Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Fact or Fiction - does it matter?

One genre I enjoy reading is historical fiction which seems to be popular among authors. This is completely understandable as there have been countless fascinating periods in history which contain all great elements for an exciting and touching novel. Just this month alone I have been to the siege of Leningrad, a leper colony in 50s Crete, to Iran spanning generations and I am about to read a fictional account of real people in Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light.

You may have also noticed from my ‘What we have learnt from Books’ feature that sometimes I am a stickler for detail. The same goes for when I read historical fiction, I HAVE to know what’s fictional and what’s not, and it seriously bothers me if I don’t know. So quite often my reading is also accompanied by endless visits to Wikipedia and other sites as I educate myself on various subjects.

This might sound like a bore to you and I completely understand why people just want to enjoy the book but personally, I thrive on it. I’ve always had a passing interest in history and I like nothing better than browsing on Wikipedia reading about this stuff. I always find that doing this quite often enhances my reading experience.

A recent example of this would be The Siege. There is a paragraph or two in The Siege which mentions briefly a girl called Tanya Savicheva whose entire family is dead. Because I had briefly looked into the history of this siege I did end up reading about this real historical person. Tanya was an 11 year old girl living in Leningrad at the time of the siege where she worked digging trenches. In her possession was her sister's diary (her sister did not come home from work one day) even when Tanya burned her own diary for fuel she spared her sisters. Tanya added to the diary the deaths of her family members and heartbreakingly the last entry reads ‘Only Tanya is left’. Unfortunately although Tanya was rescued from Leningrad she did not survive. The diary is now on display in a museum in Russia.

I went off topic a little there but this was just to highlight how a couple of paragraphs in a book held more emotional weight with me because I was aware of the true events. This also highlights the meticulous research the author did in order to write The Siege.

What do I think of authors who ‘get it wrong’ when it comes to their research? Well, on the whole I find that 90% of the time authors have been quite meticulous and expertly insert real events alongside their fiction characters. But if they do get it wrong? Well fictional authors are not there to give a detailed history lesson, they are there to entertain and move us and if they change the order of events or speed up certain historical events in order to keep the story moving then I have no problem with it. It is after all historical FICTION.

Unfortunately I do have to confess to knowing more than a couple of people who believe that Philippa Gregory is an actual historian and here is where I guess the danger lies and why historical fiction is sometimes criticised. But I don’t believe this is the authors fault, is it Philippa Gregory’s fault if some readers believe all the events in The Other Boleyn Girl actually happened or that the characters in that book were depicted accurately? Should perhaps there always be a disclaimer in the front of books that do change actual historical events around? I noticed that there is a small note from the author of The Quickening Maze in the back of the book which states that certain historical events in the book have been compressed and that significant individuals have been ignored while other have been invented.I guess this is a topic for a whole other post.

Of course you could just turn around and say to me ‘why the heck don’t you just read non-fiction if you’re that interested in facts’? It’s a fair point but I love the page turning enjoyment you get from a fictional book and I love reading a book and caring about the characters in them. I would therefore get far more enjoyment from reading Doctor Zhivago rather than reading a non-fiction book on the Russian Revolution. Ill just brush up on my Russian history briefly before I begin reading it ;)

Posted by Jess

Monday, 30 August 2010

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas reads almost like a collection of short stories. There are six different characters over six generations and aside from one character they each have two chapters in which to tell their story. The characters all differ from each other and so to their stories which are based in the past, present or far future. The one thing these different characters do have in common is that they possess the same soul and the same birth mark, which is comet shaped, located on their backs.

Because the book is written in this way some of the characters stories are going to appeal more than others. I found a couple of the chapters almost excruciating and tedious to read while others like the more sci-fi chapters I thoroughly enjoyed. The different characters have all been given a completely different voice to each other and each chapter not only incorporates this but also the time period in which the character lives in. On more than one occasion this caused me to stop reading and think how clever it all was.

Unfortunately overall though I could not link the stories to each other sufficiently to create a common theme which left me wondering what the point of it all was. I was expecting a remarkable conclusion at the end but Mitchell didn’t give me one. I am quite willing to accept that perhaps I just didn't ‘get it’ or perhaps Mitchell didn't want to give the reader all the answers. But while I thought the structure was cleverly written I fail to see why people make such a huge fuss of this book.

Would I recommend it? I think if your thinking of reading this then perhaps you would be better off reading other reviews rather than just going with my thoughts on this one.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 27 August 2010

The Angels Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I very much enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind earlier this year and I was very much looking forward to reading The Angels Game.

For those of you who have read The Shadow of the Wind, The Angels Game is set when Daniel's father was a young man. The book does not focus on Daniel's father; I am just giving you an idea of time-scale involved.

The main protagonist, David, is a struggling writer specialising in sensationalist novels. One day he is approached by a strange man offering a fortune to David if he writes a book which will have the ability to change people. It’s not long before David notices that sinister things are afoot with both the book he is writing and the very house he is occupying.

I really liked some of the characters in this and David himself is interesting and at times complex. For me though his sassy, but also spoilt, teenage housekeeper/assistant Isabella stole the book for me. I was also surprised to learn Isabella's identify and how she ties up with The Shadow of the Wind.

Once again Ruiz gives the reader a vivid, atmospheric and Gothic Barcelona. David spends large portions of the book running around Barcelona looking for clues and digging up the past as he goes. Unfortunately The Angels Game had a much slower pace which seemed to drag sporadically throughout the 500 pages as the story became more and more convoluted. Large parts of the plot were either not explained fully or were illogical and at times it felt like the book was rambling. The central romance between David and his lover Christina also fell a little flat for me but this might be because I could not see what on earth David ever saw in her or why he pursued her.
Despite my criticisms I still found this an engaging and at times an enjoyable read and I enjoyed Ruiz's writing enough to want to read the next instalment in this series.

