Friday, 27 May 2011

The Ghost Road - Pat Barker

'The Ghost Road' is the 1995 Booker Prize winning novel by Pat Barker, and the third book in her 'Regeneration' trilogy. It's not imperative that you read the first two books in the series first, as it does make sense without them and it's easy to follow the story. However, there are a few references to events in the previous books ('Regeneration' and 'The Eye in the Door'), so reading them may benefit your understanding of 'The Ghost Road'.

The story takes place at the end of the First World War, and is told from the perspectives of two different characters. The first is the psychoanalyst Dr William Rivers, who was an actual doctor at the time of the war, whilst the second is Billy Prior, a totally fictional character. Prior is sent to Rivers' psychiatric hospital for rehabilitation, and we follow their story as the end of the war approaches.

The story switches timeframes a lot which can be confusing and difficult to follow. Rivers has flashbacks to a trip he took to Melanesia (a quick Google search tells me this is a group of islands somewhere in the Pacific), which unmarked in the middle of the story is disorientating and off-putting. However, I'm warning you now that they're there, so when you come to read them you don't get totally lost! At a first read it can be hard to see how these Melanesian episodes are relevant to the rest of the book, but trust me, they do mean something! For example, the state of death is constantly focused upon and mulled over during the Melanesian episodes, and the same theme is underlying in several other sections involving both Prior and Rivers.

As I mentioned before, Rivers was a real-life doctor during World War One, so Barker's representation of him is probably fairly accurate. At various points throughout the book we are allowed glimpses into Rivers' past, and it's nice to see that he hasn't had the picture-perfect background which you may expect. It's also nice to see how he has managed to succeed in the face of adversity - he may even be an inspiration to some, to improve their situation and past! For me, Rivers is a totally likeable character. He doesn't have a fatal flaw and (perhaps because he was a real person) is very believable.

In contrast, Billy Prior couldn't be more different if he tried. He's a very ambiguous character, both in terms of his sexuality and his general personality. Some of his language and sexual actions seem very crude and a bit repellent at times, which just doesn't gel with the side of him which is engaged to Sarah Lumb. In addition, with all the death and destruction which is splashed all over the news, it's hard for most of us to understand how he can actually want to return to the front line. He's a working class boy, yet somehow has managed to achieve the rank of Officer in the army, so for these reasons Prior is definitely a totally impossible character for the time in which he is set. The social constraints of the time mean that he would never have been allowed to behave as freely as he does in the story, which is one major downside of Barker's book. The protagonist could never be real.

Nevertheless, it's fascinating to read about the horrific nature of war, and how it affects all the soldiers in different ways. Rivers was one of the forefathers of modern psychoanalytical techniques, so it's really interesting to see how doctors at the time treated all the diverse conditions presented by the patients. Some of the treatments are quite bizarre, but it's also intriguing to try and get into the heads of the shell-shocked soldiers and at least attempt to understand how the war could have such a profound effect on them.

All in all, this book is definitely worth a read as not only is it just a nice bit of escapism, but it's really interesting to read about different aspects of the war from different perspectives. It's by no means a perfect book, but they rarely are. I would also definitely recommend reading it at least twice as a lot of things make much more sense second time round, and tie up nicely, although they're hard to spot if you read it only once. I wouldn't call it a prolific book, or one to change your outlook on life, but on the whole it is well constructed, researched and written, and is one of those books everyone should read at least once.

Summary: Worth a read
Rating: 4/5

Friday, 20 May 2011

Beach Road - James Patterson

Having heard very highly of James Patterson's crime thrillers, this was the first one of his which I tried and I've been hooked ever since. He co-wrote it with Peter de Jonge, which I always think is a bit risky as you can lose some of the author's style, but this book is filled with suspense the whole way through.

It is unusual to begin with as it gives a list of characters in order of appearance, along with a bit of background. In this prologue-type chapter, it states that the reader must 'Keep in mind that people often lie, especially in the current age, and that the full extent of their lies can be almost beyond our comprehension'. When faced with this I was a little unsure if it was a good idea to be directly told this or not, as instead of being explicitly told that some people are lying and some are not, I always like to try and work out whom in a book can be trusted and who can't. However, once I was halfway through the book I was pleased that I had been warned about some characters' lies, as it gave me an extra incentive to sort the truth from the lies as I read. By the time I had finished the book, I had guessed something (which I would never have guessed if I hadn't been told that people might be lying), but there was so much more that never even crossed my mind. The lies really can reach 'almost beyond our comprehension', so it was no bad thing that that comment had been included before the story started proper.

The story is told from seven different characters' perspectives, which may at first sound quite confusing, but it is clearly stated at the beginning of each chapter who will be the first person speaker in that chapter. Most of the chapters are from Tom Dunleavy's perspective, a struggling lawyer living and working in East Hampton, a neighbourhood in America for the super-rich. He becomes involved in a murder case where three of his acquaintances were shot, and he represents the young man on trial for murder - another friend of his - Dante Halleyville. Tom enlists the help of a top lawyer and former lover of his, Kate Costello, and the story goes from there.

However, nothing is that simple. Tom and Kate's relationship goes from stony and strained as he is forced to atone for letting Kate down in their previous relationship, to strong and dependable as the case and isolation they feel from their neighbours brings them closer together. Furthermore, other mysterious murderers and drug dealers leave you wondering how they could be relevant and how they might help to tie everything up...

The setting of the novel, in East Hampton, an extremely rich area in Long Island, America, is probably somewhere where none of us will ever see the likes of, except in our dreams! This can mean that at times it's a little hard to relate to the characters or what's going on, as it can seem a bit too fantastical. On the other hand, you could take it as a nice bit of escapism, allowing you to enter a world you'd never be able to see in real life.

Dante's court case is described over several chapters, and usually court scenes in books leave me a bit baffled as to what's going on. However, Patterson manages to omit all the legal and court jargon, but without losing the tension and idea of what's going on at the same time. It was easy to follow exactly what was going on, who was saying what, and who was on Dante's side and who was not. Whether or not it was accurate in terms of what a court case is actually like I've got no idea, but the whole case was well explained, and the high level legal stuff was, thankfully, left out.

As with most James Patterson books, the chapters in 'Beach Road' are very short. This means you can get through it very quickly, as each chapter just flies by. You could be endlessly saying you'll read 'just another chapter', as you can get caught up in the story so easily! It's also really satisfying as if you read in bed, you'll never have to go to sleep by ending halfway through a chapter.

As you read, you'll go through a range of emotions, which is exactly the type of journey which a well-executed book should take you on. From surprise at the murders, to humour, a calmness as Tom and Kate seem to be taking control, to finally extreme shock as everything is tied together at the end. As I reached the final seven or eight chapters, my mouth literally hung open as I read in shock. I was stunned as I read, and the anguish I felt for one of the characters (I won't say which one and ruin the story for you!) was something I had never felt from a book before. For me, this was what gave the book its exceptional quality and fifth star, and as I said before, the ending was something which had never even crossed my mind.

All in all this is a fantastic book which keeps you guessing until the very end. It's a really quick and easy book to read, yet it still manages to take you on an emotional rollercoaster, and to a part of the world you can only imagine. I would definitely recommend it as, although it won't take you long to read, it'll leave you questioning people's motivations behind doing things.

ISBN 978-0-7553-2313-5
RRP £6.99

Summary: A well written, gripping book which is a good entry into James Patterson's writing
Rating: 5/5