The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

"We're not supposed to be friends, you and me. We're meant to be enemies. Did you know that? ”   The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

“We’re not supposed to be friends, you and me. We’re meant to be enemies. Did you know that? ” The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Apparently the first draft of this book was written in just 3 days.  I have to say that doesn’t entirely surprise me.  It’s not that I don’t think the book is good, it’s just not the sort of story which demands a whole lot of research.  It’s subject matter is pretty straightforward and it’s style is quite simplistic.  At times, it’s a bit too simplistic for my liking, written as it is from the perspective of a 9 year old German boy during WW2.  There were times when I had to remind myself that kids then were a lot more innocent and naïve than they are today, but still I felt as if Bruno, our protagonist, seemed younger than 9. SO, TELL ME BRUNO’S STORY…

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The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman – Louis de Bernières

The Troublesome Offspring Of Cardinal Guzman - Louis de Bernieres

The Troublesome Offspring Of Cardinal Guzman – Louis de Bernières

Like the previous two books in this trilogy, most of the action here is set in Cochadebajo de los Gatos and concerns the affectionately portrayed locals.  Whereas the first book (The War Of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts) is concerned primarily with politics and the second (Senor Vivo And The Coca Lord) is centred around the drugs trade, this final instalment in the trilogy focuses on religion.

Following on from the fame of Dionisio in Senor Vivo And the Coca Lord, the Catholic Church and the Cardinal in particular decide they need to root out the heretics and begin a new Inquisition, with Cochadebajo as their ultimate target.  Perhaps this is a backlash to the unstable society or, more likely, it is prompted by Cardinal Guzman’s own guilt.

Guzman isn’t a bad man, but he isn’t a chaste man either.  He has a very loyal and affectionate maid and a surprisingly tender relationship with their illegitimate son, Cristobal.  Guzman is well aware of his hypocrisy, in having this child and his guilt manifests itself physically, causing him great pain, illness and hallucinations.

Guzman is colourful creation, but so are all the characters here.  As a book it can be read by itself, but is much better read as part of the trilogy, favourite characters return and more are introduced as the sub-plots weave themselves through the main narrative.  Following on from the rest of the South American trilogy, there is a lot of magical realism throughout, as well as romance, violence and humour.

Out of all three, this is probably my least favourite book, but that’s not to say I don’t like it, rather that the other two were just stronger, more original and held my interest slightly better.  I still thoroughly enjoyed this though and was sorry the trilogy had to come to an end.  If, like most people I’ve spoken to, you’ve come to de Bernières through Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, then this trilogy will be quite a surprise to you.  It’s still clearly de Bernières, with his wonderful character creations and vivid descriptions of war in one paragraph, romance in the next, but this trilogy is more comedic, perhaps more cartoony if one was being hyper-critical, but equally as entertaining and enthralling.

Sample text:

“His Eminence looked at the desk in his room and saw that it had become a rotten coffin through whose distorted boards there sprouted verminous cascades of ancient hair that waved like the tentacles of an anemone. There was no doubt that the grey wisps were growing apace and were winding about the furniture. A hank of it curled about his ankle and began to constrict it like a boa. He shouted, pulling his leg away, but the force reduced the casket to dust, and on the floor where his desk had been, there was now a cadaver watching him. The skin was shrunk over the bones like an Indian mummy, the hair was growing with the speed of a stream, and the amber teeth of the mouth smiled at him with contemptuous inanity.”

Further Reading:

If you like this author you might like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

If you like the colourful characters you might like The Book With No Name

If you like the theme of illegitimate children within the Church you might like The Scarlet Letter

Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol

Dead Souls.  A very intriguing title, I'm sure you'll agree.

Dead Souls. A very intriguing title, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I’m not gonna lie to you, I first picked up this book because I like Gogol Bordello and found out they were named after this author. I googled the author, thought this book sounded interesting and downloaded it to my Kindle.  I wish I could tell you that I was just interested in Gogol’s satirical representation of Soviet mentality, but the truth I just like pop music.

Saying that, I did genuinely like the storyline here.  The basic premise is this:  Chichikov is a fraudster.  That’s not a spoiler by the way, we are privy to this information from the beginning.  He travels around Russia buying up ‘dead souls’.  Continue reading

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

The sort of book I buy for the cover

The sort of book I buy for the cover

This is the sort of book you may pick up and read purely based on the title (see also ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ and ‘The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts’).  In my case, that’s partly true, but also because it was on special offer on the Kindle.

