Book Review: The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)

I don’t always chase up the book of a movie before I watch it, but in this case, Alice Sebold’s book was such a bestseller, even I’d heard of it. (I have so many books of my own that are still unread, I’ve kind of held off on reading new books, which means that there are many, many books out there which I haven’t had a chance to catch up on yet.)

I’m hoping to see the movie this evening, but I thought I would get my thoughts down on paper about the book before the movie affects my view of the book. (Too late to stop it going the other way.)

For those who haven’t heard of this book yet or somehow missed the hype about the movie, the story is pretty straightforward. A 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, is murdered by a man living near her house and the story goes on to talk about how her shattered family survive over the coming days, months and years. The twist with this story is that we know what’s going on because it’s narrated by Susie herself, speaking to us from heaven.

Susie’s heaven is a rather unusual place where she has an almost God’s eye view of the world and can watch everything that’s going on. The cleverness of this set-up is that in much the same way as her family have to get used to life without Susie, Susie is just as much going through her own process of having to let go of her family to go to Heaven proper.

The story is quite engaging – in fact, almost too engaging – as a father, I really struggled to get through the first couple of chapters, describing Susie’s murder. The detail isn’t super-horrific (while the concepts are borrowed from serial-killer novels, this is not meant to be one of those stories), but there’s enough for us to imagine it all in our head.

But the story gradually moves on from there to cover the individual members of the family, as they go through their various stages of coping. In addition, there is the matter of Susie’s killer, Mr Harvey, who successfully evades capture by the police at the time, but does not evade the suspicion of Susie’s Dad and sister.

How you respond to this novel will most likely be determined by how you respond to Alice Sebold’s prose and characters. The characters are all very well drawn and act in ways that felt completely real for me (under their particular circumstances). I had more trouble with the writing style – Susie narrates like no other 14-year-old I know. Sometimes she sounds a bit like a teenager girl, but most of the time she sounds like a novelist you’d find in the literature section. Is the idea that she’s grown rather worldly-wise after all the years in heaven when she finally tells the story? Or is it because we wouldn’t find the story half as interesting if it was narrated by a real 14-year-old? I’m not sure.

The ending of this story is a curious mixture – many of the plot strands get tied up in a rather satisfying (and almost cliched) way. But other plot strands get tied up in less conventional ways. And I’ll leave it as vague as that. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about.

From a Christian point of view, this is obviously not a Christian portrayal of life after death. There’s no God. In fact, Heaven is just a kind of place that you turn into whatever you want it to be. If Susie imagines it to be like her school, then it is. The only thing she doesn’t have there is her family. So in a sense, her life is just as unsettled after death as it was before. It doesn’t sound like that great a place, to be honest, and Sebold soon gives us describing it after a while and focuses more on what’s going back on earth.

In the end, the afterlife seems to come off as a poor second to the real world, with the only relief being that you can’t really die again. This is very different from the Christian perspective of an afterlife where we have an unbroken connection with God and with fellow believers.

But for a really interesting take on grief, family and death, this novel is well worth a look.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl

I must admit, it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Roald Dahl’s kids books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed ploughing through this large collection of short stories. (There’s about 5 books crammed into one here.)

After a while, you start to get the hang of Dahl’s formula, but it’s a fun formula with endless variety (like classical music, really), so it doesn’t get boring.

What he tends to do in all of his tales is start with a very close attention to detail, all of it quite believable. This is because within a couple of pages, he’s going to introduce something totally off-the-wall into the story – and you’re going to buy it completely, because he tells the tale in such a matter-of-fact way.

So when a doctor starts explaining that if your brain and a connecting eyeball were removed from a body after death, you could effectively live forever – it sounds like quite a reasonable idea. When the scientist experiments with his sound machine that can hear ultra-high-pitched sounds, it seems quite plausible that he’d hear tiny screaming coming from the roses being cut in the garden next door.

You can also usually guarantee that there will be some sort of satisfying twist at the end as well.

And so it goes through a huge mixed bag of stories. The only time the collection drags a bit is in the book Over To You, which consists of short war stories. Because these don’t have the element of the fantastic which characterises the others – in fact, most of Dahl’s writing – they’re not as memorable.

But, on the whole, this is a highly amusing collection of short stories for grown ups, and anybody who loved Dahl as a young person isn’t going to be disappointed.

4 out of 5.

And Then There Were None – Letter in a Bottle

“…I determined to commit not one murder, but murder on a grand scale…”

Well, there we go – the explanation of the whole thing. I thought it very neatly tied the whole thing together. I remember the first time I read the first page or so of this letter – especially since Wargrave’s name doesn’t appear till the last page – thinking, “Hang on . . . this sounds like Wargrave. But he’s dead, isn’t it?”

