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: A Warrior’s Life: A Biography of Paulo Coelho by Fernando Morais

Biographies are difficult to review – no matter how good the biographer’s writing might be, the success of the book really depends on how interesting the subject of the biography is. Fortunately for Fernando Morais and the reader, Paulo Coelho has evidently had a far more eventful life than the average person. The first half of the book, which dealt with Coelho’s early life, was fascinating although I found I started to lose interest nearer the end.

Paulo Coelho was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1947. As a teenager he was a rebel who performed badly at school and was constantly getting into trouble, insisting that all he wanted to do was read and write. His parents, not knowing what else to do with him, sent him to a psychiatric clinic where he was given electroshock therapy. Paulo later began experimenting with drugs and became involved in black magic. In 1974, he was arrested and imprisoned after being accused of subversive activities against the Brazilian government. His life reached a turning point in 1986, when he went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a journey that inspired one of his first major books, The Pilgrimage. Today, Coelho is one of the world’s most popular authors and has sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

Many biographers (particularly the authors of unauthorised biographies) allow their own opinions and speculations to get in the way of the facts – Fernando Morais does not do this. The book was written with the full cooperation of Paulo Coelho and Morais writes in a professional, factual style. He was given full access to Coelho’s diaries which date back to his teenage years, though he repeatedly points out that Coelho tended to fantasize in his diary entries and therefore we can’t place too much reliance on them. However, the inclusion of the diary entries, along with other fragments of Coelho’s writing, gives us a better insight into his mind.

Morais looks at every stage of Coelho’s life in so much depth it’s obvious that he spent a lot of time researching the book thoroughly. He provides a complete list of all the people he interviewed during his research including some of Paulo’s friends, family members and former girfriends. Some of Coelho’s fans may be disappointed and disillusioned as he is often portrayed in a bad light, but as the biography was published with Coelho’s blessing, he was obviously happy for us to read about the negative aspects of his character as well as the positive.

A Warrior’s Life was an interesting book to read, despite the fact that before beginning it I knew almost nothing about Paulo Coelho. I received a review copy from LibraryThing Early Reviewers and was glad to have an opportunity to read a biography I would probably never have read otherwise.

Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography)/Pages: 496/Publisher: Harper Collins/Year: 2009/Source: Received from LibraryThing Early Reviewers