Wednesday, March 31, 2010

book review - Solar - Ian McEwan

"Beard was not wholly sceptical about climate change. It was one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action."

This book, with its tactile black cover, arrives as the first major book of the year in terms of the hype and expectation that one of our great writers is serving up his latest offering.

Bearing in mind McEwan's last book was the slim On Chesil Beach, which I felt was 80% about one moment and then had an ending that faded and ran too fast, it was going to be interesting to see what Solar was all about. At 283 pages you expected a start, middle and ending and they were delivered. Split into three parts the years go by and the attitude towards global warming becomes more cynical and opportunistic.

At the centre of what is often a farce is the Nobel prize winning physicist Michael Beard who is introduced as his fifth marriage starts to fall apart. Driven by his passions for sex, booze and crisps Beard lurches through the collapse of his marriage, the death of a colleague and the framing of his wife's former lover with all the lights showing green. In between he does his climate change credentials the world of good by going out to be threatened by polar bears in the artic.

But sensing an opportunity to make some money out of solar power Beard steals his dead colleagues ideas and launches himself into a career as a climate change believer. It is not that he doesn't believe but he is selfishly looking for a role for himself to make something out of it. Mixed in with his preaching about climate change is a need for self satisfaction that is physically shown in his determination to chase skirt and eat and drink himself to death despite doctor's warnings.

Most of the coverage and interviews I've seen with McEwan have focused on the way he uses humour to almost spring a surprise on the reader about the importance of climate change. If there is a personal takeaway from this book it is the way that despite being clearly a clever man Beard spans the nine years of the story getting fatter, more unhealthy and into deeper trouble in his personal relationships. If you want to change, whether that be yourself or the planet, you need to start now. The slide of Beard towards death is a powerful reminder for us all.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Well done World Book Day

If one of the aims of Worlds Book Day was to get children enthused about reading then it certianly seems to work.

After picking up the Dinosaur Cove book by Rex Stone I have since gone out and bought the first ten in the series and am working my way through them in my night time reading sessions. We would probably never have come across the books without the prompt of World Book Day.

Well done World Book Day.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Solar

There is a humour here that is quite infectious and McEwan must have had fun writing this.

An aging scientist who's marriage and career have seen better days finds himself involved with an organisation that is connected with global warming. As he struggles to sort out his own life the prospect of Michael Beard ever actually doing anything for the planet seems a remote one.

But things have a funny habit of falling into place for Beard and as the second half of the books looms large so does the prospect that the main character can save himself and perhaps do some good for the planet as well.

Review will come on completion soon...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

bookmark of the week

This bookmark came with some books that were kindly sent to me by my friend from twitter Stuart Allen. he is also a fellow lit blogger with the excellent blog Winston's Dad.

This is a leather bookmark showing some of the main features of York Minster. I haven't been there for years but hope to go back one day and this bookmark is a good reminder of what treats lie in store.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Blackwells, London

In days gone by you could zig zag down from Tottenham Court Road to Leicester Square going from bookshop to bookshop. With Borders having closed the zig zagging is now slightly more spaced out with Foyles then Blackwells the places to start from.

Blackwells still has a feel of being a bookshop targeting academics but in terms of choice it is hard to beat it and hard to come out without having spent a fair bit of money.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Slow going

Not been a great week reading wise with just the one book consumed - Child 44 - and hopes of anything else being added to the completed pile this week fading fast.

Conscious though that there were moments last year when the pace dropped and it caused me to get slightly down about it. But I'm refusing to feel like that this time so despite not getting through more there are a couple of books on the go and next week should be better.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Child 44

As a fan of Russian history anything set against the backdrop of a turbulent twentieth century Russia has the potential to be very good.

Potential of course is one thing but it will only blossom into the completed thing if the historical accuracy is there and if the facts are lightly interweaved with decent plot and narrative.

Half way in you have to say that Rob Smith manages pretty well. At first he darts around with both the history and location and characters are being introduced at a rate that makes it difficult to get bedded down with ther story. But once into the main character Leo things start to unfold.

In a society where even the executioners are being watched and everyone is guilty without evidence what hope is there for a man discovering the state has lied to him all of his life?

More soon...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

bookmark of the week

Not sure if I have blogged this before but it is a bookmark with all of the Swiss Canton flags on it. It's borderline naff but what pulls it back is the way that it is reasonably made out of metal.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - The Bookshop on the Heath, Blackheath

This bookshop specialises in old books and has been a source of some real treasures as well as good old Penguin paperback at three for £5 or thereabouts. It also sells posters and is a wonderful place to browse and spend some time in Blackheath, South East London.

