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.