Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

Author: John Grisham
ISBN # 0099410214
Publisher: Arrow
1st published: 1996
484 pages

Every jury has a leader, and the verdict belongs to him. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a landmark tobacco trial with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake begins routinely, and then swerves mysteriously off course. The jury is behaving strangely, and at least one juror is convinced he's being watched. Soon they have to be sequestered. Then a tip from an anonymous young woman suggests she is able to predict the jurors' increasingly odd behavior. Is the jury somehow being manipulated, or even controlled? If so, by whom? And, more important, why?

This is the first Grisham I’ve read & I’ll admit, I only picked it up in the first place because I rather enjoyed the movie (which starred John Cusack – I’m a big fan!). I wasn’t disappointed. The film was rather a faithful adaptation & so there weren’t too many surprises, still, this remained an interesting study in manipulation.

Grisham is masterful when it comes to building suspense & the characters in this book are particularly well drawn, giving an exciting glimpse into the lives of ordinary people & their psyches, showing how it is all too easy to sway someone simply by being personable, charming & clever. Despite the sly aspect to the lead characters, they were still portrayed sympathetically &, even though their motivation is kept under wraps till the very end, you never doubt that they have good reason to be acting in such an underhanded way & you want to see them succeed.

The villains of the piece are also written in such a way that you love to hate them, still, you can also see their point of view – in many cases, they are simply doing their job, though there are some who will perform above & beyond the call of duty. Grisham has skilfully blended all the elements to create a wonderfully believable work of fiction based firmly on something you can believe could be possible in the real world.

As an introduction to his work, The Runaway Jury can stand proud – I think I will certainly pick up more of this work, should I spy a bargain on the bookshelves.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Child Called 'It' by David Pelzer

Author: David Pelzer
ISBN # 0752837508
169 pages

As a child, Dave was brutally beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother: a mother who played tortuous games - games that almost killed him. With only his willpower to survive, Dave learned how to play his Mother's sinister games in order to survive because she no longer considered Dave a son but a slave, and no longer a boy but an "It."

The harrowing true story of David Pelzer was the third-worst case of child abuse on record in the entire state of California. If that’s so, you have to wonder about just how horrendous the other two cases were because it’s amazing he ever survived to adulthood.

Written from David’s point of view, the book is very much in the style of a young child, wondering what it is that he’s done to deserve this “punishment” from his mother, as she has completely brainwashed him into believing that he has brought everything on himself; that he is at fault for being a “bad boy”. The chilling calculation of a mother obsessed with destroying her own child leaves the mind reeling. What causes a mother to choose one child over another, to single him out for such torturous abuse?

It’s an intriguing study of just how long such occurrences can continue before something is done to remove a child from an abusive environment. I cried real tears over the life of this young boy; his self-sufficiency &, ultimately, his survival skills (& the necessity for him to develop them in the first place) are shocking & one cannot comprehend what kind of mental illness would lead to this happening (as his mother was clearly very sick & in need of professional help).

This is an incredibly difficult book to read, but one of those books you cannot put down – you have to keep on reading to the end. The violence depicted in the pages is terrifying & to think of anyone enduring any of it, let alone a small child, is something that made me feel physically ill, but also filled me with admiration at David’s courage.


Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

Authors: Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
ISBN # 0099451956
521 pages

Tom Sullivan, about to graduate from Princeton, is haunted by the violent death of his father, an academic who devoted his life to one of the rarest, most complex books in the world. Coded in seven languages, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an intricate mathematical mystery and a tale of love and arcane brutality, has baffled scholars since 1499. Tom's friend, Paul, is similarly obsessed and when a long-lost diary surfaces they finally seem to make a breakthrough. Only hours later, a fellow researcher is murdered and the two friends suddenly find themselves in great danger. Working desperately to expose the book's secret, they slowly uncover a Renaissance tale of passion and blood, a hidden crypt and a secret worth dying to protect...

Dubbed “The Da Vinci Code for people with brains,” the back cover screamed a promise that wasn’t really, in my opinion, kept. Yes, it was an interesting story, but much of the action is kept from the readers’ view & we only see the answers, not the puzzle itself.

The writing style was a little stilted, possibly the result of having two authors working together on the project; there were moments where the joins weren’t quite as seamless as they could have been, but it didn’t really detract from the tale.

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is obviously a book very close to their hearts & I suspect their own college dissertations may have involved it, perhaps providing them with the inspiration for The Rule of Four. The story really focuses more on the relationships between the four friends; Tom, Paul, Charlie & Gil, so it’s a bit of a disappointment that I didn’t feel any real connection with any of those characters – I didn’t feel I got to know them at all with the exception of Tom, & that was only because the story was being told from his point of view. The dual themes of obsession & betrayal were of more interest to me, so it was a shame more wasn’t made of them instead, other than to show how the book manages to draw people into it.

