Wednesday, 24 December 2008

No Time for Goodbye

Title: No Time for Goodbye

Author: Linwood Barclay

Number of pages: 437

Started: 18 December 2008

Finished: 24 December 2008

Opening words:

When Cynthia woke up, it was so quiet in the house she thought it must be Saturday.
If only.
If there'd ever been a day that she needed to be a Saturday, to be anything but a school day, this was it. Her stomach was still doing the occasional somersault, her head was full of cement and it took some effort to keep it from falling forward or on to her shoulders.
Jesus, what the hell was that in the waste-paper basket next to the bed? She couldn't even remember throwing up in the night, but if she needed evidence, there it was.

Read an extract here

Plot summary:

On the morning she will never forget, suburban teenager Cynthia Archer awakes with a nasty hangover and a feeling she is going to have an even nastier confrontation with her mom and dad. She isn't. Instead, the house is empty, with no sign of her parents or younger brother Todd. At first she just thinks it's weird, then more and more scary, until finally the terrfiying reality hits her: in the blink of an eye, without any explanation, her family has simply disappeared. Twenty-five years later the mystery is no nearer to being solved and Cynthia is still haunted by unanswered questions. Were her family murdered? If so, why was she spared? And if they're alive, why did they abandon her in such a cruel way? Now married with a daughter of her own, Cynthia knows that without answers - however shocking they might prove to be - she will never be emotionally or psychologically whole, living in daily fear that her new family will be taken from her just as her first one was. And so she agrees to take part in a TV documentary revisiting the case, in the hope that somebody somewhere will remember something - or even that her father, mother or brother might finally reach out to her... First nothing. Then just a few crackpots and scam artists coming out of the woodwork. And then the letter, a letter which makes no sense and yet chills Cynthia to the core. And soon she begins to realize that stirring up the past could be the worst mistake she has ever made.

What I thought:

This was a very readable book. Not entirely convincing and not always well written but quite a page turner. It had a fairly decent plot, which did not always ring true and maybe didn’t have the most believable ending, but it was a reasonable read, if you can suspend your belief over certain aspects of it. This was a Richard and Judy Book Club book and you can take that as a recommendation or otherwise as you see fit.

A reasonable distraction if not entirely convincing.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Remember Remember

Title: Remember, Remember

Author: Judy Parkinson

Number of pages: 190

Started: 10 December 2008

Finished: 19 December 2008

Opening words:

Read the first page here

Plot summary:

Judy Parkinson's topically titled Remember Remember (The Fifth of November), offers a potted history of Britain to digest along with the toffee apples.

What I thought:

liked this book and thought it was a straightforward and accessible summary of British history. It was obviously only a really short summary of a series of major events, but I think it was a great feat to have managed to describe major events in history in such a concise way. I learnt a number of things through this book, not least some of the motivation for William the Conqueror invading. It gave me more sympathy for his cause having learnt that he had rather been dine out of something he had been promised i.e. the throne! It’s a really useful reference book and one that hopefully will prompt people to look at some parts of history in greater depth.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Best of Father Brown

Title: The Best of Father Brown

Author: G.K. Chesterton

Number of pages: 287

Started: 11 December 2008

Finished: 17 December 2008

Opening words:

FLAMBEAU, once the most famous criminal in France and later a very private detective in England, had long retired from both professions. Some say a career of crime had left him with too many scruples for a career of detection. Anyhow, after a life of romantic escapes and tricks of evasion, he had ended at what some might consider an appropriate address: in a castle in Spain. The castle, however, was solid though relatively small; and the black vineyard and green stripes of kitchen garden covered a respectable square on the brown hillside. For Flambeau, after all his violent adventures, still possessed what is possessed by so many Latins, what is absent (for instance) in so many Americans, the energy to retire. It can be seen in many a large hotel-proprietor whose one ambition is to be a small peasant. It can be seen in many a French provincial shopkeeper, who pauses at the moment when he might develop into a detestable millionaire and buy a street of shops, to fall back quietly and comfortably on domesticity and dominoes. Flambeau had casually and almost abruptly fallen in love with a Spanish Lady, married and brought up a large family on a Spanish estate, without displaying any apparent desire to stray again beyond its borders. But on one particular morning he was observed by his family to be unusually restless and excited; and he outran the little boys and descended the greater part of the long mountain slope to meet the visitor who was coming across the valley; even when the visitor was still a black dot in the distance.

Plot summary:

GK Chesterton’s quiet and unassuming little priest has long since joined the pantheon of great literary detectives. Combining the shrewdness of Miss Marple, the insight of Sherlock Holmes and the punctiliousness of Hercule Poirot with the deep and intuitive knowledge of the dark secrets of human nature gained in the confessional, Father Brown is the perhaps better equipped than any of them to uncover the startling truth whenever murder, mayhem and mystery stalk society.

Summary taken from the back of the book

What I thought:

These were quite pleasant tales but they didn’t really grab me. I found them all very similar – similar sorts of crimes and all solved in the same sort of way: Father Brown has some great insight into human nature and notices a few things and then despite everyone believing something different has an insight that gets to the truth merely based on observation. He felt like a less convincing version of Sherlock Holmes, which to some may well be sacrilege to say so, but I just constantly wanted something more, as it all felt a bit pedestrian. Perhaps I missed something, but these were meant to be the best cases with the more mundane or less well written ones omitted and I still felt there was something missing from these to make them about a detective (or expert on human nature) who I really engaged with.

You can read all the Father Brown stories here.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet

Title: Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet

Author: MC Beaton

Number of pages: 238

Started: 8 December 2008

Finished: 10 December 2008

Opening words:

Agatha Raisin arrived at Heathrow Airport with a tan outside and a blush of shame inside. She felt an utter fool as she pushed her loads of luggage towards the exit.

Plot summary:

Agatha is convinced that the handsome new village vet has taken a fancy to her and is determined that romance will flourish. However, Dr Bladen is found dead and Agatha suspects foul play. This provides her with a chance to get chummier with her neighbour (and future husband?) James Lacey and use her amateur detective skills to find the killer. Although numerous ladies are devastated by the vets death, some feel that it is good riddance and that Agatha should stay off the case....before someone else gets killed. This is the second in the Agatha Raisin murder mystery series and exceeds all expectations.

Summary taken from Amazon

What I thought:

This was a readable and untaxing read. It is never going to win any prizes for high literature and is perhaps a bit clichéd, but it is a pleasant read and is an easy way to pass a few hours.