Originally written in Swedish, it follows the adventures of said 100 year old man, Allan Karlsson.  Recently moved into a residential home, Allan is alert and spritely for his age and certainly not ready to slow down.  After making his escape, he spontaneously steals a suitcase and travels across Sweden, creating a motley crew of friends along the way (including a pet elephant).  What Allan doesn’t anticipate is that the suitcase contains thousands in stolen cash and he unknowingly is being chased by a psychotic drug-dealing motorcycle gang leader and the police.

Alongside this story is the story of Allan’s long life, his achievements and political allies.  It’s a sort of Forrest Gumpian story, with Allan creating the A-Bomb, befriending Truman, Stalin, Mao and Franco throughout the years.

Ok, so it’s not great literature, but it is an entertaining read.  It’s easy enough to get into and reads pretty well.  I did find myself wondering when it would end though.  I reckon it could do with being ¾ quarters of the length it is.  There are only so many world leaders Allan can befriend after all, even after 100 years on the planet.

Sample Text:

“I shall destroy capitalism! Do you hear! I shall destroy every single capitalist! And I shall start with you, you dog, if you don’t help us with the bomb!’
Allan noted that he had managed to be both a rat and a dog in the course of a minute or so. And that Stalin was being rather inconsistent, because now he wanted to use Allan’s services after all.
But Allan wasn’t going to sit there and listen to this abuse any longer. He had come to Moscow to help them out, not to be shouted at. Stalin would have to manage on his own.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ said Allan.
‘What,’ said Stalin angrily.
‘Why don’t you shave off that moustache?’
With that the dinner was over, because the interpreter fainted.”

Further Reading:

If you liked the Scandinavian motorcycle gangs you might like The Girl Who Played With Fire

If you like the eccentricities in old age you might like Mr. Rosenblum’s List

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games - appeals to adults as well as teens

The Hunger Games – appeals to adults as well as teens

Told in a dystopian future in which the USA has been replaced with Panem, the Hunger Games is the story of a particularly nasty form of entertainment.  The 12 districts of Panem are ruled by the Capital, who have decided that in order to keep their subjects on their toes, each year one male and one female teen from each district must fight it out to the death in the Hunger Games – televised across the land for everyone’s entertainment.  This is very much Battle Royale territory, kill or be killed, with the eventual winner being hailed a hero and winning enough food for them and their family for life.

Katniss Everdeen is the girl from District 12. We follow her from the initial reaping (the selection process) through her pre-Games interview, publicity campaign and eventual entry into the arena.  Whilst in the arena, the competitor’s publicity teams can drum up sponsors for them, providing food, weapons and medical supplies when possible.  Alliances are formed and ultimately tested, with Katniss unsure who to trust and who just wants her dead.

As a child growing up in the 80s a lot of books I read were post-apocalyptic, dystopian survival stories stemming from the fear of atomic war.  This is reminiscent of these books and therefore appeals to me greatly.  When I told my boyfriend I was reading it, he remarked ‘oh, so you’re an emo now?’  Perhaps this is the sort of book that would appeal to a disaffected teen, but it’s not exclusive in that, there’s a much broader appeal.

Although this is aimed primarily at teenagers, I actually found it quite exciting (and I’m a little bit older than a teenager!) It’s gruesome subject matter but not sensationalised in its style, which perhaps makes it somewhat viler.  There’s a great sense of suspicion throughout and a real cynicism as to the media’s coverage of certain news events and the public’s morbid fascination with death and devastation.

Sample Text:

“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only… I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
“But you’re not,” I say. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.”

Further Reading:

If you like the savage children aspect you might like The Lord Of The Flies

If you like the idea of children in a dystopian future you might like Brother In The Land

If you like the characters and storyline you might like Catching Fire

The Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

The Lord Of The Flies.  Did you know that is a literal translation of Beelzebub?  No, neither did I.

The Lord Of The Flies. Did you know that is a literal translation of Beelzebub? No, neither did I.

Oh this is a horrible book, but I love it!  Actually, the book isn’t horrible, the characters are.  What would happen in a society without adults?  As a kid, I used to dream of a world without authority, as I’m sure all kids do.  Turns out, that world is vile, sick and disturbing.