All in all, this was a more challenging read than Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but slightly less satisfying. I think that given time, this writing duo will go far & that their storytelling skills will be more finely tuned the longer they work together, should they choose to take that direction, although I’d be interested in seeing what they can do on their own steam & seeing which voice flavoured this particular offering more.

Rating 6/10

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson

Author: Eva Ibbotson
ISBN# 1405020547
388 pages

When Annika is found as a baby one June morning late in the 19th century, in a mountainside church, by a cook & a maid on their day off, this is just the beginning of an extraordinary tale that will take her away from Vienna, the city where she grows up, to distant Norland, seemingly with all her wishes coming true. But you should always be careful what you wish for! Along the way she meets La Rondine, who once lit up the stages of Europe & tells exotic tales of her adventurous life, there’s also a gypsy boy who rides an amazing horse, and then there’s the aristocracy – a far cry from her life as a kitchen girl!

When I picked up this book I knew absolutely nothing about it – all I knew was I was getting a hardback book for under £3 & that was a bargain if ever I saw one. I didn’t realise just how much of a bargain I was getting! This book had me enthralled from the very first page. The story might have been rather predictable, but I found I didn’t care a jot as I allowed myself to be carried along by the characters.

Ibbotson grew up in Vienna & it’s clear she loved it very much. Her description of this magical place is filled with such joy that you really feel she belongs there – and Vienna belongs to her! Every step of the way, I was drawn into the everyday lives of the Viennese during the time of Emperor Franz Joseph so that I could almost hear the clop of horses hooves & the rattle of the carriages.

The tone is never aimed downwards, despite being marketed towards children &, as it says on the back cover, this is an adventure for readers of all ages. The characters are drawn with such care that I could clearly picture every one of them, from Annika, to Ellie & Sigmund, to the three professors & beyond. I really cared about them, and it’s obvious that Ibbotson does too, like members of my own family – there’s such warmth there.

So, it doesn’t really matter that I could see what was coming several chapters ahead of time; what matters is how the characters get there – there’s a logic to it all that must be followed. All I care about is that I was thrilled by the pure pleasure this was to read from cover to cover.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Author: Alice Sebold
ISBN # 0330485385

328 pages

On her way home from school on a snowy December day, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is lured into a cornfield and brutally raped and murdered, the latest victim of a serial killer. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's debut novel, unfolds from heaven, where "life is a perpetual yesterday" and where Susie narrates and keeps watch over her grieving family and friends, as well as her brazen killer and the sad detective working on her case.

The front cover of The Time Traveler’s Wife reads “This is the next The Lovely Bones,” but if I’d read this one first, I never would have read the other & would then have missed out on a fantastic read. To be frank, I didn’t enjoy this book at all. I got incredibly angry at the stupidity of a 14-year-old girl who would allow herself to be drawn into such an obviously dangerous position. Even being set in the 70’s, it was the decade that The Yorkshire Ripper on the rampage in Britain, it’s hard to believe that over in America people didn’t take notice of what could happen.

Yes, I know that’s not terribly PC of me, but it’s how I felt reading it. I think perhaps I would have been able to get on better with the storyline if she’d been dragged, kicking & screaming into that underground room. Nobody deserves to get raped & murdered, but I couldn’t help but feel that she’d brought a lot of it on herself & that meant I was now feeling guilty too.

The other thing that I really thought was just a tad twee was the whole heaven thing. I just couldn’t get into the flow of the heavens as they were described. Now, I’m not saying I don’t think there’s anything after death; I’m not even saying I don’t think we all get our own personalized afterlife; I’m saying I just couldn’t get on board with the way this was written.

And then there’s the fact that, as the reader, you know exactly who the murderer is. The ghost of Susie, telling her story, knows exactly who her murderer is. Even her family knows exactly who her murderer is. The whole book is spent wondering when, if ever, the guilty man will be charged.

I found this book deeply disappointing from start to finish & I’ll admit to being relieved to finish it. In my opinion, there’s not really anything lovely about The Lovely Bones. I found nothing to recommend it.

Sorry, but I won’t be reading anything else Ms Sebold writes.

Rating: 3/10

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Author: Audrey Niffenegger
ISBN # 0099464462
518 pages

Clare met Henry when she was 6 & Henry was 36. They were married when Clare was 22 & Henry was 30. In essence, the pair met before they met – seemingly impossible, but made reality because Henry is unique. He suffers from Chrono-impairment, a genetic anomaly which makes staying in the present incredibly difficult & Henry finds himself randomly dragged into the past or future where he discovers that you can’t change the future because, like the past, it has already happened. What unfolds is a love story that transcends time & leaves Clare playing a waiting game which starts when she is only a little girl & lasts throughout her adult life.