Would I recommend this? If you enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind and want a similar atmosphere and to read the next instalment then yes. It is however worth noting that Zara from This Bookish Life read The Angels Game without realising that it was linked to The Shadow of the Wind so therefore couldn't compare and she really enjoyed it.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Thursday, 26 August 2010

BTT 55 questions from Jess

This meme is about a week old now but for fun I answered all 55.

1. Favourite childhood book?
The Adventures of the Wishing-chair by Enid Blyton
2. What are you reading right now?
See right
3. What books do you have on request at the library?
The Real Thing by Henry James, they have to get it out of storage for me.
4. Bad book habit?
Losing bookmarks, I'm forever buying more
5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville and The Rich Boy by F.Scott Fitzgerald
6. Do you have an e-reader?
Hopefully I will very soon. Ive had my eye on a kindle for a long time
7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
Normally one but sometimes Ill have both a hard read and an easier read on the go
8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
I read a lot more
9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far?)
I read loads more
10. Favourite book you’ve read this year?
The Great Gatsby, but there are loads I could have said.
11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Not often I admit
12. What is your reading comfort zone?
I don't particularly like Crime, Chick lit or fantasy so anything else
13. Can you read on the bus?
Nooooooo I get travel sick terribly
14. Favourite place to read?
One the sofa after my sons gone to bed
15. What is your policy on book lending?
I have a shelf on my bookcase that is solely for books which I want to lend out to various people.
16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
I used to but not any more
17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
No, what am I in school?
18. Not even with text books?
See above
19. What is your favourite language to read in?
English – being the only one I can read in
20. What makes you love a book?
If there's something in the book which is original and I haven't thought about before.
21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
I don't believe in forcing books onto people so Ill only recommend a book if I'm sure the person will love it.
22. Favourite genre?
Literary fiction
23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
I wish I got on more with YA books
Favourite biography?
I was enjoying Marie Antoinettes before I gave up
25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
I did read Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus when I was 14
26. Favourite cookbook?
The Essential Student Cookbook by Cas Clarke. I've never been a student but when I first moved in with Chris this book was invaluable. The recipes are stupid simple and use only the cheapest ingredients. There's even a section with a list of things everyone should have in their cupboards.
27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
Wedlock by Wendy Moore
28. Favourite reading snack?
Cup of coffee
29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
The Passage
30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
I don't read critics only my fellow book bloggers but on the whole I think I agree with the masses.
31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I don't think about this blog that seriously to get worried over things like this
32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
Russian without a doubt
33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
The Turn of the Screw – I know its only short but I really struggled to read this
34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
Les Miserables
35. Favourite Poet?
I'm not a poem person but I am making my way through a set of poetry books I won and am enjoying the Simon Armitage ones at the moment
36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
1 or 2
37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
38. Favourite fictional character?
At this moment in time Mary from Jamaica Inn springs to mind
39. Favourite fictional villain?
Cathy from East of Eden
40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
I try to bring something that's set in the country I'm visiting
41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
Oh months I'm sure
42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – I struggled and gave up exactly half way through
43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
If my sons awake then him. He also loves books and will constantly shove one in my hands when I'm reading. Or sometimes he will just snatch a book out of my hands making me feel like a guilty mother.
44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel?
45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
Marley & Me
46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
About £50 but this doesn't happen often
47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
If the thought 'maybe I should give up' enters my head when reading then normally thats the beginning of the end.
49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Yes although I have less than a bookcases worth
50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Give them away. But I'm like this in all areas of my life I'm not want you would call sentimential.
51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?
The Girl with the dragon Tattoo. The film was violent enough.
52. Name a book that made you angry.
Cant think of one
53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Tender is the Night
54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
The World According to Garp
55. Favourite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
The Sookie Stackhouse books although I haven't read the last three as they started to get quite samey

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Reading Dilemma N'3

Normally I have no qualms whatsoever in putting down a book I am not enjoying, I usually go by the wonderful 'Rule of 50' (If I don't like a book after 50 pages the book is consigned to the 'failure pile', soon to be shipped off to the literary purgatory of the local charity shop) However there is one book which consistently haunts me in my dreams; no matter how many times I try to put it down and forget about it, no matter how I long to send to it the failure pile, never to darken my bookcase again; I cannot do it.

It is in fact two books rolled into one; 'The Voyage of the Beagle' and 'The Origin of Species' both written by the illustrious Charles Darwin and they torment me.

Charles Darwin is a man I greatly admire. Of course he is not popular with everyone but in my opinion he is one of the greatest figures in human history. Darwin's most famous and influential work is 'The Origin of Species' the book in which he puts forward his controversial theory of evolution which caused a tremendous stir in the 19th century and, in some places, still does today.

There is only one hitch; I am not a scientific person, not in the least. My science grades at school were poor, I have very little interest in why an apple fell on Newton's head or how many atoms are in the average human body (7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 apparently!) a lot of what Darwin wrote I can't understand or it bores me. He was not a natural writer and his style is dry to say the least. He also flits from subject to subject very quickly making it difficult to get a grasp on what he is saying a lot of the time and the language is very archaic in places. The books together are 933 pages long with tiny print. I have reached page 325 and feel ready to have a stroke but I keep plodding on.

Should I continue reading this book? I don't honestly know but something is keeping me from putting it down. I feel I am reading it just for the sake of it but I can't get rid of the damn thing without feeling guilty.

They say nothing worth doing is easy but when it comes to books I beg to differ!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Siege by Helen Dunmore

While Chris has an interest in reading non-fiction books about the First and Second World War, my interest in this period tends to be confined to historical fiction. So after reading Jackie at farmlanebooks review of The Siege and then going shopping mad (and I mean mad) at thebookpeople.com I very quickly devoured The Siege.

