Ni is for Nicholas Sparks

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My N is Nicholas Sparks, who seems to have a knack for writing books that are easily adapted for the silver screen. His bilbiography reads like a list of Most Tragically Romantic Movies Ever Made – “Message in a Bottle”, “A Walk to Remember”, “The Notebook” and “Nights in Rodanthe”.
I decided to read “The Notebook” for a couple of reasons. Number one – it’s really short, barely topping one hundred and fifty pages. Number two – I’ve seen the film, so I knew what the basic story was.
For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure of the book or the film, here’s what it’s about. It’s told from the point of a view of an old man in a nursing home, reading The Notebook to his wife, who has Alzheimer’s. He reads her the story ever day in the hope that she will remember him and their life together. The Notebook is the story of Noah and Allie – teenage sweethearts who are torn apart by class and time, but return to each other later in life. As the story wears on you realise that the story is about the old couple in the nursing home, a fact that isn’t immediately obvious because their names are different, explained by not wanting to upset the woman with Alzheimer’s.
I know that a lot of people love The Notebook, and have heard stories about strapping, macho men crying their eyes out at the strength of Noah and Allie’s love, pushing against their mental and physical constraints to snatch a few more minutes together.
Personally, I remain unmoved. Maybe it’s because the attempt to tug at the heart strings is blatant throughout the film and the book, or maybe it’s because there just isn’t time to get to know the characters and get involved. I think it’s more likely that it’s because I, as the reader, am told through the book that Allie and Noah love each other, when all we get are recounts of long distant memories, a few snatched days in the middle and a day at the end.
Please bear in mind, by the way, that I cry at absolutely everything. Last week, I welled up watching a portly Greek bloke and his chubby son dance around in harem trousers and blonde wigs on “Britain’s Got Talent” and the merest hint of animals in trouble (“Fido was found tied to a gate post, watching as his beloved owners drove away. All he ever wanted was to be loved back”) and I’m drowing in my own salty water. Not with The Notebook, though.
The fact that Noah’s the narrator for most of the book is a bit strange, too. It’s not that I’m against a male point of view, I just don’t think it works – I found it a bit forced, to be honest. His devotion to his wife was undoubtedly touching, but there was a part of me who wished he’d stop torturing her and leave her alone.
The good news, for people who like the story, is that there’s a sequel! It’s called The Wedding, and tells the tale of Noah and Allie’s daughter and son-in-law, as they struggle with their marriage and living up to the inexplicable love story that came before.

M is for… Marian Keyes

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This week it’s the turn of Ireland’s favourite writer – Marian Keyes. I read her newest novel, “This Charming Man”. In interviews, Marian Keyes exudes a kind of mumsy warmth with just the right level of sauciness – like an auntie, I suppose. Her novels are peppered with delightful Irish oddities such as “ride” as in: “He’s a ride himself, he is”. It’s Roddy Doyle without the depressing wife beating. Except, this one has that in spades.

The story is about Paddy de Courcy getting married, and the women he’s affecting by his announcement. He’s a politician ride, with sights set firmly on the Taoseich job. There are four narrators – Lola, his current girlfriend, Alicia, his fiancée, Marnie, his ex and Grace, Marnie’s sister. The different narrators are easy to deal with as they all have quite distinct voices. However, someone must have deemed the general reader as too thick to notice when a new narrator begins (generally the beginning of a new chapter) so each one is blessed with a font of her own. Lola, the kooky stylist with purple hair, has Comic Sans. I kid you not. It made my eyes bleed, especially when Lola got far and away the most page time.
The gist of the story (and I hope I don’t give too much away here – my advice is, if you want to read it, don’t read on) is that the women are devastated when Paddy announces his engagement to the unsuspecting Alicia. However, as the book wears on nasty memories are uncovered about Paddy and his preference for kinky toys and cigarette burns, which makes all of the women realise that he’s a bit of a cad, to be perfectly honest, and we’re all better off without him. The girls get their day and Paddy (boo, hiss) gets his comeuppance. Girl Power all round. Complete with the hand sign.

The other notable thing about “This Charming Man” (apart from having the same title as The Smiths song, which I sang in my head for the whole thing) is that it’s seven hundred pages long. That’s right. Seven HUNDRED. Admittedly I got the hardback copy, but reading the thing was pretty tough. I had to prop myself up with a cushion under the book, which got a bit uncomfortable after a while. Nevertheless, I managed to read it in four evenings, which is pretty cool and perhaps says more about the writing style than is polite. Despite the subject matter, it’s quite conversational and is really easy to read. Disconcertingly, on the back of the book there’s an intonement from Marian/Marian’s publishers: “Funny. Honest. Reliable. Trust Marian”, which further cements her position as mumsy but slightly saucy, what with all the kinky sex stuff and the domestic abuse. Hard hitting, if you’ll pardon the pun.

A Marian Keyes novel is the literary equivalent of Casualty – things go wrong, your favourite characters may be in danger but ultimately, you know that they’ll be okay and you’ll end up safe and sound.