Thursday, 27 November 2008


Title: Persuasion: The art of influencing people

Author: James Borg

Number of pages: 267

Started: 20 November 2008

Finished: 27 November 2008

Opening words:

The power of persuasion is maybe the ultimate source of advantage in life and work. It can be the critical separation factor between the successful and the rest. With some people it seems to be utterly effortless.

Plot summary:

We all rely heavily on our persuasive powers every day - whether you are trying to get people to agree with you, influencing others to make a decision, asking for something, or attempting to bring about a change in behaviour or attitude in others, and how success you are depends on how persuasive you are.
Success in persuasion is down to a combination of self-assessment and situational assessment - being aware of what's going on inside you and happening around you. Persuasion exposes the set of golden behavioural rules that will boost your persuasive powers and get a positive result for you with increased regularity.

What I thought:

I thought this book was useful, it brought together various people’s understanding of how we persuade people into one book. Did I think it was a good book though? Not particularly. It was ok, but nothing sensational. It is a very easy read and a useful one stop shop for how persuasion can work, but nothing terribly new or original. Useful but not sensational.

The Moon is Down

Title: The Moon is Down

Author: John Steinbeck

Number of pages: 112

Started: 26 November 2008

Finished: 27 November 2008

Opening words:

"By ten-forty-five, it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished."

Plot summary:

This seems a simple - almost an obvious book - until its overtones and undertones begin to do their deadly work. Then one realizes that, compact in less than 200 pages, is the story of what is happening to the conquerors and the conquered the world over, today. The yeast of freedom, of democracy, the soul of unconquerable man, is working to destroy those who deny freedom. No country is named - but it might be Norway. No person nor persons are named - but their types are truly drawn. Mayor Orden stands as a hero with none of the trappings of heroism. Curseling, the traitor, epitomizes the Quislings of the world. And the story? A tale of the unnamed men and women who are breaking the morale of the conquering beast with silence, hate, mass resentment, and the use of weapons forged by imagination and passion while the weapons of the enemy become powerless to break their strength, their unity of anger. An extraordinary achievement.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It had a calm about it that pervaded the whole book and through a fable showed how people overcame an oppressive and murderous regime. An interesting book that was deliberately written and used as a piece of propaganda during the Second World War.

I have seen various reviews that have said the book is set in Norway, but there is actually no mention of any country and it could have been any occupied town.

A good book that showed the humanity of the people within it regardless of which side they were on. A thought provoking read.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


Title: Boy

Author: Roald Dahl

Number of pages: 176

Started: 12 November 2008

Finished: 19 November 2008

Opening words:

My father, Harald Dahl, was a Norwegian who came from a small town near Oslo, called Sarpsborg. His own father, my grandfather, was a fairly prosperous merchant who owned a store in Sarpsborg and traded in just about everything from cheese to chicken-wire.

I am writing these words in 1984, but this grandfather of mine was born, believe it or not, in 1820, shortly after Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. If my grandfather had been alive today, he would have been one hundred and sixty-four years old. My father would have been one hundred and twenty-one. Both my father and my grandfather were late starters so far as children were concerned.

When my father was fourteen, which is still more than one hundred years ago, he was up on the roof of the family house replacing some loose tiles when he slipped and fell. He broke his left arm below the elbow somebody ran to fetch the doctor, and half an hour later this gentleman made a majestic and drunken arrival in his horse-drawn buggy he was so drunk that he mistook the fractured elbow for a dislocated shoulder.

Plot summary:

“Many remarkable things did happen to Roald Dahl when he was a boy, and maybe that's where some of the marvellous ideas for his books came from. This is the story of his own childhood.”

What I thought:

I must have last read this book over twenty years ago. It was more gruesome than I remembered and had some really horrid moments – just the sort of thing a child might like!

It was a good book and showed where some of his book ideas came from and was an enjoyable read in itself.

A good light read (with a few gruesome bits!)

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Fooled by Randomness

Title: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Number of pages: 316

Started: 8 November 2008

Finished: 18 November 2008

Opening words:

“This book is about luck disguised and perceived as non-luck (that is, skills) and more generally randomness disguised and perceived as non-randomness. It manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributed his success to some other, generally precise reason.”

Plot summary:
If the prescriptions for getting rich that are outlined in books such as The Millionaire Next Door and Rich Dad Poor Dad are successful enough to make the books bestsellers, then one must ask, Why aren't there more millionaires? In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professional trader and mathematics professor, examines what randomness means in business and in life and why human beings are so prone to mistake dumb luck for consummate skill. This eccentric and highly personal exploration of the nature of randomness meanders from the court of Croesus and trading rooms in New York and London to Russian roulette, Monte Carlo engines, and the philosophy of Karl Popper. Part of what makes this book so good is Taleb's ability to make seemingly arcane mathematical concepts (at least to this reviewer) entirely relevant in evaluating and understanding everything from the stock market to the success of those millionaires cited in the aforementioned bestsellers. Here's an articulate, wise, and humorous meditation on the nature of success and failure that anyone who wants a little more of the former would do well to consider. Highly recommended.

Summary taken from

What I thought:
I enjoyed this book. I tend to like books that challenge the way we think about things or look at the world. I thought this book made some really good points about the way we view things and that we are often looking for certainty or to be able to predict the future etc when such things don’t necessarily exist.

However, I thought the author was incredibly arrogant and somewhat dismissive of anything or anyone that went against his view. It take a certain type of ego to write this sort of book an in that sort of way and whilst I enjoyed the subject matter, I found the author’s approach grating and unnecessary.

Friday, 14 November 2008


Title: Conflicts: A better way to resolve them

Author: Edward de Bono

Number of pages: 207

Started: 30 October 2008

Finished: 14 November 2008

Opening words:

"We do have to accept that our methods of solving major disputes and conflicts have been crude and primitive, inadequate and expensive, dangerous and destructive. The increasing complexity of the world and the increasing power of our weaponry force us to rethink our conflict-solving methods."

Plot summary:

An introduction to a method of conflict resolution that involves making a map of the conflict 'terrain' and then using lateral thinking to generate alternative solutions.

What I thought:

I thought this book had some really interesting ideas and I find de Bono’s attempt to see old problems from a new angle to be really helpful. This book was proposing moving away from the “Western” approach to conflicts, which is arguing about them, to the Japanese model which involves exploring all ideas, rather than dismissing or arguing about alternative views.

