Saturday, April 30, 2011

Of love, passion and obsession

book review

Book: Juliet, Naked
Author: Nick Hornby
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead
Excerpt: "Annie and Duncan were in the middle of a Tucker Crowe pilgrimage. They had wandered around New York, looking at various clubs and bars that had some kind of Crowe connection, although most of these sites of historic interest were now designer clothes stores, or branches of McDonald’s. They had been to his childhood home in Bozeman, Montana, where, thrillingly, an old lady came out of her house to tell them that Tucker used to clean her husband’s old Buick when he was a kid. The Crowe family home was small and pleasant and was now owned by the manager of a small printing business, who was surprised that they had traveled all the way from England to see the outside of his house, but who didn’t ask them in. ... Still to come: Berkeley, California, where Juliet - in real life a former model and socialite called Julie Beatty - still lived to this day. They would stand outside her house, just as they had stood outside the printer’s house, until Duncan could think of no reason to carry on looking, or until Julie called the police, a fate that had befallen a couple of other Crowe fans that Duncan knew from the message boards."

One of the most prominent names in the lad lit genre, British author Nick Hornby has found success as both a novelist and a screenwriter. His ability to create relationship dramas around topics such as music and sports while examining dysfunctional characters has always been one of his biggest strengths. Also the fact that he has benefitted from some of those rare instances in which books gracefully transition to film has certainly helped his popularity.

In his latest novel Juliet, Naked, Hornby returns to the world of music obsession and mundane relationships. It is the story of Duncan, a passionate fan of reclusive musician Tucker Crowe, who hasn’t been heard from in over two decades, and his long suffering girlfriend Annie, who is stuck in a world of tedium and unsure of what she’s doing there. But when an acoustic demo (or "naked") version of Crowe’s legendary album Juliet surfaces, it receives a polarising reaction from the couple, triggering a series of (mostly implausible) events that will draw Duncan and Annie apart while bringing them closer to Crowe than they could have ever imagined.

The narrative’s strengths lie in the writer’s skill of convincingly playing with the idea of music fandom, and offering an interesting take on topics such as cult success and the role of the internet, all of which benefit from being powered by Hornby’s bleak humour. But even though the ideas behind it are interesting, the final product is more lacklustre than it should be.

While Juliet, Naked shares parts of its soul with Hornby’s High Fidelity, it isn’t nearly as exciting as his hugely acclaimed and much loved debut novel. The book’s basic weakness is its uninspiring characters and the loose development of the narrative. What made his previous efforts work was his ability to absorb the readers into the fictional world that he created; the people portrayed in novels like High Fidelity and About a Boy were compelling, which made the net effect captivating. Unfortunately the characters in Juliet, Naked are so stilted that they fail to engage the reader, and as a result the narrative meanders, ultimately leading to a final result that is quite underwhelming.

So as far as Nick Hornby books go, Juliet, Naked does not rank among his best. It is a mostly average novel, and while it does touch upon some interesting issues and offers implicit Hornby-esque insights into people and relationships, its overall effect is less remarkable and more deflating than some of Hornby’s earlier work.

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 30th April, 2011

For young readers: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series

book reviews

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney
Since its first volume came out in 2007, Jeff Kinney’s The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has gained widespread acclaim. The books follow the life of Gregory Heffley, a middle school student who fills his journals with anecdotes from his daily life; the entries are amusing for a variety of reasons and are interspersed with illustrations that add to the content’s humor. The series’ young protagonist may be far from perfect, but he never fails to almost unwittingly corroborate the fact that everything you do has its repercussions. Greg’s actions and decisions are often flawed, and his obliviousness is almost chronic, but his issues are likely to resonate with younger readers while bringing a smile to their faces. The books are easy to read, the illustrations serve to attract kids who might not be fond of reading, and the humor ensures the readers will keep coming back for more.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Greg Heffley’s Journal (2007)
After Greg’s mum gets him a diary, he reluctantly starts chronicling his home and school life, and it becomes obvious fairly quickly that the narrator has a knack for getting into all kinds of trouble. As he begins his first year in middle school, which according to him is the “dumbest idea ever invented”, Greg struggles with fitting in, trying to become popular, and avoiding the “cheese touch”, while hanging out with his best friend Rowley, dealing with his pampered younger brother Manny, and getting tormented by his elder brother Rodrick.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2008)
Whether he’s getting bullied or being a bully, Greg continues penning down his daily activities in Rodrick Rules, the second book of the series. After having a lousy summer, which included an embarrassing incident that he would more than like to remain a secret, Greg struggles through his mother’s chores-for-money program which suffering at the hands of Rodrick who continues to pick on him.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw (2009)
Greg takes it upon himself to try and help other people improve in The Last Straw, after deciding that he’s “already pretty much one of the best people I know”; of course reality begs to differ with his judgment, so once again he finds himself on the wrong side of fortune. His father’s attempts to toughen him up and get him to be less wimpy don’t yield the best results, and his attempts to impress Holly Hills, who is one of the cutest girls in his class, don’t go quite as planned.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (2009)
The fourth book begins as summer kicks in, and Greg misses no chance of making a complete mess of things. His actions test his friendship with Rowley as they team up for a sleepover, watch a horror movie, and come up with an ill-fated attempt at making money, while his family gets a pet dog, which ends up “ruining the two things that are the most important to” Greg: “television and sleep”.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth (2010)
Greg’s diary continues in The Ugly Truth, as he writes and sketches his way through the fifth and latest installment of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid. After having a falling out with Rowley, Greg is “in the market for a new best friend”, while dealing with the pressures of growing up. The protagonist recounts more of his adventures, once again using his standard dry wit and funny cartoons to entertain young readers.

