Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Box of Delights

Title: The Box of Delights

Author: John Masefield

Number of pages: 168

Started: 21 December 2010

Finished: 28 December 2010

Opening words:

AS KAY WAS coming home for the Christmas holidays, after his first term at school, the train stopped at Musborough Station. An old man, ringing a hand-bell, went along the platform, crying “Musborough Junction . . . Change for Tatchester and Newminster.”

Kay knew that he had to change trains there, with a wait of forty minutes. He climbed down onto the platform in the bitter cold and stamped his feet to try to get warmth into them. The old man, ringing the hand-bell, cried, “All for Condicote and Tatchester. . . All for Yockwardine and Newminster go to Number Five Platform by the subway.”

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

A magical old man has asked Kay to protect the Box of Delight, a Box with which he can travel through time. But Kay is in danger: Abner Brown will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. The police don't believe Kay so when his family are scrobbled up, he knows he must act alone.

What I thought:

I wanted to read this book to try and get me into the Christmas spirit, having seen the TV version of this as a child. I think the book had a certain charm to it, but was perhaps showing this age a bit (both it terms of when it was written and also that it is a children’s book). The book was readable but not as evocative of Christmas etc as I had hoped. I might possibly give it a go another Christmas when my mind is not on trying to complete the Costa shortlist and see if it fares any better.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Not Quite White

Title: Not Quite White

Author: Simon Thirsk

Number of pages: 480

Started: 14 December 2010

Finished: 20 December 2010

Opening words:

My name is Gwalia. I am and Island. Head of Bran. Soul of Llywelyn.
Gwalia – what possessed my Mam to call me that?
This was my mantra in those darkest days. My notes here, in my diary, are very confused. These words are written many times, sometimes gouged and sometimes scrawled: My name is Gwalia. I am an Island
As you learned, Jon, all names have meaning here. Names of people. And of places. All our history is here. This is our language and culture. Ancient and living still.

Plot summary:

The young Jon Bull is sent by Westminster to Wales's last remaining Welsh-speaking town to see why all attempts to bring it into the twenty-first century have failed. Waiting for him is the beautiful but embittered Gwalia...Not Quite White explores the complex tensions that spit and seethe when English colonialism and Welsh nationalism go head to head. It is a passionate defence of cultural and political identity, and a considered plea for tolerance. It is also a sustained attack on the forces of small-town bigotry and corruption. But, above all, it is an acknowledgement of the subtleties and ambiguities that exist in even the most entrenched attitudes.

What I thought:

This was, by far, my favourite of the Costa First Novels shortlist. This was an enjoyable read, which looked at a small Welsh community trying to hold on to its own identity, most particularly its use of the Welsh language.

Of this shortlist, it was probably the one that read least like a first novel i.e. it lacked the clunkiness of some of the others, although it still lacked the depth that some of the more established authors on the (other) Novels shortlist had. The book was funny in places and touching in others and it had a plot that made me want to read on.

There were parts of this that gave me pause for thought. The book was written by someone who was English and I wondered how someone Welsh would see the portrayal of their countryman. It did also have quite a bit of Welsh in it (and a glossary) which broke up the flow of the book for me. That said, to me it outshone the others on the first novels shortlist.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Coconut Unlimited

Title: Coconut Unlimited

Author: Nikesh Shukla

Number of pages: 200

Started: 10 December 2010

Finished: 13 December 2010

Opening words:

The day starts quiet. The day starts slow.

I can see today’s outfit, lovingly laid out for me by Alice on the small white children’s chair next to the bed. I’m awake ten minutes before the alarm goes off. I stare at the clock counting towards 9a.m. Alice’s warmth had left the sheets and the flat is too quiet for her usual Saturday morning thumping around. She’s left for her mother’s, while I’m left in bed.

Plot summary:

It's Harrow in the 1990s, and Amit, Anand and Nishant are stuck. Their peers think they're a bunch of try-hard darkies, acting street and pretending to be cool, while their community thinks they're rich toffs, a long way from the 'real' Asians in Southall. So, to keep it real, they form legendary hip-hop band 'Coconut Unlimited'. Pity they can't rap...

From struggling to find records in the suburbs and rehearsing on rubbish equipment, to evading the clutches of disapproving parents and real life drug-dealing gangsters, Coconut Unlimited documents every teenage boy's dream and the motivations behind it: being in a band to look pretty cool - oh, and to get girls...

What I thought:

I can’t really say that a book about an Asian teenager who is into hip hop is ever likely to be my first choice of reading material. But this book was more readable than it might at first sound. Whilst I was not very inspired by the hip hop lyrics in the book and am unlikely to be seeking it out as a new musical genre to pursue, the book can equally be read as being a fairly light hearted book about a teenage boy trying to find his way n the world, and a fairly racist world at that.

I don’t think the book quite worked for me and it did have the “first novel” feel to it, but that might in part be because I am not Asian, a teenager or into hip hop. The book had a certain nostalgic feel to it, but it wasn’t looking back to a time that I could particularly relate to even though I was probably a teenager about the same sort of time.

This kind of book is part of the beauty of reading things like the Costa shortlist. This is certainly not my type of book, but it was worth reading if only to read something very different to what I would normally choose – and is definitely better than some other books I have read this year that have made me want to chew my own arm off. What more recommendation could you need?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Temple-goers

Title: The Temple-goers

Author: Aatish Tazeer

Number of pages: 297

Started: 5 December 2010

Finished: 9 December 2010

Opening words:

It was just after dinner and on one of the news channels the murder was re-enacted. There was a clap of studio thunder on one side of the split screen, a flash of strobe lightning, the glint of a knife. A hooded figure, his clean-shaven face partly in shadow, pursues a fat girl through a keekar forest. Suspenseful music, punctuated by the crashing of cymbals, plays in the background. The darkened figure catches up with the girl; her eyes widen, her wet lips part in a scream. He plunges a knife into her body at various points. In the next scene, he cuts up her body with a kitchen knife, putting great handfuls of flesh into black bin bags, four in total. Then tying them together, he sets them afloat on a hyacinth-choked canal in whose dark water the red lights of a power station are reflected. On the other side of the split screen a passport-size picture of the girl flashes above the caption ‘1982– 2008’. She’s laughing, her milky, rounded teeth exposed. She seems so unsinkable. I could almost hear her saying, ‘I’m twenty-six, running twenty-seven.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

It tells the story of two young men from very different sides of the tracks: one cast adrift in a world of fashion parties, media moguls and designer labels, the other who reveals to him the city’s hidden and squalid underbelly. But when a body is found floating in the canal and one of them is accused of the murder, some deeply unsettling truths begin to emerge, exposing their friendship and the dark and troubled heart of the city in which they live…

What I thought:

I think my view of this book is perhaps tainted by having recently read Witness the Night. Both that book and this one are set in India and therefore they are not set in environments with which I am very familiar. It can therefore be a bit more difficult to relate to what a book is about. It also makes it more difficult not to compare this book with Witness the Night as they are in similar settings.

The trouble I found with this book is that it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. In Witness the Night, the book was framed around a murder. This book too was sort of about a murder, but I found various parts of the plot indistinct and it didn’t seem to have such a coherent message that emerged from it.

