Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away


Title: Tiny Sunbirds Far Away

Author: Christie Watson

Number of pages: 352

Started: 12 December 2011

Finished: 28 December 2011

Opening words:

Father was a loud man. His voice entered a room before he did. From my bedroom window I could hear him sitting in the wide gardens, or walking to the car parking area filled with Mercedes, or standing by the security guard's office, or the gate in front.

Plot summary:

Blessing and her brother Ezikiel adore their larger-than-life father, their glamorous mother and their comfortable life in Lagos. But all that changes when their father leaves them for another woman. Their mother is fired from her job at the Royal Imperial Hotel – only married women can work there – and soon they have to quit their air-conditioned apartment to go and live with their grandparents in a compound in the Niger Delta. Adapting to life with a poor countryside family is a shock beyond measure.

What I thought:

This was the last of the Costa books on this year’s list. It took me a while to warm to this book, but once I really got into it (helped by reading the majority of it on a very long train journey) I really enjoyed it.

It was well written and I thought it was good at conjuring up emotions. I really felt the unfairness of the situation that they were in when they fell into a life they had not expected. It was a rather sexist and corrupt society, and one that was in some ways beyond redemption.

A decent and readable book, and definitely one of the better ones on the shortlist, although not as good as A Summer of Drowning.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Pao


Title: Pao

Author: Kerry Young

Number of pages: 288

Started: 5 December 2011

Finished: 9 December 2011

Opening words:

Me and the boys was sitting in the shop talking 'bout how good business was and how we need to go hire up some help and that is when she show up. She just appear in the doorway like she come outta nowhere. She was standing there with the sun shining on her showing off this hat, well it was more a kind of turban, like the Indians wear, only it look ten times better than that. Or maybe it just look ten times better on her.


Plot summary:

Kingston, 1938. Fourteen-year-old Yang Pao steps off the ship from China with his mother and brother, after his father has died fighting for the revolution. They are to live with Zhang, the ‘godfather’ of Chinatown, who mesmerises Pao with stories of glorious Chinese socialism on one hand, and the reality of his protection business on the other. When Pao takes over the family’s affairs he becomes a powerful man. He sets his sights on marrying well, but when Gloria Campbell, a black prostitute, comes to him for help he is drawn to her beauty and strength. As the political violence escalates in the 1960s, the lines between Pao’s socialist ideals and private ambitions become blurred. Jamaica is transforming, the tides of change are rising, and the one-time boss of Chinatown finds himself cast adrift.

What I thought:

I wasn’t sure about this book to be begin with. It was written in a sort of dialect, which is a style that I don’t always warm to. In this instance, I think it worked though.

I thought the book had a decent plot and at times was moving. It was an engaging tale and, whilst some have criticised it for not being factually accurate, I thought it was an interesting read. It wasn’t one that I thought was a prize winner, but it was well worth a read.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A Summer of Drowning


Title: A Summer of Drowning

Author: John Burnside

Number of pages: 336

Started: 28 November 2011

Finished: 4 December 2011

Opening words:

Late in May 2001, about ten days after I saw him for the last time, Mats Sigfridsson was hauled out of Malangen Sound, a few miles down the coast from here. They say he must have gone into the water at Skognes, then drifted back down to the pier near Straumsbukta, not far from where we lived – and I like to think that the sea took pity on the puny child it had killed, and was in the process of carrying him home, when a fisherman caught sight of that distinctive, almost white shock of hair through the summer gloaming and, with due car and sadness and habitual skill, fetched him to shore. Later, they found a boat drifting in the Sound, halfway between Kvaloya and the shipping channel where the great cruise and cargo vessels from Tromso glide out into the open sea.


Plot summary:

Painter Angelika Rossdal suddenly moves to Kvaloya, a small island deep in the
Arctic Circle, with her young daughter, Liv, who grows up isolated and unable or unwilling to make friends her own age. Spending much of her time alone, or with an elderly neighbour, Liv is beguiled with old folk tales and stories about trolls, mermaids and the huldra, a wild spirit who appears in the form of an irresistibly beautiful girl, to lure young men to their doom. Now 28, Liv looks back on her life and to that summer when two boys drowned under mysterious circumstances off the shores of Kvaloya. As the summer continues and events take an even darker turn, Liv comes to believe that something supernatural is happening on the island. But is it?

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book. Set within the Arctic Circle, it looked back at strange occurrences during mid-Summer ten years before. It was a well written story and it really felt as though you were within the narrator’s thoughts. I found the words just flowed off the page and it was a pleasure to read, despite the rather dark undertones.

There was an ambiguity about the reasons behind what took place and it was a book that at times you had to consider, momentarily, why things had happened in order to get the most of the novel, but it was a book that was well worth the “effort”.

This was another of the Costa shortlist. I hope it wins.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pure


Title: Pure

Author: Andrew Miller

Number of pages: 352

Started: 22 November 2011

Finished: 27 November 2011

Opening words:

A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting.

He has been waiting a long time. There is no fi re in the room, though it is the third week in October and cold as Candlemas. His legs and back are stiffening
from it – the cold and three days of travelling through it, first with Cousin André from Bellême to Nogent, then the coach, overfull with raw-faced people in winter coats, baskets on their laps, parcels under their feet, some travelling with dogs, one old man with a cockerel under his coat. Thirty hours to Paris and the rue aux Ours, where they climbed down onto cobbles and horseshit, and shifted about outside the haulier’s offi ce as if unsure of their legs. Then this morning, coming from the lodgings he had taken on the rue – the rue what? – an early start on a hired nag to reach Versailles and this, a day that may be the most important of his life, or may be nothing.


Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

Deep in the heart of Paris its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing. Its stench hangs in the air, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. The over-filled graves pop and burst, filling people’s basements with bones and spreading disease across the capital. But the cemetery’s roots are embedded deep in the hearts and minds of the people, for whom the graveyard has long provided a backdrop to their daily lives. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it. At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.

What I thought:

This is not a genre of book that I would normally read, and the demolition of a cemetery is probably not my normal choice of reading matter. That said, this was a readable book and I did quite enjoy it. It was well written and the plot was more engaging than I might have expected. Of the Costa list, this is one of the better ones and I’ll be interested to see how it gets in with the judges.

Monday, 21 November 2011

City of Bohane


Title: City of Bohane

Author: Kevin Barry

Number of pages: 277

Started: 16 November 2011

Finished: 21 November 2011

Opening words:

Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river. This is the Bohane river we’re talking about. A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin’ wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it: city of Bohane.

He walked the docks and breathed in the sweet badness of the river. It was past midnight on the Bohane front. There was an evenness to his footfall, a slow calm rhythm of leather on stone, and the dockside lamps burned in the night-time a green haze, the light of a sad dream. The water’s roar for Hartnett was as the rushing of his own blood and as he passed the merchant yards the guard dogs strung out a sequence of howls all along the front. See the dogs: their hackles heaped, their yellow eyes livid. We could tell he was coming by the howling of the dogs.



