Sunday, January 30, 2011

Emma Donoghue - Room (Book Review)


Reasons for reading: read a very positive review of it on Book Smugglers

I was very excited about this book, possibly because I'm a student of sociology and the concept of a child growing up in a closed environment is very interesting – I have to wonder what happens when the child is suddenly brought into the 'normal' world and has to become a part of a society (s)he's never before come into contact with.

The plot of Room itself is pretty shocking, once we get past the initial introduction and put the pieces together – Jack and his mother are locked up in a room where Jack has spent all of his 5 years of life. His mother is only 27 and, after years of captivity, still hopes to be rescued, sending SOS signals through the window at night and playing a game of 'scream every day but Sunday' with her son.

For Jack, it's all just a game or a weird habit of his mother's. As we view the story through his eyes, we don't really get to feel the atmosphere that must be ever present in their tiny room; Jack doesn't have much worries and for him, the Room is all the world he knows, perfectly normal and safe. He is not unhappy, but seems to be completely satisfied living in the Room as long as his mother, who is obviously distressed and often depressive, is by his side. Jack cannot perceive his mother's suffering; he is only a child and his POV leads us to believe that the situation is not nearly as dire as it actually is.

As most children, Jack is able to adapt fairly quickly whenever the situation changes. Sure, he doesn't like it at first, and is a bit confused, but later on, he seems almost indifferent to new situations. Around him, things happen and change, but Jack cares only about things he always cared about – his mother, his toys, Dora the Explorer … Through his eyes, even the most incredible twists and turns in his life are of the same importance as things that seem perfectly ordinary to us, like going to the mall or getting a new toy. This gives reader something to think about, of course, but also leaves him longing for something more.

And here's where Room disappointed me. Throughout the book, Jack and especially his mother encountered different problems and lived through some important changes in their lifestyle. But the child POV, which was meant to bring us even closer to the story and the characters, was not really the best choice for the story Donoghue was trying to tell. Jack, being only five, doesn't have much personality; I was longing to hear the tale from Jack's mother, who would probably shed a different light on the story, but sadly, Jack remains the sole POV throughout the book. His mother's suffering and problems are much greater than Jack's, but as he cannot understand them, we only catch glimpses of what his mother's going through, and even those are rare – we probably see more of the average person's incompetence with handling a child that grew up in a tiny room than Jack's mother's trauma.

Room is not exactly what various reviews and blurbs on the cover led me to believe. Even though Jack is the POV, I felt that the real protagonist was his mother – but she got to explain her actions and feelings at only one, fairly short, point in the book. Room has a lot of potential – the plot itself is great, the style is OK, characters are well developed – but the bad POV choice is all that was needed to leave that potential unused. However cute the child POV might be, it lacks the intensity to make Room all it wanted to be.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ursula Le Guin - Lavinia (Book Review)

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Reasons for reading
: I've had it for ages and I remembered that it was supposed to be good

Lavinia – a character that got no lines in the Aeneid, just a brief mention, but I guess it intrigued Le Guin enough that she put Lavinia as the sole narrator of this novel, and I'm glad it is so.

It is clear from the very beginning that Lavinia is a retelling of the story of Aeneas and how he came to Italy, just from another point of view (so there will be no spoilers in this review ;). What I found amazing was that nonetheless, Le Guin managed to make this 'old' story not only interesting, but also very touching.

Lavinia is an unusual POV for this retelling; I'm more used to retellings where a new light is shed on an old, existing protagonist, which is not the case here. However, Lavinia's POV was a good idea, since she is not only a lively (and sometimes stubborn) character, but also a princess, which puts her into a great position to introduce her father's kingdom to the reader. Through her eyes, we are effortlessly introduced to how life in Italy was before Rome was built, and even if the pictures Le Guin paints us are not completely faithful (she herself admitted that she has downplayed the primitivism of the early Italian settlers), the narrative is masterfully done – in some novels, I had to struggle with long descriptions and paragraphs of world-building, but in Lavinia, the world simply grows around us as we read.

Lavinia tells us a story about a woman's life, whereas in Aeneid, the protagonists are mostly male – as the world of Aeneid is a male world. Where the recurring themes of Aeneid are hardships of war and travel, the prevalent theme in Lavinia is (however corny it might sound) love. At first, this is not obvious; Lavinia, too, focuses on skirmishes that take part when Aeneas comes to Italy and later, when his son rules in Alba Longa. Lavinia reminisces on the years of her youth before the war, on her meetings with the poet, her creator, who uncovers some of her future and asserts her that his poem will remain unfinished. She describes the war, too, but doesn't tell us much about the fighting; rather, she tells us about the decisions, relations and mishaps that, together, caused the war to happen as it did. The narrative is often interrupted with fragments of Lavinia's life with Aeneas, but these are very brief; the three summers and three winters that were promised to Lavinia and Aeneas pass all too quickly and Lavinia becomes dependent on her stepson's decisions while raising her only son.

It slowly becomes clear, though, that Lavinia's three years of happiness were what really determined her and her life. Even though she is always strong, independent and quick to act, she stays emotionally bound to Lavinium, the city Aeneas built her and the place he was buried, and the the sacred place, Albunea, where she met the poet. After Aeneas' death, Lavinia describes in detail how she wilfully stole her son from under his stepbrother's influence, but as he grows to a young man, the narrative becomes less and less detailed, until it simply skims over the remaining events of Lavinia's life. As promised, Lavinia never dies as she lives along with her poem; at the end of her human life, she transforms into an owl:

I fly among the trees on soft wings that make no sound. Sometimes I call out, but not in a human voice. My cry is soft and quavering: i, i, I cry: go on, go.
Only sometimes my soul wakes as a woman again, and then when I listen I can hear silence, and in the silence his voice.

Lavinia is a remarkable heroine; Le Guin brings her, her land and her people to life not only with masterful world-building and carefully constructed characters, but also with excellent prose that practically sings to the reader. This story about a strong woman and her fierce love is easily one of the best books I've read in 2010.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Monthly report: December '10

Because it often happens that I read a book but don't review it (or I take a long time writing a review), I've decided to start posting brief monthly reports on what I read, including a sentence or two about the book if it was not reviewed. I hope you like it :)

December 2010 was a busy month for me. After I took a short break from reading in November, I had plenty of time (and books :) to read, so I didn't waste any. Books I've read in December were:

_ _ __

First three books of ASOIAF (George R. R. Martin): a long overdue re-read. I was really scared that I might not enjoy these anymore - after all, it's been at least five years since I read them first (and last) - and I was thrilled to see that my worries were unnecessary. ASOIAF is still the best series out there.

Empire in Black and Gold
(Adrian Tchaikovsky): didn't expect much, didn't get much. It wasn't a disappointment for me as it was for some other bloggers, but I think that was mostly so because I missed all the hype. Still, it's a decent fantasy book. (Review upcoming.)

(Emma Donoghue): this could be a great book if the protagonist were someone else. As it is, it's merely ok-ish, but definitely not what I expected from a Man Booker Prize finalist. (Review upcoming.)

Midsummer Night
(Freda Warrington): one of the best urban fantasy books I've read lately. It's not extraordinarily good or anything, but it was a pleasant enough read that didn't get too boring or predictable.

(Ursula Le Guin): I honestly didn't expect anything from this book, especially since I found Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness somewhat odd when I read it three years ago. Lavinia swept me off my feet. (Review upcoming.)


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