The book was readable, but not terribly memorable.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Whatever You Love

Title: Whatever You Love

Author: Louise Doughty

Number of pages: 320

Started: 1 December 2010

Finished: 5 December 2010

Opening words:

Muscle has memory; the body knows things the brain will not admit. Police officers were at my door – uniformed, arranged – yet even as the door swung open upon them, which was surely the moment that I knew, even then, my conscious self was seeking other explanations, turning round and around, like a rat in a cage.

Plot summary:

Two police officers knock on Laura’s door. They tell her that her nine-year old daughter Betty has been hit by a car and killed. When justice is slow, Laura decides to take her own revenge and begins to track down the man responsible. Laura’s grief reopens old wounds and she is thrown back to the story of her passionate love affair with Betty’s father David, their marriage and his subsequent desertion of her for another woman. Haunted by her past and driven by her need to discover the truth, Laura discovers just how far she is prepared to go for love, desire and retribution.

What I thought:

This was a very readable book, and not the tale of revenge and retribution that the blurb about the book would suggest. It was a sad tale centred around the death of a nine year old in a road traffic accident. It mainly focuses on her mother, and the people her mother then comes into contact with. From that perspective it was quite moving. However, in other ways the book lacked some credibility.

I thought, as is the case with others on the Costs shortlist, there were two many plots trying to be crow-barred into the book. There was the grief around the death, relationship issues, anonymous letters, and a disappearance – to name but a few. I felt that having so many different plots in some ways detracted from each of the others, and they did not all serve a helpful purpose in furthering the story.

It was a decent read, but could have done with being more focussed in terms of the stories it explored and the final quarter of the book was somewhat of an unnecessary diversion from a tale of dealing with a child’s death.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Metamorphosis

Title: The Metamorphosis

Author: Franz Kafka

Number of pages: 80

Started: 2 December 2010

Finished: 2 December 2010

Opening words:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.

Read the whole book here.

Plot summary:

Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a repulsive bug. Trapped inside this hideous form, his mind remains unchanged - until he sees the shocked reaction of those around him and begins to question the basis of human love and, indeed, his entire purpose in existence. But this, it seems, is only the beginning of his ordeal.

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. It starts from such a strange place – a man waking up one morning to find that he has turned into a bug. You then see how the various people in his life react to him and how, perhaps rather understandably, his things are changed for him forever.

A really quick, and very enjoyable read.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Witness the Night

Title: Witness the Night

Author: Kishwar Desai

Number of pages: 352

Started: 30 November 2010

Finished: 1 December 2010

Opening words:

To Follow…

Plot summary:

In a small town in the heart of India, a young girl, barely alive, is found in a sprawling home where thirteen people lie dead. The girl has been beaten and abused. She is held in the local prison, awaiting interrogation for the murders that the local police believe she has committed.
But an unconventional visiting social worker, Simran Singh, is convinced of her innocence and attempts to break through the girl's mute trance to find out what happened that terrible night.
As she slowly uncovers the truth, Simran realises that she is caught in the middle of a terrifying reality where the unwanted female offspring of families are routinely disposed of.

What I thought:

This was a short and very readable book. It was centred around the mass murder of a family in a society that greatly valued males over females. The chief suspect is the young daughter from the murdered family and it explores her role in the deaths and her place in society.

It was a good read, although I think with a Western mind it is perhaps hard to understand how a society could operate such an anti-female society. But this book is based on reality and is therefore an eye-opening read.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Hand That First Held Mine

Title: The Hand That First Held Mine

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Number of pages: 341

Started: 24 November 2010

Finished: 30 November 2010

Opening words:

Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.

Read a longer excerpt here.

Watch a video by Maggie O’Farrell about the book here.

Plot summary:

When the bohemian, sophisticated Innes Kent turns up by chance on her doorstep, Lexie Sinclair realises she cannot wait any longer for her life to begin, and leaves for London. There, at the heart of the 1950s Soho art scene, she carves out a new life for herself, with Innes at her side. In the present day, Elina and Ted are reeling from the difficult birth of their first child. Elina, a painter, struggles to reconcile the demands of motherhood with sense of herself as an artist, and Ted is disturbed by memories of his own childhood, memories that don't tally with his parents' version of events. As Ted begins to search for answers, so an extraordinary portrait of two women is revealed, separated by fifty years, but connected in ways that neither could ever have expected.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was well written novel made up of two separate narratives that over the link between them became clear. It was a decent plot, although it is now not entirely original to have different narrators telling parts of the tale.

I thought the novel showed a maturity that seemed to show the author’s experience of writing, even though I have not read any of her other books. This was a good book, and I suspect it will be a real contender to win the Costa Prize.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Fair Play

Title: Fair Play

Author: Tove Jansson

Number of pages: 127

Started: 23 November 2010

Finished: 24 November 2010

Opening words:

Jonna had a happy habit of waking each morning as if to a new life. which stretched before her straight through to evening, clean, untouched, rarely shadowed by yesterday’s worries and mistakes.

Read more of the book here.

Plot summary:

What mattered most to Tove Jansson, she explained in her eighties, was work and love, a sentiment she echoes in this tender and original novel. Translated for the first time into English, Fair Play portrays a love between two older women, a writer and artist, as they work side-by-side in their Helsinki studios, travel together and share summers on a remote island. In the generosity and respect they show each other and the many small shifts they make to accommodate each other’s creativity we are shown a relationship both heartening and truly progressive. So what can happen when Tove Jansson turns her attention to her own favourite subjects, love and work, in the form of this novel about two women, lifelong partners and friends? Expect something philosophically calm and discreetly radical. At first sight it looks autobiographical.

What I thought:

I am a big fan of Tove Jansson. This book had her usual lightness of touch and told the tale of two women growing old together through a series of chapters highlighting different tales from their life together.

I thought this book was a nice read, but did not quite measure up to some of the others that I have read. It was a decent read nonetheless.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Blasphemer

Title: The Blasphemer

Author: Nigel Farndale

Number of pages: 425

Started: 17 November 2010

Finished: 23 November 2010

Opening words:

With a five-day beard and a crust of yellow mud woven into the fabric of his breeches, Peter Morris does not look like an officer. Instead of a peaked cap he wears a loose-knit trench hat. On his back is a sleeveless leather jerkin. His skin is grey with fatigue and his hooded eyes, as he raises he head and stares at the entrance of the dugout, are shot with blood.

Plot summary:

On its way to the Galápagos Islands, a light aircraft ditches into the sea. As the water floods through the cabin, zoologist Daniel Kennedy faces an impossible choice — should he save himself, or Nancy, the woman he loves? In a parallel narrative, it is 1917 and Daniel’s great grandfather Andrew is preparing to go over the top at Passchendaele. He, too, will have his courage tested, and must live with the moral consequences of his actions. Back in London, the atheistic Daniel is wrestling with something his ‘cold philosophy’ cannot explain — something unearthly he thought he saw while swimming for help in the Pacific. But before he can make sense of it, the past must collapse into the present, and both he and Andrew must prove themselves capable of altruism, and deserving of forgiveness. The Blasphemer is a story about conditional love, cowardice and the possibility of redemption — and what happens to a man of science when forced to question his certainties. It is a novel of rare depth, empathy and ambition that sweeps from the trenches of the First World War to the terrorist-besieged streets of London today: a novel that will speak to the head as well as the heart of any reader.