Plot summary:

Forty years in the future. The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, infested by vice and split along tribal lines. There are the posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the Northside Rises and on the eerie bogs of Big Nothin’ that the city really lives. For years, the city has been in the cool grip of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air: they say his old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchman are getting ambitious; and his missus wants him to give it all up and go straight... And then there's his mother.

What I thought:

I was not a fan of this book at all. I didn’t like the writing style, I didn’t enjoy the plot. I read it all because it is on the Costa Awards shortlist and it seemed a shame to give up on the first one. Not a book I would recommend.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mystery Man


Title: Mystery Man

Author: Colin Bateman

Number of pages: 422

Started: 10 November 2011

Finished: 15 November 2011

Opening words:

There aren't many private eyes in Belfast, and now, apparently, there's one less. I know this because his shop was right next to mine. His name was Malcolm Carlyle and he seemed a decent sort; he would call in for a chat and a browse now and again when business was slow. His business, that is. His business was called Private Eye, big yellow letters on a black background. Then one day he didn't open up, and I never saw him again, and that was the start of my problems because he was still listed in the Yellow Pages, but when people couldn't get a response on the phone well, they thought, he must be good, he's so busy, he's changed his number, gone ex-directory, so they'd come down to plead their case, find the door locked, stand back and take a look at the place and see my shop next door and think there must be some kind of a connection because you don't have a shop called Private Eye and a shop called No Alibis sitting side by side for no reason at all. So they'd come in and furtively browse through the crime books, all the time eying me up behind the counter, trying to work out if I could possibly be the private eye they were looking for and if there was a connecting door between the shops, and whether I did this bookselling thing as a kind of respectable cover for my night time manoeuvres on the cold, dark streets of Belfast. They'd gotten it wrong of course. Book selling is more cut throat than you can possibly imagine.
The first fella who actually approached me was called Robert Geary; he was a civil servant in the Department of Education in Bangor, he was married, he had three children aged from nine to twelve and he supported Manchester United. He told me all this while making a meal out of paying for an Agatha Christie novel, so I knew something was up. No one had bought a Christie in years.


Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

He’s the Man With No Name and the owner of No Alibis, a mystery bookshop in Belfast. But when a detective agency next door goes bust, the agency’s clients start calling into his shop asking him to solve their cases. It’s not as if there’s any danger involved. It’s an easy way to sell books to his gullible customers and Alison, the beautiful girl in the jewellery shop across the road, will surely be impressed. Except she’s not – because she can see the bigger picture. And when they break into the shuttered shop next door on a dare, they have their answer. Suddenly they’re catapulted along a murder trail which leads them from small-time publishing to Nazi concentration camps and serial killers...

What I thought:

This was a very readable book with an underlying dark sense of humour. The main, seemingly nameless, character runs a crime bookshop and starts, unwillingly, to gain the “custom” from the defunct detective agency next door.

It was a well-paced book and the main characters each had their own quirks that brought humour to the book. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the outcome of the book – the plot worked, but it was perhaps a more serious outcome than the rest of the book might have suggested.

It was a good book and the first of a series, which I will be pursuing, particularly as the book finished on a cliff-hanger of sorts...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Cause for Alarm


Title: Cause for Alarm

Author: Eric Ambler

Number of pages: 272

Started: 5 November 2011

Finished: 9 November 2011

Opening words:

The man standing in the shadow of the doorway turned up the collar of his overcoat and stamped his numb feet gently on the damp stones. In the distance he could hear the sound of a train pulling out of the 'Stazione Centrale', and wished he was riding in it, lounging back in a first-class compartment on his wasy to Palermo. Perhaps after this job was done he would be able to take a holiday in the sun. That was, of course, if They would let him.


Plot summary:

Nick Marlow, the hero of Cause for Alarm is an engineer who likes to think of himself as a plain man, above politics; when he takes a sales job in Mussolini's Fascist Italy, it never occurs to him as relevant that his predecessor was killed by a hit-and-run driver or that the boring machines he sells might be used for the making of armaments. Nor does he regard the politics of his clerk as of interest, nor think of the rouged Yugoslav general Vagas as anything more than a friendly buffoon. Before he knows where he is, a web is tightening about him and the only reliable friend he has is Zaleshoff, an American businessman, oddly keen to educate him in the ways of the world

What I thought:

This was a very readable spy novel. It had characters that were perhaps caricatures, but that all added to the readability of the book. I thought it was quite an insightful book that really captured the rising tensions at the end of the 1930s as war was brewing. It was a light read that could be read by some as a manual on how not to get embroiled in the murky world of espionage.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Looking for the Possible Dance


Title: Looking for the Possible Dance

Author: AL Kennedy

Number of pages: 250

Started: 29 October 2011

Finished: 4 November 2011

Opening words:

Everything else is a waste of time. Do you hear me? Everything else is a waster of time. You hear me, Margaret? You understand?
Margaret was outside in the night, standing behind the Methodist Church Hall. Her ears, numbed after hours of music, were rushing with the sudden quiet, as if she had just dipped her head inside a sea-shell, or a big tin box. Margaret’s father was sitting on two empty beer crates, breathing in and out enormously, his legs extended flat ahead of him and both his hands folded, hotly, round one of her wrists.


Plot summary:

Mary Margaret Hamilton was educated in Scotland. She was born there too. These may not have been the best possible options, but they were the only ones on offer at the time. Although her father did his best, her knowledge of life is perhaps a little incomplete. Margaret knows the best way to look at the moon, how to wake on time and how to breathe fire. Now she must learn how to live. A. L. Kennedy's absorbing, moving and gently political first novel dissects the intricate difficulties of human relationships, from Margaret's passionate attachment to her father and her more problematic involvement with Colin, her lover, to the wider social relations between pupil and teacher, employer and employee, individual and state.

What I thought:

I had really wanted to read this book, so was pleased when I finally acquired a copy. However, it didn’t live up to my hopes. It was well written and was very readable, but it felt a bit too much like a “kitchen sink” drama and never really rose above the mundanity of life. To a degree, perhaps that was part of what the book was about, but for me it just didn’t fulfil its potential and I never truly empathised with the characters. A decent enough read, but never really seemed to achieve that extra element that would have made the novel truly engaging.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Punishment


Title: Punishment

Author: Anne Holt

Number of pages: 344

Started: 23 October 2011

Finished: 28 October 2011

Opening words:

She was walking home from school. It was nearly National Day. It would be the first 17th of May without Mommy. Her national costume was too short. Mommy had already let the hem down twice.
Last night, Emilie had been woken by a bad dream. Daddy was fast asleep ; she could hear him snoring gently through the wall as she held her nation costume up against her body. The red border had crept up to her knees. She was growing too fast. Daddy often said, “You’re growing as fast as a wed, love.” Emilie stroked the woolen material with her hand and tried to shrink at the knees and neck. Gran was in the habit of saying, “it’s not surprising the child is shooting up, Grete was always a beanpole.


