The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

51pSErJc3oLMy fellow advertising buddy Katie reminded me to post about this book, but it was my old housemate Jonathan who first told me about it. Other than being amazed that he could actually read, I was also intrigued by the sound of the story straight away. And he was good enough to lend me his copy. Whatta guy.

I’ve actually had to re-read it since; because there are so many twists and turns I’d forgotten what actually happens. My brain seems to do that with clever plots. I must have seen The Bourne Identity about fifteen times. What happens? Haven’t the foggiest. Some girl dyes her hair and people keep trying to kill people.

This story begins with a young boy named Daniel, living in post-war Barcelona, who comes into the possession of a book: The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Daniel’s father takes him to get the book valued by Barcelo, who immediately tries to buy it. It turns out that this book is a rarity, along with Carax’s other novels,. Daniel refuses to sell the book, but develops an infatuation with Barcelo’s blind niece Clara. He offers to read the book to her, and together, they become engrossed in The Shadow of the Wind. However, it isn’t long before Daniel starts to recognize scenes from the novel taking place in his own life. He discovers he is being watched from afar by a mysterious figure, who also approaches Clara at close quarters as she cannot identify his face. Eventually, the mysterious figure identifies himself to Daniel as Lain Coubert – the name of a character from The Shadow of the Wind who represents the devil. Coubert also tries to purchase the book from Daniel, at any price. When Daniel refuses and asks him why he wants the book so badly, he replies, “To burn it”. As Daniel begins to dig deeper into The Shadow of the Wind and its author, he begins to unravel a story that has been buried for years.

I know it’s a cliché, but this book genuinely hooks you from the beginning. I’ve been tuckered out all week after many a late night reading it, because I’m a real party animal like that. So I really recommend you get in amongst this excellent book. I imagine it’s like taking crack for reading and nerds.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

 ImageThere’s always a daft children’s film version of this knocking around at Christmas with Andre the Giant in one of the lead roles (jokes), but it isn’t anywhere near as good as the book. The book is absolutely mental – like a romantic fantasy comedy rave. The main story is often interrupted by the author having a little chat about his characters and the plot – which is usually annoying. However, the author here is William Goldman, the screenwriter who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. So he’s good. As in double Oscar-winning good.

The main story begins by introducing us to Buttercup – the most beautiful woman in the land. She lives on a farm with her parents and their stable boy Westley. After initially verbally abusing Westley and being incredibly mean, Buttercup decides that she is madly in love with him. She’s a bit of an odd one, and behaves erratically throughout the novel. After Buttercup proclaims her love for Westley he leaves the farm to go and earn some cash so they can live happily ever after. However, Buttercup then receives word that Westley’s ship was attacked by pirates, and believes him to be dead. She slips into a depression and dramatically declares that she will never fall in love again. Time passes and eventually Buttercup accepts the proposal of Prince Humperdinck – the most powerful man in the kingdom. Little does she know that Humperdinck is a massive psychopath (and probably my favourite character, he is well and truly appalling and such a great villain). One of Humperdinck’s favourite hobbies is capturing animals to put in his Zoo of Death, an elaborate menagerie made up of the deadliest animals in the world. But just before their wedding Buttercup is kidnapped by a trio of criminals. It is a race against time for a masked hero to save Buttercup from the double danger of her kidnappers and Prince Humperdinck.

The story is kind of a satire of your regular fairytale. The princess is a right weirdo, the prince is bat shit crazy, people die, there’s loads of violence, and Goldman repeatedly smashes the fourth wall. For a light read that shouldn’t be taken seriously, this is a great little story.

Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah

ImageThis story has all the archetypal characters of a Brother’s Grimm fairytale: an evil stepmother, a browbeaten father, spoilt siblings and a neglected daughter. However, this is a true story and sadly there is no fairy godmother to come and save the day.

I first read the kids version of this book, Chinese Cinderella, in my early teens, and I was equally hooked and horrified by it. I don’t know why, but I   remembered reading it just the other day – and thought it was about time to read the grown ups version, Falling Leaves, the full autobiography of Adeline Yen Mah.

Shortly after her birth in Tianjin (China), Jun-ling’s mother dies from a fever and Jun-ling is fated to be the outcast for the rest of her life after bringing such terrible luck on the family. Jun-ling’s father remarries a beautiful young woman half his age named Jeanne, who gives all her new stepchildren fashionable European names. As Jun-ling becomes Adeline, so begins Jeanne’s tyrannical hold over every aspect of Adeline’s young life.

I wouldn’t usually recommend books about child abuse to friends and family, as they’re usually incredibly upsetting to read. As important as it is to know about some of the awful things that go on in the world, Dave Peltzer’s A Child Called It just made me sick to the stomach. Falling Leaves is however, very different from anything else I’ve read in this category. For a start, Adeline’s abuse continued way into her adulthood, and is predominantly a cruel maze of mind games and psychological bullying. The author also provides cultural and social context, and explains how China’s modern history had an impact on her life – (I didn’t have a clue about any of this and it turns out China’s pretty interesting).

The clear hard facts of Adeline’s story are compelling enough, but the emotional anguish she describes makes you start to understand how she coped with her circumstances. I’m probably making this book sound really worthy. It isn’t. It actually comes across as incredibly honest. We also come to learn that Adeline’s passion was always writing, and she originally wanted to study literature (although because that wasn’t part of her father’s plan, she was sent away to do medicine instead). The writer definitely comes through in this story, making it personal, heart breaking and triumphant all at the same time.  

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

ImageI’ve chosen an old favourite for this post because I’m currently struggling through Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, and it’s totally killing my buzz. Consequently, it will not be making it onto this the blog (not that Heller would have particularly cared I’m sure, what with the international recognition by the distinguished literary community and so on).

Anyway, back to Hamlet. I only started really loving this play after accidentally taking a drama module at Uni called ‘Performing Shakespeare’. During our first class, after the lecturer had turned off all the lights and made us breathe heavily on each other to create an atmosphere, my initial thoughts were ‘Bollocks. What have I done?’ But after I’d chilled out about the excessive amount of physical contact and drama students getting all handsy with each other – it actually really started to bring everything to life for me.

The play begins with the Ghost of Hamlet’s father telling his son that he was murdered by Claudius; Hamlet’s uncle and the usurper of the throne of Denmark. You’ll already know the basic plot outline, it’s exactly the same as The Lion King. Hamlet is already pretty pissed off because Claudius has gone and married Hamlet’s mum. Meanwhile, Claudius, concerned with Hamlet’s strange behaviour, has enlisted the help of Hamlet’s mates and girlfriend to spy on him. So you can imagine with all this going on, Hamlet’s going a little bit barmy. When some actors come to town, Hamlet decides to stage a play that he believes will prove his uncle’s guilt. At the crucial point, Claudius storms out of the performance, and Hamlet gleefully concludes he must be guilty. Unfortunately, Hamlet accidentally stabs his girlfriend’s father who is suspiciously hiding behind a curtain and Claudius leaps at the opportunity to banish him to England. OK, this is where things get a bit crazy – so deep breath and here we go. While Hamlet is in exile his girlfriend Ophelia drowns herself, driven mad with grief at the loss of her father. Claudius convinces her brother Laertes that Hamlet is to blame for the death of his entire family. Hamlet returns to Denmark after his ship is attacked by pirates on the way to England and he manages to escape. Claudius sets up a duel between Laertes and Hamlet so they can have it out, but he gives Laertes a poisoned blade. Laertes wounds Hamlet, but then also kind of stabs himself and dies. Hamlet’s Mum drinks some poison that Claudius intended for Hamlet and dies. Hamlet stabs Claudius and forces him to drink the rest of the poison until Claudius dies. Then Hamlet dies. Some Norwegian chap enters at the last minute and declares he will be taking over the Danish throne. WHAAAAAAAA?!

Yeah, it’s a bit full on when it’s written on paper. But I absolutely love, love, love this play. For my final project in the drama module, I decided to build Hamlet’s bedroom. I made him a Facebook page, sorted out his DVD collection, put Nirvana posters on the wall, cluttered his room with fags and sprayed Lynx everywhere. My interpretation was that Hamlet is, at his most basic level, just an overgrown stroppy teenager who still lives with his Mum aged 30 (and let’s face it, they’re all crackers). He is impulsive, reflective, erratic and most definitely the character who makes this play for me.

Disgrace by J.M Coetzee

ImageI went to South Africa with work for the first time a few months ago. We were heavily chaperoned by the production company, who had booked us into a string of fancy pants hotels in Cape Town, Pilanesberg and Johannesburg (the kind where you get free fruit in your room – win!). It was the dream shoot, and I loved every minute of it. Even the getting up at 4am everyday bit…that was good too. Sort of.  But despite all the molly coddling and glamorous experience we were treated to, you couldn’t ignore the politics and dare I say ‘racial tension’ after speaking to the locals and some of the crew (this was probably times a bajillion given that the day we landed was the day Mandela died). I felt the same reading Disgrace, as if there was some other feeling bubbling constantly beneath the words.

Set in post-apartheid Cape Town, the novel introduces us to David Lurie, a white professor at the university who is dismissed after (somewhat forcibly) seducing one of his black students. (Forgive me for mentioning race at this stage, but it’s relevant.) David goes to stay with his daughter, who lives on a remote farm running a dog kennel. He occasionally assists Bev at the Animal Shelter putting the dogs to sleep and helps Lucy’s neighbour Petrus with odd jobs. Life bumbles on as David comes to terms with his disgrace, until one day, David and Lucy are attacked at her farm by three black men. David is set on fire, Lucy’s kennel dogs are killed and Lucy is gang-raped – but refuses to press charges. The real strain arises when it becomes clear that Petrus is good friends with Lucy’s attacker, and things might not quite be what they seem.

There’s a lot of tricky racial tension going on here. The novel begins with a white man abusing his power over a black girl, and then a white girl and her father are physically abused by three black men. I’m not going to try and comment on what the author is getting at as I’m far too politically ignorant – but I do find this shift interesting given that the novel is post-apartheid.

After Mandela’s death there were fears that there would be racially driven riots, as revenge for years of black oppression, and the so-called ‘racial power transfer’ seemed to be a very current topic. Although this novel is a bit serious, it is none the less thought-provoking and an incredible bit of writing. If you need any more convincing to give it a go, J.M Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years after its publication.

Antigone by Sophocles

ImageRemember the guy who murdered his Dad, married his Mum then stabbed his own eyes out? Yep, Oedipus complex, Sigmund Freud bla bla bla. Well, Antigone is Oedipus’ daughter. So it’s only fitting that this family tradition of horrible tragedy continue, because the Ancient Greeks were all over that.

Antigone is the last of the Theban plays (although apparently it was written first, a bit like Star Wars). The reason I’m recommending this one over the others is simply that I find it the most interesting (especially as the story of Oedipus is so well known, which is the subject of the first two plays).

Upon Oedipus’ death it was agreed that Antigone’s brothers would take it in turns to rule Thebes, with each of them assuming the throne every other year. However, when it’s Polynices turn, Eteocles refuses to step down. Polynices leads his army on Thebes and both brothers end up killing each other during the battle. The throne falls to Antigone’s uncle, and general bastard in this whole story, Creon. The new king orders that Eteocles should have an honourable burial, but Polynices should be left to rot, and that anyone who attempts to bury him will be put to death. Talk about favouritism. Predictably, Antigone tries to bury Polynices (if she hadn’t the whole thing would have been a bit of an anti-climax). To complicate things even further, Antigone is engaged to Creon’s son, Haemon (because apparently that sort of cousin thing was cool back then). And so the play descends into a series of violent suicides and the usual grisly mess. Personally, I think the Oedipus clan would have benefited from a few rounds on The Jeremy Kyle Show, but I suppose he wasn’t around back then. As grossly over the top as this play is, it is such an interesting story.

The language is much more straightforward than Shakespeare. There’s no trickery or multiple levels of meaning. It’s just something a bit different, and in my opinion, a really interesting read.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Peter Suskind

343“Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”

If ever there was someone you WOULD NOT want as a housemate, it’s the main protagonist of this novel: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He’d be the slinky anti-social type, who kept himself to himself and listened to a lot of Coldplay. There would be many an awkward meeting in the corridors, because he’d somehow find eye contact uncomfortable. You wouldn’t leave him alone with the house hamster. He’d keep dishes in his room for no apparent reason, and he wouldn’t take the bins out. But then those are the sorts of nightmarish qualities you might expect from a slightly weird serial killer.

The whole novel has quite an odd feel to it, like you’re constantly in the presence of said weird housemate character. Grenouille is abandoned by his mother at birth, discarded on the floor of a fish market. The mother is consequently put to death for her crime (death being a fate reserved for all of the characters who attempt to abandon Grenouille). As he grows up, Grenouille discovers that he has an incredible sense of smell. But upon discovering that he himself has no scent, he sets out on a devastating mission to possess the most beautiful scent in the world.

At the centre of the whole story is a quest, as the protagonist attempts to piece himself into a being. Even more interesting are the peculiar characters he meets along the way. Then of course there is that bit of strange magic at play, with Grenouille’s super-human sense of smell, that serves to compound the sense of foreboding and intrigue throughout. An absolutely cracking read.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

ImageThe horror films that really creep me out are usually the ones that feature cute little kids with throaty adult voices. A malevolent devil masquerading as a pig-tailed bumpkin with rosy cheeks. But those sorts of characters are firmly rooted in the make believe. The character we encounter in this novel, as disturbing as it is, could very well appear on the front page tomorrow. And it’s as shocking as it is mesmerising.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a story about a teenage boy responsible for a high school massacre, which although is fictitious in this instance, isn’t a far cry from the Columbine or Connecticut tragedies. The chilling tale is told by the boy’s mother, Eva, through a series of letters written to her estranged husband and Kevin’s father. As she searches for answers regarding what exactly would drive her son to mass murder, we get the sense that we are reading the words of an unreliable narrator – which only adds to the intrigue.

Questions around blame and culpability are indirectly raised, as Eva considers issues around parenting, and whether evil can be innate even in a child. It’s gripping, completely believable and hugely unsettling. Unlike many film adaptations I’ve seen, I feel that the film adaptation of this novel is absolutely bang on. However, reading the novel gives you all the intricacies and details of a family torn apart by this horrendous event, and beyond. It builds tension in a way that a 2 hour film couldn’t. It examines the relationship between a repulsive son, and a mother who never wanted to have any children in the first place (and after reading about this little bastard I can’t say I blame her).

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

ImageAhead of its release in the cinemas, I wanted to post about how much I loved The Book Thief.

The novel is narrated by Death, who in my opinion is a brilliant compere for a book set in Nazi Germany.  The title character is in fact a young girl called Liesel who is sent to live with a fierce foster mother and a gentle foster father during WW2. After her brother dies on the train journey to her new foster home, Liesel steals her first book, which has been dropped in the snow – and it is from this point that Death tells her story.

The descriptions are beautiful, and Death consistently checks himself, peppering Liesel’s story with little asides such as ‘A Re-Assuring Announcement’ and ‘A Small Theory’. As the narrator, he is portrayed as not entirely confident, a little unsure about the way of human life, and above all deeply empathetic with human struggle. In short, Death is incredibly endearing.

Although Liesel is the main plot focus for this book, I’ll leave you with a short exert from Death’s description of a German town, because I think it’s stunning writing and will hopefully be a good taster. I really urge you to read the novel before you see the film, because it would be such a shame to miss out on written descriptions like this:

“The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked amongst the redness.Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.Then, bombs.”

Watership Down by Richard Adams

ImageI used to think rabbits were shit. We’ve had several, and there was only one I actually liked, because it was a badass who used to escape all the time and chill on the lawn. I reckon Monty would have fit right in with the crew at Watership Down.

You’ve probably been traumatised by the film adaptation of this novel on at least one occasion during your childhood. But don’t let that stop you reading because the book is joyous. Reading it for the first time as an adult I think only enhanced my enjoyment, because I sort of ‘got’ that the rabbits had a secret language and they didn’t understand the human world.
The story goes something like this. The slightly clairvoyant rabbit Fiver predicts that the warren is in great danger, and implores his friend Hazel to evacuate as many rabbits from the warren as he can.  Hazel breaks away from the warren and leads a group of rabbits away. True to Fiver’s premonition, the warren is destroyed by men who (rather horrifically gas all the rabbits). Hazel must now lead the homeless rabbits, so they can establish a new warren elsewhere.

The main plot is broken up by some of the ‘folk tales’ the rabbits like to tell each other, and snippets from other pieces of literature at the start of every chapter – which feels all very charming. But there’s a lot of violence and angst around the structure of the rabbit’s society, which tips the novel into something more than a children’s book. Generally it feels like quite a creative way of writing animal literature (certainly for its time at least). The bonds between some of the rabbits are lovely (as you might expect), which brings an overall warmth to the story.