Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Burmese Days

Title: Burmese Days

Author: George Orwell

Number of pages: 300

Started: 1 December 2009

Finished: 9 December 2009

Opening words:

U Po Kyin, Sub-divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada, in Upper Burma, was sitting in his veranda. It was only half past eight, but the month was April, and there was a closeness in the air, a threat of the long, stifling midday hours. Occasional faint breaths of wind, seeming cool by contrast, stirred the newly drenched orchids that hung from the eaves. Beyond the orchids one could see the dusty, curved trunk of a palm tree, and then the blazing ultramarine sky. Up in the zenith, so high that it dazzled one to look at them, a few vultures circled without the quiver of a wing.

Read the whole book here.

Plot summary:

Set in the days of the Empire, with the British ruling in Burma, Burmese Days describes both indigenous corruption and Imperial bigotry, when 'after all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a "subject" people, an inferior people with black faces'. Against the prevailing orthodoxy, Flory, a white timber merchant, befriends Dr Veraswami, a black enthusiast for Empire. The doctor needs help. U Po Kyin, Sub- divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada, is plotting his downfall. The only thing that can save him is European patronage: membership of the hitherto all-white Club. While Flory prevaricates, beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives in Upper Burma from Paris. At last, after years of 'solitary hell', romance and marriage appear to offer Flory an escape from the 'lie' of the 'pukka sahib pose'.

What I thought:

This was a good, if slightly sad read. I felt that I probably missed some of the finer points of it due to not quite knowing some of the issues that were behind some of the comments made – for instance a couple of authors were mentioned and I could pick up that they were not good authors, but wasn’t really sure what it was meant to show about the person who liked them because I had never heard of them. I assume they would have been known to people when the book was published.

This book was certainly different to Orwell’s more well know works, but it was an engaging read that was at times funny, at others tragic and made an interesting social history.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Too Close to Home

Title: Too Close to Home

Author: Linwood Barclay

Number of pages: 466

Started: 20 November 2009

Finished: 30 November 2009

Opening words:

Derek figured, when the time came, the crawlspace would be the best place to hide. The only thing was, he hoped the Langleys wouldn't take that long, one he was in position, to get the hell out of their house and hit the road. The last time Derek had played with Adam in their crawlspace, they'd been eight, nine years old. They'd pretend it was a cave filled with treasure or the cargo hold of a spaceship and there was a monster hiding in there somewhere.

Plot summary:

When the Cutter family's next-door-neighbours, the Langleys, are gunned down in their house one hot August night, the Cutters' world is turned upside down. That violent death should have come so close to them is shocking enough in suburban Promise Falls, but at least the Cutters can console themselves with the thought that lightning is unlikely to strike twice in the same place. Unless, of course, the killers went to the wrong house... At first the idea seems crazy - but each of the Cutter family has a secret they'd rather keep buried. What was on that old computer teenage Derek and his friend Adam Langley had salvaged? And where is it now? What hold does a local professor and bestselling author have on Ellen Cutter? And what does Jim Cutter know about Mrs Langley that even her husband didn't? To find out who killed the Langleys and why, everybody's secrets are going to have to come out. But the final secret - the secret that could save them or destroy them - is in the one place nobody would ever think of looking...

What I thought:

This book was a decent read. It wasn’t a great work of literature and I could see how various bits of the plot were going to pan out very early on, but it was readable and a reasonable plot.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Death at Intervals

Title: Death at Intervals

Author: Jose Saramago

Number of pages: 196

Started: 12 November 2009

Finished: 16 November 2009

Opening words:

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.

Plot summary:

On the first day of the New Year, no one dies. This understandably causes great consternation amongst religious leaders - if there's no death, there can be no resurrection and therefore no reason for religion - and what will be the effect on pensions, the social services, hospitals? Funeral directors are reduced to arranging funerals for dogs, cats, hamsters and parrots. Life insurance policies become meaningless. Amid the general public, on the other hand, there is initially celebration: flags are hung out on balconies and people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity - eternal life. But will death's disappearance benefit the human race, or will this sudden abeyance backfire? How long can families cope with malingering elderly relatives who scratch at death's door while the portal remains firmly shut? Then, seven months later, death returns, heralded by purple envelopes informing the recipients that their time is up. Death herself is now writing personal notes giving one week's notice. However, when an envelope is unexpectedly returned to her, death begins to experience strange, almost human emotions. In his new novel, Jose Saramago again turns the world on its head - an everyday event is snatched away, and humankind is left to make of it what it will.

What I thought:

This was a good read. This is the second book by Jose Saramago that I have read, so I was rather more prepared for his complete unwillingness to follow most grammatical rules (which can be very inconvenient if you are travelling on the tube and desperately hoping for a full stop to appear, as you will be at your stop imminently). I like his choice of topics, this time that death stops – and then recommences some time letter with death herself sending letters to people telling them that they have one week left to live.

I like that Saramago questions his own plots and either offers an explanation for things that are perhaps stretching credibility a bit too much or just says the equivalent of “you’ll just have to trust me on that one”. You can almost hear the author thinking and putting together the plot and playing about with the ethical dilemmas and plot devices. His book are bizarre but satisfying reads.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Go Tell it on the Mountain

Title: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Author: James Baldwin

Number of pages: 256

Started: 5 November 2009

Finished: 11 November 2009

Opening words:

Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.

Plot summary:

"Nothing but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before them nothing but the fire--a bastard people, far from God, singing and crying in the wilderness!" First published in 1953, Baldwin's first novel is a short but intense, semi-autobiographical exploration of the troubled life of the Grimes family in Harlem during the Depression.

What I thought:

This was a good book, not quite in the same league as Baldwin’s book I have read (Giovanni’s Room), but good nonetheless. It is a semi-autobiographical work of fiction and is quite a bitter read, but also very engaging. There were passages in it that were rather mesmerising and beautifully written, even if the subject itself was filled with anger and other negative emotions at times.

Baldwin wrote this book to make peace with himself about his father and given the events of the book, it is clear why he needed to do that. A powerful book, if a little uncomfortable to read at times.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Death of Grass

Title: The Death of Grass

Author: John Christopher

Number of pages: 208

Started: 1 November 2009

Finished: 4 November 2009

Opening words:

As sometimes happens, death healed a family rift.