Plot summary:

A serial killer is on the loose in Norway - a killer of the worst kind. He is abducting children and murdering them - in an undetectable way that confounds the police. He then returns the child's body to the mother with a desperately cruel note: You Got What You Deserved. It is a perplexing and terrible case, and Police Superintendent Yngvar Stubo is the unlucky man in charge of finding the killer before he strikes again. There doesn't seem to be any clear connection between the victims, and with the mode of death so obscure, his job seems impossible. In desperation he decides to recruit legal researcher Inger Johanne Vik, a woman with an extensive knowledge and understanding of criminal history. So far the killer has abducted three children, but one child has not yet been returned to her mother. Is there a chance she is still alive...?


What I thought:

I had high hopes of this book, but was fairly non-plussed by it. I never really felt the story really engaged and the plot didn’t really take off. I got to the end of the book and just never really felt that the book had made much of an impact or had terribly much that was memorable about it.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Psychopath Test


Title: The Psychopath Test

Author: Jon Ronson

Number of pages: 292

Started: 14 October 2011

Finished: 21October 2011

Opening words:

This is a story about madness. It begins with a curious encounter at a Costa Coffee shop in Bloomsbury, Central London.

It was the Costa where the neurologists tended to go, the University College London School of Neurology being just around the corner. And here was one now, turning onto Southampton Row, waving a little self-consciously at me. Her name was Deborah Talmi. She looked like someone who spent her days in laboratories and wasn’t used to peculiar rendezvous with journalists in cafes and finding herself at the heart of baffling mysteries. She had brought someone with her. He was a tall, unshaven, academic-looking young man. They sat down.

‘I’m Deborah,’ she said.
‘I’m Jon,’ I said.
‘I’m James,’ he said.
‘So,’ I asked. ‘Did you bring it?’

Deborah nodded. She silently slid a package across the table. I opened it and turned it over in my hands.

‘It’s quite beautiful,’ I said.


Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

This is a story about madness. It all starts when journalist Jon Ronson is contacted by a leading neurologist. She and several colleagues have recently received a cryptically puzzling book in the mail, and Jon is challenged to solve the mystery behind it. As he searches for the answer, Jon soon finds himself, unexpectedly, on an utterly compelling and often unbelievable adventure into the world of madness.

Jon meets a Broadmoor inmate who swears he faked a mental disorder to get a lighter sentence but is now stuck there, with nobody believing he’s sane. He meets some of the people who catalogue mental illness, and those who vehemently oppose them. He meets the influential psychologist who developed the industry standard Psychopath Test and who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are in fact psychopaths. Jon learns from him how to ferret out these high-flying psychopaths and, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, heads into the corridors of power...


Find out more about the book here.

What I thought:

I was interested to see what this book had to say about psychopathy. I knew it wasn’t an academic text, but anecdote and a form of investigative journalism can be a more accessible route into getting an understanding of such things if you are a lay reader.

The book had potential, and the tale of people such as “Ton” a prisoner in Broadmoor, was intriguing. But I did end up wondering what the purpose of this book was, and I wasn’t entirely that the author knew the answer to this question himself. The main bulk of the book was about psychopathy, but the second half of the book rather drifted from topic to topic and didn’t seem to be very coherent. There felt like there was some crow-barring of subjects into the overall premise of the book. Seeing where David Shayler has ended up is interesting, but I am not sure I necessarily saw a direct connection to the main subject. He appears to be someone suffering from some form of delusion, but not really a psychopath. Then there was a discussion about how a million children in the US are on bipolar medication. A concerning statistic and possibly based on inaccurate diagnosis, but not really relevant to the main topic. I thought the book rambled towards the end and lacked direction. An interesting read, but not a very coherent book.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Death Sentence


Title: Death Sentence

Author: Mikkel Birkegaard

Number of pages: 398

Started: 7 October 2011

Finished: 13 October 2011

Opening words:

Until recently I had only killed people on paper.

As it happened, I was good at it. Good enough to make a living from it and so experienced that I could refer to it as my job. Being able to write full-time in a country the size of Denmark is something of a privilege, but there are some who will argue I am not a “proper writer” or what I wrote aren’t “proper books”.


Plot summary:

A murder committed on paper, safely within the confines of a novel, is one thing. To see that same crime in the real world, is something else entirely. . .

Frank Føns is a very successful crime writer. His novels, famed for their visceral descriptions of violent death, have made him a household name. But now someone is copying his crimes. For Frank what once seemed a clever, intriguing plot twist, has suddenly become a terrifying, blood-spattered reality.

In the novel, a redhead who was scared of water is drowned. In the mirror-image of the real world, she has become an ex-girlfriend chained and left to die at the bottom of the harbour. A corrupt police-officer tortured to death becomes a contact who dies with fear in his eyes. Someone is taking Franks’ fiction and using it to destroy his life. The writer must become the detective.

In fiction, the bad guy always gets caught, but in real life there is no such guarantee. Fear becomes real. The knife cut hurts like hell. Our narrator may not survive. No-one is promising you a happy ending. For Frank what had once been a game is now a matter of life and death.

What I thought:

I read Mikkel Birkegaard’s first book over the summer, and really enjoyed that despite some slightly melodramatic plot devices. I was therefore looking forward to reading his second novel. The book started well and it was a good opening line. The idea of the novel was also good, and carried on Birkegaard’s theme that emerged in his first novel – the power of the novel to influence the world around us.

I have read some reviews of this book that comment on how violent the book is. I am quite squeamish and I wouldn’t say the book is all that violent. That is until you get to the final chapter. I did read the whole book, but I had to slightly skim the end of it because it is rather gruesome.

This was a decent thriller. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the afterword, but can’t really comment on that further without giving away some of the plot. It was an interesting idea for a novel, and whilst I did quite enjoy it, I think I had hoped for a bit more from it.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Enigma


Title: Enigma

Author: Robert Harris

Number of pages: 452

Started: 3 October 2011

Finished: 7 October 2011

Opening words:

CAMBRIDGE IN THE fourth winter of the war: a ghost town.

A ceaseless Siberian wind with nothing to blunt its edge for a thousand miles whipped off the North Sea and swept low across the Fens. It rattled the signs to the air-raid shelters in Trinity New Court and battered on the boarded-up windows of King's College Chapel. It prowled through the quadrangles and staircases, confining the few dons and students still in residence to their rooms. By mid-afternoon the narrow cobbled streets were deserted. By nightfall, with not a light to be seen, the university was returned to a darkness it hadn't known since the Middle Ages. A procession of monks shuffling over Magdalene Bridge on their way to Vespers would scarcely have seemed out of place.

In the wartime blackout the centuries had dissolved.

It was to this bleak spot in the flatlands of eastern England that there came, in the middle of February 1943, a young mathematician named Thomas Jericho. The authorities of his college, King's, were given less than a day's notice of his arrival – scarcely enough time to reopen his rooms, put sheets on his bed, and have more than three years' worth of dust swept from his shelves and carpets. And they would not have gone to even that much trouble, it being wartime and servants so scarce – had not the Provost himself been telephoned at the Master's Lodge by an obscure but very senior official of His Majesty's Foreign Office, with a request that 'Mr Jericho be looked after until he is well enough to return to his duties'.

'Of course,' replied the Provost, who couldn't for the life of him put a face to the name of Jericho. 'Of course. A pleasure to welcome him back.'