Friday, March 19, 2010

book review - Cop Killer - Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

"There seemed to be no one within the police administration capable of grasping the simple truth that violence breeds violence and that, in fact, it was the police who had struck the first blow."

The reason why the crime books penned by husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are so enjoyable is because they are not just about crime and detection.

This is a book that takes you back into the 1960s and 1970s Sweden a country that suffers from suicides, gun crime and has a police force that lacks popularity. Part of the problem with the police is of course the involvement of guns and the response from the criminals who have become increasingly violent.

The book starts with just such an example with a petty bank robber who has killed a woman during a robbery because he had taken a gun along to the crime. But quickly the action shifts towards the countryside as Beck is sent to solve the dissapearance and then confirmed murder of a local woman.

In the one horse town Beck finds a different Sweden where the police are part of the community and crime has not taken over society. But even in that location there is a chance for Beck readers to become acquainted with the killer from the first book in the series and the murderer from the third. These figures are there perhaps to confuse and distract as much as to show a dedication by Sjowall and Wahloo to dig back into the rich world they have created.

If there is a dominant theme in the book, which has already emerged in the The Locked Room, it is the amount of time Beck has to spend fighting his superiors and dealing with politics. Crime solving by numbers means that innocent people are going to be sent to prison and Beck and his colleagues are resorting to using their basic police skills to outwit their superiors as well as protect the public.

This book, the ninth in a ten book series, is a return to the form of the first book in the series and by the end you are gladly immersed with the characters that you have come to care about, sympathise with and want the best for.

Onwards to the end which will be a mixed experience as reading these crime books has been great.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The crime pile starts to polarise

As I started to pile up the books for a little spell of crime reading what became clear is not only the number based in Scandinavia but also the popularity of the genre of historical thrillers.

The Scandinavian box was ticked by Swedes Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with the Martin Beck books and Norwegian Jo Nesbo with Redbreast.

Historical thrillers are going to be represented by Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith set in 1950s Russia and 1930s Berlin is recreated in If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. Interesting to see how murders are solved in the times of Stalin and Hitler.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Cop Killer

one of the tricks that you must be allowed to play after you have reached the ninth book in a series is to reintroduce some of the characters from the earlier books.

So the killer from the first Martin Beck book reappears here and is in the frame for another sex murder. But neither Beck or his friend Kollberg can believe that the man is innocent and against a backdrop of political pressure the two men delay putting an innocent man behind bars.

Sjowall and Wahloo are able to set the action away from Stockholm in the countryside where a murder makes big news providing a contrast with which to make points about the decline of life in 1970s Sweden.

The police are despised and the criminals are getting more trigger happy making it increasingly difficult for those that disagree with the questions of the police being armed.

A review follows soon...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

book review - The Summer Book - Tove Jansson

"The wind blew and blew. The wind was always blowing on this island, from one direction or another. A sanctuary for someone with work to do, a wild garden for someone growing up, but otherwise just days on top of days, and passing time."

Once you get used to the idea that this is a series of little stories about what happens in the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter on a small island over the course of the summer you get the rhythm of this book.

It reminds you of your own experience of childhood when the garden became a world in itself and you spent day after day out there in the sunshine exploring ant kingdoms and setting up little worlds of your own.

The same is here with Sophia and her grandmother living an intense relationship both in terms of the daily exposure to each other as well as the limitations of space due to the small island they live on.

They start to create their own worlds on the island with the trees, flowers and sea all having a significance for them.

"No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones. Sometimes they are as thing as needles, extremely fine and delicate, and have to be handled with great care. Sometimes they are large, heavy thighbones, or a cage of ribs buried in the sand like the timbers of a shipwreck. Bones come in a thousand shapes and everyone of them has its own structure.
Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest."

Uniting the collection of stories about what happens during the summer, with new neighbours, a storm and the father's determination to grow plants on the island, there are a few unifying themes.

Firstly, the relationship between Grandmother and Sophia is key with the elder not only understanding the younger and as a result carefully guiding her through what could be difficult moments of temper and stroppiness but there is also a dimension of immaturity to the old woman as well. Living with the six year-old, who seems to be her main source of company, keeps her young and encourages her to act out the dreams of childhood.

