Ten Books With Unreliable Narrators

In fiction the unreliable narrator is an interesting, double-crossing sort of concept. Readers of fiction know that they are reading, well, fiction, and that their narrator is telling them stuff that is made up. So to have a narrator whose intentions the reader is suspicious of (is he or her telling an untruth about  make-believe, or, are they remembering that make-believe accurately?) adds an extra element of awareness to the fiction reading experience.

Narrators can be unreliable purposefully or unwittingly (or it can be unclear whether there’s intent in the way they twist their stories). Either way, there have been some goodies and below is a small selection.

  1. Ellen Dean in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. It may be just that Nelly is opinionated, and an opinionated narrator can’t necessarily be trusted completely (the same can also be said for Lockwood), but Wuthering Heights is much more fun to read if you do so imagining Nelly as having a malign glint in her eye. At any rate, she’s been keeping literary critics busy for years.
  2. Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss. An epic, fantastical coming of age story. Can you trust a narrator who is a thief and an assassin (as the legend goes)? [As an aside, for an unreliable narrator in fantasy for kids you can’t go past the djinni Bartimaeus in the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, among whose talents is letting people know about his (overstated?) talents.]
  3. Pi in Life of Pi, Yann Martel. An excellent story of surivival and plucky courage, featuring a fabulous tiger with a most fitting name (Richard Parker), but what really happened?
  4. Briony Tallis in Atonement, Ian McEwan. Without giving too much away, Atonement spends some time musing about the relationship between writer, book and reader. This, by the way, and the whole point of the story (and title), works much better in the book than it does in the film, although the film does have that incredible mindblowing Dunkirk scene (even the music is cool).
  5. The unnamed narrator in The Turn of the Screw, Henry James. The best scary bits of any story (in print or on the screen) are the ones inside your head, so is the governess imagining things, or are the ghosts real?
  6. Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. Stevens is the quintessential butler, restrained, loyal and proper, which, it turns out, are not great attributes in the narrator of a story that takes uncomfortable, embarrassing and politically troubling turns.
  7. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis. A catalogue of horrors narrated by the perpetrator of said horrors, this book has an R18 rating (by way of a warning).
  8. Eiji Miyake in Number9dream, David Mitchell. Unlike Patrick Bateman, Eiji is a charming narrator, but he does have trouble staying focussed as he walks the tightrope between reality and fantasy (which of course is totally the point).
  9. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald. Is Gatsby really that great, or is Nick overly enamoured of the idea of him? He (Gatsby) never struck me as being much to write home about, although the novel certainly is.
  10. Micah in Liar, Justine Larbalestier. This is in the young adults’ collection (although an enjoyable read for adults too), and is a good introduction to the idea of the unreliable narrator, in that Micah holds your hand through the whole process, albeit in a somewhat taunting fashion. Being berated for being gullible is not something readers of fiction usually get from their narrators. In the end the easiest (not necessarily correct) conclusion to draw is that the whole story is a lie, which is I suppose one way of describing fiction.

Ten Books: Armistice Day

(plus some World War I in general)

  1. Before ANZAC, beyond Armistice: the Central Otago soldiers of World War One and the home they left behind, Keith Douglas Scott.
  2. The faces of World War I, Max Arthur; foreword by Ian Hislop
  3. Singled out: how two million women survived without men after the First World War, Virginia Nicholson
  4. Eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and its violent climax, Joseph E. Persico
  5. Silent night: the remarkable Christmas truce of 1914, Stanely Weinraub
  6. Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), a film by Christian Carion
  7. Amiens to the Armistice: the BEF in the Hundred Days’ Campaign, 8 August-11, November 1918, J.P. Harris with Niall Barr
  8. The Regeneration Trilogy, Pat Barker (a fictional revisioning of Siegfried Sassoon’s time at Craiglockhart War Hospital after publishing his declaration against the continuation of the war)
  9. Wilfred Owen: selected poetry and prose
  10. Siegfried Sassoon diaries, 1915-1918, edited and introduced by Rupert Hart-Davis

For more material on Armistice Day visit the Easyfind Catalogue, or visit our history related online databases at MyGateway.

Ten children’s books that are too sad to read out loud (properly)

Here’s a list of books we think are a real challenge to get all the way through in one piece, especially with an audience. We dare you to read them out loud. Bonus points if you read them to a child all the way through without getting the puzzled “what’s up with the adult?” stare.

