After months and months of reading mostly non-fiction, I finally went on a novel spree.  A novel-reading spree, which is hardly novel for me, but which seemed relatively novel after reading so many non-novels.  I have a stack of paperbacks this thick–the stack being thick, individual paperbacks varying in thickness–I bought from the Goodwill and garage sales, and I am determined to plow through them before I allow myself to buy any more books, novel or otherwise.  Most of them are old titles, but perhaps you, like me, are very slow about getting around to reading the books that everyone was talking about three years ago.  Or perhaps you’d enjoy a stroll down memory lane, book aisle.  Either way, this meeting of Mad’s Book Club will come to order.  Got your comfy chairs?  Got your smoking jackets?  Excellent.  Engage!

Battle Royale, Koushun Takami

In a dystopian world, a totalitarian government has a special program:  each year forty high-school students are taken to a remote island, where they are armed with various weapons and instructed to kill each other, or be killed.  Last one standing wins the “game.”  How do you like that?  Won’t complain about your senior prom again, will you?  So these kids are all classmates with various interests and abilities, most not particularly ambitious for life as an assassin, but it’s not like they can just sit down and refuse to play because they have to wear these special collars, and if no one kills anyone in a 24-hour period, everyone’s head explodes!  If you try to remove your collar, your head explodes!  So what if you’re basically a good kid who doesn’t want to murder anyone but isn’t too keen on waiting around to get nailed by somebody’s crossbow either?  Maybe you don’t want someone unloading their Uzi on your friend, huh?  It’s a conundrum.  A moral dilemma, even.

This is an English translation of a Japanese pulp classic, and while I have no basis for judging the quality of the translation, the writing occasionally comes off as awkward or stilted–yet at the same time, it seems absolutely authentic to the teenage characters who provide the narrative points of view.  The book is more about being a teenager than it is about totalitarianism.  While anti-fascist, it’s not an allegory about fascism, per se.  It’s about friendship and trust and honor and whatnot.  The characters are very well-drawn.  In case you couldn’t tell, it is an extraordinarily violent story; each chapter ends with a body count.  It is a real page-turner, though.  If you like books about killing and stuff.

Giraffe, J.M. Ledgard

True confession:  My husband bought this book for me two Christmases ago, and I have just now finished it.  No, it isn’t that long–just over 200 pages, I think–nor is it boring.  It’s a beautifully-written book that just happens to be the opposite of plot-driven; hence my ability to put it down and leave it down for large stretches of time.  What’s it about?  Well…there are these giraffes taken captive and transported to a Czechoslovakian zoo during the communist regime, see.  And there are these Czech people who…have thoughts…about…communism…and giraffes…and…stuff.  No, it’s interesting, I swear!  It is an allegory of communist oppression.  But it’s one of those books you have to read all the way through in order to get the measure of it.  When I came to the end, I said, “Wow.”  Out loud.  Sincerely.  It’s heartbreaking.  But good.  And I’m not just saying that because I am the Giraffe.

The Undomestic Goddess, Sophie Kinsella

From the sublime to the ridiculous.  Can you believe I’d never read any Sophie Kinsella before this?  Well, I hadn’t.  So this one is about a big-shot lawyer who loses her job and stumbles into a gig as a housekeeper, despite the fact that she knows absolutely zero about keeping house.  Don’t question!  Just believe!  Anyway, my expectations were low, as they should have been, and I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s a very funny book.  I don’t think I need to tell you that it’s also contrived and predictable.  I probably should mention that in the last fifty pages or so, it sort of loses its momentum and doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, even though the rest of us do know exactly where it’s going (see “predictable”)–so that’s a bit of a problem.  Methinks Kinsella could have tightened that up a bit without losing much sleep.  However, despite the disappointing conclusion, I now find myself well-disposed to read more Kinsella because golly, she is funny.  I like the funny.

Plain Truth, Jodi Picoult

And believe it or not, I had not read any Jodi Picoult before this, either, though I’ve had My Sister’s Keeper on my shelf for quite some time.  I was picking out books to take to the beach, and I opted against My Sister’s Keeper because I was afraid it would be too depressing.  So instead I chose the book about the Amish girl accused of infanticide.  Clearly I have a refined sense of the depressing.  I cannot deny it.  So Plain Truth is a murder mystery:  A newborn baby is found dead, abandoned on an Amish farm.  It’s determined that the Amish farmer’s daughter gave birth to the baby; she becomes the prime suspect in the baby’s murder.  Problem:  the girl not only denies killing the baby but denies even having the baby.  What’s a defense attorney to do?  Did I mention the defense attorney?  She’s the main character.  She’s got issues:  1) She’s not even sure she wants to be a defense attorney anymore because she has to defend all these scummy murderers and stuff.  2) She wants to have a baby and she isn’t sure she can defend someone who probably killed her own baby.  3) She’s related to the accused.  Dunh dunh DUNH! 4) She fears intimacy.  How that last one is related to the trial, you’ll have to read the book to find out.  Suffice it to say there’s plenty of drama to go around.

Anyway, what was interesting for me was the portrait of the Amish community and way of life, and the difference between “plain” (Amish) values and English (modern American) values.  It’s not really about religion or faith, but more about individuality versus community.  I thought that was fascinating.  It’s more psychological drama than mystery, but that really pays off when the big secret is finally revealed.  At least it did for me.  I’m easy.

Note:  I am currently reading My Sister’s Keeper, and I was right:  it is depressing and so not appropriate for the beach.  Unless you enjoy crying at the beach, in which case it is perfect.  Review pending.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon

So this book’s claim to fame is that it has an autistic narrator, which is brilliant.  I mean, the idea of an autistic narrator is brilliant, and the execution thereof is brilliant.  The narrator himself is an autistic teenager named Christopher.  It starts out as a murder mystery–who killed the neighbor’s dog?–but that mystery is “solved” about halfway through the book, and that’s when the plot really thickens.  Or rather, the real plot–what’s going on with Christopher’s family?–thickens.  It’s interesting how Christopher’s narration maintains this clinical detachment but he’s so real and human that the emotional impact of events is just devastating.  I’m chalking this up to the deftness of Haddon’s prose.  I think this is an excellent novel for adolescents, except that it does have a fair amount of strong language.  (“Fair” meaning more than a little, less than gobs and gobs.  So if that sort of thing bothers you or your adolescent, do not take me up on my recommendation.)  But it is also an excellent novel for adults and other people.

Well, that wraps it up for this time.  I still have a truckload of books to finish before I’m allowed to buy any new ones, so wish me luck.  I’ll keep you all posted.

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