Friday, 28 January 2011

White Noise

Title: White Noise

Author: Don Delillo

Number of pages: 326

Started: 23 January 2011

Finished: 28 January 2011

Opening words:

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the jurik food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

Read a longer excerpt here.

Plot summary:

Jack Gladney, head of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, is afraid of death, as is his wife Babette and his colleague Murray who runs a seminar on car crashes. The author exposes our common obsession with mortality, and Jack and Babette's biggest fear - who will die first?

What I thought:

This was a strange book. At times it was very readable and witty and at others, just a touch odd. This is the second Delillo book I have read and I much prefer it to the previous one, but the jury is still out on whether I like him as an author.

Delillo was good at writing abut family life and picking up on all of the bizarre and pointless arguments we often have with our families, but the book was also meant to be a take on modern life and whilst I kind of got it, I think some of the nuances passed me by. That might tell you more about how immersed I am in modern life than it does about the book though.

Saturday, 22 January 2011


Title: Blindness

Author: Jose Saramago

Number of pages: 309

Started: 18 January 2011

Finished: 22 January 2011

Opening words:

The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light speared. At the pedestrian crossing, the sign of a green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing like a zebra, however, that is what is it called. The motorists kept an impatient foot on the clutch, leaving their cars at the ready, advancing, retreating like nervous horses that can sense the whiplash about to be inflicted. The pedestrians have just finished crossing but the sign allowing the cars to go will be delayed for some seconds, some people maintain that this delay, while apparently so insignificant, has only to be multiplied by the thousand of traffic lights that exist in the city and by the successive changes of their three colours to produce one of the most serious causes of traffic jams or bottlenecks, to use the more current term.

The green light came on at last, the cars moved off briskly, but then it became clear that not all of them were equally quick off the mark. The car at the head of the middle lane had stopped, there must be some mechanical fault, a loose accelerator pedal, a gear lever that has stuck, problem with the suspension, jammed brakes, breakdown in the electrical circuit, unless he has simply run out of gas, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened. The next group of pedestrians to gather at the crossing see the driver of the stationery car wave his hands behind the windshield, while the cars behind him frantically sound their horns. Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it would not hold up traffic, they bat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movement of his mouth he appears to repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind.

Plot summary:

Suddenly, while stopped at a red light in his car, a man goes blind. A "white evil" obliterates his vision plunging him into light as fathomless and impenetrable as the darkest night. A crowd gathers and one man is kind enough to see him home. It is not long, however, before an epidemic of the new blindness causes the government to act in the most authoritarian and fearful of ways, throwing many of the recently disabled into a mental asylum, guarded by scared, trigger-happy soldiers, left to fend for themselves.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. In some ways, and perhaps somewhat insultingly to a Nobel Prize for literature winner, this book was a tangent from The Day of the Triffids, in that it followed the lives of a population that suddenly goes blind – that is what happened in Triffids, but that book was about the sighted instead.

It was an interesting and thought-provoking read, but also one that you have to concentrate on quite a lot, not least because Saramago is somewhat sparing in his use of full stops and paragraphs (this also made it a somewhat inconvenient Tube read at times).

I thought the concept of the book was good and, assuming you can come to terms with the writing style, it was a well written book. I liked that the ponderings of he author emerged at times, and that you got more than just a simple narrative. I know someone who says that this is one of the best books that she has ever read, which is not what I would say about it, but is certainly a well crafted and intelligently written book – and I plan to read Seeing, which is a (sort of) sequel to this book.

Monday, 17 January 2011


Title: Archangel

Author: Robert Harris

Number of pages: 421

Started: 10 January 2011

Finished: 17 January 2011

Opening words:


LATE ONE NIGHT a long time ago - before you were even born, boy - a bodyguard stood on the verandah at the back of a big house in Moscow, smoking a cigarette. It was a cold night, without stars or moon, and he smoked for the warmth of it as much as anything else, his big, farm lad's hands cupped around the burning cardboard tube of a Georgian papirosa.