It was an approach that I think could be very effective, but only if you could get all parties to agree to it. It would be a real culture shift for many to be willing to be more open minded. So the issue I struggle with is how realistic it is to expect people to adopt this approach – but as de Bono argues, he is looking for nations to implement it and I think it would have to be at that kind of level for it to be something that became a part of how we deal with conflict.

This book is pretty much out of print now, so it might be difficult to track down a copy.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

War and Peace

Title: War and Peace

Author: Leo Tolstoy

Number of pages: 1358

Started: 21 September 2008

Finished: 29 October 2008

Opening words:

'Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now nothing more than estates taken over by the Buonaparte family. No, I give you fair warning. If you won't say this means war, if you will allow yourself to condone all the ghastly atrocities perpetrated by that Antichrist - yes, that's what I think he is - I shall disown you. You're no friend of mine - not the "faithful slave" you claim to be... But how are you? How are you keeping? I can see I'm intimidating you. Do sit down and talk to me.'

These words were spoken (in French) one evening in July 1805 by the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and confidante of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna, as she welcomed the first person to arrive at her soirée, Prince Vasily Kuragin, a man of high rank and influence.

Plot summary:

Considered by many to the greatest novel ever written, Tolstoy's masterpiece is a story of family life set against the backdrop of war. The novel begins in 1805 in the crowded and gossip-filled rooms of a St Petersburg party and follows the fortunes of the aristocratic Bolkonsky and Rostov families as Napoleon's armies sweep through Europe, culminating in the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and Napoleon's defeat. Tolstoy's vast novel takes in both the epic sweep of national events and the private experience of individuals, from the keen young soldier to Napoleon himself, and at the heart of it all the complicated triangle of affection that binds his central characters.

What I thought:

So War and Peace is no more. All 1358 pages are now read and I am beginning to realise that I have some element of freedom back (that is a terribly amusing War and Peace based joke, but clearly if you haven’t read it, it will pass right over your head. Or it could mean that it’s not funny. Or that it’s a bit obscure even if you have read it. Take your pick).

Did I enjoy it? Sort of. I certainly found it very engaging at times and I wouldn’t have read it at the pace (five and a half weeks) I did if I didn’t get something out of it. I particularly liked Volume 3, which was when the narrator stepped into the story more and gave his views on people’s rile in history and how leaders think that they are somehow in control and yet any event in life (however great or small that life is) in that moment it is the culmination of a whole load of unconnected events that have gone before and people are not able to operate outside of that and take the credit for things that are really ultimately beyond their own control. I thought it was a really interesting idea and one that permeated the whole book.

As a story it would be right to describe it as epic and it brought together all the different parts of human experience and I was surprised at how funny some bits of the book were, but equally some were very tragic. I have to say that at times it was difficult to keep track of the story, but I think I just about managed to keep up.

Would I recommend it to others? Hmm… It was a good read and I liked it far more than I expected. But if someone wants to read it, they have to want to read it for themselves. I don’t think it is a book to take on lightly because it could easily turn into a test of endurance. I think reading it at a good pace is the best way to do it or else it would be quite easy to put it down and never pick it back up again. It is a definitely a more rewarding read if you read a reasonable chunk at a time (and it also helps to remember what happens as well). So, give it a go if you want to, but you do need to want to.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Fahrenheit 451

Title: Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury

Number of pages: 184

Started: 6 October 2008

Finished: 7 October 2008

Opening words:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.

Plot summary:

The hauntingly prophetic classic novel set in a not-too-distant future where books are burned by a special task force of firemen. Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books. The classic novel of a post-literate future, 'Fahrenheit 451' stands alongside Orwell's '1984' and Huxley's 'Brave New World' as a prophetic account of Western civilization's enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity. Bradbury's powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which over fifty years from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

When I started this book, I wasn’t too sure about it, but as I read on there were passages in it that I thought were so brilliantly written that you could hear the anger and passion as the characters expressed the words. Ray Bradbury was never certain quite what had driven him to write a book about a society that destroyed the written word, although he recalled the Nazi book-burnings etc, but somehow he feared a society might one day come about that banned books and literacy and instead we received everything through carefully manipulated television that simply kept us happy and unquestioning. His insight was perhaps even greater than he could ever have imagined.

In the Afterword of this book, Ray Bradbury explains some of the origins of the ideas in this book and he refers back to a prediction made by one of the characters that you don’t need to burn books if everyone is so caught up in seeking ‘happiness’ and instant satisfaction. If we are not careful, books simply fall by the wayside and all the potential challenges to our thinking that go along with them. If this book does nothing else for you then let it remind you of the world of books out there and how much there is to learn. If you haven’t read this book then perhaps you should to see a world without them.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Title: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Author: John Boyne

Number of pages: 216

Started: 29 September 2008

Finished: 30 September 2008

Opening words:

One afternoon, when Bruno came home from school, he was surprised to find Maria, the family’s maid – who always kept her head bowed and never looked up from the carpet – standing in his bedroom, pulling all his belongings out of the wardrobe and packing them in four large wooden crates, even the things he’d hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody’s else’s business.

Plot summary:

The story of "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about. If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. (Though this isn't a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. We hope you never have to cross such a fence.

(From the back of the book)

What I thought:

I am not sure what to make of this book. It was perfectly readable but I just could not work out what the point of it was. I thought the blurb on the back of the book (as above in the plot summary) was intriguing, but actually somewhat misleading because it could clearly have been summarised on the back of the book. But as a marketing tool it did work, I guess. Anyway, this was a children’s book but I think it was too subtle for a lot of children and there is every chance that a number who read this would have no idea what it was about. For adults, I think it would be a bit frustrating because it was very simplistic and it seems unlikely the child in it could really know so little of what was going on. But it is billed as a fable and perhaps simplicity should therefore be what it is about and trying to make it into something complex or more profound misses the point.

I did actually see the end of the book coming from a long way off and so that wasn’t really a surprise, although perhaps that says more about my cynical brain than being a poor reflection on the book.

You can read the first chapter here.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


Title: Betrayal

Author: Karin Alvtegen

Number of pages: 297

Started: 18 September 2008

Finished: 21 September 2008

Opening words:

”I don’t know”

Three Words.