As he spoke, he opened the college register and flicked through it until he came to: Jericho, T. R. G.; matriculated, 1935; Senior Wrangler, Mathematics Tripos, 1938; Junior Research Fellow at two hundred pounds a year; not seen in the university since the outbreak of war.


Read more (possibly the whole book) on a Russian website

Plot summary:

March 1943, the war hangs in the balance, and at Bletchley Park a brilliant young codebreaker is facing a double nightmare. The Germans have unaccountably changed their U-boat Enigma code, threatening a massive Allied defeat. And as suspicion grows that there may be a spy inside Bletchley, Jericho's girlfriend, the beautiful and mysterious Claire Romilly suddenly disappears.

What I thought:

This was another easy and engaging read from Robert Harris. He picked an interesting part of World War 2 history, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, and wove a fictional tale around them. It was a good page turner and given that I have been in a phase of late (following the Bookers) of reading books that are undemanding of the brain, this fitted the bill. That might sound a bit of a put down of the book, but it isn’t meant to be. It is a decent plot and a good commuter or Sunday afternoon read. Enjoyable.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Travels with My Aunt


Title: Travels with My Aunt

Author: Graham Greene

Number of pages: 272

Started: 27 September 2011

Finished: 1 October 2011

Opening words:

I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral. My mother was approaching eighty-six when she died, and my aunt was some eleven or twelve years younger. I had retired from the bank two years before with an adequate pension and a silver handshake. There had been a take-over by the Westminster and my branch was considered redundant. Everyone thought me lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time. I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.
Plot summary:

Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at what he supposes to be his mother's funeral. Soon after, she persuades Henry to abandon Southwood, his dahlias and the Major next door to travel her way, Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay. Through Aunt Augusta, a veteran of Europe's hotel bedrooms, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society: mixing with hippies, war criminals, CIA men; smoking pot, breaking all the currency regulations and eventually coming alive after a dull suburban life.

What I thought:

This book started well, and had me chuckling almost straight away.

This was despite the setting being a cremation. You are introduced to Aunt Augusta, a larger than life figure who clearly is not interested in complying with social norms or the demands of society. She also has no sense of discretion and without even the bat of an eyelid tells Henry that the woman whose funeral they were at was not in fact his mother, which he had believed to be the case until that moment, but his step-mother. Henry took the news remarkably well, but is then promptly led astray, and all over the world, by his aunt.

It was a well –written book and is another good example of Graham Greene at his best. I usually prefer his “Catholic” novels, which this was not. However, by the end of the book, I thought the joke had worn a bit thin.

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Birthday Boys


Title: The Birthday Boys

Author: Beryl Bainbridge

Number of pages: 181

Started: 21 September 2011

Finished: 26 September 2011

Opening words:

To follow



Plot summary:

A fictional account of Captain Robert Scott's 1910 expedition to Antarctica told from the perspectives of five men on the voyage: Scott; Petty Officer Taff Evans; ship's medic Dr Edward Wilson; Lieutenant Henry Bowers; and Captain Lawrence Oates

What I thought:

This is the first Beryl Bainbridge book that I have read and it tells of the fatal British attempt by Captain Scott and others to be the first to the South Pole.

I thought it was an interesting idea for a book – both in terms of the subject matter and each of the five chapters being written from the perspective of different members of the party. I also thought it was right that the last chapter was not Captain Scott’s as that would have seemed too much of a cliché.

That said, I found it difficult to get into this book. I knew the fate of the expedition, but somehow this didn’t help me to empathise with them or fear for their future. It was a good idea for a book, but, for me, it was not one that I found to be a compelling read.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Mercy


Title: Mercy

Author: Jussi Adler-Olsen

Number of pages: 490

Started: 15 September 2011

Finished: 20 September 2011

Opening words:

Prologue

She scratched her fingertips on the smooth walls until they bled, and pounded her fists on the thick panes until she could no longer feel her hands. At least ten times she had fumbled her way to the steel door and stuck her fingernails in the crack to try to pry it open, but the door could not be budged, and the edge was sharp.

Finally, when her nails started pulling away from the flesh of her fingers, she tumbled back on to the ice-cold floor, breathing hard. For a moment she stared into the thundering darkness, her eyes open wide and her heart hammering. Then she screamed. Screamed until her ears were ringing and her voice gave out.



Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

At first the prisoner scratches at the walls until her fingers bleed. But there is no escaping the room. With no way of measuring time, her days, weeks, months go unrecorded. She vows not to go mad. She will not give her captors the satisfaction. She will die first.

***

Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck has been taken off homicide to run a newly created department for unsolved crimes. His first case concerns Merete Lynggaard, who vanished five years ago. Everyone says she's dead. Everyone says it's a waste of time. He thinks they're right.

***
The voice in the dark is distorted, harsh and without mercy. It says the prisoner's torture will only end when she answers one simple question. It is one she has asked herself a million times:
WHY is this happening?


What I thought:

I was definitely in need of an “easy” read by the time I read this book, and this book hit the spot. I like Scandinavian novels and had seen this Danish book while I was in Denmark over the summer. The book then slipped my mind until I saw a couple of people’s very positive reviews of it and then I stumbled across a copy in the local library.

I found this to be a very enjoyable crime novel. The plot flowed, it was a good page-turner and there were enjoyable characters (although some were perhaps a bit of a stereotype).

The book revolved around a newly formed Department Q, which has the job of investigating long unsolved cases. But the unit was set up to get the head of department out of his most recent post, and the department consists of him and an immigrant with no defined role, expect to make the occasional cup of coffee and to tidy up a bit. They take on a notorious case involving a politician who disappeared, and is presumed dead. Except we as the reader, know that it is not all as it might appear…

This is the first of a series, with the next instalment due out in English in March 2012. A good crime novel, particularly for Scandinavian writing fans.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The Last Hundred Days


Title: The Last Hundred Days

Author: Patrick McGuiness

Number of pages: 356

Started: 11 September 2011

Finished: 15 September 2011

Opening words:

In 1980s Romania, boredom was a state of extremity. There was nothing neutral about it: it strung you out and stretched you; it tugged away at the bottom of your day like shingle scraping at a boat’s hull. In theWest we’ve always thought of boredom as slack time, life’s lift music sliding off the ear. Totalitarian boredom is different. It’s a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax.

You can find the first chapter by following a link on this page.

Plot summary:

The socialist state is in crisis, the shops are empty and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceaucescu's demolition gangs. Paranoia is pervasive and secret service men lurk in the shadows. In The Last 100 Days, Patrick McGuinness creates an absorbing sense of time and place as the city struggles to survive this intense moment in history. He evokes a world of extremity and ravaged beauty from the viewpoint of an outsider uncomfortably, and often dangerously, close to the eye of the storm as the regime of 1980s Romania crumbles to a bloody end.

What I thought:

By the time I read this book, I was definitely suffering from “gate-fever”. This was the last of the Booker’s that I intended to read (as I had ruled out reading The Stranger’s Child due to bad reviews from others I knew who had read it) and I am not sure I really ended on a high.