When Hilda Custance was widowed in the early summer of 1939, she wrote, for the first time since her marriage thirteen years before, to her father. Their moos touched – hers longing for the hills of Westmorland after the grim seasons of London, and his of loneliness and the desire to see his only daughter again, and his unknown grandsons, before he died. The boys, who were away at school, had not been brought back for the funeral, and at the end of the summer term they returned to the small house at Richmond only for a night, before, with their mother, they travelled north. In the train, John, the younger boy, said “But why do we never have anything to do with Grandfather Beverley?” His mother looked out of the window at the tarnished grimy environs of London, wavering, as though with fatigue, in the heat of the day.
She said vaguely “It’s hard to now how these things happen. Quarrels begin, and neither person stops them, and they become silences, and nobody breaks them.”

Read the book here.

Plot summary:

At first the virus wiping out grass and crops is of little concern to John Custance. It has decimated Asia, causing mass starvation and riots, but Europe is safe and a counter-virus is expected any day. Except, it turns out, the governments have been lying to their people. When the deadly disease hits Britain they are left alone, and society starts to descend into barbarism. As John and his family try to make it across country to the safety of his brothers farm in a hidden valley, their humanity is tested to its very limits.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. I took a bit of time to warm to it, but by the end I thought it was really good. Then I re-read the beginning of the book and liked the beginning much more second time around.

The book tells the tale of a virus that wipes out all of the world’s grass, including any grass based crops, and focuses on a family’s flight from London and the government’s dastardly plans, and all the people they meet, or join up with them, along the way.

I wouldn’t rate it as highly as The Day of the Triffids, but it is still a good read and one that actually made me wonder how much we take for granted and what we would do if those things were taken away.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Title: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Author: Muriel Spark

Number of pages: 128

Started: 27 October 2009

Finished: 28 October 2009

Opening words:

The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

The girls could not take off their panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence. Certain departures from the proper set of the hat on the head were overlooked in the case of fourth-form girls and upwards so long as nobody wore their hat at an angle. But there were other subtle variants from the ordinary rule of wearing the brim turned up at the back and down at the front. The five girls, standing very close to each other because of the boys, wore their hats each with a definite difference.

Plot summary:

She was a schoolmistress with a difference. Proud, cultured, romantic, her ideas were progressive, even shocking. And when she decided to transform a group of young girls under her tutelage into the "creme de la creme" of Marcia Blaine school, no one could have predicted the outcome.

What I thought:

This was a good read. I have read one Muriel Spark before, which I think I was a bit ambivalent about, and I liked this one a lot more. It was a tale of a teacher’s attempt to shape the lives of some of her pupils – and the consequences of doing so. The book made it clear early on that it would not end well, and it was a carefully woven story that fed you bit by bit the downfall that was to come. An enjoyable, if somewhat spiteful read and worth a look.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Pursuit of Love

Title: The Pursuit of Love

Author: Nancy Mitford

Number of pages: 192

Started: 23 October 2009

Finished: 26 October 2009

Opening words:

"There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs. Over the chimney-piece plainly visible in the photograph, hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs, an object of fascination to us as children."

Plot summary:

Childhood at Alconleigh is scanty preparation for the realities of the outside world and Linda, sweetest and most aimless of the young Radletts, falls prey to a stuffy banker and a rabid communist before she finds her ideal in a Frenchman . . .

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. Nancy Mitford’s writing has been compared to Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley (books like Crome Yellow rather than Brave New World), but having read books by each of those authors, I have to say I preferred this book. It tells the tale of a slightly mad aristocratic family and their many adventures – and is the forerunner to the better known book ‘Love in a Cold Climate’. It was quite an amusing read and is actually semi-autobiographical. It’s certainly worth a look and is the sort of book you could curl up with on a wet Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Mr Vertigo

Title: Mr Vertigo

Author: Paul Auster

Number of pages: 288

Started: 16 October 2009

Finished: 22 October 2009

Opening words:

I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water. The man in the black clothes taught me how to do it, and I’m not going to pretend I learned that trick overnight. Master Yehudi found me when I was nine, an orphan boy begging nickels on the streets of Saint Louis, and he worked with me steadily for three years before he let me show my stuff in public. That was in 1927, the year of Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh, the precise year when night began to fall on the world forever. I kept it up until a few days before the October crash, and what I did was greater than anything those two gents could have dreamed of. I did what no American had done before me, what no one has ever done since.

Plot summary:

The story of Walt, an irrepressible orphan from the Mid-West. Under the tutelage of the mesmerising Master Yehudi, Walt is taken back to the mysterious house on the plains to prepare not only for the ability to fly, but also for the stardom that will accompany it.

What I thought:

It is no secret that I am a big fan of Paul Auster. I find his books incredibly engaging and I love the darkness that underpins them. They are not stories that come together in some neat Hollywood happy ending. Having said that, I don’t think book was one of his best. I didn’t find the plot quite so engaging and it lacked one of my favourite things about Auster – his ability to weave a story within a story.

It was a decent read and it is a book that I would like to read again because I don’t feel I gave it my full concentration, but in my view he has written better. I would still suggest giving it a go, but if it doesn’t ‘do it for you’ then try one of his others because he is a fantastic author.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


Title: Waterland

Author: Graham Swift

Number of pages: 368

Started: 5 October 2009

Finished: 15 October 2009

Opening words:

"'And don't forget,' my father would say, as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, 'whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother's milk...'"

Plot summary:

First published in 1983, Graham Swift's multilayered chronicle set in the Cambridgeshire Fens is widely regarded as one of the finest British novels of the 1980s. Tom Crick is a history teacher, but the history that absorbs him is his own and his family's. The past, with its secrets and oddities, hangs heavy on him, pushing him towards a heartbreaking new crisis in his life. Swift's powerful psychological drama takes in life and death, betrayal and compassion; his setting, the brooding landscape of the marshy Fens, is utterly compelling.

What I thought:

I had mixed feelings about this book. Overall I enjoyed it, but I found the parts set in the present more compelling than the parts looking back over the history of the fens and his ancestors. I liked the narrator talking about his own life and telling the tales of his ultimate downfall, but other parts I found dragged a bit and whilst I am sure they had great meaning in them, it mainly passed me by. A decent read, but not wholly satisfying.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Title: The Postman Always Rings Twice

Author: James M Cain

Number of pages: 117

Started: 28 September 2009

Finished: 30 September 2009

Opening words:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

You can read the first two chapters on Amazon

Plot summary:

Frank Chambers, a drifter, is dropped from the back of a truck at a rundown rural diner. When he spots Cora, the owner's wife, he instantly decides to stay. The sexy young woman, married to Nick, a violent and thuggish boor, is equally attracted to the younger man and sees him as her way out of her hopeless, boring life. They begin a clandestine affair and plot to kill Nick, beginning their own journey toward destruction.

