Review: A Whole Slew of Them

Posted 12 August, 2010 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

I’ve been meaning to make post a couple of reviews from a couple of books I’ve read recently but have been too busy with things offline. And because I’m gearing up and wrapping up a number of things before I go off on vacation next week, I’m just going to post them all in this entry (albeit really briefly).

Reviews ahead:

  • Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger
  • Christopher Reich’s Rules of Betrayal & Rules of Vengeance
  • Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
  • Lev Grossman’s The Magicians
  • Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated

Spoilers ahead!

The Little Stranger
By: Sarah Waters

In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to see a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the once grand house is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its garden choked with weeds. All around, the world is changing, and the family is struggling to adjust to a society with new values and rules.

Roddie Ayres, who returned from World War II physically and emotionally wounded, is desperate to keep the house and what remains of the estate together for the sake of his mother and his sister, Caroline. Mrs. Ayres is doing her best to hold on to the gracious habits of a gentler era and Caroline seems cheerfully prepared to continue doing the work a team of servants once handled, even if it means having little chance for a life of her own beyond Hundreds.

But as Dr. Faraday becomes increasingly entwined in the Ayreses’ lives, signs of a more disturbing nature start to emerge, both within the family and in Hundreds Hall itself. And Faraday begins to wonder if they are all threatened by something more sinister than a dying way of life, something that could subsume them completely.

This book has been on my want-to-read list since I heard it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year (it lost out to Hilary Martel’s Wolf Hall). The novel sounded right up my alley: set in the post-war period with an old house in the countryside and an old aristocratic family and an eerie mystery involved. Overall, I thought it was an interesting novel with the slow decay of the house reflecting the turmoil of the family. It seemed a little too detached at times, but I think that was the result of the narrator’s style reflecting the times. I think the only part that really evoked some emotion from me was towards the end with Caroline’s sudden change in behaviour which in turn affects her relationship with Faraday, the narrator; I really felt Faraday’s frustration and sadness over the whole matter. The only part of the novel that I was disappointed about was the eerie mystery and happenings that were occurring around the house and how we get no resolution at the end of the novel. On the one hand, it makes sense given the perspective of the character but on the other hand, as a reader, it does leave you hanging with no clues to really dwell on. Nonetheless, it was a novel that held my attention, especially given the times and situation that these characters lived in.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Rules of Deception and Rules of Vengeance
By: Christopher Reich

I picked up these books because I was in the mood for some espionage/intrigue/thriller novels and because the premise was intriguing (the wife, Emma, is more than who she appears to be and her husband, Jonathan, finds himself at a race to uncover what his wife is up to). And they were entertaining for the most part. I remember thinking the plot was far too simple in the first novel but the second novel made up for its simplicity. The dialogue was a little cringe-worthy at times or just not realistic in a conversation. However, by the end of the second novel I was rather fed up with Emma and the way she jerked Jonathan around with her multiple loyalties. Overall, it was entertaining but I won’t be continuing the series.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Brideshead Revisited
By: Evelyn Waugh

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

I had heard wonderful things about this book and I’m glad that I finally got around to reading it. It was an interesting novel, you really get a nostalgic feel for the era of the 1930s. It was also interesting to observe the Marchmains family from the eyes of Charles Ryder, who despite becoming well-acquainted and accepted by the family is still very much the outsider. The first two parts of the novel where Charles and Sebastian were still at Oxford were probably my favourite parts because of the nostalgia. In a way, I could relate with their attitudes towards the world and uncertainty about the future. The third part was still interesting though there was a chapter about Julia that was sort of confusing and out of place from the rest of the narrative. Despite being a practicing Catholic however, I thought Waugh’s message about Catholicism was a bit too deep and theoretical for me to grasp (not to mention I had to remind myself that Catholicism in the early 20th century was a lot different from the prevailing ideas and attitudes practiced now). Nonetheless, it doesn’t really detract from the overall plot of the novel. Definitely worth the read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Magicians
By: Lev Grossman

Like everyone else, precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater assumes that magic isn’t real, until he finds himself admitted to a very secretive and exclusive college of magic in upstate New York. There he indulges in joys of college-friendship, love, sex, and booze- and receives a rigorous education in modern sorcery. But magic doesn’t bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends stumble upon a secret that sets them on a remarkable journey that may just fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Psychologically piercing and dazzlingly inventive, “The Magicians” is an enthralling coming-of-age tale about magic practiced in the real world-where good and evil aren’t black and white, and power comes at a terrible price.

Apparently readers are divided about this book: either they love it or they don’t. I fall under the first category. I thought it was an interesting way to approach the urban fantasy/magic in the real world scenario. And it’s an intriguing way of presenting a coming-of-age story: you feel for Quentin’s frustrations and disappointments about the real world. And the message of what happens when your fantasies come to life is one to take to mind. For a while it seemed as though there was no real plot going on but it was overall an enjoyable read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Everything Is Illuminated
By: Jonathan Safran Foer

With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man — also named Jonathan Safran Foer — sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

Finally got around to reading this book and for the most part I enjoyed it. It had an interesting premise and it touches on some melancholic aspects of the human condition. The move between the flashbacks of the Safran family and the present day travel of the main character was also interesting, though the present day events entertained me far more. But the main reason why I rated it so highly was the dialogue between Sasha, the translator, and Jonathan, the main character (same name as the author of the book) and sometimes with the grandfather and the dog; it particularly cracked me up because of Sasha’s English grammar, which would make total sense if he was speaking in Ukrainian but it would be a bit backwards for us. Not to mention the whole cultural difference (the segment about Jonathan explaining how he’s a vegetarian was particularly hilarious; possibly my favourite scene in the novel).

Reading this book sort of reminded me of the magical realism you’d find in books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Louis de Bernieres but sort of on its head, backwards and inside out. It’s pretty wacky sometimes (the section towards the end of the entries that all Jewish children had to know was pretty funny). The only aspect of this novel I didn’t really enjoy was the stream of consciousness style that Foer adapted to narrate the novel. I thought that with the wackiness, moments of melancholic seriousness and exchange from past to present that adding the stream of consciousness element just made the book too hefty at times. Not to mention it was a bit annoying to get through, I had a tendency to just skim through it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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