Before picking up this book, I really thought that the highly unusual premise would make the storyline feel fragmented, that the jumping back & forth through time would cause confusion, but I was pleasantly surprised at how the smooth storytelling style carried me the right way & I never once felt lost in the folds of time. This was also aided by the headings strategically placed (“Clare is 17 & Henry is 41” along with the appropriate date).

The duality of the plot made for interesting reading, letting me see the story first from the perspective of Henry & then of Clare at different points in time as they eventually all pulled together, each struggling to make sense of their meetings till the other is able to fill in the holes at a later date. It gave the whole thing a curious sense of longing as I, like the characters, had to wait to get the answers I wanted.

Within the ebb & flow of their lives, Niffenegger have cleverly woven many contrasts together & it is at once engaging, inviting & warm, yet it never shies away from harsh reality. While showing a grim sense of inevitability, the reader is also given hope with the adage that all is cyclical. The consequences of time travel, along with the ethics of the traveler, are all brought to the fore – are events caused because Henry tells Clare about them, are they self-fulfilling prophesies, or would they have happened anyway? How much should he give away about their future lives? Who, if anyone, does he tell of such a condition, & who in their right minds would believe him if he did? What are the genetic implications in the possibility of children? And what happens to the people left behind, waiting for his return?

I found myself deeply moved by this classic tale of star-crossed lovers given a brand new twist, saddened when the characters suffered, & uplifted during their joyful times. It really reached into my chest & twanged the heartstrings till I was nearly in tears near the end of the book. A heartwarming read & a fascinating study in how time travel affects both family & friends.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, November 04, 2005

Atlantis by David Gibbins

Author: David Gibbins
ISBN # 755324226
464 pages

Jack Howard, marine archaeologist, is about to get lucky – very lucky. He & his team are about to uncover what could be the key to a fabled island which saw the birth of civilisation & became a paradise lost – Atlantis. It’s a dream come true. On the verge of a major breakthrough, they are suddenly plunged into a nightmare – they are not the only ones who have the location & their rivals are more than willing to make this a life or death situation.

Atlantis is David Gibbins’ debut novel, but reading it, it’s hard to believe such a polished product is a first attempt. This is archaeological thriller is an intelligent history-mystery, written with an elegantly fluid style. As he actually is a professional marine archaeologist, he has managed to come up with a remarkably plausible theory based on what we already know about the development of civilisation. In his extensive explanatory author’s note at the back of the book, he reveals just how much of this work of fiction is based on fact.

Although the formula is similar to that of Dan Brown, Gibbins shows a lighter hand & is more subtle in his characterisations, creating people you can really believe in – you want them to succeed, you share with them the excitement of discovery as you are drawn into their world.

I literally couldn’t put this book down & although it’s info-heavy, I barely realised till I was finished, as it’s all woven in such an intricate pattern that you don’t see the joins at all.

Highly recommended.

Rating: 9/10

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Deception Point by Dan Brown

Author: Dan Brown
ISBN #: 0552151769
585 pages

Deep beneath the Arctic ice, NASA has located a meteorite which may hold physical evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe – a revelation which will affect the entire world. As the President battles to keep his position in the Whitehouse, he employs the daughter of his main opponent, a prominent member of the Whitehouse Intelligence, along with several other civilian scientists, each an expert in his field, to verify its authenticity. But something’s not quite right – events uncover a deception the likes of which has never been seen, a lie so huge that the tiniest piece of information could threaten not only the presidency, but the existence of NASA. To top it all off, it could threaten the lives of everyone involved. When you’re surrounded on all sides by conspiracy, you can trust nobody – not, your colleagues, your friends or your family.

Deception Point is deceptively fast-paced: There’s long period where you don’t think much is happening, then you realise you’ve just whizzed through 100 pages & much excitement has ensued! Mr Brown is decidedly formulaic – we have the devastatingly beautiful, frighteningly intelligent female lead with family troubles, there’s also the dashing hero who’s been hurt in the past & realises he’s ready to risk his heart again, & there’s the cataclysmic event which throws them together. Rachel Sexton could just as easily have been Susan, Sophie or Vittoria from the other books. This time, however, the stars of the show are all-American, rather than European (although there are still international ramifications, as yet another world-changing event is occurring).

This one was, for me, the least believable storyline despite the underlying realities of the political world. I got the feeling that he was trying to prove something with this one, almost a “look how much I know about all these different subjects” feel throughout – I was being bombarded with information at all times.

Still, it was a very enjoyable read & a great piece of escapism & this is the only one of Brown’s books where I was sure I knew who the bad guy was & then was proven wrong! I was rather thrown by that.

It’s a page turner, but it doesn’t actually require readers to engage their brain cells at any point as Brown has done all the thinking for us & spells everything out in great detail – that’s not to say it’s boring at all – actually, the beauty is in the detail!

All in all, this tale of mass conspiracy & hoodwinkery is diverting, thrilling & richly entertaining.

Rating: 7/10