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.