What I thought:

This is the first of this year’s Costa shortlist that I have read. It was a very readable book, and in many ways it had an engaging plot. But there were some things about this book that did not sit well with me. It was a book that was made up of many interlinked stories that unfolded and the links between them became clearer as the book continued. But in some ways those plot developments seemed a touch contrived. It felt as though, at times, you were meant to see how history or characteristics repeat each other over the generations, but I wasn’t entirely sure that always worked.

I also wasn’t convinced that this book knew quite what it was about. The majority of the plot was set in the modern day, but at times is was difficult to tell if the book was about a family drama, a plane crash, a university novel, religion, philosophy, a reflection on modern attitudes to the past, or a supernatural story. Then add to that another major plot set in the First World War and all the different plot devices that went with that (and a plot twist towards then end that lacked so much credibility that I possibly outwardly groaned when the possibility of where that particularly aspect of the story was going was revealed) and you might then get the impression that I found it hard to identify what this book was trying to convey. Each of those plots, or a combination of a small number of them, would have sufficed, but the constant layering of new aspects to the novel made the book disjointed, even though it was a decent enough story.

As I say, it was very readable. But I think the author should have limited himself in how he developed the plot and that greater focus would have made the book more credible.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Mr Norris Changes Trains

Title: Mr Norris Changes Trains (known in the US as The Last of Mr Norris)

Author: Christopher Isherwood

Number of pages: 240

Started: 15 November 2010

Finished: 17 November 2010

Opening words:

My first impression was that the stranger's eyes were of an unusually light blue.
They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared. Startled and innocently naughty, they half reminded me of an incident I couldn't quite place; something which had happened a long time ago, to do with the upper fourth form classroom. They were the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules. Not that I had caught him, apparently, at anything except his own thoughts; perhaps he imagined I could read them. At any rate, he seemed not to have heard or seen me cross the compartment from my corner to his own, for he started violently at the sound of my voice; so violently, indeed, that his nervous recoil hit me like repercussion. Instinctively I took a place backwards.

It was exactly as though we had collided with each other bodily in the street. We were both confused, both ready to be apologetic. Smiling, anxious to reassure him, I repeated my question:
'I wonder, sir, if you could let me have a match?'

Plot summary:

After a chance encounter on a train the English teacher William Bradshaw starts a close friendship with the mildly sinister Arthur Norris. Norris is a man of contradictions; lavish but heavily in debt, excessively polite but sexually deviant.

What I thought:

The copy of this book I read was actually The Berlin Stories, which includes this novel and the, perhaps better known, Goodbye to Berlin (which the musical Cabaret is based on), intending only to read the latter. However, as it turned out, I decided to read this book first as I thought it might set the scene better to then read Goodbye to Berlin.

Both books are set in Fascist Germany and Mr Norris Changes Trains was set in the early 1930s and showed the strange story that unfolded after the chance meeting of two men on a train. In many ways it was a light hearted read about serious and sinister events in Germany at that time, but the underlying message was one of the evil that was to come. It was an enjoyable read and I will look forward to reading Goodbye to Berlin, but now have the Costa shortlist to read in advance of that.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Bonjour Tristesse

Title: Bonjour Tristesse

Author: Francoise Sagan

Number of pages: 108

Started: 13 November 2010

Finished: 14 November 2010

Opening words:

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelopes me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.

Plot summary:

Cecile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, the sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

What I thought:

This was a rather brief book taking only two or three hours to read. The author was 19 when she wrote it but her writing was much more mature than her years. It was a well written book with an engaging plot of the havoc that a teenage girl can cause if she feels spurned – not by a lover, but by her father.

My only gripe about the book was that the introduction in the copy I read kept referring to the main character as Celine, when her name was Cecile. I am not sure if this was a typo or if the introduction writer was not quite the fan of the novella as she claimed to be.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Fate of Katherine Carr

Title: The Fate of Katherine Carr

Author: Thomas H Cook

Number of pages: 276

Started: 11 November 2010

Finished: 13 November 2010

Opening words:

They strike at heat, she said, and so there is no escape. What if evil were like that, too, a heat that rises from the worst of us, its correction like a hawk circling overhead; always present, but unseen in its dive? Perhaps in all such speculations, the question mark alone is relevant, the opening it offers to a strange dark hope.
But heat, at least, is real, and the one that shimmers around me now comes from the building light, the green, turgid river, the dense jungle and ...
"Always reading," Mr. Mayawati says as he strolls out onto the deck. He is large and slow-footed, his scent a blend of sweat and curry. "I have noticed that you are always reading."
I put down the book. "Yes."
Mr. Mayawati's face is the color of meat slow-roasted on a skewer. He wears a white linen shirt, already moist in the armpits, and baggy flannel pants. "I hope I do not disturb you," he says as he reaches the chair beside me.
"Not at all," I tell him.

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

George Gates is a former travel writer. He used to specialize in writing about places where people disappeared, sometimes individuals, sometimes whole societies. Now, since the murder of his eight-year-old son, Gates has written gentler stories for the town paper about flower festivals and local celebrities. Enter Arlo MacBride, a retired missing-persons detective who, knowing Gates' past, mentions the case of Katherine Carr, a woman who vanished twenty years before, leaving nothing behind but a few poems and a strange little story. It is this story that spurs Gates to inquire into its missing author's brief life and dire fate, an exploration that leads him to discoveries about life and death, mystery and resolution

What I thought:

I started to read this book ages ago, but put it down after about the first fifty pages –in part distracted by reading the Booker Prize shortlist, and in part because I was slightly struggling to get into it. But I returned to it because I know that cook is a good author and that this book probably had potential that I had missed by being distracted by other things.

In Cook’s usual style, this was a dark tale that reflected on the more unsavoury side of people’s morality. As the tale unfolded it proved more rewarding than I had initially thought and was a dark and introspective tale that had an underlying sadness. I am glad that I returned to this. It was a well written sombre tale.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Title: Austerlitz

Author: W G Sebald

Number of pages: 432

Started: 5 November 2010

Finished: 10 November 2010

Opening words:

In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious early summer’s day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city

Plot summary:

In 1967, the narrator bumps into a man in the salle de pas perdus of Antwerp's Central Station. Thus begins a long if intermittent acquaintance, during which he learns the life story of this stranger, retired architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz. Raised as Dafydd Elias by a strict Welsh Calvinist ministry family, it is only at school that Austerlitz learns his true name--and only years later, by a series of chance encounters, that he allows himself to discover the truth of his origins, as a Czech child spirited away from his mother and out of Nazi territory on the Kindertransport. He returns to confront the childhood traumas that have made him feel that "I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life."

What I thought:

This book consisted of three paragraphs. The first paragraph break was on about page 160. It therefore might not surprise you that this book seemed to be a long stream of thoughts, sometimes going off on tangents and then veering back on to the main thread.

Sebald’s book was interesting, and touching in places, but ultimately the rambling nature of the writing made it difficult to follow at times. I found that as the book went of on tangents and distractions, so did my mind, and I would drift back to following the text a while later. It was a book that had good moments but I felt these got lost in the overall narrative of the book.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Quarry

Title: The Quarry

Author: Damon Galgut

Number of pages: 169

Started: 3 November 2010

Finished: 3 November 2010

Opening words:

Then he came out of the grass at the side of the road and stood without moving. There were blisters on his feet that had come from walking and blisters in his mouth that had come from nothing, except his silence perhaps, and bristles like glass on his chin.

