Ian McEwan’s newest novel, Sweet Tooth, is definitely his best work since Atonement. From the opening lines you are immediately sucked into the life of Serena Frome (pronounced like plume, she’s not afraid to remind you). She’s a maths student at Cambridge in the 1970s who has a greater passion for literature than numbers. When she’s recruited by MI5, her love of reading is utilized for the Sweet Tooth mission.
She’s sent to offer budding writer Tom Haley a grant that allows him to spend his time writing (instead of teaching). Unbeknownst to him, the money is sent by MI5 in the hopes that he’ll produce some anti-Communist fiction to counteract the Communist propaganda in the culture.
Serena is the girl who always falls for the wrong guys (married men, unavailable men, gay men); and it is inevitable that she falls for Tom as well. She justifies much of her romantic entanglement with Tom as extra work to keep an eye on his writing. But Serena learns of his new novella and faces a dilemma between influencing his work for MI5′s cause or letting his creativity grow freely.
Sweet Tooth is equal parts love story and spy novel with a healthy dose of literary appreciation. All those elements are combined to tell a deeply engrossing story. McEwan has also peppered in enough surprising twists that will keep you second-guessing everything Serena tells you as she narrates her story. And once you read the last chapter you’ll be sorely tempted to start again from the beginning with that new information in mind.
While this isn’t Ian McEwan’s best novel—he has so many great ones—it is without a doubt my favorite of his. It’s also of the best books I’ve read this year. You would definitely be remiss not to sink your teeth into this novel.
Posted by xoxojk on December 31, 2012
J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash revolves around a form of symphorophilia—a sexual arousal from staging and watching a disaster. In this case, the main characters get their sexual kicks from watching or performing in car crashes. While this sexual fetish sounds straight out of Chuck Palahniuk novel, it lacks his sense of humor and transcends into new levels of graphic imagery.
The narrator, James Ballard (distractingly named after the author), meets car crash sexual enthusiast Dr. Robert Vaughan after being involved in a car crash of his own. He quickly picks up Vaughan’s sexual predilections and rides around with him, sexing in crashed cars and so forth. But Vaughan’s addiction continues to reach new levels of destruction as he tries to stage his ideal death as a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor.
The most remarkable thing about this novel is that Ballard, the author, uses blatantly graphic language to convey all the sexual acts the characters perform. He doesn’t try to mask any of the sexuality in the book with euphemisms as is often found in literature, but instead calls a penis a penis (and many other more scientific terms for areas of the body). Yet, after the initial shock of reading about such sexual perversions (and all the semen!), it becomes almost tedious and dull to read. You get bored reading about their car crashes and sex in the ultimate form of desensitization.
This is not a novel with many likable characters. Ballard remains the most likable as he slowly grows terrified of Vaughan’s increasingly dangerous tactics. And his slow boil of homosexual attraction to Vaughan becomes more fascinating than his disturbing relationship with his wife, who even helps fuel his attraction to Vaughan.
Crash’s inclusion on The List can only be ascribed to the sensationalism of the writing and the controversiality it inspired. I can certainly say I’ve never read a book quite like this (although Palahniuk’s Snuff comes pretty close); and I can safely say I’ll be glad not read another one like it. If you do attempt this novel, just be warned that you won’t want to have sex for a few weeks after reading it.
Posted by xoxojk on December 7, 2012
Unless you’ve noticed Melissa George’s face—and perpetually pouted lips—displayed on the side of buses, you probably haven’t even heard of her new show on Cinemax and BBC One. From Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) comes an Alias-style espionage series that is as stylistically beautiful as it is complexly plotted. Conspiracies abound, and at the center of it all is George’s Sam Hunter.
After losing her child and almost being murdered herself, Sam disappears for a year to recover; but her desire to learn who tried to kill her brings her right back to her old job at Byzantium. Her boss at the organization, Rupert Keel (Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane), is suspicious of her sudden return; but her skills in the field far outweigh his doubts about her motives. She joins Deacon Crane’s (LOST’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) team as they investigate a crooked businessman. Sam must infiltrate the man’s family while continuing her hunt for answers about who tried to kill her.
Melissa George is no stranger to the spy world; her character on Alias, Lauren, was as duplicitously vile as her Sam is duplicitously good on Hunted. She easily navigates this world of crooks, spies and terrorists as she unravels the mysteries surrounding “Hourglass.”
This visually compelling series keeps you fully engaged throughout each hour-long episode. The sharp writing allows this skilled cast of actors to convey emotion and motive instead of blatantly stating it (as so many shows on basic cable do). Also, the writers don’t let too many of the mysteries to go unanswered for long—although the answers usually lead to more questions.
Hunted is a twisty thriller series that will suck you in. And, with the show already picked up for a second season, you would be remiss not to delve into this show.
The show airs on Fridays at 10 on Cinemax and on Thursdays at 9 on BBC One
Posted by xoxojk on November 13, 2012
Zadie Smith’s newest novel NW delves into an exploration of London, specifically the northwest quadrant of the city. For those unfamiliar with London neighborhoods—like me—it is easy to get confused by all the namedropping of regions; but Smith focuses more on the people who inhabit the neighborhood, making it easy for the reader to compare London to their own city.