Once I’d got that settled in my head that maybe he wasn’t, then the whole explanation made sense. Part of the fun of this denouement is just the grand style in which Wargrave unveils his plot. (A grand unraveling is usually a trademark of Agatha Christie’s book, but normally it’s done by this detective. Here we have it unveiled by the murdered.)

I haven’t watched it yet (but it’s on my shelf ready to go), but I understand that Agatha Christie’s stage adaptation of this novel, and subsequent film versions have a slightly different ending. (I’m not sure, but I think it goes something like Vera shoots Lombard, walks back in the house, Wargrave comes out, and then in another twist Lombard shows up to her rescue, because they’d planned together that he should pretend to be dead.) While this allows for a nice ending, for me, the true effect needs to be the chilling realisation that the Judge killed everyone and then killed himself. A far more effective ending, and certainly the one I’d use if I was making a film of it today.

So there you have it – And Then There Were None. I still think it’s the original and best of these type of stories.

We’ve mentioned some of the spin-offs from this story. Obviously, any story where there’s a bunch of people being picked off one by one owes a debt to this story.

Harper’s Island, the recent TV series, mercilessly ripped off the concept, only to stuff it up horrendously. Identity (which Dave worried was the same twist) clearly owes a debt to this story. If you haven’t seen it, and you have the stomach for it, Identity is a very clever usage of the idea of 10 people being killed off one at a time, but with a logic of its own, and a completely different ending.

In terms of the killer, there’s a certain similarity between Wargrave and Jigsaw, the killer from Saw (which you need to have even more of a stomach for). Jigsaw (also suffering from a terminal illness) takes it upon himself to harass people who he doesn’t consider worth living. That’s a completely different premise, and quite a bit nastier, but the writers (at least of the original film) had the same sense of cleverness about it all.

Well, hopefully, none of you felt cheated by the ending (my apologies if you did). This was fun enough that I might do another Agatha Christie at some stage down the track. I’ll see how it goes. Thanks to all who participated (either commenting or uncommenting) – especially those who showed the remarkable restraint of being able to read the book over three weeks instead of all in one go…

And Then There were None – Epilogue

Just so there’s no misunderstandings, this post is on the epilogue, the next post tomorrow is on a mysterious “letter found in a bottle”.

In some ways, this chapter is a bit of a nod to Christie’s normal detective novels, where the police come in and try to sort out the crime. And maybe if Hercule Poirot was on hand or Miss Marple, they’d have a better chance.

But they’re coming up with nothing. We’re now enlightened about the fascinating back story about why the boat never came to rescue the 10 during the week, the involvement of Isaac Morris (the Jewish gentleman referenced back in Chapter 1, if you remember three weeks ago) and a little bit more background on our characters. (Though obviously our killer knew more about their back stories than the police were able to uncover.)

So in some ways, this chapter just serves to reiterate the mystery and deal with any final theories that people might have. (I like the bit best where they’re trying to work out how the last three could have died.) And who doesn’t feel creeped out by the chair below Vera’s body being placed neatly back against the wall?

Without a doubt, U N Owen is the 1930s precursor to Keyser Soze.

And sometime after this investigation was closed – we’re not sure how long – a boat comes across a bottle floating in the water with a letter in it. That letter, which we’ll read tomorrow, contains the final missing pieces of information that shed light on what took place on Indian Island . . .

See you tomorrow!

And Then There Were None (10 Dead; 0 Alive)

In many ways, the best thing to come out of this novel getting renamed as And Then There Were None is that it sets up a promise that – staggeringly – gets delivered in the final chapter.

We could believe, when it just came down to Vera and Lombard (why does he always get referred to by his last name, but she always gets referred to by her first?) that Lombard was it. Like Vera, we instantly see the wolf snarl and the cunning as the mark of a man who could cold-bloodedly pick off eight people one by one.

But then – the magnificent twist: the countdown goes down to zero. I remember I read this novel out loud to my sister when I was a teenager and at the time, none of us knew how it was going to end. And we hit this chapter, and it really just set my teenage brain reeling.

What on earth happened here? Did I really read what I thought I read?

For my money, it’s one of the greatest “What the…?” moments in storytelling history. The rug has been completely ripped out from under us. We know what we’ve witnessed – but we understand none of it.

And it is in that state of confusion, that Agatha Christie rolls out the Epilogue. I’ll see you tomorrow night for that one …

And Then There Were None – Chapter 15 (8 Dead; 2 Alive)

Decided to change the rules a bit. I’m going to blog about Chapter 15, and then after that Chapter 16 (so you can read both chapters today).

I’ll do the Epilogue (the first part of it) and that will just leave us with the final section to read on Sunday.