Each by itself or in some other context completely harmless. Utterly without intrinsic gravity. Merely a statement that he was not sure and therefore chose not to reply.

I don’t know.

Three words.

As an answer to the question she had asked it was a threat to her entire existence. A sudden chasm that opened in the newly polished parquet living-room floor”

Plot summary:
Eva and Henrik have been living together for fifteen years and have a son together. Eva suddenly realizes that her husband is seeing another woman. In anger and desperation, she decides to seek revenge. At the same time, a young man has for the past two years been watching by a hospital bed where his girlfriend lies in a coma after an accident. But his year-ning for closeness is growing excruciating. She keeps letting him down by refusing to wake up. Deceit deals with how devastating it can be to be let down and how our destructive actions create consequences far beyond our control. The destiny of Jonas and Eva is the consequence of other people’s actions and it is by chance that the roads of these two people cross..."

Summary taken from Karin Alvtegen’s website.

What I thought:

This was a very dark book that was about a side of life that was about so much more than betrayal and its consequences. It was a very easy read and the pages just slipped by but it showed a side of humanity that I felt uncomfortable with, not because I thought the plot was unbelievable, but because it could indeed happen. Maybe not in those specific circumstances, but people capable of each of the things that the characters did do exist and could do those very things.

I didn’t always feel comfortable with the plot of the book, but I think that was because it is not a pleasant story. It was a good read though and I am likely to read others of her books.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Aesop: The Complete Fables

Title: The Complete Fables

Author: Aesop

Number of pages: 262

Started: 29 July 2008

Finished: 19 September 2008

Opening words:

The things brought by ill fortune, taking advantage of the feebleness of those brought by good fortune, pursued them closely. They went up to heaven and there asked Zeus to tell them how they should behave with regard to men. Zeus told them that they should present themselves to men not all together but only one at a time. And that is why the bad things, living near to men, assail them constantly, while the good things, who have to come down from the sky, only arrive at long intervals.

Thus we see how good fortune never reaches us quickly, while bad fortune strikes us every day.

Plot summary:

A translation of the complete Aesopian corpus of fables. The introduction pays particular attention to the transmission of fable "stock" from sanscrit to Aesop. It also attends to the precise nature of the animals themselves who appear in these fables, and tries to rescue the fables both from a tradition of moralistic interpretation and from the academic perception of the genre as an exclusively populist one.

Summary taken from Amazon

What I thought:

I quite enjoyed reading these Fables and a number of them have clearly influenced some of the things we say today (such as the expressions about “sour grapes”). I did think that some of the explanations for the fables were a bit tenuous but they were also quite thought provoking at times and it was an interesting read. It’s a different kind of read to normal as well with many of the fables only being a few lines long, which meant that if I wasn’t fully concentrating I was probably onto the next fable before I knew it. Aesop clearly had a big influence on literature and story-telling and these are an easy read, so I would definitely recommend giving it a go.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Testament of Youth

Title: Testament of Youth

Author: Vera Brittain

Number of pages: 661

Started: 28 July 2008

Finished: 17 September 2008

Opening words:

When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.

Plot summary:

In 1914 Vera Brittain was 21 years old, and an undergraduate student at Somerville College, Oxford. When war broke out in August of that year, Brittain "temporarily" disrupted her studies to enrol as a volunteer nurse, nursing casualties both in England and on the Western Front. The next four years were to cause a deep rupture in Brittain's life, as she witnessed not only the horrors of war first hand, but also experienced the quadruple loss of her fiancé, her brother, and two close friends. Testament of Youth is a powerfully written, unsentimental memoir which has continued to move and enthral readers since its first publication in 1933. Brittain, a pacifist since her First World War experiences, prefaces the book with a fairy tale, in which Catherine, the heroine, encounters a fairy godmother and is given the choice of having either a happy youth or a happy old age. She selects the latter and so her fate is determined: "Now this woman," warns the tale, "was the destiny of poor Catherine." And we find as we delve deeper into the book that she was the destiny of poor Vera too.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

This was a fascinating and engaging account of a period of history that forever changed Britain (and other nations), namely the First World War. It was an account of one woman’s experiences and how she and others went from patriotism for King and Country and to a horror at the mass slaughter of so many for little purpose.

Her experience was perhaps quite extreme, she lost her brother, fiancé and two friends, which was a higher proportion than many will have experienced, but as it is a personal account that is the impact it had on her.

The book does need to be read with a few things in mind. First, the book was written a couple of decades after the war when many of the people and incidents referred to will have been familiar to many readers. If the First World War and the politics of that time are not all that familiar to you then it is worth checking who some of the people or incidents referred to are to understand the significance of them more. Second, whilst she did keep a journal, she did not always keep it at the time things happened (she refers to this herself at one point during the book) so the accuracy of all of her account may not be 100% - but it is a personal account so that’s not necessarily a massive fault. If the book creates an interest in delving more into this period of history, that is probably achieving what she wanted anyway, so it is a good thing to question what she says, if only to learn the true extent of the slaughter that took place.

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Number of pages: 285

Started: 8 September 2008

Finished: 15 September 2008

Opening words:

To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer -excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.

Plot summary:

Amid the foggy streets of sinister London and the even more sinister countryside, Holmes and Watson once more solve the unsolvable. This book is a collection of stories, including "A Scandal in Bohemia", "A Case of Identity", "The Red-Headed League" and "The Boscombe Valley Mystery".

What I thought:

This was an enjoyable read with a variety of stories to try and fox Holmes. They were an interesting collection of stories, although perhaps mainly a variation on a theme and the solution to the mysteries were always very speedily explained, perhaps because the answer should have been had we truly managed to observe what took place. Very readable and some good classic stories.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Title: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Author: Jeanette Winterson

Number of pages: 171

Started: 5 September 2008

Finished: 7 September 2008

Opening words:

LIKE MOST PEOPLE I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't mater what. She was in the white corner and that was that. She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window. She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.
Enemies were:

The Devil (in his many forms)
Next Door
Sex (in its many forms)

Friends were:

Our dog
Auntie Madge
The Novels of Charlotte Brontë
Slug pellets

and me, at first, I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the Rest of the World. She had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn't that she couldn't do it, more that she didn't want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first. So she did the next best thing and arranged for a foundling. That was me.

Plot summary:
Jeanette, the protagonist of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and the author's namesake, has issues--"unnatural" ones: her adopted mam thinks she's the Chosen one from God; she's beginning to fancy girls; and an orange demon keeps popping into her psyche. Already Jeanette Winterson's semi-autobiographical first novel is not your typical coming-of-age tale.

Brought up in a working-class Pentecostal family, up North, Jeanette follows the path her Mam has set for her. This involves Bible quizzes, a stint as a tambourine-playing Sally Army officer and a future as a missionary in Africa, or some other "heathen state". When Jeanette starts going to school ("The Breeding Ground") and confides in her mother about her feelings for another girl ("Unnatural Passions"), she's swept up in a feverish frenzy for her tainted soul. Confused, angry and alone, Jeanette strikes out on her own path, that involves a funeral parlour and an ice-cream van. Mixed in with the so-called reality of Jeanette's existence growing up are unconventional fairy tales that transcend the everyday world, subverting the traditional preconceptions of the damsel in distress.

In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson knits a complicated picture of teenage angst through a series of layered narratives, incorporating and subverting fairytales and myths, to present a coherent whole, within which her stories can stand independently. Imaginative and mischievous, she is a born storyteller, teasing and taunting the reader to reconsider their worldview.

Summary taken from Amazon

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. It was highly readable and I liked the young voice of the narrator and the innocence that brought to the story. It was an interesting take on a difficult issue – a girl exploring her sexuality growing up in a highly religious family. A really charming book that was a really good read.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Thirty Nine Steps

Title: The Thirty Nine Steps

Author: John Buchan

Number of pages: 126

Started: 4 September 2008

Finished: 4 September 2008

Opening words:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda- water that has been standing in the sun. ’Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ’you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’

Plot summary:

Richard Hannay has just returned to England after years in South Africa and is thoroughly bored with his life in London. But then a murder is committed in his flat, just days after a chance encounter with an American who had told him about an assassination plot which could have dire international consequences. An obvious suspect for the police and an easy target for the killers, Hannay goes on the run in his native Scotland where he will need all his courage and ingenuity to stay one step ahead of his pursuers.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book, which was a speedy and engaging read about a man on the run who is caught up in a major plot involving government’s and murders and a whole lot of things on between. In many ways it is a bit of a Boy’s Own adventure and Buchan himself said he wrote the novel of “where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible”. I read the whole book during a long train journey to Scotland, which was a good time to read it given that part of the story involves a train journey to Scotland and then Hannay’s attempts to evade his hunters. Well worth a read.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Wuthering Heights

Title: Wuthering Heights

Author: Emily Bronte

Number of pages: 279

Started: 23 August 2008

Finished: 31 August 2008

Opening words:

1801. - I have just returned from a visit to my landlord - the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist's heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.

Plot summary:

In a house haunted by memories, the past is everywhere! As darkness falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to shelter at the strange, grim house Wuthering Heights. It is a place he will never forget. There he will come to learn the story of Cathy: how she was forced to choose between her well-meaning husband and the dangerous man she had loved since she was young. How her choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge - and continues to torment those in the present. How love can transgress authority, convention, even death. And how desire can kill.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I hate to say it but this really is not my kind of book and it reminded me of all those tings that I hated about being forced to read books at school. I did plough through it to the end, but I found the language a bit flowery, not very accessible and that I didn’t really see what about the plot people think is so marvellous. Perhaps a re-read sometime or going back through it with a guide written by someone who wants to pass on the book’s appeal would make a difference. But for me, this was not an enjoyable read.

Friday, 22 August 2008

The Birds and other stories

Title: The Birds and Other Stories

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Number of pages: 242

Started: 14 August 2008

Finished: 22 August 2008

Opening words:

On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft. The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green. The earth was rich where the plough had turned it.

Plot summary:

The idea for this famous story came to du Maurier one day when she was walking across to Menabilly Barton farm from the house. She saw a farmer busily ploughing a field whilst above him the seagulls were diving and wheeling. She developed an idea about the birds becoming hostile and attacking him. In her story, the birds become hostile after a harsh winter with little food -- first the seagulls, then birds of prey, and finally even small birds -- all turn against mankind. The nightmarish vision appealed to Hitchcock who turned it into the celebrated film.

Summary taken from Amazon.

'How long he fought with them in the darkness he could not tell, but at last the beating of the wings about him lessened and then withdrew . . . '

A classic of alienation and horror, 'The Birds' was immortalised by Hitchcock in his celebrated film. The five other chilling stories in this collection echo a sense of dislocation and mock man's sense of dominance over the natural world. The mountain paradise of 'Monte Verità' promises immortality, but at a terrible price; a neglected wife haunts her husband in the form of an apple tree; a professional photographer steps out from behind the camera and into his subject's life; a date with a cinema usherette leads to a walk in the cemetery; and a jealous father finds a remedy when three's a crowd . . .

Summary taken from Fantastic Fiction.

What I thought:

I liked this book, but not as much as the other Daphne du Maurier books that I have read. It was a series of short stories, all in some way showing the darker side of life. In some ways there were no clear endings to some of the stories, but perhaps that was part of the point and helped to set the tone.

A reasonable read, not as good as her others, but if you like short stories then these are good ones to try.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

84 Charing Cross Road

Title: 84 Charing Cross Road

Author: Helene Hanff

Number of pages: 230

Started: 10 August 2008

Finished: 13 August 2008

Opening words:

October 5, 1959


Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialise in out-of-print books. The phrase 'antiquarian book-sellers' scares me somewhat, as I equate 'antique' with expensive. I am a poor write with an anteriquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble's grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.

I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?

Very truly yours,
Helene Hanff

Plot summary:
84 Charing Cross Road is a 1970 book by Helene Hanff, later made into a stage play and film, about the twenty-year correspondence between her and Frank Doel of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers located at the eponymous address in London, England.

Summary taken from Wikipedia

What I thought:

This was a very speedy read. It actually only took me couple of hours to read the book – there were actually two books in this volume, the other being The Duchess of Bloomsbury, which took a bit longer to read.

84 Charing Cross Road is a charming correspondence that took place over many years between a British bookseller and an American customer. It is just a gentle read of what they wrote to each other (and a few letters that others chipped in when they could). A pleasant read.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury was the follow on story of when Helen Hanff came to London for the first time - which was after her correspondent had died and the bookshop itself had closed. It was a readable and charming insight into London and one woman’s finally achieving her ambition of seeing the England that she had previously only dreamed of and seen through books.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Strangers on a Train

Title: Strangers on a Train

Author: Patricia Highsmith

Number of pages: 256

Started: 29 July 2008

Finished: 9 August 2008

Opening words:

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again. But progress was imperceptible. The prairie only undulated, like a vast, pink-tan blanket being casually shaken. The faster the train went, the more buoyant and taunting the undulations

Plot summary:

The Psychologists would call it folie a deux...'Bruno slammed his palms together.' Hey! Cheeses, what an idea! I kill your wife and you kill my father! We meet on a train, see, and nobody knows we know each other! Perfect alibis! Catch? From this moment, almost against his conscious will, Guy Haines is trapped in a nightmare of shared guilt and an insidious merging of personalities.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I’m not sure what I thought of this book. When I concentrated on it I enjoyed reading it, but when I was reading it on the way to and from work I found it more difficult to get into it. It had an interesting and thought provoking plot and had some really good insights into what makes people tick and th consequences of the decisions we make. There is nothing to criticise about it, at time I just drifted a bit though. It was worth reading though and had some really satisfying parts to it.

Monday, 28 July 2008

One Good Turn

Title: One Good Turn

Author: Kate Atkinson

Number of pages: 527

Started: 18 July 2008

Finished: 28 July 2008

Opening words:

"He was lost. He wasn't used to being lost. He was the kind of man who drew up plans and then executed them efficiently, but now everything was conspiring against him in ways he decided he couldn't have foreseen. He had been stuck in a jam on the A1 for two mind-numbing hours so that it was already past the middle of the morning when he arrived in Edinburgh."

Plot summary:

It is the Edinburgh Festival. People queuing for a lunchtime show witness a road-rage incident - an incident which changes the lives of everyone involved. Jackson Brodie, ex-army, ex-police, ex-private detective, is also an innocent bystander - until he becomes a suspect.

With Case Histories, Kate Atkinson showed how brilliantly she could explore the crime genre and make it her own. In One Good Turn she takes her masterful plotting one step further. Like a set of Russian dolls each thread of the narrative reveals itself to be related to the last. Her Dickensian cast of characters are all looking for love or money and find it in surprising places. As ever with Atkinson what each one actually discovers is their true self.

Synopsis taken from Random House.

What I thought:

I quite liked this book, it was very readable and easy to get through. It did, however, have a very convoluted plot, with connections all over the place and people’s paths crossing, unknowingly, on a number of occasions.

This book has been described as ‘literary’, but I’m not entirely sure that I know why. It makes various references to works of literature, but surely that does not in itself make this book literary? I think describing it like that might actually put some people off, as it might give the impression that it is very intellectual, whereas it is actually an easy read.

The plot itself was quite good, if you could keep up with all the connections in it, although perhaps a little far-fetched, by the end. But worth reading and I might give another of her books a go.

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Kraken Wakes

Title: The Kraken Wakes

Author: John Wyndham

Number of pages: 240

Started: 17 July 2008

Finished: 21 July 2008

Opening words:

The nearest iceberg looked firmly grounded. Waves, with the whole fetch of the Atlantic behind them, exploded upon it, just as they would upon solid rock. Further out there were other large bergs, also stranded by the falling tide, and looking like sudden white mountains. Here and there among them smaller ones were still afloat, with the wind and the current driving them slowly up the Channel. That morning there were more, I fancy, than we had ever before seen at one time. I paused to look at them. Blinding white crags in a blue sea

Plot summary:

Ships are sinking for no apparent reason, carrying hundreds to a dark underwater grave. Strange fireballs race through the sky above the deepest trenches of the oceans. Something is about to show itself, something terrible and alien, a force capable of causing global catastrophe.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book, not as much as the other John Wyndham’s but I did enjoy it nonetheless. It did keep making me think of The War of the Worlds and the invasion of beings more intelligent than us. It had that standard theme of how do you get people to deal with their inertia and be willing to deal with a crisis etc and whilst not as good as some of his others, it was a thought provoking read.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Jamaica Inn

Title: Jamaica Inn

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Number of pages: 267

Started: 14 July 2008

Finished: 17 July 2008

Opening words:

It was a cold grey day in late November, The weather had changed overnight when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it travelled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat; in a faint endeavour to gain shelter from his own shoulders, while the dispirited horses plodded sullenly to his command, too broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked above their heads, while it: swung between the numb fingers of the driver.

Plot summary:

Jamaica Inn tells the story of the 23-year-old Mary Yellan, brought up on a farm in Helford in the early 1800s, but who is forced to go live with her Aunt Patience after Mary's mother dies. Patience is the wife of the keeper of Jamaica Inn, Joss Merlyn. On her arrival at the gloomy and threatening inn, she finds her aunt under the thumb of the vicious Joss, and soon realizes that something unusual is afoot at the inn, which has no guests and is never open to the public. Mary tries to squeeze the truth out of her uncle during one of his benders, but he tells her, "I'm not drunk enough to tell you why I live in this God-forgotten spot, and why I'm the landlord of Jamaica Inn."
Summary taken from wikipedia.

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. It’s quite melodramatic but very engaging and I think I particularly enjoyed it because it was set in the part of Cornwall where I was staying at the time and so some of the places I had actually just been to. I thought it was a dark and foreboding plot that did really well at conjuring up images and a sense of doom. Really good read.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Our Man in Havana

Title: Our Man in Havana

Author: Graham Greene

Number of pages: 220

Started: 9 July 2008

Finished: 14 July 2008

Opening words:

"That nigger going down the street," said Dr. Hasselbacher standing in the Wonder Bar, "he reminds me of you, Mr. Wormold." It was typical of Dr. Hasselbacher that after fifteen years of friendship he still uses the prefix Mr -- friendship proceeded with the slowness and assurances of a careful diagnosis. On Wormold's death-bed, when Dr. Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps become Jim.

The Negro was blind in one eye and one leg was shorter than the other; he wore an ancient felt hat and his ribs showed through his torn shirt like a ship's under demolition.