Set during The siege of Leningrad which started towards the end of 1941, the book follows a small family which includes a child as they endure the worst of a Russian winter with no electricity or running water while living on their meagre rations of 250 grams of bread for a worker and 125 grams for a non-worker.

The siege of Leningrad lasted around 2 ½ years and saw the deaths of more than one million civilians from starvation. Very few supplies were able to get into the city and as well as this the civilians also had to put up with being shelled on a daily basis.

There are a couple of love stories within the book but once the worst of the Siege takes hold the only thing on anyone's mind is food and survival. These thoughts occupy the minds of the characters throughout much of the book, there are no thoughts for the future or who they think is winning this battle, the conversations and commentary is focused on the hunger, cold and rumours of where firewood can be found.

Parts of the book contains commentary from Pavlov; the nutritionist who tries over and over to make the figures work and ultimately decides the amount of rations each person can have. Aside from this though we get to see little of the bigger picture. We know the Germans are there because we read about the effects of their shelling but Dunmore does not show the reader the effect on the Germans at the front line. This is not a criticism, I think Dunmore was wise to do this. By focusing on the civilians she is able to allow the reader to really get to know the main characters and to get the reader to care whether they live or survive.

This is not a light subject but the pace of the book and the matter-of-fact way in which this is written makes this quite a fast read which I couldn't put down.

I would highly recommend this.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Vanishing

I haven't read many books as terrifying as this one, particularly one so short! From beginning to end it had me on the edge of my seat but not because of violence, the book is refreshingly devoid of it, but the author's masterful use of suspense and common fears among us all; What would you do if your partner went to buy something at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, and never came back? (I understand some will say “celebrate” but for most of us I imagine it would be a horrifying thought)

Rex and Saskia are a young Dutch couple on a road trip in France when the unthinkable happens; they stop off at a gas station to rest, Saskia walks to the station and disappears without any trace. There is so much tension within the book you could almost cut it with a knife (then tension I mean, obviously you can cut a book) The story jumps forward and we find Rex trying to move on with his life. He has a new fiancé and things seem to be going well however it isn't long before unpleasant memories and emotions begin to surface and we realise Rex hasn't gotten over it at all because, eight years on, Saskia's disappearance is still a complete mystery. Just when Rex has resigned himself to never knowing what happened to Saskia a mysterious man approaches and offers Rex the chance to find out what happened all those years ago...but at a price.

The story is straightforward, original and very intense. The short length of the book ensures it never gets bogged down in unnecessary detail and moves at a really good pace. I never got bored with it and finished it the same day I started it. The characters are genuine, well thought out and interesting.

If I had to criticise the book at all it would be that it was too short.

It is also a story that really sticks in the mind, which is good from the point of view that it is a good story but bad from the point of view that you don't want to take your eyes off your partner in public for a while after! My wife wandered off in the supermarket today, a bad habit of hers, and I must admit when I couldn't find her right away the book did spring to mind, albeit briefly (I'm not completely neurotic!)

Two movie versions have been made of the book; one is a Dutch movie made in 1988 the other is a Hollywood effort from 1993 starring Sandra Bullock, Kieffer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges. I haven't seen either of these but will keep my eye out.

Verdict 4/5


Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu

There were three reasons I picked this book up at the library.

1.The beautiful front cover. I mean, look at it.
2.It's written by a French pop star, Mathias Malzieu. I've never heard of him but still, it's quirky.
3.It has an endorsement on the back which states 'Mathias Malzieu is a Genius' by none other by Eric Cantona.

Well after all that I couldn't not read it now could I?

The Boy With The Cuckoo-Clock Heart is quite a sweet story at its heart (no pun intended)
Little Jack is born in Edinburgh with a frozen heart and is immediately saved by a doctor who implants a cuckoo-clock into his chest. This clock which needs to be wound daily, keeps Little Jack's heart beating and therefore keeps him alive if only he can keep to these rules;

FIRSTLY: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart.
SECONDLY: master your anger.
THIRDLY: never, ever fall in love. For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.

Well, you can guess what happens can't you?

The story is engaging and quite enjoyable with an overall message which I think most people could relate too. This is not for kids though due to the sexual references in places , for example I'm sure a child would ask for more clarification on Little Jack's hamster's name should they read it which would only lead to one very awkward conversation.

My favourite bit? When Little Jack sees a clock tower and asks "Is that my father?” Moments like that make the book more endearing.

Would I recommend it? If you happen to see it in your local library then it's worth getting for the novelty and pure delight but I wouldn't rush out and buy it.

Verdict 3/5

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

It took me quite a while to pick this one up and I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I began to read it.

The main protagonist is 12 year old David; he has just lost his mother who has been ill. After having his world turned upside down by his father's eventual remarriage and the birth of his brother, David retreats more and more into his books which he shared a great love for with his mother. After a particularly upsetting day for David he manages to find himself in a land of fairy-tales after stepping through a hole in the garden. He then has to navigate himself through this world in order to somehow find his way back and he starts to lose his innocence as he does so.

I tried to describe this book several times to my husband while reading it and in the end I realised that it reminded me of the films 'Pans Labyrinth', 'The Brothers Grimm' and 'The Never Ending Story' but far freakier and twisted.

This book is incredibly well written and structured as the author packs in the tiny details which makes the world David has entered come alive while still maintaining the fast pace of the book. There is some strong imagery throughout and most of the book creates some vivid scenes. The creatures David encounters are recognisable from old fairy-tales you would have read as a child but reworked to become more frightening and sinister. There is also however some light relief in places and David's encounter with the seven dwarfs (who seem hell bent on ridding themselves of Snow White) made me laugh out loud.

I admit that I lapped up the grim tales within the story with great glee, I revelled in the whole atmosphere of the book and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Would I recommend it? This is one I am sure I will re-read at some point so yes. This is essentially a coming of age story and one for adults only.

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

Friday, 20 August 2010

I Am Legend

I Am Legend is a classic science fiction-horror mix that turns the old monster story clichés on their heads; Is the line between good and evil so well defined? Is man versus beast so black and white?

For Robert Neville every day is a struggle for survival. He lives alone in the suburbs of an unnamed, post-catastrophe city. By day he roams the streets looking for supplies. By night he locks himself into his home and waits for the dawn. When darkness falls Neville's home is beset by a hoard of hungry vampires, all intent on feeding on Neville's blood.

The book is one of my favourites, I have read it several times and intend to read it again soon. The book challenges the reader to really think about Neville's situation. He is alone, but at the same time he isn't. He is fighting a constant battle not just against starvation and the vampires but against the onset of complete insanity brought about by a mixture of his desperate situation, loneliness and sexual frustration. Neville is a wonderful anti-hero; regularly drinking himself to oblivion, enraged by his inability to do anything but sit in his house every night listening to the vampires outside taunting him and trying to get in.

As the story develops Neville becomes more pro-active in his approach to the vampires. He tries all manner of methods for ridding himself of them such as hunting them during the daytime and studying exotic diseases to see if the vampires are caused by some kind of infection.

There is a great deal of originality; early in the story a female vampire notices Neville has made a small hole in his front door so he can watch them. She begins exposing herself in an effort to entice him out of the house.

There is even some humour to be found in the pages. An example would be the nefarious Ben Cortman, a man who was once Neville's neighbour and has long since become a vampire. Cortman remembers enough about Neville to taunt him perhaps more efficiently than the others with his constant refrain;

“Come out, Neville!”

Neville spends a lot of time hurting Cortman almost as a way of venting his frustration at the whole situation. Before the book ends Neville has run Cortman over in his truck, tied him to a chair and attempted to torment him with a cross and shot him several times.

The opening line of the story still sends a shiver down my spine

“On those cloudy days Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back”

The end of the book has a fantastic twist and I wouldn't dream of giving it away but I will say that the book is so much more than a horror story and has truly lasted the test of time because of this. Reading it now you would never guess it was written in the 50's. Although it is a cliché this is one of those occasions when an accurate phrase would be 'ahead of its time'

As for the recent Hollywood effort staring Will Smith...this is a perfect of example of when the book blows the movie clean out of the water. I won't even dignify the movie with listing all the ways in which it is bad and the book is excellent. All I will say is that the movie was just a mindless action film whereas the book forces us to take a look at how we perceive ourselves, our society and where we fit in the grand scheme of things.

Final rating 5/5


Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The Loving Spirit by Daphne Du Maurier

Every writer has to start somewhere. Daphne Du Murier was just 24 years old when she published her first novel; The Loving Spirit. Du Maurier obviously decided to jump right in at the deep end for her first literary achievement and while I liked the idea of the book, I thought it was incredibly ambitious and unfortunately I’m not sure Du Murier was able to pull it off.

The book is spilt into four parts and each part is told from the point of view of a different generation of the Coombe family starting with Janet Coombe. The narration is then passed over to her son Joseph, to his son Christopher and then finally Christopher’s daughter Jennifer completes the book. I thought this was a great idea as the reader got to see not only the changes in the family within each passing generation, but also the changes in the world around them. The book starts in the mid 19th century and ends during the 1920s when enormous changes throughout the world took place both socially and on an individual level with old fashioned attitudes dying out.

Unfortunately one of the main downfalls of this book is its size (or lack of.) The Book is only 400 pages long which means that each narrator only gets around 100 pages each to tell their entire life story from beginning to end. This means that the book feels very rushed. For example by page 24, Janet Coombe has given a brief outline of her childhood, fell in love with her cousin, married him and had her first child. Because of the rushed nature it also means that commentary on the world around them is only briefly mentioned in passing and is barely given any notice giving the impression that the last narrator is very much living in the same world as the first narrator.

There are some flashes of brilliance and some very good ideas contained here but unfortunately any point that Du Murier was hoping to make gets lost within the undeveloped family saga plot.

Would I recommend it? One for Du Maurier fans who are curious to read her first novel only.

Verdict 2/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Literary cliques

Please note that the following are not in any way annoyances of mine and nor will they cause me to throw a book down in disgust. No these are merely literary cliques which I have either thought of myself or noticed other people mention and is purely for fun.

1. The something’s Daughter/Wife

2. Interfering bossy mothers (normally coupled with a kind, silent supportive father)

3. Wise with a sharp tongue grandmothers (well a lot of Grandmothers IRL seem to be like this)

4. Character looking in mirror and appraising themselves thus giving the reader a description of the character.

5. Feisty Heroines – to be fair authors don’t get all that much choice in this. If they write a main female character that is quiet, polite and stays true to herself yet still prevails in the end then authors get accused of not writing good female characters. Or as in the case of Fanny Price, the character herself gets accused of having no backbone and being boring.

6. Main characters are quite often writers or aspiring writers. I am beginning to groan slightly when this happens now but it won’t spoil a book for me.

7. A supernatural element in a book which looks likely to be a ghost but then the author throws in doubt and makes it ambiguous so everyone is left wondering, was it or wasn’t it a ghost or was it in the main characters imagination. Hmm

8. Female characters that have to leave their great job in the city and after a while realise that their natural flair for dressing/cooking/baking/giving advice was actually a multi-million pound business just waiting to happen.

9. Woman loses job/gets divorced so moves to the country/goes travelling/goes to live in Italy and ends up happy at the end having met another (usually foreign) man.

10. The good old barking dog. I first saw this mentioned in this post from What Your Read and got me thinking about this while article.

