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Never afraid to tackle controversial subjects, Jodi Picoult has based this novel around a hostage situation in an abortion clinic in Mississippi. It’s told in reverse chronological order, which I wasn’t sure I liked at first, but actually the format does work quite well. The story starts with the hostage situation already well underway, at least one hostage dead at the hands of the gunman, and a police negotiator desperately trying to end the situation without more harm – because his fifteen year old daughter is one of the hostages.

Each chapter starts an hour earlier than the last one, taking the reader all the way back to the early morning and showing how each character came to be in the clinic that day.

While the book does look at the abortion argument from all sides – and this is obviously very relevant to the story – and also goes into some details regarding how abortions are performed, on one level this is a story of a hostage situation that could have taken place in any public area. We get to know the various characters and peel back the layers of their lives, each chapter revealing a little more. I thought a few of the characters were very well fleshed out – Hugh the negotiator, and Wren his daughter. I really liked the feisty nurse Izzy, but my favourite of all characters was Dr Louie Ward, who I really cared for by the end of the book.

This is not my favourite Jodi Picoult novel and I’m not sure if that was because of it being told backwards as it were, but I still did enjoy it and would probably recommend it.

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The book – one of King’s most beloved works – is essentially a story of good vs evil, in a post-apocalyptic setting. It was initially published in 1978 and then reissued including parts that had been cut from the original publication (for financial reasons). In the later version, the setting was moved from 1980 to 1990. It was the later, bigger edition which I read, which came in at over 1300 pages. So a big brick of a book!

The books starts with a man made plague sweeping the earth and killing most humans, although a few remain immune. After the plague come the dreams – people dream of a faceless man who terrifies them, and an elderly lady who they see as a saviour. Two groups form – followers of the faceless man – Randall Flagg, and of the elderly lady – Mother Abagail.

The scene is set for an epic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil; between God and the Devil or certainly at least between their emissaries on earth.

The story has everything – the supernatural, horror, human relationships and the gamut of emotions – there is love, hate, fear and despair, hope and friendship. There are unlikely heroes and tragic villains. It’s epic in every sense. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although on balance I still prefer Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King, which I read earlier this year.

The Stand is a wonderful book though which really drew me in, and I really came to care about a lot of the characters. Stu Redman was my favourite character in the whole story and I also have a soft spot for Nick Andros. It took the me the best part of two months to read, which is a LONG time for me! But it was worth it. Highly recommended.

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The story of the fall and rise of Dick Cheney, vice President to George W Bush. This film charts the transformation of a young, drunken ne’er-do-well Cheney, into one of the most powerful men in America, and a man who basically played George W. Bush like a violin. It stars Christian Bale (both brilliant and unrecognisable) as Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. Amy Adams stars as Lynne Cheney, Dick’s wife who is just as detestable and ambitious as her husband. The film aims to tell the truth as far as possible, but there are moments of high comedy and satire which are genuinely laugh-out-loud in places (unexpected in a biography of such a hate-filled and unpleasant character), and certain scenes necessarily take a certain dramatic licence.

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Year of release: 2018

Director: Adam McKay

Writer: Adam McKay

Main cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, Tyler Perry

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Genre: Drama, biography, satire

Highlights: The whole cast are superb

Lowlights: The only lowlight is that Dick Cheney is actually a real person

Overall: Excellent – well acted, well scripted, compelling and even funny in parts. Recommended.

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There can’t be many – if any! – Richard Bachman readers who don’t know that it is actually a pseudonym of probably the world’s most successful horror writer Stephen King. In the late 70s, King/Bachman released a series of novels, focussing more on dystopia or an alternate reality than the horror for which he is best known. (Another of his novels was The Running Man – later made into a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger – which follows similar themes to The Long Walk.)

The Long Walk is a yearly event which takes place in America in the near future, or possibly an alternate present; the year is never stated. 100 teenage boys come together to participate in the contest, the winner of which wins whatever his heart desires for the rest of his life. The rules are simple – if you drop below four miles an hour, you get a warning. If you get three warnings, you “buy a ticket” which means you get shot dead. The winner is the last boy still walking, and the event attracts huge media coverage and crowds along the way.

I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Kirby Heybourne, and although it took me a short while to adjust to his narration, I ended up really enjoying both the story itself and the way it was told. Dystopian fiction is a favourite genre of mine, and no matter what, King/Bachman is an expert storyteller. In this particular story, lots happens and simultaneously nothing much happens. It’s a story of 100 boys, who all think they can beat the odds, but 99 of them are going to be wrong. It is told in the third person, but concentrating mainly on the character of Ray Garraty, and through him we learn not just about his own experiences, but the way the walk affects the others too – some grit their teeth and carry on, others lose their mind, others lose the will to live. It’s heartbreaking and compelling.