This bodyguard's name was Papu Rapava. He was twenty-five years old, a Mingrelian, from the north-eastern shoreland of the Black Sea. And as for the house - well, fortress would have been a better word. It was a tsarist mansion, half a block long, in the diplomatic sector, not far from the river. Somewhere in the frosty darkness at the bottom of the walled garden was a cherry orchard, and beyond it a wide street - Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya - and beyond that the grounds of the Moscow Zoo.

There was no traffic. Very faintly in the distance, when it was quiet, like now, and the wind was in the right direction, you could hear the howling of caged wolves.

By this time the girl had stopped screaming, which was a mercy, for it had got on Rapava's nerves. She couldn't have been more than fifteen, not much older than his own kid sister, and when he had picked her up and delivered her, she had looked at him - looked at him - well, to be honest, boy, he preferred not to talk of it, even now, nearly fifty years later.

Anyway, the girl had finally shut up and he was enjoying his cigarette when the telephone rang. This must have been about two a.m. He would never forget it. Two o'clock in the morning on the second of March, I953. In the cold stillness of the night the bell sounded as loud as a fire alarm.

Read a longer excerpt here.

Plot summary:

When historian Fluke Kelso learns of the existence of a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin he is determined to track it down, whatever the consequences. From the violent political intrigue and decadence of modern Moscow he heads north - to the vast forests surrounding the White Sea port of Archangel, and a terrifying encounter with Russia's unburied past.

What I thought:

This is the second Robert Harris book that I have read, and I think it is fair to say that it did not measure up to The Ghost. This book was based around Stalin, and pretty much all of the action took place within the space of a day (which was quite a long day given that the book is over 400 pages long).

The book was very readable, but was not as page-turning as other books that I have read. I also found it a bit complicated to keep up with all of the characters at times. I would like to read more Robert Harris, but if this had been the first that I had read, I think I would have passed future ones by, as it was not overly memorable or striking.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Skippy Dies

Title: Skippy Dies

Author: Paul Murray

Number of pages: 661

Started: 27 December 2010

Finished: 9 January 2011

Opening words:

Skippy and Ruprecht are having a doughnut-eating race one evening when Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair. It is a Friday in November, and Ed’s is only half full; if Skippy makes a noise as he topples to the floor, no one pays any attention. Nor is Ruprecht, at first, overly concerned; rather he is pleased, because it means that he, Ruprecht, has won the race, his sixteenth in a row, bringing him one step closer to the all-time record held by Guido ‘The Gland’ LaManche, Seabrook College class of ’93.

Apart from being a genius, which he is, Ruprecht does not have all that much going for him. A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem, he is bad at sports and most other facets of life not involving complicated mathematical equations; that is why he savours his doughnut-eating victories so, and why, even though Skippy has been on the floor for almost a minute now, Ruprecht is still sitting there in his chair, chuckling to himself and saying, exultantly, under his breath, ‘Yes, yes’ – until the table jolts and his Coke goes fl ying, and he realizes that something is wrong.

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

Ruprecht Van Doren is an overweight genius whose hobbies include very difficult maths and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster is his roommate. In the grand old Dublin institution that is Seabrook College for Boys, nobody pays either of them much attention. But when Skippy falls for Lori, the frisbee-playing Siren from the girls’ school next door, suddenly all kinds of people take an interest – including Carl, part-time drug-dealer and official school psychopath . . . A tragic comedy of epic sweep and dimension, Skippy Dies scours the corners of the human heart and wrings every drop of pathos, humour and hopelessness out of life, love, Robert Graves, mermaids, M-theory, and everything in between.

What I thought:

I really enjoyed this book, despite being slightly put off by it being 660 pages long. This tale of life at an Irish Catholic Boys boarding school somehow struck a chord with me right from the beginning. It was humorous and well written and there were characters in it that you wanted to win through, and it was a book that drew you in from the prologue, where you learn how Skippy does indeed die, through to what led to his untimely death and its aftermath. A really good read.

To my mind, this book was a good contender to win this category on the Costa shortlist. I can see why Maggie O’Farrell won though. The two books are very different, but for me they were each very good contenders to win both the shortlist and the prize overall. Those two books were the best that I read from the shortlist.