Saturday, 31 July 2010

Zulu by Saul David

I have always found this particular war interesting; In 1879 the British empire, at the height of its power, used a mixture of political skill and deception coupled with military power to challenge and eventually overcome one of the most powerful and warlike African tribes on the continent. On the battlefields the rifles and bayonets of the famed British redcoats were put up against the cow hide shields, razor sharp assegais and daring courage of the Zulu warriors defending their homeland.

Many people have heard of the Anglo-Zulu War thanks to the movie 'Zulu' from 1964 starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker which depicts perhaps the most famous battle of the entire war; the Battle of Rorke's Drift during which 139 British soldiers successfully defended a small outpost against 4000 Zulu warriors. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won that day.

The book is packed full of fascinating anecdotes, thrilling battles, stories of heroism and cowardice and political scandal all obtained from documentation and witness accounts from the time. I thought I knew a lot about this war before I read the book and quickly realised I didn't! I was ignorant about the less-than-honourable reasons for the beginning of the war and the terrible nightmare of the battles fought. One would imagine the Zulus stood no chance and yet they managed to win some victories against the superior fighting power of the British, the most devastating being the victory at the Battle of Isandlwana during which 1300 British soldiers were slaughtered.

Despite the somewhat dishonourable reasons for the war beginning there were some incredible tales of courage such as British Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill who escaped the slaughter of Isandlwana on horseback to try and save their regiment's colours (each regiment in the British army has its own banner, it was considered a terrible disgrace if the banner was captured by the enemy) unfortunately both men were caught by the Zulus and killed, dropping the colours into a nearby river. The colours were left at the bottom of the river (the Zulus didn't understand its importance) and were recovered some time later by the British. Melvill and Coghill were awarded Victoria Crosses posthumously for their efforts.

One of the most interesting stories in the book was that of the Prince Imperial; a relative of the famous French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The 23 year old was exiled from France to Britain early in his life. He joined the British army and was desperate to experience battle for himself. He begged Queen Victoria to be allowed to go to Africa who eventually relented but only on the condition he did not expose himself to unnecessary risk. Once in Africa the Prince was assigned an escort and forbidden to get involved in fighting. The Prince however had other plans and his impatient, reckless nature led him to ride directly into a Zulu ambush during which he fell from his horse and was speared eighteen times. Two of his escort were also killed and the rest fled. The Zulus left the princes body to rot in the desert and it was not recovered until some time later. The princes death caused considerable international scandal and even led to Queen Victoria being accused (wrongly) of setting the whole thing up to be rid of the prince.

Overall an excellent book well worth a read, I will definitely be picking it up again soon.

Overall 4/5

By Chris

Friday, 30 July 2010

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

This is a very unusual book. Grenouille is born into unusual circumstances and then abandoned in Paris during the eighteenth century. He discovers that he has an acute sense of smell and eventually becomes obsessed with bottling the most exquisite fragrance he has ever smelt; that of a young virgin. In order to get this smell he practices on plenty of other girls, killing them in the process. Yep I told you it was unusual.

Grenouille himself is a horrible human being. He is devoid of any personality and of his own smell, people seem to instinctively know there is something strange about him as they draw back whenever he comes near or go out of their way to avoid him. It is this that causes Grenouille to seek out his own 'scent'. Why this scent has to be that of a young virgin I think is purely about Grenouille's ego and greed.

The book is told very much in the style of a grim fairytale with beautiful prose which given the subject matter and the time period worked perfectly. The story had some scientific stuff thrown in with regards to the making of perfume. Some people I'm sure will find this boring but I personally found it fascinating. I enjoyed reading how the perfume makers extracted scent from Roses etc. in order to then use the scent as a tiny component in a perfume.

My main gripe with this book however is the lack of character interaction. I never felt as if I knew Grenouille as a person nor the young virgin who's smell he hopes to capture. Because of this I failed to actually care about any of them and none of the characters that Grenouille came across 'jumped off the page' for me.

The ending was fitting but I'm sure I missed something in it. I was sure the ending was going to have some kind of meaning or lesson given the style of the book but I felt as though I was left with nothing here.