There we go I have ten for now and seem to cover quite a lot of the types of books I read. I’m sure if I read more crime or chick lit there would be loads more.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 16 August 2010

Jurassic Park

A friend of mine noticed I was reading this book and said to me without hesitation "What's the point?" At first I wasn't quite sure what he meant; had he read the book himself and thought it was terrible? Or had someone he knew read it and told him so? Then it dawned on me; it's because it was made into a ground breaking film by Steven Spielberg.

Like everybody else on the planet I have seen the movie and enjoyed it very much (who can't enjoy seeing a lawyer getting eaten by a dinosaur?) but I can't see why a perfectly good novel should be ignored simply because Hollywood has had a crack at it.

I'm so glad I bothered with Jurassic Park because it turned out to be one of the best thrillers I have ever read; exciting, suspenseful, scary, original and very cleverly written.

I really don't think I need to bother giving an overview of the story as I imagine everyone knows it (unless they have been living under a rock since 1993) but I will say that the book is different from the film in many ways and the reader will be surprised to notice the differences.

The story moves along at a very nice pace and it doesn't feel like a 400 page novel at all. There is plenty of action and humour and the characters are all three dimensional, believable and interesting. The science behind the process of resurrecting dinosaurs is explained in some detail but not enough to send me to sleep and certainly not enough to distract the reader from the pages of dinosaur-related carnage that ensues when the arrogant John Hammond doesn't listen to advice that is given to him...

Of course the book isn't perfect; there are undoubtedly plot holes and some unanswered questions. Also the character of Lex is so irritating I was practically praying for a velociraptor to make a meal out of her. At certain points in the book I was holding my breath in horror (especially the part involving a waterfall and a very hungry T-Rex)

Overall a very exciting and ultimately satisfying read, I recommend it, even if you didn't like the film.

Verdict: 4/5

By Chris

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

You know how it is when a huge book comes along and everyone gives it rave reviews and says how brilliant it is. Then you inevitably get a handful of people who come along and cause a tremendous amount of annoyance to readers by spoiling the book. They do this by saying that the book left them indifferent or they cant see what all the fuss is about and thus confusing people who haven't read said book and who now don't know whether to buy it or not. Here comes the bombshell; I'm going to be one of the annoying people and am going to sidle over to be with the 'minority' on this one.

In case you aren't familiar with the story; it begins in a top secret lab located in the US. Government scientists are carrying out clandestine experiments on death-row prisoners and a six year old girl. The scientists are trying to find a way to make human beings live forever. The hapless prisoners are injected with all kinds of crazy stuff which turns them into weird, horrible vampire creatures (although the word vampire appears to be a dirty word in this book) while the six year old girl who has been given a slightly different strain of whatever the prisoners got seems to just have the benefits of living forever without the need for any tantalising human blood. Of course we all know what happens next; the prisoners manage to break out and most of the human population of the world are wiped out in short order.

The above describes the book fully and what a good book it was. Seriously, it was really entertaining, quite thrilling and I enjoyed reading all 246 pages of it. I would recommend it.

But hang about, what's this? Justin Cronin only decided to write another book another 500 pages long and tagged it onto the end of The Passage? OK. This isn't quite the case but it feels like it. The book then jumps forward about 100 years to some colony in the desert where, seemingly, the grandchildren of the last survivors are hanging onto life in their village/fortress type thing. This is the bit I didn't like so much; after all that time invested in the characters from the first part of the book the reader is suddenly introduced to a whole host of new ones which stilled the book while I read lots of new back-stories before the action could pick up again.

A lot of comparisons have been made with Stephen King's The Stand and since I read this earlier this year its still quite fresh in my mind. Yes, the first part certainly has strong comparisons but I'm going to leave it there as any comparisons with The Stand are not going to make The Passage look any better. Although comparisons with The Stand did fade as the book progressed, other comparisons such as I Am Legend, The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Village only popped up in its place. Lets face it; the idea of an army of monsters, created by scientists tinkering with biological agents, escaping and destroying the world isn't exactly original any more. Saying this there were few places in the book where it didn't remind me of something else I had either read or watched.

The story is a great idea (even if its not original) and parts of this book were done brilliantly but unfortunately segments of the second part of the book were slow going and contained characters I just didn't care about. Whenever one of the main characters were killed or went missing I just didn't care.

Would I recommend this? If you haven't read The Stand then I would recommend that over this one any-day. If you have read The Stand then read I am Legend and The forest of Hands and Teeth and then watch The Village and then you would have practically read The Passage anyway.

Verdict 2/5

Posted by Jess

Things we have learnt from books N'3

This is our 'hope to do this' weekly feature. Although authors like to entertain us or give us insights into other peoples lives and the human condition, sometimes they will educate us with a actual fact. After verifying a found fact (via the internet) we will share where we share what we have learnt from a book this week.

Number 3. What is a Douche from The World According to Garp.

I always thought that a 'Douchebag' was just an American insult like cooties, but it turns out that a Douche is a small devise which is used to clean the interior of a woman's lady bits. Douche's were used as a contraception before other forms of contraception became widely available and is the context of which a Douche is used in the World According to Garp.

Now a days the practice of 'Douching' is largely restricted to the United States although apparently the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services strongly discourages douching.

On another note I really didn't enjoy reading The World According to Garp and can't be bothered to write a review on it, has anyone else read this?

Friday, 13 August 2010

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I must have a lot of faith in Steinbeck. I have brought three of his books despite never having read any of his novels, normally I give an author a try once before buying their other books but I was convinced somehow that I would get on with Steinbeck's writing. I could have started with the much shorter Of Mice and Men but on this occasion I decided to jump straight in with the 600+ pages of East of Eden after being convinced by readers of this blog.

East of Eden follows two families; the Trasks and (to a lesser degree) the Hamiltons over three generations. This is an epic book that effectively tells the story of the families while also throwing up philosophical discussions and comments on human nature without being patronising.

I learn one piece of parenting advice from this book though, 'treat all your children equally or one of them will likely turn out to be a bad'un'.