Plot summary:

On a lonely stretch of road a man picks up a hitchhiker. The driver is a minister on his way to a new congregation in an isolated village and the passenger is a nameless fugitive from justice. When the minister realizes this, and confronts his passenger as they are overlooking an empty quarry, the fugitive kills him and assumes his vestments and identity, only to discover that one of his first duties as the new minister is to bury the body of his victim. Despite hints that two local petty criminals may be responsible, the local police chief is watching the new minister, and as the two play a tense game of cat and mouse, culminating in a desperate pursuit across the veldt.

What I thought:

I decided to read this book because I had enjoyed Damon Galgut’s Book In a Strange Room, which was my favourite of the 2010 Booker Shortlist. This book was very readable, in fact I read it in one day, and it told the tale of a criminal who killed a minister and took on his identity. It was a nicely written but sad tale and I liked the way Galgut tells a story. Another good book by Galgut.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Life of Pi

Title: Life of Pi

Author: Yann Martel

Number of pages: 319

Started: 28 October 2010

Finished: 2 November 2010

Opening words:

This book was born as I was hungry. Let me explain. In the spring of 1996, my second book, a novel, came out in Canada. It didn’t fare well. Reviewers were puzzled, or damned it with faint praise. Then readers ignored it.
Despite my best efforts at playing the clown or the trapeze artist, the media circus made no difference. The book did not move. Books lined the shelves of bookstores like kids standing in a row to play baseball or soccer, and mine was the gangly, unathletic kid that no one wanted on their team. It vanished quickly and quietly.

The fiasco did not affect me too much. I had already moved on to another story, a novel set in Portugal in 1939. Only I was feeling restless. And I had a little money. So I flew to Bombay. This is not so illogical if you realize three things: that a stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature; that a little money can go a long way there; and that a novel set in Portugal in 1939 may have very little to do with Portugal in 1939.

You seem to be able to read the whole book here or get a PDF here

Plot summary:

After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, a solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orangutan - and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary and best-loved works of fiction in recent years.

What I thought:

I took a few pages to warm to this book, but once I got going with it, I really enjoyed it. There were even a few parts of it where I wanted to laugh out loud (but due to being on the tube, I resisted the urge). It was a book in three parts and started in India, then moved on to a raft in the Indian Ocean and then land again. It was an interesting concept – being lost at sea with only a tiger for company – and it was a very readable book.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Title: Unknown

Author: Mari Jungstedt

Number of pages: 430

Started: 22 October 2010

Finished: 27 October 2010

Opening words:

From a distance only a faint light was visible. Igors Bleidelis spied it in his binoculars as the Estonian freighter passed the jetty on its way to Visby Harbour. He was standing on deck on the port side. Dusk had settled over the desolate harbour, and the glaring lights of the ferry terminal were coming on.

Plot summary:

It’s summer on Gotland and an international group of archaeology students are excavating an ancient Viking site. The camaraderie and holiday spirits of the group are shattered when one of their number, a Dutch student called Martina, disappears. Rumours abound about a secret relationship she was having with someone on the island, but is her disappearance simply a lover’s intrigue? When the body of a horse is discovered in a local farmer’s field, other rumours begin to circulate. The horse had been decapitated and the head has vanished. As Inspector Knutas begins his investigation, echoes from Gotland’s Viking past begin to trouble his search. When Martina’s naked body is found hanging from a tree, with what look like ritualistic markings on her skin, there can be little further question. Someone is calling to the old Gods of Gotland. Martina has been killed according to the Viking ritual of the three-fold death, and the one thing the ritual points to is that more deaths will follow.

What I thought:

This was a return to some Swedish reading (in English). Having just read the Booker shortlist, when I first started this book, the language seemed simplistic and a bit basic, but once I had managed to shake off the Booker reading I warmed to it far more.

This was another tale of murder in Gotland, which I don’t think can be the best advert for the place. The book was readable, but I don’t think it was as good as the previous two books in this series. It did develop some plots that had emerged in previous books and so from that perspective was a useful read, but I think it was a book that was otherwise easily forgettable. It was an unchallenging read, which is just what I needed, but lacked the punch of many crime novels.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Long Song

Title: The Long Song

Author: Andrea Levy

Number of pages: 336

Started: 15 October 2010

Finished: 21 October 2010

Opening words:


THE BOOK YOU ARE now holding within your hand was born of a craving. My mama had a story—a story that lay so fat within her breast that she felt impelled, by some force which was mightier than her own will, to relay this tale to me, her son. Her intention was that, once knowing the tale, I would then, at some other date, convey its narrative to my own daughters. And so it would go on. The fable would never be lost and, in its several recitals, might gain a majesty to rival the legends told whilst pointing at the portraits or busts in any fancy great house upon this island of Jamaica.

It was a fine ambition from a noble old woman for whom many of her years were lived in harsh circumstance. This wish demanded respect.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

You do not know me yet. My son Thomas, who is publishing this book, tells me, it is customary at this place in a novel to give the reader a little taste of the story that is held within these pages. As your storyteller, I am to convey that this tale is set in Jamaica during the last turbulent years of slavery and the early years of freedom that followed.

July is a slave girl who lives upon a sugar plantation named Amity and it is her life that is the subject of this tale. She was there when the Baptist War raged in 1831, and she was also present when slavery was declared no more. My son says I must convey how the story tells also of July’s mama Kitty, of the negroes that worked the plantation land, of Caroline Mortimer the white woman who owned the plantation and many more persons besides - far too many for me to list here. But what befalls them all is carefully chronicled upon these pages for you to peruse.

Perhaps, my son suggests, I might write that it is a thrilling journey through that time in the company of people who lived it. All this he wishes me to pen so the reader can decide if this is a book they might care to consider. Cha, I tell my son, what fuss-fuss. Come, let them just read it for themselves.

What I thought:

This was the final book on the Booker Prize shortlist, and I have to say that I was relieved to get to the end of reading them all. The Long Song was actually very readable and was a tale of slavery and emancipation (of sorts) and it was an interesting tale.

I did at times find the use of dialect a bit off-putting, but at other times it helped to build the picture so I think it worked in places but grated in others. It was certainly one of the better books on the shortlist and is one of the books I would recommend the most. I probably rushed it a bit to get to the end of the exercise of reading the shortlist, so perhaps did not do it justice, but it was a decent read nonetheless.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Finkler Question

Title: The Finkler Question

Author: Howard Jacobson

Number of pages: 320

Started: 7 October 2010

Finished: 14 October 2010

Opening words:

He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one.

He was a man who saw things coming. Not shadowy premonitions before and after sleep, but real and present dangers in the daylit world. Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins. Speeding cars lost control and rode on to the footpath leaving him lying in a pile of torn tissue and mangled bones. Sharp objects dropped from scaffolding and pierced his skull.

Women worst of all. When a woman of the sort Julian Treslove found beautiful crossed his path it wasn’t his body that took the force but his mind. She shattered his calm.