Verdict 3/5

Would I recommend it? Well I didn't dislike this book but nor did I especially like it either. Its worth reading for the wonderful style and unusualness and to make your own mind up.

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Who needs the Booker prize?

Yes who does need the Booker prize when you have Key West Sloppy Joe's 30th Annual Hemingway Look-Alike Contest! Hands up if you knew there even was one?

The winner this year who had entered a previous 11 times was Charles Bicht from Vero Beach, FL . Speaking of winning he said;

"I've been looking forward to this for 12 years, Nothing can compare to it."

In one of the best quotes ever he compared himself to his hero.

"I enjoy women, I fish and I drink, but I don't write,"

More photos of bearded men battling it out for the title looking much more cuddly than I'm sure the real man himself looked can be found here and here.

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Reading dilemma N'1

I know a lot of people really didn’t like Sophia Ford Coppola’s film based on part of the life of Marie Antoinette but I quite liked it. I’m quite a sucker for style sometimes and this film had oodles of it and I loved the historical inaccuracies of the costumes and design. However this isn’t a film review, once I had seen the film however I wanted to find out if there were any historical inaccuracies in the actual story the film portrayed. So I decided to buy the book that the film was based on by Antonia Fraser.

I was quite happily reading the book and was surprised to find out that some of the more far fetched parts of the film were in fact true but then suddenly life got in the way. I got pregnant and for over a year I was only interested in reading either baby related books or books that required no thinking whatsoever (the Twilight books got me through many a night feed) and then we moved house. So you see my Marie Antoinette book got completely forgotten about until a few months ago when I found it in the bottom of a box which was due to go into the attic.

My bookmark is still in the pages and I was just over halfway through when I stopped reading it. Of course now I have the dilemma of either reading from where I left off or do I go back to the beginning and read the first 200 pages again? Before I decide which option to take I first need enthusiasm to pick it up again the first place I am finding it difficult to find enthusiasm for a thick non-fiction book I have already started. Ah maybe I need to watch the film again………..

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Man Booker Prize Long list annouced

So the long list for the Man Booker prize has been announced and are listed below. A few I recognise from various blogs and a few I see were predicted.

Do big prizes like this interest you and do read any books from lists like these?

I guess I’m like most people, I sometimes read the winner of these things but mostly I read some of the shortlisted books a few years later when they pop up in 2nd hand bookshops. Im also quite lazy, there will be some bloggers that will read the list and I will add the ones they rave about to my wishlist. This year I have been tempted to read them but my TBR list is as long as my arm at the moment so I think I will make a pledge to do this next year or maybe I’ll read the shortlist? I think that could be fun.

The longlist includes:

Peter Carey
Parrot and Oliver in America (Faber and Faber)

Emma Donoghue
Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador)

Helen Dunmore
The Betrayal (Penguin - Fig Tree)

Damon Galgut
In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)

Howard Jacobson
The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)

Andrea Levy
The Long Song
(Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)

Tom McCarthy
C (Random House - Jonathan Cape)

David Mitchell
The Thousand Autumns of Zacob de Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)

Lisa Moore
February (Random House - Chatto & Windus)

Paul Murray
Skippy Dies (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)

Rose Tremain
Trespass (Random House - Chatto & Windus)

Christos Tsiolkas
The Slap (Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)

Alan Warner
The Stars in the Bright Sky(Random House - Jonathan Cape)

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Born into poverty with no hope of improving his situation due to class and opportunities, Balram, a driver for a rich family discovers that if he is willing to lie, cheat and murder without fearing the consequences he can live the life he has always dreamed in this new emerging India.

The book is told in a series of letters from Balram to a Chinese official who will be shortly visiting India. Balram wants to set the record straight and expose India while at the same time telling his story on how he rose to the position he is in now.

The narrative is easy to read and quite clever in parts. Balram is a man who has had opportunities denied to him throughout his life (including being taken out of school) and he has a sense of pure anger throughout much of the book. A lot of the anger is entirely justified yet he also has very little regard for his family and refuses to send them any money even though working as a driver he is earning the equivalent to a fortune compared to his struggling family. He also tries to expose corruption within politicians, business men and the police yet will also rip off his employers when given the opportunity showing that he's certainly willing to play the game when it suits.