(helpfully supplied by some central library storytime readers and other picture book enthusiasts)

  1. The Big Ugly Monster and The Little Stone Rabbit, Chris Wormell – a story of feeling lonely, the need for friendship, and death (in general, rather than “the need for”). The monster is so ugly that nothing can stand him; ponds evaporate, and the stone statues he creates to keep him company shatter… except for the little stone rabbit.
  2. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein – the tree gives, well, basically everything. Incidentally, don’t be put off by the author photo (he looks like Mr T).
  3. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Michael Rosen with illustrations by Quentin Blake – yes it is very sad. The product description says: “What makes Michael Rosen most sad is thinking about his son, Eddie, who died.”
  4. Always and Forever, Alan Durant – on the subject of grief, Fox dies very early in the piece, leaving his friends bereft until they rally and find ways to honour his memory.
  5. Badger’s Parting Gifts, Susan Varley – similar to Always and Forever. “So cute it makes your teeth ache” says one library staff member.
  6. Duck, Death and The Tulip, Wulf Erlbruch – first published in German. Duck befriends Death, but is this a good idea really? Vielleicht nicht.
  7. Love You Forever, Robert Munsch – as time passes family roles are reversed.
  8. Goodbye Mog, Judith Kerr – sad perhaps because people have invested a lot of time in the Mog stories. It’s like losing a pet. The forgetfulness is maybe a forewarning.
  9. The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde (in Fairy tales of Oscar Wilde) – as far as children’s stories go, Oscar Wilde knew how to make em wistful. Here the titular giant learns a lesson the Giving Tree could have taught him – selflessness is what makes the flowers grow.
  10. The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde (here illustrated by Jane Ray) – one of the biggest tearjerkers like ever. The Giving Tree’s big brother, this one might well be.

Ten Books: September 11 Fiction

Martin Amis was quoted as saying that after September 11, “‘all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation” (see this 2007 Guardian article). This has not proved to be the case, and September 11 has proved fruitful ground for a variety of fiction writers. Here is (I hope) a quite varied list of books inspired by, influenced by, or about the events. (Note the similar book covers too!)

  1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer. Nine year old Oskar tries to find the lock that fits the key his father, who died in the bombings, had. The journey to discover the whereabouts of the lock takes Oskar across New York in a multi-genre, postmodern-style narrative.
  2. Falling Man, Don DeLillo. Speaking of postmodern, Don DeLillo was deemed to be the writer who could write a September 11 book, if anyone could, and Falling Man is his offering. There are several points of view, from fractured families to Hammad, in ominous flight training.
  3. Home boy : a novel, H. M. Naqvi. Three young Pakistani men are making their way in New York, but a road trip through America in the aftermath finds their relationship with the country drastically altered. Publisher’s Weekly described the narrative as “foul-mouthed erudition” which sounds like quite an accomplishment, and a warning to the reader perhaps.
  4. Saturday, Ian McEwan. The Saturday is February 15 2003 (this is a one-day narrative in the footsteps of Ulysses (which was June 16, a splendid day)), a day in the in-between between the September 11 attacks and the impending war in Iraq.
  5. The writing on the wall : a novel, Lynne Sharon Schwartz. In which the main character is a librarian, so therefore a noteworthy book. Said librarian is walking across the Brooklyn bridge when it all happens, and in the aftermath must also deal with her own historical baggage.
  6. L’America, Martha McPhee. A love story about the relationship between an American, Beth, and an Italian, Cesare, and how culture, nationality (and world events) can conspire to make the course of true love run rough indeed.
  7. A disorder peculiar to the country : a novel, Ken Kalfus. Joyce and Marshall Harriman are going through the throes of a bitter divorce. When on September the 11th she takes a flight to San Francisco and he goes off to work at the World Trade Centre each imagines the other’s death, however not with sorrow. But neither dies and things truly escalate.
  8. Pattern recognition, William Gibson. In the interest of variety, William Gibson is usually a futuristic, sci-fi writer. A multi-layered and -genre novel (is it science fiction? po-mo thriller?), Pattern Recognition follows Cayce Pollard, an advertising executive with an allergy to brands and advertising (unfortunate for her).
  9. The Zero : a novel, Jess Walter. This has been described as a humorous 9/11 novel: a crime novel and a satire.
  10. Love is the Higher Law, David Levithan (YA). September 11 meets the young adult publishing world. The story of three teens whose lives are affected and altered by the events in New York, by influential YA author and editor.

Shorter stories make better films?