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they’ve never quite lost touch with each other – or with their former teacher, Libor Sevick, a Czech always more concerned with the wider world than with exam results.

Now, both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and with Treslove, his chequered and unsuccessful record with women rendering him an honorary third widower, they dine at Libor’s grand, central London apartment.

It’s a sweetly painful evening of reminiscence in which all three remove themselves to a time before they had loved and lost; a time before they had fathered children, before the devastation of separations, before they had prized anything greatly enough to fear the loss of it. Better, perhaps, to go through life without knowing happiness at all because that way you have less to mourn? Treslove finds he has tears enough for the unbearable sadness of both his friends’ losses.

And it’s that very evening, at exactly 11:30 pm, as Treslove, walking home, hesitates a moment outside the window of the oldest violin dealer in the country, that he is attacked. And after this, his whole sense of who and what he is will slowly and ineluctably change.

What I thought:

This was certainly one of the more readable Booker offerings, as far as I was concerned. It felt rather more accessible that some of the other offerings. But it is a book that will divide opinions. It did not strike me as a book that was going to set the world on fire, but I thought it was perfectly readable. Someone I work with found the book so unreadable that she gave up on it about a third of the way through and refused to continue with it despite some coaxing to do so. She found it too “Jewish”. She had no problem with reading a book that had a Jewish theme to it, but she did feel that she was excluded from following what the book was really about, and that there was perhaps some joke that she was missing out on.

This book actually won the Booker. I can’t say that I think it was a great choice. I think for some it will confirm that such prizes are for very “worthy” books, but for others perhaps they will see more to the book or at least find they can read it to the end without it driving them mad.

This is one of the Booker shortlist books that I have preferred, but I don’t really see it as having a quality that cried out to me that it should win a prize. Readable, but no more noteworthy than that to my mind.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America

Title: Parrot and Olivier in America

Author: Peter Carey

Number of pages: 464

Started: 29 September 2010

Finished: 6 October 2010

Opening words:

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable — slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.

But consider this: Given the ferocity of my investigations, is it not half queer I did not come across my uncle's célérifère?

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

Olivier is a French aristocrat, the traumatised child of survivors of the Revolution; Parrot the son of an itinerant English printer who always wanted to be an artist but has ended up a servant. Born on different sides of history, their lives will be joined by their travels in America. When Olivier sets sail for the New World – ostensibly to study its prisons but in reality to save his neck from one more revolution – Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil. As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, and their picaresque travels together and apart – in love and politics, prisons and the world of art – Peter Carey explores the adventure of American democracy, in theory and in practice, with dazzling wit and inventiveness.

What I thought:

Another of the Booker shortlist of which I was not a massive fan. It reminded me too much of having to read historical novels for school. Some of my fellow reading colleagues at work loved this book and thought it was very funny. Whilst it was more readable than the previous offering from the Booker list, it was not the book for me.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Title: C

Author: Tom McCarthy

Number of pages: 320

Started: 17 September 2010

Finished: 26 September 2010

Opening words:

Dr. Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap as it descends the lightly sloping path of Versoie House. He has sore buttocks: the seat's hard and uncushioned. His companion, Mr. Dean of Hudson and Dean Deliveries (Lydium and Environs Since 1868), doesn't seem to feel any discomfort. His glazed eyes stare vaguely ahead; his leathery hands, reins woven through their fingers, hover just above his knees.

The rattle of glass bottles and the fricative rasp of copper wire against more copper wire rise from the trap's back and, mixing with the click and shuffle of the horse's hooves on gravel, hang undisturbed about the still September air. Above the vehicle tall conifers rise straight and inert as columns. Higher, much further out, black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky. Between the doctor's legs are wedged a brown case and a black inhaling apparatus. In his hand he holds a yellow piece of paper. He's scrutinising this, perplexed, as best he can.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

"C" follows the short, intense life of Serge Carrefax, a man who - as his name suggests - surges into the electric modernity of the early twentieth century, transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him. Born to the sound of one of the very earliest experimental wireless stations, Serge finds himself steeped in a weird world of transmissions, whose very air seems filled with cryptic and poetic signals of all kinds. When personal loss strikes him in his adolescence, this world takes on a darker and more morbid aspect. What follows is a stunning tour de force in which the eerily idyllic settings of pre-war Europe give way to the exhilarating flight-paths of the frontline aeroplane radio operator, then the prison camps of Germany, the drug-fuelled London of the roaring twenties and, finally, the ancient tombs of Egypt. Reminiscent of Bolano, Beckett and Pynchon, this is a remarkable novel - a compelling, sophisticated and sublimely imaginative book uncovering the hidden codes and dark rhythms that sustain life.

What I thought:

This is the third book on the current Booker Prize shortlist that I have read, and I have to confess that I was not a fan. I just couldn’t quite see the point of this book and it was a real chore to read it. I don’t know what it was that I found so unappealing, and perhaps if I had been reading it without the pressure of having to meet a deadline of reading all of the shortlist before the winner is announced, I might have enjoyed it more. But the book did nothing for me at all. This book is tipped to be the winner, so I am not sure that that tells you about me. Decide for yourself!

Thursday, 16 September 2010


Title: Room

Author: Emma Donoghue

Number of pages: 321

Started: 13 September 2010

Finished: 16 September 2010

Opening words:

Today I'm five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. "Was I minus numbers?"
"Hmm?" Ma does a big stretch.
"Up in Heaven. Was I minus one, minus two, minus three—?"
"Nah, the numbers didn't start till you zoomed down."
"Through Skylight. You were all sad till I happened in your tummy."
"You said it." Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.
I shut my eyes just in time, then open one a crack, then both.
"I cried till I didn't have any tears left," she tells me. "I just lay here counting the seconds."
"How many seconds?" I ask her.
"Millions and millions of them."
"No, but how many exactly?"
"I lost count," says Ma.

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

It’s Jack’s birthday, and he’s excited about turning five.

Jack lives with his Ma in Room, which has a locked door and a skylight, and measures 11 feet by 11 feet. He loves watching TV, and the cartoon characters he calls friends, but he knows that nothing he sees on screen is truly real – only him, Ma and the things in Room. Until the day Ma admits that there's a world outside . . .

Told in Jack's voice, Room is the story of a mother and son whose love lets them survive the impossible. Unsentimental and sometimes funny, devastating yet uplifting, Room is a novel like no other.

What I thought:

I am not sure what I made of this book. It is certainly not the type of book I would normally read, but that was part of the appeal of reading the Booker prize shortlist – to challenge my normal reading choices.

This book is told from the perspective of a five year old who has spent his whole life in a 11 by 11 foot room, along with his mother who was kidnapped seven years previously. It took me a while to warm to the writing style. The boy, Jack, refers to inanimate objects as though they are an active part of his life, and because they have that role it slightly changes the construction of a normal sentence. For example:

“Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh.”

However, after I read the first 30 pages or so, I put the book down for a few hours and when I returned to it, I had come to terms with this style.

The other thing that slightly frustrated me about the book was that because it was told by a five year old he didn’t have the insight or the ability to process why others were acting in the way that they did. Why did his mum get upset? Why did his mum not tell him the truth about why they lived their lives in this small confined space? But on reflection, I wonder if that is actually a strength of the book. Because there is no analysis of the characters or by the characters it means that you, the reader, have to do it instead – and that is maybe no bad thing because it makes you think about the novel and what Jack is seeing and understanding about life around him.