I had slightly feared that this book might be a bit like reading an academic text pretending to be a work of fiction. But that certainly wasn’t the case. But still I found it somewhat dry. I also looked up one of the events it referred to, but it wasn’t actually true. This doesn’t mean that the whole book wasn’t true (or that works of fiction have to be accurate in their portrayal of real people and events), but it just didn’t sit well with me.

I thought this book had potential, but that it didn’t necessarily live up to it.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Radleys


Title: The Radleys

Author: Matt Haig

Number of pages: 352

Started: 6 September 2011

Finished: 10 September 2011

Opening words:

17 Orchard Lane

It is a quiet place, especially at night.

Too quiet, you’d be entitled to think, for any kind of monster to live among its pretty, tree-shaded lanes.

Indeed, at three o’clock in the morning in the village of Bishopthorpe, it is easy to believe the lie indulged in by its residents – that it is a place for good and quiet people to live good and quiet lives.

At this hour, the only sounds to be heard are those made by nature itself. The hoot of an owl, the faraway bark of a dog or, on a breezy night like this one, the wind’s obscure whisper through the sycamore trees. Even if you stood on the main street, right outside the fancy-dress shop or the pub or the Hungry Gannet delicatessen, you wouldn’t often hear any traffic, or be able to see the abusive graffiti that decorates the former post office (though the word freak might just be legible if you strain your eyes).

Away from the main street, on somewhere like Orchard Lane, if you took a nocturnal stroll past the detached period homes lived in by solicitors and doctors and project managers, you would find all their lights off and curtains drawn, secluding them from the night. Or you would until you reached number 17, where you’d notice the glow from an upstairs window filtering through the curtains.


Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

Life with the Radleys: Radio 4, dinner parties with the Bishopthorpe neighbours and self-denial. Loads of self-denial. But all hell is about to break loose. When teenage daughter Clara gets attacked on the way home from a party, she and her brother Rowan finally discover why they can't sleep, can't eat a Thai salad without fear of asphyxiation and can't go outside unless they're smothered in Factor 50. With a visit from their lethally louche uncle Will and an increasingly suspicious police force, life in Bishopthorpe is about to change. Drastically.


What I thought:

I am not really into vampiric tales or books of that genre, but this book was a pleasant surprise. Very readable, darker in places that I had expected and a welcome change in tone from a number of the books I have read of late. I had wondered if this book might be aimed at teenagers, but I don’t think that was the case – and I am not sure that I would necessarily recommend giving the book to a teenager either.

In many ways it was a rather light read, but it definitely had its darker side. The book ended by indicating that there was more still to come. Would I read the next book? I’m not sure I would rush out to get it, but might welcome it as an undemanding diversion at some point.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Sisters Brothers


Title: The Sisters Brothers

Author: Patrick deWitt

Number of pages: 272

Started: 3 September 2011

Finished: 6 September 2011

Opening words:

I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by. I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it? Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.


Plot summary:

Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America. Charlie makes money and kills anyone who stands in his way; Eli doubts his vocation and falls in love. And they bicker a lot. Then they get to California, and discover that Warm is an inventor who has come up with a magical formula, which could make all of them very rich. What happens next is utterly gripping, strange and sad.

What I thought:

Western novels are not my normal reading, and I am not sure how typical of this genre this book was, but it was well written and amusing. It was the story of two brothers who made their living by carrying out the “errands” of people who wanted “problems” sorted. Given that the very mention of their names put fear into those they met, you can probably fill in the blanks on the kind of errands they carried out.

This book did include a number of fights and some somewhat gory medical related issues (but I do have a very low threshold for such things), but was also about the characters and how the brothers in particular justified their lives of crime. It was an amusing read and the narrator, the younger brother, Eli, was an endearing character and worked well as the story teller.

This was a good book and I am pleased that it made it through to the shortlist.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Pigeon English


Title: Pigeon English

Author: Stephen Kelman

Number of pages: 288

Started: 31 August 2011

Finished: 2 September 2011

Opening words:

You could see the blood. It was darker than you thought. It was all on the ground outside Chicken Joe’s. It just felt crazy.

Jordan: ‘I’ll give you a million quid if you touch it.’

Me: ‘You don’t have a million.’

Jordan: ‘One quid then.’You wanted to touch it but you couldn’t get close enough. There was a line in the way:

POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS

If you cross the line you’ll turn to dust.

We weren’t allowed to talk to the policeman, he had to concentrate for if the killer came back. I could see the chains hanging from his belt but I couldn’t see the gun.


Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on an inner-city housing estate. The second best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers - the Adidas stripes drawn on with marker pen - blissfully unaware of the very real threat all around him. With equal fascination for the local gang - the Dell Farm Crew - and the pigeon who visits his balcony, Harri absorbs the many strange elements of his new life in England: watching, listening, and learning the tricks of urban survival. But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly endangers the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to try and keep them safe. A story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality, Pigeon English is a spellbinding portrayal of a boy balancing on the edge of manhood and of the forces around him that try to shape the way he falls.

What I thought:

Pigeon English was loosely based on the story of Damilola Taylor. It told the story of a boy newly arrived in London from Ghana. He was a likeable character and narrator, although there were some occasions where I found his commentary a touch grating. I got that he was young and perhaps a bit naïve, but I felt this got overplayed a bit.

There was also the pigeon. I am not sure about what I thought of the role of the pigeon, and its intermittent role as narrator and wise bird. I can see that it did ultimately tie the book together, but I am not sure I like animals being included in this way.

This book was amusing in places and nicely written, and it was an easy and quick read. It is actually quite difficult to comment on the book without revealing some key parts of the plot though. So, I shall say that it was well worth a read, particularly if you like pigeons.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Half Blood Blues


Title: Half Blood Blues

Author: Esi Edugyan

Number of pages: 343

Started: 28 August 2011

Finished: 31 August 2011

Opening words:

Chip told us not to go out. Said, don't you boys tempt the devil. But it been one brawl of a night, I tell you, all of us still reeling from the rot - rot was cheap, see, the drink of French peasants, but it stayed like nails in you gut. Didn’t even look right, all mossy and black in the bottle. Like drinking swamp water

Plot summary:

The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero's bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there's more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero's fate was settled. Half Blood Blues weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don't tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong...

What I thought:

Half Blood Blues was an unusual look at the Nazi take over of Europe. It tells the story of some black jazz musicians who are caught up in the Nazi invasion of France. Of late there seem to have been a lot of novels that are set in two time frames. So there is the World War 2 element and the modern day looking back and coming to terms.

It was a decent read, although perhaps slightly overly long. I think having read some of the other books of the long list, it didn’t feel entirely original given that it was another tale of people coming to terms with the actions of their youth. I think reading this book independent of getting through a list would perhaps have made me feel more positive about it. It was a book that was worth reading but I felt could have been a bit tighter written.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Derby Day


Title: Derby Day

Author: D.J. Taylor

Number of pages: 404

Started: 25 August 2011

Finished: 28 August 2011

Opening words:

Sky the colour of a fish's underside; grey smoke diffusing over a thousand house-fronts; a wind moving in from the east: London.

