging? I frankly just don’t remember.
2. If you could travel anywhere in the world with no restriction of costs, where would it be and why? Canada and Alaska including a kayaking trip somewhere cool.
3. Did you have a teacher in school that had a great influence on your life? If so, what? I don’t remember many of my teachers and I don’t think any one particular teacher had any great influence.
4. If you could spend the day with a famous person, who would it be, and what would you do? I don’t think I’d want to spend the day with a famous person. It would be too odd. I also think their lives weren’t/aren’t as great as we think they are and finding out that were true would just be depressing. Just imagine visiting Victorian London. That would just kill the romance of the age methinks.
5. Toilet paper – over or under? Is under an option? I wasn’t aware that it was.
6. Name one thing in your life that you would do over if possible. My whole education and choice of occupation.
7. Tell about your pets – if any. I’m down to one dog, Biscuit the Great Dane and Sydney the really annoying cat. Biscuit is 6 and is a lovely dog who is so well behaved she’s very nearly boring (but not quite and I would take boring over misbehaved any time!). Sydney is a 10 year old second hand cat who was abused at her former home. I’m the only person she’ll let near her and she would turn herself into Velcro and attach herself to me if she could. It’s terribly irritating.
8. Do you live in a small town or a large town. A small village.

Now back to our normal programming.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Sacrifice by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The Sacrifice: The First Book of the Fey
The Fey are a race of conquerors with fighting and battle in their blood. Thus far, they have conquered all the lands within their reach and to extend their empire even further, they will have to take Blue Isle. As the people of Blue Isle are peace loving traders, the Fey assume that it won’t take more than a morning’s work to overrun the isle and claim it for their own. When this proves impossible for them, they must come to terms with their shock and create new battle plans, for the Fey never lose and to do so now against such a weak opponent would be more than an extreme embarrassment. The Islanders, however, are far from willing to relinquish what is theirs and set out to do the impossible and defeat the Fey.

From the beginning, I struggled with this book. The idea was good but the story never really gripped me. There were two things that really bothered me about the story. The first was that both parties were introduced on an equal basis with the introduction to the Fey being the first. Then, just as the affinity for the main character, Jewel, starts to set in, you realize that her race is actually entirely reprehensible and you really don’t want to know her. I got the feeling that Rusch was trying to convey that the same situation can look very different from different perspectives, but the effect was off-putting. Jewel and her father were evil by modern standards, so it was hard for me to care about what happened to them. Nicholas and his father were much more sympathetic characters, but earned relatively little page time. The second thing that irritated me was the repetition and lack of much action. It felt like she kept covering the same ground time and time again and after having spent a lot of time listening, not much actually happened. Finally, after having many times considered whether or not to finish the book, the ending wasn’t actually an ending but a lead in to the next book, which left me with no satisfaction at knowing the outcome and little desire to read the next book.

There are many good things about this book, the setting is good, the idea is good, there are several intriguing ideas about religion and magic which I’d never run into before and some of the characters have real potential. I could also see the next book being better than this first one. However, I’m going to have to give this one a 3/5 because, as I mentioned, it just never grabbed me like I had hoped it would.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
This is another one of those books we’ve all heard of but few people have actually read. As a result, people often have the impression they know what the book is about, but don’t actually because much of the story has been dramatized and Hollywoodized over the years. I don’t actually mean that as a criticism even if it does sound like one. It’s brilliant that people can take an idea and expound on it to create other stories and I wouldn’t want to give up our Mr. Hyde of today, or our green Frankenstein, or our Coca-Cola Santa Claus. It’s just that often the successors wind up overshadowing the original to the point where it almost disappears except to the few who choose to look at the origins. Granted, there still are a lot of people out there who have read the originals, but the average person hasn’t.

Dr. Henry Jekyll has gone a bit soft in the head. He shuns visitors, changes his will in an odd manner leaving all to Mr. Hyde should he die or disappear, and his friends are becoming increasingly worried. Most of all they are concerned about his connections with the man Mr. Hyde who is seen running down a small girl in the street. Mr. Hyde gives a check signed in Jekyll’s name to the father in the way of compensation, but doesn’t show much remorse. Jekyll swears afterward that he is finished with Hyde, but when Jekyll’s friends find his cane at Hyde’s house, they know he’s still under Hyde’s influence and soon they find out that the truth is even more horrible than they had imagined.

