The Red House

What happens when you write a beautiful, touching, funny, poignant book? People have high expectations for any books that come after.

Such was the fate of Mark Haddon‘s The Red House, after the success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I read the latter over Christmas so it’s still pretty fresh in my mind and also? I loved it.

I was really excited for The Red House (as you are when the author of a book you loved releases a new title), so when it was the first book I saw at the library, I happily tucked it under my arm as my first pick of the day.

The Red House is the story of a family vacation that might be more dysfunctional than yours! Richard and Angela are estranged siblings, and after the death of their mother, Richard decides that maybe it would be nice to vacation together and he rents a house in Wales for both of their families for a week.

Richard has recently married Louisa who, along with her own dirty little secrets, brings a willful bitch of a teenage daughter, Melissa, to the relationship. On the other side of the spectrum is Angela who has been married to Dominic for years but their relationship is a mess. Dominic has been laid off and feels like his life has no direction, while Angela feels all the pressure to be the breadwinner and is still dealing with something that happened 18 years ago. Their children, Alex, Daisy and Benjy each have their own things going on so that everyone is pretty disconnected from everyone else.

Have you ever heard of Hay-on-Wye? Just me then? The story takes place in the little Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye which just happens to be one of the places in the world that I most want to visit. It’s a town full of bookshops! More bookshops than anywhere else in the world! And they have a literary festival every year! So yeah, the story takes place here. Which I thought would be more exciting, but it really wasn’t. I still desperately want to go. I guess I just hoped that the town of bookshops would be more of an active setting. Maybe someone found a book there that changed their lives. You know, how books do.

Overall, The Red House was OK. I think it was a very honest portrayal of what it would be like to go on vacation with people in your family that you don’t know very well. It wasn’t particularly dramatic but it wasn’t overly exciting either. The one story that really stood out for me was the one involving Daisy, Angela and Dominic’s 16 year old daughter. She’s really struggling with who she is and her family isn’t making it any easier on her.

Not that anyone’s family ever makes anything easier on them.

I guess the problem with The Red House was that it wasn’t The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a very unfair thing to do to a book but we can never help ourselves on that count can we?


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

A while back I posted about one of my favourite books of 2011, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I never actually dedicated a post to this wonderful book. I’m a jerk like that.

The time has finally come to remedy that.

I should tell you that this book had been on my list for a good long while, transferred diligently to at least 2 new agendas (which is where I keep my physical To Read list). I have this problem where every time I go to the book store to pick out new titles, I am seduced by the new and suggested, rather than referring to my own, ever growing, list of reads.

I digress (another problem I have).

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was a Whitbread Book of the Year (2003) for a reason. I’m way late on the bandwagon, I know, but this book astonished me, for all the right reasons.

It’s brilliant and original and touching and funny and so very sad all at the same time. It is unexpected in all the best ways.

It starts out rather gruesomely, when Christopher comes across his neighbour’s dead poodle on her front lawn. The poodle has been stabbed with a pitchfork. Pretty nasty business. The neighbour comes out, screams at the sight of her beloved companion dead on her lawn and calls the police when she sees Christopher there and he gives her cryptic answers about what he is doing. The police arrive, Christopher gives them more of the same and he is brought to the police station until his father can be called to pick him up.

What becomes apparent on his father’s arrival at the jail, is that there is something different about Christopher. He doesn’t like to be touched, so his parents have come up with another way to ‘hug’ each other and show affection. He doesn’t understand metaphors, taking everything literally because one can’t really eat an entire horse when they are hungry.

Christopher is autistic.

He goes to a special school to teach him how to cope in a world where no one says exactly what they mean, how to read other’s social cues so that he doesn’t make other people unnecessarily uncomfortable. After the incident with the dog in the middle of the night, Christopher decides to investigate and write a book about his investigation. He feels that he will hep his neighbour if he finds out what happened to the dog.

But Christopher ends up finding out a lot more than he expected, with further reaching consequences than he ever could have foreseen.

What starts out as a simple, if slightly different, murder mystery, turns into a story about family and love and being a little bit different. Christopher ‘s life turns upside down and he handles it better than he probably ever thought he could, a testament to the resiliency of all human spirit, even of those that think a little bit differently. The whole time that he tries to find out what happens to the dog, he is also studying for a math final that will enable him to go to college away from home and try to see how he handles those changes.

I loved this book. I loved Christopher and the way that he sees the world. I love that he takes metaphors literally and doesn’t understand why when people tell you to be quiet they never specify how long you should be quiet for. He’s one of the most original characters I’ve ever come across and I love him.

If you haven’t read this one yet, and I know I’m late to the party so you probably have, you should pick it up. Give it a read. It’s a nice quick read if you’re trying to reach an impossible book reading goal.