Second, the island with the summer house which is so well described it is the most important character in the book. The ravine where they go to hide and Grandmother smokes down to the magic forest and the mossy turf blown away in the storm. It is the island that acts as a backdrop to the story along with the house. They are special because they make this story so special setting the adventures in suburban back garden would lose the intensity that comes from being on a small island surrounded by the sea.

Finally, the time of year is important because the arrival of summer starts the book and the approach of its end causes the house to be shut up and for the adventures on the island to end. The weather is predictable enough to allow them to stay on the island but still able to throw up surprises with a fantastic storm and days of drought.

This is one of those books that I suspect is going to burrow deep into the sub conscious and inspire summer holidays and dreams for many years to come.

Monday, March 15, 2010

It will be a crime to read in the weeks ahead

As the book pile starts to climb upwards I've decided the next couple of weeks will be dedicated to reading crime books.

So on the reading pile are:

Cop Killer
by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the ninth and penultimate book in the series of books they penned about a Swedish detective.

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill also sounds like it will be a good read.

All The Colours of the Town
by Liam McIlvanney looks good about a hack in Scotland and then there are various others that I might well add to the list.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

bookmark of the week

Never gone for one of these bookmark and calendar combination things but this was in the sale and some of the images of old maps are worth getting. Intend to use a few of these long after 2010 has been and gone.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Sussex Stationers, Bexleyheath

I don't live that far from Bexleyheath and there is still a Sussex Stationers there. A lot of the branches, including the one near where I work closed down last year. Although it is not a great bookshop in terms of range it does have one attribute worth going in for and that is it discounts new books. So in terms of getting something topical to read it is a good option.

This pic, which I garnered from the web, is not my local branch but gives you an idea.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Summer Book

There is always something slightly difficult about reading a book that has been described as a 'masterpiece'. You start looking for the signs of brilliance from the start and when they don't instantly fail to appear you start to worry.

In some ways what takes some time is to get into the rhythm of this book. Just like a long slow summer holiday this is a collection of experiences enjoyed by the two main characters the Grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia.

They live together along with Sophia's father, who remains in the background, on an island that is so small they know every inch of its rocky and mossy landscape. They create their own worlds, myths and traditions as the summer unfolds...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

book review - The Professor + The Housekeeper - Yoko Ogawa

"Everything around us was glowing in the sunlight; even the dried sheels of the insects floating in the fountain seemed to glitter. The most important of the Professor's notes - the one that read 'My memory only lasts eighty minutes' - had come loose, and I reached over to adjust the clip."

There are more than a few moments when the Professor explains to his housekeeper about his obsession with perfect numbers that you are transported back to a maths classroom and feelings of inadequacy return to the surface. But very quickly you start to appreciate and understand why numbers can be so attractive and that side of the story becomes more background noise rather than in the foreground.

The foreground is dominated by three characters - The Professor, the housekeeper and her ten year-old son. The Professor is a mathematical expert and managed to shine in both his native Japan and at Cambridge before being involved in a car accident that gave him brain damage and an 80 minute memory.

To compensate he covers himself with notes that are designed to remind him of what he is doing day today as he keeps going back to the start goldfish style every 80 minutes.

You expect the relationship between the housekeeper and the professor to grow and perhaps at moments even wish for his memory problems to be overcome. But the key to the relationship is the son. The old professor loves children and responds to the 10 year old in a way that has eluded the housekeeper.

But as the friendship between the three grows with the young boy enjoying the fatherly affection from the Professor absent in his own life and the housekeeper discovering a side to herself she had locked up in the pressure to look after her son it is broken up by the housekeeping agency.

The friendship is not seen for what it is and the housekeeper is moved onto another account and with his memory problems the professor can do very little to defend the friendship.

When they do overcome the resistance the cynicism that has existed is removed and in a very moving conclusion you are reminded of the power of literature to provoke feelings in a reader that can be very profound.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Professor + The Housekeeper

At the start I thought this book was going to fairly cold and unemotional about the relationship between a maths professor and his housekeeper.

As a result of an accident the professor can only remember things for 80 minutes and is covered with notes top jog his memory. But he manages to build a relationship with the housekeeper and introduces the single mother of a ten-year old boy to the wonderful world of numbers.

The professor takes refuge in numbers but also believes that to understand them is to get a glimpse of what is written in God's notebook. I'm finding, even as a completely non mathematical person, that the relationship between the two is starting to become compelling as the son becomes the professor's friend.

You want it to have a happy ending but because of the problems with the memory that seems to be very unlikely...