Plot summary:

As the shadows lengthen over the June grass, all England is heading for Epsom Downs – high life and low life, society beauties and Whitechapel street girls, bookmakers and gypsies, hawkers and acrobats, punters and thieves. Whole families stream along the Surrey back-roads, towards the greatest race of the year. Hopes are high, nerves are taut, hats are tossed in the air – this is Derby Day.

For months people have been waiting and plotting for this day. Even in dark November, when the wind whistles through the foggy London courts, the alehouses and gentlemen’s clubs echo to the sound of disputed odds. In Belgrave Square old Mr Gresham is baffled by his tigerish daughter Rebecca, whose intentions he cannot fathom. In the clubs of St James’s rakish Mr Happerton plays billiards with his crony Captain Raff, while in darkest Lincolnshire sad Mr Davenant broods over his financial embarrassments and waits for his daughter’s new governess. Across the channel the veteran burglar Mr Pardew is packing his bags to return, to the consternation of the stalwart detective Captain McTurk. Everywhere money jingles and plans are laid. Uniting them all is the champion horse Tiberius, on whose performance half a dozen destinies depend.

What I thought:

This was a Victorian novel based around the Derby. Horse related books and most Victorian novels are not really my thing, and this book did nothing to change my view on that. It was partly a detective novel, and partly a tale of human relationships, but it never really came to life for me. I also thought the book could have been shorter.

That said, I think this book will hold rather more appeal to others. It just wasn’t for me.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Testament of Jessie Lamb


Title: The Testament of Jessie Lamb

Author: Jane Rogers

Number of pages: 260

Started: 23 August 2011

Finished: 24 August 2011

Opening words:

The house is very quiet now he's gone. I get up carefully without falling over and shuffle to the window. The light is partly blocked by gigantic leylandii in next door's garden. No-one lives in this row any more.

Plot summary:

Women are dying in their millions. Some blame scientists, some see the hand of God, some see human arrogance reaping the punishment it deserves. Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it s up to her. But is Jessie heroic? Or is she, as her father fears, impressionable, innocent, incapable of understanding where her actions will lead? Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart.

What I thought:

This book had great potential. I really liked the plot idea for the book and had high hopes for it. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to them.

I didn’t think the book was very well written, which is surprising given the author teaches writing. The way the book was structured – the main narrative interspersed with diary entries – actually detracted from any sense of suspense that might otherwise have built up. I also thought the plot did not develop very well and really turned into a personal story that did little to make the reader want to empathise with the main character. A clip round the ear might have been better. In many ways, I think the ideal audience for this book would be teenage girls, although a wise parent might not want them to read this!

Monday, 22 August 2011

On Canaan's Side


Title: On Canaan’s Side

Author: Sebastian Barry

Number of pages:

Started: 20 August 2011

Finished: 22 August 2011

Opening words:

Bill is gone.

What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?

It might not be much more than silence, and certainly a small slight sound.

When I was four I owned a porcelain doll given me by a strange agency. My mother’s sister, who lived down in Wicklow, had kept it from her own childhood and that of her sister, and gave it to me as a sort of keepsake of my mother. At four such a doll may be precious for other reasons, not least her beauty. I can still see the painted face, calm and oriental, and the blue silk dress she wore. My father much to my puzzlement was worried by such a gift. It troubled him in a way I had no means to understand. He said it was too much for a little girl, even though the same little girl he himself loved with a complete worship.

One Sunday about a year after I was first given it, I insisted on bringing it to mass with me, despite the long and detailed protestations of my father, who was religious in the sense he hoped there was an afterlife. He bet all his heart on that. Somehow a doll was not a fitting mass-goer in his estimation.


Read the first chapter here

You can find a video here of the author reading an extract: here

Plot summary:

Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger.

At once epic and intimate, Lilly’s narrative unfurls as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, it is a novel of memory, war, family-ties and love, which once again displays Sebastian Barry's exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.

What I thought:

On Canaan’s Side was the story of Lilly Bere from birth through to her death. It started in Ireland and ended in the United State’s – Canaan’s Side. I was not overly enamoured with the Irish parts of this tale, but preferred the parts set in America. This was certainly quite a depressing tale, with the major theme running through it being death. It starts with the death of Lilly’s grandson, which was the latest in a lifetime of deaths.

The book was well written, but never truly engaged me.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Cupboard Full of Coats


Title: A Cupboard Full of Coats

Author: Yvvette Edwards

Number of pages: 260

Started: 18 August 2011

Finished: 20 August 2011

Opening words:

It was early spring when Lemon arrived, while the crocuses in the front garden were flowering and before the daffodil buds had opened, the Friday evening of a long, slow February, and I had expected when I opened the front door to find an energy salesperson standing there, or a charity worker selling badges, or any one of a thousand random insignificant people whose existence meant nothing to me or my world.

He just knocked, that was all, knocked the front door and waited, like he’d just come back with the paper from the corner shop, and the fourteen years since he’d last stood there, the fourteen years since the night I’d killed my mother, hadn’t really happened at all.


Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

It's been fourteen years since Jinx's mother was brutally stabbed to death in their home in East London. Fourteen years for Jinx to become accustomed to the huge weight of guilt and anger that has destroyed her life. Fourteen years to nurture an impossible shame. Out of nowhere, Lemon arrives on her doorstep. An old friend of her mother's, he wants to revisit the events leading to that terrible night, and Jinx sees the opportunity to confess, finally, her hand in the violence. But Lemon has his own secrets to share, and over the course of one weekend they strip away the layers of the past to lay bare a story full of jealousy and tragic betrayal. Narrated with a distinct and fiery spice, Jinx and Lemon must find their own paths to redemption in this stunning debut novel.

What I thought:

This was another first novel on the Booker long list, but was much more accomplished than the previous one I read “Snowdrops”.

This was a sad and well written tale of a woman coming to terms with the violent death of her mother many years before, over the period of one weekend. It was a good exploration of how we perceive events and deal with guilt and live our lives following tragic events. It could have been a depressing tale, but, perhaps surprisingly, wasn’t. Instead it was an engaging tale that was told in a mature way.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Sense of an Ending


Title: The Sense of an Ending

Author: Julian Barnes

Number of pages: 150

Started: 17 August 2011

Finished: 18 August 2011

Opening words:

I remember, in no particular order:
-- a shiny inner wrist;
-- steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
-- gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
-- a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
-- another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
-- bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

This last isn't something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed.

We live in time -- it holds us and moulds us -- but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing -- until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

I'm not very interested in my schooldays, and don't feel any nostalgia for them. But school is where it all began, so I need to return briefly to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can't be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That's the best I can manage.



Plot summary:

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

What I thought:

This book is marketed as a “short novel”, and that it was at a mere 150 pages. In order for a book to be eligible for the Bookers it must be a novel, rather than a novella, so presumably the publishers were looking to ensure that there was no doubt on this issue – although I am not entirely sure what the difference is between a “short novel” and a “novella”.

The story was told by its unreliable narrator, Tony. It started in his school days with the friendships he made at his single-sex school, through to some forty years later when he has to re-evaluate things of the past.

This was a well written book and it was an engaging and intriguing tale. It was an interesting, and at times amusing consideration of things of the past for the narrator to try and understand some events unfolding in the present. The book had a sense of mystery about it and wove together a plot that moved between the distant past and the present, and did it very well.

