Tuesday, 27 January 2009

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Title: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Number of pages: 143

Started: 26 January 2009

Finished: 27 January 2009

Opening words:

As usual, at five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sound barely penetrated the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they'd begun. It was cold outside, and the camp-guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.

Read an analysis of the book here

Plot summary:

The story of a typical day in a Stalinist labour camp as experienced by prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

What I thought:

This was a sombre but kind of hopeful read. You learn what makes a good or a bad day and realise that it is possibly very different than what we are used to.

This book is about those imprisoned in Stalinist camps and was released under Lenin’s regime to show that it was a new way ahead and Russia was casting off that past. These people were imprisoned for a whole range of reasons, some of them political, but there was no sense of like minded people coming together debating ideas or fomenting dissent. There was no time or inclination to do such things because productivity and work was what they had to focus on and having enough to eat and keeping warm – for years on end with sentences that could just be extended on a whim.

A sobering book, but somehow hopeful.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

What Was Lost

Title: What Was Lost

Author: Catherine O’Flynn

Number of pages: 242

Started: 22 January 2009

Finished: 25 January 2009

Opening words:
Crime was out there. Undetected, unseen. She hoped she wouldn’t be too late. The bus driver was keeping the bus at a steady 15 mph, braking at every approaching green light until it turned red. She closed her eyes and continued the journey in her head as slowly as she could. She opened them, but still the bus lagged far behind her worst projection. Pedestrians overtook them; the driver whistled.

Plot summary:

It is the 1980s, and Kate Meaney is a serious-minded and curious young girl - who spends her time with her toy monkey acting out the role of a junior detective. She notes goings-on at the Green Oaks shopping centre and in her street, particularly the newsagent's where she is friends with the owner's son Adrian. When she disappears, Adrian falls under suspicion and is hounded by the press. It's 2004 and thirty-something Lisa is at work in a cut-price record store, tearing her hair out at customers' bizarre requests and the even more bizarre behaviour of her colleagues. While at home, the futility of her relationship is slowly becoming apparent. Over shared fishpaste sandwiches, she strikes up a friendship with security guard Kurt - and, following CCTV glimpses of Kate, they become entranced by the lost little girl and her connections with the strange history of Green Oaks itself.

Summary taken from Fantastic Fiction.

See more details and a video here

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It had an innocence about it that was enticing, despite dealing with a dark subject. It’s a book about loss on many different levels, but isn’t morbid. It’s a gentle book that draws you into people’s lives and you see the impact of living quite mundane lives and not facing up to truths.

A good read and it was the author’s debut novel and, as far as I am aware, she has not published another one since. Well worth reading.

Read another review of the book here

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Title: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Author: Robert Tressell

Number of pages: 742

Started: 13 January 2009

Finished: 21 January 2009

Opening words:

The house was named `The Cave'. It was a large old-fashioned three-storied building standing in about an acre of ground, and situated about a mile outside the town of Mugsborough. It stood back nearly two hundred yards from the main road and was reached by means of a by-road or lane, on each side of which was a hedge formed of hawthorn trees and blackberry bushes. This house had been unoccupied for many years and it was now being altered and renovated for its new owner by the firm of Rushton & Co., Builders and Decorators.

There were, altogether, about twenty-five men working there, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers. New floors were being put in where the old ones were decayed, and upstairs two of the rooms were being made into one by demolishing the parting wall and substituting an iron girder. Some of the window frames and sashes were so rotten that they were being replaced.

Read the whole book here

Plot summary:

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tells the story of a group of working men who are joined one day by Owen, a journeyman-prophet with a vision of a just society. Owen's spirited attacks on the greed and dishonesty of the capitalist system rouse his fellow men from their political quietism. A masterpiece of wit and political passion and one of the most authentic novels of English working class life ever written.

Read some background on the book here.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book, it was a bit repetitive in places and I can imagine that if you don’t have any left wing leanings then this is probably not the book for you, but if you want to get some insight into what this country was like at the beginning of the twentieth century before the arrival of any form of welfare state, it paints a pretty grim (and accurate) picture.

This book has inspired many people to become Socialists and has highlighted the plight of those who have nothing to fall back on if they are only reliant on an employer keeping them in a job. It is a major criticism of Capitalism and sees Socialism as the only way to create a fair society.

Reading this book post-Communism having risen and fallen in Russia and also having only known only ever lived in a country that has a welfare state and also that is Capitalist, it is perhaps difficult to see why Capitalism is seen as quite so evil, but in the current economic climate it is a telling tale of what can happen if we rely too much on working only base our choices on making money and without much regard to others.