The story follows four characters who all started in the same place—Caldwell—but have grown into very different lives. Leah has become a recluse in her own home, trying to avoid getting pregnant despite her husband’s attempts to the contrary. Natalie (formerly Keisha) is having an identity crisis as the past life she shed away comes back to haunt her. Felix is bouncing from job to job and girl to girl in his attempts to discover what will make him happy. And Nathan is leading a shady life that brings him back into contact with old, familiar friends.
These lives become entangled as the characters try to escape their pasts, but the true beauty of the novel lies in Smith’s astute observations of human behavior and culture. It’s the small things that the characters notice or think of and the sharp descriptions that Smith provides that show how keen an observer she is. Such details show the universality of the subject matter despite how contained it is in London’s sphere.
However, the problem with the novel lies in its execution. While Smith easily captures the stream of consciousness of the characters, she ruins it with pretentious contemporary devices that distract the reader, pulling them out of the story. Had she used only one or two of the styles she experiments with, the novel would’ve flowed better, having a stronger impact; but she burdens the novel with so many of these literary devices that reading the novel becomes a chore instead of the pleasure it should be. She is a strong writer, but her reliance on these devices weakens the effect of the novel.
In one of the chapters, Natalie is watching the television with an acquaintance, Marcia. Marcia says, “I hate the way the camera jumps all over the place like that…You can’t forget about the filming for a minute. Why do they always do that these days?” Such an observation by the character could be applied to Smith’s novel. Her novel’s distracting literary devices are the book equivalent of a jumping camera—both pull the reader/viewer out of the world of the text. After Marcia’s statement, Smith writes, “This struck Natalie as a profound question.” It seems that Smith herself finds this a profound question, but whether she found her answer in this novel is hard to tell.
There are plenty of great things to be found in this novel. Smith has a clear grasp of the English language, and she uses it effortlessly. But it is too easy to get bogged down in the style of the novel and lose all sense of the magic that Zadie Smith has as a writer (unless that was her goal all along, in which case the joke is on us).
Posted by xoxojk on October 1, 2012
Poppy Wyatt has just lost her fiancé’s family heirloom emerald engagement ring and then her phone gets nicked. Luckily, she finds a discarded phone in the trash bin and gives that number to everyone in the hotel in case they find the lost ring. Clinging to that phone as her last hope, she becomes involved in the life of businessman Sam Roxton—the phone previously belonged to his incompetent PA and has important emails and messages in it. With a week before the wedding, Poppy is doing everything in her power to find the lost ring without having to tell fiancé Magnus Tavish or his parents.
This hilarious romantic comedy by Sophie Kinsella will have you giggling from page one all the way to the thrilling climax. Told in the first person by Poppy—who has included her asides in the form of footnotes—you quickly learn the trials and tribulations involved with sharing a phone with a complete stranger. As she snoops into Sam’s life, she becomes so embroiled in his office drama that she fails to notice the drama enfolding in her own.
Kinsella has written an addictive chick lit novel that sucks you in before you even realize it. Drawing inspiration from classic Jane Austen characters—whether purposefully or not—you’ll find it impossible not to fall in love with these characters. Add this to your summer reading list before the season ends!
Posted by xoxojk on July 31, 2012
Sarah Waters takes inspiration from Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins as she weaves the complex fabric of Fingersmith. What begins as a seemingly simple long con grows suddenly into a much larger conspiracy. And, like all good conspiracies, you never know whom to trust.
The story starts with young Sue Trinder, an orphan being raised in a house of thieves. When a handsome man (Richard “Gentleman” Rivers) arrives with a proposition, Sue quickly finds herself posing as a lady’s maid in an isolated mansion. Her task to is gain the trust of heiress Maud Lilly and convince her to marry Rivers because upon doing so he will have access to her fortune. Rivers tells Sue that he will dispose of Maud at a mental asylum after he’s gained her money (and she will inevitably get her cut of the profit).
A simple enough premise for the first third of the book. Although, as Sue spends time with Maud she begins to feel compassion for her (even though she knows she’s sending her to her doom). The inner turmoil that Sue faces during this time (and that we see Maud faces later in the book) ads much to a story that would otherwise be a simple crime fiction story.
At the end of Part 1, everything is turned on its head. The twist is so delicious that I have no intention of ruining it, but it definitely piqued my interest. However, what comes in Part 2 becomes instantly tedious, and it takes another hundred pages or so to get to the juicy twists (trust no one). And again in Part 3, tedium reigns. The overall story and the path to the end are well thought out and I have no argument with them. It just felt to me as a reader as if everything were moving very slowly.
There seems to be no small scene with Waters. She invests a lot of description into every detail, but what does it really do but slow the momentum of the story? A story that is, by itself, inventive and engaging. Even the finale confrontation scene (which lasts nearly 20 pages) felt tedious (is there a better word to describe it?). The characters all want to do something, yet they each refrain. They all want to say something, yet they refrain. It was highly frustrating.
Waters creates a very vivid Victorian London, and a very imaginative and twisty plot to inhabit that London. But there is something lacking in her execution that prevents the novel from reaching true greatness.
Posted by xoxojk on April 19, 2012