What I thought:

This was a good read. A really simple plot around trying to plan the perfect murder – and the consequences of trying to commit a crime. It was a well written book, with one of the main characters as the narrator meaning that you never quite knew whether what you were reading was entirely true, which became all the more apparent by the end. Maybe it was an accurate account and maybe it wasn’t, but that in some ways was an integral part of the plot - and part of their undoing.

It was written in a fairly economical way with no words wasted on judgements or unnecessary description. Instead the story is laid bare for you to make your own judgements and to draw your own conclusions.

An interesting plot and a good read.

Monday, 28 September 2009

A Pale View of Hills

Title: A Pale View of Hills

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Number of pages: 183

Started: Ages ago

Finished: 28 September 2009

Opening words:

Niki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I--perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past--insisted on an English one. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.

Plot summary:

In his, highly acclaimed debut, A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. Retreating into the past, she finds herself reliving one particular hot summer in Nagasaki, when she and her friends struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. But then as she recalls her strange friendship with Sachiko - a wealthy woman reduced to vagrancy - the memories take on a disturbing cast.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It took ages to read for a variety of reasons, but that wasn’t a reflection on the book or its length. It was quite a ‘calm’ story, although as it turns out, somewhat tragic. It was in some ways a strange read though because by the end, I wasn’t actually certain what had happened and quite who was who in the book. You would have to read it to understand what I mean though.

It was an interesting look at Japanese culture and politeness and it was also a good example of a book where you really have to consider the roll of the narrator in it to judge how accurate an account you are being given. I think the ambiguity of the book works, and it isn’t actually unsatisfying to have got to the conclusion and to be a bit mystified!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Lambs of London

Title: The Lambs of London

Author: Peter Ackroyd

Number of pages: 216

Started: 23 September 2009

Finished: 26 September 2009

Opening words:

‘I loathe the stench of horses.’ Mary Lamb walked over to the window, and touched very lightly the faded lace fringe of her dress. It was a dress of the former period that she wore unembarrassed, as if it were of no consequence how she chose to cover herself. ‘The city is a great jakes.’ There was no one in the drawing-room with her, so she put her face upwards, towards the sun. Her skin was marked by the scars of smallpox, suffered by her six years before; so she held her face to the light, and imagined it to be the pitted moon.

‘I have found it, dear. It was hiding in All’s Well.’ Charles Lamb rushed into the room with a thin green volume in his hand.

Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

At the centre of this intriguing, irresistible novel are the young Lambs: Charles, constrained by the tedium of his work as a clerk at the East India Company, taking refuge in a drink or three too many while spreading his wings as a young writer, and his clever, adoring sister Mary, confined by domesticity, an ailing, dotty father and a maddening mother- Into their lives comes William Ireland, an ambitious 17-year-old antiquarian and bookseller, anxious not only to impress his demanding showman of a father, but to make his mark on the literary world. When Ireland turns up a document in the handwriting of Shakespeare himself, he takes Mary into his confidence - but soon scholars and actors alike are beating a path to the little bookshop in Holborn Passage. Touching and tragic, ingenious, funny and vividly alive, this is Ackroyd at the top of his form in a masterly retelling of a nineteenth-century drama which keeps the reader guessing right to the end.

What I thought:

I wasn’t really a fan of this book. I didn’t really enjoy the plot and was not massively interested in watching the story unfold. I think the story had potential but I just didn’t find it intriguing. Perhaps it is because it was about Shakespeare and that brought back subconscious memories of school!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Things Fall Apart

Title: Things Fall Apart

Author: Chinua Achebe

Number of pages: 152

Started: 21 September 2009

Finished: 23 September 2009

Opening words:

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofia to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights.

The drums beat and the flutes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craftsman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end Okonkwo threw the Cat.

Read an extract here.

Plot summary:

Okonowo is the greatest warrior alive. His fame has spread like a bushfire in West Africa and he is one of the most powerful men of his clan. But he also has a fiery temper. Determined not to be like his father, he refuses to show weakness to anyone - even if the only way he can master his feelings is with his fists. When outsiders threaten the traditions of his clan, Okonowo takes violent action. Will the great man's dangerous pride eventually destroy him?

What I thought:

I sort of liked this book. I liked some of the folklore stories that it told in it and there were parts of it which I almost thought were quite like a Biblical parable, which I thought was quite interesting. Ultimately I guess the book was about a clash of cultures – the West Africans trying to maintain their ‘barbaric’ culture and ultimately the white missionaries trying to civilise them. I did enjoy it (although it was quite bloodthirsty in places), but I think I found it hard to decide what I thought of the book because whilst the practices of the tribe were not ‘civilised’, I wasn’t that comfortable with what the missionaries were trying to do either. But perhaps that was the point.

It was an interesting read and I warmed to it more as the book continued.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Title: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Author: George Orwell

Number of pages: 277

Started: 16 September 2009

Finished: 20 September 2009

Opening words:

The clock struck half past two. In the little office at the back of Mr McKechnie's bookshop, Gordon--Gordon Comstock, last member of the Comstock family, aged twenty-nine and rather moth-eaten already--lounged across the table, pushing a four-penny packet of Player's Weights open and shut with his thumb.

The ding-dong of another, remoter clock--from the Prince of Wales, the other side of the street--rippled the stagnant air. Gordon made an effort, sat upright, and stowed his packet of cigarettes away in his inside pocket. He was perishing for a smoke. However, there were only four cigarettes left. Today was Wednesday and he had no money coming to him till Friday. It would be too bloody to be without tobacco tonight as well as all tomorrow.

Read the whole book here.

Plot summary:

Gordon Comstock loathes dull, middle-class respectability and worship of money. He gives up a 'good job' in advertising to work part-time in a bookshop, giving him more time to write. But he slides instead into a self-induced poverty that destroys his creativity and his spirit. Only Rosemary, ever-faithful Rosemary, has the strength to challenge his commitment to his chosen way of life. Through the character of Gordon Comstock, Orwell reveals his own disaffection with the society he once himself renounced.