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The silver lining

Yesterday I managed to tear the ligaments in my right foot and have since been hobbling around on crutches. It has been very painful but there is one clear benefit to the injury. Once I have managed to discharge the responsibilities expected of someone working from home I have been able to read.

In the last couple of days it has been a pleasure lying down with the right foot elevated reading some books. i would never recommend tearing ligaments but the silver lining has been great.

Monday, March 08, 2010

book review - All the Conspirators - Christopher Isherwood

"'You shouldn't talk so loud,'he said. 'As I came up the stairs, I heard every word.'
He left them, blankly standing. Mrs Lindsay looked foolish; but Joan was really frightned. She had, for the first time in her life, seen hatred on her brother's face."

The idea is a simple one in terms of a son wanting to get away from his mother, from the expectations that surround him. But it is of course more than that because this is done so skillfully that it extends beyond the boundaries of the struggles of the brother and sister Joan and Philip and their mother and starts to characterise a generation coming out of the First World War and wanting to live rather than stick with the drudgery of the nine to five.

At the heart of the story Philip, who works in the City, is struggling to throw off the shackles of his mother's expectations and spend his time painting and writing. The book starts with him having thrown his job in and having escaped to a hotel to escape his mother's wrath and start his new life. He is in the middle of a hatred between two mutual friends Victor and Allen. Victor, who is manipulated by Joan's mother into proposing to Philips's sister Joan, represents the stuffed shirted world of the past. Allen on the other hand, with his displays of drunkeness and questioning attitude perhaps signals an alternative.

But as Philip heads home waiting for him with her controlling ways is his mother Mrs Lindsay who gets him back into work and kills his dreams of leading a creative free-spirited life.

The quote chosen at the top is the moment when Philip walks into the room after hearing her discuss with Joan just how unlikely it is that Philip will ever escape from the destiny she has chosen for him.

He is even prepared to go to Africa to get away but the night before he is due to go he runs away and suffers a breakdown which lands him back in the clutches of his mother. She would rather have him broken but compliant.

Isherwood paints a 1920s world where the war is almost unmentioned but its presence leaves a shadow everywhere. Just like the fog he describes creeping up on people the sense of doubts and uncertianty about the future combine to make it feel uncomfortable even if there are people like Mrs Lindsay prepared to carry on as if nothing has happened.

The author's note at the start of this edition, where Isherwood is almost apoligising for his first novel, is a slightly odd start and it does take you time to recover. But once the story gets back in London and the fight with Mrs Lindsay starts in earnest the reader feels on firmer ground. It is perhaps firmer still because in the form of Mrs Lindsay Isherwood is describing a character that still lives and breathes and manipulates dreams and lives to this very day.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

bookmark of the week

My children have been set a task, which is being asked of everyone at their school, to design a bookmark. My eldest has come up with this one. It is going to be coloured in but you can already see the idea that someone is reading and then the pictures of the words are in their mind. We have been reading about Dinosaur Cove recently which might have influence the design somewhat.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

bookshops worth a visit - Camden Lock Books, London

Much to my embarrassment I have only visited this shop once but it left a mark because of its fantastic stock selection and ambiance. For those who enjoy shopping for books as much as reading them Camden Lock Books is everything a bookshop should be. I intend making another trip soon. Just need to get on the Northern line and get off at Old Street accidentally on my way to a meeting one day ;)

Friday, March 05, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of All The Conspirators

It takes a while for you to get to grips with what is happening as the story starts in a hotel away from London with a trio of male characters - Philip, Allen and Victor. The last two seem to have a loathing for each other with Philip in the middle.

The young aspiring artist then comes firmly onto centre stage as he heads home to face his mother after having quit his job before running away to the hotel. But Philip is no match for his strong mother and even with the support of his sister Joan the matriarch of the family manages to impose her will.

But with Philip beaten back down and back in the City in a job he hates the mother seems to be turning her focus on getting her daughter Joan settled down with the Cambridge graduate Victor.

Will her plans come to fruition? As someone not particularly keen on control freaks my hopes are pinning on a family led-revolution against the mother. We will see...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day and for those people who love reading it is a chance for the spotlight to fall on our passion and for the book industry to put out some special books to attract the next generation of readers.

I popped out and got some books for my eldest son that are colourful, flip books so they include two short stories per book and at £1 each are very reasonable.

Hopefully reading will get the attention it deserves today both inside and outside the classroom.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

book review - Bel-Ami - Guy De Maupassant

"Envy, bitter envy, was permeating his soul drop by drop, like a poison that tainted all his pleasures and made his life hateful."

