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.