A really interesting read and one that gives an interesting perspective on how ‘socialist’ out current government is.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Master of the Delta

Title: Master of the Delta

Author: Thomas H Cook

Number of pages:

Started: 7 January 2009

Finished: 12 January 2009

Opening words:

was badly shaped by my good fortune and so failed to see the darkness and the things that darkness hides. Until the stark moment came, evil remained distant to me, mere lecture notes on the crimes of armies, mobs, and bloodthirsty individuals whose heinous acts I could thrillingly present to my captive audience of students.

For that reason, it wasn’t unusual that I was thinking of old King Herod that morning, the torment of his final days, his rotting genitals, how they’d swarmed with worms. It was a vision of guilt and punishment, of afflictions deserved by an abuser of power, and I knew that at some point during the coming semester I’d find a place for it in one of my lectures.

It was a bright April morning in 1954, a little less than one hundred years since the beginning of a conflict that had, by the time it ended, orphaned half the children of the South.

I was twenty-four years old, and for the last three years had taught at Lakeland High School. At that time, Lakeland was typically demarcated by race and class, with a splendid plantation district, where my father still lived, and a New South section where local tradesmen and shop owners congregated in modest one-story houses strung together on short, tree-lined streets. The workers who manned the town’s few factories resided in an area known as Townsend, and which consisted of small houses on equally small lots, though large enough to accommodate the vague hint of a lawn. To the east of them lived that class of people for whom, as goes the ancient story, there has never been room at the inn, and which was known as the Bridges.

Read an excerpt here

Plot summary:

Eddie Miller is known as the 'Coed Killer's son' since his father murdered and dismembered the body of a college girl when Eddie was a five years old. While Eddie chafes under the legacy of this soiled family name, Jack, scion of an aristocratic southern family, enjoys only respect when he returns from college to teach in Lakeland, Mississippi, his home town. While teaching the unlucky Eddie, Jack begins to see that there is more to this young man than most people have perceived: this is someone of real promise, struggling under a grim family legacy. Jack persuades Eddie to directly tackle the past and find out the truth about his father. But there are people opposed to this idea: the school principal, the local sheriff and even Jack's own uncommunicative father. Inevitably, some dark truths emerge, and lives are irrevocably changed.
What I thought:
There is something I find so appealing about Thomas H Cook’s books. There is a darkness about them that just draws me in. The opening words to this book had just that effect and I found myself reading the book knowing it would not end well.

I can’t quite describe what I like about this book. It isn’t packed with action and really it is the retelling of a story that drops snippets here and there to build a picture that builds up to the foretold bad ending. But Cook writes so well and really knows how to weave a story together so that you are totally engrossed in what he writes.

I have not come across anyone I know who has read his books and yet I think people are really missing out by not doing so. They are dark and brooding books that are well written with engaging plots. My only issue with this book was the title, which I didn’t think was right for the story. Read any of his books though, they are excellent reads.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

King Solomon's Mines

Title: King Solomon’s Mines

Author: H Rider Haggard

Number of pages: 320

Started: 27 December 2008

Finished: 7 January 2008

Opening words:

It is a curious thing that at my age--fifty-five last birthday--I should find myself taking up a pen to try to write a history. I wonder what sort of a history it will be when I have finished it, if ever I come to the end of the trip! I have done a good many things in my life, which seems a long one to me, owing to my having begun work so young, perhaps. At an age when other boys are at school I was earning my living as a trader in the old Colony. I have been trading, hunting, fighting, or mining ever since. And yet it is only eight months ago that I made my pile. It is a big pile now that I have got it--I don't yet know how big--but I do not think I would go through the last fifteen or sixteen months again for it; no, not if I knew that I should come out safe at the end, pile and all. But then I am a timid man, and dislike violence; moreover, I am almost sick of adventure. I wonder why I am going to write this book: it is not in my line. I am not a literary man, though very devoted to the Old Testament and also to the "Ingoldsby Legends." Let me try to set down my reasons, just to see if I have any.

You can read the book here

Plot summary:

Three men trek to the remote African interior in search of a lost friend - and reach, at the end of a perilous journey, an unknown land cut off from the world, where terrible dangers threaten anyone who ventures near the spectacular diamond mines of King Solomon...

What I thought:

I am pleasantly surprised to say that I really enjoyed this book. It took me a while to get going with it, but that was more to do with the Christmas season than the book itself. Each time I read it I found it engaging and a good yarn. The plot was good and had a range of twists and turns that kept a really good pace to the book. A good adventure book that was also a good story and kept me wanting to know how it turned out. Well worth a read and I’d like to read more of his books now.