Friday, 27 February 2009

Dare to be a Daniel

Title: Dare to be a Daniel

Author: Tony Benn

Number of pages: 278

Started: 22 February 2009

Finished: 27 February 2009

Opening words:

I was born in 1925 into an Edwardian household influenced by Victorian values. Although I enjoyed a degree of security and privilege denied to most people, I was also the child of radical, nonconformist parents, and life at home was shaped by a tradition of austerity lightened by my father’s sense of fun. Writing this book about my childhood, and its domestic, family and political events and experiences, has led me to examine how these elements combined during my growing up in the inter-war years to determine my character and beliefs.

The discipline of recalling childhood events and memories, and the origins and development of my own faith, has also helped me to analyse more specifically than ever before the nature of my belief, and why and how my views have developed over the years.

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

Born into a family with a strong, radical dissenting tradition in which enterprise and public service were combined, Tony Benn was taught to believe that the greatest sins in life was to waste time and money. Life in his Victorian–Edwardian family home in Westminster was characterised by austerity, the last vestiges of domestic service, the profound influence of his mother, a dedicated Christian and feminist, and his colourful and courageous father, elected as a Liberal MP in 1906 and later serving in Labour Cabinets under Ramsay MacDonald and Clem Atlee.

Dare to be a Daniel feelingly recalls Tony Benn’s years as one of three brothers experiencing life in the nursery, the agonies of adolescence and of school, where boys were taught to ‘keep their minds clean’, and the shadow of fascism and war with its disruption and family loss; and describes his emergence from the war as a keen socialist about to embark upon marriage and an unknown political future. The book ends with some of Tony Benn’s reflections on many of the most important and controversial issues of our time.

What I thought:

This was an interesting read about a well-known politician. It helped to put some context on where Tony Benn came from and why he held the beliefs that he did. It was an easy read, although some of the events referred to would have meant more to people who had lived through them. It was very simple writing, which at times I found would have benefited from being a bit stronger, but the approachable style of it probably fairly reflects the author himself. An interesting read about an interesting man.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Time's Arrow

Title: Time’s Arrow or The Nature of the Offence

Author: Martin Amis

Number of pages: 176

Started: 16 February 2009

Finished: 21 February 2009

Opening words:

"I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself surrounded by doctors ... American doctors: I sensed their vigor, scarcely held in check, like the profusion of their body hair; and the forbidding touch of their forbidding hands -- doctor's hands, so strong, so clean, so aromatic. Although my paralysis was pretty well complete, I did find that I could move my eyes. At any rate, my eyes moved."

Plot summary:

In Time's Arrow the doctor Tod T. Friendly dies and then feels markedly better, breaks up with his lovers as a prelude to seducing them, and mangles his patients before he sends them home. And all the while Tod's life races backward toward the one appalling moment in modern history when such reversals make sense.

What I thought:

This is a strange book. A readable but strange book. The basic thing that anyone who reads this book has to understand is that is it told with time going backwards. If you can’t get your head round this rather key piece of information this book will make absolutely no sense at all. So the main character is getting younger each day and when people come to see him (he is a doctor) they may start well and leave in agony. You start a conversation with goodbye and end with hello. You get the drift…

I can’t say I entirely warmed to this book, but it was an interesting read and premise. I also couldn’t quite get my head round if I thought the book going backwards was a good plot device or not, but it is certainly different.

The jury is still out on this book.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Music of Chance

Title: The Music of Chance

Author: Paul Auster

Number of pages: 198

Started: 14 February 2009

Finished: 15 February 2009

Opening words:

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out. He hadn't expected it to go on that long, but one thing kept leading to another, and by the time Nashe understood what was happening to him, he was past the point of wanting it to end. Three days into the thirteenth month, he met up with the kid who called himself Jackpot. It was one of those random, accidental encounters that seem to materialize out of thin air-a twig that breaks off in the wind and suddenly lands at your feet. Had it occurred at any other moment, it is doubtful that Nashe would have opened his mouth. But because he had already given up, he figured there was nothing to lose anymore, he saw the stranger as a reprieve, as a last chance to do something for himself before it was too late. And just like that, he went ahead and did it. Without the slightest tremor of fear, Nashe closed his eyes and jumped.”

Plot summary:

"Nashe has decided to pursue a 'life of freedom', when he meets Pozzi, an itinerant gambler. Together they go in for an extraordinary game of poker with Flower and Stone, two eccentric recluses living on a vast estate in Pennsylvania. It is a gamble that Nashe and Pozzi will regret for the rest of their lives. The Music of Chance is strange haunting parable by a writer of extraordinary imagination and power"

What I thought:

I really liked this book. I found it a really engaging story and the slightly ‘fairy tale’ quality of the task in it coupled with the sense of frustration and entrapment was a really good combination that made the story. I thought it was a really well written book and the themes of freedom (or otherwise) and searching were really engaging. A great book.