An average film is about 2 hours long; the average novel is at least 50,000 words. Film adaptations of novels are plentiful, with some good, some bad, and some ugly, and nearly all having someone leaving the theatre suggesting “the book was better”. Is this because films struggle to do justice to so many words, and if so, is a shorter story therefore a better bet? Here are ten films, and the novellas and short stories they are based on, including some classics (both literary and celluloid). 

  1. Angels and Insects (1995) – ‘Morpho Eugenia’ by A S Byatt, in Angels and Insects (1992). A young naturalist marries into an aristocratic family in England in the 1800s.
  2. Apocalypse Now (1979) – Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902). The horror! Amazingly, a novella just over 100 pages long still manages to contain a story within a story.
  3. Away from Her (2006) – ‘The Bear Went Over the Mountain’ by Alice Munro, in Carried away: a selection of stories. Julie Christie was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007 for her portrayal of Fiona Anderson.
  4. The Birds (1963) – ‘The Birds’ by Daphne du Maurier, in The Birds and Other Stories. Classic Hitchcock!
  5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958). Capote created Holly Golightly, but Audrey Hepburn cemented her place in pop culture.
  6. Brokeback Mountain (2005) – ‘ Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx in Close range: Wyoming stories (1999). More than just gay cowboys. Ang Lee won the Oscar for Best Director in 2006.
  7. The Dead (1987) – ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce, in Dubliners (1914). A Christmas dinner in turn of the (20th) century Ireland, starring Anjelica Huston.
  8. The Killers (1946, 1964) – ‘The Killers’ by Ernest Hemingway, in The Collected Stories. The DVD contains both the 1964 version starring Lee Marvin and the 1946 version with Burt Lancaster.
  9. Minority Report (2003) – ‘Minority Report’ by Philip K Dick, in Minority report. The three “precogs”, Arthur, Dashiell and Agatha, are named for legendary mystery writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett.
  10. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ by Stephen King, in Different Seasons. I prefer the story title: Rita Hayworth is indeed the key.

Film Festival Movies Based on Books

It’s nearly International Film Festival time, one of the plusses of winter, and several of this year’s festival offerings are inspired by books, including some New Zealand content. Here is a selection, including links to the NZFF website for your information.

  1. The Ghost Writer, based on The Ghost by Robert Harris
  2. Predicament, based on Predicament by Ronald Hugh Morrieson
  3. From Poverty Bay to Broadway, based on From Poverty Bay to Broadway: the story of Tom Heeney by Lydia Monin
  4. Women Without Men, based on Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur; translated from the Persian by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet
  5. The Killer Inside Me, based on The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
  6. After the Waterfall, based on The Paraffin Child by Stephen Blanchard
  7. The Tree, based on Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe
  8. Winter’s Bone, based on Winter’s Bone: a novel by Daniel Woodrell
  9. My Dog Tulip, based on My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
  10. The Red Shoes, in The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

See the New Zealand Booksellers website for more.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for past film festivals, don’t forget the library has thousands of DVDs available for hire ($4 per DVD, or $8 for boxed sets), from the classic to the cutting edge to the downright oddball (sometimes all three in the same film). If you’re a film fanatic you might be interested in purchasing a DVD concession card, which entitles you to 12 rentals for the price of 10 (find out more).

Ten Books: New Zealand Crime Fiction

As a salute to the Murder They Wrote event this Thursday (it’s not too late to get tickets!), here are ten New Zealand crime novels, some newish, some nostalgic (for a list of New Zealand mystery writers, visit the New Zealand fiction page here).

  1. Blood Men, Paul Cleave (2010) – Edward Hunter is the son of a serial killer, a fact he’s been trying to suppress, until his life spirals out of control after a tragedy.
  2. Captured, Neil Cross (2010) – Kenny is 40-ish and dying of cancer, so he creates a list of people to make things right with, including a woman who, it turns out, disappeared years ago.
  3. Containment, Vanda Symon (2009) – When shipping containers wash up on the beach at Aramoana, Detective Constable Sam Shephard must investigate the body that washes up with them.
  4. The Shadow World, P.C. Laird (2007) – The fictionalised story of the killing of a young Japanese man in Auckland in 2003 by several of his fellow students.
  5. Island of Fear, Freda Bream (1982) – Island of Fear is set on an island north east of Auckland, where Judy Marling is a recent arrival in fear of her life after a series of unexplained deaths. All things being fair in murder mysteries, the Rev Jabal Jarrett himself even becomes a suspect.
  6. Miramar Morning, Denis Edwards (2005) – Two crimes years apart mingle in this story of “the dark underbelly of New Zealand society in what were supposedly innocent times.” (Google Books)
  7. Murder and Chips, Laurie Mantell (1980) – Set in Wellington and featuring Detective Sergeant Steve Arrow. You’re thinking it’s chips as in fish and chips but no, the body is found in a pile of woodchips.
  8. A Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh (1934) – Guests at Sir Hubert Handesley’s estate are playing a whodunnit game, when an actual murder happens and Roderick Alleyn must, for the first time, find out whodunnit.
  9. Deadlines, Gaelyn Gordon (1996) – The fifth novel featuring Detective Senior Sergeant Rangi Roberts and Detective Constable Ashley Pike finds Roberts puzzling over who killed the annoying writer of numerous letters to the university (who happens to be his neighbour), and in the throes of a relationship with Julia, a literary agent.
  10. Golden Deeds, Catherine Chidgey (2000) – A bit different: not quite a murder mystery, although there is a mystery and there has been a murder, which very slowly reveals itself in amongst cleverly interwoven multi-generational stories, including that of Laura’s parents, still coming to terms with her disappearance, Colette, who’s just moved to the big city, and Patrick, an expert in illuminated manuscripts who’s unconscious in hospital.