"She had expected him to be overjoyed, and was annoyed by this coolness. 'You really are incredible. Nothing satisfies you now.'"

There are moments with this book when you are trying very hard to like the main character Duroy. As a journalist you want him to fall in love with the written word and understand the power and attraction of informing others and being a man in the know.

Unfortunately all that seems to motivate Duroy is money. The power is a secondary thing that is gained as a result of the quest for more money. Nothing is ever enough and the son of peasant tavern owners in Normandy all too quickly forgets his past. His lucky break is also quickly forgotten and a growing sense of deserving money and influence starts to grow in his heart.

Duroy is almost blind to the pain and hurt he causes others starting with his mistresses and then moving on to his wife. He marries well above his position and manages to enter into a social world that was completely beyond him when he was a clerk for the Northern railway company.

But as his heart hardens and he sets his sights on greater prizes the reader also starts to lose support for 'Bel-Ami' the handsome man who is able to conquer hearts.

But there are moments of dislike here reserved for journalism as a whole rather than just the general power hungry social climber as the exchange between Duroy and the journalist Saint-Potin show after they have been sent to interview prominent Indian and Chinese officials.

"Saint-Potin began to laugh: 'You're still very naive, aren't you! Do you really believe that I'm going to ask that Chinaman and that Indian what they think of England? As if I didn't know better than they do what they're supposed to think for the readers of La Vie francaise! I've already interviewed hundreds of those Chines, persians, Hindus, Chileans, Japanese and suchlike. As far as I'm concerned they all tell me the same thing. I simply have to take the article I wrote most recently and copy it word for word. What does change, naturally, is their appearance, their names, their titles, their age, their staff.'"

But once his feet are under the table Duroy manages to navigate a path to becoming not only wealthy but in terms of relationships spoilt for choice of mistresses. But he fails to see love in any real shape, even from his parents, and instead keeps moving forward with those pound eyes in those eyes.

He fears failure like others fear death and that spurs him on to set his sights on power and money and to gain it in such a ruthless manner.

"A confused, immense, crushing terror was weighing upon Duroy's soul, the terror of those infinite, inevitable nothingness, endlessly destroying each fleeting, miserable life. Already, he was bowing his head before its threat."

The fact that you are not only inducted into the world of Duroy and can grasp the issues of the day as France argues with itself over its imperial ambitions is because of the way De Maupassant builds up the picture. It starts slowly as Duroy takes his first tentative steps into society but by the end as the issues become more complex the reader is able to navigate round this world of newspaper, foreign ministers and mistresses and still come to the conclusion that Duroy is dangerous.

Just as in Pierre et Jean what you admire here, along with the plot, is the way that De Maupassant is able to serve up such wonderful characters. Just as with the other book the bare bones of the story are reasonably simple enough the magic comes when he describes how certain characters react to those circumstances.

Politicis and journalism might have changed but what keeps Bel-Ami timeless is the master class in describing human behavior and then motivation of those captivated and driven by wealth and power.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Bel Ami

The rise from the poverty of a humble clerks position to a p[lace on a Parisian newspaper is handed to Georges Duroy because of an old military connection with a fellow journalist.

Having served in Africa the ex-soilder has left his peasant roots and headed to paris to make his fortune but he is getting nowhere until he bumps into an old friend and manages to get a lucky break into journalism.

The world of newspapers is described as one of low morales, low effort and a position used almost solely for personal gain. As he enters deeper into that world, taking a society mistress to bulk up his ambitions, Duroy starts to change to become greedy.

Just how far the worlds of power and politics will impact him remains to be seen...

Monday, March 01, 2010

First impressons - The Housekeeper + The Professor

There is a feeling that i have so far encountered with Japanese literature that is really hard to describe but is there in the limited examples I have read so I will have a go at putting it into words.

The most natural way of trying to relate it is to talk about a detached way of describing the characters. The emotions are controlled and kept outside of a narrative that concentrates on telling a story in as efficient a way as possible.

So here we are introduced to the world of the professor with his 80 minute memory, resulting from a previous car crash, and the housekeeper desperate to keep her job to support her son. Numbers are the one point of conversation that unites the mathematics professor and those around him.

Although the toe has only just been dipped in this reminds you of Haruki Murakami in the way the story is told in a fairly controlled way despite the clearly emotional lives unfolding on the page.

Will wait to see how this develops...