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 30th April, 2011

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Lifestyle of the rich and famous

book review

The babe behind Ozzy
Book: Extreme: My Autobiography
Author: Sharon Osbourne (with Penelope Dening)
Genre: Autobiography
Publisher: Time Warner
Excerpt: "I don’t want to be seen as a victim, someone who was taken advantage of. When I was younger, it was true that I didn’t know what was happening. But by this time, I knew that much of what my father did was wrong. But I chose to turn a blind eye and say nothing. I would do what he wanted me to do, albeit under duress. I could have left before, but I chose to stay because I liked the lifestyle and didn’t want to give up the luxury. But now I had made my decision. I had to go."

Before reality television made her a household name, Sharon Osbourne was a well-known figure in the music industry, even if the average person only knew of her as Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne’s wife. Following the success of the MTV series The Osbournes (which chronicled the day-to-day life of her family) and the talent shows The X-Factor and America’s Got Talent (on which she has been serving as a judge), Sharon has established her own identity as a feisty and outspoken media personality.

In her autobiography, Extreme, the matriarch of the Osbourne clan offers a no-holds-barred narrative of the ups and downs in her life while providing a glimpse into the inner workings of the music industry. The book, which was crowned as ‘The Biography of the Year’ at the 2006 British Book Awards, starts off with the standard disclaimer, with the author declaring in the very first paragraph of the first chapter that this is simply her version of events based on her own memories. "I cannot say this is how it happened," she writes. "I can only say this is how it seemed to me at the time."

What follows is a candid look at her life, with Sharon sharing tales of growing up in the Arden household, her father’s dubious business dealings, her strained relationship with her parents, working as a music manager, her tumultuous marriage to Ozzy (including dealing with his addictions, infidelity, and abuse, while managing his career), her weight issues and surviving cancer. She herself doesn’t always end up in a flattering light - her behaviour is often less than endearing, and her criticism of others and her own actions/choices can be contradictory. However, overall, the narrative comes together to explain how she became the person she is, and even if you don’t admire her, you can’t help but admire her resilience.

Extreme offers tales of everything from family strife to celebrity excess and bad behaviour. Sharon talks about things that would make an average person blush; in fact, many will find her profanity-laden style unsuitable and offensive. The book is blunt, crude and disturbing; yet it is downright fascinating. You don’t have to be a Sharon Osbourne fan to find the contents of the biography interesting; even if you know nothing about her, you are likely to be fascinated (and disturbed in equal parts) by what you read.

Ultimately, Extreme provides a raw narrative of the events and people that shaped the life and personality of an eccentric music-business insider, and those who enjoy reading biographies and are not put off by crudity and strong language, are likely to find Extreme an interesting read.

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 9th April, 2011

Books for young readers: Enid Blyton

book reviews

Books by Enid Blyton

One of the world’s best known children’s authors, Enid Blyton’s writing career saw her publish hundreds of novels, including numerous successful series. The beloved writer’s work has stood the test of time as her books still maintain a presence on children’s bookshelves around the globe. Here are some of her works that young readers might enjoy:

Bimbo and Topsy
The adventures of a Siamese cat and a fox-terrier are relayed in Bimbo and Topsy, a book that was inspired by the author’s real pets. Set in Green Hedges (which is named after Blyton’s real house), the book begins with the arrival of a little kitten that is given the name Bimbo; he soon gets a playmate when Topsy the puppy joins the family. Together the two friends have fun, make mischief, get into trouble, and entertain the readers with their silly antics. The stories are amusing and young readers are more than likely to enjoy this book.

A Hole in her Pocket and other stories
This book features a collection of thirteen short stories about children, toys, fairies, and goblins, which are simple, yet interesting, and ultimately deliver lessons in niceness and kindness. The title story tells the tale of a girl who has a hole in the pocket of her dress, and explains how it isn’t a good idea to put things off, and that helping others can yield unexpected rewards. Other stories include Coltsfoot Magic (A goblin suffers because of greed), I Dare You To! (Two kids learn the downside of disobedience), and He Belonged to the Family (an old horse who is about to be sold comes through for his master).

Come to the Circus!
A young girl has to move to a circus in Come to the Circus!, the story of Fenella, a ten year old orphan who must not only adjust to moving in with her uncle and aunt but also overcome her fear of animals as she becomes a part of the circus. Somewhat less chipper than the other books, Come to the Circus! deals with underlying themes of loss, acceptance, and adjustment, but also offers pleasant and satisfying resolutions, and a reminder of the powers of kindness.

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 9th April, 2011