Ten Books: Crossover

With the recent popularity of books like Twilight, The Book Thief, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, young adult literature is being increasingly noticed by readers who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves young adults any more. But young is a state of mind, and here are a few young adult titles that less young adults might enjoy, and find relevant.

  1. The Piper’s Son, Melina Marchetta. We can’t say enough good things about Melina Marchetta. The Piper’s Son examines grief, family, forgiveness, and love, following an almost-year in the life of 22 year old Tom McKee and his 42 year old aunt Georgie in the wake of some significant family disasters.
  2. The King of Attolia, Megan Whalen Turner. Again, there aren’t enough good things. The King of Attolia is the third book in a series that contains more spoilers and plot twists than you can poke a stick at, making it rather difficult to describe. There are political subtleties and intrigues that are more than suitable for an adult reader. The first in the series is The Thief, but there’s a time paradox thing going on, in that Megan Whalen Turner says that The King spoils The Thief, but also The Thief spoils The King. Tis true, so where to start? I suppose it doesn’t really matter.
  3. The 10 pm Question, Kate De Goldi. If you haven’t already read it, then make sure you do! Although be warned, this book is most likely to make you think you may require therapy (and if you don’t think this while reading it then you’re certainly okay). Frankie’s worries about life and his family are so real it’s scary, but the story’s so good it doesn’t get bogged down in a pit of anxious depression. Loved the bird game.
  4. Dreamhunter, Elizabeth Knox. Again, if you haven’t you must. It took a while to get my bearings in this alternate world, but once there it’s like the inside of a dream and at the same time completely real (as dreams are). I like how practical and intelligent Elizabeth Knox’s female characters are especially, and have to admire fantasy that is exactly that, not derived from someone else’s imagined world, or Norse legend (it’s nice for variety). The story concludes with Dreamquake, and the two volumes have been published together as the wrist-breaking The Invisible Road.
  5. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, M T Anderson. The first volume is The Pox Party and the second The Kingdom on the Waves. Set in 18th century Boston, The Astonishing Life tells the story of Octavian, son of an African princess , who is the subject of an experiment into the learning capacity of different races, survives and flees the titular pox party to fight in the second volume for Lord Dunmore, the British governor of Virginia, in the hope of being freed. M T Anderson’s book Feed is also popular with book clubs.
  6. The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness. The first book in the much praised Chaos Walking trilogy. The story is set in a dystopian future when good Christians have settled the planet New World, and where 12 year old Todd lives in the male-only settlement of Prentisstown. The inhabitants’ thoughts can all be heard – called the Noise – and things kick off when Todd and his dog hear a silence in the Noise. Fast paced and gritty.
  7. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Peter Cameron. Often mentioned in connection with The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. James Sveck is in the in between between high school and college, which would be an interesting time, except if you’re a jaded, brilliant pessimist who confesses to not liking people and who doesn’t know how to relate to the one person he does actually like. James’ narration is the star of the show in this often bleak, sometimes funny story.
  8. Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones. Another must read if you haven’t already. Especially if you’ve seen and liked the film by Hayao Miyazaki, although the film and the book are quite different in their fantasy-ness (one is very Hayao Miyazaki and the other is very Diana Wynne Jones). Howl is a talented yet flawed wizard and lives in a moving castle, courtesy of a fire demon named Calcifer; Sophie is a plucky teenager who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up an old lady who then ends up as Howl’s cleaning lady and conscience, and all the while there is the Witch of the Waste and much complex, dastardly magic. Trivia: both The King of Attolia and The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (see #2) contain a quote from HMC (being “What a lie that was”).
  9. Bog Child, Siobhan Dowd. Set in Ireland at the time of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike (see the movie Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen, R-16), Bog Child tells the story of Fergus (whose brother has joined the hunger strike) who travels across the Northern Irish border (south) to steal peat and digs up the body of a child who appears to be murdered. His story and that of Mel, the bog child, are interwoven in this excellent story by the late Siobhan Dowd.
  10. Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan. A revisioning of the Grimm ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ fairytale, lyrically written but with a dark underbelly. The book has simultaneously caused swirling controversy and won acclaim (see this Guardian article, for example ). Lanagan was recently in Wellington for the Readers and Writers week, and wrote favourably about Wellington in her blog (even with the bad weather).