The book also made me wonder how accurate portrayal of a five year old Jack was. At times he seemed too intelligent and other times too naïve. But then that opens up the question of how constantly living with an adult, who is the only person you interact with would affect your ability to comprehend the world around you. So, again, it is not clear, and it is for you to decide for yourself.

I think it is a book that is ideal to debate with other people. I talked to someone at work who is also doing this same challenge and read it before me and I went from saying I was a bit ambivalent about the book to us having a lengthy discussion about a whole range of things about the book.

So, it was a readable book (once I got past my concerns about the writing style) and raised lots of dilemmas, but the jury is still out on this one as far as I am concerned. But, that said, I would recommend reading it because I think it is one of those books that is down to the reader to interpret what you take from it.

Monday, 13 September 2010

In a Strange Room

Title: In a Strange Room

Author: Damon Galgut

Number of pages: 180

Started: 11 September 2010

Finished: 13 September 2010

Opening words:

It happens like this. He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown to him and soon he leaves the little town behind. In an hour or so he is among low hills covered by olive trees and grey stones, from which there is a view out over a plain that gradually descends to the sea. He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone.
As the road rises and falls there are moments when he can see far ahead and other moments when he can see nothing at all. He keeps looking out for other people, but the huge landscape seems to be completely deserted. The only sign of human beings is the occasional house, tiny and distant, and the fact of the road itself.

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

A young man takes three journeys, through Greece, India and Africa. He travels lightly, simply. To those who travel with him and those whom he meets on the way - including a handsome, enigmatic stranger, a group of careless backpackers and a woman on the edge - he is the Follower, the Lover and the Guardian. Yet, despite the man's best intentions, each journey ends in disaster. Together, these three journeys will change his whole life. A novel of longing and thwarted desire, rage and compassion, "In a Strange Room" is the hauntingly beautiful evocation of one man's search for love, and a place to call home.

What I thought:

I have, somewhat foolishly, agreed with some people at work to read the Booker Prize shortlist before the winner is announced in a few weeks time. So, this book was the first one that I read from the list. I have to admit that I read it first because it was the shortest. But that aside, I did enjoy the book.

It was really three novellas rather than a novel, and each could have been read independently. I liked the author’s style and he reminded me of Paul Auster, of whom I am a big fan. The three stories were all set around travelling and showed the difficulties of human relationships, in all their forms.

I found it enjoyable and very readable book, but nothing jumped out at me that seemed to suggest that this book was worthy of great accolade. That last comment seems too negative, as I am not suggesting that the book is bad in some way. There was just nothing that blew me away and made me think that it is the very best the book world has to offer. Perhaps by the time I have read the others, I will have changed my mind.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

War on the Margins

Title: War on the Margins

Author: Libby Cone

Number of pages: 251

Started: 8 September 2010

Finished: 11 September 2010

Opening words:

Chapter 1

St. Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands

Marlene Zimmer dropped into the chair in her sitting room with the paper, knowing what it would say before she opened it:

The Jersey Evening Post

21 October 1940

“First Order relating to measures against Jews:

“Concerning the Registration of Jews in Jersey

“In pursuance of an Order of the Chief of the German Military Administration in France (registered by Act of the Royal Court, dated October 21st, 1940), and in virtue of the power delegated to me by the Bailiff, all Jews must present themselves for registration at the Aliens Office, No. 6 Hill Street, St. Helier, on Wednesday and Thursday, October 23rd and 24th, 1940, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“For the purposes of this Order, persons are deemed to be Jews who belong or have belonged to the Jewish religion or who have more than two Jewish grandparents.

“Grandparents who belong or have belonged to the Jewish religion are deemed to be Jews.

“The particulars to be provided upon registration are: --


“2.Christian name.

“3. Date of birth.

“4.Place of birth

“5. Sex.

“6. Family status.


“8. Religious faith.

“9.Length of uninterrupted residence in the Island.

“The declaration of the head of the family will suffice for the whole family.


“Chief Aliens Officer”

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

France has fallen to the Nazis. Britain is under siege. As BBC bulletins grow bleak, residents of Jersey abandon their homes in their thousands. When the Germans take over, Marlene Zimmer, a shy clerk at the Aliens Office, must register her friends and neighbours as Jews while concealing her own heritage, until eventually she is forced to flee. Layers of extraordinary history unfold as we chart Marlene's transformation from unassuming office worker to active Resistance member under the protection of artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, who manage to find poetry in the midst of hardship and unimaginable danger. Drawn from authentic World War II documents, broadcasts and private letters, War on the Margins tells the unforgettable story of the deepening horror of the Nazi regime in Jersey and the extraordinary bravery of those who sought to subvert it.

What I thought:

When I go away on holiday I like to read book that is based where I am staying. When I went to Jersey at Easter this year, I looked for a book on Jersey but couldn’t find one so had to settle for a book based in Guernsey. However, the author of this book, Libby Cone, contacted me about her book and sent me a copy.

While I was in Jersey I was shocked by what I learned about the occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and I thought this book captured well the difficult decisions that people had to make, and incredibly trying and at times desperate situations. People made their decisions, for good or bad, and sometimes only time would tell the consequences of those decisions.

I thought the book also nicely developed the story around two women who were not only stepsisters but also lovers (this is a fictionalised version of a true story, although it seemed to be drawn from documents that remain from that time). I found that really interesting as well, particularly because while I was on Jersey I had seen an exhibition of the women’s photos and it was good to read more about them and what they might have experienced during the war.

I though this perfectly complimented my trip to Jersey and would have been the perfect book to have read during my trip. It is not the most cheery of reads, but it brings home the reality of Jersey during the occupation and shows what happened through the lives of a number of people who were affected in different ways by being under Nazi rule. A fascinating read.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The Ghost

Title: The Ghost

Author: Robert Harris

Number of pages: 400

Started: 2 September 2010

Finished: 6 September 2010

Opening words:

'The moment I heard how McAra died I should have walked away. I can see that now. I should have said, '-Rick, I'm sorry, this isn't for me, I don't like the sound of it,' finished my drink and left. But he was such a good storyteller, Rick - I often thought he should have been the writer and I the agent - that once he'd started talking there was never any question I wouldn't listen, and by the time he had finished, I was done for.'

Plot summary:

The narrator of Robert Harris's gripping new novel is a professional ghostwriter - cynical, mercenary, and with a nice line in deadpan humour. Accustomed to working with fading rock stars and minor celebrities, he jumps at the chance to ghost the memoirs of Britain's former prime minister, especially as it means flying to the American resort of Martha's Vineyard in the middle of winter and finishing the book in the seclusion of a luxurious house.

But it doesn't take him long to realise he has made a terrible mistake. His predecessor on the project died in circumstances that were distinctly suspicious, and the ex-prime minister turns out to be a man with secrets in his past that are returning to haunt him - secrets with the power to kill.

What I thought:

This is the first Robert Harris book I have read. It was a coincidence that I read it the same week as Tony Blair’s memoirs were published, but it was a well timed read as it is hard not to see that the ex-Prime Minister in the book is a somewhat thinly veiled version of Blair.