Plot summary:

Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of powercuts. His adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that amazes him so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he's tempted. In return all he has to do is file a few reports. But when his fake reports start coming true things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I quite liked this book, not as much as others of Graham Greene's books that I have read but it was readable in a whimsical sort of way. It reminded me of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, which I guess was due to the absurdity of them both – in this book that someone could be recruited as an agent and simply make up the whole thing, people, intelligence, details and actually end up in the worrying position of it coming true! Not one of my favourite Greene books but perfectly readable.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Hold Tight

Title: Hold Tight

Author: Harlan Coben

Number of pages: 416

Started: 4 July 2008

Finished: 8 July 2008

Opening words:

Marianne nursed her third shot of Cuervo, marveling at her endless capacity to destroy
any good in her pathetic life, when the man next to her shouted, “Listen up, sweetcakes:
Creationism and evolution are totally compatible.”
His spittle landed on Marianne’s neck. She made a face and shot the man a quick glance.
He had a big bushy mustache straight out of a seventies porn flick. He sat on her right.
The overbleached blonde with brittle hair of straw he was trying to impress with this
stimulating banter was on her left. Marianne was the unlucky luncheon meat in their badpickup
She tried to ignore them. She peered into her glass as if it were a diamond she was sizing
up for an engagement ring. Marianne hoped that it would make the mustache man and
straw-haired woman disappear. It didn’t.
“You’re crazy,” Straw Hair said.
“Hear me out.”
“Okay, I’ll listen. But I think you’re crazy.”
Marianne said, “Would you like to switch stools, so you can be next to one another?”
Mustache put a hand on her arm. “Just hold on, little lady, I want you to hear this too.”
Marianne was going to protest, but it might be easier not to. She turned back to her drink.
“Okay,” Mustache said, “you know about Adam and Eve, right?”
“Sure,” Straw Hair said.
“You buy that story?”
“The one where he was the first man and she was the first woman?”
“Hell, no. You do?”
“Yes, of course.” He petted his mustache as if it were a small rodent that needed calming.
“The Bible tells us that’s what happened. First came Adam, then Eve was formed out of
his rib.”
Marianne drank. She drank for many reasons. Most of the time it was to party. She had
been in too many places like this, looking to hook up and hoping it would come to more.
Tonight, though, the idea of leaving with a man held no interest. She was drinking to
numb and damn it if it wasn’t working. The mindless chatter, once she let go, was
distracting. Lessened the pain.

Plot summary:

How well do you really know your child?
Tia and Mike Baye never imagined they’d spy on their kids. But their sixteen-year-old son Adam has been unusually distant lately, and after the suicide of his best friend Spencer Hill, they can’t help but worry. Within days of installing a sophisticated spy program on Adam’s computer they are jolted by a cryptic message from an unknown correspondent that shakes them to their core: “Just stay quiet and all safe.”
As if Mike Baye isn’t dealing with enough, he also learns that Lucas Loriman, the sweet kid who grew up next door, is in urgent need of a kidney transplant. As the boy’s doctor, Mike suddenly finds himself in possession of an explosive secret that threatens to rip the Loriman family apart at the seams.
Nearby, while browsing through an online memorial for Spencer, Betsy Hill discovers a surprising detail about the night of her son’s death. Before she can find out more, Adam disappears, taking the truth with him and sending shockwaves through the neighborhood.
As the lives of these families collide in tragic, unexpected, and violent ways, long-hidden connections in their small suburb begin to work their way to the surface. And when an unidentified Jane Doe is beaten to death not far away, those connections threaten to turn this quiet community upside down—and force these desperate parents to decide whether there is any line they won’t cross to protect those they love most in the world.
Summary from Harlan Coben’s website.

What I thought:

A good read. I like Harlan Coben’s books (his standalone ones, I’m not so keen on the Myron Bolitar ones) and I would add this one to the list. His books tend to follow a formula someone goes missing or is dead and then turns up (or do they?) years later. This one doesn’t actually follow that formula, but is an interesting read, although quite violent in places. I think maybe it didn’t engage me quite as much as some of his other books, but it had the usual theme of family bonds and what can break them, which is always interesting to see his take on.

It did have a very complicated plot though and in essence two stories running in parallel. At times I couldn’t remember who all the different characters were and wished that I had taken notes and drawn a diagram of the connections. If you read it, I suggest you have a pad and paper to hand to keep up – or maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention! A quick and easy read that wasn’t as good as some of his others but it was engaging and worth a read.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The War of the Worlds

Title: The War of the Worlds

Author: H.G. Wells

Number of pages: 172

Started: 28 June 2008

Finished: 3 July 2008

Opening words:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

Plot summary:

The night after a shooting star is seen streaking through the sky from Mars, a cylinder is discovered on Horsell Common in London. At first, naive locals approach the cylinder armed just with a white flag only to be quickly killed by an all-destroying heat-ray, as terrifying tentacled invaders emerge. Soon the whole of human civilisation is under threat, as powerful Martians build gigantic killing machines, destroy all in their path with black gas and burning rays, and feast on the warm blood of trapped, still-living human prey. The forces of the Earth, however, may prove harder to beat than they at first appear.

Synopsis taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book and can see how it has been really influential on later science fiction – I could definitely see elements of The Day of the Triffids in it. It was a very descriptive book and was very good at conjuring up images of London (although I might be at an advantage as I know a lot of the places it referred to). The thing I had to keep reminding myself was that the invaders were more intelligent than humans. It was easy to think that man would automatically superior when actually we were up against a far more formidable foe, who learnt quickly and was beyond man’s ability to defeat. Really interesting read. I didn’t like it as much as The Day of the Triffids but it was well worth reading.

Friday, 27 June 2008

My Cousin Rachel

Title: My Cousin Rachel

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Number of pages: 304

Started: 19 June 2008

Finished: 27 June 2008

Opening words:

"They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more though."

Plot summary:

I threw the piece of paper on the fire. She saw it burn ...Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries - and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow - Philip's cousin Rachel - turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet ...might she have had a hand in Ambrose's death?

Synopsis taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

Another good book from Daphne du Maurier. It’s difficult to give a view on this book without giving away some of the plot, but suffice to say it had a strong sense of foreboding that made you wonder throughout the book what the truth of it all really was.

Her books are also an interesting read because the narrator is always someone very much a part of the story and so you never know if you are really getting the full story or even a very accurate picture. Well written and as ever leaving you with more questions than answers.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Chrysalids

Title: The Chrysalids

Author: John Wyndham

Number of pages: 208

Started: 16 June 2008

Finished: 18 June 2008

Opening words:

When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city - which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat. ...
And the buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them; and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish-shaped things that certainly were not birds.