Balram also exposes his ignorance within the narrative. For example he will not use a mobile phone because he heard on the radio once that they give you brain cancer, and he also states little gems like this "Now, since I doubt that you have rickshaw-pullers in China - or in any other civilised nation on earth - you will have to see one for yourself." These points only highlight that he has not gotten to his
position by intelligence but by understanding the ‘jungle’ in which he lives in.

Unfortunately some of the other characters came across as rather ‘flat’ especially Balrams employers and his family and they failed to evoke any sympathy from me, they were very stereotypical although maybe the intent is that they are seen as through Balram's eyes?

This White Tiger never ‘preaches’ but there are a lot of books coming out at the moment which all claim to highlight the dark side of India. So unfortunately in that respect this book will not give you anything new.

Would I recommend it? It is a very easy read and I found it highly entertaining and I would recommend it for these reasons but don’t expect to find anything more meaningful or a balanced view of India within these pages.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 23 July 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Like a lot of people my introduction to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was through various films or TV adaptations especially the Disney version. Before sitting down to read this for the first time one evening I tried to clear my head of any preconceptions and just sat back and tried to enjoy the ride.

Well I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, the world in which Alice finds herself is so bizarre and 'mad' I was quite prepared to be swept up along with it all. There was also a huge amount of charm with this book which I was not expecting so much and the wonderful illustrations added to this.

I then went on to read 'Through the Looking-Glass' and was surprised to find that most of my favourite moments from the film like the Walrus and the Carpenter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee and the bread and butter-flies, were featured in Though the look-glass and did not feature at all in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In fact only three characters including Alice feature in both books.

Despite this I still preferred Adventures in Wonderland, I can't say why for sure but it just seemed to have more charm and innocence within the pages when compared to Through the Looking-Glass when Alice is a bit older and slightly less 'curious'. Aside from the Walrus and the Carpenter, I also preferred the rhymes in Adventures in Wonderland some of which made me laugh.

There's a lot of essays and analysis out there dissecting this book and a lot of people (like me) first read this book as an adult. But I'll keep my copy for my son when he's older as I was stuck by how much I think a small child would enjoy it.

Would I recommend it? Yes, but lets not let the adults hog this one for themselves.

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Ankle Grabber

When I was a child I loved being scared. I suppose it's a healthy part of growing up for most kids; the scary movie that you aren't supposed to watch, the fairground ride that takes you two hundred feet up into the air then drop you at speeds approaching Mach 3 back to the bottom again, the sleepover ghost stories...the list goes on. The thrill that children get from being scared is, for me, personified in this book which is one of my fondest memories of childhood.

The story itself is very simple yet terrifying; a young girl, alone in her bedroom, believes there is a monster under her bed called the Ankle Grabber; a small green creature that lives in a swamp and preys on careless children. If a child doesn't get into bed quickly enough or strays too near the edge of the bed in the night the Ankle Grabber will grab them and pull them into the depths of its swamp under the bed, never to be seen again.

The book is a fun, good natured scare for any child. The author cleverly manipulates long-held fears of generations of children; is there something living under their bed that will eat them if it gets the chance? The book has wonderful illustrations on every page which really help bring the story to life. I loved having it read to me as a child by my father. I think my father enjoyed reading it too, possibly because the dad in the story is the child's hero! (not to mention the satisfaction in scaring a naughty child who wont go to bed!)

I have a copy for my son when he is old enough so I'll be able to scare (sorry, thrill) him when its his bedtime. I highly recommend it and am really pleased to see its still being published today.

A story like this stays with you for life. It might even go some way to explaining why I still run and jump into bed at night...

What are your favourite childhood books?

Final verdict 4/5

By Chris

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Great Gatsby

This was not a book which originally appealed to me. I do not find the ‘Jazz Age’ remotely appealing and as Fitzgerald is always hailed as the ‘great writer of the Jazz Age’ you can see why I had often bypassed this book. It was really only because I loved 'Tender is the Night' so much that I was suddenly on the lookout to read anything written by Fitzgerald.