What I thought:

I quite liked this book. It wasn’t the most fast paced read, but it had some interesting moments. It seemed to have quite a lot of its origins in the book “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” – and in fact the title is drawn from an image in that book – but is rather less lengthy, although not necessarily that much more cheery. I thought it was an insight into the role of money and it could make you question how much of our lives are ruled by it, even though we might like to think that it is not. This is certainly not one of my most favourite Orwell books, but it was readable nonetheless.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Enduring Love

Title: Enduring Love

Author: Ian McEwan

Number of pages: 231

Started: 10 September 2009

Finished: 12 September 2009

Opening words:

The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle - a 1987 Daumas Gassac.

This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man's shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running towards it.

The transformation was absolute: I don't recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak.

There was the shout again, and a child's cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me.

Read an extract here

Plot summary:

Joe Rose has planned a postcard-perfect afternoon in the English countryside to celebrate his lover's return after six weeks in the States. To complete the picture, there's even a "helium balloon drifting dreamily across the wooded valley." But as Joe and Clarissa watch the balloon touch down, their idyll comes to an abrupt end. The pilot catches his leg in the anchor rope, while the only passenger, a boy, is too scared to jump down. As the wind whips into action, Joe and four other men rush to secure the basket. Mother Nature, however, isn't feeling very maternal. "A mighty fist socked the balloon in two rapid blows, one-two, the second more vicious than the first," and at once the rescuers are airborne. Joe manages to drop to the ground, as do most of his companions, but one man is lifted sky- high, only to fall to his death.

In itself, the accident would change the survivors' lives, filling them with an uneasy combination of shame, happiness and endless self-reproach. (In one of the novel's many ironies, the balloon eventually lands safely, the boy unscathed.) But fate has far more unpleasant things in store for Joe. Meeting the eye of fellow rescuer Jed Parry, for example, turns out to be a very bad move. For Jed is instantly obsessed, making the first of many calls to Joe and Clarissa's London flat that very night. Soon he's openly shadowing Joe and writing him endless letters. One insane epistle begins, "I feel happiness running through me like an electrical current. I close my eyes and see you as you were last night in the rain, across the road from me, with the unspoken love between us as strong as steel cable." Worst of all, Jed's version of love comes to seem a distortion of Joe's feelings for Clarissa.

Apart from the incessant stalking, it is the conditionals--the contingencies--that most frustrate Joe, a scientific journalist. If only he and Clarissa had gone straight home from the airport... if only the wind hadn't picked up... if only he had saved Jed's 29 messages in a single day... Ian McEwan has long been a poet of the arbitrary nightmare, his characters ineluctably swept up in others' fantasies, skidding into deepening violence, and--worst of all--becoming strangers to those who love them. Even his prose itself is a masterful and methodical exercise in defamiliarization. But Enduring Love and its underrated predecessor, Black Dogs, are also meditations on knowledge and perception as well as brilliant manipulations of our own expectations. By the novel's end, you will be surprisingly unafraid of hot-air balloons, but you won't be too keen on looking a stranger in the eye.

What I thought:

I sort of enjoyed this book. It was a fairly interesting plot that looked at the ramifications of a tragic ballooning accident. But I didn’t find it entirely credible and I also was not always convinced that I liked the authors tone – a bit too pompous and knowledgeable (although I was unsure if this was partly because of what the main character was like or if all of McEwan’s books are like that). It was an interesting tale of obsession, but I did have to allow myself to suspend my scepticism to read it to the end. I don’t think I was entirely convinced. I am not sure if I would read more by this author or not, it left me with mixed feelings.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Title: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Author: Stieg Larsson

Number of pages: 564

Started: 6 September 2009

Finished: 9 September 2009

Opening words:

Thursday, December 16 — Friday, December 17

Lisbeth Salander pulled her sunglasses down to the tip of her nose and squinted from beneath the brim of her sun hat. She saw the woman from room 32 come out of the hotel side entrance and walk to one of the green-and-white-striped chaises-longues beside the pool. Her gaze was fixed on the ground and her progress seemed unsteady.

Salander had only seen her at a distance. She reckoned the woman was around thirty-five, but she looked as though she could be anything from twenty-five to fifty. She had shoulder-length brown hair, an oval face, and a body that was straight out of a mail-order catalogue for lingerie. She had a black bikini, sandals, and purple-tinted sunglasses. She spoke with a southern American accent. She dropped a yellow sun hat next to the chaise-longue and signalled to the bartender at Ella Carmichael's bar.

Read an excerpt here or here

Plot summary:

Lisbeth Salander, computer genius and woman of independent means, has learned to use every weapon in the book to achieve her ends. She does not forget and she does not forgive, and wherever she finds corruption or abuse - most especially of women - she is relentless.

She decides to wage war on the elusive figures of the sex-trafficking industry, using her prodigious skills as a hacker to further an investigation launched by her one-time friend Mikael Blomkvist, the publisher of Millennium magazine. But hardly has she emerged from her hidden apartment than she is embroiled in a double murder, and sought by the police for a third. Not only does evidence point to her being mentally deranged, but her prints are on the murder weapon.

The only way Salander can be reached is by computer. But she in turn can break into almost any network she chooses. For cunning, for resolve, for ruthlessness she cannot be matched. But now, hunted not only by Inspector Bublanski's team but also by every force in Sweden, she is beyond the reach of any protection. She is also the prey of terrifyingly violent men, who will stop at nothing to protect their criminal schemes. Salander must unearth and expose the truth before her pursuers find her.

What I thought:

Another enjoyable book (although a bit gory on places). This is the second in the Millennium Trilogy and was a good continuation of the first book. It can be read alone but it easier to follow if you have read the first. Salander, the main female character is an interesting take on the ‘heroine’ role (a term she certainly wouldn’t use about herself) and it is a fast moving plot. It perhaps wasn;t entirely credible the whole way through, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief to just enjoy a good crime read.

I am not much into crime fiction these days, but I have enjoyed this eries so far and will read the next book when it comes out later this year.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

What a Carve Up!

Title: What a Carve Up!

Author: Jonathan Coe

Number of pages: 504

Started: 29 August 2009

Finished: 4 September 2009

Opening words:

Tragedy had struck the Winshaws twice before, but never on such a terrible scale.

