Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Deadwood by Pete Dexter

I know there has been a hugely successful TV programme based on this book but it was one that passed me by, so I read Deadwood with no pre-conceptions and without any TV screen characters to compare I with.

Set in Deadwood, the novel reads more like a collection of interlinking short stories rather than a novel with a fast paced over-arching plot. Each chapter focuses on a particular character and contains its own mini story which often jumps rapidly forward in time. The dialogue and the study of the different characters personalities are given centre stage here rather than any huge gun battles or romances.

One of the main draws of Deadwood is the use of real life characters and events such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hicks which adds an historical feel and lifts it from being a solely 'western' novel. The town and the landscapes are well drawn as is the dialogue and the rapidly ageing characters. The friendships between the male characters are particularly touching and believable and the novel (as seems to be common in the Western genre) contains some good humour.

However overall this is a novel which I feel very indifferent to. It was worth reading and there were parts I enjoyed very much but the lack of plot direction and some of the relationships between the male and female characters stopped me ever really fully immersing myself into the whole atmosphere of the book. For quite a short book it contained quite a lot of sex which doesn't bother me but why put loads of it in when other plot elements seemed to go nowhere?

One for people who are interested in this period of history and want to read it for the historical details or are looking for a more literary western.

Posted by Jess

Monday, 30 May 2011

Gone to Texas by Forrest Carter

I went looking for this book after seeing the Clint Eastwood movie version named 'The Outlaw Josey Wales'

Josey Wales is an ex-Confederate guerilla turned fugitive. He joined the Confederacy after his family were murdered in cold blood by Union troops. When the war ended Josey refused to surrender and goes on the run in an attempt to escape to Texas, a haven for outlaws. A trail of carnage follows in his wake as desperate men confront him to gain reward money.

The book doesn't seek to challenge stereotypes or change the genre, it's just a good old fashioned western story with plenty of duels, wonderfully detailed landscapes and cutting remarks made around a mouth full of chewing tobacco. When Josey isn't plugging holes in bad guys or spitting tobacco juice he forms bonds of friendship with a group of fellow wanderers he unwillingly picks up along the way. The book is entertaining and satisfying in an honest way, it doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

I don't often read Western novels but after finishing this and having recently read the excellent 'True Grit' by Charles Portis I will definitely be reading more.

This copy includes 'The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales' the sequel to 'Gone to Texas'

Final verdict 4/5

By Chris

Friday, 20 May 2011

Ah life has been busy lately. Things at work and home has made me suddenly realise that this blogging business is the one thing that can get neglected.

On a REALLY annoying note, the 'g' key on my computer will only work if I jab the key very hard about six times, I'm trying therefore to avoid words with 'that letter' in it. New keyboard is now on the ever ongoing list of things to do and might get done before the year is out. Did get a new kindle from Amazon though after my old one broke (customer service is fantastic)

If it sounds like I need a holiday then you'd be right. Thankfully tomorrow that is exactly where we will be going. We are going to stay in a very rural cottage somewhere in Normandy where I'll have to drive on the wrong side of the road for a week. Last time I visited Normandy I was on the French exchange when I was about 14, a trip I remember very little of apart from playing copulas amounts of Mario Brothers and some cracking food.

So before we go and because I haven't updated for a while I thought I'd do Simon's from Stuck in a Books meme thingy.

1.)The book I'm currently reading: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I'm halfway through part two and so far its very good, lots of in-depth conversation on how great it is to be Russian. Not a holiday read though so I'll be leaving it behind.

2.)The last book I finished:

Deadwood by Pete Dexter – well the Calamity Jane depicted in this was very different to the Jane I encounted at EuroDisney a few years back.
Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett- enjoyed very much this non-fiction account of Henry VIII first wife
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – liked it but it not love it

3.)The next book I want to read:

These are the five I have picked to go on holiday with,

All quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – one I have always wanted to read
Miss Pettirew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson – sounds like good holiday reading
The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley – family sagas are always good for trips
Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore – I like Dunmore, she always takes me to a dark place
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – might be a bit much, two war books so this is at the bottom

4.)The last book I bought: all brought yesterday taking advantage of a certain bookshop's 3 for 2 offer

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman – I hate the title, I hate twee titles like this but pretty cover no?
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss – this was brought as a result of all you bloggers who reviewed Great House in which you declared The History of Love as much better.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – if it fiction and set during the war, I'm sold.

5.)The last book I was given:

If your reading this Thomas from My porch, it arrived safely the other day. I will be reading The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner in time for International Anita Brookner Day on the 16th July. I know nothing about this book and I'll not be reading the back or anything.

So we will be back at the end of the month where there will be a serious backlog of reviews. Now I must go back over this article and fill in all the 'g's
Posted by Jess

Monday, 16 May 2011

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

First published in 1938 'Who Goes There?' has become a classic of science fiction literature and deservedly so.

The book has been adapted for film twice; in 1951 as 'The Thing from Another World' and again (more famously) in 1982 as 'The Thing' directed by John Carpenter. It was the latter version that sparked my interest in finding the original book.

An American research team in Antarctica discover a spacecraft buried beneath the ice. Inside are the frozen remains of one of the 'passengers'. The team decide to bring the remains back to base and try to thaw them out. Somewhat predictably the remains aren't quite as dead as the team believed and before long it escapes, but it doesn't go far. The creature attacks, absorbs and mimics any life form it encounters. Once it has absorbed a life form it imitates them perfectly down to the last detail making it practically impossible to tell who has been got to and who has not. Before long a desperate struggle for survival begins as the men are torn between the desire to preserve their own lives by escaping and the duty to prevent the creature from reaching any human civilisation.

The book is barely more than 100 pages long but despite its short length it is very frightening and suspenseful. The feelings of dread and paranoia are brilliantly done and the creature is well thought out and put together. I loved the fact that two people would be having a conversation and you have no idea if one of them is a monster or not. Some of the characters are driven completely insane by the situation adding further to the danger of their predicament. Unlike Carpenter's 1982 version the book is not particularly gruesome or violent and most of the horror is suggested rather than spelled out on the page. Considering it was printed in 1938 it has aged remarkably well.

I loved the way the author allows the reader to get right into the story as if the reader themselves are one of the team. You are just as much in the dark as the characters are enabling the reader to really get caught up in the feelings of helplessness, frustration and apprehension. A brilliant work of suspenseful science fiction highly recommended.

Final verdict 5/5


Monday, 9 May 2011

D-Day by Anthony Beevor

Anthony Beevor is one of a kind. He has the knack for writing historical books without bogging down the reader in needless detail or boring, inconsequential anecdotes. Beevor's writing is entertaining and factual, his subject matter is brutal, tragic and terrible.

As the title suggests the book is all about that pivotal moment in history when the largest invasion fleet in the history of mankind arrived on the shores of Nazi occupied France to fight one of the most brutal and merciless battles of the entire war. The fighting on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches was just the beginning of the battle for Normandy which is clear when you see the book is over 500 pages long. Photographs are included which always helps the reader to visualise what was going on however I feel it is impossible to do so without having been there in person, which I am quite thankful for. One thing that Beevor's books are certainly first class at is showing the world how unspeakably bloody and terrible war is.

Beevor never loses sight of the fact that it is soldiers who win battles, not generals. As a result he always puts the reader down in the front line with the troops. He writes alot of the mutal sufferings of soldiers and civilians alike. He tries to remain impartial; He writes about the massacres and murders carried out by the Nazi SS but also includes accounts of Allied soliders killing unarmed German soliders trying to surrender and even those already taken as prisoners.

The book was fasinating and I'm really glad I read it. I was expecting to read about Nazi atrocities so for me one of the most shocking parts of the book is how many French civilians died at the hands of the Allies as a result of indiscriminate artilliery shelling and bombing. Caen in particular was controversial for being so heavily hit with high explosives for arguably no good reason. Many French people died unnecessarily.

Altogether it was a brilliant read and certainly worth picking up if you have an interest in the Second World War. You won't find better than Anthony Beevor.

Final verdict 4/5

By Chris

Friday, 6 May 2011

Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser

I picked this book up originally because I quite enjoyed the Sophia Coppola film staring Kirsten Dunst. I know many critics panned it and it only told Antoinette's story of life at court and missed out the whole getting her head shopped off bit, but I liked it. The film also contained parts that seemed so far fetched that I just had to find out if they were true (they were).

One of these moments was a bizarre ceremony involving the Austrian Maria Antonia being handed over to the French in preparation for her marriage to the Dauphin of France. She was made to strip off all her Austrian clothes, say goodbye to her Austrian attendants and then was dressed in French clothes before entering France as Marie Antoinette. She was not even allowed to take her Austrian pug.

This was the beginning of her life in the French court at Versailles and it seems Marie had a hard time of it from the beginning. Called 'that Austrian woman' by the French people while at the same time frustrating the Austrians for having little political impact in the French court, she also had to contend with a sexless marriage and a very public court where all her daily movements were watched closely by courtiers.

Antonia Fraser paints Versailles as being a bit like living in the Big Brother house.

'Ceremonies framed the royal day; these included the ritual of morning dressing at which the formal toilette was performed which much assistance, and the ritual evening undressing. The Rights of entry to these ceremonies, which despite their apparently intimate nature had nothing private about them, were prizes as an indication of personal prestige.'

Meals were also conducted in public and it was not unusual for the Royal family to be dinning while crowds of onlookers ventured in and out of the room stopping to watch. Its no wonder that Marie commented to her mother 'I put on my rouge and wash my hands in front of the whole world.'

Of course Marie Antoinette's main role was of course producing children, in particular a new Dauphin. But for some reason the marriage was not consummated for seven years. Fraser does try to speculate why this was the case but its not something that we will ever know. What is clear is that during these seven years Marie surrounded her self with a close circle of friends and spent a large part of her time gambling and generally enjoying herself.

When the marriage was eventually consummated and Marie gave birth she appears to have gone through a change as she started to focus more on her children and her image of a mother. Not that the business of child birth was any more private than her day-to-day life, the room was filled with courtiers at the time and a few onlookers even made it to the inner rooms and were found 'perched aloft' in order to get a good look.

The strength of this book are the descriptions of court life at Versailles and these were the most enjoyable parts of the book to read. While I enjoyed the second part of the book which focused on the Royal family life during the French revolution, I didn't find there was quite enough information on the background of the revolution in order to give me any great deal of understanding as to how the Queen met her fate. The average life of a poor person living in France at that time was not really mentioned, nor is there any analysis of the general culture or of the revolution. Fraser is very reluctant to put any blame at all on either her subject, there are not even sufficient reasons given as to why the King and Queen were incarcerated or beheaded.

The Queens last few years were quite detailed and included her life in prison and the reasons she did not escape (that would have meant leaving her children) its just a little politics in this section would have helped me to understand more why she was there in the first place.

Overall this is an extremely well researched book and Fraser seems to have made the most of all the source material she had to hand. The book is not too difficult to read although a book of this size and subject is never going to be described as an 'easy' read. I found the majority of it quite fascinating and I would most certainly read another of Fraser's books (the one the six wives of Henry VIII appeals.)

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Snowman by R.L Stine

Looking back on my childhood I believe they were happy times; no job, not too much pressure, a lot more free time and no 'Dark Romance' or 'Paranormal Erotic Romance' novels. The trashy teen novels of my day were 'Point Horror' stories and I can remember enjoying them. Point Horrors were always a bizarre cross between a 'Scream' movie and any 'Scooby Doo' episode; Teenage kids are attacked and often gruesomely murdered by some benevolent force which always turned out to be one of their own group gone crazy with a kitchen knife. The stories were always predictable and short but I remember being entertained by them.

I scoff at some of the trash kids find exciting and worth reading these days and fool myself into believing teen horror stories were so much better when I was young so I reacted with genuine interest when my wife gave me a copy of a 'Point Horror' story printed in 1991 she found in a charity shop.

'The Snowman' is about a teenage girl named Heather who lives with her uncle and aunt after the death of her parents in a car accident. She has a boyfriend called Ben and works in a local diner. One day she meets a mysterious boy with a shock of bright white hair who tells her his name is 'Snowman' of course Heather instantly falls head over heels for him (despite knowing absolutely nothing about him, not even his real name) and soon kicks the hapless Ben into touch clearly not aware she is a character in a point horror novel and will soon be stalked by a crazed killer who, I was willing to guess, would turn out to be the mysterious Snowman all along.

The storyline is terrible and very predictable. I saw what was coming about 20 pages before it actually happened. The story is supposed to be horror and yet I was not frightened for one moment throughout the whole book. Nothing even mildly horror related actually happens until page 71 by which point I had almost lost the will to live. What is the point of this horror book? (spot the deliberate pun)

The characters are all two dimensional and boring, even the murderer. Heather is an obnoxious cow who is easy to dislike right from the beginning. Some of her more sparkling personality traits include being; selfish, lazy, ignorant, dishonest, short-tempered, paranoid, ungrateful and stubborn. She divides her time between drooling over 'Snowman', fantasising about murdering her uncle and whining. I took an almost instant dislike to her which remained with me throughout the entire book. I prayed that she would be dispatched presently but alas it was not to be. The plot was ridiculous and laughable but I wasn't laughing much, just wincing a lot.

Looking back I am almost ashamed that I ever found books like this entertaining. I can't say I've read all of them but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they are all as bad as this one. I don't approve of the practice of book burning but for the Point Horror series I am more than willing to make an exception. The futility of youth!

Still, there is always Dark Romance...

Final verdict 1/5


Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan

Taken from the Amazon description

Gwenni Morgan is not like any other girl in this small Welsh town. Inquisitive, bookish and full of spirit, she can fly in her sleep and loves playing detective. So when a neighbour mysteriously vanishes, and no one seems to be asking the right questions, Gwenni decides to conduct her own investigation. She records everything she sees and hears: but are her deductions correct? What is the real truth? And what will be the consequences of finding out, for Gwenni, her family and her community?

I don't normally copy and paste book synopses but I did for this one because when I first read the above I kinda groaned and thought 'oh not another plucky girl playing detective book' (not that I read many of those, but it just didn't sound very original.) But it had been on my shelf for a while and has some brilliant reviews so I gave it a shot.

The book is more about a small community rather than individuals or a missing neighbour (which only plays a small part in the book). Set in a small Welsh village in the 1950's, Gwenni introduces her family and the more colourful characters in the village she inhabits. Its the kind of village where everyone goes to church, everybody knows everyone else's business and gossip is rife.

The writing could be described as vibrant and charming, its an easy read and one to curl up with. When Gwenni first introduces herself and claims that she can fly in her sleep I did wonder where it was going and what kind of book this was going to be. As it turns out Gwenni does need to escape in her dreams as a way of making sense of the very adult world around her. Its not exactly a coming of age story but more about Gwenni learning about the adult village life and the harsh life lessons (and skeletons) that entails.

This turned out to be a real gem of a book and one I really enjoyed.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess