Saturday, 29 September 2012

Liar and Spy

Title: Liar and Spy

Author: Rebecca Stead

Number of pages: 208

Started: 28 September 2012

Finished: 29 September 2012

Opening words:

There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s sup-posed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back.  Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since.

Read a longer extract here.

Plot summary:

Georges (the s is silent) has a lot going on. He's having trouble with some boys at school, his dad lost his job and so his mum has started working all the time - and they had to sell their house and move into an apartment.

But moving into the apartment block does bring one good thing - Safer, an unusual boy who lives on the top floor. He runs a spy club, and is determined to teach Georges everything he knows. Their current case is to spy on the mysterious Mr X in the apartment above Georges.But as Georges and Safer go deeper into their Mr X plan, the line between games, lies, and reality begin to blur.

What I thought:

Let me be clear, this is a children’s book.  Aimed at nine to twelve year olds.  I read it because I needed to review not for something.  Despite those disclaimers (and actually they are an explanation rather than a disclaimer), I did actually really enjoy it.  It was a nicely written book and had a good sense of humour to it.  It was a good plot about school life and friendship and the complications of family life.  Very enjoyable.

Shakespeare's Restless World

Title: Shakespeare’s Restless World

Author: Neil MacGregor

Number of pages: 336

Started: 24 September 2012

Finished: 29 September 2012

Opening words (from chapter 10):

For centuries, Scottish ships set sail from Leith pier near Edinburgh to make the perilous journey over the North Sea to the European mainland and to the wider world beyond; it was from Leith pier that Scotland faced the world. In the autumn of 1589, a young Scot undertook the dangerous voyage from Leith to Norway and Denmark, returning the following spring. This young man was James VI, King of Scotland, and his ship was beset by such terrible storms that it nearly perished. James came to believe that the storms were more than just the usual bad Scottish weather. They were the work of evil Scottish witches.

ALL: Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
ALL: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Shakespeare opens Macbeth by bringing us face to face with three extremely dangerous Scottish witches. Throughout the play these Weird Sisters cause mayhem on land and sea, and it was probably this kind of malevolent witchly chaos that lay behind the building of a finely crafted ship put on display in Leith towards the end of the sixteenth century, and now kept in the National Museum of Scotland.

Plot summary:

Shakespeare lived through a pivotal period in human history. With the discovery of the New World, the horizons of Old Europe were expanding dramatically - and long-cherished certainties were crumbling. Life was exhilaratingly uncertain. What were Londoners thinking when they went to see Shakespeare's plays? What was it like living in their world? Here Neil MacGregor looks at twenty objects from Shakespeare's life and times, and uncovers the fascinating stories behind them.

The objects themselves range from the grand (such as the hoard of gold coins that make up the Salcombe treasure) to the very humble, like the battered trunk and worn garments of an unknown pedlar. But in each case, they allow MacGregor to explore issues as diverse as piracy and Islam, Catholicism and disguise. MacGregor weaves the histories of objects into the words of Shakespeare's plays themselves to suggest to us where his ideas about religion, national identity, the history of England and the world, human nature itself, may have come from. The result is a fresh and thrilling evocation of Shakespeare's world.

What I thought:

I don’t generally read much non-fiction, but gave this book a go.  It is a book that through a series of objects describes what influenced Shakespeare’s writing and his audiences. 

It was a good read, although some chapters were better than others.  MacGregor was like an old friend guiding the reader through a world of social history.  Very readable – although a few of the chapters didn’t seem entirely worthy of inclusion because they were about things that don’t feature in Shakespeare’s plays.  I suspect a lot of things would meet that criteria.  It was interesting though and there were lots of pictures to illustrate the points that were being made.  Accessible history.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Song of Achilles

Title: The Song of Achilles

Author: Madeleine Miller

Number of pages: 368

Started: 16 September 2012

Finished: 23 September 2012

Opening words:

My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders. He married my mother when she was fourteen and sworn by the priestess to be fruitful. It was a good match: she was an only child, and her father’s fortune would go to her husband.