It won’t be giving anything away to mention that Jekyll and Hyde are one in the same. Hyde is the creator of a potion which changes him into a being free from moral subjugation and Jekyll revels in the freedom this gives him at first. However, like most addictive substances, it soon takes over his life and his free choice is removed so that he is subjugated to the beast he has created. Here’s where “fact” and fiction separate though. Hyde is often portrayed as a larger than life figure with great strength and power. However, in the book, Jekyll is the larger of the two men and Hyde much the smaller, more crude looking figure with no particular powers except his lack of morals which allows him to do things forbidden to most humans. Stevenson also doesn’t present the case from Jekyll/Hyde’s point of view, instead choosing to tell the tale through the rather clinical and Victorian observation of his friends. This lends the book a bit of a dry air as opposed to making it a thriller. Thus, Stevenson wasn’t actually trying to create a monster for our Halloween pleasure, he was presenting us with the dichotomy of man vs. the monster within himself, or what we would be without voluntary moral or ethical subjugation.

I think he also, perhaps unknowingly addresses the subject of addiction and its ends. As mentioned, the potion becomes the master of the man until the effect is no longer the one desired, and instead reflects the essence of the potion which is evil. Many drugs have the same effect of being pleasurable in the beginning, but soon grow to control the user instead of the user controlling the drug. Finally, he also, rather obviously, addresses split personalities and mental illness. Jekyll and Hyde being one and the same makes that pretty much a given. Although, to his credit, Stevenson doesn’t make the split black and white, as Jekyll tells his friends, while Hyde was wholly amoral, this did not make Jekyll his diametric opposite and render him wholly good. Jekyll remained much as he was while Hyde only embodied the evil in him. Thus, it was less of a split than a personality graft, like cutting off one pit of a plant so that it grows into its own plant, only this particular bit only contained certain parts of the makeup of its parent plant. In essence, this is a more accurate reflection of mental illness as it is seldom comprised of a simple black and white split.

I could babble on about this forever because it is a terribly interesting book which opens up a lot of room for discussion. Yes, it is a bit on the dry side as a read, especially if you’re expecting fast paced action, but the subject matter makes up for that in leaps and bounds. It’s one I can recommend to anyone, so it’s another 5/5 book.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Requiem Mass by Elizabeth Corley

Five girls went out onto the cliffs during a school outing, only four returned. One of the girls fell off the cliff in a horrible accident which went unwitnessed by her friends. Her loss was tragic but life went on and the girls’ lives continued as planned. Twenty years later and one of the girls, now a wife and a mother, disappears after leaving for a day trip. Her husband is shocked and upset but knows his wife would never leave the children. Unfortunately, the police don’t believe him and her disappearance is only a blip in their records, and only then because the husband lodged a complaint. Had it not been for DCI Fenwick, no one would have ever looked at the case again, but Fenwick feels there are just too many warning bells about the case and can’t leave it alone. Then another crime is committed which may be connected and Fenwick sets off down the path which will lead him to investigating the girl’s death 20 years ago while trying to prevent even more murder.

I can’t even remember where I came across this book, but I’m glad I did. Corley creates some interesting characters from remarkable perspectives and presents her detective with several moral dilemmas which make the reader stop and think about justice in its entirety. What is justice and can it be wrong to pursue it in every case and at all costs? She also created a rather incongruous detective. Many of the protagonists in modern crime novels are young and single with no children or have a drink problem etc. etc. Fenwick is a family man who cares deeply about his children and his own effect on their lives. As such, Corley adds an element of reality by introducing a man who, like the rest of us, has to juggle his career and desire to rise in the ranks with his life without dropping the ball on either. I suppose the potential for the dysfunctionalism which is so prevalent in today’s society and modern literature, but it’s refreshing to find a character who is fighting it and hasn’t just given in and accepted that he must sacrifice his family to his career. Not that Fenwick doesn’t have his problems, but they don’t take pride of place in his life as they so often seem to nowadays.

Interesting plot, engaging characters, enough tension to keep it interesting and a depth which is often lacking in crime novels. 5/5