What I wasn't expecting from this book was how easy it was to read. I don't know why but for some reason I expected to somehow have to work at the text but after a couple of chapters (which were hard to get into) I read through this book very quickly and found it quite a page turner. Steinbeck even left some cliffhangers at the end of some chapters leaving me to think 'Oh OK just one more chapter then'. Lets face it; there's nothing like a good family saga to keep a reader interested ;)

Of course there is plenty of other stuff within East of Eden's pages including man's struggle with both good and evil, where evil really stems from and the knock on effect of choices we make today. All the characters are flawed in their way (even the seemingly good and pure ones) and are three dimensional. The only exception to this is the character of Cathy Trask who is pure evil personified but whom I enjoyed reading about (almost like I couldn't look away.) Cathy's son Cal is probably the most complex character in the book as he struggles the most with his inner demons and he was also the character which I was most behind. Cal is flawed and is capable of being cruel when he wants to be but at the same time capable of great acts of kindness, perhaps because of this I wanted him out of everyone to choose to be a better man.

The Hamilton family is used to good effect as a contrast to the Trask Family and Steinbeck was also able to weave his own personal family history into the book through the Hamiltons. Like all epic stories told over generations there are the usual marriages, births and deaths and the dreaded sense that history can repeat itself. One of my favourite moments from the book is when Cal faces his mother and says "I don't have to be you." Wonderful stuff.

Would I recommend it? Oh yes – its 600 pages but it never drags and will give you plenty to think about.

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is the story of Sethe and the horrors she and her friends endured while working as slaves and the lives they try to forge for themselves afterwards. Sethe eventually managed to ran away from her life as a slave with her four children (one of whom she was carrying) but later when she realised she would be recaptured and her children would again be forced to live their live's as slaves, she began to harm her children and succeeded in killing one.

There is a supernatural element to the book as Sethe's murdered baby daughter haunts the house she lives in. The spirit of the dead child seems full of anger and rage. As Sethe continues living in her house with her surviving daughter she is cut off and ostracised from the community for her crimes and her life as a slave begins to be told in flashbacks.

These events were based loosely on a slave called Margaret Garner who did run away and then did kill her child when the house she was staying at was set upon by slave catchers and US Marshalls. More details on the life of Margaret and the events surrounding her recapture can be found here.

The setting for book alone immediately tells the reader that they are entering difficult and disturbing territory but this is not a book filled with gruesome horrors of slavery but rather more subtle questions are brought to the forefront; is a slave owner who treats their slaves well really better in principle as a slave owner who treats his slaves badly? Questions like these are pondered over by Sethe's friends as they think over and remember their experiences.

This is not an easy read because Toni Morrison really makes you work as a reader. The text is so dense and at times I had to re-read a paragraph several times in order to make sure I understood it. I was advised by Jackie at farmlanebooks to look up the sparknotes for this novel which I ended up doing as there were still bits of the story I was missing even though I was reading it very slowly and carefully. But despite this it never crossed my mind to stop reading, something always made me pick it up and carry on. Perhaps because this dense and heavy style of writing suited the story and the narrative.

This is a very rich and very layered book with some fascinating and indepth characters. I was quite amazed at how Toni Morrison was able to easily mix flashbacks, domestic life, horrors and supernatural elements while feeding the reader the whole story in pieces throughout. I felt a little exhausted after I finished reading it but in a good way.

Would I recommend it? Yes but be prepared to work at it.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 9 August 2010

The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne Du Maurier

This was my third Daphne Du Maurier novel which I am reading as part of the Daphne Du Maurier challenge. The Flight of the Falcon differs from the two previous Du Maurier novels I have read (Rebecca and Jamaica Inn) as this was published not in the 30s but in the 60s and is set in Italy as opposed to Cornwall where most of her stories are set.

The main character is called Armino Fabbio who works as a coach tour guide for American and British tourists. Fabbio is working in Rome when the novel starts and is run ragged by the timetable and the demands of his tourists. The first couple of chapters are actually quite comical as we meet the American lady who seems to think Fabbio cares about the impending birth of her grandchild, the two busy body English school teachers who makes the tour late one day because they were trying to find the owner of a stray cat, to the hopeless woman who cannot leave a hotel room or restaurant without leaving something behind.

However by chapter three a body of an old beggar woman (who Fabbio recognises) is found stabbed and the novel takes a sudden turn. Fabbio leaves Rome and returns to the city of his childhood; a dark, forbidding place. There he meets his long lost brother who isn't quite what he seems transporting the reader into more familiar Du Maurier territory.

The descriptions of the Italian city Fabbio returns to are superb, the dark narrow streets with their steep and perilous steps are all used to good effect to hide secrets and even a secret society. There was also familiarity in the two brothers Fabbio and Aldo. Fabbio is described as being short and he is also strangely sexless throughout which contracts to his older brother Aldo who towers over his younger brother and is obviously having sordid affairs. The more submissive personality of Fabbio compared with his dynamic, unscrupulous brother did put me in mind of Rebecca slightly.

Unfortunately there were plot elements which I couldn't quite believe and this book is about 50 pages too long so it began to drag during the final third part of the book. But as usual there was a good story with some interesting characters and some good twists and turns.

Would I recommend this? Not as your first Du Maurier read, no. However if you have already read Jamaica Inn and Rebecca this one makes a welcome change.

Verdict ¾

Posted by Jess

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Things we have learnt from books N'2

This is our 'hope to do this' weekly feature. Although authors like to entertain us or give us insights into other peoples lives and the human condition, sometimes they will educate us with a actual fact. After verifying a found fact (via the internet) we will share what we have learnt from a book this week.