Read a longer extract here

Plot summary:

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper - despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

What I thought:

The Song of Achilles is another book I have read recently that has garnered much praise.  This is not really my favourite genre of literature, but, on the whole, the book was very good.

It was the tale of Achilles and Patroclus, fighting together side by side - and sharing a love for each other even to the death.  A moving tale, including the rather sad ending.  I know a couple of people who have read this who have gone on to read The Iliad.  I can’t say that it has inspired me to do that, but it was a good read nonetheless.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Art of Fielding

Title: The Art of Fielding

Author: Chad Harbach

Number of pages: 528

Started: 8 September 2012

Finished: 15 September 2012

Opening words:

Schwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game. Or rather, he noticed only what everyone else did — that he was the smallest player on the field, a scrawny novelty of a shortstop, quick of foot but weak with the bat. Only after the game ended, when the kid returned to the sun-scorched diamond to take extra grounders, did Schwartz see the grace that shaped Henry’s every move.  

Read the first chapter here

Plot summary:

Henry Skrimshander, newly arrived at college, shy and out of his depth, has a talent for baseball that borders on genius. But sometimes it seems that his only friend is big Mike Schwartz – who champions the talents of others, at the expense of his own. And Owen, Henry’s clever, charismatic, gay roommate, who has a secret that could put his brilliant college career in jeopardy.

Pella, the 23-year-old daughter of the college president, has returned home after a failed marriage, determined to get her life in order. Only to find her father, a confirmed bachelor, has fallen desperately in love himself.

Then, one fateful day, Henry makes a mistake – misthrows a ball. And everything changes…

What I thought:

This book was readable, but I did rather find it hard work at times.  It was a very long book and I did at sometimes find it hard to motivate myself to keep reading it, but I did get to the end.  There was nothing wrong as such with the book.  It just didn’t feel entirely original and felt a bit slow at times.  It reminded me a bit of a few other books I have read (primarily “Skippy Dies”, and the baseball theme and a specific incident changing everything reminded me of “A Prayer for Owen Meany”).

It was fine, but didn’t strike me as being worthy of all of the praise that has been heaped upon it.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Never Look Away

Title: Never Look Away

Author: Linwood Barclay

Number of pages: 528

Started: 30 August 2012

Finished: 7 September 2012

Opening words:

“He’s really out of it.”

“Look for a key.”

“I told you, I’ve been through his pockets. There’s no goddamn handcuff key.”

“What about the combination? Maybe he wrote it down somewhere, put it in his wallet or something.”

“What, you think he’s a moron? He’s going to write down the combination and keep it on him?”

“So cut the chain. We take the case, we figure out how to open it later.”

“It looks way stronger than I thought. It’ll take me an hour to cut through.”

“You can’t get the cuff over his hand?”

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m gonna have to cut it off.”

“I thought you said it would take forever to cut the cuff.”

“I’m not talking about the cuff.”

Plot summary:

It starts with a trip to a local amusement park. David Harwood is hoping a carefree day will help dispel his wife Jan's recent depression that has led to frightening thoughts of suicide. Instead, a day of fun with their son Ethan turns into a nightmare.

When Jan disappears from the park, David's worst fears seem to have come true. But when he goes to the police to report her missing, the facts start to indicate something very different. The park's records show that only two tickets were purchased, and CCTV shows no evidence that Jan ever entered the park at all. Suddenly David's story starts to look suspicious - and the police to wonder if Jan's already dead, murdered by her husband.

To prove his innocence and keep his son from being taken away from him, David is going to have to dig deep into the past and come face to face with a terrible childhood tragedy - but by doing that he could risk destroying everything precious to him...

What I thought:

I have read a number of Linwood Barclay’s books and have had mixed feelings about them.  This one was one of the better ones though.  I thought the plot held together better and it had a plot that lasted through to the end.  Parts of it were guessable, but I didn’t think this took away from the book like it did with some of his others.

It was very readable and a page-turning crime novel.  A decent read.