Only Time Will Tell

27 09 2013

I haven’t read a book by Jeffrey Archer since I read Kane and Abel and the Prodigal Daughter back in the 80s. However, I was slightly intrigued by a comment Jeffery Archer made at a talk he gave at the Dubai Festival of Literature in March this year. He said, “I’m not a writer. I’m a storyteller.” So I bought a copy of Only Tome Will Tell.

It is true that I complain about the lack of characterisation when a novel is only plot. But it’s equally true that I get bored if it’s only characterisation and the plot moves forward millimetre by millimetre, and could easily be overtaken by a snail. So I guess I’m looking for a balance between the two, in addition to some kind of elusive thing called “good writing”.

That said, Only Time Will Tell is plot only. And the plot is too neat and polished for my taste. Also, the authorial presence is quite “preachy” for lack of a better term. But I read the whole novel from beginning to end because I wanted to know what would happen next.

That’s the power of plot. With a plot in ultra slow motion and no “good writing”, I just forget about the novel somewhere before page 100. I won’t read the rest of the Clifton Chronicles Trilogy, though.

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Incidents at the Shrine

15 06 2013

I went to a workshop with Ben Okri at the Dubai Festival of Literature in March this year. The workshop was called “Finding Your Voice” and Ben Okri kept asking me to delete adjective after adjective from my writing task until there were no adjectives left. “That is your voice,” he said.

His advice makes sense, reading his collection of short stories called Incidents at the Shrine. The prose is kind of minimalist, very tight, and the effect is that I’m painting my own vivid pictures in my head almost entirely on my own as I’m reading these stories. Of course we all visualise what’s happening in a story as readers, but with Ben Okri’s stories in this collection the langue is so economical, so condensed, that I have to fill in a lot of blanks. Make assumptions. Look into my memory and what I know about life and ask myself, “Is this really what is happening here?” I feel I’m building the story myself. Perfect texts for reading-response theorists, I suppose.

There are two things I really like about this collection of short stories. First, the stories give me such a completely new and different view of life that I feel I’ve travelled very far away from the world I know. The privilege of seeing life from a completely new angle. Exotic. Strange. Second, these stories really challenge me because the situations described are often really desperate – I keep asking myself as I’m reading whether people really live under these circumstances – and yet the language is so totally matter-of-fact. Which enforces the sense that this is life as normal for the characters in the stories. And I find that challenging.

This is a great collections of stories with vivid colours, sounds and smells from Africa. Most of it made up by yourself in your own head as you read because of Ben Okri’s tight, focused, concise prose.

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Life of Pi – The Novel and the Movie

12 05 2013

The problem with the novel is that the movie is absolutely dazzling. It’s stunningly beautiful. That is not to say that the novel is not great. It’s a fantastic novel, but the visual impact of the movie, minus a few gory bits in the novel that I quite frankly could do without, makes the movie stay with me – grab me – in a way the novel does not.

The plot is the same. The key moments in the story – the lines in the story that the whole argument, for lack of a better term, rests on – are the same in the novel and the movie. But I feel that Ang Lee captures the nature of the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker more succinctly and crystallises it. That is one of the main strengths of the movie.

In the novel, the view of events is less precise, more hazy – and more in keeping with the mind of someone who’s floating around shipwrecked on the Pacific Ocean for 227 days.

But without the novel, there wouldn’t have been a movie in any case. And the underlying argument in the story, the case for faith – to tell you a story that makes you believe in God – is the same in both the movie and the novel.

If you have neither read the novel, nor seen the movie, my suggestion is the you read the novel first. To give it the full attention it deserves. And the chance to stand on its own – a chance I missed by watching the movie after I had just read a few chapters of the novel.

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Norwegian Wood

21 04 2013

I know Murakami’s Norwegian Wood became hugely popular in Japan, but I much prefer the other novels I’ve read by him so far. Norwegian Wood is just a “normal novel”, i.e. it doesn’t have any of the magical realism-type elements you find in 1Q84 or Kafka by the Shore – and it’s really the magical realism that attracted me to Murakami’s writing, more than anything else, when I started reading his books.

That said, Norwegian Wood has a unique voice, which is quite an achievement since it’s not written in the first person – like, say, Catcher in the Rye – but somehow Murakami manages to create a very particular view of the world through the often chatty, lighthearted banter mixed with the harsh realities of life, loss in particular. If there’s one thing I really like about this novel, it’s the voice.

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Life of Pi

12 01 2013

I started reading Life of Pi on my flight to Istanbul in November last year, only to forget the book on the plane. And, no, AirArabia did not have it in their lost-and-found the following day, so maybe another passenger read it. I hope they enjoyed the book!

When the movie was about to be released, I bought an iBook version of the novel for my iPad and started reading it again. However, when I finally saw the film this week, I had only reached Chapter 9, so the film is sort of interrupting the book, and I can’t really compare the two until I’ve finished the book.

But I can say this. This is a great novel to read as an iBook. I’m very busy using the highlighter function to remember all these wonderful lines I keep stumbling across. Like this one: “It was my luck to have a few good teachers in my youth, men and women who came into my dark head and lit a match. ” (Chapter 7) Combining this quote with the scenes of Pi leisurely reading Dostoyevsky and Camus by the sea in the movie makes me think that the novel and the movie might be equally good.

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Red Notice

12 01 2013

I’ve read one of Andy McNab’s books before but didn’t particularly like it very much. Anyway, when I saw Red Notice at Dubai Airport a few weeks ago, I thought I’d give him another chance. The cover suggested an interesting plot, and being in a holiday mood, I wanted a fast-paced spy thriller for the plane and the beach.

Having read it, I can’t say it grabbed me. The action is very detailed, which is not surprising considering Andy McNab’s professional background. There’s nothing wrong with his gritty, fast-paced style; but something is missing. Maybe the plot is a bit too polished, and the characters a bit flat.

I think I stick with John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth. Red Notice would probably make a good movie, though.

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Daniel

24 11 2012

Daniel by Henning Mankell has a very clean, straightforward plot and I like that. It’s 1875 and Hans Bengler wants to be a famous entomologist. He decides to go to Africa to find an insect that hasn’t been discovered yet. In the Kalahari Desert he comes across a young orphaned boy and decides to adopt him and take him back to Sweden. He names him Daniel. The novel describes what happens when Daniel arrives in Sweden.

The result is a novel that deals with the clash between two cultures and an exploration of cross-cultural intelligence. I don’t feel too bad that virtually all Swedes come across like Neanderthals when it comes to cross-cultural intelligence – this is 1875 after all. And I did enjoy the observations and the sometimes profound analysis of Sweden as seen from the perspective of the young African boy.

This novel could have become a predictable story about a “noble savage” becoming corrupted when coming in contact with Western civilisation. However, even though the analysis and the acute observations are almost exclusively done by Daniel, there’s enough complexity in the story to make it a worthwhile read. And the world-view from the Kalahari Desert is fascinating.

I also like the fact that I don’t know where the plot is taking me. The narrative is not fast-paced – it’s not meant to be – but there are plenty of surprises along the way. And the pervasiveness of the desert – as a real place and as a metaphor – adds to the purity of the plot, and it energises the narrative.

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