The first of these incidents takes us back to the night of November 30th 1942, when Godfrey Winshaw, then only in his thirty-third year, was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire as he flew a top-secret mission over Berlin. The news, which was relayed to Winshaw Towers in the early hours of the morning, was enough to drive his elder sister Tabitha clean out of her wits, where she remains to this day. Such was the violence of her distraction, in fact, that it was deemed impossible for her even to attend the memorial service which was held in her brother's honour.

Read an excerpt here

Plot summary:

A brilliant noir farce, a dystopian vision of Britain, a family history and the story of an obsession. Michael is a lonely, rather pathetic writer, obsessed by the film, 'What A Carve Up!' in which a mad knifeman cuts his way through the inhabitants of a decrepit stately pile as the thunder rages. Inexplicably he is commissioned to write the family history of the Winshaws, an upper class Yorkshire clan whose members have a finger in every establishment pie, from arms dealing to art dealing, from politics to banking to the popular press and factory farming. During his researches Michael realizes that the Winshaws have cast a blight on his life, as they have on Britain. His confidence, his sexual and personal identity begin to reform. In a climax set in the Winshaw's family seat the novel turns into the film, 'What A Carve Up!' as a murderous maniac stalks the family and Michael discovers the significance of Shirley Eaton's lingerie.

What I thought:

I really liked this book. I thought it was finny and engaging and had a great mix of a plot about a slightly mad and very controlling family and also some satire about Thatcherite Britain. I thought it was a good read that worked very well combining fact and fiction. I am not overly political and so don’t let it being a satire about 1980s politics put you off. It was very readable and I found it hard to put down. Good stuff.

Friday, 28 August 2009

A Farewell to Arms

Title: A Farewell to Arms

Author: Ernest Hemingway

Number of pages: 293

Started: 25 August 2009

Finished: 28 August 2009

Opening words:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Plot summary:

In 1918 Ernest Hemingway went to war, to the 'war to end all wars'. He volunteered for ambulance service in Italy, was wounded and twice decorated. Out of his experience came A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway's description of war is unforgettable. He recreates the fear, the comradeship, the courage of his young American volunteer, and the men and women he meets in Italy, with total conviction. But A Farewell to Arms is not only a novel of war. In it Hemingway has also created a love story of immense drama and uncompromising passion.

What I thought:

I quote enjoyed this book. It was certainly very readable (but also rather tragic in places) and had a decent plot. However, I found parts of it rather unconvincing. For example, I never felt very convinced by the character Catherine, who I could only ever imagine as a very stilted character in a 1940s film). The book was better than I expected, but I was not entirely convinced that it deserves the praise if often receives.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Kafka on the Shore

Title: Kafka on the Shore

Author: Haruki Murakami

Number of pages: 506

Started: 17 August 2009

Finished: 24 August 2009

Opening words:

The Boy Named Crow

So you're all set for money, then?" the boy named Crow asks in his typical sluggish voice. The kind of voice like when you've just woken up and your mouth still feels heavy and dull. But he's just pretending. He's totally awake. As always.

I nod.

"How much?"

I review the numbers in my head. "Close to thirty-five hundred in cash, plus some money I can get from an ATM. I know it's not a lot, but it should be enough. For the time being."

"Not bad," the boy named Crow says. "For the time being."

I give him another nod.

"I'm guessing this isn't Christmas money from Santa Claus."

"Yeah, you're right," I reply.

Crow smirks and looks around. "I imagine you've started by rifling drawers, am I right?"

I don't say anything. He knows whose money we're talking about, so there's no need for any long-winded interrogations. He's just giving me a hard time.

Plot summary:

Kafka on the Shore follows the remarkable journeys of two characters: Kafka, a 15-year-old boy who has run away from home, fleeing the dark Oedipal prophecy foretold to him by his father; and Nakata, a middle-aged man who, having survived an eerie event as a child, is left with a seriously diminished intellect, the ability to converse with cats, and a shadow which is 'a bit faint'.

Fish and Leeches rain from the sky, and Colonel Sanders takes a break from fried chicken to act as a pimp for a Hegel-spouting girl of the night as the individual quests of Kafka and Nakata are drawn gradually together.

For some reading group questions look here.

See more on the Random House website (with music added).

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was like reading a mystery unfolding and two parallel plots ran throughout the book, which intersected at various points. It also had some rather bizarre elements – such as talking cats – that added to the plot. It was an interesting and engaging read and was an exploration of a search for identity, with a bit of humour thrown in. A good read.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Rules of Life

Title: The Rules of Life

Author: Richard Templar

Number of pages: 219

Started: 2 August 2009

Finished: 16 August 2009

Opening words:

For reasons that are too long and complicated to go into here, I had to live with my grandparents for a couple of years when I was very young. They, like many of their generation, were hard-working, contented sort of people. My grandfather had taken early retirement owing to an industrial accident (a lorry-load of bricks fell on his foot), and my grandmother worked in a large department store in London. Having me dumped unexpectedly on her for a while obviously caused logistical problems. I was too young for school, and my grandfather wasn't to be trusted to look after me at home (men didn't look after children in those days . . . my, how things have changed). Her solution was to tuck me under her wing—on some days physically as well as metaphorically, as she smuggled me past managers and supervisors—and we went to work together.

Now going to work with "Nan" was fun. I was expected to keep quiet and still for long periods and, because I didn't know any different, assumed this was normal. I found that by watching customers—often from my safe refuge under a huge desk—I could pass the time quite happily. Thus was born an immense appetite for people watching.

You can read a list of the Rules here

Plot summary:

Some people seem naturally good at it. Life that is. They seem to sail through, being successful and happy and everything always seems to fall into place. We all know a few of them - those rare people who are happy and positive and make things happen; they have a loving family, great relationships, a supportive network and work they enjoy; they generate goodwill wherever they go and always seem to know the right thing to do -- and then do it. They balance their lives without us ever seeing them frantically juggling, much less let it all drop in a mess on the floor. They are happy and successful, with diverse interests and a zest for life. How on earth do they do it? For most of us, some of the time life can be a bit of a struggle. People are difficult, things don't go our way, there's too much to deal with and we don't know how to make it all alright again. What is it that they know, that we don't? They know the Rules of Life. A simple set of principles that if followed, will hugely increase your chances of more things going your way, and that will guide you smoothly out of the tricky times when they happen. Rules of Work worked. Live the Rules of Life.

