Wednesday, 31 July 2013

And the Mountains Echoed - Khaled Hosseini including rather surprisingly Maeve Binchy and Victoria Hislop!

Well I finished the book which at one point seemed unlikely. I was surprised when I was informed we were reviewing this book. We have already reviewed A Thousand Splendid Suns and from memory I believed most of the group had also read The Kite Runner which meant a full house for Hosseinis novels. Let me start by saying I absolutely loved Kite Runner (I cried) and I very much liked Splendid Suns so I approached with this with slight intrepidation as surely the high standards of Runner and Splendid could not be equalled a third time. (They will be called Kite and Sun next so keep up) Initially it appeared as though it was going to be identical to the other two books – a poverty stricken family in Afghanistan, with two children as the main characters where something heart breaking happens to them early on. Sound familiar? I must admit I was a little disappointed at this stage. I had read and loved two versions of Afghanistan heart break, I didn’t want to read another. How wrong was I though! After believing we would spend the rest of the book following Abdullah and Pari and their no doubt tales of woe (would he accidently kill her? Would he be sucked in to the war and tragically killed before being reunited with her? (you get the picture)) the two vanished from our pages never to be seen again. Well not for pages and pages and pages anyway. The book became a collection of intertwined short stories, skipping backwards and forwards in time and continents. I’m not a fan of short stories. My main exposure to them has been Maeve Binchy (RIP) but whereas Binchy had the sense to call her books a collection of short stories and set each one in a separate Chapter Hosseini tried to paint his as one story leaving the reader confused, and frustrated. Binchy effortlessly intertwines her characters, you know instantly who is who. Hosseini needed 3 or 4 pages for you to catch up which you don’t want to be doing every third chapter or so. It is such a shame as once you are up to speed with who is who you fall for the characters, you fight for them as Hosseini really is such a wonderful story teller and character builder. There were just large portions of the book though that you felt were page fillers (the Doctors mother over in Greece with Thalia for example?). Although they were lovely to read, once you had stepped back you found yourself saying why did he put that in? How do they push the plot along? I found myself during the meeting comparing the book to Victoria Hislops, either The Return or The Island as they were similar, dip in and out with various characters over a number of years. However with her books there was a definite sense of purpose driving the plot forward with a reduced number of characters. I think with Hosseini we were two thirds of the way through and still meeting new characters. I kind of got that with each short story he wanted to deliver a particular message, there just didn’t seem to be an overall one. I particularly related to the cousin who was a Doctor who met the girl over in Afghanistan and came home wanting to heal her. Although obviously I have never been in that position I have come home from holidays feeling I didn’t fit in and wanted something different only for the effect to wear off after a few weeks of being home. We all loved the Jin story right at the beginning of the book – I could have had a whole book on that. There was also one beautiful quote from Pari towards the end of the book where she described her adoptive mother as giving Pari a spade with which she was expected to fill up the endless holes her mother had (sorry paraphrasing).I could go on as there are lots of individual examples of Hosseini showing how good a writer he is, again it just didn’t, for me, come together. One member of the group believed the book did have an overall theme - to explain how much of a global effect the Afghanistan troubles had. How natives scattered and rebuilt their lives all over the world. However I’m not sure about this as a message as a lot of the Characters we followed didn’t leave because of Afghanistan’s troubles (indeed Nabi and Pari’s adopted father stayed until they died) and I’m not sure it went into enough depth to have this as the message. I also questioned whether the book was trying to say everyone is bad in some way. The new leader of Shagbad who was doing lots of good had previously stolen everyones land, Nabi arranged the adoption of Pari so he could seduce her adoptive mother, even the Doctor who moved over to Afghanistan to help was a rubbish son to his mother. So many of the characters didn’t go on to better things – one of the Cousins was a gangster, Pari’s adopted mother was a drunk. Abdullah in the end suffered from some sort of dementia. If Hosseini was trying to paint everyone in a bad light – why? We did keep coming back to talk about the book during the meeting which is unusual for us (sometimes we struggle to come up with anything to say other than who is going on holiday where) and I love books that give so much discussion. We didn’t think Hosseini had another book in him about Afghanistan. Sorry that is a very abrupt statement and if you do have another one in the pipeline Hosseini please don’t throw it in the bin on our account! It would be interesting to see though what direction his next book (and I am sure there will be one) will take. I think we all agreed that the feather was a bit of a let-down in the end. I wasn’t disappointed that Abdullah didn’t remember Pari and they didn’t get their happy ending (in fact I quite liked it as life isn’t always like that and it linked back to the jinn story where the father forgot) but I think Hosseini wanted to give the reader something and really a token that Pari didn’t even remember fell a bit short. A couple of us in the book club really really loved the book giving it a 9 and I can understand why as he really is a brilliant story teller and paints such lovely characters. However I think this one missed the mark. I was left disappointed that it wasn’t a heart breaker (hypocrite I know) and that there wasn’t more of an overall story. If we in our group totally missed the point and you are screaming your way through this blog shouting ‘ITS OBVIOUS WHAT THE STORY WAS’ then please comment. I would love to hear your perspective and in some ways would like to be proved wrong. The book ended up with a 7 (or was it a 7.5?). With the exception of about two of our members I think we would all say do read Hosseini. Two of the best books I’ve read in a long time are by him, just not this one. Next one The Affair by Gill Paul.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey

I missed this meeting as I was moving house. Looking back, this blog is also a really good way to record my momentous moments (second child, turning 30, moving house. Wonder what's next?)

I give the book a 7. I found it really easy to read and liked the fact the author left Fania open to interpretation as to whether she was real or made from snow. Whilst I liked the idea of the possibility that Fania was magical, I think coming down on this side for definite would have lost a few fans. I know when I was initially describing the book to people at the last meeting there were a few raised eyebrows when I explained that a childless couple make a snow child that comes to life but I'm pleased we stuck with it as trust me, its not that far fetched.

I also liked the way the book intertwined with the fairy tale that Mabel kept reading. I had a very vivid image of the book and really wanted to read it.

I think with this book that there was a main message to decide on - did the couple only settle and become happy once a child had entered their life (and therefore is the author saying a couple can only be happy if they have children?) or did they only settle and become happy once they had made friends with their neighbours?

I think the latter as they were prepared to leave even when the knew about Fania when Jack hurt his back until the neighbours showed up, moved in and helped them. At this point Mabel starts to write more to her sister and her letters are big events back home, she also starts to help around the farm which I think is instrumental. At the beginning of the book Mabel thought she was worthless - she couldn't have a child, she was no longer needed to bake for the hotel, she couldn't help her husband doing work that was slowly killing him, she couldn't even break the ice on the river to kill herself. Working on the farm I think was therefore the turning point for her.

Whilst I do think it was the neighbours friendship that saved Jack and Mabel in Alaska (sorry I can't remember their names!) I do think that Fania helped Jack shoot the moose. I think she was present in the woods at that point and somehow led/influenced him to it.

If you agree with me that the couple only settled once they made friends then I think the motto of the book is we can't survive in isolation, life is better with friends. We also have to have a sense of purpose in life. Good motto to have!
I wasn't sure about Garrett and Fania. Did Fania deliberately tempt him, is this why she was suddenly seen by the neighbours despite years of avoidance? If true why? It's not clear cut as she was very innocent in some ways (didn't know about being pregnant until Mabel told her) yet I do believe that it was Fania who pursued Garrett and not the other way round.
How symbolic was the swan - Fania trapped and killed this powerful thing of beauty then dressed as a swan on her wedding day. Was this supposed to mean that she was now the swan and that Garrett was now trapping her? Did she think when she was ill that it was somehow Garrett or the baby who was killing her and so made her escape?

Fania's end is very open to interpretation and again I liked this - it didn't come down strongly either way on whether she was magical or not. It was in some way a surprise that she didn't come back at all but equally you just didn't expect her and Garrett to have a perfect happy ending. The snow child had to return to the snow. Yes, I found myself humming along to Walking in the Air at serveral points! Although let me set this straight it was not in anyway a Christmas book.

I loved the descriptive element to the book. I've never been to Alaska yet had really vivid pictures of the surroundings. I loved how the author went in to detail about the food, the hardships, the work and even the snow - how it was beautiful yet deadly.

I found the book really easy to read despite it being a bit slow in points. The group agreed with my score and also gave it a 7. It's unique and certainly isn't just a rehashed version of a popular 'of the moment' book  (I'm sure there are now 50 versions of 50 shades and how many secret religious symbol books have I read since Dan Brown!)

Sorry if blog is short and sweet this month however I wanted to get it posted before next meeting which is on Thursday (I'm only half way through so better get a move on!)

Next book And the Mountains Echoed - Khaled Mosseini