A good read, despite its brevity.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie


Title: Jamrach’s Menagerie

Author: Carol Birch

Number of pages: 348

Started: 11 August 2011

Finished: 16 August 2011

Opening words:

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.



Plot summary:

Jaffy Brown is running through the squalid London backstreets when he comes face to face with the escaped circus animal. His young life is transformed by the encounter. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach - explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world's strangest creatures - the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the South Seas. His job is to be the keeper of the animal they hope to find and bring back alive. So begins an extraordinary voyage. Jaffy's journey - if he survives it - will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits. Brilliantly written and utterly spellbinding, Carol Birch's epic novel brings alive the smells, sights and flavours of the nineteenth century, from the docks of London to the storms of the South Seas. This is a great salty historical adventure, and a fascinating exploration of our relationship to the natural world and the wilderness it contains.

What I thought:

This was an interesting tale. It was the third Booker that I read and my favourite so far. It was set in Victorian London and at sea, and told the tale of a boy’s life, starting from his encounter with a tiger on a London street. I thought the book was well written and, whilst a little gory at times, it had a good plot – from trying to capture a “dragon” to being stranded at sea with little hope of rescue. I am not sure this is the sort of book I would normally read, and is one that I might glance at and then move on. So, for me, this is why reading things like the Booker list, can be a good thing. Was it good enough to be a Booker winner? I’m not sure, but it was certainly a good read.

There are a couple of things that I found strange about it though. First, the opening words – “I was born twice.” Those are also the opening words to “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides. Obviously there are only a finite number of words and combination of words in the English language, but I found it curious that it started the same way.

Second, is that hasn’t there been another book with a tiger and a tale of being stranded at sea, which itself won the Booker – Life of Pi by Yann Martel? Although in “Jamrach’s” case, there was no cross-over between the tiger and being adrift at sea. I didn’t think the stories were the same, I just found it unusual to have some notably similar aspects to the plot.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Far To Go


Title: Far to Go

Author: Alison Pick

Number of pages: 288

Started: 8 August 2011

Finished: 11 August 2011

Opening words:

The train will never arrive.

It winds into forever: shiny red cars, black cars, cattle cars, one after another. A red caboose and a Princess Elizabeth engine. The livestock cars, loosely linked, like the vertebrae of some long reptile’s spine. It reaches forward into the unknowable future, destined to move perpetually ahead, but with no destination in mind.

From the sky it looks inconsequential, a worm burrowing into the ground. And all the tiny people aboard look insignificant too: the postal workers and pastry chefs. The others and children.

The little ones.

You.

I saw your face for the first time in a dream. It was so clear and true that meeting you in the flesh, decades later, somehow paled against it. You trembled against your own ideal. A child in both eras. Here and there. Then and now.


Read an Extract here

Plot summary:

FAR TO GO is a powerful and profoundly moving story about one family's epic journey to flee the Nazi occupation of their homeland in 1939, and above all to save the life of a six-year-old boy.

Pavel and Anneliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews, whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces in Czechoslovakia. Desperate to avoid deportation, the Bauers flee to Prague with their six-year-old son, Pepik, and his beloved nanny, Marta. When the family try to flee without her to Paris, Marta betrays them to her Nazi boyfriend. But it is through Marta's determination that Pepik secures a place on a Kindertransport, though he never sees his parents or Marta again.

Inspired by Alison Pick's own grandparents who fled their native Czechoslovakia for Canada during the Second World War, FAR TO GO is a deeply personal and emotionally harrowing novel.

What I thought:

This was the second of the Booker longlist that I read. The book was about a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia at the time of Hitler’s invasion in 1939. It was the tale of a well to do Jewish family, who didn’t even really think of themselves as Jewish, and how they had to come to terms with the reality of their faith/ race, their nation being invaded, and the realities of their lives and livelihood being under threat.

The novel was inspired by the author’s family. Her relatives were caught in a similar scenario and faced the same fate as many of the characters in the book. It was an interesting view on history, but I felt that this novel only really engaged me when the kindertransport dilemma came into play (i.e. whether to pay for their son to be sent by train to safety in Britain). From this point onwards, I felt that the book came far more to life. The characters seemed more real and the plot took on more of a life. Until then, whilst the plot and scenarios were interesting, it lacked a certain something. I wondered whether this was partly because the book was in part of way of telling a true story in fictional form and that this meant that some of the story-telling elements were missing earlier on. I was also not sure about the way the book was concluded. The final chapter was, in essence, a summing up of all that had happened. I wasn’t convinced by this need to tie up all the loose ends. But, again, I suspect this was in part because the book was based on real family events, and perhaps the author’s need to tell as much of their story as she could.

I think the idea behind this book was good, and that the latter part of it was more engaging, but that it lacked somewhere in its delivery. Nonetheless, it was a sad tale and I can understand why the author wanted to make sure that it was told.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Snowdrops


Title: Snowdrops

Author: AD Miller

Number of pages: 288

Started: 4 August 2011

Finished: 8 August 2011

Opening words:

I smelled it before I saw it. There was a crowd of people standing around on the pavement and in the road, most of them policemen, some talking on mobile phones, some smoking, some looking, some looking away. From the way I came, they were blocking my view, and at first I thought that with all the uniforms it must be a traffic accident or maybe an immigration bust. Then I caught the smell. It was a smell like the kind you come home to if you forget to put your rubbish out before you go on holiday—ripe but acidic, strong enough to block out the normal summer aromas of beer and revolution. It was the smell that had given it away.

From about ten metres away, I saw the foot. Just one, as if its owner was stepping very slowly out of a limousine. I can still see the foot now. It was wearing a cheap black slip-on shoe, and above the shoe there was a stretch of grey sock, then a glimpse of greenish flesh. The cold had kept it fresh, they told me. They didn’t know how long it had been there. Maybe all winter, one of the policemen speculated. They’d used a hammer, he said, or possibly a brick. Not a good job, he said. He asked me if I wanted to see the rest of it. I said no, thank you. I’d already seen and learned more than I needed to during that last winter.

You’re always saying that I never talk about my time in Moscow or about why I left. You’re right, I’ve always made excuses, and soon you’ll understand why. But you’ve gone on asking me, and for some reason lately I keep thinking about it—I can’t stop myself. Perhaps it’s because we’re only three months away from “the big day,” and that somehow seems a sort of reckoning. I feel like I need to tell someone about Russia, even if it hurts. Also that probably you should know, since we’re going to make these promises to each other, and maybe even keep them. I think you have a right to know all of it. I thought it would be easier if I wrote it down. You won’t have to make an effort to put a brave face on things, and I won’t have to watch you.


You can find the whole book here


Plot summary:

Snowdrops is an intensely riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman's moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets - and corpses - come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw...

Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible young man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator.

What I thought:

This was the first book I read from the 2011 Booker shortlist. Whilst the title might suggest a gentle novel about the countryside, this book was actually about corruption in Russia – “snowdrops” being bodies that appear from under the snow when the spring thaw sets in.

The book was written as a confessional letter to the narrator’s fiancée to clear his conscience before their forthcoming wedding. I think for me, this is where the flaws began to emerge. On a few levels, I found that approach unconvincing. First, the confessional was written in a way that didn’t ring true to me. When conversations were relayed, they were written as direct speech, rather than reported speech and that didn’t sit well with me. That might sound like a minor point, but it made the way the book was written seem contrived. Not least illustrated by the narrator relaying verbatim conversations, some of which were in Russian and then adding in brackets, for his fiancées benefit, the English translation. I just didn’t find it convincing. I also felt that there were details added (about travelling on the metro etc) that were there to show the author’s knowledge of all things Russian rather than to actually enhance the plot. If the narrator had been a journalist or similar, I might have believed that he had a more “painting the picture” style, but he was a lawyer and the detail just felt superfluous.

Second, I didn’t believe that the narrator would have conveyed the amount of information that he did. Whilst he might have wanted to be as honest as possible, would he really have wanted to tell his fiancée about the detail of having sex with his Russian girlfriend for the first time, including the detail of her sister watching. There is confessional and there is confessional.

So, what about the plot itself? This was based around corruption in Russia and the narrator’s role in a deal that went very sour. The premise was reasonable, and the story touched on how easily we can get caught up in things, perhaps blinded by our infatuation by someone and our desire to please or impress them. But I found the plot a bit light. I have read other reviews and a number of people found the plot very gripping and a real page-turner, but for me it felt like it lacked a certain something to make it convincing or gripping.

I feel as though I am judging this book very harshly. I think in part my view is coloured by this book being shortlisted for a major prize, and I therefore expected something more. It wasn’t a bad book, but it just wasn’t one that seemed to offer anything particularly special

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Of Human Bondage


Title: Of Human Bondage

Author: W Somerset Maugham

Number of pages: 700

Started: 24 July 2011

Finished: 4 August 2011

Opening words:

THE DAY broke grey and dull. The clouds hung heavily, and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. A woman servant came into a room in which a child was sleeping and drew the curtains. She glanced mechanically at the house opposite, a stucco house with a portico, and went to the child's bed.

'Wake up, Philip,' she said.

She pulled down the bed-clothes, took him in her arms, and carried him downstairs. He was only half awake.

'Your mother wants you,' she said.

She opened the door of a room on the floor below and took the child over to a bed in which a woman was lying. It was his mother. She stretched out her arms, and the child nestled by her side. He did not ask why he had been awakened. The woman kissed his eyes, and with thin, small hands felt the warm body through his white flannel nightgown. She pressed him closer to herself. 'Are you sleepy, darling?' she said.

Her voice was so weak that it seemed to come already from a great distance. The child did not answer, but smiled comfortably. He was very happy in the large, warm bed, with those soft arms about him. He tried to make himself smaller still as he cuddled against his mother, and he kissed her sleepily. In a moment he closed his eyes and was fast asleep. The doctor came forward and stood by the bedside.

'Oh, don't take him away yet,' she moaned.



Plot summary:

Of Human Bondage is the first and most autobiographical of Maugham’s masterpieces. It is the story of Philip Carey, an orphan eager for life, love and adventure. After a few months studying in Heidelberg, and a brief spell in Paris as would-be artist, Philip settles in London to train as a doctor.
And that is where he meets Mildred, the loud but irresistible waitress with whom he plunges into a formative, tortured and masochistic affair which very nearly ruins him.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book when I first started to read it. However, by page 250 I was trying to decide if I did actually like it. I ploughed on though and was pleased that I did because making the effort to read this book was worth it. It was a sad book in many ways, and one of bad decisions and missed opportunities.

At times you wanted to shake Philip and tell him not to walk away – and yet at other points that he should walk away and not look back. It was a view of life, and the mistakes we all often make told through the life of one person. A good book that I am glad I persevered with.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Library of Shadows


Title: The Library of Shadows

Author: Mikkel Birkegaard

Number of pages: 430

Started: 12 July 2011

Finished: 22 July 2011

Opening words:

Luca Campelli's wish to die surrounded by his beloved books came true late one night in October.

Of course this was one of those wished that was never formulated either in speech or thought, but people who had seen Luca in his antiquarian bookshop knew it had to be true. The little Italian moved among the stacks of books in Libri di Luca as if he were strolling in his own living room, and without hesitation he could direct his customers to precisely the stack or shelf where the book they were seeking was located. Luca’s love for literature became obvious after only a brief conversation with him, and it made no difference whether it was a question of a worn paperback or one of the rare first editions. This sort of knowledge bore witness to a long life with books, and Luca’s authority among the shelves made it difficult to imagine him outside the comforting atmosphere of muted devotion that suffused the antiquarian bookshop.



Plot summary:

Imagine that some people have the power to affect your thoughts and feelings when you read, or they read a book to you. They can seduce you with amazing stories, conjure up vividly imagined worlds, but also manipulate you into thinking exactly what they want you to.

When Luca Campelli dies a sudden and violent death, his son Jon inherits his second-hand bookshop, Libri di Luca, in Copenhagen. Jon has not seen his father for twenty years since the mysterious death of his mother.

After Luca's death is followed by an arson attempt on the shop, Jon is forced to explore his family's past. Unbeknown to Jon, the bookshop has for years been hiding a remarkable secret. It is the meeting place of a society of booklovers and readers, who have maintained a tradition of immense power passed down from the days of the great library of ancient Alexandria. Now someone is trying to destroy them, and Jon finds himself in a fight for his life and those of his new friends.

What I thought:
I was intrigued by this plot of the book – people having the ability through the power of reading to influence and change people’s thoughts. The book on the whole was a good read, if perhaps a little let down by the ending. I thought it was quite an original idea for a plot and the story carefully unfolded, building suspense and leaving the reader guessing.

Interestingly, I actually read the book aloud to my partner, who also enjoyed it. Make of that what you will...

Friday, 15 July 2011

Travelling Light


Title: Travelling Light

Author: Tove Jansson

Number of pages: 202

Started: 9 July 2011

Finished: 15 July 2011

Opening words:

When we arrived and Jonny caught sight of the big cars parked outside Grandma’s building he said right away that he should have worn a dark suit.

“Don’t be silly sweetheart” I said. “Relax. Grandma isn’t like that. People pop in and out in corduroy trousers and all sorts of stuff. She likes bohemians.”


Plot summary:

This newly translated collection of stories brilliantly evokes the shifting scenes and restlessness of summer. A professor arrives in a beautiful Spanish village only to find that her host has left and she must cope with fractious neighbours alone; a holiday on a Finnish Island is thrown into disarray when a disconcerting young boy arrives; an artist returns to an old flat to discover that her life has been eerily usurped. Philosophical and profound, but with the deceptive lightness that is her hallmark, Travelling Light is guaranteed to surprise and transport.

What I thought:

This, like the title perhaps suggest, was a light read – but with a slightly dark undertone. It was made up on a series of short stories, each of which showed a different aspect of life. Be it meeting your partner’s grandma to a family taking a stranger’s child on holiday with them. It was a good mix of tales and a nice summer read.