What I thought:

The first rule about Fight Club is that you never talk about Fight Club, and so it goes with the Rules of Life. Rule number one is that you never tell people that you have read the book. So clearly by reviewing this I am breaking the rules already…

I like things that help you to break down complex issues into its more simple parts, and I think it is fair to say that life can be quite complex. This book is not going to change the world, and it doesn’t claim to be able to do that, but it is a useful tool to maybe make you think about how you live your life – and if you can do it a bit better.

The style of the book will either suit you or it won’t and, as there are 100 rules, you need to be able to pick out the ones that are most relevant or can make the most difference in your own life. Personally, I think there is no harm (and in fact the potential for much good) to be reminded that we should maintain good manners (rule 38), that we should change what we can change and let go of the rest (rule 16) or that we should be nice to our partners (rule 53). If you look at those and think they are pretty obvious then ask yourself if you actually do it and if you don’t then this book is a gentle reminder that encourages you to actively think about these things.

Will it change my life? No, but it might make me a bit more considerate.

The Optimist

Title: The Optimist: One man’s search for the brighter side of life

Author: Laurence Shorter

Number of pages: 325

Started: 11 August 2009

Finished: 16 August 2009

Opening words:


Summer, 2006.

I was still in bed.
Sunlight beamed through the curtains, flickering as a neighbour’s car pulled out of the drive. I looked at the humps of my arms under the covers. They felt lethargic and heavy. A car revved up outside. I pictured the BMWs and Mercs along the street, beaded with dew, ready to be driven to their places of work by people who leapt out of bed every morning. How did they do it? I stared hopelessly at the ceiling.
What was wrong with me?

Plot summary:

When it comes to bad news, we’ve never had it so good.

Laurence Shorter is feeling anxious. Every time he opens a newspaper or turns on the radio he finds another reason to be tearful. It’s time to make a change. It’s time to be optimistic!

His plan is simple:
1. Learn how to jump out of bed in the morning.
2. Secure personal happiness.
3. Save the world.

The Optimist charts Shorter’s ambitious, year-long, international quest to seek out the world’s most positive thinkers, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jung Chang, Matthieu Ricard, California’s renowned Surfing Rabbi, and Bill Clinton. But optimism doesn’t come easy, and Shorter’s resolve is tested at every corner: by a flagging career, a troubled love affair, and his ever-pessimistic dad.

The Optimist is a hilarious and ultimately life-affirming stand against the grind of everyday strife, packed with reasons to be cheerful.

What I thought:

I was hoping for a somewhat light-hearted look at the nicer side of life. I can’t say that is how I would describe this book. I found it a somewhat self-indulgent quest for a man to try and get his somewhat unwilling female interest to go out with him. Along the way he spoke to lots of famous and not so famous people and then seemed to mock them a bit. I wasn’t very keen on that given that these people openly discussed their lives and philosophies and I felt that the author was slightly mocking them – or at least using what they said for comic effect. I am not sure that I like that trait.

I found the book a bit pointless and never really came to any conclusions so, like I said, I just found it quite self-indulgent.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


Title: Vertigo

Author: W.G. Sebald

Number of pages: 263

Started: 7 August 2009

Finished: 11 August 2009

Opening words:

In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St. Bernard pass, an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible. For almost a fortnight, an interminable column of men, animals and equipment proceeded from Martigny via Orsières through the Entremont valley and from there moved, in a seemingly never-ending serpentine, up to the pass two and a half thousand metres above sea level, the heavy barrels of the cannon having to be draged by the soldiery, in hollowed-out tree trunks, now across snow and ice and now over bare outcrops and rocky escarpments.

Plot summary:

Part fiction, part travelogue, the narrator of this compelling masterpiece pursues his solitary, eccentric course from England to Italy and beyond, succumbing to the vertiginous unreliability of memory itself. What could possibly connect Stendhal's unrequited love, the artistry of Pisanello, a series of murders by a clandestine organisation, a missing passport, Casanova, the suicide of a dinner companion, stale apple cake, the Great Fire of London, a story by Kafka about a doomed huntsman and a closed-down pizzeria in Verona?

What I thought:

I was not a fan of this book at all. People rave about it and see deep meaning in it. I do not. As soon as I opened the book I felt slightly conned. It was the double line spacing that did it. It made me feel like someone had tried to make the book look much longer than it actually was – and without such things it would have been nearer 100 pages long.

I never really got into it though. I found that I read the words but never really engaged with any sort of plot. There were very occasional moments that caught my attention, but they were few and far between.

Would I read any more Sebald? Despite what I have said, I possibly would. I feel as though I should see more to this author than I have so far and so should perhaps give him another go. We shall see...

Friday, 7 August 2009

The Robber Bride

Title: The Robber Bride

Author: Margaret Atwood

Number of pages: 564

Started: 27 July 2009

Finished: 7 August 2009

Opening words:

The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began. It must have been someplace long ago and distant in space, thinks Tony; someplace bruised, and very tangled. A European print, hand-tinted, ochre-coloured, with dusty sunlight and a lot of bushes in it- bushes with thick leaves and ancient twisted roots, behind which, out of sight in the undergrowth and hinted at only by a boot protruding, or a slack hand, something ordinary but horrifying is taking place.

Plot summary:

Zenia is beautiful, smart and greedy, and by turns manipulative and vulnerable, needy and ruthless. She is also dead. Just to make sure, Tony, Roz and Charis are at the funeral. But five years on, the unthinkable happens - Zenia is back.

What I thought:

This was a Margaret Atwood book that I actually liked the whole way through. It is the tale of a woman who her friends thought had died, much to their relief her having wreaked havoc in each of their lives, and yet one day she reappears. The books tells the tale of this woman, Zenia, and gradually the story of her somewhat devilish impact on the lives of others comes to the surface.

I think I preferred this to a lot of Atwood’s other books because it stayed grounded in reality and I also liked seeing the pieces of the jigsaw coming together to explain how a deceased woman could in fact still be alive and why this was such alarming news to those she had left behind. A good read.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson

Number of pages: 542

Started: 14 July 2009

Finished: 22 July 2009

Opening words:

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off thewrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day— which was something of an irony under the circumstances.
The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.
“It arrived.”
“What is it this year?”
“I don’t know what kind it is. I’ll have to get someone to tell me what
it is. It’s white.”
“No letter, I suppose.”
“Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do- it- yourself ones.”
“Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering.”