So, anyway, here we are – almost as if knowing that Dan would raise the red herring theory, it’s dealt with in the first few pages by Vera. Is Armstrong dead or alive? It would stand to reason that if this were the red herring death, that he would still be alive.

It’s also the moment where I wish I was directing this, because I love the visual image – glorious sunshine, the three characters sitting outside on the grass or rocks overlooking the water. With the deathtrap of a house looming on the horizon. . . .

However, things move very quickly – and all because Blore decided he needed some lunch. I won’t spell it out – you’ve either read it or you haven’t, but needless to say our fourth and third Indian/soldier/nameless racial stereotype are dealt with in one hit, we find out that the red herring perhaps had more to do with fish than we thought, and everybody wants to read Chapter 16.

So, without further ado, I’ll quickly write up the post for that chapter…

And Then There Were None – Chapter 14 (6/7 Dead?; 3/4 Alive?)

Now all bets are off. Is it one of the remaining four? Is there someone else on the island? If it’s one of the four, who can it be? If it’s someone else, why can’t they seem to find them? It’s all going crazy.

We also get another look into the back story of the characters, especially Vera, and we realise that she actually was quite callous in killing off young Cyril. And up till now has been very good at hiding the truth of how evil she is. But does that make her evil enough to engineer this?

Blore seems scared out of his mind, but if Dan’s theory is correct – the killer may not realise what he’s doing. Lombard says he’s a bit rattled – but rattled by how close he is to being murdered – or by how close he is to being unmasked as the killer.

And then, of course, there is the doctor – but he’s not in this chapter. We’re left with only three Indian boy statues, which would indicate that he’s dead.

But there’s no body.

And as Dan will be the first to point out, if I don’t:

Four little Indian boys, going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

So on that rather ambiguous note, I’ll bid you goodbye until tomorrow.

And Then There Were None – Chapter 13 (6 Dead; 4 Alive)

Now this chapter is where the cinematic potential of this story to be redone as a really scary slasher flick comes to the fore.

I love the levels of paranoia in this chapter – five people just sitting watching one another’s every move, checking that the drinks aren’t tampered with.

And then, despite all that, they’re still outsmarted by our very clever killer. Actually, with the whole costume thing – all the missing objects of the last few chapters now being revealed – I’d say a very clever, very twisted killer.

Hang in there, folks . . . only a few days more.

Oh yeah, Dan, and they gave you all the inner thoughts of everyone while they were sitting in the lounge room as well . . .

And Then There Were None – Chapter 12 (5 Dead; 5 Alive)

Well, we’re at the halfway mark now, as another of our suspects bites the dust. Oddly enough, she was our chief suspect from yesterday. We’re now down to five. Unlike that other island serial killer show, having less suspects doesn’t at all make it clearer who is likely to be a killer. (But if you do watch that island show, you would have well and truly worked out the identity by then.)

I’m quite enjoying the character of the Judge, because having worked in the law courts, the way he speaks is characteristic of the way Judges deliver summings up or sentences: very deliberately, point by point, logical.

How else could he persuade everyone to submit to strip-searching?

Actually, while all their actions (locking up the drugs, hunting for the gun, etc) logically make sense, all of this is really about persuading you, the reader, of the rules of the game. It’s Agatha Christie’s equivalent of the conjurer showing you that there’s nothing up his sleeves.

There’s a house, five people, missing gun, drugs all locked up. We’re all clueless. That’s the situation.

See you tomorrow!

And Then There Were None – Chapter 11 (4 Dead; 6 Alive)

Well, without wasting any time, the week kicks off with our 4th victim. See, I was right about Rogers being crossed off the list of suspects.

The good thing is, it leaves us with a more manageable list of suspects:

– The corrupt detective Blore

– The devil-may-care adventurer Lombard

– The religiously severe Emily Brent

– The coldly logical Justice Wargrave

– The “access to all poisons” Dr Armstrong

– The guilt-ridden Vera Claythorne.

This is where we start to notice how 2D these characters are, as well. They just don’t seem to be overly phased by the whole thing. (e.g. Lombard’s amusement at Blore and thinking that he’d be likely to be bumped off because he has no imagination). In fact, if it was me, I think I’d be divvying up the cold food, sending everyone to their room, and not letting people come out until someone comes with a boat.

Either that, or I’d get everyone camped in the lounge room. But then, for sure, the murderer would stay awake longer than everyone else and kill everyone else while they were asleep.

I’m getting morbid, but despite everyone trying their best to eat breakfast calmly, there’s a heightened sense of craziness in the air. This is what I love about this particular novel. In a detective novel, the crime has been committed, so there’s no real tension – just the enjoyment of unravelling whodunnit. In this book, though, all the characters are playing for their lives, and if they don’t work out who’s behind it soon, they’ll be next.

Looking forward to tomorrow!