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


Title: Mercy

Author: Jussi Adler-Olsen

Number of pages: 490

Started: 15 September 2011

Finished: 20 September 2011

Opening words:


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:


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.