For a quick summery of The Great Gatsby, Nick lives on the east coast near New York and narrates about his acquaintances with his cousin Daisy and more notably his neighbour Jay Gatsby. It is through his contact with these people and others that Nick becomes disillusioned and begins to see what all the money and glitz are hiding.

Well, on analysis this is a book about the ‘Jazz Age’ and some of the young rich Americans living at that time. While this lifestyle could be glamorous and exciting, Fitzgerald also saw a moral emptiness and hollow exuberance. But I was surprised to see so much more hidden in the depths of this short novel. I found commentary on all kinds of subjects like the rigid social classes that America had created for itself, the American dream, the pursuit of money and creating or breaking free from the past. Perhaps this depth is why this novel has become one of my favourites.

I am unable to pick a favourite character, I found them all equally fascinating and repulsive at the same time, they all played their roles perfectly and Fitzgerald once again has created a vivid and very real portrait of how I imagine the period to have been like. Underneath all the parties and trips to New York I got an overwhelming feeling of loneliness beneath it all and I was touched by the ending.

Like 'Tender is the Night' Fitzgerald used a lot of biographical elements which are projected onto some of the characters. There are too many to mention but perhaps this is one of the elements which gives Fitzgerald’s writing that indefinable ‘something’ and makes this book unforgettable?

I have been trying to think which I prefer, 'Tender is the Night' or 'The Great Gatsby'. Well there’s not much in it, in terms of writing and the way I felt while reading them I would say they are completely equal in this regard. But The Great Gatsby has given me slightly more to think about so I’ll say the Great Gatsby is my favourite Fitzgerald novel (but only just).

Would I recommend it? Yes of course. If you need further convincing, its less that 200 pages and easy to read and its a classic which you could 'tick' off your list.

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is what happened when I went to buy this book in London’s Waterstones;

Shop assistant: “Oh my sister loves this writer; she’s read everything he’s written”

Me: “That’s good to hear” (feeling smug that I’m obviously on to a good’un)

Shop assistant “yeah, I can’t understand it myself. Personally I hate his writing”

Me “Oh”

OK so I picked myself up a writer that could go either way. I'm OK with that, sometimes I like seeing which side of the fence I sit on. I wasn’t going to read this novel so soon after buying it but when Christy from 'A good stopping point' left a comment letting me know the movie adaptation will soon be out I moved this book swiftly up my TBR list.

This is one of those annoying reviews where I am unable to give away any of the plot because it would spoil it completely. I can tell you that the main character Kathy reminisces back on her childhood at a very special boarding school in England and her relationships with two fellow students Ruth and Tommy.

The below film trailer gives a good hint of the plot and the general feel of the story if you feel you need more to go on.

The theme of this book is the inevitability of death; we all know that when we reach around 75 years we are coming to the end of our natural lives and we have perhaps years or perhaps months to live. It doesn’t matter how much in love we are with someone or how much we have left to achieve, when our natural life span is up, it's up. The characters in this book have a much shorter life span of around 30 years and as they come closer to that age they do what I suppose a lot of elderly people must do, they look back and reminisce, they prepare themselves and ask ‘what did our brief lives mean?'

I personally loved the narration of this book and found it pitch perfect for the subject and I was very quickly sucked in. The first three quarters of the book is Kathy reminiscing and is told in flashbacks and I was very impressed with the childhood scenes. I thought they perfectly captured some of the funny things and crazes children go through and it even reminded me of a few things from my days at school.

I have read criticism because some readers wanted the characters to try and rebel against their fate and I have to admit while reading it I wanted them to try and challenge it but of course I knew they never could. Aside from that not being the point the biggest dreamer in the group is Ruth who has a dream of one day working in a smart office; this is a dream which she tells the others about in great detail. Although this is a nice dream for her, this is hardly the dream of someone who has it in them to ‘rebel’ it’s simply not in them.

This book is about emotion, life, environmental upbringing, inevitability and ethics and it is lingering. This is a story I think will stay with me for a long time and I can’t wait until the film opens.

Would I recommend it? Yes as its certainly thought provoking and well written. Its a book with a slow pace considering its subject but this tone fits the book and characters perfectly.

