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.