Most often I would see this wonderful place by daylight, but occasionally it was by night when the lights lay like strings of glow-worms along the shore, and a few of them seemed to be sparks drifting on the water, or in the air.

It was a beautiful, fascinating place, and once, when I was still young enough to know no better, I asked my eldest sister, Mary, where this lovely city could be.

She shook her head, and told me that there was no such place - not now. But, perhaps, she suggested, I could somehow be dreaming about times long ago. Dreams were funny things, and there was no accounting for them; so it might be that what I was seeing was a bit of the world as it had been once upon a time - the wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before God sent Tribulation.

Plot summary:

In the community of Waknut it is believed mutants are the products of the Devil and must be stamped out. When David befriends a girl with a slight abnormality, he begins to understand the nature of fear and oppression. When he develops his own deviation, he must learn to conceal his secret.

Synopsis taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

Another enjoyable John Wyndham book, and I thought probably my next favourite to The Day of the Triffids. Another tale of the world gone wrong and how people cope and evolve. This book had an interesting theme of people surviving the Tribulation and them then trying to eradicate everything and everyone they believed not to fit the norm – but it raised questions of how do we even know what the norm is and can you ever truly stop things from evolving anyway.

This book did actually make me wonder what drove Wyndham to write all these books about being an outsider and dealing with the extremes of life. I didn’t find an answer to that but he certainly seems to have found a theme that he questions from different angles throughout his books. Another good read.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

The Sound of Laughter

Title: The Sound of Laughter

Author: Peter Kay

Number of pages: 368

Started: 12 June 2008

Finished: 15 June 2008

Opening words:

Ding Dong! Was that the doorbell? You can never be too sure. I didn't get up to answer it. I waited for it to ring again and confirm my suspicions. I waited and I listened. I listened by leaning my head forward and tilting it slightly to one side. Everyone knows that when you lean forward and tilt your head to one side the volume of life goes up.

Ding Dong! Now that made me jump, even though I was expecting it, like when I'm staring at my toaster waiting impatiently for my toast to pop up . . . when it does I jump, every time, never fails.

I've always disliked doorbells, but this has become worse since I got into showbiz. Most people who have experienced success have this fear of getting caught, found out, the-dream-is-over-type fear. My own version of the fear is that the Showbiz Police have come to take it all back. I imagine them stood at the door in green tights and holding a scroll like those blokes out of Shrek 2. There's two of them, one plays an introductory bugle, the other clears his animated throat:

'I'm sorry, Mr Kay, but I have orders to tell you that you've had a good run, sunshine, but the time has come for you to go back to your cardboard-crushing job at Netto supermarket.' He puts his hand out. 'House and car keys please.'

But I wasn't enjoying any kind of success when the doorbell rang in 1990. There was a completely different reason for my fear. It was my driving instructor ringing the doorbell and the time had come for my first ever driving lesson.

Raymond was his name. He was big burly fella, constantly tanned, like a cross between Bully from Bullseye and a fat Des O'Connor. If you can picture that, then I think you need help.

Plot summary:

Peter Kay's unerring gift for observing the absurdities and eccentricities of family life has earned himself a widespread, everyman appeal. These vivid observations coupled with a kind of nostalgia that never fails to grab his audience's shared understanding, have earned him comparisons with Alan Bennett and Ronnie Barker. In his award winning TV series' he creates worlds populated by degenerate, bitter, useless, endearing and always recognisable characters which have attracted a huge and loyal following. In many ways he's an old fashioned kind of comedian and the scope and enormity of his fanbase reflects this. He doesn't tell jokes about politics or sex, but rather rejoices in the far funnier areas of life: elderly relatives and answering machines, dads dancing badly at weddings, garlic bread and cheesecake, your mum's HRT...His autobiography is full of this kind of humour and nostalgia, beginning with Kay's first ever driving lesson, taking him back through his Bolton childhood, the numerous jobs he held after school and leading up until the time he passed his driving test and found fame.

Synopsis taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. It was very funny and even though it covered what could have been some very boring years of Peter Kay’s life, it was actually really funny reading about him growing up and ultimately getting on the road to stardom. Some really good observational comedy and he picked up on some of the most potentially mundane points like going to Rumbelows to buy a video player, which were just actually very funny. Very amusing book.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Number of pages: 82

Started: 5 June 2008

Finished: 8 June 2008

Opening words:

“Mr. Utterson, the lawyer was a man of rugged countenance, that was never lighted by smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow loveable. He had an approved tolerance for others and in any extremity inclined to help rather than to reprove.”

Plot summary:

Everyone has a dark side. Dr Jekyll has discovered the ultimate drug. A chemical that can turn him into something else. Suddenly, he can unleash his deepest cruelties in the guise of the sinister Hyde. Transforming himself at will, he roams the streets of fog-bound London as his monstrous alter-ego. It seems he is master of his fate. It seems he is in complete control. But soon he will discover that his double life comes at a hideous price ...

Synopsis taken from Amazon

What I thought:

Another dark book, albeit a very brief one. The story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one that is probably well known, and just the very title of the book is sometimes used as a description of people. I wonder how many people have actually read the book though? It’s an interesting tale of what happens when someone finds the ability to experience life as a purely evil person and the ramifications of trying to play God with such things. A story that raises such questions as whether people are primarily good or evil - or somewhere in between.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

The Virgin Suicides

Title: The Virgin Suicides

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

Number of pages: 256

Started: 29 May 2008

Finished: 4 June 2008

Opening words:

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide — it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese — the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.’ He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the troubles began.

Plot summary:

In a quiet American suburb an ambulance arrives outside a house where five sisters live. Watched by a group of adolescent boys, the paramedics carry thirteen-year-old Cecilia Lisbon to the ambulance, her slit wrists bound. Twenty years later, the boys, now men, are still in thrall to the Lisbon sisters, all five of whom took their lives that year.

Summary taken from Bloomsbury

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was rather dark and macabre in its subject matter, but was underpinned by a somewhat dark humour that made it rather more of a light-hearted read than might have been expected.

It started with a tragedy and ended with an even greater one but it was interesting to see how the lives, and ultimately the deaths, of the five Lisbon girls had such a profound effect on so many people’s lives. We never get any answers and never truly know why they died but that isn’t really the point of the book and instead it paints images in your mind that make you wonder about the influence that others can have on our lives no matter how brief that contact might be.