Category Archives: Reading Challenge

Booker Prize #2 (RC #68) – ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

sbthreadBooker Prize #2 – ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

As with anything I get really into, I like to read around about it as much as I can. Thus, even when the hobby itself is reading, I like to read about reading almost as much as digesting the books themselves. Usually, that takes the form of reviews, and the first thing I did once I finished ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ was look at what other people thought about it. I was surprised. There couldn’t have been a more polar opposite response to a book than what I saw in front of me. I guess that is what the best literature is want to do – separate people  into groups of people who loathe it and people who love it.

For your information, I would fall squarely in the camp of people who loved it, and I don’t tend to read these types of social/family relationship type novels. It was outside my comfort zone, but there was something…pleasant…about reading the story and following the trials and tribulations of the Whitshanks across four generations. Rather than follow a linear narrative, we hop around between the youth of the grandparents (later on in the novel) and the big family gatherings around an aging couple (where we begin the story). We see the arguments between siblings, between parents and the black sheep of the family and with extended family, whilst we never get a sense that the family don’t at least try to do what they generally consider to be the best for the good of the family.

Most of the complaints about the story seemed to be that the story went nowhere. Without wanting to go into too much detail so as not to spoil the story, there are moments that do shock and surprise, but I’ll admit that there isn’t one big ‘ahah’ moment, one big swerve or one big twist to have you furrowing your brow and mulling over it for days afterwards. Whilst this seems to be a deal breaker for some people who read the book, I couldn’t care less when the writing is as fluent and beautiful as that which Tyler commits to the page. She presents a family in the way that is recognisable to anyone who is the creation of a big family environment; the back-biting, the squabbling, the politics, but most importantly, the love.

The structure of the novel does go a long way to assisting the narrative in my opinion. As we get to see the two grandparents suffering through the perils of old age, with all that entails, we get a snapshot of their own parents and the difficult courtship that they went through. This makes the reader feel that we get a true glimpse of what it took to create the characters that we have begun to fall for, warts and all, making them feel even more valuable for their unlikely existence.

People may complain that the story doesn’t really move along at a cracking pace whilst offering twists and turns galore. I’m okay with that. The book meanders, and I was happy to meander along with it. It felt familiar, yet biting, comfortable, yet confrontational. Everything a good book should be, and more.

Booker Prize #1 (RC #67) – ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy-Satin IslandBooker Prize #1 – ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

Since the only way I now seem to get joy out of my reading is to somehow challenge myself to exceed any normal understanding of what ‘reading for pleasure’ might mean, I decided when the Booker Prize shortlist was announced that I would try my best to read all six books before the winner was declared. This way, I could completely hitch my wagon to the wrong horse and look like a schmuck when the book I hated the most wins inevitably.

As I’m also fighting a battle to read a set amount of books during the year (a challenge that is increasing in difficulty as the year goes by), I decided to read the smallest books first. Thus, if I gave up, I could at least have made progress in one area of my reading challenges. Huzzah!

This meant the first book was ‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy. With my reading for this challenge being Kindle-based, I know that this book took me around three hours to read – by the end of it, I wondered a little as to why I bothered.

That is not to suggest that the book is bad. McCarthy clearly has some talent when it comes to non-sequitur flights of fancy and stream-of-concious-esque narrative development…it just left me fairly cold. I spoke before about my lack of a desire to necessarily analyse deeper meanings within my reading for fear of completely getting the wrong end of the stick, but in this instance, I just don’t really get what McCarthy is trying to suggest or say.

The story concerns a man called ‘U’, who works for a company who seem to be seeking the ultimate truth about the world, the one big anthropological theory or formula that creates the mechanisms of the world we live in. Unfortunately for him, U has been tasked with this job.  It feels almost as if it placed in near future rather than the present day, as our narrator tangles with ethical, moral and narrative dilemmas about stories as disparate as an oil spill and the death of a parachutist. In the intervening moments of the book, he sleeps with a woman several times whilst seemingly yo-yoing on the relative value of the current task he has been set.

There are allusions to many different authors and many different stories – admittedly, many I had not realised until I looked up a review of the book. This is where I perhaps see my problem. Whilst I’d never necessarily suggest a book is ‘too intelligent’ for me, I do feel that there is a lot more going on underneath the surface that may have just passed me by in my reading of the novel. Maybe if I was closer to some of the writers that McCarthy feels the need to echo (Delillo, Pynchon, Kafka and others), I might have got more out of the book.

I also feel that I don’t care much for the main character. If a lot of the narrative is based on his musings and machinations, it becomes difficult to feel much for him when you don’t particularly like him. Some of this negativity is encapsulated within the relationship he carries on with his lady friend, a relationship with a woman who plays little more than a sexual function within the character’s life. Towards the end, we begin to see more of her, but his dismissive treatment of that aspect of his life is just another reason why it is hard to care about the character in the bigger scheme of things. I don’t have to like all my characters, but this style of narrative begs for your empathy with at least part of his situation – something that I never really felt.