Friday, 13 February 2009


Title: Ignorance

Author: Milan Kundera

Number of pages: 195

Started: 11 February 2009

Finished: 13 February 2009

Opening words:

"What are you still doing here?" Her tone wasn't harsh, but it wasn't kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

"Where should I be?" Irena asked.


"You mean this isn't my home anymore?"

Of course she wasn't trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: "You know what I mean!"

"Yes, I do know, but aren't you forgetting that I've got my work here? My apartment? My children?"

Read a longer excerpt here.

Plot summary:

A man and a woman meet by chance while returning to their Czech homeland in the early 1990s after twenty years of self-imposed exile. Will they manage to pick up the thread of their strange love story, interrupted by the tides of history? The truth is that after such a long absence 'their memories no longer match'. We live our lives sunk in a vast forgetting, and we refuse to see it. Only those who return after twenty years, like Ulysses returning to his native Ithaca, can be dazzled and astounded by observing the goddess of ignorance first-hand.

What I thought:

This was an interesting and engaging novel. I can see that it wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of a good read, but I found its look at home and loss and belonging to be one that was engrossing and it was a very readable book. Quite a moving read, although I think some might find it a bit pretentious.

Some have seen this book as Kundera drifting away from the types of novels for which he is famous, but if his other books are better than this then reading this book would make me really want to read those others.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Island of Dr Moreau

Title: The Island of Dr Moreau

Author: HG Wells

Number of pages: 128

Started: 9 February 2009

Finished: 11 February 2009

Opening words:

ON February the First 1887, the Lady Vain was lost by collision with a derelict when about the latitude 1' S. and longitude 107' W.
On January the Fifth, 1888 - that is eleven months and four days after - my uncle, Edward Prendick, a private gentleman, who certainly went aboard the Lady Vain at Callao, and who had been considered drowned, was picked up in latitude 5' 3" S. and longitude 101' W. in a small open boat of which the name was illegible, but which is supposed to have belonged to the missing schooner Ipecacuanha. He gave such a strange account of himself that he was supposed demented. Subsequently he alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment of his escape from the Lady Vain. His case was discussed among psychologists at the time as a curious instance of the lapse of memory consequent upon physical and mental stress. The following narrative was found among his papers by the undersigned, his nephew and heir, but unaccompanied by any definite request for publication.

Plot summary:

Adrift in a dinghy, Edward Prendick, the single survivor from the good ship Lady Vain, is rescued by a vessel carrying a profoundly unusual cargo – a menagerie of savage animals. Tended to recovery by their keeper Montgomery, who gives him dark medicine that tastes of blood, Prendick soon finds himself stranded upon an uncharted island in the Pacific with his rescuer and the beasts. Here, he meets Montgomery’s master, the sinister Dr. Moreau – a brilliant scientist whose notorious experiments in vivisection have caused him to abandon the civilised world. It soon becomes clear he has been developing these experiments – with truly horrific results.

What I thought:

I quite liked this book, but not as much as the other HG Wells that I have read. It had an interesting plot about the consequences of dangerous experimentation, but there was something missing from this story. I think in some ways that missing element was that it wasn’t in a familiar setting. Part of what works about The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds is that they are set in the ordinary, albeit that extraordinary things then happen.

It was an interesting read though and was well written.

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Outsider

Title: The Outsider

Author: Albert Camus

Number of pages: 118

Started: 7 February 2009

Finished: 9 February 2009

Opening words:

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Plot summary:

In his classic existentialist novel Camus explores the predicament of the individual who is prepared to face the benign indifference of the universe courageously and alone. Meursault leads an apparently unremarkable bachelor life in Algiers until he commits an act of violence. His response to the incident challenges the fundamental values of society, a set of rules so binding that any person breaking them is condemned as an alien, an outsider. For Meursault it is an insult to his reason and a betrayal of his hopes; for Camus it is the absurdity of life.

What I thought:

I liked this book, although I am not really sure I can explain why. It was quite a stark story, but really engrossing. One man’s story of not conforming and the consequences of refusing to do so. It had a moving and memorable ending that really struck me. A short but compelling read.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The Book of Lost Things

Title: The Book of Lost Things

Author: John Connolly

Number of pages: 342

Started: 5 February 2009

Finished: 7 February 2009

Opening words:

Once upon a time—for that is how all stories should begin—there was a boy who lost his mother.

He had, in truth, been losing her for a very long time. The disease that was killing her was a creeping, cowardly thing, a sickness that ate away at her from the inside, slowly consuming the light within, so that her eyes grew a little less bright with each passing day and her skin a little more pale.

And as she was stolen away from him, piece by piece, the boy became more and more afraid of finally losing her entirely. He wanted her to stay. He had no brothers and no sisters, and while he loved his father it would be true to say that he loved his mother more. He could not bear to think of a life without her.

The boy, whose name was David, did everything that he could to keep his mother alive. He prayed. He tried to be good, so that she would not be punished for his mistakes. He padded around the house as quietly as he was able, and kept his voice down when he was playing war games with his toy soldiers. He created a routine, and he tried to keep to that routine as closely as possible, because he believed in part that his mother's fate was linked to the actions he performed. He would always get out of bed by putting his left foot on the floor first, then his right. He always counted up to twenty when he was brushing his teeth, and he always stopped when the count was completed. He always touched the taps in the bathroom and the handles of the doors a certain number of times: odd numbers were bad but even numbers were fine, with two, four and eight being particularly favourable, although he didn't care for six because six was twice three and three was the second part of thirteen, and thirteen was very bad indeed.

Plot summary:

'Once upon a time, there was a boy who lost his mother !' As twelve-year-old David takes refuge from his grief in the myths and fairytales so beloved of his dead mother, he finds the real world and the fantasy world begin to blend. That is when bad things start to happen. That is when the Crooked Man comes. And David is violently propelled into a land populated by heroes, wolves and monsters in his quest to find the legendary Book of Lost Things.

What I thought:

This book was ok. It’s not really my favourite kind of read, a sort of fantasy/ fairytale type book. It is rather gruesome in places, so perhaps not the normal take of fairytales, but certainly interesting. It was an interesting premise, and there were probably layers to this book that I missed but whilst the book was perfectly readable, I did not find it quite as engaing as I might have hoped.

If you read the edition with the red cover, there are about 150pages at the end that explain all the fairytales that the book then builds on etc, which can help to set the scene of it more.

You can also look at the website The Book of Lost Things for some more insights.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Light of Day

Title: The Light of Day

Author: Eric Ambler

Number of pages: 287

Started: 2 February 2009

Finished: 4 February 2009

Opening words:

It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police. I had no choice but to do as this man Harper told me. He was entirely responsible for what happened to me.

Plot summary:

When Arthur Abdel Simpson first spots Harper in the Athens airport, he recognizes him as a tourist unfamiliar with city and in need of a private driver. In other words, the perfect mark for Simpson's brand of entrepreneurship. But Harper proves to be more the spider than the fly when he catches Simpson rifling his wallet for traveller's checks. Soon Simpson finds himself blackmailed into driving a suspicious car across the Turkish border. Then, when he is caught again, this time by the police, he faces a choice: cooperate with the Turks and spy on his erstwhile colleagues or end up in one of Turkey's notorious prisons. The authorities suspect an attempted coup, but Harper and his gang of international jewel thieves have planned something both less sinister and much, much more audacious.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was an easy, nicely paced read that took you through the story of a guy who saw himself very hard done by in life and then gets mixed up in a major sinister plot with the Turks and he isn’t really sure who he can trust. It’s an interesting book and switches between the unfolding tale and the things the main character looks back on to explain how he ended up in the situation he was in.

A good spy type novel and a nicely written book.

Monday, 2 February 2009

The Undercover Economist

Title: The Undercover Economist

Author: Tim Harford

Number of pages: 278

Started: 28 January 2009

Finished: 2 February 2009

Opening words:

I would like to thank you for buying this book, but if you’re anything like me you haven’t bought it at all. Instead, you’ve carried it into the bookstore cafĂ© and even now are sipping a cappuccino in comfort while you decide whether it’s worth your money.

Plot summary:

Who makes most money from the demand for cappuccinos early in the morning at Waterloo Station? Why is it impossible to get a foot on the property ladder? How does the Mafia make money from laundries when street gangs pushing drugs don't? Who really benefits from immigration? How can China, in just fifty years, go from the world's worst famine to one of the greatest economic revolutions of all time, lifting a million people out of poverty a month? Looking at familiar situations in unfamiliar ways, The Undercover Economist is a fresh explanation of the fundamental principles of the modern economy, illuminated by examples from the streets of London to the booming skyscrapers of Shanghai to the sleepy canals of Bruges. Leaving behind textbook jargon and equations, Tim Harford will reveal the games of signals and negotiations, contests of strength and battles of wit that drive not only the economy at large but the everyday choices we make.

What I thought:

This book was ok. Not one of the best books I have read and not one that I always found very readable, but it was ok.

I thought the author made some interesting assertions. But I also felt that he always felt his interpretation of the world was right, but was a bit lacking in actually providing the evidence to back up what he was saying. That doesn’t mean he was wrong – but it also didn’t necessarily mean that he was right.

I also felt that it jumped too much on the “let’s look at the ordinary and turn it on its head” principle. That can work, but I think it has to be a more engaging book to really succeed.

I do think it was a book that could prompt a reader to question the decisions they make and reconsider the way they deal with things. But with out the evidence for his assertions it is more difficult to follow those trains of thoughts through for yourself.