The book was very readable and the words slipped off the page and kept me wanting to read it through to the end. I thought the ending/ resolution was perhaps a touch “clunky”, and all a bit too neatly wrapped up, but it was a good read.

Harris is generally know for his historical novels e.g. set in Ancient Rome, which is not my normal read, but I would be tempted to give one of them a go having read this book. The Ghost had a good plot and is the type of book that you can read by the pool or on a commute.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

An Experiment in Love

Title: An Experiment in Love

Author: Hilary Mantel

Number of pages: 250

Started: 30 August 2010

Finished: 1 September 2010

Opening words:

This morning in the newspaper I saw a picture of Julia. She was standing on the threshold of her house in Highgate, where she receives her patients: a tall woman, wrapped in some kind of Indian shawl. There was a blur where her face should be, and yet I noted the confident set of her arms, and I could imagine her expression: professionally watchful, maternal, with that broad cold smile which I have known since I was eleven years old. In the foreground, a skeletal teenaged child tottered towards her, from a limousine parked at the kerb: Miss Linzi Simon, well-loved family entertainer and junior megastar, victim of the Slimmer’s Disease.

Plot summary:

Carmel McBain is a bright Lancashire-Irish child whose mother is fond of telling her, "your father's not just a clerk, you know"-though, in fact, he is. As Carmel grows up, this snobbish tendency metamorphoses into the brutal driving force of the girl's young life. As a teenager, with ambition bullied into her, she alternates between nights spent locked in her room to study and days filled with the "routine sarcasms of nuns." Carmel's move from posh convent to London university is a lonely one; at school, she undergoes a disturbing loss of self-awareness. Between her mother's ruthlessness and the cruelties of the nuns, Carmel's self-worth has been damaged, with near fatal results.

What I thought:

This was the first Hilary Mantel book that I have read. I thought I would start with a relatively short novel as a test case before potentially moving on to her mighty tome that is Wolf Hall.

It was an enjoyable tale of student life in the 1960s – not that the story was a particularly uplifting one. I thought Mantel’s writing style was very engaging and that she wrote really well. There was something about the story and her style that reminded me of Margaret Atwood, particularly Atwood’s book “Cats Eyes” which I read many years ago, although I found Mantel more accessible/ down to earth than Atwood.

So all in all, I found the book very readable and I might well be moving on to some of her more epic writing in due course.

Friday, 27 August 2010


Title: Unspoken

Author: Mari Jungstedt

Number of pages: 363

Started: 21 August 2010

Finished: 27 August 2010

Opening words:

For the first time in a week the sky cleared. The wan rays of November sunshine found their way through the clouds, and the spectators at the Visby trotting track turned their faces with yearning up toward the sun. It was the last race of the season, and there was a sense of anticipation in the air, mixed with a touch of melancholy. A chilly but enthusiastic crowd had gathered in the grandstands. They were drinking beer and hot coffee from plastic cups, eating hot dogs, and making notes in their track programs.

Henry “Flash” Dahlström got out his hip flask and took a good swig of his home-brewed liquor. It made him grimace, but it also warmed him nicely. With him in the stands sat the whole gang: Bengan, Gunsan, Monica, and Kjelle. All of them were rapidly advancing toward various states of intoxication.

The procession had just started. The snorting standardbreds, glossy with sweat, were lined up and prancing forward as the music blared from the loudspeakers. The drivers, with their legs wide apart, were firmly seated in their lightweight sulkies.

The odds were posted on a black tote board out near the track, with the numbers ticking past.

Read a longer excerpt here

Plot summary:

The dead man man was a drunk; a regular on the park benches of Gotland's city centre. He had been celebrating winning 80,000 Krona at the races. His body is discovered by one of his drinking buddies: he is drenched in blood and someone or something has left a hole the size of a fist in the back of his head.

It's winter on the island of Gotland. The tourists have returned home. The tree branches are bare, the sky is sleet grey and the days are getting shorter and darker. Winter is a quiet time for Chief Inspector Anders Knutas and Detective Karin Jacobsson; the tourists tend to take the violent crimes with them back to the mainland. To keep their lives simple, they are tempted to assume that the victim died as a result of a drunken brawl over money. But all of the clues point to something far more sinister.

Then 14-year old Fanny Jansson, a volunteer at the local stables, vanishes. At first Knutas and Jacobsson find it hard to believe that the two cases are linked: one is a violent murder, the other, the disappearance of a lonely and isolated child who has probably run away. Painstakingly, they work the clues, assisted by ambitious TV reporter Johan Berg. But what none of them realise is that truth is much closer to home than they'd ever imagine.

What I thought:

I took a while to warm to this book, but I think that was more of a reflection on me than the book itself. It was another good Scandinavian mystery and as the pages turned I enjoyed it more.

This book was based in the run up to Christmas and would make a good crime novel to read on a dark December Sunday afternoon. I seem to find that about Swedish books – that they are suited to reading at particular times of the year, and this is a good winter book.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Coming Up for Air

Title: Coming Up for Air

Author: George Orwell

Number of pages: 256

Started: 17 August 2010

Finished: 20 August 2010

Opening words:

The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.

I remember the morning well. At about a quarter to eight I’d nipped out of bed and got into the bathroom just in time to shut the kids out. It was a beastly January morning, with a dirty yellowish-grey sky. Down below, out of the little square of bathroom window, I could see the ten yards by five of grass, with a privet hedge round it and a bare patch in the middle, that we call the back garden. There’s the same back garden, some privets, and same grass, behind every house in Ellesmere Road. Only difference – where there are no kids there’s no bare patch in the middle.

I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.

Making a mental note to buy razor-blades, I got into the bath and started soaping. I soaped my arms (I’ve got those kind of pudgy arms that are freckled up to the elbow) and then took the back-brush and soaped my shoulder-blades, which in the ordinary way I can’t reach. It’s a nuisance, but there are several parts of my body that I can’t reach nowadays. The truth is that I’m inclined to be a little bit on the fat side.

Plot summary:

Years in insurance and marriage to the joyless Hilda have been no more than death in life to George Bowling. This and fear of another war take his mind back to the peace of his childhood in a small country town. But his return journey to Lower Binfield brings complete disillusionment.

What I thought:

This is the fifth of Orwell’s books that I have read and it was a decent read. It was published in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War 2 and that is the backdrop to the novel – people’s fears about what the future might hold.

It was a well written book and had some of the biting insight that Orwell is known for, mixed in with some decent humour. It was a bit like reading a shorter and less repetitive version of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and touched on some of the socialist issues that Orwell was concerned about.

It was not as memorable or as clever as some of his other books, but it was an interesting look at 1930s life and the themes that Orwell would later touch on in books such as Nineteen Eighty Four begin to emerge in this book.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Operation Mincemeat

Title: Operation Mincemeat

Author: Ben Macintyre

Number of pages: 416

Started: 11 August 2010

Finished: 17 August 2010

Opening words:

"In the early hours of 10 July 1943, British, Commonwealth and American troops stormed ashore on the coast of Sicily in the first assault against Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”. With hindsight, the invasion of the Italian island was a triumph, a pivotal moment in the war, and a vital stepping stone on the way to victory in Europe."