Number 2. Army food can last a 100 years – from The Passage by Justin Cronin

There's a part in The Passage where a group of survivors are wandering around the desert when they stumble into a shelter which has standard Army pouch food containing the letters MRE. They then tuck in after being told quite confidently by one of the group members that even after 90 years 'Most are pretty good'. This seemed a little far fetched so I looked into it.

Well MRE does indeed stand for 'Meals ready to eat' and is used as army food, BUT the most they last for is 5 years or up to 10 years if kept at less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit which is way off from the 90 years in the book.

You could argue that The world in The Passage ends in the future and that maybe the Army by that time has invented food that lasts 90 years. Hmmmmmm well the exact year when everything ends is not given in the book but we do know that Jenna Bush is a state governor (give me strength.) Lets say Jenna Bush is therefore 50 years old when The Passage takes place (that seems like a good age for a Governor?) that would mean that the Army would have to invent this super food within 21 years.

Could be done but I'm going to argue and say why would the US Army do that? They are one of the most best equipped Armies in the world and certainly don't send any of their men away for anywhere near 90 years so really there's no need for them to invest loads of money developing this super-food.

Final Verdict – your wrong Cronin WRONG

Posted by Jess

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah

Its not often I remember where I first heard about a book but on this rare occasion I am able to give credit to Simon at Savidge reads for this one and his original review can be found here. Set in an Iranian house which is attached to a mosque this book follows the lives of the three families living there as they go about running the mosque and their other day to day business. Told over two generations starting from the late 70s, Iran itself goes through turbulent times and turns their lives upside down.

That's a very simple synopses but the book is actually quite complex in its own way while not being complicated to read. In fact apart from the first couple of chapters where I had a little trouble placing all the characters (of which there are a lot) I found this an easy and rich read.

I was initially worried that this was going to be quite a 'political' read but it really wasn't. Most of the book is focused on the family's local affairs where they run the mosque, home, bazaar, go on religious pilgrimages, go to school, make carpets etc. It is through these day to day activities where the reader slowly learns about this family's culture and way of life and how the political unrest will eventually affect them, also interwoven within this are Iranian poems, songs and stories from the Koran.

This book is sometimes told in a fable like manner and then towards the end of the book there is also some historical fiction brought in, making this book hard to define, but its certainly not predictable. The author does not let his own agenda get in the way of how the characters think or behave (the story is set in quite a conservative part of Iran) and the author never informs the reader whether something is right or wrong, he simply tells the story.

Would I recommend this? Yes, aside from the wonderful story which is told through generations, there is also an insight into Iran's way of life and modern history.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

About the author – I should mention a little about the author. Kader Abdolah is a pen name created in memoriam to friends who died under the persecution of the current Iranian regime was born in Iran. While a student he joined a secret leftest party fighting against the dictatorship and wrote for an illegal journal. In 1988, at the invitation of the United Nations, he arrived in the Netherlands as a political refugee. He now writes in Dutch.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Reading Dilemma N'2

Taste in books is such a personal thing. We all have very different opinions about what makes a good book and, of course, we all have our favourite genres. For this reason I don't think it's fair to force your personal taste in books onto other people and it irks me a great deal when people try to do it to me. By way of example; my wife doesn't particularity like fantasy books so the last book I would ever think of lending her would be one with a dragon or an angry looking dwarf adorning the front cover.

Anyway, a few days ago a work colleague whom I get on with very well came up to me and said “Hey, you like books don't you? Read this one; it's one of my favourites” almost immediately I break out in a cold sweat and find my eyes darting around the room, searching for the nearest door through which to make my escape whilst calling out over my shoulder “So long, sucker!” Alas he is blocking the only exit. I look down at the book he has thrust upon me then start making fevered excuses; “Well, thanks” I say, trying to sound sincere and genuine “But I already have about 30 books I have to read so it'll be ages before I get around to this one” Perhaps I was hoping he would take his book back once he realised it would be a long while before I would get to it. Not a bit of it. He says in such a tone of enthusiasm that I begin to feel something akin to complete despair “This is the best book I have ever read, it changed the way I look at things” I am now going into complete meltdown; I didn't ask to borrow this book, I don't want to borrow this book especially since it now becomes clear my friend loves this book and will be desperately offended if I don't like it. He even has the front to tell me (Not ask me, you understand, but TELL me) that I should put aside all my other books (including the one I have just started) and read his one immediately and, then he drops the bombshell, he has another one to lend me straight afterwards!!

I'm sure by now you are wondering what on earth the book is? It's called 'The Shack' by WM Paul Young and is described as 'Christian fiction'. Well, I am a Christian myself (I even go to church from time to time) but I have very little interest in these kinds of books and I feel more than a little annoyed that I am now expected to put down the book I am reading (and enjoying) In order to go through the potential ordeal of reading 'The Shack' before all the great books in my TBR pile. I am very unhappy about the whole situation especially since I didn't ask to borrow any books from him. Call me over dramatic but he is really testing our relationship!

Of course there's the added dilemma that I might not like it. I can hardly tell someone that I thought one of his favourite books was terrible so I have the added stress of having to tell him a little white lie and say something like “Oh it's alright but not my kind of thing really” (I'm certainly not going to tell him it changed my outlook in life)

Yesterday, two days after lending me the book my work colleague came up to me and asked me if Id read it yet. “No” I replied “I'm still reading Jurassic Park” “Oh no!” he exclaimed 'Oh yes' I thought 'and you'd better get used to the idea'

By Chris

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

So bad its good?

Two teenage lovers swim out off the Welsh coast, frolicking and laughing they have not a care in the world until suddenly from under the water, giant pincers grab them and pull them under. It was at this point when I realised that I was reading the book equivalent of a B movie.

OK so looking at the title of the book it was kinda obvious what kind of a read I was going to get, and I wasn't disappointed in that sense.

