52 Books in 2013 – August Update

I doubt that any of you do, but those of you who follow me on GoodReads will probably have been under the impression that I’ve been slacking this month – but in truth, I actually just totally forgot to update the bastard thing.  I’ve been hitting the books in between all the sleeping and eating, and as we’re well past the halfway mark now, here’s my update for August…

Odd_Thomas_20041Book 30: Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

I love a good murder. No wait, that doesn’t sound right, does it? I like a good murder mystery, then. I picked up Odd Thomas at The Works (don’t tell Waterstones!) and finally decided to give it a read, and I can’t really figure out my feelings.  On the one hand, it’s a fairly straightforward bit of supernatural fiction, centring around 20 year old Odd Thomas (first name ‘Odd’, surname ‘Thomas’), a young short-order cook who just happens to be able to see ghosts.  On the other hand, it’s kind of cheesy – practically every chapter ends with a sort of cliff-hanger where Odd senses that something terrible is on its way, and with the chapters coming in at around an average of 5 or 6 pages, it made me wonder whether this was purely a stylistic choice or a device to keep the reader interested just in case the plot wasn’t enough.  Odd sees ghosts and foreboding entities which he refers to as ‘bodachs’; these ‘bodachs’ inform Odd of impending doom and violence, and the bigger the congregation, the greater the brutality.  So when he encounters a man in his restaurant with the largest following of bodachs he has ever seen, it sets the scene for a series of events that looks set to tear the town apart.  I find it hard to review books with mystery elements in them, because I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who plans to read it, but I will say that there is a nice balance between supernatural and horror moments, as well as some well-paced action sequences thrown in for good measure.

There are many weird (though I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘wonderful’) characters, including Odd’s Elvis-obsessed friend and mentor Terri, and his unrealistically perfect girlfriend Stormy.  In fact, Odd’s (or indeed Koontz’s) lengthy descriptions of Stormy are one of the things that I didn’t enjoy about the book, as they are overly sentimental and schmaltzy.  I would recommend the book if you’re looking for a crime/thriller novel that isn’t going to hurt your brain.

9780752493312_1Book 31: Jack the Ripper: The Terrible Legacy by The Whitechapel Society

Keeping on the same sort of subject matter, the second book for August was the one that our book club read in preparation for a talk by the authors of this book.  In fact, only one of the authors actually delivered a talk and it was unfortunately one of the less interesting chapters of the book.

Here we have a collection of essays on Jack the Ripper, coming from the angle of the victims, although at the start we are told that they have widened the definition of ‘victim’ to include anybody who was effected in any way by the murders in 1888. That means the police officers whose careers suffered, the families of the murdered women, their neighbours – even actors who were starring in plays at the same time as the murders were committed.  To me, the links seemed pretty tenuous and despite my interest in Jack the Ripper I didn’t think that the book would be very interesting, if I’m completely honest.  However, I found that it was very easy to get through – at just under 100 pages, it was never going to be difficult, really, but I particularly liked that the essays themselves were relatively short and well-paced, covering different perspectives on the historical context of the murders, although one of the chapters seemed to basically be the history of Ireland with a link to the 1888 murders in the final paragraph so tenuous that I had to check that I was still reading the same book.

I commend the research that went into this book, and it is clear that the contributors are all really passionate about the history of not just these crimes but of London at the time.  There are frequent comparisons to the film portrayals of the crimes, which can sometimes be a little redundant but in the case of this book, it highlighted the way that certain depictions of characters (such as Inspector Abberline) in various fictional reconstructions and retellings of the murders become fused with historical fact, and the authors try to stick to the facts without glamourising the lives of those involved.  I will admit I was hoping that this book would include a little more on the background of the victims (in the classic sense of the word), but I was impressed with what the Whitechapel Society had to offer.

imagesBook 32: The Book of Evidence by John Banville

Here’s a book I’d attempted to read in the past as a teenager, but couldn’t get through the first couple of pages without getting worn out. The Book of Evidence is the story of Frederick Montgomery, an Irish scientist who has spent several years living the high-life with his wife and son.  When he gets himself into some trouble after taking out a loan and trying to blackmail his way out of it, he ends up fleeing back to Ireland and moving into his childhood home where his finds that his mother has sold his beloved art collection, which triggers a strong reaction in him.