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Burnt Out Town of Miracles

The story is set in Finland during the ‘Winter War’; a little known conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union which began in late 1939 and ended less than four months later. Unwittingly caught up in the fighting is the main character; a young Finnish logger named Timo, who stubbornly refuses to leave his home town despite the imminent arrival of the Red Army. Timo is captured by the Soviets and, because of his extensive knowledge of the surrounding woodland, is put in charge of a small group of Russian misfits who are tasked with collecting firewood. It is not long before Timo forms friendships with his co-workers and is soon torn between loyalty to his new found friends or his Country.

Timo is not an easy character to understand and his motivations remain a mystery throughout most of the book. Early on in the story we learn that he is generally considered by people he meets to be simple minded;

“...the man who had spoken to me, and who was obviously an officer, returned and asked if I was the village idiot...I answered, quite simply, yes, I suppose I was”

Timo is not stupid by any stretch of the imagination but he is certainly strange. I believe he may be suffering from some form of autism but it’s hard to tell. He seems distant and detached. He views things that happen to him as someone apart, looking on as a witness rather than having any personal feelings either way. By way of example halfway through the book he is accused of being a spy for the Finns and savagely beaten. When he recounts this story he does so as whimsically as if he had taken a walk in the park not been beaten black and blue but it’s not bluster or bravado; he just doesn’t seem to be concerned. Timo is almost completely without fear even in the face of imminent death and seems remarkably oblivious to danger or threats. He always speaks his mind even when it is very ill advised to do so and rarely mentions how he is feeling. Timo’s unashamed honesty and inability to know when to shut up, often lands him in hot water. He regularly pushes his luck with the Soviet soldiers and more than once I thought he was about to be shot for his insolence;

“’Then you’ll have to tell him’ I said, nodding towards Fjodor, ‘that I think he is a coward and I don’t trust him’
Nikolai was taken aback
‘Do you mean that?’
‘Yes’ I said
‘I know you mean it but if I say that he’ll be even more difficult to deal with’
‘Do it anyway, then he’ll know you know he’s a coward too’"

The Russian prisoners he befriends are more ‘normal’ and much easier to relate to. They behave much the same as anyone in their position and their rag-tag nature is appealing, the true underdogs of the story. They are guided by Timo, an unlikely leader, who does his best to protect them and look after them however due to his detachment his feelings towards them aren’t always clear.

I liked the way the book kept you guessing and the setting was very well put together. The cold, barren landscape was easy to visualise and the fight for survival was convincing. The characters are interesting and their plights are easy to empathise with.

I was less impressed with the main character Timo, because of the way he was it was difficult to empathise with his position and I never felt as though I got to know him. I never understand why he does the things he does or why he decides to show the Russian loggers so much compassion. The war itself was hardly ever mentioned except in passing which I think was a shame as it could have added more tension to the story if there had been some combat involved. Some of the characters felt superfluous and I did not like the way the story ended.

Overall despite a few very well written ideas ultimately this book disappointed me due to its unreadable main character, unanswered questions and limp ending.

Final Verdict 2/5

By Chris

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

I'm not going to give an outline of this book as I think most people by now have at least a vague idea of what its about.

I had to have the right frame of mind reading this book, I had read about the naivety of Bruno and yes, I agree that a boy living in Berlin at that time with a Nazi father would of course know the word Jew and of course he would know what the Star of David and Hitler looked like. So with this in mind I read the book as I might a fable as intended rather than historical fiction. Aside from a few times when I did think “Oh come on, as if he would say that”, the story as a fable I think works rather well.

I am not a great fan of children/YA books but I did like the voice of Bruno and for the most part I think he spoke very much as a nine year old boy would speak. I liked Bruno's observations about his sister and his new surroundings and the friendship between the two boys somehow worked. But I found some of his repetitions and mis-pronunciations of words a little tiresome after a while.

That said I did not see the ending coming and when it did I was really shocked, for this reason this is not a book I am likely to forget in a hurry.