So what happens?  Basically, a plane crashes on a non-specific island in the Pacific leaving only preadolescent boys as survivors.  Three of these boys become the main characters in the book, Ralph – a level-headed leader, Piggy – an overweight bespectacled outsider and Jack – basically a bully.  Whereas Ralph is representative of order and civilisation, Piggy, as the most intellectual of the boys represents adult reason.  Jack represents all that is animalistic in human nature.

During their time on the island all the boys come to fear the ‘beast’ – a figment of their imagination brought on by their isolation.  In order to appease this beast, the boys make an offering of the ‘Lord Of The Flies’ – a decapitated pigs head, maniacally grinning as it rots on a pole.

When Simon (representative of innocence) tries to reason with the others about the existence of the beast, they turn on him, believing him to be the beast and savagely tear him apart.  After this, there is no going back, as brutality and depravity reign.  Can Ralph and Piggy restore order to their bloodthirsty comrades?  Not very likely!

Focusing as it does on young boys, this wasn’t a book that really appealed to me and I put off reading it for ages, only giving in as it’s on the BBC’s Book Challenge List.  How glad am I that I gave in?!  It’s excellent.  Disturbing and sadistic, but what a book!  This is the sort of book that once read will never be forgotten.  It’s style is easy to read and as such it’s regularly on the English Literature’s GCSE syllabus across the UK. The themes discussed are as relevant across society today as when the book was written in 1954.  It’s a story that’s keeps being reinvented and appealing to new audiences, with successes such as Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.  Beyond all the brutality and vileness, The Lord Of The Flies is an adventure story with the boys battling for survival and, ultimately rescue.  What they lose in the process is their humanity, reason and innocence.

Sample Text:

“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood—and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.”

Further Reading:

If you like reading about the savageness of youth you might like The Wasp Factory

If you like the struggle for survival you might like The Grapes Of Wrath

If you like the theme of lost humanity you might like Heart Of Darkness

If you like reading about a lawless society you might like The Stand

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernières

Captain Corelli's Mandolin “History is the propaganda of the victors.”

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
“History is the propaganda of the victors.”

Unusually this book was recommended to me by both my Mum and my Dad.  They tend to have very different tastes in literature so I suppose I initially read this out of curiosity.  It was the first De Bernières book I’d read and I had no expectations at all.  I began reading it whilst living abroad, hanging out in cafes, being very continental, bohemian etc.  This was a mistake…

At one point I started crying in a café.  Another time my friends turned up halfway through the last chapter.  I couldn’t wait to get home to read it, so after a fun night with my friends, I sat in a shop doorway and read the last few pages by the light of the lampposts.  Very few books have stayed with me as much as this one.  Ok, so it’s a bit schmaltzy and not entirely historically accurate, but it’s a good story so who cares.

Corelli is an Italian Captain, sent to Kefalonia during WW2 with the occupying forces.  He is met with resistance from the locals (perfectly understandable) until his charm and charisma win them over (not too believable, but I’ll let it slide).  Actually, he is charming.  I’d hang out with him.

Corelli is not a conscientious soldier. He wants, as much as possible, to have a peaceful war.  He doesn’t care about the Nazis or Hitler and would much rather discuss Puccini than politics.  His music is his first passion.  Then he meets Pelagia, a local girl who is engaged to a member of the resistance.  So far so Romeo and Juliet / love across the divide!

It’s essentially a love story, but there’s different forms of love at work here.  The love between Dr Iannis and his daughter Pelagia, the love between Corelli and Pelagia, Carlo’s love for Corelli, and the love and support of the community for each other.

De Bernières has a great imagination for character creation.  All of his characters are colourful and intriguing.  There’s none of his familiar magical realism here but it’s not needed.  This is a story about the impact of war on ordinary people.  These are the stories you’ll never find in the history books, yet the ones which truly bring home the horror and loss suffered.

I’ve read this book twice now (so far) and each time, I’ve laughed and cried at the same parts and loved the characters more each time.  Do yourself a favour and read it.  In fact, do yourself two favours: read the book and avoid the film.  Nicholas Cage?  What were they thinking?!

Sample Text:

“When you fall in love, it is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake, and then it subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots are become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the desire to mate every second of the day. It is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every part of your body. No… don’t blush. I am telling you some truths. For that is just being in love; which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over, when being in love has burned away. Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But it is!”

Further Reading:

If you like a good wartime romance you might like Guernica

If you like a long-drawn out wartime romance you might like A Town Like Alice

If you like reading about life under occupation you might like The Moon Is Down