After the two teenagers go missing, the missing boy's uncle Cliff Davenport (a cheesy name if I've ever heard one) turns up in order to solve the mystery of his nephews disappearance. This Cliff character turns out to be quite a talented man to almost superhuman proportions. For a start he's around 35 years old and a Professor, although the fact that hes a professor has no bearing at all on the storyline at any point. So why mention hes a professor at all? Why try to get the reader to believe that Cliff really is a professor at 35 and an uncle to a young man in his late teens/early twenties. ESPECIALLY when at one point the young man before being eaten by a giant crab refers to his uncle as 'Dear old uncle Cliff' – hes 35!

Anyway back to Cliff's attributes. When the army is drafted in to deal with the problem of hoards of giant crabs attacking the welsh coast, who do they get to coordinate and come up with a plan? Why of course Cliff. When they need someone experienced to dive off points along the welsh coast looking for the giant crabs lair who they gonna call? Why its Cliff again. When a bomb needs to be planted to order to try and blow up the giant crabs who do they call in despite the fact they happen to have the whole Army on hand? Why in comes Cliff, of course (!)

Despite being a bomb disposal, diving expert professor Cliff also still manages to find the time to participate in two of the most god awful sex scenes I have ever read.

'Their lips met again, tongues probing and entwining. Both of them were experiencing the awakening of something which had laid dormant in them for so long. Rapidly they were getting out of control. Nothing else mattered . . . not even the giant crabs.'

Now what of the giant crabs? Well Cliff first estimates they are the size of 'sheep' but later when he actually sees them he admits that he was wrong and makes a more scientific observation 'Big as sheep!' Cliff Davenport laughed hysterically. 'They're as big as bloody cows'.

The crabs themselves do (believe it or not) have a 'leader' which is a lot bigger than the others and who Cliff names 'king crab'. Cliff also thinks that king crab has 'discovered a taste for human flesh' and seems to credit King crab with far more intelligence than perhaps he deserves.

'Of all tides to choose, a sea mist has to descend upon us now!' 'That's what King Crab was waiting for,' the professor commented. 'He's the most cunning enemy the world has ever met. And he doesn't intend to confine himself to the Welsh coast alone. I'd stake my bank balance on that.'

The book which is mercifully short, is also littered with loads of exclamations marks. A quick glance at the pages and I can count at least three on each page. On two separate occasions I even counted four within a sentence! But what is even more astonishing is that this book spawned four sequels and a prequel!

Would I recommend this? Well I won't lie, this book had me laughing out loud on several occasions so if you want the 'so bad its good' experience then go right ahead. But I warn you, its bad.

I will leave you now with my favorite quote which is spoken by Cliff after he has just participated in one of those terrible sex scenes I mentioned earlier.

'I'm more than glad I let you come with me tonight,' he whispered as he zipped himself up again. 'I'm afraid, though, that we must still keep an eye open for those crabs!'

Posted by Jess

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind is going to be one of four books in a series by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Angels Game being the second) Apparently each book can be read as a stand alone novel and in any order but once all read should fit together in what the author describes as a 'puzzle'. I think I was more intrigued by the idea of the four novels fitting together which was my reason for reading this rather than the rave reviews that The Shadow of the Wind has been getting.

Set in Barcelona after the Spanish civil war a young boy called Daniel finds a book in the 'Cemetery of Forgotten Books' called The Shadow of the Wind. After becoming captivated by this book Daniel tries to find other books written by the same author Julian Carax, only to find that there aren't any in existence. Daniel also discovers that someone else, a burn victim who carries the same name as the devil in The Shadow of the Wind has been hunting all the books written by Julian Carax and burning them.

There is a lot in this book, mystery, love, and coming of age. Daniel is a young boy in the beginning of the book and a young man by the end and the tone of the book changes appropriately to accommodate this.

The story unfolds quickly and Barcelona is used perfectly in this packed tale. During the day the characters do their jobs and get on with the mundane day to day stuff, at night the mist seeps in and the story then fills with faceless men, sadistic police officers and people hiding in the shadows, there is even a creepy old mansion to boot. Interweaving through all this there is a lot of humour and some romance as Daniel comes of age. There are a lot of characters but for me Daniels friend Fermin, (a man who when we first meet him is living on the streets) was the best character and he certainly made me chuckle a few times with his 'rants' about subjects ranging from love to crime.

This book has been a huge success and has been given good reviews but there have been some criticisms which I have pondered over. This book is certainly filled with its fair share of melodrama and its certainly not perfect but I don't want to dwell on this. The book is filled with enough atmosphere and has some well crafted characters which kept my interest and makes me want to read The Angels Game.

Would I recommend it? Yes, aside from the rave reviews this book is packed with so many different elements that it would appeal to most people.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

About the author – The Shadow of the Wind is Carlos Ruiz Zafon's first adult novel but fifth book, his four previous novels were YA novels and were not translated into English at the time those books were published. I'm assuming because of the success of The Shadow of the Wind but one of his earlier YA books The Prince of Mist has now been recently translated into English.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Things we have learnt from books N'1

This is our new 'hope to do this' weekly feature. Although authors like to entertain us or give us insights into other peoples lives and the human condition, sometimes they will educate us with a actual fact. After verifying a found fact (via the internet) we will share what we have learnt from a book this week.

Number 1. Water distillation of perfume learnt from Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Most essential oils are extracted using the above method. Steam is passed through the material containing the required scent causing the plant tissues to break down. The essential oils and water released are collected and cooled and the essential oil separates and is isolated.

Steam distillation was invented by the Persian chemist, Ibn Sina in the early 11th century for the purpose of extracting essential oils.

Today more synthetic perfume products were used in place of certain hard to find or expensive ingredients. On rare occasions, some of the big perfume houses still use some botanical oils combined with aroma chemicals in some of their mainstream modern perfumes. But today natural and niche perfumers are just about the only ones who make perfumes in the classic style.

Posted by Jess