The film I preferred. The script took out Bruno's mispronunciations and unusually for a book- to-film adaptation, there are a lot of elements added to the overall story. Bruno is not as naïve as he is in the book as some of the horrors are added to the story and they also made his tutor a frothing Nazi who tries his best to indoctrinate Bruno and his sister into Hitler's way of thinking.

The best addition to the film though was Bruno's mother and father. The script allowed for both characters to be more rounded and you get to watch a breakdown of a marriage as Bruno's mother becomes more and more appalled with what she can see happening just over the fence and the effects of this on her children. This was achieved by taking some of the story away from Bruno's point of view, something which could not be done in the book.

Overall I liked the story but didn't love it.

Verdict – both book and film 3/5

Posted by Jess

This also qualifys for the read the book watch the movie challenge hosted over at C.B James

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

The children of Dynmouth was first published in 1976 and was short-listed for the booker prize. If I was to sum up this book in one word it would be 'Sinister'.

The novel follows an awkward teenager Timothy Gedge around Dynmouth; a typical English seaside town. Timothy has convinced himself he is destined to become a famous comedian and in order to do so he should start by performing in his local Easter talent show. As he proceeds with his plans Timothy is confronted by obstacles that threaten to derail his dream. In response to these setbacks he becomes more and more delusional and sinister to the point of being evil. He terrorises numerous residents of the town and does his best to hurt people and mess up their lives.

This is just the kind of book I love and I enjoyed reading it immensely. A community is striped bare as Timothy does his rounds, peaking into peoples windows, threatening young children with just a few words and a smile and blackmailing adults. The tension builds up throughout the book (which is less than 200 pages) to its conclusion where the community of adults are forced to ask themselves; did we create this monster?

The novel deals with plenty of other issues such as the effect on society when children are forced to bring themselves up with absent parents and the obsession with becoming a celebrity. These issues give the book depth and I found myself speculating on them, the book even hints that perhaps there is a place for people like Timothy in this world.

I loved this book (and not just for the pretty cover) a dark and chilling tale which will make you think.

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 9 July 2010


Persepolis is not a novel in the traditional sense of the word. It is a biographical 'graphic novel' following the true events of the tumultuous life of a young Iranian girl as she struggles to survive in a country where oppression is part of daily life.

Ironically the style of the book is very true to the personality of the artist; rebellious and non-conforming. The illustrations are basic but very effective and I feel they benefited the story immensely and made it easier to visualise what she was saying (as I suppose any good graphic novel should)

Persepolis is actually two books in one, the first being 'The Story of a Childhood' which follows the author's life from a very young age growing up in an Iran controlled by a ruthless self-imposed Shah. Halfway through this story a revolution takes place replacing the Shah with an extremist regime who arrest Iranian citizens at the drop of a hat for such heinous crimes as listening to western music, throwing parties, wearing fashionable clothes or talking to someone of the opposite gender who you aren't married to. Of course anyone who spoke out against the regime was arrested, tortured and often murdered. As if this wasn't bad enough the author lives with her mother and father both of whom are very outspoken against the regime and have Communist sympathies. By the end of the story the author is sent to Europe by her family to start a new life and escape the oppression of the Islamic government.

The book is powerful, there is no denying that, it was hard to put down and you care about what happens to the people in it. The book is also funny and tragic at points. I couldn't help get the feeling that a lot of what happened was glazed over, although I definitely got the strong impression these people suffered immensely I did feel the author sugar-coated some of it. Whether this was because it was too painful to recall or some other reason I do not know.

This book has left a lasting impression with me and it was really worth a read, I hope people don't let the unusual format put them off. It certainly makes you appreciate what you have!

The second book is 'The Story of a Return' and it is a sequel to the first book. It covers the period of the author's life when she leaves Iran to start a new life in Europe. As you would imagine she finds it very hard to adjust, one cannot go from living in a country like Iran and just fit right in with a secular Western society. The author tries to figure out who she is and in her confusion and frustration she goes off the rails, she begins to immerse herself in a darker side to western culture; casual sex and drugs. At this stage the character becomes less likeable and her story less interesting, whether this is because her transition into western life marks the loss of her innocence or the identity I grew to love in the first book I'm not sure but I found the second book less interesting and meaningful. There is an incident where she behaves with unbelievable cruelty to a stranger and I was left wondering if this was in her nature to begin with or if it is a symptom of the place she lives. Who knows? Eventually, after four years living abroad, our heroine (now 19 years old) returns to Iran which is much the same as she remembers it. Sadly instead of helping her find her true identity it only confuses her further.