Ten Books: Pacific Fiction

From magic- to gritty realism, poetry to epic prose, the minutiae of family life to the historical impact of political machinations, here are ten books written by Pacific writers, or with a Pacific setting and flavour.

  1. The adventures of Vela, Albert Wendt (2009, Samoan) – a novel in verse form “where everyday matters intermingle with the chronicles of the immortal song-maker and other divine figures.” (Paula Green in the New Zealand Listener)
  2. The marriage proposal, Célestine Hitiura Vaite (2007, Samoan) – also published as Breadfruit – Materena would quite like to be married but Pito isn’t so keen, then one night he drunkenly proposes and Materena finds herself in the throes of wedding preparations while keeping Pito on track.
  3. Island of shattered dreams, Chantal Spitz, translated by Jean Anderson (2007, Tahitian) – the first novel published by an indigenous Tahitian writer. The story of a Tahitian family in the foreground, with the troubled political history of Tahiti and French nuclear testing as backdrop.
  4. Where we once belonged, by Sia Figiel (1996, Samoan) – a coming of age novel featuring Alofa, growing up in an environment where Western and Samoan traditions and values clash.
  5. Carpentaria, Alexis Wright (2006, Carpentaria – Australian) – described sometimes with reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Carpentaria is an epic, magic-realist tale set in the town of Desperance in the very north of Queensland.
  6. The smell of the moon, Lemanatele M. Kneubuhl (2006, American Samoa) – a man seeking a complete change in his life packs up his family and moves to a South Pacific Island, whose inhabitants are a quirky and varied bunch.
  7. Dark paradise, Lono Waiwaiole (2009, Hawaii) – a different sort of Hawaii from one you might expect, this one involving the methamphetamine trade and warring wannabe druglords.
  8. Mister Pip, Lloyd Jones (2006, Bougainville) – the multi award winning coming of age story of Matilda, who is inspired by her teacher’s reading of Great Expectations during a time of violence and turmoil in Bougainville in the early 1990s.
  9. Easter Island: a novel, Jennifer Vanderbes (2003) – the story of two women who travel to Easter Island sixty years apart, one with her scientist husband in 1913 and the other as a scientist herself in 1973, both women becoming engaged with the island and its mysterious past.
  10. Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut (1985) – a group of people take a tour to the Galapagos Islands while the world is in chaos and ruins around them.

Ten Books: From Graphic Novel to Film

Graphic novels lend themselves well to movie adaptations, and there have been a few quality ones in the last few years, with cinematographic imagery ranging from realism (Road to Perdition) through looks-like-a-graphic-novel (Sin City and 300, for example) to animation (Persepolis). Here are ten graphic novels that have been converted to successful films, all of which are available from Wellington City Libraries.

  1. Sin City, graphic novel series by Frank Miller, DVD (2005, recut and extended edition)
  2. Persepoliscomplete graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (2007), DVD (2007, the film won the Jury Prize at Cannes that year)
  3. 300, again graphic novel by Frank Miller (2005), DVD (2007)
  4. V for Vendettagraphic novel by Alan Moore (1990), DVD (2006, starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving)
  5. A History of Violence, graphic novel by John Wagner (1997), DVD (2006)
  6. Road to Perdition, graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner (1998), DVD (2003, won the Best Cinematography Oscar in 2003)
  7. Ghost World, graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (1996),  DVD (2003, with a pre-fame Scarlett Johansson)
  8. Akira, graphic novel series by Katsuhiro Otomo, DVD (1987)
  9. Ghost in the Shell, graphic novel by Masamune Shirow (1995), DVD (1995)
  10. The Surrogates, graphic novel by Robert Venditti (2006), DVD (Surrogates) available soon!