Next week it’s Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook”. Read it and weep, because I probably will.

L is for Louis de Bernieres

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I’ve been trying to read “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” by Louis de Bernieres, for years. I remember about ten years ago, when everyone was reading it. On their holidays, on the bus, train, in the car and so on. So, I tried. I got as far as the old man with the pea in his ear, and then stopped. For people who’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean.

The tone is stuffy, smug, pretentious. There are numerous changes in narrator which leads to confusion for the reader and a lack of involvement which makes it hard to carry on. The Challenge gave me the perfect reason to read it – I wasn’t allowed to stop! So I picked up my battered copy, which I think has been read by about a million people and travelled round the globe at least a couple of times, and began again at Dr Iannis and the old man with the pea n his ear.

De Bernieres manages to conjure up the Greek island through his prose. He never points things out and the character image is built up through offhand comments and sense you get, rather than a head to toe description. I suppose this is the mark of a good writer, strictly speaking. However, the effect was slightly ruined for me by my imagination being over-ruled by Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz, who played Corelli and Pelagia in the film. Incidentally, I’ve never seen it but have heard it’s pretty awful and not at all faithful to the book.

I struggled through the first hundred pages, which took me about a week. Eventually though, I got the rhythm and got more involved with the characters as the story began to unfold. I didn’t particularly like any of them – although their voices differed they all had an underlying tone of superiority that I found offputting. My favourite character was the pet pine marten, to be honest.

On Sunday I managed to read the remaining four hundred pages. It took a lot and I nearly fell asleep in the middle, but I did it. Only to find that it wasn’t worth it. It’s a great big let down. It wasn’t that I wanted a happy ending, and the fact that the story’s based around the occupation of Greece by the Italians and Germans, I definitely wasn’t expected sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, but a bit of a reward would have been nice. For those of you who’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean. For those of you who haven’t, you can read it if you like but expect a massive anti-climax. Huge.

It did make me want to visit Cephalonia though.

K is for Kate Atkinson

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My ‘K’ is Kate Atkinson and her book, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”. I hadn’t heard about her before a friend suggested it to me after I’d told her the Book Challenge story. That’s one of the best things about the Book Challenge – people are generally interested and more than happy to provide suggestions for the tricky names. At the moment, I’m trying not to think about the surname ‘X’. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know. It is nearly a year away though, so I’m not going to worry about it now.

So. “Behind the Scenes at the Museum”. It begins with Ruby Lennox’s conception, and unravels time and memory by tracing the matriarchial line through Ruby, to her mother Bunty, to her mother Nell, to her mother Alice. Surrounding them are the other women and menfolk which make up the family – vivid pictures of boys going to war (and not coming back), creepy identical twins and all the levels of relationships between unhappy and ecstatic.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, as usual, but if I were to describe it it would be bleak and depressing. It runs through both world wars and numerous family disasters. Ruby advises quite near the beginning that family members are prone to getting run over or blown up. I think this device keeps the story from getting too heavy – we know well in advance who will die an untimely death, and snippets of information are fed to us from Ruby all the way through the book. This keeps the shocks to a minimum while managing to maintain an, admittedly, dark comic tone.

I found “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” fascinating. For some people it may be a bit too ‘lady heavy’ as the main characters are all women. There are also plenty of men, but inevitably they’re unsuitable husbands or they get blown up/run over while doing daft things. I’m not a raving feminist at all, but the story made me proud to be female, in a weird way.

Ruby is undeniably the protaganist, but it’s amazing how her family history spirals back from itself for generations. The same mistakes are made, the same awkward situations to get into and the same personality characteristics crop up again and again. When I finished it, the first thing I wanted to do was trace my own family history – dig out genealogy charts, old photographs and keepsakes to see if history does repeat itself and what makes me, me. That sounds a bit cheesy, but I’ll bet that most people who read this feel the same way.

On another note, my friend Mrs D introduced me to the best website ever. No, not that one. It’s called Read it Swap it, and revolves around a kind of global library. You put a list on there of books that you want to get rid of, using their handy ISBN database, then other people look at your list and choose something if they like it. Then, you get notified and choose something of theirs. You send your book, they send yours and voila – you get rid of that book you were never going to read again and gain a shiny new one for the price of postage. Genius. You do have to trust people but there’s a pretty robust feedback mechanism so if you do have a problem the admins will help out. It won’t get you a book back but at least it won’t happen to you or anyone else, again. It’s especially brilliant for me as I have about fifty books I’ll never read again (“The Manny”, anyone?) and am obviously reluctant to spend £6.99 a week on a book that I will more than likely read once before relegating to a bookshelf. Also, the people on the site are lovely, lovely people. There’s an ‘Introduction for New Members’ section on the forum, so I introduced myself and talked about my Challenge. I got dozens of replies, and loads of requests to swap, in a matter of hours. Everyone’s supportive, helpful and most useful of all – book lovers!