There were thought provoking points during the story such as the shocking racism she encounters whilst living in Austria and the fickle relationships she forms. There is also a good amount of humour as in the first book but I didn't find it as enjoyable as the first instalment.

Overall 'The Story of a Childhood' gets 4/5 'The Story of a Return' gets 3/5

By Chris

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius

I'm sure many of you have noticed on various book blogs the reviews and news on Peirene publishers. This is exactly where I read about them too. Peirene specialise in translating short books written in mainland Europe into English. I bought the three first books they have published and while Chris was traumatised as a result of reading 'Beside The Sea', I decided to start with 'Portrait Of The Mother As A Young Woman'.

This is a very short book and only took me a day to read it and it follows a young German woman who is eight months pregnant, walking to a concert in Rome during the Second World War. This woman travelled to Rome to be with her husband, a German solider, who was almost immediately shipped off to Tunisia leaving this woman on her own in a strange city during war time. The book is really an account of her thoughts and the different memories that pop into her head and any conclusions she comes to. This woman is incredibly naïve so there is an absence of any clever insights into the war or any great revelations with regards to Germany's involvement, rather she is more pre-occupied with her baby, the return of her husband and how she hopes the war will end.

These are probably the same thoughts which occur to her almost everyday and indeed must have been similar to the thoughts of a lot of people during that time. Thinking about her husband and her baby and remembering her family back in Germany seems to help her become slightly more at peace with herself and her situation.

This book is set during a more peaceful time in Rome, before the bombs hit and before the allied invasion. I'm guessing that the author wanted to try to detail how an ordinary person living during this time would justify and come to terms with what was happening around them. While this is an interesting book, I did not find anything new or surprising in it.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Monday, 5 July 2010


This book was clearly aimed at young adults (no pun intended!) the story is short, straightforward, uncomplicated and doesn't have many characters all of which suggests the target readers may have a short attention span.

Set in the Arctic Circle in 1910 Sig lives in a poor shack with his father, sister and step-mother. They all get along well and are quite happy until Sig's father dies in an accident and a dangerous man from the past comes knocking looking for gold he claims Sig's father swindled from him years ago...

The story is exciting but also thought provoking with an ultimately moral and satisfying ending. There are moments in the book which genuinely have you holding your breath and the characters are interesting and likeable enough that you care what happens to them.

In line with the book being aimed at young adults there is a strong 'moral' element in the book and a very strong emphasis on forgiveness and doing the right thing. We all know in real life often people don't do the right thing so in that sense the story was too clean to be believable but the story does leave you with a nice feeling after reading it.

Final verdict 3/5

By Chris

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Catch my meaning?

Do you ever read a book and either miss the true meaning of it all together or are you convinced that there is a hidden meaning but you just aren’t sure what it is? Are you good at picking up symbolism in books or did you have to study it in school in order to truly ‘get it’?

Catcher In The Rye is a good example. When reading it I ‘got’ that Holden was scared of growing up and that he deliberately pushed people away when they were in danger of getting close but when I looked on spark notes after I had read it there was a whole heap of stuff I missed. Who knew there was significance when he wore his red hunting hat or why Holden inquired where the ducks went during winter time? Not me.

I have watched Animal Farm on TV thinking it was just some weird story about some mean animals and read the Narnia books innocently without picking up any Christian meaning.

Did I know that each of the main boys in the book ‘Lord Of The Flies’ were meant to represent different parts in the nature of man? Er no but that might be because I was so busy being bored to tears by that particular book.

But I also have to ask, would knowing any of this enhanced my reading experience of these books? The answer is probably yes or at the very least I would have more respect for the authors. But in order to know all this before hand I would have to look up the entire plot which would have certainly taken away my reading enjoyment. It’s quite hard I would imagine to really immerse yourself in a book when you’re looking up spark notes along the way.