We know from the first page that Frederick is guilty of murder and throughout the book it mostly seems as though he feels no remorse, but what keeps you hooked on the book is Banville’s exquisite prose.  The language he uses is so dense and poetic yet functional, giving lush descriptions of paintings and landscapes that are so vivid that after each one I found myself looking away from the book just to enjoy the image for a moment.  There’s an ease with language that I have found many Irish writers to have, and Banville is no exception.  His writing actually at times put me in mind of Nabakov’s Lolita purely because the prose is so rich, it pulls you in and forces you submit, even though after a few sentences you would do so willingly.  I’d highly recommend this book.

tumblr_m6eeo7aeqL1qk516ho1_1280Book 33: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

This is the book club choice for this month, which I chose because it was relatively short and most of the reviews of it said it was hilarious.

James Dixon is the titular Lucky Jim, a rather hapless young history lecturer whose life seems to be just one mistake or embarrassing moment after another.  His job is on the line, his boss – a doddery, forgetful, rambling old coot named Professor Welch – doesn’t seem to like him very much, based on their disastrous first encounter, and his on/off/not at all girlfriend Margaret is recovering from an apparent suicide attempt.  Over the course of the next few days, Dixon attempts to keep on the good side of Professor Welch by agreeing to attend the eccentric old man’s various gatherings and dinner parties, and also prepares for a lecture that will make or break his career at the university.  At one of these gatherings, he meets Welch’s obnoxious son Bertrand and his girlfriend Christine who is everything that Margaret is not.  Throw in Dixon’s daily dose of alcohol and his shenanigans with the other university staff, and there’s actually a lot going on in this book.

Certainly there are a few funny moments of slapstick, such as Professor Welch trying to push a revolving door in the wrong direction, or Dixon’s various facial expressions which he pulls at moments of extreme displeasure or disgust.  But I found the characters themselves to be irritating, mostly Dixon himself; basically every moment he spends with Christine sees his opinion of her swinging like a pendulum, one moment he thinks she’s brilliant, independent, a breath of fresh air, and the next he finds her insufferable and arrogant.  Meanwhile, he can’t see through the pathetic neediness of Margaret, and both women’s dialogue and characters are so poorly constructed and unrealistic that it actually annoyed me every time I saw the quotation marks coming up in a scene with them in. Mainly Margaret though, she’d have an outburst of hysterical selfishness which she’d follow moments later with a coherent deconstruction of her own behaviour, always apologising for being so excited while Dixon remained oh just so reasonable.  Shut up, idiot. I guess you could read this book, but I was bored as hell most of the time because all of the characters were annoying, so I was really happy when I finally reached the end.

the-virgin-suicidesBook 34: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

While I read Lucky Jim, I soon realised I would need something to read alongside it to make it more manageable.  So what better than a book about five sisters who all kill themselves?

I really enjoyed this book, even though the subject matter was so grave. From the blurb and the title as well as the first couple of lines in the book, we know that the young Lisbon sisters all commit suicide, but the reasons are unclear, and the novel – which is told from a first person plural perspective of the boys who grew up on the same street, lending an additional air of mystery to the story –  documents the year in the lives of the girls following the first suicide, that of the youngest daughter Cecilia.  This book reminded me in some ways of one of the other books I read this month, the John Banville novel, in that the writing has such attention to detail, and Eugenides is able to take seemingly mundane aspects of life and hold them up to show the reader that everything is significant in its own way.

It’s a tragic story with an inevitable end, and the narrators’ nostalgia for the time when they knew the girls is strong throughout the book, and I loved the little reminders throughout the book of how their adult lives had been changed by the trauma of the Lisbon sisters’ suicides when they were teenagers, and how even as grown-ups they still struggle to make sense of the whole thing.

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