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared off the secluded island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger family. There was no corpse, no witnesses, no evidence. But her uncle, Henrik, is convinced that she was murdered by someone in her own family - the deeply dysfunctional Vanger clan. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist is hired to investigate, but when he links Harriet's disappearance to a string of gruesome murders from forty years ago, he needs a competent assistant - and he gets one: computer hacker Lisbeth Salander - a tattoed, truculent, angry girl who rides a motorbike like a Hell's Angel and handles makeshift weapons with the skill born of remorseless rage. This unlikely pair form a fragile bond as they delve into the sinister past of this island-bound, tightly-knit family. But the Vangers are a secretive lot, and Mikael and Lisbeth are about to find out just how far they're prepared to go to protect themselves - and each other.

What I thought:

Technically I didn’t read this book, but actually listened to it as a talking book. I think I actually found that preferable and am wondering if I would have liked it so much if I have read it. That said, I enjoyed the book and found it to be a good yarn. It contained a lot of good elements of a story (mystery, suspense, a bit of romance, some double-crossing etc) with a main plot and a major sub-plot. It was a fairly satisfying story and was worth listening to on a long road journey. I will read the next book and see how I enjoy that.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Man in the Dark

Title: Man in the Dark

Author: Paul Auster

Number of pages: 180

Started: 8 July 2009

Finished: 10 July 2009

Opening words:

I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness. Upstairs, my daughter and granddaughter are asleep in their bedrooms, each one alone as well, the forty-seven-year-old Miriam, my only child, who has slept alone for the past five years, and twenty-three-year-old Katya, Miriam’s only child, who used to sleep with a young man named Titus Small, but Titus is dead now, and Katya sleeps alone with her broken heart.

Plot summary:

August Brill, an elderly book critic, lies awake in the dark, unable to sleep. Elsewhere in the house are his daughter, Miriam, and granddaughter, Katya, each with her own reasons for lying awake and watchful in the long Vermont night.

Read a brief interview with Paul Auster here.

What I thought:

As expected, I enjoyed this latest read by Paul Auster. It was in many ways similar to his other books, covering the same sort of themes and has a darkness and strangeness to it that I can’t quite identify. It was a peculiar read (in a good way) and I have perhaps read better books by him, but it is one of those books where the author plays tricks, of sorts, with the readers minds and tells stories within stories – and there are links between this story and some of his others, which some readers may appreciate and others perhaps think a bit on an ‘in-joke’. A good read, perhaps not one of Auster’s best, but a good read nonetheless.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Plague

Title: The Plague

Author: Albert Camus

Number of pages: 297

Started: 3 July 2009

Finished: 8 July 2009

Opening words:

The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194- at Oran. Everyone agreed that considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. Fir its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French Port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the Prefect of a French ‘Department’

Plot summary:

The townspeople of Oran are in the grip of a virulent plague
Cut off from the rest of the world, living in fear, they each respond in their own way to the grim challenge of the deadly bacillus. Among them is Dr Rieux, a humanitarian and healer, and it is through his eyes that we witness the devastating course of the epidemic.
Written in 1947, just after the Nazi occupation of France, Camus's magnificent novel is also a story of courage and determination against the arbitrariness and seeming absurdity of human existence.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book, if it is possible to enjoy a book about a plague. It is quite a sombre book and I suppose a bit philosophical, although I didn’t find that particularly or find that it made it hard to read. I have also read Camus’ The Stranger and I preferred this book. It was sad in places but also quite stark and distant at times. It reported on mass deaths by acknowledging that the high numbers were no longer shocking after a while – and that some people managed to adapt to the new life imposed on them and some did not. The book is not an in-depth study if individuals but more of a look at the impact on a community and how they learn to cope and adapt. A touching read.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Casino Royale

Title: Casino Royale

Author: Ian Fleming

Number of pages: 135

Started: 30 June 2009

Finished: 2 July 2009

Opening words:

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it.

James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.

Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

Introducing James Bond: charming, sophisticated, handsome; chillingly ruthless and very deadly. This, the first of Fleming's tales of agent 007, finds Bond on a mission to neutralize a lethal, high-rolling Russian operative called simply 'Le Chiffre' - by ruining him at the baccarat table and forcing his Soviet spymasters to 'retire' him. It seems that lady luck is taken with James - Le Chiffre has hit a losing streak. But some people just refuse to play by the rules, and Bond's attraction to a beautiful female agent leads him to disaster and an unexpected saviour.

What I thought:

I am surprised to say that I really enjoyed this book. I am not a fan of James Bond and don’t really like the films, but I really liked him in written form. I thought the story was very readable, whilst not entirely believable, and I found parts of the story totally engrossing.

This was the first Bond story that Ian Fleming wrote and it was an interesting take on the spy thriller, including getting a small insight into some of the sexual peccadilloes for which the author is known! It was a good story and even though a fair bit of it was based around gambling, something which I don’t know much about, Fleming managed to weave an explanation of how the game was played, so that it wasn’t just a tedious bit of page-turning to get the story to move on.

I really enjoyed the story and it had a bit of everything in it. If you haven’t read any Ian Fleming then I would recommend starting with Casino Royale.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Great Gatsby

Title: The Great Gatsby

Author: F Scott Fitzgerald

Number of pages: 144

Started: 28 June 2009

Finished: 30 June 2009

Opening words:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

He didn't say any more but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought--frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon--for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

Read the whole book here or here.

Plot summary:

Jay Gatsby is the man who has everything. But one thing will always be out of his reach ... Everybody who is anybody is seen at his glittering parties. Day and night his Long Island mansion buzzes with bright young things drinking, dancing and debating his mysterious character. For Gatsby - young, handsome, fabulously rich - always seems alone in the crowd, watching and waiting, though no one knows what for. Beneath the shimmering surface of his life he is hiding a secret: a silent longing that can never be fulfilled. And soon this destructive obsession will force his world to unravel.

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. It was a relatively short read that looked at a decadent life and its ultimate end. It was touching and poignant in places and I found the conclusion remarkably moving. It was well written with an engaging plot and had some wry observations on life. A remarkably affecting book that will stick with me for a while – and one I might revisit one day.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The Name of the Rose

Title: The Name of the Rose

Author: Umberto Eco

Number of pages: 502

Started: 17 June 2009

Finished: 27 June 2009

Opening words:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil.

Plot summary:

The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, "The Name of the Rose" is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

Summary taken from the back of the book.

You can hear Umberto Eco talk about the book here.

What I thought:

I am beginning to wonder if I will ever again find a book that I can say I have enjoyed reading because I seem to have had a real run of books that I didn’t really enjoy. I didn’t hate this book, but I just didn’t really enjoy it. I thought it was rather lengthy and had a lot of Latin and religious ritual and whilst there was murder here and there, the murder plot was not enough to give me any sense of really wanting to know what was going to happen next. I didn’t get a sense of suspense or mystery (unless I saw it as a kind of divine mystery because of all the religious debate that took place in the book). I don’t think historical thrillers are really the book for me. It was well written and had some parts that were fairly engaging, but overall, I found it hard to find the motivation to keep going to the end.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Shadow-Line

Title: The Shadow Line: A confession

Author: Joseph Conrad

Number of pages: 160

Started: 14 June 2009

Finished: 16 June 2009

Opening words:

Only the young have such moments. I don't mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection.

One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness-and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn't because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind had streamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation-a bit of one's own.

The whole book is available for free download here.

Plot summary:

A young and inexperienced sea captain finds that his first command leaves him with a ship stranded in tropical seas and a crew smitten with fever. As he wrestles with his conscience and with the increasing sense of isolation that he experiences, the captain crosses the “shadow-line” between youth and adulthood. In many ways an autobiographical narrative, Conrad's novella was written at the start of the Great War when his son Borys was at the Western Front, and can be seen as an attempt to open humanity’s eyes to the qualities needed to face evil and destruction.

What I thought:

I am just not a fan of Joseph Conrad. I found this book very tedious and it was a real slog to get through it. I thought his sentence structure and general writing style was a bit obscure and it meant the book didn’t flow very well. The majority of the book is actually a massive introduction and notes explaining some of the text, so it was only about 100 pages long, but it felt like it was much longer.

I have previously read “Heart of Darkness” and didn’t like that either, so perhaps Mr Conrad is just not for me. This probably shows I have no discernment at all, but I shall just have to live with that.

Sunday, 14 June 2009


Title: Fateless

Author: Imre Kertesz

Number of pages: 262

Started: 6 June 2009

Finished: 14 June 2009

Opening words:

I didn't go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher's permission to take the day off. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to "family reasons," my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the "family reason" might be. I told him my father had been called up for labor service; after that he didn't raise a further peep against it.

Read the first chapter here or the entire book at Google Books.

Plot summary:

Kertesz ( Kaddish for an Unborn Child ), who, as a youth, spent a year as a prisoner in Auschwitz, has crafted a superb, haunting novel that follows Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, during the year he is imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Fighting to retain his equilibrium when his world turns upside down, Gyorgy rationalizes that certain events are "probably natural" or "probably a mistake." Gradual starvation and what he experiences as grinding boredom become a way of life for him, yet Gyorgy describes both Buchenwald and its guards as "beautiful"; as he asks "who can judge what is possible or believable in a concentration camp?" Gyorgy also comes to a sense of himself as a Jew. At first, he experiences a strong distaste for the Jewish-looking prisoners; he doesn't know Hebrew (for talking to God) or Yiddish (for talking to other Jews). Fellow inmates even claim Gyorgy is "no Jew," and make him feel he isn't "entirely okay." Kertesz's spare, understated prose and the almost ironic perspective of Gyorgy, limited both by his youth and his inability to perceive the enormity of what he is caught up in, give the novel an intensity that will make it difficult to forget. One learns something of concentration camp life here, even while becoming convinced that one cannot understand that life at all--not the way Kertesz does.

What I thought:

This book was ok, but not one of my favourite reads of late. It didn’t really engage me and I found that I could read quite long passages and not remember a word of it. This book was semi-autobiographical, but I didn’t feel entirely convinced by it. I feel sort of bad for saying that, particularly given that it was about the Concentration Camps, but it just didn’t feel entirely authentic to me. There is also an irony in saying that given that part of what the book shows is people disbelief about what took place in the camps. I believe the things that happened, but somehow this book didn’t convince me of them.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Speed of Light

Title: The Speed of Light

Author: Javier Cercas

Number of pages: 278

Started: 1 June 2009

Finished: 5 June 2009

Opening words:

Now I lead a false life, an apocryphal, clandestine, invisible life, though truer than if it were real, but I was still me when I met Rodney Falk. It was a long time ago and it was in Urbana, a city in the Midwest of the United States where I spent two years at the end of the eighties. The truth is that every time I ask myself why I ended up precisely there I tell myself I ended up there just as I might have ended up anywhere else. Let me explain why instead of ending up anywhere else I ended up precisely there.

See a review and some further links here.

Plot summary:

An aspiring young writer from Spain begins work as a teaching assistant on a Midwestern campus and finds himself sharing an office with Rodney Falk, a taciturn Vietnam veteran of strange ways and few friends. But when Rodney suddenly disappears the narrator becomes obsessed with discovering the secrets of his past.

Why do people fear Rodney? What traumatic event happened at My Khe during the war? And, when the narrator’s life takes a terrible twist, is Rodney the only person in the world who can save him?

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was dark in places, but also a fairly easy read. It wasn’t a particularly memorable book, but it was enjoyable while I read it. It did suffer from the same issue as another book I recently read – exceptionally long sentences. At times this affected the flow, but it did also help to emphasise the point at times. I would read another one of his books.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Sputnik Sweetheart

Title: Sputnik Sweetheart

Author: Haruki Murakami

Number of pages: 229

Started: 29 May 2009

Finished: 1 June 2009

Opening words:

In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains-flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado's intensity doesn't abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and all, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions. The person she fell in love with happened to be seventeen years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all wound up. Almost.

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

Haruki Murakami, the internationally bestselling author of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles to tell this story of a tangled triangle of uniquely unrequited loves.

A college student, identified only as “K,” falls in love with his classmate, Sumire. But devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments–until she meets Miu, an older and much more sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, “K” is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous, haunting visions. A love story combined with a detective story, Sputnik Sweetheart ultimately lingers in the mind as a profound meditation on human longing.

What I thought:

This was a really good book. It was well written and had an engaging plot. I found it engaging, and moving in places. It was a sad book in many ways, but drew you in and made you want to find out what happened. A touching book that looked at loneliness and relationships and in some ways gave a sombre view of the world, but was well worth reading. I would definitely read more of his books.