This month I have Alice in Wonderland to read which I have heard contains all kinds of hidden stuff. But its also fun to look afterwards and see which bits I managed to pick up and which bits went so far over my head they may as well be in orbit.

Posted by Jess

Friday, 2 July 2010

Brave New World

Set in the distant future 'Brave New World' paints a bleak imagining of a society
where everything you could ever want or need is provided for you. But at a price...

In this society no-one is born, not in the traditional sense anyway, there are no families, no mothers or fathers. Every person is grown in a factory test tube and genetically modified to fit the position put aside for them in the society. The 'Epsilons' are the people at the bottom; deliberately modified before and after 'birth' to be mindless morons they carry out the menial, dirty jobs that no-one wants to do. At the top of the pile are the 'Alphas' high in intelligence and designed to carry out the higher roles in society; government, literature, entertainment etc.

Citizens within the society are taught that life is all about pleasure. They work without complaint to keep the society going and in return are given a powerful recreational drug called 'Soma' and are encouraged to have sex with whomever they want. A common saying in the society is 'everyone belongs to everyone' and saying 'No' to a sexual advance, even from a relative stranger, was frowned upon. There is no love, no marriage, no commitment at all except to be 'happy'

Of course there are seeds of decent in this society. The Main protagonist is Bernard; an Alpha male who is decidedly unhappy with his life and strives for something more. He travels to one of the few 'Savage Reserves' where humans live in enclosures surrounded by electrified fences leading lives much like our own; they marry, have children, worship God and work in their own chosen professions.

Huxley has very cleverly turned the belief systems of conventional society on their head. Whatever our society frowns upon (drugs, promiscuous sex, slavery etc.) is encouraged in the new society. I say slavery because none of these citizens have free choice, even the Alpha's are just following what they were conditioned from birth to do. No-one in the society truly has free choice.

Considering this story was written in 1931 I was very impressed by Huxley's imagination. The story has aged well and is still shocking even today. Unfortunately I feel Huxley failed to reach the full potential in this book. Ultimately the experience was spoilt for me by the fundamentally stupid and unlikeable characters.

The book began dreadfully slowly. For the first 40-50 pages it bored the life out of me but I persisted and after page 50 it began to warm up. There is a certain amount of humour but I wouldn't say it was a 'funny' book in fact it gave me the creeps more often than it made me laugh.

Bernard is an anti-hero. I found him to be a whining, irritating, cowardly hypocrite who spends the entire first half of the book moaning about how he wishes to escape from the society he claims he hates so much and trying to get into the knickers of the main female protagonist, herself mindless and boring. Then Bernard spends the latter half of the story trying to ingratiate himself into the highest echelons of the society by arse-kissing, exploiting and backstabbing others. He is smug, crafty, patronising and arrogant and I can quite confidently say I hate him (as much as it is possible to hate a fictional character!)

The only person in the story I liked was John but even he seemed to lose the plot by the end of the book and himself became somewhat of a foolish annoyance.

The book undoubtedly forces the reader to have a good long think about our own society and our concepts of right and wrong but is ultimately let down by the poor characters.

Final verdict 2/5

By Chris

Northline by Willy Vlautin

Allison is a young girl living in Vegas who is having a rough life. I mean a really rough life, every plausible terrible thing that can happen to a woman happens to Allison in this book. If you were to see Allison on the street with her tattoos and swigging from a bottle you would probably dismiss her as just some girl who needs to get her life together which is what she attempts to do throughout the course of this book.

This sounds grim and certainly large parts of it are but the only way Allison is able to make small tiny changes in her life is through the random acts of strangers. Every so often someone will show a small amount of kindness that when added together puts Allison in a much better place at the end of the novel than the beginning.

This has a simple plot which never strays into sentimentality and shows all the characters flaws and I emphasised with them and wanted their lives to get better. Nothing in this short novel at less than 200 pages is perfect and that goes for the ending but there is a sense of redemption and hope.

This story is simply told and a quick read, if you don't mind your books depressing and grim at times, there's a lot to get out of this novel.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess