Sunday, 29 November 2009

Hotel World by Ali Smith

Hotel World is less of a novel, and more of a collection of interlinked short stories but that doesn't make it any less brilliant. As you can probably tell, I really, really liked this! I wasn't sure I would, it was supposed to be the book I dipped in and out of at spare moments but it was impossible to put down once I'd started!

It is the stories of five different people who have a connection with the Global Hotel in one particular town. We have a Polly, a self absorbed hotel guest, Lise, the receptionist, a homeless girl who begs outside the hotel but does spend the night in a hotel room, a girl who died in an accident in the hotel and the dead girl's sister. Throughout the novel the slight connections between the five people are gradually revealed through the narratives of each person. All the narratives are told in the first person, and simply through the language used to characterise them we get a really in-depth character study, in what are actually quite short narratives.

It is the dead girl we hear from first, and it was her narrative that I found most interesting. She's obviously been dead for a while, and is aware she is fading from the world.

"Hurry up. Sleep is coming. The colours are going. I saw that the traffic was colourless today......I saw the places where green used to be. I saw almost no reds, and no blues at all. I will miss red. I will miss red and green."

So we learn about her death from her own perspective, although at one point she goes down into her body underground, and that's when she has most clarity. As her disembodied self, she is forgetting words and events. She is most concerned that she cannot remember the word for heated bread! I loved the idea of body and soul being separate, and the clarity only coming when they are re-united.

Words and language are used to define each of the characters in this book. The dead girl is losing her language as she loses herself. it is almost as if identity is created by language, and language created by identity. A homeless girl doesn't use language and herself says she has no need for vowels. She talks in a very shortened form, the most common being 'sp sm ch' for spare some change.

"She imagines the pavement littered with all the letters that fall out of the half words she uses (she doesn't need the whole words)"

This girl is almost as much as out of society as the dead girl, although very much alive. Her position as homeless and jobless means she doesn't need to use language, as she has no real identity. This theme continues with the receptionist who falls sick and cannot find the language to fill in the forms she needs, and the self obsessed journalist, but she uses words to create her identity. She is nothing without her job, and if she can't think of the words to write she has no identity either!

The different characters in the story are all expressed and described through the language they use, and none more so than the dead girl's sister, whose whole chapter is written without punctuation. This makes it tough to read, but does give an insight into her state of mind following her sisters death, more than any descriptive prose could.

I also loved the idea of everything in this book being interconnected. As I said earlier, these connections are introduced gradually, with each character coming into contact with the other characters, and eventually we know how they all impact on each other. It is only small, fleeting events, but they have a huge effect on lives. It was a brilliant book, and all these complex inter-personal relationships are set against the backdrop of a global hotel chain, where the main boast is that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, a Global hotel would be the same. It's definitely a not so subtle way of commenting that commercialism and familiarity doesn't and can't replace individuality and small acts of kindness between strangers.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Emotionally weird=One Strange Book! And I had to start like that because I don't really know what else to say about it. I usually start with a brief plot summary, but there isn't really one in this book. Its a literature student recounting the events of a few weeks of her life at university to her mother, and at the same time trying to convince her mother to tell her the story of her life. and details of her parentage, which has always been a mystery to her.

The confusion Effie feels is quite understandable when her mother tells her she is a virgin, therefore not really her mother! And her father is unknown, or so she has always been led to believe. And to top it all off, her mother also reveals that her grandmother is not who she thought she was either. So whilst family details are the story that Effie is trying to extract from her mother, Effie is telling the story of her life at Dundee university. This is in fact the main portion of the book. During the short time she recounts she seems to lead quite an eventful life, peopled by lots of eccentric and odd characters. There are the odd group of friends, all writing novels, her layabout boyfriend, who is supposedly studying with her, but never attends lectures and spends his life quoting Star Trek, various quirky lecturers, and a private detective who seems to appear randomly and take Effie off on some odd adventures.

Just to add to the confusion, the story is interspersed with extracts from at least three different stories, these being the novels written for the creative writing class, including Effie's own attempt at a detective story. All these stories interlinked make for a confusing read, but the strands do come together in the end, and it becomes easier to follow which particular story we are reading at the moment.

But even Effie's narration of her life at Dundee is called into question as truth or fiction (probably somewhere inbetween). On various occasions her mother interrupts her to question her narrative, and Effie responds by saying its her story so she can do what she likes. She even writes two possible outcomes for a couple of occasions in the book. So although everything is tied together in the end, I was left questioning how much of the story is true, how much was elaborated and how much just made up. In fact this seems to be the second book like this I've reviewed this week. Start of a theme perhaps? Possibly, because I think I've got another one on the Library pile with that running through it too!

In essence it is a book full of stories, stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell each other, stories for both a public and private audience. It was really thought provoking and made me think but I'm struggling to do it justice here, possibly because everything was so interlaced it is difficult to write about. It was good though!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Library Books!!!!

Just a quick one today! Just thought I'd post a picture of my latest lot of library books. These were all picked off the shelves, some I wanted to read and some just total random picks. I probably shouldn't have got quite as many because I still have a huge list of requests to come in and it would be just my luck that they will all come in together! Hmmm.
Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gower- Random pick and the more I look at, the less sure I am I will read this!
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks-I've wanted to read more Brooks ever since I read and loved Year of Wonders
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters-I wanted Affinity, but this was the only one on the shelves.
Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke- This one is actually from Dylan's school library as the waiting list at my library is huge. Very kind of him to get it for me don't you think?
Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory-Totally random, about rationing. Just looked interesting.
Not the end of the World by Kate Atkinson-Saw this on the shelves and it's one of only two of hers I haven't read yet.
Roads Ahead edited by Catherine O Flynn- Totally random. I'm always drawn to short stories!
Nine Nights by Bernard Carvalho-Again, totally random.
More random stuff in there than there usually is, but that's mainly because requests hadn't come in so there's lots of space on my library ticket!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Testament of Gideon Mack

Gideon mack is a church minister in Scotland who disappeared into the mountains one day and never returned, presumed dead, and this was confirmed when his body was found months later. However, this was not his first brush with death. Shortly before his disappearance, he fell into a gorge trying to rescue his fellow ministers dog, and showed up three days later, utterly convinced he spent the time in a cave with the devil, who rescued him, healed him and sent him back out into the world.

Written almost entirely by Gideon Mack as his testament to what happened before he disappeared for good, this does come across as if he is writing what actually happened. The only sections not penned by Gideon are the prologue and the epilogue. The prologue is written by a publisher who wants to publish the manuscript, and the epilogue is a series of interviews with the other characters in the novel to try and establish his state of mind. As he was obviously considered to be insane, or at least going through some kind of mental breakdown.

This is not spoiling any plot or suspense as we are told all this fairly early on in the novel. Gideon's manuscript itself does not just deal with these events though, it covers his whole life, from his childhood through his adolescent and university years and on to more recent events. He has a quite austere, religious upbringing with a devout, minister father and rebels against this, but ends up following in his father's footsteps, even though for the majority of the novel he professes not to believe in God, but in community. Not a bad ethos for a small town minister I thought. He has some tragedies along the way, one in particular which may have shaped the way his life panned out.

The strange events that happen in the latter part of his life begin when he sees a standing stone in the woods he runs through that no-one else can see. Although, he does doubt himself so he never actually gets around to taking anyone to see it! But he does try and take a picture which doesn't develop, although this was on a very old film, so it is not clear whether it is stone eluding visual capture or a faulty film. This is in fact the essence of this story. Was he mad, imagining things, or having a breakdown which would be the more rational, normal explanation, or did he in fact meet the devil? It's left ambiguous, there are aspects of his disappearance that can't be explained, but also things stated in the epilogue about other events in his life that don't tie in with what he writes about. In the end he is an unreliable narrator, narrating an unbelievable tale, but that doesn't make it wrong. That's what I was left thinking anyway. The ambiguity is actually what I really liked about this book. It would have been disappointing if it had all been tied up with it either being a supernatural explanation, or a question of mental illness. I thought it did sway slightly more in one direction than the other, but it was left open.

However, if this book was just about Gideon Mack it wouldn't be as good. What adds to the readability and interest of this is the other characters. His best friends, John and Elsie, who grow ever more exasperated with him, although try to be understanding. The Dogmatic Church council who didn't like his methods before his experience, and took legal action against him once he went public. But most interesting for me was his relationship with the elderly Catherine Craigie, an atheist and local scholar who request some very specific and controversial funeral arrangements, carried out by Mack himself after his meeting with the devil.

All in all, I liked this book. But then I do like things with a religious slant, particularly if its questioning religion.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Incendiary by Chris Cleave

Incendiary is based around a fictional terrorist attack in London, although the narrative is written entirely as a letter to Osama Bin laden by a mother who lost her husband and son in the bomb. Not really a promising start for a novel, but it was fantastic. I was looking forward to reading this as soon as I read The Other Hand, and I'd have to say I thought this was slightly better. It has the same ability to delve deep into characters personal emotions as well as making social comments on today's society. It takes a fictional situation but shows what could quite realistically happen.

The terrorist attack in question is a bomb in a football stadium, obviously on match day. The horror and realism that this is described is a horrific thing to read, and even more horrific because it is told in the first person, as she manages to sneak into the stadium and sees the dead and dying, and ripped and shredded flesh. From this point on, she degenerates rapidly, never getting the help she needs to deal with her grief, both from the people who are supposed to help her and from the people she attaches herself too. In fact when she is recovering from her injuries in hospital, they seem more concerned about making the place look good for a royal visit than than patient welfare.

The whole tone of the novel is set up from the first paragraph, which i think is probably the best first paragraph I've ever read. Well perhaps that's a bit sweeping, but I definitely can't think of a better one right now!

"Dear Osama, they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop. Well I wouldn't know about that I mean rock n roll didn't stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse. next thing you know there was Sonny and Cher and Dexy's Midnight Runners. I'll come to them later. My point is it's easier to start these things than to finish them. I suppose you thought of that did you?"

That got me gripped, and then my second favourite paragraph comes on the second page and shows raw emotion on a personal level.

"I'm going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape he leaves behind. I want you to feel that hole in your heart and stroke it with your hands and cut your fingers on its sharp edges. I am a mother Osama I just want you to love my son."

The bereaved mother is nowhere near perfect and she admits this herself. She's unfaithful, and occasionally leaves her son alone to go to the pub. But somehow she's likable, and her pain and torment is totally believable and seems to come out through her words. As her mental state degenerates throughout the book, she never loses our sympathy, although some of the people she associates with, who even claim to be trying to help her could be seen as reprehensible. The book does push the boundaries of what could happen, and in my opinion gets slightly unrealistic at the end, with the last few scenes seeming totally unreal, but I don't think that really matters. By this point, revelations about the attack have tipped her over the edge, and it is possible to believe she would think anything was a good idea!

But as well as a brilliant character study of a grief stricken mother, this book makes a not so subtle statement about what could happen when a country tries to stamp out terrorism and goes to extreme measures to achieve this. We get institutionalised racism, curfews, bridge closures, barrage balloons and other protective measures to try and make a nation feel safe. And the futility of all this is seen through the eyes of this bereaved mother, in a mental fragile state, yet we still see a more rational point of view from her. With relation to the bridge closures, she says

“I never did work out how that was meant to help. Maybe they thought it would demoralise your Clapham cell Osama if they had to go via the M25 to bomb Chelsea."

Which brings me on to the my last point about this story. It, like The Other hand, manages to bring humour into what is quite a horrific scenario. It's another one where I thought i shouldn't be laughing, but some of the comments she makes are quite humorous, as well as insightful. Brilliant book, and I would recommend it to anyone.