Grade: A-

Starts: 4.5


My Top Reads of 2011

It is the end of the year, and as per tradition dictated by the masses, here are the top 10 books that I read this year. You should know that these weren’t necessarily published this year and they are in no particular order but they were all awesome and should you be looking for something to read, maybe check out my list.

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943, Betty Smith). Pretty sure that I am the last person on the planet that has read this book. I feel like this book was always hovering on the periphery of my world, but I never paid enough attention to realize how incredible this book is. It’s one of those classic books where nothing really happens except for mundane every day things. At least, the everyday for Francie and her family in Brooklyn in the beginning of the 20th Century. Nothing I can say will do justice to the quiet brilliance of this book so if you haven’t already read it, read it.
  2. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl (2010, David Sturrock). I feel like Matilda changed my life. I was a young disciple of Roald Dahl’s so how could I turn up an opportunity to get to know the man behind of some of the best stories of my childhood? The man behind The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and of course, Matilda, was kind of a curmudgeon. As he got older, he embraced his mantle as a teller of children’s tales, but for most of his life, he resented his adult stories being overlooked. It was a surprising and intimate, if not always favourable, portrait.
  3. The Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley. I’ve posted about my love for these books before. I read the first three this year, I look forward to reading the 4th one in 2012. They are a refreshing take on the classic murder mystery, told with an incredible sense of humour and style. The series starts off with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, carries on with The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag and A Red Herring Without Mustard and so far, concludes with I’m Half Sick of Shadows. So now you know and you can read accordingly.
  4. The Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin. I know that I was a little late on the uptake on this one, but I can’t remember the last time I was so invested in a story and it’s characters. Martin actually makes me afraid to turn the page. Yes, the story will advance, but it may not always turn out well for my favourites. I’ve read the first three books so far and they are a commitment. They will take a long time to get through but the pay off is huge. And if you can’t see yourself reading the books, watch the first episode of the HBO series and see if you still feel the same way.
  5. The Imperfectionists (2010, Tom Rachmann) was an incredible read. I loved every story, every chapter, every character. I loved the way that the story was constructed so that each chapter took you home with a different character, carried you along in time so that you could still check in with characters from other chapters and see how they’ve fared. It’s a bit of a sad read when you realize that it is also a commentary on the state of the newspaper industry today but the melancholy is worth it.
  6. The Reluctant King: The Life and Reign of George VI 1895-1952 (1990, Sarah Bradford). Despite the popularity of The King’s Speech last year, I still find that George VI is one of those monarchs that is overlooked, despite the extraordinary sacrifice that he made for his country. This biography tells the story of the man who wasn’t supposed to be king, but who wore the crown with dignity and aplomb after his brother abdicated in favour of a divorcee. Ultimately, the shy, quiet younger brother of Edward VIII would pay for this heavy burden with his life, the stress of the job proving to be too much for him.
  7. Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008, Mary Henley Rubio). I always assumed that the creator of Anne of Green Gables would be very similar to her heroine: sunny, imaginative and wonderful. After reading this biographical masterpiece, I know that that is not the case. The woman who would make Prince Edward Island the internationally known home of this most famous of her characters, spent most of her adult life living in Ontario in circumstances that she didn’t much care for. She was depressed, took all sorts of medications that poisoned her from the inside out, and had horribly dysfunctional relationships with her husband and sons. This book was illuminating and brilliantly put together, making it a compulsive, as well as informative, read.
  8. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008, Muriel Barbery). I wrote a post about this book so I know that you know how much I love this book. This is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever had the pleasure to read. What Barbery can do with language is incredible. The story is tragic and sweet and ordinary and the ending…it left me in tears and it stayed with me long after I had finished it.
  9. The Age of Innocence (1920, Edith Wharton). This is one of the books that I read this year that I know I will read again. Obviously it is an excellent book – a Pulitzer Prize winning book in fact, the first one for a woman. But sometimes those grand award winners are stiff and difficult to read, relevant to their time, but somehow lost in the translation of time. This is not one of those books. While it is the story of 1870s New York (what an uppity place!), it is ultimately the story of love and loss and duty and all the things that make for a respectable life. Told from the perspective of a man, and so masterfully done that I forgot almost the whole way through that this was in fact, written by a woman.
  10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003, Mark Haddon). This won a bunch of awards back in 2003 and had been on my list for a long time but I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it. A wonderfully quirky murder mystery that ends up having nothing to do with murder at all and everything to do with the human condition and all the flaws that make up our relationships with each other. Loved it.

So there you have it, my top 10 books that I read this year. I’m sure that I overlooked some but its not easy to choose your top 10 books in a year! Hopefully you found a title that sparks your interest!

Happy New Year!