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Archive for January, 2010

Stephen King’s first novel shows that he had the power to grip and enthrall viewers from the very start of his career. The story probably needs no introduction, but in essence, it concerns Carrie White, a teenage high school outcast, the subject of cruel taunts and jokes, with a religious zealot for a mother.  But Carrie has the power of telekinesis – a shocking and vengeful trait.

After Carrie is mercilessly subjected to a locker room ‘hazing’ one girl feels remorseful enough to get the most popular boy in school to take Carrie to the Prom.  But darker forces are at work, and events result in mass death and lots of bloodshed.

I enjoyed this more than I had hoped to.  Stephen King may not win many literary awards, but he is certainly able to crank up the tension and keep the pages turning. He himself describes his early work (and this was his debut novel) as “raw” and while I would agree with that, the story in this novel was exciting, and I didn’t want to put the book down.

While the story is mainly told in the third person, excerpts from books, newspapers and interviews told retrospectively attempt to understand the events that took place and make sense of them.  These parts of the story give clues as to how the tale unfold, but rather than spoil anything, they simply tease the reader and make them want to read on.

The characterisation however, is fairly poor.  Carrie is obviously the most developed character, but most of the remaining characters are stereotypical, especially the perpetrators of Carrie’s distress.  This doesn’t detract from the story though – this novel is more plot than character driven.

Stephen King is probably the most famous horror writer of his time, and this book shows exactly why.  Very enjoyable.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Zach Braff is Andrew Largeman, a tv actor who has lived in LA and had little to do with his family for nine years.  However, when his father calls to tell him that his mother has died unexpectedly, Andrew has to go back to New Jersey for the funeral. While there, he catches up with old friends, and more importantly meets a girl named Sam (Natalie Portman) who is quirky, cute and more alive and vital than Andrew can ever imagine he or his friends being.

While he is in New Jersey, trying to avoid spending time with his father (who is also his psychiatrist) and attempting to work out where he is headed in life, Andrew confronts some painful memories of his past, and is reminded that only by letting go of who we once were can we decide who we truly want to be.  Meanwhile, Sam shows him that despite the obstacles people face, they can still live in the here and now, and have fun.

Ultimately, this is a film about redemption and love.  Zach Braff is impressive and manages to shake off his JD character from ‘Scrubs’ very well.  (He also wrote and directed the movie.)  Natalie Portman is cute as a button, and Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Andrew’s friend, the gravedigger Mark.

There were a lot less laughs than I thought there would be – this is not a comedy, although there are moments of gentle humour.  But it’s a sweet film, with lots of touching moments and two main characters who you can’t help rooting for.

Year of release: 2004

Director: Zach Braff

Writer: Zach Braff

Main cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard

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This book starts off with the story of Anna, Claire and Coop – siblings of a sort. Anna’s mother died in child birth, and when her father brings the baby back from the hospital, he also brings Claire, another baby whose mother died while giving birth. A few years later, they take Coop into their lives, after his family are brutally murdered. Coop and Anna fall in love, but when Anna’s father catches them together, he commits an act of extreme violence, which causes Anna to react strongly. The family becomes splintered, and the book then starts to follow each of their stories.

So far, so good.

However, the story then drastically changes course, and focuses on a dead writer named Lucien Segura – in whose house Anna now lives.

It’s hard to know what to think about this book. I certainly enjoyed the first part, but the second part did not hold my attention as well, and essentially I was left frustrated at the parts of the story which were not tied up. Claire and Coops stories in particular had just started to get very interesting, and I would have liked to see them through to the end.

In many ways this seemed rater a whimsical story, which drifted along from one part to the next (especially in the second half of the book).

The writing is certainly eloquent and rather lovely, and for me that was probably the saving grace with this book. But this felt like two books contained in one, and neither had a satisfying enough conclusion for me.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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‘Cherry’ by Matt Thorne

Steve Ellis is a 33 year English Teacher, who doesn’t like English, or indeed teaching. He has practically no social life, hasn’t had a girlfriend for 12 years and his home is literally starting to fall apart.  But his luck seems to change when he encounters a seemingly harmless old man in a pub and shares a drink with him.  Before long, an acquaintance of the old man turns up on Steve’s doorstep, and asks him about his perfect woman – down to every last detail.  Circumstances then land Steve in a hotel bar, where his perfect woman, who fulfills every criteria he specified – even down to her name, Cherry – walks into his life.  At first he is suspicious about the whole matter, but before long he realises that he is so happy to have his ideal girlfriend that he stops caring about who Cherry really is, or where she came from. However, Steve eventually comes to realise that if he wants to hold on to the beautiful Cherry, there may be a very high price to pay.

This book seemed to start out in one direction, and then quickly veer off into another.  Initially it appeared that it was going to be an amusing tale about one of life’s eccentrics, but then it seemed to almost turn into a sci-fi morality tale.

It’s narrated by Steve himself, which means that we only ever get to see things from his point of view, and how reliable his point of view is, is something to consider. On the plus side, the action moved quickly and it was engaging and entertaining fare – on the whole a fairly undemanding read.  The chapters are short and this is a book that can be read and enjoyed in just one or two sittings.

However, on the downside, it all seemed just a little bit too unbelieveable.  I could never really get too carried away with what was going to happen, because I felt certain that there would be ridiculously absurd ending (whether I was right or not is something that I won’t give away).  Also, most of the other characters in the book are very one dimensional, and it is hard to really care about any of them.  Cherry herself is seemingly devoid of any character and seems rather a boring person, even from Steve’s point of view.  I must say though that I rather suspected that Cherry’s lack of character was somehow part of the point.

At just under 200 pages, this story has the feel of a modern fable, and the somewhat ambiguous ending will leave you thinking.

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Fran Morrison has recently come back to London, after travelling around the world building her career as a musician. She originally left to get away from the cold relationship she had with her withdrawn and secretive father, who never told her anything about her mother or her mother’s death.  But now, Fran’s father is seriously ill and she has to come back and look after his glass painting business.

Fran and her father’s assistant Zac accept a commission from the local church to restore an old stained glass window, and while doing so, Fran uncovers a story from over 100 years earlier, in which she learns the story of another young woman named Laura.  As Fran struggles to cope with her changing life and circumstances, she finds her own life and feelings reflected in that of Laura’s story.

This book started off extremely well and I thought that I would love it.  I certainly enjoyed it – the writing flowed and I felt easy to lose myself in the story.  Although Fran’s story is the main bulk of the narrative, Laura’s story was also well told, and I find both storylines interesting.

However, the book was slightly marred by the apparent obsession with angels which was constant throughout (indeed, each chapter is headed by a quote about angels).  The other problem was that there were too many coincidences between the two main storylines, to be believable.  To say more would be to give away spoilers, but this annoyed  me slightly.

However, Fran was on the whole, an engaging narrator.  There are also a good supporting cast of characters, who were all well portrayed and the writing at times was very touching.

I would certainly try more by this author.  Despite my criticisms, this book intrigued me enough for me to keep reading quickly, and I would recommend it.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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In 1959, white Texan John Howard Griffin used a combination of medication and skin dye to turn his skin black, and then travelled through the Southern States as a black man, to see for himself how he would be treated by people there. This book is his diary of his journey and his experiences.

It makes for uncomfortable reading at times.  This was a time when segregation was still very much a reality – and in fact the expected norm – in certain states. Black people could not use many of the cafes and public toilets which white people used, and always sat at the back when using public transport.  What is equally disturbing is the contempt with which strangers treat people on the sole basis of the colour of their skin.  In one incident for example, a bus stops for ten minutes and while all the white people are let off to use the bathroom, the black people are prevented from getting off, seemingly for no reason other than to make them uncomfortable and to show that they are considered second class citizens.

Most people are well aware of how segregated the deep south was at the time of the writing of this book, but here we see it from a personal standpoint. Griffin knows that in all ways except for the colour of his skin, he is still the same person he has always been…but where he has previously been treated with courtesy and respect by fellow white people, now he is feared and distrusted.

Also disturbing is the description of the repercussions of the experiment which he and his family suffered after his experiment was over and people found out what he had done.

Griffin examines how people who don’t consider themselves to be racist do in fact show themselves to be exactly that in their speech and mannerisms, although in the interest of fairness and truth, he also details incidents of kindness and kinship shown to him by both black and white people.

The book was easy to read – the writing flowed and never got boring – at less than 200 pages, it didn’t have chance to. However, there were times when I felt that the author was second guessing what people were thinking.  In one part, a young man is abusive to him, but his insults are never related to colour. Griffin presumes that this would not have happened if he were white, but the truth is that he and we cannot know whether this is correct or not.  Other than this though, it is an interesting book which held my attention.

It was written just over 50 years ago, and therefore feels somewhat dated. The segregation laws described no longer exist – thank goodness – and people are more enlightened.  However, there is no doubt that racism still exists, and this is one man’s account of his personal experience of it.  It may not teach us anything we didn’t already know, but it is certainly interesting and disturbing reading.

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It is 1537 and the religious reforms are well underway under King Henry VIII’s rule. Lord Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Chief Minister, is sending his men out to force the Monastories in Britain to surrender to his rule – and to take them down forcibly if they refuse.

However, in Scarnsea Monastery, commissioner Robin Singleton has been murdered while trying to force the surrender of the premises.  Matthew Shardlake is Thomas Cromwell’s commissioner sent to Scarnsea to uncover who murdered Singleton.  Accompanied by his loyal employee Mark Poer, Shardlake travels to Scarnsea and starts to uncover a web of lies and corruption, where there are more questions than answers and everybody is under suspicion.

As Shardlake investigates, he finds himself not only battling to discover the truth about how and why Singleton dies, but also starting to question all the beliefs which he has held so dear.

I thought this was a fascinating and enthralling book.  The story is satisfyingly complex, but not so much so that it is difficult to follow.

The book is told from Shardlake’s point of view and he is a likeable and engaging narrator.  World-weary but determined to be fair, his patterns of thought and his actions are entirely believeable.  The extended cast of characters – including Mark Poer and various Monks – is also believeable, with each character having their own distinct personality.  As is human nature, Shardlake is drawn to certain members of the Monastery more than others, but he is never able to completely trust any of them, and has to therefore keep some emotional distance, which gets hard at times.

The writing is equally descriptive and pacy.  As most of the book takes place at the isolated Monastery, there is a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout, which adds to the mystery surrounding Singleton’s death.  The mystery itself is engaging and for most of the book I had no idea who was guilty, and probably suspected almost every character at some point.

Also captured well is the time in which the book is set.  Henry VIII is an invisible and intimidating presence throughout and the tension felt at the reforms, coupled with people’s fear that nobody is safe, was vividly brought to life.

Another interesting aspect of Shardlake’s character was the way that he started to grow cynical about his own religious beliefs – and more specifically the acts being carried out in the name of that religion.  It will be interesting to see how this is developed in further books in this series.

Is it perfect?  Not quite – I felt that the final denouement was perhaps a little too sudden.  However, I liked the fact that I was kept guessing throughout.

I would highly recommend this book to fans of Tudor fiction and anyone who likes crime fiction from any period.

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