WIth that being said, I feel that Tom McCarthy, and specifically ‘Satin Island’, will be many peoples’ idea of their new favourite writer and new favourite book. Unfortunately, not for me. If anything, it feels like the type of books that gives ammunition to those who feel the Booker Prize doesn’t really represent the best, rather just the most left field, options across the span of a year.

 

Reading Challenge – Book 60: ‘Mistborn: The Final Empire’ by Brandon Sanderson

Due to me getting married this summer, I have fallen fairly far behind on my written reviews. To be fair, I’ve skipped over a couple of books in my reading challenge that aren’t really that important to cover. I mean, ‘Ayoade on Ayoade’ by Richard Ayoade was interesting, whilst ‘Why Do Buses Come In Threes?’ was a pretty perfunctory look at real life mathematics, but beyond that, they were just books that I happened to read. Rather than feel the pressure to comment on everything, from now on I will just cover the main books that I feel it necessary to review in more detail. With that being said…

indexReading Challenge: Book 60 – ‘Mistborn: The Final Empire’ by Brandon Sanderson

I am a fair weather fantasy fan. I’m unashamed to admit that my first foray into the world of swords and dragons was, like many fans, from time spent with ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ by G.R.R. Martin. Seeing a copy of the first book, ‘Game of Thrones’, with Sean Bean on the front of it (at the time, just about pre-HBO series release), I decided to have a look at it and was instantly hooked. I would even go as far as to argue that ‘A Clash of Kings’ might be one of my most favourite books of all time. However, the series isn’t what it once was in my eyes, and a year or so back I started to try and look for other fantasy that might reinvigorate my interest in the world of elves, orcs and goblins.

Enter Brandon Sanderson.

He wasn’t my first attempt by any means. I dipped my toes in other fantasy pools, but nothing that I picked up grabbed my interest in the way that ‘ASoFaI’ had. The first book in Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ Trilogy, ‘The Blade Itself’, came very close, an excellent book with a raft of interesting characters – yet I finished the book and moved away from the series (much to my chagrin now – my Mum has even read these three books!). I was still bereft of a fantasy series to really sink my teeth into.

Enter Mistborn.

I’d read ‘Firefight’ by Brandon Sanderson as my first attempt to explore his oeuvre, but ‘The Final Empire’ was the initial fantasy stop of a fairly prolific output for someone so (relatively) young. Maybe this would finally be the series to replace, or at least sit alongside, G.R.R. Martin’s glorious epic.

The book acted as the flint that reinvigorated my dwindling interest in the fantasy genre as a whole.

There are several reasons for this. When I first attempted to explore fantasy as a wider genre, the areas that were often discussed included characters, world building and systems (magic and so on). It was how a fantasy author was able to develop and manipulate these three things that would make their book a success or not. Naturally, these all meant very little if the plot wasn’t also something that was effective in engaging the reader in the world that has been created. In all four areas, Sanderson has proven himself a master, and even out-performed the best of Martin’s output in some areas.

The book tells the story of a Skaa called Vin and a ragtag bunch of mercenaries who plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler, a man who has supressed and abused the Skaa over many years. Even though this type of ‘defeat the big evil bad guy’ storyline is ten a penny, it is impressive how quickly Sanderson engages you with Vin’s plight, and makes the developing plan to destroy the Lord Emperor genuinely exciting. Vin and the Lord Ruler are perfect examples where world building and character development collide beautifully, as we desire for Vin to be successful due to the sense of immortality and undeniable cruelty that pervades every aspect of narrative linked to Lord Ruler. Not only do we respond to Vin as a true underdog hero, along with her maverick mentor Kelsier and various other colourful characters, but we legitimately wonder how they might achieve the lofty goals that are set out from the very start.

All this would fall apart if the systems in place weren’t interesting, and the central concept of Allomancy is the exciting core of the story through which we see Vin’s development and the general conflict between a range of different people. In Sanderson’s world, people are able to burn metal to allow them to enhance certain skills. As a Mistborn, Vin is able to burn all the metals, and we see several scenes with her building these skills through Kelsier and other members of the crew. By making the realisation of her powers part of the narrative, it helps the reader engage more with her character, as we learn the power of the metals at the same time as she does. These enhanced powers are not only an intriguing part of the plot (with rumblings of an Eleventh metal part of the overarching narrative), but they serve up some action packed fight scenes. If anything, it occasionally gets confusing as to how the different metals are being utilised at any one time, but this is a minor quibble.

In closing, this is the first time in a while in which I have swallowed up a book of this size in a matter of days once I got going. The last time – ‘Game of Thrones’. Maybe I really have found something to match up to Martin’s masterwork. Guess I’ll just have to crack open ‘The Well of Ascension’ and see.