It makes you wonder what on earth has happened that such a gruesome event has become national entertainment – but then when you look at reality television programmes, is it really any surprise? After all, don’t people watch Big Brother to see people fall out with each other, to watch housemates get humiliated, to see people being cruel or underhand with their tactics? I remember reading about crowds of viewers chanting hateful things at people as they left the Big Brother house. What about shows like I’m A Celebrity….? The media and the viewers like to pick out certain people as villains, to be criticised and ridiculed. And look at shows like the X Factor, where people are clearly put on screen to be the butt of people’s jokes. Isn’t the whole concept of a public vote designed to reinforce how unpopular some people are? The Long Walk, and books like it just take that situation a few steps further.

If I had to criticise anything about this book, it would be that the ending felt sudden and somehow not really an ending at all. It’s open to interpretation certainly, and I’m not yet sure what my personal interpretation is. However, the journey itself kept me listening throughout, and for that reason I would still recommend this book very highly.

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Margaret Atwood is probably one of the most popular writers of dystopian fiction. For my money, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best and most disturbing books ever written, and it was with eagerness that I picked up The Heart Goes Last.

The story is set in America in the near future, after an economic meltdown has resulted in unprecedented unemployment and homelessness (which makes me hope that Atwood is not also a fortune teller, given the current political climate!) Stan and Charmaine, a once happily married couple, are now resorted to living in their car, eating whatever they can scrounge, scavenge or afford from Charmaine’s low-paid bar job, and constantly avoiding the thieves and violent gangs who roam the streets.

So when they see an advert for a new social experiment called Consilience, they are keen to join. The idea is that everyone who lives in the restricted community will be given a nice house, a good job, and will have money for food and luxuries. In return they will have to give up their new luxury home every second month and go into Positron, the prison in Consilience…but even that doesn’t sound so bad. They get square meals, a bed and a job within the prison. However, once they are inside Consilience they realise that there is no way out – and that their every move is being watched. Each of them develop an obsession with their ‘alternates’ – the couple who live in their house during Stan and Charmaine’s prison months and vice versa – which only leads them further into the tangled reality of what really goes on in this promised utopia.

If I’m  honest, I am still not entirely sure what to make of this book. I definitely don’t think it is up to the standard of The Handmaid’s Tale, but that was truly one of my favourite books ever, so maybe it’s asking too much to enjoy every Atwood novel quite so much. For me, The Heart Goes Last started out very promisingly. The awful situation the main characters was living in was all too believable and I could see how they could be drawn into something which would seem like a wonderful way out of their dire straits. However, as the story progressed it got more and more unrealistic – and here’s the thing…for me at least dystopian fiction has to have an element of feasibility. Not that you would want it to actually happen in real life, but you have to see how it could. This novel just did not have that. The last third of the book in particular almost seemed to descend into farce, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that neither Stan nor Charmaine were particularly likeable or relatable characters. (In fact, there were very few people in this book who I felt I could root for).

That said, I still liked Atwood’s acidic humorous writing, and she does have a marvellous turn of phrase. The book is funnier than I expected, and it was an undemanding read despite some distinctly unsavoury events within the book.

This has not put me off reading more books by Margaret Atwood, and I probably would recommend it with caution to fans of the author. However, if you are trying her novels for the first time, I would suggest starting with The Handmaid’s Tale or maybe The Robber Bride.

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This is a collection of 12 forgotten (except that several of them are actually available in print in other works) short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I’ve previously read just two full length books by Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby, which I loved; and Tender is the Night, which I struggled with, but which still contained some truly beautiful and evocative writing. I also read Flappers and Philosophers, which is another collection of his (better known) short stories, which I enjoyed immensely.

The writing in this collection of stories is just as beautiful as anything else I read by him, although obviously some stories resonate more than others, and some linger in the mind for longer.

From this collection, my favourites were Love in the Night; The Dance (although it does contain some out-dated and offensive language, but which was also Fitzgerald’s only murder mystery story);The Rubber Check, which made me sad for the protagonist; and Six of One. Happily for me, there weren’t any stories which I didn’t particularly enjoy.

If you have read and enjoyed anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the past, I would definitely recommend giving this collection a try.

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This book is a collection of short stories, the first (and best) being The Snows of Kilimanjaro.  In this sad, wistful tale, a man lies at the base of Kilimanjaro, having developed gangrene in his leg, and being unable to get proper treatment for it.  He is accompanied by his wife, but as he lies dying and we witness his conversations with his wife and his own private thoughts, it becomes clear that his life is full of regret, missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams.  This story hooked me in, and gave me hope for the rest of the book.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy the rest of stories – to the extent that I actually put the book down and read some others before continuing.  It’s only that I feel unable to leave a book finished once it’s started that I picked it up again.  Many of the stories are about Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical character Nick Adams, who I found myself unable to warm to.

It’s true that some of the descriptive passages are beautiful, and the dialogue is believable, but the over-riding themes of rugged, macho men doing rugged manly things, and the women who often seem little more than an annoyance to said men, did not appeal to me.

However, apart from the story which lends its title to the book, I did enjoy the story about a young man returning home from war and finding himself unable (and unwilling) to forge a connection with anyone, including family, friends and girlfriends.  On the whole however, while I wouldn’t deny Hemingway’s talent to use words wonderfully at times, his stories were just not a good fit for me.

 

 

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