Plot summary:

One April morning in 1943, a sardine fisherman spotted the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain and set in train a course of events that would change the course of the Second World War. Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. His mission: to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allied armies planned to invade Greece. The brainchild of an eccentric RAF officer and a brilliant Jewish barrister, the great hoax involved an extraordinary cast of characters including a famous forensic pathologist, a gold-prospector, an inventor, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submarine captain, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral who loved fly-fishing, and a dead Welsh tramp. Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill's team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and so convincing that they began to believe it themselves. The deception started in a windowless basement beneath Whitehall. It travelled from London to Scotland to Spain to Germany. And it ended up on Hitler's desk. Ben Macintyre, bestselling author of "Agent Zigzag", weaves together private documents, photographs, memories, letters and diaries, as well as newly released material from the intelligence files of MI5 and Naval Intelligence, to tell for the first time the full story of Operation Mincemeat.

What I thought:

I wanted to read this book because I saw a TV programme a while ago about this World War 2 hoax carried out by the Allies on the Axis powers. I found the idea of such a hoax, sanctioned at the highest level, fascinating.

This was a well written and interesting account of what took place. It was very readable and didn’t assume that you knew all the terminology, but equally didn’t patronise. I found some of the information in the book fascinating. For instance, apparently there were no German agents operating in Britain during the war. They were all caught and dealt with. That in itself was interesting enough. However, the Germans believed there was a network operating here because the British ran hundreds of fictitious German agents that they used to feed (false) intelligence back.

The hoax that this book unfolds was a really fascinating account of a major deception that helped to shape the outcome of the war. I really liked that people were able to come up with such elaborate plots and if they could persuade the right people, they could put it into action.

This story has been told in other ways primarily under the title of The Man Who Never Was, but this was a more extensive account than any of those previously because a number of parts of the story could not be revealed until relatively recently.

It’s possibly a bit more of a book for men, but I thought it was a book that showed British ingenuity under pressure at its best.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


Title: Invisible

Author: Paul Auster

Number of pages: 320

Started: 5 August 2010

Finished: 10 August 2010

Opening words:

“I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967. I was a second-year student at Columbia then, a know-nothing boy with an appetite for books and a belief (or delusion) that one day I would become good enough to call myself a poet, and because I read poetry, I had already met his namesake in Dante’s hell, a dead man shuffling through the final verses of the twenty-eighth canto of the Inferno. Bertran de Born, the twelfth-century Provencal poet, carrying his severed head by the hair as it sways back and forth like a lantern — surely one of the most grotesque images in that book-length catalogue of hallucinations and torments. Dante was a staunch defender of de Born's writing, but he condemned him to eternal damnation for having counseled Prince Henry to rebel against his father, King Henry II, and because de Born caused division between father and son and turned them into enemies, Dante's ingenious punishment was to divide de Born from himself. Hence the decapitated body wailing in the underworld, asking the Florentine traveler if any pain could be more terrible than his.”.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

New York City, Spring 1967: Twenty-year-old Adam Walker, an aspiring poet and student at Columbia University, meets the enigmatic Frenchman Rudolf Born, and his silent and seductive girlfriend Margot. Falling into a passionate affair with Margot, Walker soon finds himself caught in a perverse triangle that leads to a sudden, shocking act of violence that will alter the course of his life.

What I thought:

This is Paul Auster’s latest book and it follows some of his normal themes and styles, such as the every-changing role of the narrator and how the story is told.

It was a good story, although difficult to describe without giving away too much of the plot. It is a tale of how particular acts can change our lives, and whether w can believe the stories that we are told.

I am a big fan of Paul Auster, but I don’t think this is one of his best. It was a good story, but perhaps not quite as gripping as some of his others, and it covers some uncomfortable themes, which perhaps make it harder to say that you enjoyed it. Nonetheless it was a good book and I am looking forward to his new book which is due out later this year.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The True Deceiver

Title: The True Deceiver

Author: Tove Jansson

Number of pages: 202

Started: 3 August 2010

Finished: 5 August 2010

Opening words:

It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. Katri screened the lamp so she wouldn't wake her brother while she made coffee and put the Thermos beside his bed. The room was very cold. The big dog lay by the door and looked at her with his nose between his paws, waiting for her to take him out.

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

In the deep winter snows of a Swedish hamlet, a strange young woman fakes a break-in at the house of an elderly artist in order to persuade her that she needs companionship. But what does she hope to gain by doing this? And who ultimately is deceiving whom? In this portrayal of two women encircling each other with truth and lies, nothing can be taken for granted. By the time the snow thaws, both their lives will have changed irrevocably.

What I thought:

This was a marvellous book and I so enjoyed reading it. It has the qualities of a fable in some ways, and the tone seems very light, but there is a dark undertone beneath that. I thought it was a well written story that essentially was about the relationship between an old woman who sees the good in the world and a young woman who sees the bad. The book is set in a very snowy winter and would make a great dark December afternoon read, and I plan to re-read it at a suitable time.

It was a nicely observed story that was very engaging and the pages just flew by. You can probably read this book in less than three hours. When I got to the end, I just had to find someone (anyone!) to tell them how much I had enjoyed the book, and fortunately found a colleague who I often discuss books with. A delightful, and yet dark read.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Preacher

Title: The Preacher

Author: Camilla Lackberg

Number of pages: 422

Started: 28 July 2010

Finished: 3 August 2010

Opening words:

The day was off to a promising start. He woke up early, before the rest of the family, put on clothes as quietly as possible, and managed to sneak out unnoticed. He took along his knight’s helmet and wooden sword, which he swung happily as he ran the hundred yards from the house down to the mouth of the King’s Cleft. He stopped for a moment and peered in awe into the sheer crevice through the rocky outcrop. The sides of the rock were six or seven feet apart, and it towered up over thirty feet into the sky, into which the summer sun had just begun to climb. Three huge boulders were solidly wedged in the middle of the cleft, and it was an imposing sight. The place had a magical attraction for a six year old. The fact that the King’s Cleft was forbidden ground made it all the moiré tempting.

Plot summary:

In the fishing community of Fjallbacka, life is remote, peaceful – and for some, tragically short.

Foul play was always suspected in the disappearance twenty years ago of two young holidaymakers in the area. Now a young boy out playing has confirmed this grim truth. Their remains, discovered with those of a fresh victim, send the town into shock.

Local detective Patrik Hedstrom, expecting a baby with his girlfriend Erica, can only imagine what it is like to lose a child. When a second young girl goes missing, Hedstrom's attention focuses on the Hults, a feuding clan of misfits, relgious fanatics and criminals. The suspect list is long but time is short – which of this family's dark secrets will provide the vital clue?

What I thought:

This was a decent read. The plot was perhaps rather convoluted in places, and I thought the translation (or perhaps the original drafting in Swedish) was a touch clunky in places, primarily in some of the dialogue, but it was a good read regardless. I wasn’t 100% convinced by a couple of the sub-plots in it either, in particular then ones involving Erica Falck (the girlfriend of the main detective in the book). In many ways the stories were a bit of an aside and reached no conclusion. The one about Erica’s sister in particular. It rather felt as though it was a minor sub-plot (about something rather serious) that was never really developed, but presumably is going to feature in future books as well.

That said, it was another good Swedish thriller, although I think I probably preferred her first book The Ice Princess better.