Review: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

I received a review copy of this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. Willy Vlautin is the lead singer and songwriter with the band Richmond Fontaine and Lean on Pete is his third novel. I’ve seen a lot of other reviewers comparing him to John Steinbeck, though I haven’t read enough of Steinbeck’s work to know whether that’s an accurate comparison.

Charley Thompson is a lonely fifteen year-old boy who lives with his irresponsible single father. The book begins with their arrival in Portland, Oregon, where Charley’s father has been offered a new job in a warehouse. Charley is desperate to get a job of his own so that he can earn enough money to put food on the table but the only work he can find is at the Portland Meadows race track with a disreputable horse trainer called Del. Portland Meadows has seen better days and is now home to hundreds of old, tired horses and second-rate jockeys who can’t get work anywhere else. It is here that Charley meets Lean On Pete, the racehorse who becomes his only friend and companion.

Willy Vlautin uses very simple prose with no flowery descriptions and no big words. As the story is told in the first person from the point of view of fifteen year-old Charley, this writing style is very effective – he uses the kind of language that Charley would realistically use. Despite his miserable home life, Charley comes across as quite a sensible, likeable person, and I really wanted to see him survive and be happy. I did get a bit bored with constantly being told exactly what he had to eat for every meal (usually cheeseburgers, if you’re interested), though I suppose for a teenage boy fending for himself with no money, it was probably quite important!

Almost all of the other characters we meet are drug addicts, alcoholics, or living in poverty, painting a portrait of a side of society we don’t often read about. Most of these people show Charley some kindness, but aren’t really in a position to be able to help him – Charley and Pete are completely alone in the world and there’s a constant atmosphere of sadness and loneliness that hangs over the entire book.

Lean on Pete was a big step away from the type of book I usually read, but I didn’t regret the couple of days it took me to read it.

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 288/Publisher: Faber & Faber/Year: 2010/Source: Received from LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Review: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is the story of two boys growing up together in Afghanistan. Amir is the son of a rich businessman, whereas Hassan is the son of their Hazara servant (an ethnic minority and considered to be lower on the social scale). Amir has always felt that his father is disappointed in him and he desperately wants to please him by winning the local kite fighting tournament (a sport where competitors fly kites with strings coated in cut glass and attempt to cut down their rivals’ kites in order to have the last kite still flying). Hassan is the ‘kite runner’ of the book’s title. When Amir wins the tournament, Hassan chases the fallen kite so Amir can present it to his father. When Hassan is ambushed by a gang of bullies he refuses to give them the kite, knowing how much it means to his friend, and as a consequence is assaulted by the gang leader. Amir witnesses this but is too afraid to intervene.

Several years later during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Amir and his father flee to America to start a new life – but Amir is unable to escape from the shame and guilt that have haunted him ever since the day of the kite fighting tournament when he stood by and watched Hassan being raped.

There were times when I almost forgot this was fiction, as the book had the feel of an autobiography, particularly in the early chapters which were quite vivid and realistic. Amir, as the narrator of the book, is not a very likeable character. As a child he is weak and cowardly and betrays a loyal friend who would do anything for him. As an adult I still found him difficult to like, though I could sympathise with him and wanted to see him redeem himself.

One of the things I liked about this book was learning more about Afghanistan from the point of view of a child growing up in a wealthy district of Kabul. Amir and his father had a comfortable, privileged lifestyle and the Kabul described in the early chapters of the book is certainly not the way we picture Kabul today. The Kite Runner shows how everything changed with the Soviet invasion and then the Taliban regime – and changed so much that Amir, returning to Afghanistan later in the book, remarked that he felt like a tourist in his own country. One horrifying scene describes the Taliban stoning two people to death in front of a crowded stadium during a soccer match.

The writing style used throughout this book is very simplistic with lots of short or incomplete sentences. Although it didn’t spoil the story for me, I did find it distracting. Another problem I had was that halfway through the book the plot became too predictable and I could guess how the story was going to end. Despite those few negative points, The Kite Runner is an emotional, thought-provoking story with some heartbreaking scenes and some horrific ones. Although I have read some very mixed reviews of this book (people seem to either love it or hate it) in my opinion it’s definitely well worth reading.

Recommended

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 324/Publisher: Bloomsbury/Year: 2004/Source: Library book